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Creationism evolves by jerks

I think one thing Razib says is exactly right:

One of the most interesting things to me is the nature of Creationism as an idea which evolves in a rather protean fashion in reaction to the broader cultural selection pressures.

Creationism has evolved significantly, but it’s not exactly protean: it’s punctuated equilibrium. If we had a time machine and could bring a typical creationist who came to age after Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood face-to-face with a pre-Scopes trial creationist, there would be a fabulously ferocious fight, because their theology and their basic beliefs would be so radically different. They do change in response to the environment, but reluctantly and not without a lot of hysteresis.

I’d say there were four major shifts in the last century.

  • The Scopes trial, 1925. Even though the creationists nominally won this case, it was a public relations disaster for them: this was the polarizing event that split the country into the righteous rubes and the smug scientists.

  • The Genesis Flood, 1961. The creationists struck back with this popular book of pseudoscience, in which miscellaneous myths drawn from sources such as the Seventh Day Adventists were laundered and whitewashed and propped up with sciencey talk, in addition to religious justifications. You want to understand modern creationists? Read this. It’s the new dogma, and it’s what Ken Ham and Kent Hovind preach.

  • McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982. This was a major defeat for the creationists, and provoked a new change in tactics: skulking. They realized they couldn’t be quite so brazen in the courtroom anymore, and so began an era in which they’d claim the mantle of science more and more. They were still making the Genesis Flood arguments, but they’d hide away the Bible references.

  • Intelligent Design creationism, 1990. One could argue that this is just more post-McLean shifting, but the Discovery Institute, Bill Dembski, and Michael Behe did greatly influence the rhetoric. “Specified complexity,” “irreducible complexity,” and “teach the controversy” became the new catch phrases.

Where I disagree with Razib, though, is in his impression of eloquence in this clip of Richard Land defending creationism. Maybe it’s because I’m so familiar with this stuff, but I was completely unimpressed: he may have spoken confidently, but the impression of fluidity is false, because that was a rote recital of done-to-death creationist talking points. It was Duane Gish spiced with a superficial seasoning of Michael Behe, a lot of 1961 mixed with a bit of glib 1990s, and rather than supporting the idea of a flexible creationism that evolves in response to cultural pressures, that was a beautiful example of stasis.

Here are Land’s arguments distilled down:

  • “significant majority of Americans don’t believe [in evolution]“. Slightly less than half, actually, but I think it was a fair point in defense of Rick Perry’s denial of evolution as a pragmatic political move. But still, it’s part of an ancient and fallacious argumentum ad populum. That uninformed people believe in something doesn’t make it true.

  • “I believe in evolution within species, don’t believe in Darwinian theory of origins.” This is extremely standard creationist tripe, I’ve been hearing it for ages. Modern creationists blithely accept a kind of hyperevolution within “kinds” and erect imaginary boundaries to delimit it. You’ll hear this story in Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum”, for instance. It ignores the fact of molecular evidence linking whole phyla together.

  • “It takes far more faith to believe nothing became something than to believe in a Creator.” Tired. Old. Boring. Yeah, I’m supposed to find it easier to believe in a magic invisible superman that I’ve never seen than to believe in natural forces that I see in operation every day.

  • “irreducible complexity.” This has become a stock phrase reduced to meaninglessness — it sounds impressive, though! These are the creationists’ new magic words. I suspect that Land doesn’t really understand the concept, let alone that it has been refuted.

  • “Single celled organisms that Darwin could not know about because those microscopes hadn’t been invented yet.” Oh, please. Microscopes had achieved the theoretical limit of resolution (the Rayleigh limit) in the 19th century. Darwin had microscopes that were just as powerful as the high-end scope sitting on my lab bench today, although he wouldn’t have had the range of contrast-generation techniques we now enjoy. Darwin wrote papers about microorganisms.

I would grant Razib the point that creationists do know how to lie boldly, which allows them to sail through unchallenged in many situations. The clip is a good example: it’s from a bloggingheads dialog with Amy Sullivan, that apologist for liberal Christianity, who looks on like a stunned fish while Land regurgitates creationist tropes, and then ignores all the wrongness to move on to a completely different point.

I think that’s another source of the impression of eloquence: too often, creationists are paired with incompetent or unprepared opponents who grant them the privilege of lying smoothly. If Sullivan had a bit of wit or even a tiny bit of knowledge about what Land was saying, he could have been exposed as a dishonest fraud fairly easily. And that would have been entertaining.

(Also on Sb)

Comments

  1. Carlie says

    For a minute I thought you were saying that creationism incorporated punctuated equilibrium into ID, and was wondering how that could happen! :D *need caffeine*

    *usability comment: I see the “read more” link right on top of the octopus, which means I don’t see the “read more” link. I was about to comment and then suddenly the rest showed up!

