The Triumph of Evolution

and the Failure of Creationism

Susan Pearson

Henry Holt and Co.

The Triumph of Evolution
In the Beginning
Religion, Science, ... and Politics
That the United States and the rest of the modern world are fundamentally a secular, technologically based society (albeit one generally committed to the free and unfettered practice of religion) is nicely brought out by the Y2K doomsday myth so widely adopted as we approached the recent millennial date: January 1, 2000. The dark scenario of widespread shortages and other societal malfunctions born of computer glitches, after all, was universally seen as delivered not by a vengeful, wrathful God, but rather by us humans.
 
Early programmers had assumed (if they thought about it all) that their shorthand, two-digit system of keeping track of yearly dates would long since have changed by the year 2000. In sharp contrast, previous millennial myths saw doom and destruction as God's payback for our sins--still our fault, of course, but with punishment meted out by God, not by errant machines. Likewise, we thanked the techno-fixers--not a merciful God--that the worst of the Y2K problem was handily cut off at the pass. That we were able to blame computer programmers, and not God, for what seemed to so many as impending doom and still manage to concoct a millennial scenario of darkest catastrophe just as all our forebears crossing the previous millennial divide did, shows us how far we have--and haven't--come.
 
But if the doomsday scenario this time was completely secularized, nonetheless the advent of the Millennium has intensified contact betweenscience and religion--much of it in the spirit of conciliation, though some of it with continued mistrust and hostility. Currently more than several hundred college courses specifically address "science and religion." The Templeton Foundation annually awards a sum in excess of that carried by a Nobel Prize in recognition of the furtherance of closer ties between science and religion. In 1999, for example, the award was $1.24 million compared to the more modest $978,000 handed out by the Nobel Committee in 1998 (though in fairness it must be said that there is only one Templeton Prize, whereas there are several Nobel Prizes). Numerous colloquia on science and religion have been held--some sponsored by religious institutions, such as the Vatican, and some by decidedly secular institutions, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Television shows and, of course, many books and articles have been in full cry as well.
 
I see several distinct ways in which science and religion are variously engaged either in potentially fruitful dialogue, or at daggers drawn or simply as ships passing in the night. The latter relationship is simply stated: in most nations--technologically advanced or impoverished, agrarian Third World alike--there is little day-to-day contact between the realms of science and religion. That is as true of the United States as it is of most of the nations of Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. In countries where forms of Christianity predominate, for example, the overwhelming mainstream has, for well over a century, viewed the relation of science and religion as essentially neutral: each constitutes an important sector of society, but each does a vastly different job.
 
From this perspective, the role of religion is spiritual, moral, and social. Science, on the other hand, is there to discover the workings of the universe--and to lead to technological advance. This is why so many scientists (such as my friend and colleague, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould) advocate a polite going of separate ways--a sort of benign acknowledgment that each exists, but can and should have little to do with one another. That is the general stance that I myself have adopted in my earlier works on creationism in American society--a sort of "rendering unto Caesar" division of labor that would minimize conflict but at the same time not look for any particular close resonance between the two domains.
 
But others insist that there is either resonance--or inherent conflict--between the domains of science and religion. I believe my colleague Margaret Wertheim1 is right when she says that, in Western culture, historically speaking, the supposed warfare between science and religion has been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, most of the formative figures in the emergence of modern science were deeply religious and thought (as Wertheim has observed) that they were discovering the "mind of God" every bit as much as some modern physicists appear to think they are. Yet it is undoubtedly true that with the Darwinian revolution of the mid-nineteenth century--with the certain knowledge gained by some newer branches of science that the Earth is very old, has had a very long history (and especially that life on Earth is almost as old), and has had a history of change--has collided very deeply with conservatively held traditional religious beliefs in Judeo-Christian circles.
 
