By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Several years ago, the famed paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould, in one of his monthly articles in Natural History magazine, opined on the origins of baseball. As every American knows, our national pastime was invented in the nineteenth century by Civil War hero Abner Doubleday, and the first game was played on a makeshift field in Cooperstown, New York, where baseball’s Hall of Fame now stands.
What Stephen Gould lays bare in his essay is that this often repeated piece of American folklore was a totally fabricated myth, and Abner Doubleday would not have known the difference between a baseball bat and a knitting needle. As Gould informs us, the truth about baseball is far less captivating. Rather than being invented by a hero (and Captain Doubleday, who fired the first iconic shot for the Union army in defense of Fort Sumter, was certainly a hero), baseball evolved slowly from colonial times out of British bat and ball games. In short, the game of baseball had no identifiable origin in time or place, and no founder, famous or otherwise.
As Gould tells us,
“For some reason, we are powerfully drawn to the subject of beginnings. We yearn to know about origins, and we readily construct myths when we do not have data (or we suppress data in favor of legend when a truth strikes us as too commonplace).”
“Stories about beginnings come in only two basic modes. An entity either has an explicit point of origin, a specific place of time and place of creation, or else it evolves and has no definable moment of entry into the world… Baseball evolved from a plethora of previous stick-and-ball games. It has no true Cooperstown and no Doubleday. Yet we seem to prefer the alternative model of origin by a moment of creation – for then we can have both heroes and sacred places.”
Although Gould’s article discusses little other than baseball, his readers certainly know that this discussion of baseball’s origin is primarily a stand-in for something else. What Gould is clearly trying to provide, by invoking the origin of baseball as a parallel, is one speculation on why the theory of evolution is so difficult for so many Americans to accept, and why creationism, which, to any thinking person, ought to be rejected as totally counterfactual and preposterous, is so broadly accepted.
Indeed it’s true. According to a USA/Gallup poll conducted this year, more than half of all Americans believe God created the first human beings less than 10,000 years ago, a belief which is the intellectual equivalent of contending that the earth is flat. And according to other polls, not more than 15% of Americans believe in the natural evolution of the human species absent any divine intervention assistance, that is, the theory of evolution as it is held by normative science.
I want to do three things this morning: I want to take a deeper look at creationism and its claims. I want to briefly discuss, beyond the proposal of Stephen J. Gould which I just cited, why creationism is so popular, while evolution continues to fall on such hard times in the popular mind. And finally, I want to very briefly touch on what is a proper religious response to Darwinism. Admittedly, one could write tomes on each of these themes, so what I will try to present is just the briefest sketch.
First let me say, at the risk of sounding dogmatic, there is no alternative to the theory of evolution in the scientific community. Since Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, the brilliant idea that all species, including our own, evolve by the process of natural selection stands as a pillar of biology, as fundamental to science as the heliocentric theory or the germ theory of disease. Whatever debate there is, and there is plenty of debate, is within the theory of evolution, not between evolution and some alternative explanation of how species came to be. Indeed, it is a strategy of anti-Darwinists to paint the internal debate within the biological community over the nuances of evolution as a weakness, when, in fact it is a strength of the theory of evolution, as it is of all robust science. As Ian Hacking, a philosopher of science has noted, the theory of evolution has gone “from strength to strength.” He says that the theory of evolution “constantly reacts to counterexamples and difficulties by producing new theories that overcome old hurdles. When challenged it does not withdraw into some safe corner but explains new difficulties with an even riskier, richer, and bolder story about nature.” In other words, any science is not a static body of knowledge, but a dynamic process, which continually grows through overcoming internal problems. Though the basic principles that Darwin laid down 148 years ago endure, they have been refined, nuanced and expanded so that the theory of evolution rests on even a firmer ground today than it did then. In briefest terms, the theory of evolution itself is evolving.
In the face of the attacks of the anti-Darwinists, (and they come in several different forms) the most common response of the scientific community is not to answer them on them own terms, but essentially dismiss and marginalize creationism as not being a science, but simply as gussied up religion, and as such not worthy of a scientific response. This, as you may recall, was the approach that was successfully used to keep creationism out of the public schools.
