|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Sunday, March 27, 2011
In case anyone doesn't know ... The Genesis Flood argues that the entire universe was created a few thousand years ago, and that a couple of thousand years after its creation, the Earth was devasted by a global flood resulting from the collapse of the vapour canopy that had hitherto kept the early Earth pleasantly warm and humid. There have been some disagreements since about where the water came from, and where it went, but in any case the upshot was that this global aqueous catastrophe completely resurfaced the globe and produced almost the entire geological column and fossil record. The appearance of a succession of forms of life is an artefact of their original location ('ecological zonation') and 'hydrodynamic sorting', i.e. their differing capacities to sink or swim. Just why the ecologically and hydrodynamically almost identical ichthyosaurs and dolphins are never found in the same strata is never quite explained.
(There are other difficulties with this hypothesis.)
Fate or Providence or the course of nature took an ironic revenge on my parents for filling my head with this sort of nonsense, because having been primed to be suspicious of mainstream science my brain was an open goal for pseudoscience. Flying saucers and Erich von Daniken and Velikovsky other such rubbish went straight to the back of the net. One consequence was that I started thinking, just to try and make sense of it all, and by the time I went to university I was a convinced atheist. I still thought that the anti-evolution tracts had made some telling points. This misconception didn't survive a reading of the first chapter of the first-year biology textbook, Keeton's Biological Science. As often happens it was an entirely trivial point that pricked the bubble:
'Why,' Keeton asked, 'would the Creator have given pigs, which walk on only two toes per foot, two other toes that dangle uselessly well above the ground?'
Creationists can argue about the human appendix and the whale's hind legs and male nipples till the cows come home, but the pig's superfluous trotters walked all over that, at least for me.
So I studied biology and then zoology and I read everything about evolution I could find. I read The Origin of Species, and I saw for myself how it had been misrepresented in the creationist tracts. One particularly prevalent practice of these was what later became known as quote-mining: taking a quote from an evolutionist out of context or mangling it, so that it seemed to be conceding a point against evolution. An example that jumped out at me was the passage from Darwin's sixth chapter, 'Difficulties of the theory', the one that goes: 'To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.' I'd often seen this quoted, but nary a word from the three pages that follow, in which Darwin explains how the eye could indeed have been formed by natural selection. As you might imagine, I was indignant about how I had been deceived. I came to have a very short fuse on the subject of quote-mining.
Needless to say, all through my zoology studies the matter came up at home. I didn't raise it myself, but my parents did, repeatedly. They plied me with Young Earth Creationist material, and got very upset when I questioned it, however tactfully. Not that I was always tactful. I was sometimes grossly insensitive. But all but a very few of these fights were picked by my parents and not by me. I don't blame them for that. They were doing good as they saw it.
At other times, I've taken a light-hearted, irenic, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger attitude to all this. What a shame, I've said, that some fundamentalists can't seem to understand that there is no necessary conflict between Christian faith and the scientific fact of evolution! One of my tutors, a palaeontologist who was a devout Christian and later became an ordained Anglican vicar, could surely have set them straight on that!
But he couldn't have. They were perfectly well aware that there were Christians who weren't YEC. I don't know if they thought these people weren't really Christians, but at the very least they thought they were bad and inconsistent Christians, at least in that respect. I'll say again, I don't blame them for that.
The people I blame are the people who wound them up.
As time went on I thought very little about the whole creation-evolution controversy, and I only became interested again in the 1990s, when I started following talk.origins, a Usenet newsgroup where creationists (and other anti-evolutionists) have toe-to-toe knockdown arguments with supporters of mainstream science. Its numerous FAQs and other resources are now easily available at its website. What I learned there, from repeated example, is that the problems I noticed in the creationist tracts - the distortions, the fallacies, the faked anomalies, the quote-mining - are still absolutely characteristic of creationists, along with something that doesn't come across in (most of) the books but comes over loud and clear when creationists are arguing online in person: a quite insufferable arrogance, aggressiveness, and ignorance. There are a few creationists who acknowledge the weight of the evidence for evolution and don't distort it but still reject it. But they're the exceptions.
What quote-mining shows is that some people who produce creationist material are conscious liars. Behind these pseudo-science hacks are worse people yet. These are theologians who have the education to understand the conflict precisely. It's not one between 'science and the Bible'. It's a lot more stark than that. It's a conflict between a particular way of reading the Bible (what is loosely called 'literalism') and normal scientific method. There would be a certain integrity in acknowledging the conflict, admitting that there was no obvious resolution, and pointing out that we are not always given to comprehend the intent of the Ancient of Days. That at least would allow young people from these traditions to study biology and geology and astronomy without the constant arguments at home interrupting their thoughts like a buzz of static across their brains.
There's one further ironic revenge visited on all this. A frequent complaint against the New Atheists is that they're only arguing against fundamentalism, and ignoring the broader and more accommodating forms of religious belief. This isn't exactly true, but to the extent that it is, they've hit a sweet spot in the market. When I rejected fundamentalism I didn't turn to broader and more accommodating forms of religious belief. I didn't start wondering if maybe there was something to be said for Anglicanism. I just went straight over to atheism. If this is typical, and I think it is, then there must be many for whom the New Atheist books are like water in the desert. We need no condescension from those who have already found an oasis.
[Note: this includes part of my Leicester Secular Society Darwin Memorial Lecture that I left out below.]