  2. raven says

    Religions evolve too. Anyone today following a biblical lifestyle would be doing multiple life sentences in prison. Warren Jeffs of the FLDS tried that and got life + 20 years.

    So does the bible. Every time someone decides to rewrite it, they just do a retranslation. And stick in whatever they think they can get away with.

    One of the most blatant rewrites is the fundie bible, NIV.

    In another few centuries, jesus will be a cowboy wandering through the south central USA with his gang, horse, and trusty gun, peacemaker.

  3. etcetera says

    As I read your post, I couldn’t help but wonder how ID would evolve after Kitzmiller v. Dover. It doesn’t appear to be changing at all but then again, I wasn’t alive to witness the fallout from the previous trials you mentioned. Did creationists simply spout the same garbage that had been dismissed in court until they found another big idea or have they suddenly decided that the courts are too contentious and that it may be easier to elect politicians to change laws?

  4. Martin Burn says

    Recently I watched a multi-part documentary on the BBC called ‘Cell’ (I think it was that – correct me if I am wrong). The loon in the video is quite wrong about microscopy. Red blood cells were discovered in Europe late in the 17th century, and micro-organisms in the 18th.

    The early microscope was a razor blade sized contraption with a small glass bead as a lens, and given some practice with it was very effective.

  5. David Marjanović, OM says

    the 19th century

    That’s the century Darwin lived in. ~:-| When in the 19th century was the Rayleigh limit reached? Or is that a typo for the 18th (which would surprise me)?

  6. sandiseattle, intrigued says

    Martin Burn: “The early microscope was a razor blade sized contraption with a small glass bead as a lens, and given some practice with it was very effective.”

    Cite, that would be interesting to see, pics maybe?

  7. says

    , is in his impression of eloquence in this clip of Richard Land defending creationism.

    please note i’m grading on a creationist curve :-) land’s style of delivery has i think been polished on people like amy sullivan. he doesn’t need to go into detail with the choir. the lack of stumbling suggests that he’s done this enough time with people like amy sullivan that he has some confidence in it. i’ve seen it happen as a third person myself before i had to jump to stop the nonsense in real life (after having to waste my time at this, the creationist blusters and ceases their stream of drivel).

  8. says

    Airy worked out the theoretical requirements for reaching the limit of resolution in 1835. Zeiss and Abbe and Schott were making lenses and condensers in the 1860s-1880s that met the theoretical limits. Darwin’s personal microscope almost certainly did not meet the Rayleigh criterion, but then mine doesn’t either — you often have to trade off resolution for contrast. But you don’t need 200nm resolution to see 50µm diameter cells!

  9. says

    “I believe in evolution within species, don’t believe in Darwinian theory of origins.”

    But why do they believe in evolution within “kinds” (which often include many species)? Is it the evidence of relatedness, even of small “trees”?

    You mean, the same kind of evidence that leads the unbiased to accept “macroevolution”?

    How stupid to treat the same kind of evidence differently!

    And in all truth, creationism doesn’t so much evolve as get reinvented occasionally. True, that’s close enough to the “evolution” that we see in, say, autos, pottery, and culture, but it’s not too much like biological evolution, which is slavishly derivative.

    Glen Davidson

  10. says

    Oh, and the real breakthrough in optical resolution was an appreciation of the importance of the condenser — thank Abbe for that. The other crucial stuff going on was working out the chemical properties of optical glass which allowed the development of plan and apochromatic lenses. All that was going on in the last half of the 19th century.

    Resolution was the triumph of 19th century microscopists. The 20th century was the era of contrast generation techniques: Zernicke and phase, epifluorescence, all that cool stuff.

    The history of microscopy has been a hobby of mine for a long time…I should probably do a post or three on it sometime.

  11. Phil says

    “It takes far more faith to believe nothing became something than to believe in a Creator.” Yeah, I’m supposed to find it easier to believe in a magic invisible superman that I’ve never seen than to believe in natural forces that I see in operation every day.

    I’ll use that myself next time I hear that stupid argument.

  12. Smoochie says

    “They do change in response to the environment, but reluctantly and not without a lot of hysteria

    Fixed that for ya.

  13. says

    The history of microscopy has been a hobby of mine for a long time…I should probably do a post or three on it sometime.

    Yes, please.
    It’s mildly amusing that religiously inclined people would point to the microscope to refute Darwin; as I recall, one of the earlier accomplishments of microscopy was to show that maybe something other than demons was causing some of our sicknesses.
    I’ve always been interested in optical devices that show us the stuff we can’t see with our naked eyes; when I was nine years old, I asked for a microscope for Christmas. It was great fun, and a great learning experience, until I stuck that insect in there. Aiiieeeee, that face!

