The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, March 07, 2008

Refloating the Ark

This is a lightly HTML-ised version of an article that I wrote for last Monday's edition of the Morning Star.

Thirty-five years ago, I mentioned creationism to one of my zoology tutors at Glasgow University. 'Nobody,' he said, 'takes these people seriously!' Today, another of my former tutors, Roger Downie, now Professor of Zoological Education at Glagow University, has to take creationism - or evolution denial, as he prefers to call it - a bit more seriously than that.

He's still awaiting results from a survey of students' beliefs this year, but surveys he conducted over several years in the 1990s found one science student in ten rejecting evolution. Last November, Professor Downie debated 'Intelligent Design' advocates before Edinburgh University's Humanist Society. His lecture on 'The creationist threat to evolution' is scheduled for this year's course in Communicating Science.

I asked him where students' evolution denial comes from - supposed scientific arguments, or prior religious belief?

'Prior religious belief mainly, even when given the opportunity to give alternatives. Worrying, since these are science students embarking on an evidence-based degree...'

Asked whether creationist organizations are active in higher education, Professor Downie says: 'I can't give a general answer, but 'Truth in Science' is a UK group that has circulated a ID based teaching pack to schools. It has some British academics aboard, especially Professor Andy McIntosh, a Leeds physicist. There are a few other ID sympathisers scattered around, including one in Stirling.'

This doesn't sound like a mass movement. But that's no ground for complacency. A MORI poll for the BBC's Horizon programme in January 2006 found 22% identifying themselves as creationists, with about double that number believing that creation or Intelligent Design (ID) should be taught in schools. These are, of course, far higher proportions of adults than have ever been taught creationism in school themselves. So what's going on?

In part, it's a legacy of Tony Blair's enthusiasm for 'faith schools' and 'city academies'. The City Academies scheme allows businesses, churches and voluntary groups to gain control over a school's policy and ethos by contributing £2m towards the capital cost - around 10% of the total, the other 90% of which comes from you and me. State funded schools that teach creationism now include the Emmanuel City Technology College at Gateshead and the King's Academy in Middlesbrough, both sponsored by Sir Peter Vardy, and a Seventh Day Adventist school in Tottenham. Some at least of the UK's thousands of faith schools may be doing the same - though it should be noted that Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools are very unlikely to do so. Just how bizarre this stuff can get is well brought out by Stephen Layfield, head of science at Emmanuel College, who calls for teaching 'the historicity of a world-wide flood' and affirms 'the feasibility of maintaining an ark full of representative creatures for a year ...' (The complete speech was archived by religious affairs and science journalist Andrew Brown - the Christian Institute removed it from its its own website after Richard Dawkins drew attention to it in The Daily Telegraph .)

The education pack circulated to heads of secondary schools in the UK by 'Truth in Science' got a positive response from only 59 out of ten thousand or so schools and was repudiated by the Department of Education. (Gillard D., (2007) Never mind the evidence: Blair's obsession with faith schools).

The 'Truth in Science' website is slick, but pure intellectual vandalism. The trick is to pretend that evolution versus 'Intelligent Design' is controversial within science. It isn't, but claiming that it is makes teaching 'alternative views' seem a question of balance and fair-mindedness.

The National Curriculum is vague enough to allow creationists an opening to urge that teachers 'teach the controversy', for some faith schools to go ahead and do it, and for the DoE to reassure enquirers and objectors that creationism and ID are not on the curriculum. The inimitable Melanie Phillips has defended the teaching of creationism on the grounds of tolerance, as well as on the sound ethos and academic excellence of religious schools. More recently, she's taken up the cudgels for ID supporters, indignantly claiming that evolutionists have 'falsely accused such scientists of being religious fundamentalists who believe the world was created in six days'.

All this echoes the situation in the US, where creationism and ID have wealthy, right-wing backers whose primary effort is to get the ideas into schools, under the guise of a 'scientific controversy' that doesn't exist. American socialist Lenny Flank gives a detailed exposure of the murky politics of evolution denial in his book Deception by Design and his website 'Creation Science' Debunked.