In the 1970s and ’80s, in the wake of their failure to eliminate the teaching of evolution from the schools, those who favored a biblical version of the origin of the species, including, and especially, our own, did two things. They gave the Genesis stories of creation the trapping of a science, which they referred to as “creationism” or “scientific creationism,” and eliminated all references to God, Jesus or Satan. They also built institutes such as the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, to give their cause the patina of respectability and to further their cause and increase their financial base. Most importantly, they developed a fall-back strategy. Rather than bar the teaching of evolution from the public schools, they demanded equal time for the teaching of “creation science,” appealing to the notion that education would be best served by exposing students to all sides of the issue, again, suggesting that the jury was still out on the legitimacy of the Darwinian theory of evolution. After all, what could be more appealing than allowing creationism in the schools on the basis of “fairness,” or “equal time,” or “permitting all sides of the debate to be heard?”
This initiative was tested in the courts, in the nineteen-eighties, after Lousiana and Arkansas passed laws permitting creationism to be taught in their public schools. To its credit, the courts, including the US Supreme Court, in what was sometimes referred to as Scopes II, unmasked creationism for what it is, that is, an effort to bring religion into the schools by clothing it with the language of science. Expert witnesses, including Stephen Gould, testified that creationism fails to meet the test of science. Among other things, science in order to be science must be amenable to change when it is confronted by new evidence. Creationism, by contrast, is insulated from the scientific method, because its notion of the special creation of fixed “kinds” is simply a given, which is not amenable to change based on evidence. In other words, it is a religious doctrine and whatever it is, it is not science, and as such has no place in a science classroom.
My point here, again, is to show that the prevailing way in which the scientific community has dealt with creationism is to discard it as not being science, and therefore beyond consideration as a science. It is religion and not science, and therefore beyond the reach, interest or even competence of science to consider. In other words, it is simply irrelevant. Science has its realm; religion has its own realm. Science answers questions dealing with facts and how the world works. Religion deals with metaphysical speculations, with morals, and why things are the way they are, not how. Science has nothing substantive to say about religion; religion should keep its hands off of science. Since creationism is really religion, not science at all, the scientific community should ignore it, and its specious claims.
Because this opinion is so widespread, I was particularly intrigued when I found a book which takes a different approach. Living With Darwin, by Columbia University philosophy professor, Philip Kitcher, has been broadly and favorable reviewed. It is a small and clearly written essay, which I think should be read by humanists, in part because Kitcher himself is one.
His approach is: rather than dismiss creationism on the grounds that it is not a science, Kitcher claims that creationism is what he calls “a failed science.” He is actually onto something here. Creationism, of some sort, actually has a long pedigree. It was not born with the Moral Majority in the late ’70s. Nor, did it emerge right before the Scopes Trial in 1925, nor with the birth of modern fundamentalism in the early decades of the twentieth century. What is not apparent to most critics of creationism is that prior to the advent of Darwinism in the late 1850s, special creation was the normative theory of the origin of species held by the scientific community. What these naturalists, mostly British and Americans, held was that that each species of plant and animal was fixed, and that God either brought new species into being through an act of miraculous intervention, or through some law of nature which was not understood, but reflected God’s will and his purpose. Among those who held to special creation were the scientific luminaries of the day, including the British geologist Charles Lyell, who provided the proof of the great antiquity of geological forms, and thus laid the groundwork for Darwinian evolution, and Louis Agassiz of Harvard, who was the most important natural scientist in America before the advent of Darwinism. As Agassiz once said, “there runs throughout Nature unmistakable evidence of thought.” What he meant by thought was divine thought: God’s thought and God’s will.
It should be noted that Darwin, whose theory does not require thought, divine or otherwise, but asserts that the evolution of species is explicable in terms of nothing but blind natural forces alone, understood very well what was at stake in his biological theorizing. Though he was not a theologian, Darwin knew quite profoundly the revolutionary effect that his Origin of Species would have on religion, which is something I will get to in a little while.
When Agassiz speculated that nature reveals divine thought and purpose, he was expressing a very powerful impulse in both nineteenth century science and religion. In briefest terms, it can be said that the prestige of science among educated people was at its high-water mark in the nineteenth century. And religious thinkers would look to science in order to strengthen and confirm their religious beliefs and claims. Most powerful was what was known as “natural theology.” It was the belief that the natural world confirmed the existence of a purposeful God, and that a belief in such a God was therefore warranted.