There are, indeed, many people who believe literally that the notion of biological evolution is the work of the devil.2 As detailed here, I have spent over twenty years talking with, debating, and reading the literature of creationists--roughly, people who believe that God created the heavens and Earth, and all living things according to accounts in Genesis. I remain convinced that their unrelenting hatred of the very idea of evolution stems from their concept of morality: where morals come from, and why people behave in a moral fashion (when they do). The argument is simple: the Bible says that "mankind" was created in God's image. If that is not true, if instead we are descended from the apes, then there is no reason whatsoever to expect humans to behave in a godlike, moral fashion. We would, instead, be expected to behave like "animals." The conviction is deeply held.
 
Thus, in some quarters, it is simply not possible to assign to science the task of cosmology while giving religion the role of articulating a moral and spiritual understanding of what it means to be a living human. It is not possible because the two are seen as inseparable: morality flows automatically and solely from the manner in which humans were "created" in the first place. From this perspective, religion (meaning, specifically, certain forms of religion--especially conservative Christianity, but also conservative strains of Islam and Judaism3) are fundamentally at odds with at least some forms of the scientific enterprise.
 
In the United States especially, creationism is associated not only most closely with aspects of Christian Fundamentalism, but with conservative (mostly, if not exclusively, conservative Republican) politics. And though I document this charge fully in later chapters of this narrative, I cannot emphasize enough at the outset that politics is the very essence of this conflict. It is the belief that evolution is inherently evil--a belief that stems from religious interpretation, and therefore poses a threat to the hearts and minds of the populace, that, I am convinced, motivates the vast majority of the creationists. Thus the issue is about what is to be taught in the public schools, and the arena in which the battle takes place goes far beyond local school board meetings and classroom confrontations: it includes bills passed by state legislatures and opinions handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States. It includes judgments passed by statewide school boards, such as the decision to downgrade the teaching of evolution in the statewide syllabus in Kansas late in the summer of 1999--a mandate issued after the first text of this narrative had already been written. On the face of it, then, creationism is a political issue--and has been at least since Clarence Darrow defended John Scopes against the prosecutorial zeal of William Jennings Bryan in Dayton, Tennessee, on July 10-21, 1925.
 
Are there creationists who are religiously motivated but are not at the same time social and political conservatives? There must be, but in twenty years I have yet to encounter a single such person. Are there creationists, politically conservative or not, whose main concern does lie in the apparent moral implications of evolution and what it means especially to their own personal lives--whose main goal is not to influence what other people's kids are taught in school? Again, probably so. But the vast majority of active creationists do not restrict their activities to preaching to the converted, though they do plenty of that as well. They are motivated primarily to see that evolution is not taught in the public schools of the United States.
 
In any case, what creationism is not is a valid intellectual argument between opposing points of view. That battle was fought--with evolution emerging triumphant--in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Some twenty years ago, it was fashionable for creationists to claim that their views are not a religious, but rather a legitimate scientific, body of "knowledge." I will be taking a long hard look at the central claims of this so-called scientific creationism--thewolf in sheep's clothing concocted in the 1970s that deliberately removed religious rhetoric from the cant of creationism--a move calculated to bypass any objections based on the First Amendment to teach such patently religiously inspired material in a public school science class. No one was fooled. The best comment I have ever heard anyone make about scientific creationism came from Judge William Overton, who presided over the famed Arkansas trial in 1981: If this stuff is science, why do we need a law to teach it? The law in question was Arkansas's then recently passed "equal time" bill mandating that two competing versions of science ("evolution science" and "creation science") were equally valid, both deserving time and attention in the curriculum. Framed as an intellectually valid debate between supposedly opposing legitimate sets of scientific claims, instead scientific creationism was a shallow ploy. Intellectually, the debate has been dead since 1859--and evolution was triumphant!
 
