Creationists and the New “Ape-Man”

Evolutionary science marches on, it seems. The possible discovery of another extinct human species might seem to deflate creationists’ intellectual bubble. How have creationists handled the news?

In the long history of the evolution/creation wars, creationists have always pointed to gaps in the fossil record as proof of evolution’s empty claims. And evolutionists have repeatedly found evidence of “ape-men,” which turned out to be hoaxes as often as not.

Will the REAL ape-man please stand up?

Will the REAL ape-man please stand up?

The latest discovery of a collection of hominin fossils in a cave in South Africa has brought this old argument to the surface again. These days, creationists are more prepared to handle these sorts of scientific revelations.

Some of the scientists involved have claimed that the bones belong to a previously unknown human species, homo naledi. They’re not sure how old they are, and they’re not sure how the bones got into this cave, but they’re confident the bones come from a new sort of old human.

For creationists who accept mainstream evolutionary science, the news is nothing but exciting. But for those who insist on a young earth and an instantaneous creation of modern humans by divine fiat, the existence of other ancient human species would seem to present a pickle.

At Answers In Genesis, the answer is simple: these bones are probably from some form of ape, and if they are from a type of human, then it was a type descended from Adam & Eve. At the Institute for Creation Research, there are fewer ifs. As ICR writer Frank Sherwin reported,

As always, we at the Institute for Creation Research are extremely skeptical, taking such breaking news stories with a little more than a grain of salt. We have found that with more time and research, the preliminary spectacular claims of alleged “human ancestors” dissolve into a footnote, a non-story. We predict, on the basis of the creation model, Homo naledi too will become just one more dead end in the questionable human evolution parade. In fact, the story itself is rife with caution, unanswered questions, and speculation.

For those of us outside the world of creationism looking in, these sorts of distinctions are a source of continuous puzzlement. Why are Neanderthals okay, but more than two human ancestors not? How can young-earth creationists allow for Homo Naledi, but not make room for a necessarily diverse genetic background for our species?


From the Dust: Evolution? Yes! Creation? Yes, Please!

Is there a stark divide between creationists and evolutionists?  Not always.  But staking out a middle ground can be dangerous.

The Biologos Foundation insists that Christian belief and evolutionary science go hand in hand.

To help make their case for evolutionary creationism, Biologos recently released a film, From the DustSnippets are available for preview.

For old hands of the creation-evolution debates, there isn’t much new here.  But for those who see the debate as one of religion versus science, this film offers ideas that may seem surprising.

Filmmaker Ryan Pettey explains his goals:

we wanted to put something proactive on the table that could help motivate an elevated conversation about the “war” between science and faith. It was our goal to help Christians see (and accept) the complexity of the issues raised by modern science, as well as help them to courageously engage with the theological conversations happening within the sphere of Christian culture today.

As Biologos founder Darrel Falk explains in the film’s introductory segment,

If people think because of scientific evidence, ‘my Christian faith doesn’t stake up anymore’—that day needs to end. All of the richness in life that I know is because of my relationship with God, and so I don’t want people to miss out on that. I don’t want people abandoning the faith because they find out that evolution is really real. It is God’s truth. So here we have this segment, this all-important segment of God’s people, who are out of touch with God’s reality. I mean, it is God’s universe! This natural world is God’s creation—and so the people, who especially need to be in touch with God’s reality, are off in a corner.

Is there a war between Biblical Christianity and evolutionary theory?  Not according to the Biologos Foundation.  Will this message be successful?  Hard to say.  After all, the most dangerous place to be in any trench war is No Man’s Land.  Sure enough, Biologos has earned the enmity of both sides.

Ken Ham of the leading young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis has warned that Biologos is part of the “epidemic” of pernicious doubt.

Jerry Coyne, perhaps the leading American exponent of science atheism, has lamented Biologos’ truckling to religious “fairy stories” and criticized their “duplicitous” strategy.

For many creationists, however, the message of Biologos seems welcome.  The ability to accept the truths of modern science without abandoning one’s faith comes as a blessing.  It might also offer a lesson to those who hope to spread evolutionary science among America’s deeply skeptical public.


The Trauma of Evolution

Can we educate by banning ideas?  For one group of conservative Christian homeschoolers, proper education means banishing lots of ideas.  How can progressive educators like me understand this impulse to put up intellectual walls around young people’s minds?  I wonder if some creationists view exposure to evolutionary ideas as a form of trauma, an entirely harmful experience.

The Finish Well homeschooling conference, in the words of its organizers, “is designed to equip homeschooling families to confidently homeschool the high school years for the glory of God!”

One of the ways the conference promises to help attendees is by purging the atmosphere of any hint of evolution.  In order to secure a table at the conference, vendors are required to agree to the following statements:

“1) Scripture teaches a literal 6 day creation week, a young earth of approximately 6,000 years, and a literal understanding of Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the world-wide Flood of Noah’s day. 2) The Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God. It is inerrant and our ultimate authority in what we believe and how we live. Any speakers who contradict these two truths during their speaking session will be immediately asked to leave.”

Clearly, the goal of Finish Well is not only to keep out evolution.  Any other explanation about humanity’s origins will be verboten as well, including the evolutionary creationism of folks such as Darrel Falk or the big-tent creationism of the intelligent-design movement.

