Evolution Proves Creationism

It’s difficult for people like me to understand. How is it possible in this day and age that so many of my fellow Americans deny a basic fact of modern science? How is it possible that a significant proportion of American adults—even college-educated adults—think that our species was created de novo about 6,000 years ago in an Iraqi garden? A recent review of the psychology of denialism offers one challenging suggestion: Human brains evolved to remain creationist.

Denialism better

I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death my ability not to hear it…

As I’m arguing in my new book, the usual explanations just don’t hold water. The Richard Dawkinses of the world tend to think of creationism—at least the radical young-earth kind—as a kind of simple deficit. As Dawkins famously opined in 1989, creationists would have to be

ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

For those of us who understand the history and nature of America’s radical young-earth creationists, Dawkins’ dismissal doesn’t fit the evidence. Even if we are staunchly anti-creationist, if we’re paying attention we can’t help but notice that plenty of creationists know a lot about evolutionary theory. They are clearly intelligent and in possession of their mental faculties. And they might be wicked, that doesn’t seem to be a primary factor in their creationism.

A recent review article in The Economist points in a more promising direction. Studies show that people will usually accept a financial penalty rather than listening to arguments from the other side. They often compare the experience of listening to opposing viewpoints to “having a tooth pulled.”

enigma of reason

The evolution of creationism…

Why? Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that human reason is not the engine of pure enlightenment it is often considered. Instead, reasoning evolved as a way to encourage group cooperation. In their words,

What reason does . . . is help us justify our beliefs and actions to others . . . and evaluate the justifications and arguments that others address to us.

What does this have to do with the durability of radical young-earth creationism? In spite of the accusations of angry Oxonians like Richard Dawkins, creationists have not abandoned their ability to reason and weigh evidence. Rather, if these cognitive psychologists are correct, human reasoning ability will tend to lead to greater in-group cohesion.

The brains of radical creationists tend to favor evidence that supports the dominant views of their group. They tend to dismiss evidence and arguments that go against them. This isn’t something unique to creationists. All our brains work in similar fashion. We don’t weigh facts evenly or dispassionately. We don’t even hear them that way. Rather, our brains seem hard-wired to accept facts that help us fit in with our groups.

In short, why are so many Americans creationists? Because they evolved that way.

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Can Science Oppose Heresy?

In a sense, it’s as old as Galileo. In another, though, our question today shows the uniquely modern state of our current culture-war climate. Can someone stand up for science by opposing heresy? If we really want to understand culture-war thinking, we need to make sense of the ways they can, even if we don’t agree with them.

ramm science scripture

MUST science denial be heresy?

A conservative lament about gender-bending school policy brings this question to our attention. Ideas about gender fluidity, Margot Cleveland argues, turn otherwise intelligent people into thugs and morons. In her view, insisting that young people can and should be able to identify their own genders is both “science denial and heresy.”

I don’t agree, but that’s not the main point here. More important, I want to know how any idea can do those do things at once. How can an idea—any idea—claim to be both religiously and scientifically orthodox?

For secular people like me, it seems like a contradiction, a paradox. Yet for conservative religious intellectuals, this notion has long been both obvious and vitally true.

After all, in the street-level, Bill-Nye sense of the word, “Science” can’t really care about heresy or orthodoxy. As Neil deGrasse Tyson defines it, “Science” means the opposite of such things. In his words,

Science discovers objective truths. These are not established by any seated authority, nor by any single research paper. . . . Meanwhile, personal truths are what you may hold dear, but have no real way of convincing others who disagree, except by heated argument, coercion or by force. . . . in science, conformity is anathema to success.

Before we talk about Cleveland’s claims about heresy and science, let’s acknowledge a few things to start.

  • First, for the past fifty years or so, philosophers and historians have challenged Tyson’s simplistic definition of science. One person’s voodoo might be another’s science, and so on. Fair enough.
  • And some pundits might say that Cleveland was talking about a merely coincidental agreement between her idea of religious orthodoxy and science. That is, she might be saying that religious orthodoxies about eternal, unchanging, God-assigned gender identities happen to be biologically true as well. She might only be saying people are born with a certain set of sex characteristics and it is not scientifically nor religiously true that they can change their gender identity at will.

Those things make sense to me, but they don’t get to the heart of our dilemma. The interesting question, the difficult question is whether or not heresy and science denial can really go together as a general rule.

When it comes to the questions of evolution, climate change, sexuality, and now gender identity, conservative religious thinkers have long argued that they can. Indeed, that they must. To my mind, it is this point that is most important. If secular people like me want to really understand conservative religious thinking, we need to try harder to understand this logic. To me, it seems obviously false. To many people, though, it is compelling.

It is not only fundamentalist young-earthers who have made this case. Consider the most famous creationist dissenter from young-earth thinking, Bernard Ramm. In the 1950s, Ramm shattered the complacency of fundamentalist science with his blockbuster book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture.

In some ways, Ramm’s anti-young-earth work can be said to have sparked the modern young-earth renaissance. After all, it was in furious response to Ramm that John Whitcomb Jr. penned the young-earth counter-blockbuster The Genesis Flood in 1961.

Ramm denounced young-earth fundamentalist thinking in no uncertain terms. Young-earthers, whom Ramm called the “hyperorthodox,” missed the point of both science and scripture. Ramm explained,

If the theologian teaches that the earth is the center of the solar system, or that man first appeared on the earth at 4004 BC, or that all the world was submerged under water at 4004 BC and had been for unknown millennia, he is misinterpreting Scripture and bringing Scripture into needless conflict with science.

Instead, Ramm argued religious thinkers needed to reclaim their roles as scientific leaders. Real science, decent science, productive science, Ramm insisted, needed to be guided by the “light of revelation.” Without it, science could only be either “cheap or ironical.”

What does any of this have to do with gender-identity curriculum in California or Indiana? The way I see it, we have two ways to interpret arguments like the one made by Margot Cleveland. Either she is saying that religious truth and scientific inquiry happen to agree about gender identity, or she is making the much stronger case that religious truth and scientific truth must always agree about everything.

For those of us outside the world of conservative religious thinking, this second argument is very difficult to comprehend or even to recognize. Many of us default to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s heresy-promoting vision of true science. If we want to understand our religious friends and neighbors, though, we need to understand a world in which heresy is the very heart of science denialism.