Opinion: Born Again Creationism

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Opinion: Born Again Creationism

by Steve Gould

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 5, September-October 1981, p. 10 — 11 & 37

Steve Gould is a professor of paleontology at Harvard University. He has written two books, Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb. 

The Resurgence of Creationism

Evolution is one of the best established, and surely one of the most exciting, concepts of science. Until recently, biologists tended to regard its persistent fundamentalist opposition in America as the dying fringes of a kooky movement, a peculiarly American form of Yahooism conjuring up images of foolish old Bryan, a dying man at the Scopes trial,1  crucified by Clarence Darrow on a cross of fact.

The laughter has ceased abruptly. Arkansas just passed an “equal time” law requiring that “scientific creationism” be granted the same exposure as evolution in high school biology curricula. Letter columns and editorials are filled with commentary about resurgent creationism. The new creationist leaders, with their advanced degrees in science and their legalistic skills, may be dishonest in argument and even malevolent, but they are surely clever and polished in rhetoric, for all the continued foolishness of their claims. 

When a movement, purporting to represent science, rises from obscurity to prominence, we generally assume that some fresh information or exciting theoretical development lies behind the renewed fervor. “Scientific” creationsim certainly presents itself in this light, with “disproofs” of radioactive dating, “evidence” of human footprints preserved on bedding planes with trilobites, and arguments about why the second law of thermodynamics makes evolution impossible—all served up in handsome volumes with such catchy titles as Evolution, The Fossils Say No!, and The Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter, published by Seagraves and Company, the folks who gave you the recent trial in Sacramento. 

Creationists claim that evolution is impossible because the second law of thermodynamics holds that order must decrease through time. They should understand by now—and I assume they do and merely raise the point dishonestly as a debating tactic—that the second law applies only to closed systems receiving no input of energy. Since the sun has been a source of vast input for more than 4 billion years, the earth is not a closed system, and order may increase.

But the creationists have nothing new to offer. The “footprints,” some potholes, and some carved for profit, have been kicking around since Scopes’ time. The thermodynamic pseudoargument, based on a willful decision to ignore the difference between closed and open systems, is another oldie but baddie. No, creationism’s resurgence is politics pure and simple. Creationism is part of the program of the evangelical right in America–and this movement, considered peripheral a decade ago, has become central in Reaganland. 

Tactics of Creationists 

The creationists lost a series of court battles between 1975 and 1978, when several statutes for “equal time” were tossed out because they violated the principle of the separation of church and state. At this point, creationists shifted gears and began to argue that their claims represented a purely scientific alternative to evolution (with only fortuitous correlation with Genesis, I assume). Yet if one simply consults their pre-1978 writings, the speciousness of such a claim is apparent—as in Duane Gish’s2statement: “We cannot discover by scientific investigations anything about the creative processes used by the Creator.” 

Nonetheless, creationists are back in court with their new act—with some success, at least in Arkansas (though I assume the courts will declare this bill unconstitutional in time). Sometimes, creationists also use the courts as publicity machines to garner attention and inspire contributions. Seagraves and his lawyers never intended to win their recent case in Sacramento. They set up the state for a big battle, won national media attention, and then successfully petitioned the judge to restrict the case to such a tiny issue that their defeat scarcely mattered. As a sidelight to a correct perception (and cowardly decision) about the politics involved, I was originally scheduled to testify for the State in this trial but was dropped as a witness by the Attorney General because he felt that my leftist politics might enhance the impression that evolution is some kind of commie plot (even with such supporters as the Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin and the Russian Orthodox Theodosius Dobzhansky). 

I am less worried about the court strategy (where, I suspect, creationists will continue to be unsuccessful despite their new claims for “science”) than the school board strategy—the county by county attempt to introduce creationist texts curricula by lobbying locally within communities. Their successes here are abetted by the cowardice (or call it good business sense!) of textbook publishers, who will incorporate almost any nonsense to win orders that may mean millions of copies. I have even heard about one book in which evolution appears as the central signature, where it can easily be pulled out by any users who wish to omit it.


Why the Right Advocates Creationism

I can understand how certain aspects of the harsh version (not Darwin’s) of Darwinism might offend some people’s concept of meaning for human life—the claim that some organisms are merely selected to increase the representation of their genes in future generations, and that all else flows from this metaphorical struggle among individuals. But the fact of evolution is a very different thing from this or any other interpretive theory of its mechanism. 

I do not see how the mere fact of evolution—the claim that all creatures are connected by ties of genealogy, or descent with modification as Darwin called it—can threaten any particular view of ethics or morality. Indeed, the fact of evolution has been embraced by ideologues of all shades. I suppose that evolution might pose some marginal threat to certain theocratic views of “right” behavior that presuppose a personal, ever-watchful God scrutinizing every bedroom and barroom in the country. But then even such a God might have established laws of the universe at the beginning (long ago) and let them govern unmolested thereafter, if only because He knew the outcome of their operation anyway. I also suppose that a general attitude of authoritarianism might be threatened by a set of facts contrary to the literal statements in a book said to be the ultimate source of all authority. But still, right wing ideology of all kinds can flourish without Christian fundamentalism (witness Nazism), and I can only conclude that the link of right wing politics to fundamentalism, (a link wanting in Europe where rightest ideology certainly flourishes) is a historical peculiarity of American culture. 

A Paradox and Conclusion 

It would be easy, but desperately wrong, merely to dismiss the creationist revival as a form of unreasoned stupidity. One may have contempt—indeed I do—for the TV preachers who fill their coffers by upholding Genesis against the world. But the growing audience for such appeals must have a reason for their allegiance. And here we encounter the greatest paradox in the upsurge of creationism: its grass-roots support, or so it seems to me, arises from correct perceptions and legitimate frustrations directed at the wrong target. It is true that educational authority has become more centralized, that community options have been reduced, and local opinion often haughtily disregarded by bureaucratic professionals at a state or national level. It is certainly true-and this magazine is virtually dedicated to saying so-that American science, as an institution, has ignored, indeed often been contemptuous of, the needs and feelings of poor, or rural, or minority peoples. Thus, when a conclusion of science is imposed upon local schools by decisions of educators in distant cities who claim to know what’s good for everyone, then the seeds of local rebellion are sown—and clever demagogues have always known how to reap the whirlwind (and bring in the cash as well as the sheaves). Still, evolution, or any fact of the world for that matter, cannot be the enemy. 

As a professional evolutionist, I am inevitably drawn into this battle. Other leftists might dismiss it as unimportant if not a bit ludicrous. But I remind everyone that creationism is just one part—perhaps a relatively small one—of the coherent political program of the evangelical right in America. The other parts—from anti-ERA, to anti-abortion, to militant (if not military) anti-communism—are more easily appreciated as threats. All parts are of a piece; all are surrogates, one for the other. We are all in this together. 

>> Back to Vol. 13, No. 5 <<


  1. In 1925, John Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was convicted under a state anti-evolution law for teaching that humans had descended from “a low order of animals.” Although the conviction was later quashed on a technicality, the trial had a chilling effect on the teaching of evolution throughout the nation and Tennessee’s law remained on the books until its repeal in 1967.
  2. Duane Gish, a director of the Institute for Creationist Research in San Diego. He holds a PhD in biology and is the leading “intellectual” of the creationist movement.