Taking on Texas

By Chris Mooney | April 1, 2009 6:35 pm

In my latest Science Progress column, I muse on the most recent developments on the anti-evolution front, and also examine the bigger picture:

In broader perspective, one might view this latest stage in our ongoing evolution conflict in the United States as presenting reasons for hope. After all, in the space of thirty years, we’ve moved from the stupendous absurdities of “creation science”—the attempt to teach students about a biblical flood having laid down the fossil record, about humans and dinosaurs living together (on the ark, among other places), and so on—to Texas’s vague, poorly written agnotology. That’s progress, if it’s to be measured merely by the substantive positions that anti-evolutionists are now forced to advocate.

However, it’s important to remember that “creation science” and “intelligent design” alike were beaten back in the courtroom, not in the court of public opinion. Legal challenges, not popular ones, have whittled down anti-evolutionism to its current lawyerly state. And unfortunately, such progress has no parallel in public surveys about evolution. There are tons of polls out there, but I’ve always preferred to rely on Gallup because, as the National Science Foundation notes, they’ve asked the same question repeatedly since 1982. And there’s no movement: 46 percent of the public agrees with the statement, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

This is not merely anti-evolutionism; it is a specific and extreme form of creationism, the so-called “young earth” variety, which relies directly on biblical literalism. Such a stance rejects the past 200 plus years of science not just in the field of evolution, but in geology and, most assuredly, cosmology, where many of the same literalists question the Big Bang. This core anti-science swath of America wants far more than to have students “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency of scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil records.” It wants its children entirely shielded from the teaching evolution, even though it has already raised them at home to doubt and disbelieve in the first place. That’s why the current, sneaky creationist language will serve its purpose: For every kid brought up to equate Darwin with a full frontal assault on religion and morality, only the slightest semblance of doubt and questioning will be seized upon and do its own work from there. Biology class won’t have any impact; the beliefs of childhood will last throughout life.

I go on to weigh what it would take to ever bring our evolution wars to an end. You can read the full column here.

Comments (13)

  1. Excellent article. I wonder if the 46% cited above also believe in a flat earth. But to be honest, many people (not the 46% though) still doubt evolution simply because they still cannot believe that such astonishing complexity can arise from simplicity. Much of this belief still arises from ignorance. For a remedy, I would strongly recommend the recent much-lauded “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne. At least as far as evolution goes, the answer really seems to be education, education, education, both for children and adults.

  2. tom

    evolution is a lie. Random mutation plus natural selection has never shown scientifically to do a dang thing. They certainly have never shown an ability to build new gross anatomy. ToE is stupid..it’s no wonder so many people don’t believe it.

  3. fil

    “evolution is a lie. Random mutation plus natural selection has never shown scientifically to do a dang thing. They certainly have never shown an ability to build new gross anatomy. ToE is stupid..it’s no wonder so many people don’t believe it.”

    I don’t want to talk to you until you learn how to do a simple search on Google Scholar.

    Unless you’re willfully ignorant and all that. In which case there is no purpose talking to you anyways.

  4. MadScientist

    What was that latin phrase: “est stultus in errore perseverant” or something like that.

    Some people just never learn – and as if that weren’t bad enough, they want everyone else to be ignorant as well.

  5. PeterS

    I have a good friend who is a fundamentalist Christian and a young earth creationist. I have learned to respect his goodness, compassion and sincerity despite his scientific blind spot. I call it a blind spot because he accepts completely the scientific method and all other findings of science. And his life is a shining example of Christian goodness in action so his sincerity cannot be questioned. We all need friends like that because we can at least learn to respect their goodness and sincerity, however bizarre their views on creationism might be.

    I make this point because talking to him has forced me to re-evaluate the debate. His religious beliefs have given meaning to his life and motivate him to lead an exemplary life where he contributes to the welfare of others. But he feels that there is a vociferous community of atheists in the science community who are aggressively attacking his core beliefs (not just creationism) and trying to destroy the meaning he has found in his life. In response he has hardened his position and substitutes polemic for discussion.

    I know this is not a useful response but it is the instinctive response of a group that feels it is under sustained attack. Having read many of the snide, derisive, derogatory and contemptuous comments that are aimed at religious people I have got some small insight into his feelings.

    So are we not perhaps, with our adversarial approach, in some small measure also to blame for what is happening in Texas?

  6. FFFearlesss

    I honestly think the reason why most people who aren’t necessarily tied down by religious dogma have trouble believing in evolution is because it really looks like a big black box of “sudden change.” That and they misunderstand how it actually works. Which is why you hear them say things like, “How could an animal suddenly realize it needs an eye.” They’re not being willfully ignorant. They’re just ignorant of how it works (in the very best sense of the word).

    That’s how I was for years. While I was religious, I never subscribed to the young earth theory. But evolution just seemed so unfathomable. In the world of occam’s razor, creation actually seemed the simpler answer. It wasn’t until I actually picked up an actual book on the topic (Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works” as it was) that I saw not only how wrong i was about how evolution worked, but, surprisingly to me, how much sense it actually made once you knew how it worked.