  14. Mr. Fire says

    And yet, even with your amazing microscoperydoodles, have you ever seen a single cell evolving into a crocoduck?

    I think not.

    The sad irony therefore is that microscopes disprove evolution.

    Checkmate, Darwinistz!!1!

  15. Martin Burn says

    Sandiseattle:

    I just did a GIS of the Leeuwenhoek microscope. Pictures of the wee beasties were found in great numbers. Exactly what you are looking for I expect. BTW, the whole ‘Cell’ series is on YouTube – just type in ‘BBC cell’ in the searchbox. Enjoy!

  16. John Lennox says

    I am always bemused by the absolute cluelessness of creationists who claim to accept “microevolution” within “kinds” or species but reject what they refer to as macroevolution, that is, evolutionary processes connecting “higher” taxa such as famly, order, and phylum. If one accepts their premiss that 6000 years ago there were on the order of a few thousand kind progenetors (some claim 10,000), then the many millions of species extant today have evolved from these 10,000 in only a few thousand years. This necessitates a rate of evolution that no biologist could even begin to contemplate. Will the real evolutionist please stand up?

  17. Christophe Thill says

    “I believe in evolution within species, don’t believe in Darwinian theory of origins.”

    This is extremely significant, in my opinion. From what I gather, I understand that one of the major thought revolutions brought by evolution theory is (as Mayr says) “populational thinking”. Before that, you had “types”, with variations around them. In the manner of the old Greek philosophy, you could call the variations “accidental”, and the type “essential”. The type was the true reality. A very idealistic view, and theism is never far (you just have to call types “ideas in the mind of God”).

    After Darwin, and especially the modern synthesis, the types have gone. Variation is the true reality. You can describe a type, but it will only be a statistical average, not a superior reality from which everything derives. And the spread of variation is as important as the mean or mode around which it varies.

    Of course, creationists have a vital need of types. Fixed, real types. Platonician ideals. God’s archetypes. They never learned to think differently, and they can’t even understand where the problem is…

  18. peterh says

    At long last! Empirical evidence that with each “step,” degradation of the transmitted information takes place! But only within certain “kinds.”

    @ raven: “jesus will be a cowboy wandering through the south central USA with his gang, horse, and trusty gun, peacemaker.”

    You mean with horse & Colt? Hasn’t there been a scenario quite like this already?

  19. abb3w says

    etcetera: As I read your post, I couldn’t help but wonder how ID would evolve after Kitzmiller v. Dover. It doesn’t appear to be changing at all but then again, I wasn’t alive to witness the fallout from the previous trials you mentioned.

    My impression is that the latest tactic is the “teach the controversy”, which first arose (circa 2000) in association with the (1987-present) “intelligent design”. Intelligent design is still a widely-held conception of the origin, however, despite its lack of scientific merit and legally problematic status; I’m not sure which is more prevalent.

  20. says

    In another few centuries, jesus will be a cowboy wandering through the south central USA with his gang, horse, and trusty gun, peacemaker.

    That’s old news. Check out the Book of Mormon. Granted, I don’t think Jesus has a six shooter, but all the rest is there: Jesus in America, Jesus baptizing the multitudes, horses running wild a thousand years before they were reintroduced.

  21. NateHevens says

    Wait. Couldn’t we say there was another “evolutionary” shift in Creationism after the Scopes trial in which Michael Behe and “Irreducible Complexity” were exposed as frauds?

    “Irreducible Complexity” may be their magic words, but they’ve also become much more guarded about those words, as well. Behe himself was forced to admit that he accepted Darwinian Evolution (even if he used the words “comment descent” instead).

  22. Hypatia's Daughter says

    One (in)famous YouTube CreoIDer harps on morphology. Ya’see, for macroevolution to take place you have to have a change in morphology – the shape & structure of an animal. (He doesn’t seem to think that the changes in the digestive system going from an herbivore to a carnivoir is a morphological change.)
    Which led me (a non-biologist) to wonder: “What is the morphological difference between a cat and a dog?” Don’t they have the same form and structure but with only minor variations, i.e aren’t there more morphological differences between all the members of the Cat family or all the members of the Dog family than between the Cat and the Dog families? Aren’t they almost morphologically identical?

  23. says

    Unsinkable rubber ducks… though if one believes they’re doing the work of God, then is it surprising that they’re completely dishonest? The higher purpose is to win souls for Jesus, not for accurately conveying the current state of knowledge in science.

  24. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    Creationism is a result of Biblical literalism, one of the components of Christian fundamentalism. This religious ideology was essentially invented in the 1880s as a reaction to modernism. The creationists are specifically denying science because it lacks god. However in the US, because of the pesky First Amendment, they can’t push creationism in schools, it’s too obviously religious.