Yet the debate rages on, and though tactics have changed, and once again creationists have become more open in acknowledging their religious motivations (often preferring now to claim that the idea of biological evolution is really a form of religious belief, rather than scientific theory), nonetheless the same old arguments against the validity of evolution as a scientific concept are still being trotted out. And thus, once more unto the breach, it becomes necessary to defend the integrity of evolution as a well-established body of knowledge and theory in science--intellectually triumphant not only within biology, or science generally, but within the intellectual framework of Western culture generally.
 
The newest, and by far most successful, voice in the creationist firmament belongs to Phillip Johnson, Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. As we shall see in some detail (especially in Chapters 5 and 6), Johnson claims to have introduced something new into the debate: his conclusion that science in general, and evolutionary biology perhaps in particular, is rooted in what he calls philosophical naturalism, meaning that scientists think that the material world--matter and energy--is all that exists, and that an explanation for all natural phenomena necessarily entails only, well, natural phenomena. In other words, Johnson says that science is intrinsically and inherently atheistic. What, he says, if God really does exist, moreover the kind of proactive God in whom Johnson himselfprofesses belief--one who is involved with details of everyone's daily life? Shouldn't the scientific enterprise be concerned that, given that possibility, the explanation of natural phenomena in terms of cause and effect that is the daily stuff of science might be hopelessly misguided if a divine agency outside the system were really pulling all the strings? Johnson finds it absurd that science could afford to ignore so cavalierly what might possibly be the real mover and shaker behind absolutely everything that happens.
 
Johnson turns a deaf ear to the obvious rejoinder: science is a human enterprise devised to experience in systematic ways the material universe. Everyone (including Johnson) agrees that a physical universe exists (actually, some people, though none of them creationists, have expressed doubt over even this proposition). We humans can directly experience that material world only through our senses, and there is no way we can directly experience the supernatural. Thus, in the enterprise that is science, it isn't an ontological claim that a God such as Johnson envisages does not exist, but rather an epistemological recognition that even if such a God did exist, there would be no way to experience that God given the impressive, but still limited, means afforded by science. And that is true by definition.
 
Johnson has a string of admirers drawn from academe, including philosophers and various scientists--among the latter, biochemist Michael Behe. I have met several of them and have "debated" both Johnson and Behe on college campuses (albeit only one time each). As I will recount in later chapters, beyond Johnson's charge of "philosophical naturalism" there is literally nothing new in their antievolutionary rhetoric. Their central thesis--that there are phenomena in the natural world of such great complexity that they simply cannot be explained by recourse to known natural processes--is exactly the same argument that was thrown at Darwin by the cleric St. George Jackson Mivart (1827-1900), one of the first and most ferocious critics of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Mivart asserted that the human eye is simply too complex a structure to have evolved gradually and piecemeal, and therefore must instead be the intricate handiwork of a Creator.
 
Johnson, along with conservative members of Congress (such as House Republican Whip Tom DeLay) assert we are in the midst of a "culture war." Given the ethnic and cultural diversity that is the United States, given thehighly secularized flavor of our big and blowsy society as epitomized by our attribution of Y2K doom at the Millennium to humans and not to a vengeful God, this proclaimed culture war is unilaterally declared by some segments of conservative Christian society in the population. But they are powerful, and they are continuing to have major impact. And that is why I feel I must once again pick up the cudgels to rail against these creation. ists--odd as it may seem, given that they have nothing new to say, and given that all the important issues as intellectual issues per se were resolved fully in the nineteenth century.
 
I take up this task because I am convinced that the integrity of science education in the United States and abroad is directly threatened by such nonsense. The issue is not whether any one particular student believes in evolution. But, as I develop throughout this book, it very much does matter that soon-to-be-adults living (and voting) in a technologically driven world know something about the ways their fellow humans gather knowledge about the natural world. Kids, in other words, need to be taught what science is all about--and that includes being exposed to the grandest conclusions of science. Not only do we need to continue to produce homegrown scientists, but also we need in this secular age to produce new generations of citizens who are conversant with science enough to make intelligent decisions in the polling place. Pretending to young minds that we cannot tell the difference between good science and bad, between the real and the bogus, not only sends a horribly distorted message about the very nature of science, but also makes evident to most students that adults don't care much about the truth. I write this book because those who see a necessary conflict between science and religion--and a "culture war" over the hearts and minds of the American populace--are doing their best to destroy quality science teaching in the United States.
 