The centerpiece of natural theology was the so called “argument from design”, which has experienced a rebirth in the work of contemporary creationists who now espouse the doctrine of Intelligent Design as the latest attempt to get God into the schools.
The premiere theologian of the natural design argument was an English Protestant, William Paley, who in 1802 put forward his tremendously influential and well-known argument which has come to be known as the “watchmaker argument.” Paley tells us, that if you are sauntering on the beach, and come across a pebble or a rock, you can well conclude that its formation is the product of the natural forces of erosion. But – you come across a watch, with all its interlocking moving parts, and you can only conclude that it is the creation of an intelligent, purposeful designer in the form of a watchmaker. By simple analogy, the watch is to the watchmaker as the world is to a Cosmic Designer, a Creator God. If we look at the human eye, isn’t it clear that it is exquisitely designed, in all its minute, harmoniously working parts made for the purpose of seeing? The implications of this argument are far-reaching. The world and we in it are created for a purpose. And since God is the Creator, his purpose not only guides the world, it is also benevolent.
Paley created a cottage industry of natural theologians, who comfortably overlooked the fact that there was nothing Christian about the Watchmaker God. He didn’t even have to be omnipotent. Any god simply powerful enough to create the world would do. Even polytheism, with many gods, would do to satisfy the argument from design.
What Darwin did, of course, was to radically destroy natural theology and this kind of reasoning. The eye was not purposely designed for seeing, but evolved slowly over eons from crude photo-sensitive cells, as species struggled to survive and to adapt, and as mutations accidentally fitted certain individuals with light-sensitive receptors which enhanced their survivability. Purpose, divine or otherwise, had nothing to do with it. It is blind nature all the way down. Indeed, it is the theory of natural selection that lays bare that nature, in the struggle for survival, is immensely destructive and wasteful, and given the suffering of innumerable sentient creatures, unspeakably cruel as well.
And so, if there is a Divine designer, he is anything but intelligent or benign. He is rather malevolent, and given the sciatica I have been suffering from for the last two months, the Cosmic Designer is not only sadistic, but inept as well.
I mention this history, to point to the fact that creationism is nothing new, and in fact has a long, and at one time, respected pedigree.
Creationism in its current form has gone through three stages, which Kitcher, in his book, argues has been thoroughly discredited. Let me go through the arguments very briefly.
The first type of creationists has been called “Genesis creationists,” or “young earth” creationists. These are the ones who contend that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old, and who hold literally to the creation story as it appears in the book of Genesis. The big question that confronts these literalists is how do you account for the fossil record? The answer is simple: the fossils were created in the recession of the waters of Noah’s flood.
The fossil record does appear in strata of rocks with the earliest organisms at the bottom, and the more recent ones in the upper layers of the rock formations. Superficially this might seem to comport with the Genesis story. We do find the fossils of fish, for the most part, at the lower strata, and birds always at the top. Genesis creationists have argued that this confirms their theory: As the waters of the flood receded, fish were entombed early, whereas birds flew away, and were entombed later near the top strata. The problem is in the details. Dolphins, which are mammals, occupy the same habitats as fish, yet dolphins are always found in the top strata of the fossil areas, while sharks, which are fish, are at the bottom. When we look at the fossil record of birds, according to the arguments of creationists, we should expect to find flightless birds, like ostriches and penguins at the bottom strata with the fish, yet flightless birds, like all birds, are found in the upper layers, just as evolution would have it.
Kitcher’s conclusion is, when we take creationism at its word, as a science, beyond conceptualizing how Noah would have gotten the millions of species onto his ark, and kept predators away from prey, it dismally fails on the basis of the more sober evidence, as this small example reveals.
Having lost that scientific battle, creationists had generally given up the “young earth” hypothesis and moved on to what is known as “novelty creationism.” What this affirms is that natural selection can perhaps explain variations within species, but it cannot explain macroevolution, that is major transitions from fish to reptiles, or reptiles to birds or to mammals. For these major transitions, there needs to be a special intervention, an act of special creation, and we can conclude that this pertains to the creation of the human species as well. In so doing, such novelty creationists deny that the living world is one seamless organic whole, a complex, interconnected tree of life, which was the illustrative metaphor which Darwin himself employed.
