A History of Creationism, Part One

What follows are my notes on Professor James Curtsinger’s presentation at the University of Minnesota on February 2, 2006.

Tonight I attended a talk, sponsored by Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists, by James Curtsinger, Professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. He graciously allowed me to tape record him, and I took copious notes. (They also allowed me to scarf down a sandwich during the talk, as I went there directly after work.)

Curtsinger’s talk was only loosely organized around “ten things,” and was a comprehensive overview of the various forms of creationism from Archbishop Ussher to Michael Behe’s embarrassing performance at the Dover trial. I would say that there were around 20-25 people in attendance, most of them members of the organization and U of M students (unlike me, an alumna). He covered a great deal of historical ground that will be familiar to those of us who know the history of American creationism, which he admitted was, for him, “oddly stimulating, like Victorian pornography.”

He first made the distinction between “young earth” and “old earth” creationists, and described Ussher’s backdating of the earth to 4004 BCE. To the surprise of many in the audience, he mentioned that William Jennings Bryan was actually not a young earth creationist. However, Young-Earth Creationism experience a resurgence in the 1960s with the help of Henry Morris and Duane Gish, men of some learning who came up with the theory of the biblical Flood causing fossils to be deposited through a combination of hydrologic sorting (marine invertebrates that lived in the lower elevations ended up in the lower strata, etc.), differential escape (human fossils were found last because they ran uphill to escape the floodwaters, etc.), and ecological zonation.

Naturally, problems with this theory immediately presented themselves: whales appear in the strata after, not before, fish; birds appear in the strata after, not before, reptiles; dinosaurs appear before, not after, modern land animals; ecological zones are found on top of one another; and marine invertebrates such as coral and clams are found in both early and late strata. However, the theory was superficially convincing to those who wished to believe, and it reached its peak popularity in the 1980s under the name of Scientific Creationism.

Arkansas passed the “Balanced Treatment Act” of 1981, which purported to give “equal time” between “scientific” creationism and the “evolution hypothesis.” This law was challenged in McLean vs. Arkansas, during which hilarious testimony from the defendants produced such statement as the satanic source of UFOs and the fact that ants were from outer space and concealed their superior intelligence from human beings. The Honorable Judge Overton ruled that the Act was “simply and purely an effort to introduce the biblical version of creationism into the public school curriculum.” A similar law, the Louisiana Creationism Act of 1981, was struck down in 1985 and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Edwards vs. Aguilard, 1987), where it was ruled unconstitutional with Justices Scalia and Rehnquist dissenting.

This essentially drove the final nail in the coffin of “Scientific Creationism,” which would soon mutate and evolve into Intelligent [sic] Design.

Curtsinger gave a thorough overview of the difference between young earth creationism and ID, and went through the biographies of Phillip Johnson (the “Godfather of ID”), Dr. Michael Behe, Dr. William Dembski, Dr. Dean Kenyon, author of the textbook Of Pandas and People, and Dr. Chris Macosko of the University of Minnesota’s Chemical Engineering and Materials Science department.

Curtsinger then examined the claims of Johnson and Behe, and pointed out the faults (dare we say “gaps?”) in their arguments. Johnson, the author of Darwin on Trial, shows his glaring ignorance of biology early in his book by mistakenly asserting that artificial selection is not analogous to natural selection, since the former employs a so-called intelligent agent. Of course, there is a mechanical process in both artificial and natural selection that is independent of either. Another example of this absurdity of this argument is the example of sexual selection (when a female animal chooses her mate, is it natural selection? Is she not, in some manner, an intelligent agent? Is it artificial selection?) Since no clear distinction between natural or artificial selection can be made in such a case, it is revealing that Johnson chooses not to talk about sexual selection in his book!

Curtsinger also noted that, Johnson being a lawyer by profession, he refers to Darwin being “on trial” in his book’s title and indeed acts as a prosecutor—a role in which Johnson is not obliged to tell the whole truth, but only to launch a convincing, and one-sided, case. Johnson also seems to think that the fact that he reads such general-interest publications as Science and Nature, as well as the more highbrow but still abstracted British New Scientist and Scientific American, will give him an adequate understanding of evolution, when in fact such sources do not compare to the education of even a college freshman on the subject.