There are still other ways in which science and religion commingle in modern American life--ways that see at least potential common ground, rather than inherent conflict, or simply benign nonintersection. In a major aspect of this common-ground approach, we are treated to visions of physicists contemplating the mind of God, and some theologians looking for God in scientific data. I once read an account of a meeting in which the consensus was reported to be that if the rate of expansion of the universe is greaterthan the escape velocity of stars fleeing the center of the universe from the Big Bang, then the universe is a singularity, literally a once-in-all-time phenomenon--as such casting doubt on the existence of God; if, instead, expansion rate is lower than escape velocity, expansion will slow down and the universe will eventually collapse back in on itself and, presumably, burst forth again, perhaps in an endless series of big bangs and implosions. This scenario suggested to the assembled scientists and theologians that perhaps a supernatural being lay behind the universe after all. When meant, as most of them are, in the spirit of ecumenicism, such exercises can do little harm, but I seriously wonder if they will ever shed much light on the nature either of God or of the universe.
 
Then there is the fact that many Western scientists, despite the common preconception, are themselves religious. In addition, many ordained clergy are also Ph.D.-holding, practicing scientists. Together these facts show that, to many, there is far from an intrinsic barricade between science and religion, though most religious scientists, no doubt, compartmentalize their workaday experiences from their religious beliefs and practices. Once again, whatever the nature of positive interactions in the personal lives of scientists or of the content of their professions and their religious beliefs, I see as yet no sign of any lasting benefit to either science or religion--except for the happy knowledge that the two can coexist within a single human breast.
 
I have held out what I take to be the best for last. For though I write this book determined to fight off the grimmer, darker messages attacking science in the name of religion, I really do see an as yet undervalued, as yet largely unexamined arena where lies, I think, some real hope for resonance between science and religion--and by "religion" I mean absolutely all religions that have ever existed of which we have any knowledge at all.
 
Creationism is just one of the two important social issues that have intersected my life as an evolutionary biologist. The other one is the horrendous loss of species--an event now gripping the planet that some have called the Sixth Extinction. Human beings are laying waste the world's ecosystems, and in so doing driving something like thirty thousand species of microbes, fungi, plants, and animals extinct every year. That's by far the fastest rate of ecosystem destruction and species loss since the time when the dinosaursand so many other kinds of life were abruptly erased 65 million years ago--the result of a collision between Earth and extraterrestrial objects, and huge volcanic eruptions as well.
 
I have explored the question, How have humans entered the extinction business? In a series of three books, several articles, and a major exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. I have proposed that culture became more important than traditional biological adaptations in the way ancestral humans approached the general problem of making a living. But the real change came when humans invented agriculture--and instantly became the first species in the entire 3.8-billion-year history of life to stop living inside local ecosystems. Among many other consequences, this move, clever as it was, took the normal controls off our population size, and we have skyrocketed from some 6 million people ten thousand years ago at the dawn of agriculture, to over 6 billion now. And that is the problem: 6 billion people, vying for unequally distributed wealth, are wreaking ecological havoc all over Earth.
 
And I have learned something more: people's concept of the gods or God change over time as well. And when examined in detail, concepts of God seem to dovetail remarkably well with my Western analysis of the relation of a given people to the natural world. I have come to see that religious traditions in general--and concepts of God in particular--reveal a lot about how people see themselves, and how they see themselves fitting into the natural world. It turns out that, naturally enough, people do tend to have a pretty clear idea of who they are and how they fit into the natural world in a functional sense (it's just their stories of how they got that way that tend to be fanciful!).
 