The novelty creationists have adopted the strategy that a good defense is a strong offense. They point to weaknesses in the theory of evolution, making the claim, most of all that if species evolve from earlier ones, then we should be able to find in the fossil record the remains of transitional species, which we do not. This troubled Darwin himself. Yet, the novelty creationists are wrong. Paleontologists have indeed found fossils of such transitional species, the most famous one being the archaeopteryx, which is intermediate between reptiles and birds. They have found many fossilized remains of so called therapsids, that is, species transitional between reptiles and mammals. As suggested earlier, there are examples in the contemporary natural world of different stages of the development of the eye in different species, moving from simple photosensitive cells which can merely discriminate between light and darkness, all the way to the complex eyes of mammals and birds.
Having failed the test of evidence on that score, the creationists have pulled out their last card; by resurrecting the argument of Intelligent Design. The claim here, briefly stated, is that organisms in some instances, especially on the molecular level, are so complex that natural processes alone are simply not adequate to explain them.
Here the Intelligent Design theorists have found a scientific champion in Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lafayette University, who has written several texts criticizing the inadequacy of Darwinian selection.
Looking at the flagella of bacteria, the tiny motors that enable some species of bacteria to move, Behe argues that they are so irreducibly complex that all the biochemical components need to be in place simultaneously for the flagella to work, and that natural selection that produces random mutations one at a time can not accomplish this. Only be resorting to an Intelligent Designer can we explain the complexity of the bacterial flagella.
Behe has thrown up some interesting challenges for evolutionists. Many have been able to answer these challenges in terms of the theory of evolution. But even if all his questions have not been fully answered, there are certainly fallacies in his reasoning. Just because the answers to his questions are not currently fully known, it doesn’t mean that they are unknowable. Perhaps more importantly, by invoking an Intelligent Designer as the cause of what he claims is irreducible complexity, Behe has told us nothing that adds to our understanding. Indeed, Darwin has shown us that merely because a system looks as if it is designed, doesn’t mean that it is. Furthermore, by making the claims that certain organisms are the product of an Intelligent Designer, such creationists have told us nothing about the mechanisms by which this designer works. Therefore, the claim is scientifically useless.
The summit of public notoriety of Intelligent Design theory was reached in 2005, in a landmark court case in Dover Pennsylvania, wherein the deciding judge, John Jones, in a tightly argued opinion, concluded that Intelligent Design is not science. He concluded that it is “the progeny of creationism” and the latest effort to get religion taught in the public schools, and as such unconstitutional.
But we need to ask, despite 150 years of solid science, why is the commitment to anti-Darwinism so broadly and so deeply held in the mind of most Americans? There are many reasons, and, as I bring this survey to a close, I would like to proffer a few.
The first has to do with the frightful poverty of science teaching, and more broadly, an appreciation for critical thinking skills. This is a long story, worth telling, but not now.
It’s my belief, however, that this is not enough to account for this broad-based and lasting phenomenon. More far reaching is that Darwinism, more powerfully than any science, robs human beings of a providential God who cares for them, and assures that they have a place in the universe, and that their life has meaning. This reality is a tough pill for human beings to swallow. It is a harsh blow to the human ego, to one’s deep-rooted feelings of security, to the fears occasioned by the harshness and the vicissitudes of life, tragedy and death. Most people don’t want those anchorages taken away from them. But if one takes the implications of Darwin seriously, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to retain these anchorages, those sources of nurturing security. People don’t want that taken away from them and from their children.
But even these deep-rooted, existential dynamics, I do not believe are, of themselves, sufficient to explain the broad rejection of Darwinism in American life. After all, our European cousins look at the creationist phenomenon with incredulity and bewilderment.
I think there is a third reason, specific to American culture. My eyes were opened to this explanation when I read the historian Garry Wills’ description of the Scopes trial and what was at stake in it, in his book on American politics and religion entitled Under God. As you recall perhaps from the that great play and movie, Inherit the Wind, the Scopes trial in 1925 pitted William Jennings Bryan, the once Secretary of State and three- time presidential candidate, against the great agnostic from Chicago, and I am proud to say Ethical Culturist, the greatest defense attorney of his day, Clarence Darrow. As you may recall, Darrow called Bryan to the stand to defend the truth of the Book of Genesis. In the press of his day, as in the play and movie, Bryan was depicted as a narrow-minded fundamentalist and a fool.