The US Constitution forbids an establishment of religion, so scientific cover has to be found for teaching creationism. It was originally provided by Henry Morris, a civil engineer who specialised in hydraulics. Together with a theologian, John C. Whitcomb, he wrote The Genesis Flood (1961), which argues that almost the entire the fossil record was laid down in, yes, Noah's Flood. Not all of its intended readers found it persuasive. To this day, even fundamentalist Christian oil geologists laugh at Flood Geology. They'd never dream of using it to find oil.

Later books advocated the same ideas, but with religious references carefully excised, and 'creation science' was born. The long march through the school boards began. After 'creation science' was ruled unconstitutional in 1987, the movement mutated into 'Intelligent Design' - only to receive a further rebuff with the Dover case in 2005.

Roger Downie also points to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the '"unholy alliance" of Christian and Muslim creationists'. In Islam creationism is more mainstream than it is in Christianity. The most prominent Muslim creationist, the Turkish writer Harun Yahya, combines a quaint obsession with Zionists, Freemasons and Communists with appeals for inter-faith dialogue and opposition to terrorism. His creationism eschews the idiocies of Flood Geology and a young earth, and is well-funded: his books and CDs are finely-produced but inexpensive, and ten thousand unsolicited copies of his full-colour volume, Atlas of Creation, have been delivered free to scientists in Europe and North America. On February 26 2008, UCLU's Islamic Society hosted a presentation by representatives of the Harun Yahya Organization on 'The Collapse of the Evolution Theory' - one of dozens of similar events over the past year or two in the UK, and many more in the Muslim world, drawing huge audiences in Indonesia.

There's an understandable temptation to respond to evolution denial with militant atheism. Professor Downie disagrees:

'People are entitled to be militant atheists if they wish, but I think they should keep their comments separate from the discussion on the evidence for evolution. Most religious people these days accept evolution: only a fringe are deniers, and I'd hope to reduce that fringe. Linking evolution to atheism could have the opposite effect, and I've had experience from talks I've given of just such an effect. The response I favour is to emphasise the inappropriateness of judging a scientific issue by faith/belief. Stephen J. Gould's Rocks of Ages is good on this.'

Evolution versus denial is no more a conflict between religion and atheism than it is a controversy within science. At one level, the controversy is within the various religions themselves. Most denominations follow such revered Christian thinkers as Origen and Augustine, and the mediaeval Jewish sage Maimonedes, in reading Genesis figuratively. Fundamentalists insist that if Genesis isn't completely historical, it's simply false. In this, ironically, they are on the same page as some militant atheists.

At another level, however, the problem is political. It isn't just that creationism is backed by wealthy - and largely right-wing - businessmen. The root of the problem is the weakness of confident, secular and rational public discourse. This leaves room for all kinds of irrationality, which find an opening in the New Labour view that the public education system can't stand on its own feet, and needs to be propped up by money from business and morality from religion. Unless we repudiate that, more and more of our children will find their precious time wasted on feasibility studies of Noah's Ark.


There's a song by Echo's Children, called "The Word of God," that addresses this; unfortunately their first CD is out of print. The first verse ends, "Humans wrote the Bible—God wrote the rocks," and it goes on in that vein for four or five verses. I've been an atheist since I was nine, but I find their sentiments appealing.

"The US Constitution forbids an establishment of religion" - ah, no. It forbids the federal level from intervening in this area. It was put that way precisely in order to allow states to maintain or alter their various and inconsistent established religions as they chose. Thoreau experienced the down side of one such. However, the effect of federal non-establishment has worked through, and state level establishment is at most vestigial now.

Drat. That last was me.

That would be a Cat Faber song, lyrics and sheet music.