Thus a history of concepts of God should yield a pretty interesting human ecological history. And it suggests something more: if it is indeed the case, as I firmly believe it is, that this mounting loss of species and the accompanying topsoil loss and lack of adequate supplies of fresh water constitute some of the direst threats facing humanity right now, practitioners of the world's religions, many of whom are already aware of the environmental threats to their own lands, can potentially stand as the greatest source of good for the planet. Here, then, is a true millennial issue: a set of environmentalproblems besetting humanity at the year 2000, but a problem in which science and religion, instead of acting as enemies, stand a good chance of working together within the larger body politic to effect some truly positive measures. And though I plan to explore this positive side of the interaction between science and religion in book length form elsewhere, I cannot resist ending this present anticreationist tract with a preliminary exploration of these themes, which I do in the final chapter.
 
So far, I've talked about other people's views, and though I've made it clear that I am an evolutionary biologist not about to buy the possibility that people didn't evolve but rather were created by God sometime within the last ten thousand years, I have not revealed my own religious position. Here it is: I am a "lapsed Baptist." Along with many others, I see myself as an agnostic because "atheist" is too definitive, implying one can know something that is in principle unknowable. I will say that I am extremely skeptical that the kind of all-knowing, all-caring, all-doing God pictured in some circles exists. On the other hand, I think that concepts of God--all concepts of God--are about something, and of course I am not about to quarrel with anyone's personal interpretation of any one of those particular concepts of God. At the end of Chapter 7, I'll have more to say on this.
 
I confess also that I have personal reasons to become involved in the fight against creationism. One day in August of 1979, I received a phone call from a member of the Iowa Education Department. He wanted to know if I really had said that I thought that it would be a good idea to teach creationism alongside of evolution in high school classrooms.
 
I was appalled. I told him I had never said any such thing, and he replied that, in a typescript of an interview conducted by one Luther Sunderland with me in my office at the American Museum of Natural History, I was quoted as saying precisely that. Sunderland, an engineer by trade, had come to my office, representing himself as a "consultant" (how official that title was I never learned) to the New York State Board of Regents as they were conducting a curriculum review. He was really a lobbyist for creationism--and by all odds the most clever and successful creationist spokesman in the eastern United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sunderland had sent me the typescript of our recorded conversation--with the invitation tochange anything I felt was inaccurate or simply didn't like. The problem was, he left immediately for Iowa and introduced the uncorrected transcript into a legislative study session before I had received my copy and had a chance to edit it. The damage was done, and I felt humiliated as I listened to the Iowa official gently tell me that, however earnestly honest scientists try to be, they have to be aware of the political fallout of their remarks.
 
I was furious, of course, for letting Sunderland dupe me.4 But it was a valuable learning experience: I learned right then that the entire issue of creationism (then largely masquerading as scientific creationism) is purely a political battle--for the hearts and minds of the nation's youth. I also learned that all was considered fair in the creationist wars. Determined to even the score, I wrote a piece for the journal The New Republic ("Creationism Isn't Science") in 1981--a brief salvo that caught the eye of a prescient young editor who invited me to expand it into book format. The result was The Monkey Business (1982), the forerunner to this book, written to set the record straight, and to provide ammunition to the hands of the nation's beleaguered high school biology teachers and their students--and for anyone else who might want a road map to help them navigate through creationist rhetoric--and what to say in reply.
 
In short, scientists cannot afford to shy away when broad social issues intersect their professional lives. I truly wish this updated and expanded version of my earlier consideration of creationism were not necessary. We simply have other, better things to do: more interesting things to think about in evolutionary biology and ecology, as well as pressing problems brought on by the calamitous decline of ecosystems and loss of species all around us to solve. But creationism is here, so we must fight! Evolution is triumphant in the intellectual realm, but it is still under siege in the political arena of the United States at the Millennium.
© 2000, 2001 © by Niles Eldredge. All rights reserved.