The Real Intelligent Designer

Does it matter? Who cares if a gold-medal-winning engineering breakthrough came from a young-earth creationist? When it comes to understanding our creation/evolution debates, I think it matters a lot, especially for those of us who want more and better evolution education in our public schools.

Here’s what we know: Recently, young-earth impresario Ken Ham has crowed about the accomplishments of Professor Stuart Burgess. According to Ham, Prof. Burgess helped design a bike chain that was used by a gold-medal-winning UK cycling team. And, guess what: Professor Burgess is a committed young-earth creationist.

team-great-britian-olympic-bicycle-display

Reducible Complexity

SAGLRROILYBYGTH and others who share my obsession with all things creationist may wonder why we have to bring up this old chestnut yet again. We all know the script here. Young-earthers will trumpet the few engineers and doctors who hold young-earth beliefs. Mainstream scientists will point to the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve. If there are a few science-y creationists, there are bajillions more science-y non-creationists.

We’ve all been around and around this debate before, but I think it’s worth bringing up again. As I’m arguing in my current book, if we really want to understand American (and UK) creationism, we have to abandon the satisfying but false notion that creationism is a product of mere ignorance.

Or, to be more precise, we need to wrap our heads around the fact that there are vastly different forms of ignorance. In some cases, people simply don’t know things. In other cases, though, some types of knowledge are blocked by competing types of knowledge.

Creationists can certainly display both sorts of ignorance. Some of them might just have never heard the arguments of mainstream evolutionary science. But the fact that there are any young-earth creationists who have scored big successes in science-y fields helps prove that the real difficulty results from the second type of ignorance. Creationists can be very successful in society, even in science-related fields, even if they “know” that mainstream evolutionary theory is bogus. Even if we don’t want to admit it, Ken Ham is correct in boasting that “Professor Burgess is definitely both a real scientist and a creationist!”

We don’t need to tangle with the endless debate about whether creationism is real science, dead science, or zombie science. We don’t need to gnash our teeth and exclaim that Burgess’s scientific accomplishments happened in spite of, not because of, his creationist beliefs. The point here is different. The fact that engineers like Dr. Burgess are both successful mainstream practitioners and convinced young-earth creationists matters for different reasons.

Why does it matter? Because it reminds us that creationism is not simply the product of isolation from modern knowledge. Creationists aren’t people who simply haven’t heard about evolutionary theory or modern science. Since that’s the case, we won’t spread knowledge of evolutionary beliefs merely by making it available. We won’t successfully teach evolutionary theory to Americans unless and until we recognize the fact that creationism is more than a deficit hoping to be fixed, an emptiness waiting to be filled, a naïve lack of knowledge seeking the best modern knowledge.

As I’ve argued in my recent book (co-written with philosopher Harvey Siegel), if we really want to teach evolution in this creation nation, we need to start by understanding this central fact about American creationism.

The fact that creationist engineers like Dr. Burgess can have outstandingly successful technical careers serves as more proof that creationism is something other than a lack of knowledge about evolution. When we’re designing bike chains, it doesn’t really matter how old the earth is. It doesn’t matter that mainstream evolutionary theory offers by far the best current explanation of the ways species came to be different from one another.

What does matter—at least for those of us who are trying to understand creationism as it really is—is that creationism is not a leftover from hillbilly isolationism. Creationism isn’t the result of a lack of exposure to modern ideas. Creationism, rather, is a different way of being modern.