Barton and Evolution

You might be tired of hearing about David Barton.  I know I am.  But how about just one more point?  This morning, History News Network ran an essay of mine asking a new question about Barton.  In the essay, I ask what might happen if Barton was defending the notion of a young earth, rather than the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a devout Christian.

Thanks to the History News Network for running that piece.  Since I submitted to their editor, the Barton story has developed in ways that make me even more intrigued in the comparison between (some) conservative Christians’ views of history and creationists’ views of biology and geology.

In a piece that ran in the August 13 online edition of Glenn Beck’s Blaze newsletter, Barton defended his work.  According to the Blaze article,

“Barton seemed anything but shaken by the controversy when he spoke via telephone with TheBlaze. He freely answered questions about the controversy and explained that he’s prepared to respond to some of the critiques, while dismissing what he believes is an ‘elevated level of hostility that’s not really rational in many ways.’

David Barton Responds to Jefferson Lies Controversy and Warren Throckmorton

“While he stands by his central arguments about Jefferson, Barton isn’t pretending to be immune from error. The historian said that the book has already gone through three or four printings and that there have been word and text changes based on spelling or grammar errors along the way. Also, he addressed a willingness to amend historical items, should they be pointed out and proven wrong by other academics.”

What’s intriguing to me in this defense is the way it echoes the challenges posed by 1920s creationists.  Note the phrase “other academics.”  Barton here defends his position as one academic historian among others.

It has been a very long while since scientific creationists insisted that they were part of of the mainstream scientific establishment.  As Ron Numbers described in his classic The Creationists, after the Scopes trial in 1925 leading creationist scientists still fought for creationism’s acceptance in mainstream science.  But they quickly learned that such debates did not offer a real chance to convince mainstream scientists of creationism’s superiority.  Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, for instance, left one debate in London shocked and demoralized by the reaction of the crowd.  “Do not confine your reading wholly to one side,” Price pleaded in response to one scornful outburst from the audience.  “How can you know anything about a certain subject if you read only one side of the case? There is plenty of evidence on the other side, and this evidence is gradually coming out.”  After this debate, Price left the stage feeling humiliated, and he never engaged in another public debate. (Numbers, ed. Creation-Evolution Debates, pg. 186).

This does not mean, of course, that creationists gave up.  No, it demonstrates that creationists moved in the 1920s, in fits and starts, away from fighting for acceptance by mainstream scientists.  Instead, they built their own powerful institutions: schools, publishers, and research organizations.  By 2012 no politician needs to retreat from creationist belief.  Similarly, no creationist feels a need to prove his or her claims to an audience of mainstream scientists.

David Barton, on the other hand, is giving us what might be a new Scopes moment.  Forced to endure the public humiliation of having his book withdrawn, Barton has taken a defiant posture.  He has insisted, like Price in 1925, that readers do more than “read only one side of the case.”  He continues to claim his credentials as one academic historian among others.  I wonder if soon historians like Barton will embrace their outsider status.  If so, as I argue in the History News Network piece, we might be seeing another sort of 1925.

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  1. ChazIng

     /  August 20, 2012

    Quite an interesting take on the Barton issue. However, could you provide some of which you consider to be the “wealth of incontrovertible evidence” for evolution? I have yet to see anything incontrovertible for either side.

    • @ ChazIng: to be fair and balanced, I should have said “what they consider to be a wealth of incontrovertible evidence.” Full disclosure: in both these cases, I personally agree that mainstream scientists AND mainstream scholars really do have a wealth of incontrovertible evidence for their positions. In the case of evolution, to cite just one example, genomic research has demonstrated the extremely close links between humans and other animals. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective, but not much from some sorts of creationist perspectives. It does not prove anything about God’s role in creation–God could still be the designer of this beautiful system, or not–but it does imply that the story in Genesis is meant to be taken, like much else in Scripture, as a parable, rather than as a literal description of the origins of life.

      • ChazIng

         /  August 21, 2012

        Might I ask what sort of creationist perspective you are referring to? I suspect you mean the biblical literalist ones such as the Young Earth view. If that be the case, homology does little for evolution since the designer could have simply been doing what computer scientists do all the time, recycle codes. This ‘common designer’ YEC argument fits the data as well. To this end, I would argue that ‘correlation does not necessarily imply causation’ would be applicable to using homology to disprove a literal creation.

      • @ ChazIng: I’m sure neither of us want to hash through all the old arguments here. Certainly, God could have created a set of living things that look very much as if they all came from a similar source. God could have recycled codes. But the obvious explanation–from my point of view–is that all these closely related types of being simply had a common ancestor. The usefulness of the idea that God created things this way only makes sense if we need to maintain an authoritative Biblical belief system, a YEC viewpoint. If we NEED to fit the data to the Scriptures, we can do so. But it is not the most obvious way to understand it.
        I believe that these various ways of understanding the origins of life, however, mostly speak past one another. For evolutionists, assuming a supernatural creator violates the rules of the game. For young-earth creationists, any assumption besides a supernatural creator acting as described in Genesis violates the rules of the game. Non-experts like me are forced to rely on the advice of authorities. To me, the mainstream scientists have a more authoritative voice.
        In the end, though, I should have maintained the notion that the overwhelming-ness of the evidence is only overwhelming to one’s one side in this debate. No amount of Scripture will convince me of creationism, just as no amount of scientific Steves will convince most YECs.

      • ChazIng

         /  August 21, 2012

        I understand your point but if you want to be purely scientific then you cannot assume that the more obvious is the more truthful (for instance, neither evolution or creation may be right). To most creationists, the more obvious is creationism. YEC does seem to be fitting data to the Bible but evolution also seems to be fitting data to atheism, scientism or miracles like the big bang. Reliance on authority is good when the authority is qualified but I have yet to see an explanation of how a singularity can explode (physics) and how life rose from non-life (chemistry) from an evolutionary biologist. YECs also do not argue from scripture but use scripture to mold science so that if they were to try to convert you, they would use science correlated with scripture, not scripture alone. As for Project Steve, that is a clear argumentum ad populum, a not well thought out idea IMO. The primal issue as always, is epistemology which few seem interested in tackling. As you know, scientific data is open to interpretation and even then, is always provisional to future findings and reinterpretation.

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