But the truth was that Bryan was not at all a fool and he was not even a strict biblical literalist. What he was was a progressive political fighter who was also a populist, whose concern was defending the rights and integrity of the powerless. And as Wills makes clear, what was going in Bryan’s mind in Dayton, Tennessee, was not primarily a fight against the biological theory of evolution. It was foremost a battle against social Darwinism, that much touted philosophy of the rich and powerful, which perverted Darwinism into a social theory that claimed that “the survival of the fittest” (a term which Darwin himself never used) insured that nature itself dictated that those who were rich and powerful deserved to be so, and those who got the short end of the stick, those who lost out in the economic struggle which was part and parcel of the capitalist system, the poor, powerless, and disadvantaged, also got exactly what they deserved. As the wealthy and privileged heard the gospel of social Darwinism preached in their churches, so the poor retreated to their churches where they found consolation in the old time religion which was deeply ingrained in their cultural identities. And so it has remained.
Anti-Darwinism does not have much of an audience in the large cities of America, and it has almost no following in the Northeast. Where it does flourish is in the rural outbacks of the South, the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain states. And the reasons for this flourishing, I believe, most of all, are multi-cultural reasons. From the perspective of those outside the Washington-Boston axis and the West Coast, those areas, especially the Northeast, are the locus of federal power, of Wall Street, of those who own the corporations and the factories, the publishing interests, the dominant cultural expressions, and the educational norms which set the way of life for every one else. In briefest terms, the anti-Darwinian movement is a political movement; it is a populist political protest against the dominant power centers of America. It is a protest against elitism, against know-it-allism, against the pretensions of intellectualism and its perceived condescension. It is an expression, in the truest sense, of a culture war, which uses religion as a weapon to fight that war. I suspect that this recent slew of atheism books by Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens, which I find so valuable in opening up space for atheism in the light of the challenge of religious authoritarianism, will not go over well in the American heartland, where they will perceived as the latest expression of intellectual arrogance.
As I am trying to convey, the persistence of creationism has roots that are far deeper and more extensive than the issue itself. Where the future lies, no one can predict. In the narrow sense, I think the forces of enlightenment are winning this battle. Darwinism has been vindicated in the arena of science. But this victory will be built on a shallow foundation unless broader economic and social conditions start moving in a more promising direction. In briefest terms, I don’t believe that the erosion of the middle class, growing economic malaise and substandard education speaks well for an enlightened, rational, populace which will joyously embrace the truths of science, and its glories, evolution included.
In closing, with regard to religion, let me say that in my view, as mentioned, it is very difficult, indeed virtually impossible to take Darwinism seriously and accept the traditional notion of a supernatural God who cares for us and will ensure that everything will turn out for the best in the end. In the face of Darwinism, religion needs to either yield to secularism or be radically transformed in a way that can accommodate the revelations of empirical science. Ethical Culture, created in the shadow in the light of Darwin’s revolutionary discoveries is one radical religious expression. But it is not the only one. The traditional religions now reflect two great tendencies. There are those which are turning back, becoming more rigid, and fundamentalist, and those which under the pressures of modernity and science are liberalizing and indeed becoming more humanistic.
Where the future leads, of course, no one can know. But if we, the upholders of humanistic values, want the world of our children to be primarily a humanistic one, then we need to stand on the right side of a two-fold vision. We need to be the active defenders of a rational, enlightened, scientific world-view, of which Darwinian evolution is a linchpin. But we need to also remember that ideas do not float in the air. They are grounded in, and deeply dependent upon, the economic, social, educational and political environments in which those ideas locate themselves. If we wish to ensure that the future be an enlightened one, we need to actively stand for enlightened ideas. But we need stand also for economic justice, for a world based on fairness — and as Ethical Culture has always preached — for the respect and dignity of all human beings to help ensure that the politics of resentment, which takes refuge in anti-intellectualism and authoritarian religion, does not see the light of day.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.
7 October 2007