The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Creationist Brain Zap

I first became aware of the conflict between evolution and creationism at the age of six, when I read about Early Man in a school story-book. The book was about a day in the life of different people around the world. It was probably written by Enid Blyton and was as scientific as you'd expect. I literally didn't know Early Man from Adam. I asked my mother if Adam and Eve had had pointed ears, hairy pelts, and had lived up a tree. This was not a welcome question to raise in a Lewis manse. Adam's ears may or may not have been pointed but mine certainly burned. My mother had some sharp words with the teacher, and went on to score out and write indignantly over any references to evolution she came across in the numerous children's books of knowledge which our parents - and all due credit to them - gave us over the years. As we grew older we were also presented with a steady supply of anti-evolution tracts and books, culminating in a fine copy of what you might call the bible of modern creationism, Morris and Whitcomb's The Genesis Flood. I read this in my early teens and found it persuasive.

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, 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.]

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Damn fine post. One quibble: I don't think the quote miners are liars; I think they're selectively blind. Quotes that support them are like neon; the rest is grayed out.

Otherwise, why would they lie? Lying suggests they actually believe in evolution, and they're just goofing on us.

excellent, I think the right title would be "Up From Creationism"

One quibble: one common variant of creationism is anthropomorphism of the type which assumes that God did things for man's benefit. They would answer your pigs foot question by pointing out that it makes trotters tastier.

> Morris and Whitcomb's The Genesis Flood.<

'The Star Trek Technical Manual for Jesus fandom' as one of my Trekker mates once called it.

Yes, that is what gets up my nose - the lying. If they just said "My belief says X so I think you are wrong" it would be fine, but they have to go and twist and alter everything to suit.
I wonder how the 'free' schools thingy the gvt is up to will work out with regards to creationists?

My folks aren't Creationists, as such, just Catholics. And I went to Catholic school, and church on Sundays, and all that stuff.

And then I read Chariots of the Gods, and went straight to atheism, too.

Strangely enough, I never bought Velikovsky, but I was into the Bermuda Triangle. Von Däniken remained aces in my book until I chanced across Ronald Story's slim little volume, The Space Gods Revealed, which in a fraction of the number of pages which von Däniken devotes to his drivel, he utterly demolishes the entire ancient astronaut mythos.

I think I was about 15 or 16 at the time. The atheism stuck, but the rest, thankfully, sloughed off.

Anon - I like that!

Will - I don't know. Some quotes are so carefully selective that the quote-miners must know what they're doing.

marc - one can always imagine some purpose. But the thing about the dew-claws was that they do seem so blatantly vestigial.

Ken, on second thought, it's certainly possible some of them believe anything's fair in their fight for creationism. I would love to ask them why they're fighting so strongly. Do they think Heaven has an entrance exam, and if you flunk the section on the age of the Earth, it's automatic damnation for you?

Quote mining is just confirmation bias applied in argument. Most people adhere to that whether their belief system incorporates a religion or any other ideology. Those who look for stuff that undermines their beliefs usually only do so to attack it.

I never understood what was so appealing about Creationism, or ID over evolutionary theory. For me (as an atheist raised in a CofE environment) when I first truly understood evolution, it was a practically religious experience. I can fully understand why someone could point to evolution as proof that there must be a god.
ID especially, with it's limited acceptance of evolution always struck me as being doubly wrong. It's rubbish from a scientific point of view of course, but from a christian perspective it also makes no sense, as it invokes a god ('intelligent designer'), who has to continually keep coming back down to earth to design a better eye (or trotter, or slime mould or hummingbird's tongue etc.), while surely the omnipotent god of christianity would be able to come up with some system where-by he(/she/it)mearly creates the universe, and it just ticks along nicely from that point. A system a bit like evolution say?

I'd be more tolerant of Creationism and those that believed such things, but it always seems to me a set of beliefs that can't exist unless they are attacking science. If creationism (particularly ID) had to be argued in terms of moral or spiritual terms then it would fall apart.

For all the many wonders, the natural world is a nasty and barely functional mess. These days I tend to require creationist supply an explanation as to why god tolerates a reproductive system that features life threatening complications, screaming pain, cramped conditions and frequent tears. To date I've not heard an explanation that didn't make their god and themselves appear inhumane at best, but thankfully most would have the good sense and heart not to justify such sufferings.

Will - I don't think any of the main creationist groups and churches would say accepting evolution is a damnable heresy. Leaving doctrine aside, I think there are two social reasons: biblical authority (i.e. their authority as bible-thumpers) and costly signalling. Creationism may not separate the sheep from the goats, but it sure separates the hard-liners from the faint-hearted.

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Excellent post. I'll be referring others to it. In my (once quite frequent and now fairly rare) debates with creationists (especially the ID folks), I tend to start with the question of agenda.

Evolutionary theories seek to explain, in an unbiased manner, what is observed. Evolutionary scientists operate according to the scientific method, making observations, forming hypotheses, collecting data, analyzing the data and either rejecting or failing to reject hypotheses. Creationists, on the other hand, start with a pre-defined explanation and then seek ways to fit their observations of nature into it.

Based on this failure to adhere to the scientific method, I exclude all creationist 'theories' from the realm of science... and if in doing so, I haven't entirely alienated my opponent, I go on to happily listen to his or her favorite (oh so scientifically worded) version of the creation myth.

All too often, however, the outspoken proponents of creationism that one meets have either no real understanding of, or no respect for the scientific method and there is, therefore, no common ground for rational debate.

Costly signaling makes a terrifying amount of sense.

It's not an original observation, but I can't remember where I found it.

