Do you read Ted Davis? For folks interested in the creation/evolution debates, Professor Davis has long produced essential historical analyses of the various voices of creationism in all their befuddling complexity. I was reading one of Professor Davis’ essays on the Biologos Forum recently and it raised some perennial questions: Can we compare the dissenting science of today’s creationists to the scientific ideas of long ago? Can today’s creationists claim a long legacy of prestigious scientific antecedents?
Davis is writing these days about science and creationism in antebellum America. In this post, he explains the school of “Scriptural Geology” that attracted religious scientists in the early 1800s. Scholars such as Princeton Seminary’s Samuel Miller and Anglican minister George Bugg rebutted new(ish) ideas of an ancient earth.
Professor Davis pointed out the remarkable similarities of their 19th-century arguments with the 21st-century arguments of today’s young-earth creationists. As Davis put it,
Readers familiar with Henry Morris or Ken Ham will find many of their ideas, expressed in substantially the same ways and for the same reasons, in the pages of Bugg’s book.
Now, Professor Davis would be the last person to ignore historical context or to misunderstand the historical changes that have wracked the world of creationist scientists. Yet his comparison to the Scriptural Geologists to Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research points out the radical changes that have taken place in the realms of creationism and science.
In the 1820s, discussions of the age of the earth still had some fading legitimacy among mainstream scientists. Even as late as the 1920s, when American politicians such as William Jennings Bryan insisted that “Darwinism” was losing scientific prestige, their claims made some sense. In the 1920s, for example, mainstream scientists had not yet cobbled together the modern evolutionary synthesis. They had not yet figured out how to reconcile the mechanism of natural selection with the maintenance of beneficial mutations.
As I describe in my upcoming book, mainstream science has changed enormously over the course of the twentieth century. Positions that made some scientific sense in 1827, or 1927, lost those claims as the 20th century progressed.
As an obvious result, there yawns an enormous gulf between the work of George Bugg and that of Ken Ham or Henry Morris. Today’s young-earth creationists are forced to take the role of utter scientific outsiders. They are forced to dismiss the entirety of mainstream evolutionary science as deluded.
Of course, as Professor Davis explains, earlier “creationists” such as Miller and Bugg also felt like scientific outsiders. But their position was radically different. Saying nearly the exact same thing, as always, can mean very different things, depending on when one says them.