    Unfortunately most of the public either doesn’t care enough to look into it or is too religious to care. Either way, I think it’s our job to AS NICELY AS POSSIBLE, correct people’s mistaken notions about how evolution works. Because most of them honestly aren’t trying to be difficult. They honestly have gotten the wrong impression of how it works… and that wrong impression absolutely doesn’t make sense.

  7. XBTed

    When people experience random mutations in their genes, it’s amazing how much faith they put into science to cure their tumors. Examples of gross anatomy? How about strains of ‘super-bugs’ in hospitals that developed as a result of selection pressure due to antibiotics? Our bodies are the natural environment or those bacteria, and the environment changed; not surprisingly, the bacteria changed too. I mention bacteria because this is an organism that reproduces fast enough that you can observe evolution happening- one thing that people who don’t understand evolution usually fail to realize is that evolution is a slow process that requires organisms to reproduce. It is not the mutation mechanism of comic books, where a creature is exposed to ‘Substance-X’ and suddenly develops super powers. There is nothing ‘suddenly’ about evolution. For us to witness the change in gross anatomy of a large organism that, like an elephant, that only reproduces every several years, well, you’re talking thousands of years. Perhaps when we have thousands of years of records, then the skeptics will be satisfied. Wait, we have millions of years of records- they’re called fossils. But then again, fossils were put here by the devil to decieve us, right? I imagine if the creationists have their way, in 10,000 years their descendents will be telling their children that the written record, which will describe chnages in gross anatomy, was written by the devil too.

    It’s funny that so many people don’t believe in evolution or science, yet, you never see them go to a faith healer to cure their sickness. I believe that the creationists are so vocal about this issue because, deep down, they know what they really have faith in. I imagine that about 46% of people in this country also have no idea how an internal combustion engine works, and yet nobody questions how cars move about, or has second thoughts about taking that long road trip to a church convention.

  8. james wheaton

    Peter S says:

    “So are we not perhaps, with our adversarial approach, in some small measure also to blame for what is happening in Texas?”

    Not at all. The “adversarial approach” is a response to repeated ad nauseum attacks by the religious right on evolution using long debunked arguments. Evolution being a complex subject, as all fields of science typically are, deniers prey on the ignorance of the populace, and are also ignorant themselves – willfully so.

    Much has been written about the compatiblity of religion and evolution. This is looked upon as a crucial element in ending this ridiculous battle we have in this country. But I think a bit differently – evolution and many other fields of science are strongly tending to suggest that if there is a God, It/He/She surely doesn’t remotely resemble the Judeo-Christian God and all that entails, as described in the Old and New Testaments (and that entails alot). Imagine how scary that is to a Texas born and raised Southern Baptist who pays little if any attention to things scientific. His/her entire life is centered around their church. Most/all their friends and acquaintances go to the same church. They are planning on being reunited with their departed loved ones in heaven, and they shape their lives around doing so. So many people in red America are like this. And true – most are the nicest people you would ever want to meet. I know – I live in Tennessee where the situation is basically the same (although at the moment our school science standards are more sane).

    Much of this country is deeply religious, and that is primarily why the Gallup polls say what they way. Until religiousity begins to fade, we will continue to have this situation.

    There is an almost perfect parallel with global warming by the way, although that one is exacerbated hugely by big business interests. Deeply religious protestants believe God promised us after the flood never to ruin the earth again, etc, etc. To accept that catastrophic global warming is possible is (using Chris’s words) a “direct frontal assault” on their religious beliefs.

  9. Actually some of them would welcome global warming as the end of the world and the second coming, won’t they? On a more general note, I believe that different approaches should be adopted with different people. But one cannot be charitable toward a young earth creationist just as one cannot be charitable toward a Holocaust denier. They are denying something in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary, in spite of the other good work that they may be doing.

    The real issue is about keeping your religion to yourself. We wouldn’t really care if people did not impose their religious views on others. Unfortunately that would happen in an ideal world; in the real world the nature of religion and its associated elements (emphasis on power, authority, moral exclusivity and obedience) makes it impossible to strictly keep your religion to yourself. Therein lies the problem.

  10. tom

    I noticed nobody bothered to refute my assertion.

  11. fil

    “I noticed nobody bothered to refute my assertion.”

    I noticed you bloody well don’t know how to look up a scientific paper. What do you want? Panda’s thumb?

    http://www.pnas.org/content/103/2/379.abstract
    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2049003

    Eyeballs?

    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1994RSPSB.256…53N
    http://www.genestocellsonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/1/1/11

    Guess where you can find more PRIMARY sources: http://scholar.google.ca

    Ffs, I know of at least one article that was published in Science, and there are countless more in all likelihood. SCIENCE! If you can’t stick to the basic tenets of fact, then there is no point for further discussion.

  12. tom

    sorry, punk…none of those show evidence of mutations adding anything in the way of new gross anatomy. try again.

  13. @Tom: obviously, you don’t know what “mutations” means, neither than “anatomy” and “evidence”. Or, you haven’t read any of those sources. Or, you are one of those who continue April Fool’s day during all April.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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