This notion of proper education is one of the hardest intellectual nuts for progressive educators like me to crack.  How are we to understand this idea that good education means hiding important ideas away from young people?  My first reaction, my gut reaction, is that this is precisely the sort of totalitarian impulse that kills any real education.  This sort of intellectual protectionism smacks of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.  To me, and to lots of people, one of the first rules of true liberal education means opening intellectual doors, not bricking them up.  Real education, in my opinion, means allowing young people to explore a variety of ideas, to make up their own minds.

But in the conservative tradition, an important aspect of improving education has long consisted of the effort to remove “dangerous” ideas from the educational mix.  For generations, various types of conservative activists have insisted that simple exposure to certain ideas represented a danger—something from which young people had to be protected.

This idea played a big part in the first “creationist” controversies in the 1920s, as I explored in my 1920s book.  One of the public leaders of the anti-evolution movement of that decade was populist politician and former US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan condemned the notion that good education meant a willy-nilly exposure to perfidious ideas.  In a battle with the University of Wisconsin over the teaching of evolution on campus, Bryan offered this sarcastic advertisement for the college:

“Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.”  [SOURCE: William Jennings Bryan, “The Modern Arena,” The Commoner (June, 1921): 3.]

For my current book, I’m exploring the longer history of conservative educational activism.  This notion of proper-education-as-protection echoed throughout the twentieth century.  For instance, Grace Brosseau, President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution, argued that young children ought not be harmed by “the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.”  Such modern theories of education, Brosseau insisted, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of childhood and the responsibilities of education.  As she explained in 1929,

“One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.”

Instead, parents and teachers must give students only what students need to develop the “delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind.” [SOURCE: “The 38th Continental Congress, N.S.D.A.R.,” DAR Magazine 63 (May 1929): 261-271.]

More recently, the late Mel and Norma Gabler echoed this notion that proper education meant protecting young people from dangerous ideas.  In their 1985 book What Are They Teaching Our Children, the Gablers compared modern teaching to letting young children float in dangerous seas in flimsy lifeboats.  Modern teachers, the Gablers argued, too often allowed children to drift near sharp reefs and crashing waves, without offering any sort of guidance.  The teachers knew the rocks were there, the Gablers argued, yet these ‘progressive’ teachers did not see fit to warn the students.  Better for the students to ‘discover’ such dangers for themselves.  The Gablers asked, “Has the instructor gone mad?” (pg. 99).

For the Gablers, as for Bryan, Brosseau, and the organizers of the Finish Well conference, the notion that some ideas must be hidden from children made perfect sense.  For those like me who don’t agree, perhaps one key to understanding might come from the school controversies of the 1920s.  During that decade, many state lawmakers proposed bills that promised to keep certain ideas out of children’s paths.  One 1927 bill in Florida would have banned “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter” [Florida House Bill 87, 1927].

To the authors of this bill, evolution and atheism could be treated the same way as “obscene” material.  To those 1920s legislators, it made sense to keep obscene materials out of the hands of school children.

I agree that young people ought not be exposed to “obscene” materials.  And maybe this is the way for folks like me to understand the conservative impulse to keep some ideas out of schools.  After all, all of us—not just conservatives or fundamentalists—agree that some things must be kept from children.  No one wants young people to view a lot of hard-core porn at school, for instance.  Nor do we think that children should see graphic violence.  Exposure to such things seems traumatic.

Is this the key to understanding the conservative insistence on keeping certain ideas out?  For some young-earth creationists, mere exposure to evolutionary ideas represents a danger to their young children.  It might be that such conservatives view exposure to evolutionary ideas as an intellectual trauma, a theological trauma.  Such ideas might be ‘out there’ in the world, just like genocide, rape, and lynching might be ‘out there,’ but that does not imply that education must include graphic exposure to them.

Is this the way to understand Finish Well’s prohibition of any hint of evolution?  I’d love to hear from those who believe that young people should be protected from such ideas.

Look, Kids, a Real Live Conservative…

The ad hit the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday.

The University of Colorado at Boulder is looking for a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy.  Chancellor Philip DiStefano disputed criticism that this move was either a sop to politically powerful conservatives or a strategy to hire one “token” conservative on a liberal campus.

The original plan to fund a full Chair has been scaled back to a three-year pilot program to bring in prominent visiting scholars, according to a school news release.  The program hopes to bring in a prominent intellectual, not necessarily an academic, to provoke intellectual ferment on the beautiful mountain campus.  Will it work?

As we’ve discussed here recently, the notion that many public universities have been captured by the cultural, intellectual, and political left resonates strongly with many conservatives.  But we’ve also noticed that such “secular” universities are also often home to many conservative students and faculty.

Whatever the true purpose for this new program, I can’t wait to see who takes the job.  Would a young-earth creationist–no matter how distinguished–be considered intellectually respectable enough?  Or, if a young-earth thinker lays beyond the pale, could someone such as Alvin Plantinga or Darrel Falk fit the bill?  Or would the campus powers-that-be prefer a more secular thinker?  How about Paul Gottfried?

Though the university insists it would be open to a scholar as well as an activist, it seems they would prefer someone who speaks as a conservative, not just about conservatism.  That’s too bad.  Some of the most interesting university interactions might come from hiring a scholar of whatever personal beliefs, someone whose work illuminates conservatism in America.  Maybe someone like George Marsden?  Or Ron Numbers?

We’ll be watching to see what shakes out with this position.  Who do you think it should go to?  For those conservatives and scholars of conservatism out there, would you want the job?