But I think it is a religious problem, or at least a philosophical one. The grounding of all discourse--secular as well as religious--was shaken by the Enlightenment and subsequent scientific discoveries. Even in 1800, Young-Earth creationism, vitalism, and a universe confined to the Solar System were plausible. By 1900 they were history. The scale of the philosophical shift is awesome and has even resurrected disputes within Christianity itself that were thought long-settled. So far, neither secular nor religious philosophy has made an adequate response to the changes, which is why we are in such a pickle. And, yes, aggressive atheism is one of the inadequate responses.

I think the unifying theme of this and the Gaelic language post is touched on in The God Delusion.

It's about 'belonging'. Identifying. And because most people in, say, the UK agree on the vast majority of things, it's the stupid little things take on vast new significance. A dilettante could agree that we shouldn't kill or steal, and work out when to clap and respond in church. Any old idiot can follow the evidence of common sense and their own eyes.

Bilingual signs literally no one needs and the belief that if you had a time machine you could go back and shake hands with Adam and Eve ... they're manifestly stupid things to champion.

So believing in them becomes a badge of commitment, a simple way of saying 'I'm with you lot'. Shibboleths. It's the modern equivalent of spending thirty years at war because of what happens to a wafer during a church service.

The bloodymindedness and the contrarian instinct is what's being celebrated. The precise focus of the devotion isn't that important.

One problem is that the science of evolution really proves nothing about the big step from biotic soup to replicating molecules, and getting from simple replicating molecules to the complexity of the cell is only a wild guess. Such wild guesses are in stark contrast to the "almost fact" statements about evolutionary theory that deals with genetics and sexual combinations.

Then, you have the concept that perhaps ancient scriptures actually describes DNA and the pattern of life (Coils of the Serpent) -- a double edged sword. You are left with total uncertainty, which is something people hate.

That's not a problem, that's a diversion.

'getting from simple replicating molecules to the complexity of the cell is only a wild guess'

The chemistry is not fully-understood at the moment, but there's a heck of a leap from 'we don't understand the chemistry' to 'so there might be a deity involved'.

Most atheists aren't aggressive. Personally, I want to eliminate religion, but only in the sense I want to eliminate poverty and illiteracy.

Most atheists I know don't even want to go that far. Most do draw the line at anti-rationality in schools and as part of government decision-making, though.

I want society to be what Colin McGinn calls 'post-theist', 'religion is a set of interesting stories that people used to take too seriously'. Christians as Trekkies, basically. Christians seem keen to leap into that role (what is The Genesis Flood if not the Star Trek Technical Manual for fundamentalists?), so let 'em.

Personally, I want to eliminate religion, but only in the sense I want to eliminate poverty and illiteracy is pretty much my position, too. I would consider forcibly suppressing Christianity, or any other religion, or limiting the legal rights of its adherents to be a worse evil than anything a voluntary, consensual religion could do.

I could actually see some educational utility to feasibility studies of Noah's ark. Take the dimensions of the ark, and the known numbers of species of land animals, and their known sizes, and add in storage space for food (how many extra herbivores did Noah have to take to feed the obligate carnivores?). Or consider dispersal problems, such as the koalas, native to a desert climate, feeding only on eucalyptus, and slow moving, having to get from Mt. Ararat to Australia, across the width of the Near East and South and Southeast Asia, and then making multiple island hops, with no eucalyptus trees in sight. If biology classes actually included real attempts to falsify the Biblical legends there might be some instructive value there. After all, one of the biggest marks of science is that its theories are subject to critical evaluation.

Of course, in the real world, any attempt to do this would face amazing political pressures.

How could you not work in both the fall of communism along with the related decline of Western European socialism (both very important movements in the spread of an expressly materialist and humanist view of the universe, opposed to a theological conception - 'opium of the people' and all that) plus the decline in the numbers of SF fans and the diminished level of general reading in the population?

I expect very few SF fans or communists subscribe to any form of ID or creationism.

Get the kids reading SF and Karl Marx again and they'll come round.

'Of course, in the real world, any attempt to do this would face amazing political pressures.'

