Required Reading: David Long and an Ethnography of Creationism

Gallup polls are what they are.  The numbers can be misleading from time to time.  As Homer Simpson scornfully concluded, “Facts!. . . pffft.  Facts can be used to prove anything that’s even remotely true.”

Image source: Dead Homer Society

But when polls keep saying the same thing, it makes sense to listen.  According to Gallup, from the mid-1980s through today, nearly half of American adults agree that the earth was created in “pretty much its present form within the last ten thousand years or so.”

Evolutionists like me tend to be shocked by this number.  How is this possible?

As David E. Long argues in his book Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography (Springer, 2011), the old evolutionists’ answers don’t hold up anymore.  Some evolutionists tend to assume that creationism, especially young-earth creationism, is similar to a public-health problem.  As soon as enough people are exposed to the saving truth of evolution, this argument goes, creationists will quickly realize the errors of their ways.  This assumption doesn’t match the historical facts, but it still has its share of true believers.  As we noted here recently, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” attracted a lot of attention when he endorsed this sort of fallacy.

Another problem, Long argues, is an implicit “deficiency model” among evolution educators.  These educators, Long asserts, would not be likely to blame students from households without a lot of books for being somewhat behind in their reading skills.  Yet they do blame students from creationist households for resisting evolution.

Long hopes to challenge these approaches to understanding creationism in America.  As he puts it, too many educators act as if learning evolution were a simple matter of “being shown discrete points of Truth and adding these bits to our respective Truth-piles” (14, emphasis in original).  If this were the case, Long argues, “there simply would be no societal issue over evolution.”  Obviously the deadlock over such issues as evolution, scientific creationism, and intelligent design proves that much more is going on here.

Long’s study joins others in offering a new approach.  As did Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer in their study of biology education, Long hopes to get inside the heads of those who are somehow avoiding evolution education.  Berkman and Plutzer found that anti-evolutionists had not necessarily been isolated from the truths of evolution.  Instead, many anti-evolutionists “choose to ignore scientific arguments demonstrating evolution.”[*]  Knowledge of evolution, according to their large study funded by the National Science Foundation, is often relatively high among those who dispute it most fervently.  This does not match the fantasies of science fans such as Bill Nye.  Long’s study, like that of Berkman and Plutzer, promises to unravel this apparent mystery.

Instead of asking, even implicitly, “what’s wrong with these creationist students?”, Long wants to ask, “what in fact do Creationists have that makes the study of evolution troublesome or even dangerous?” (15, emphasis in original.)

Long himself grew up in a conservative Protestant family.  He remembers his mother telling him sadly that he was going to hell (11).  But this book is neither an apology for creationism nor an attack on creationists.  Instead, Long offers an ethnography of creationism in action.  He conducted interviews with thirty-one students at a state university along the Ohio River.  The results make for arresting reading.

One student, a non-traditional student who grew up as a child of missionaries, reported that she had not learned any evolution before she got to college.  Sitting in the large lecture halls, she told Long that a professor made her feel distinctly inferior.  She remembered the lecturer’s attitude:  “If you believe in God creating the earth, then pretty much you’re an idiot.  And he obviously didn’t use those words, but that’s pretty much what he said.  And I remember thinking . . . What is he talking about?. . . like, he should just go around and ask people to raise their hands ‘who believes in this and who doesn’t’!” (36).

This student, “Esther,” told Long that she had no problem with the academic challenge of evolution.  In her words, “I take those really big classes, because it’s really easy to excel in those huge classes.  I mean, I got like a hundred on every test.  You have to be an idiot pretty much not to.  If you just sit, and you listen to what they’re saying, and you know how to take tests, it’s very easy to do well in those classes” (36).  Long wrestles with the important questions this sort of testimony evokes.  For students like Esther, what does it mean to “know” evolution?  What does it mean to feel belittled for one’s background, even if it is done unintentionally?

Another thoughtful creationist interviewee told Long that accepting the truth of evolution would mean “a lot of work for me to change my worldview, a lot of time, a lot of alienation from friends” (41).  Long asked what it would mean if somehow this student—who had been homeschooled into his creationist views—what it would mean if somehow this student found out that humans had really evolved.  The student replied, “It would be a complete crisis.  It would be really tough” (41).  As Long notes, this is more than a scientific situation.  This is an entire life wrapped up in creationism.

Long argues that evolution educators have not sufficiently wrestled with the existential anxiety at stake for some creationist students.  Accepting the truth of evolution, for some, would be more than simply changing one’s mind.  It would be a radical change, and more often, the “positive, commonsensical, and affirmed” path is to simply reject evolution (47).

In most cases, Long concludes that no amount of education really threatens to change students’ worldviews.  Of his batch, only three experienced any sort of profound change, including in their attitudes toward evolution.  These three cases form the basis of Long’s fifth chapter, a chapter that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.  Long describes the case of “Cindy,” a student from a staunchly anti-evolution small town.  Cindy ended up open to the notion of human evolution, but only because she challenged her entire upbringing.  It was not the eye-opening scientific evidence for evolution that convinced her.  Rather, Cindy got pregnant and had an abortion in high school.  The gossipy and cruel reaction of her church drove her away from that worldview.  The entire experience left Cindy open to the idea of human evolution.

Equally fascinating is the case of Renee.  Renee came from a non-religious family, sort of.  She was a biology major with plans on graduate work in pharmacology.  Her non-religious worldview was shattered not by the saving words of Jesus, but rather by pair of bitter divorces.  Renee herself divorced her husband, and her father divorced her mother.  Partly as a result, Renee’s father embraced the creationist-centered conservative Protestantism of his youth.  Though Renee’s mother continued to insist on the family’s atheism, Renee embraced creationist Christianity during a trip with her father to the Creation Museum outside of Cincinnati.

These brief summaries can’t do justice to the fascinating case studies Long explores in this book.  The book itself is a must-read for any outsiders who really want to understand the evolution/creation stalemate in America.  Long’s interviews and analyses offer unmatched insight into the reasons why evolution and creation both create such durable and impermeable worldviews.

Unfortunately, unless and until a paperback edition comes out, Long’s publisher has priced this out of range for most non-institutional buyers.  At $140, it is targeted more at university libraries than interested lay readers.  Hopefully, that will not restrict the number of readers this book attracts.  Joining other nuanced studies like Berkman’s and Plutzer’s, Long’s book promises to make an end run around some of the conceptual difficulties that have stymied so many efforts to understand the durability of creationism in the United States.


[*] Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 78.  Emphasis in original.

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2 Comments

  1. Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-agenda-in.html with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

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  2. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. For those that may have academic library access I think the following link will allow you to download digital copies of the chapters http://www.springerlink.com/content/978-94-007-1807-4/contents/ I was able to download the entire book and it is well worth the read! Really a required read as you say.

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