Curtsinger noted that Johnson scores real points with the general public in the philosophical realm by arguing that “Evolutionary biologists are philosophical naturalists” and have a knee-jerk bias against the existence of God. In fact, Curtsinger argued, most biologists are methodological naturalists. When asked to choose between hiring a gardener to water his lawn or a shaman to do a rain dance, for example, a methodological naturalist would hire the gardener.

Curtsinger pointed out that the frequency of atheists in science has not essentially changed since the beginning of the 20th century. While most (90%) of the “top” scientists tend to be atheists, the rate of religious belief among most scientific members, researchers, faculty, etc. has run consistently at about 40% since 1910 when the first survey was taken.

Curtsinger also dissected Michael Behe’s assertion that the bacterial flagellum was an “irreducibly complex” machine. Strangely, Behe seems to accept most evolutionary theory at the level the cell and higher, but not for subcellular phenomena. However, Behe seems to have taken several positions out of impatience, assigned a mystery to areas of biology that simply have not been studied enough for biologists to adequately describe at the present time. In fact, we do see some evidence of cooptation in the bacterial flagellum, parts of which may originally have evolved as a secretory mechanism.

He emphasized that many respected scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have issued very strong statements against the teaching of Intelligent Design as “science.” He briefly summarized the recent Dover trial in Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller vs. Dover) and Behe’s particularly rotten performance under cross-examination. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Bush appointee to the bench, had the choice to either issue a narrow or a broad decision, and chose the latter, lambasting in harsh language the Dover school board’s decision to overrule its own biology teachers in pushing Intelligent Design on the school district. Even before Judge Jones’ decision in December 2005, all of the board members had been voted out in November and replaced with Democratic candidate opposed to the teaching of Intelligent Design.

Curtsinger stated that the real battleground for adequate science instruction in the United States is in the public high schools for one really good reason—the parents of the children who attend these schools have real influence over the curriculum. Curtsinger noted with alarm that, by the time a student has reached the sophomore level in college, his or her beliefs about evolution have been solidified, so that it is imperative that evolution is taught, and taught properly, in our nation’s high schools. While Curtsinger is not opposed to students exploring their own beliefs and values, and asking questions about creationism in a social or historical context even in high school, he notes that 20% of Minnesota public high school biology teachers teach creationism as science, which is illegal, factually wrong, and a sad cheat that ill-serves our students.

His most controversial point, that “Evangelical atheists make the problem worse,” was heard with a great deal of openness and even sympathy from this group and from me. I was initially troubled when I read this statement in the online calendar, but came away willing to accede his position. Curtsinger expressed himself well on this point. He noted that this was a very personal concern for him. I do not have the expertise to agree or dispute his assertion that Richard Dawkins “was never a particularly important scientist,” but I cannot disagree that Dawkins is “an aggressive atheist” who does “hit people over the head” with his disgust for religious superstition (how should I deny this when I admire Dawkins for it?). Curtsinger called Richard Lewontin “a friend of mine, and a very important scientist” who nevertheless has stated (according to Curtsinger) that, “The purpose of science is to eliminate God from human consciousness.” Well, yes—naturally I don’t agree that that is the purpose of science, no matter how much I wish it would happen. Science is not about “Truth” with a capital “t” as is so often proclaimed by troubled deists and other philosophical romantics, so therefore it is not about “disproving God,” although I certainly think that the methodical accounting for phenomena renders supernaturalist claims more and more dubious. Of course such a statement by Lewontin would “provide ammunition for Johnson,” and for people like him and the Discovery Institute. Of course the group in attendance were most if not all atheists, and I do not agree that if atheists disappeared from the earth tomorrow the creationists would likewise go out of business (far from it!) but I took Curtsinger’s point to mean, “Don’t make enemies unnecessarily.” Point taken.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a summary on why universities are not generally in a good position to help on the issue. Professors are rewarded for the research, for which they spend a good 50% of their time, and for their teaching, which accounts for 40%, leaving a whopping 10% left for outreach—however one wants to go about doing that. Most science faculty pay little or no attention to creationism, anyway, allowing the problem to fester. What is needed are scientists working together with high school educators and with concerned citizens—atheists and theists alike.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a dig at Pat Robertson’s “God will smite thee” quote, and encouraged everyone to check out H.L. Menken’s obituary for William Jennings Bryan to see how well it fits Robertson. Curtsinger also stated that he was, with Ed Hessler of Hamline University and Judy Boudreau of Minnetonka, forming the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education. He received a lot of applause and there was a good Q-and-A afterward.

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