Will Shetterly: "Otherwise, why would they lie? Lying suggests they actually believe in evolution, and they're just goofing on us."

They know they are lying in their misrepresentation, but not because the original untwisted statement was true from their perspective. The "Eye" passage from Darwin is typical. They don't believe the passage, so lying about it concedes nothing. The only thing that is important is saving souls (and sometimes making a little money,) and if lying can help that, so be it

You may enjoy my live-blogging of some creationist loons who came to speak to my university's Islamic Society: quote-mining and lies with pictures of bears turning into whales with big red crosses over them. Apparently birds can't be descended from dinosaurs because dinosaurs were big and birds are small… They also claimed that all evolutionists were consciously lying rather than wrong, and that all genocides and terrorists were Darwinists. Oh dear.

Came via P Z Myers to read your whole article.

Very fine article to which I might add another point. Have you noticed how often religious apologists quote mine their own founding text? I actually think that quote mining is too weak to describe the way they torture the text of the bible.

One piece commonly mutilated is John 3:16
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

For some reason they pull this wailing and screaming into the light but forget to add the next couple of verses;
"3:17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
3:18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."
Which does kind of contradict what they were trying to say.

Same sort of thing happens to the Last Supper according to Luke. Preachers take a break between Luke 22:34 where JC tells Peter you will betray me before the cock crows and 22:39 where the bachelor party heads off to the Mount of Olives to meditate upon the sacrifice to come - or possibly sleep it off. For some reason the whole bit about selling clothes and buying swords gets left out.

With a background like that are you surprised the opponents of fundamentalist are quote mined?

Yes, that's a very good point. It's not just apologists: there's a practice of preaching from texts, i.e. individual verses, and of arguing by 'proof text', that seems quite common in fundamentalism. Examining context and the overall meaning of the chapter let alone the book tends to fall by the wayside.

So I suppose applying the same method to other texts seems natural, as does treating 'science' (or at least 'godless science') as one vast block, from which any statement can be ripped out and waved about like a pigeon's liver in ana augury.

Fun fact: it seems to have been David Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, who first raised the structure of the eye as a problem for the (i.e. his own) natural-selection position. And it really was a problem for him (and not for Darwin), because Hume's theory of natural selection was all-or-nothing: various combinations occur randomly in infinite time, the orderly (and heritable) ones survive, and the others perish. Hume's theory was natural selection without competition, and so didn't register the importance of degrees of fitness. I would bet that Darwin had Hume's concession in mind.

Hi Ken.

A distant brother in law here! I share your upbringing and experience with the FP mob. I only recently came to the same conclusion as you after discovering the creation lies feed to us to prop up religion had no foundation - a shocking discovery for me!

Like you the whole edifice collapsed like a house of cards once that discovery was made! I still feel anger but am slowly cooling off to a mood of dispair at those still caught up in this web of fiction.

Love your blog and always read your books.


Stephe - that's amazing. Please drop me an email (you can find my address at the top left of the blog).

ilorien - Creationists,
on the other hand, start
with a pre -defined
explanation and then seek
ways to fit their
observations of nature
into it .
I think this true of much mainstream theology too. In fact it could almost be a definition.

I'm going to drop a small brick into the pond.

Is mathematics a science or not?

Consider the concept of axioms, going back to Euclid and his parallel lines. It turns out that Euclid is neither right nor wrong: change the axioms, and you get a different set of answers.

Theology can be constructed according to as rational a set of rules as mathematics, but the answers depend on the axioms.

With that similarity, would it be unfair to suggest Gœdel's Theorem applies to religion?

I think the critics are driven by ideology rather than facts. That would take alot more effort to convince them other wise.

"Theology can be constructed according to as rational a set of rules as mathematics, but the answers depend on the axioms."

That's why, when I filled in my Census thingy, I gave "agnosticism" as my religion. Reasoning will take you so far, and after that it's axioms all the way down.

I also came here via PZMyers blog, via the weekly Sunday School list from Think Atheist. Isn't link following wonderful?

Very interesting article. Comments interesting, too.

I was lucky I didn't have such a hard time. Although I had lots of evangelical input as a child the family went to a mainline Presbyterian Church and I went to an Anglican school. My biology teacher gave us a potted explanation for evolution, explained that some people have religious beliefs that make this difficult to accept, and left it at that. I went home convinced of the scientific explanation. My mother did not freak but simply stated that Darwin had said that it was only just a theory. I think she was still repeating that one after she became an atheist some years later. She has been educated since then. :-)

Nice story, Rosemary, and encouraging.

Congratulation to you Ken on finding the the path of truth i.e. science.

I recently read a long (rather loose) essay by Laura Knight-Jadczyk in which the creationist/evoloutionist debate is examined amongst other things. You (and other readers here) may find it interesting if you have a couple of hours to spare. Within it, she states her own position, quoted below.

"I do not believe in 'god'. I do not believe that a god created this cosmos. I do believe, however, that pure, infinite potential known as Consciousness is the foundation of all that exists. I believe that we are 1) quantum; 2) chemical; 3) biological beings - in that order - and the quantum part of us is not material. My views broadly reject the premises on which both Darwinism and Creationism are based. However, I do embrace many of the ideas of evolution because they are empirically evident, but the basic theory of evolution as formulated by Darwin has been repeatedly shown to be impossible. I reject the theory of the Big Bang which is, in the final analysis, just pure Creationism under another name, another belief system. Both Creationism and the Big Bang theory posit that the Universe is created, linear and finite. An eternal, infinite, Conscious Universe does not require a creator - it is what it is. Finally, I don't claim that this is the Truth, it is just where I am now after 45 years of research."

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