It's what the US creationists want more than anything else - teach both, even to debunk the creationism, because it's legitimacy and a foot in the door.

In the UK it's a completely different debate - although US money is starting to, um, yank it towards the same territory. Here, it's the Tony Blair faith and globalisation point - 'teach both to give people a rounded education'.

No. The comedian Chris Addison said it best: 'they should teach creationism in schools, but only if they teach Narnia in geography'. GCSE biology isn't big on nuance and narrative - best to stick to the facts.

Things are a bit worse than you might imagine at first. For example, in Edinburgh we have the Edinburgh Creation group,

As you can see they have a full calendar with a long list of liars, charlatans and idiots, such as Andy Macintosh, Paul Garner, and many others. It would be interesting to go along to one of their meetings armed with all the necessary evidence, but I doubt we would get a very good reception.

The US influence is especially large in Northern Ireland- they have been pushing to change the signs at the Giants causeway, due to it being more than 6,000 years old. In fact it looks like NI is in a bad way, the Creationists have managed to infiltrate a great many churches.
See more here:

I remember smugly thinking back in the run up to the 2004 presidential elections that we'd never have to seriously contend with this ID nonsense. Just goes to show Marxists can be rubbish at prediction too.

Re: academies, if a socialist organisation happened to have £2 million floating about could we have a socialist school that insists Marx gets on the syllabus?

asking to eliminate religion is seeking
to end an entire economical
sector, faith is sold much like any other consumer product,the truth is simply not that pretty of a commodity, and their sales people not that convincing, goods are sold based on not just what they do but what they promise, science needs to improvement its marketing skills to at least match that of its competition, this young enterprise must rely on the methods that work. Tell a better lie, make promises that are actually kept, rise above the internal arguments, disagreements and make a lie come true. Unless of course you're waiting for someone to come along and do it for you. Save yourself, then offer to save everyone else.

We are all treasure.
Discovering ourselves is finding our treasure,
discovering each other is sharing our commonwealth.

feasibility of maintaining an ark full of representative creatures for a year

I'd like to see him have a pop at this. Like Thor Heyerdahl did.

'Most atheists aren't aggressive. Personally, I want to eliminate religion, but only in the sense I want to eliminate poverty and illiteracy.'

As a milk-fed atheist and complete wuss, I agree. The 'militant' tag has a Toryish tone to it - the same sort of pejorative that used to be slapped on the 'loony left'.
But isn't there a need for greater mobilisation on the part of secular, reasoned thinkers?

For many years we assumed the creationists and other cranks had disappeared from public view because they had withered under the expanding light of reason - our islands were a beacon of secular indifference and very proud of it we were too. But I wonder if it wasn't complacency that left room for ignorance to flourish. That and a lack of intellectual rigour in government and public affairs - the giving of offense has become such an offence in itself (initially for all the right, egalitarian reasons) that it has become very difficult to tackle dumb ideas head-on, whether they're faith-based creation theories or plans for dual language signs.

Witnessing the feeble reaction in most of the press to the Danish cartoon affair, and comparing it to the response of the UK press to the fatwa on Rushdie, I wonder if a bit of militant rationalism isn't precisely what's needed here.

Troops of the enlightenment, unite!

it looks like NI is in a bad way, the Creationists have managed to infiltrate a great many churches.

I think they've been there all along. The Great Revival - which made the Southern Baptists what they are today - did very little business in Britain, but it was a big hit in the Presbyterian churches of NI.

There is an easier, though more confrontational way.

Creationists are LIARS.

Say so, in public, as often and as loudly as possible.

The "world-wide flood", is, of course, the rises in sea-level after the last ice age.

In fact, creationism is as false as the communist religions' counterexample, put forward by Trofim Lysenko ......

re the distribution of creationist info via schools, similar thing happened in Australia, several years ago an organisation lobbied very hard to have them made avalable in schools, and had an aim to distribute them, never found out whether they succeeded or not.

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