    The creationists have been trying since just after World War I to find the perfect method of dethroning first evolution, then biology, then every other science which can’t be supported by Biblical literalism.* They keep running into legal problems** and so they keep tweaking the ways to get creationism into public schools and force evolution out.

    Someone should tell Phil Plait that if the creationists are successful against evolution, then it’ll be his turn to be a dick.

    *That’s all of them.

    **The creationists have apparently solved the public relations and political questions involved in getting their religious views accepted by large numbers of the general population.

  25. echidna says

    After Darwin, and especially the modern synthesis, the types have gone. Variation is the true reality.

    Something clicked when I read this. You know the feeling – there is no new information that you can put your finger on, but your understanding feels more integrated somehow. Thanks, Christophe.

  26. Carbon Based Life Form says

    When I have discussed creationism with creationists, I keep trying to pin down their vocabulary. I still do not have a meaningful definition of words such as “kind”, “transitional form”, or even “Darwinism”. It’s quite difficult to find out just what they mean when even they don’t appear to know.

  27. NateHevens says

    @ William Bell (post #33): “I think your thinking of Dover not Scopes (wrong century).”

    You’re right. I was thinking of Dover.

    *sits in corner with dunce cap on*

  28. peterh says

    @ #34

    There are also some ultra-fundamentalist Jews who subscribe to what seems exactly like the xian creationism sans messiah.

  29. tim Rowledge says

    “If creationism evolved, why are they still monkeys!?!?”
    Witty, but wrong question – If Imbecilic* Design evolved from creationism, why are there still creationists?
    Evidently a new kind (or should I say baramin?) of irrational creation myth speciated from simple creationitis dimwitticus to fill a newly exploitable niche where the explanation needed to sound all sciency. Since the original ecological niche still exists, the original creatosaur line kept going with minor changes.
    [*]I think we’ve demonstrated on many occasions that ID must mean imbecilic since there wreak many patently crap’ design’ examples.

  30. says

    My problem with dealing with creationists is that ultimately it comes down to trying to shake the superficially plausible notion that design has a designer. In some way, the creationist insistance on there being a designer is understandable – it’s just without having a scientific ‘theory of design’ that notion isn’t at all scientific. The conversation time and time again devolves to ‘how can you explain *all* this without a designer?’ as though design and designers are givens and aren’t amenable to scientific qualification.

    worse still is that the designer is just shorthand for God, something wrapped up in a believer’s ego, and denial of the design argument amounts to saying God doesn’t exist. The response I often get is ‘you can’t show God *didn’t* do it’ as though it’s somehow as reasonable to believe that ‘God did it’ as opposed to ‘it evolved’.

  31. kantalope says

    #1- Lots of people believe: yes, lots of people believe a lot of weird stuff. But I think that this is related to why Amy Sullivan could/would not argue with Land: (this is also related Carbon’s trying to pin down the meaning of many of these arguments) confronting these arguments requires more than a general knowledge of evolution and biology it requires precise knowledge of how those words are used in real science, how they are different for creationists and what those words mean in common usage too. That is a lot of unpacking and explaining and specialized knowledge. Unfortunately, the words are closer in meaning from common to creationist than from either to the specific scientific meanings. That means the creationist position makes more intuitive sense.

    #3- “It takes far more faith to believe nothing became something than to believe in a Creator.” Never got this. Where did this creator come from? Nowhere? Somewhere else? How is this nowhere man any different from nothing? Instead of one impossible thing I need to believe two and one of those is magic? Nope, don’t get it.

  32. Robert B. says

    When you say “hysteresis,” do you mean that the change has cost energy and released metaphorical heat, or that it’s not exactly reversible even if you reverse the changes to the environment?

  33. Samantha Vimes, Chalkboard Monitor says

    (I can’t believe no one has said this). I agree with the headline. The guys evolving new versions of Creationism are real jerks!

  34. CS Miller says

    When were organelles first discovered?
    The wikipedia article dates the term to 1884, two years after Darwin’s death.

    This indicates that plant nuclei were discovered in 1833, and mitosis was described between 1874 and 1882. However, the article does not indicate when other organelles were discovered.

  35. David Marjanović, OM says

    The history of microscopy has been a hobby of mine for a long time…I should probably do a post or three on it sometime.

    Yes yes yesssss!!!

  36. SallyStrange says

    Oooh, I LOVE reading about the HISTORY of science. It fascinates me more than science itself, because it juxtaposes the actual knowledge gained by science with the human dimension of irrationality, resistance to change, wonder, curiosity, etc.

    Excellent idea!