Saturday, August 01, 2009

Just In Case You Missed It

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” That was an observation expressed by H.L. Mencken, who is described in Wikipedia as being “regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the 20th century.” Mr. Mencken has been dead for over 50 years, yet his mostly satirical, acerbic, and critical comments on American life and culture still resonate today –– but more on him later. The above phrase came to mind as I reviewed a collection of articles I had archived over the past several months that deal with a rather contentious subject; the argument by some, that Darwin’s theory of evolution is invalid, should not be taught in the schools as fact, and that some form of “creationism” or a watered down version called “intelligent design” should be included in the schools’ curriculum.

Religion and Politics

There’s an old axiom that says if you want to keep your friends, unless you know for certain that you agree on the issues, never discuss politics or religion. However, when it comes to a discussion of evolution and creationism, both religion and politics are fatefully entwined. Interest in the subject seems to ebb and flow primarily based on the activities of the Creationists who believe that God created man in his image within the last 10,000 years, and dismiss Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The evidence for their view of how humans evolved is essentially the result of unquestionable acceptance of the bible and a literal belief in the tales therein.

But not all Christians are in agreement. In fact, in March of this year the Vatican admitted that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution should not have been dismissed in the past, and proclaimed (as it had previously) it is compatible with the Catholic view of creation. In addition there was a most interesting comment by Cardinal William Levada, a Vatican spokesman, who attacked “those who have a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible which they want to see taught to their children in the schools alongside evolution, or instead of it.”

The Monkey Trial

The subject also gained additional impetus in March since that was the 200 th birthday of Darwin and also the 150 th anniversary of the publishing of his seminal work, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. That the subject has religious as well as political undertones is inescapable since there have been numerous court decisions citing creationism as religious dogma, and also deemed attempts to teach it in the school systems unconstitutional. The political aspect arose during the recent presidential election when three Republican candidates affirmed their belief in a literal interpretation of the bible and its story of creation. However, the most famous controversy took place in 1925 during what has been termed the “Monkey Trial,” sometimes called the Trial of the Century, made all the more famous in the movie, Inherit the Wind. The trial, pitting William Jennings Bryan (Frederic March) against Clarence Darrow (Spencer Tracy), examined the legality of a Tennessee law banning the teaching of evolution in the school system. It was H.L. Mencken, long time reporter and editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun who suggested that Clarence Darrow, a zealous agnostic, defend Scopes. It was also Mencken who christened the trial as the “monkey trial,” and who coined the phrase the “bible belt.”

Darrow’s objective was to have the jury bring in a guilty verdict so he could appeal to the state Supreme Court and obtain a decision there that the law to prohibit the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional. He got only half his wish in that the case did reach the Supreme Court of Tennessee only to be thrown out on a technicality. It was not until 43 years later, in 1968, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled accordingly. In fact, since 1968, 17 federal and state court decisions have ruled for the teaching of evolution, finding the teaching of creationism unconstitutional. Yet the degree to which public opinion favors the concept of Creationism is remarkable, and to some, quite troubling.

Museum or Amusement Park?

A most unusual manifestation of the power of Creationism was the erection, in May 2007, of a Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, a small town a dozen miles from the Cincinnati airport. This was no small undertaking; the construction consists of a 70,000 square foot building on a 49-acre plot at a cost of $27 million. In the slightly more than two years since its construction the museum has attracted over 750,000 visitors, significantly more than even the builders of the museum anticipated.

The objective of the museum is twofold: first, to denigrate the concept of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution; second, to promote the concept of Creationism, the basis of which maintains that everything written in the Old Testament’s chapter of Genesis is to be accepted as literal truth. Interestingly, the museum is not at all hesitant to admit to this aspect of its existence. Its suspension of belief in scientific facts is best described in its own paper form that volunteers must sign off on before they can be hired. The form is titled, “Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith.” It states: “By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history, and chronology can be valid if it contradicts the Scripture record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all the information.” In other words, valid scientific evidence, verifiable and empirical though it may be, must be ignored and disbelieved if it rejects, or disagrees with biblical writ.

The Dinosaur Dilemma

Let’s examine what some consider one of the most egregious and nonsensical aspects of the museum’s exhibits. It must first be established that the format is more entertainment theme park than museum, with many of the displays created by a former designer for Universal Studios, who designed exhibits for Jaws and King Kong. Thus, the so-called museum features life size dinosaur models, many of them animatronic. Elaborate, and very professionally designed dioramas display dinosaurs living side by side with humans; one for example, in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve; another showing dinosaurs being loaded into Noah’s Ark. The Creationism doctrine maintains that all creatures were created within the six days of creation, and that occurred 6,000 years ago, according to the museum’s time frame. By believing that doctrine, it is therefore logical for Creationists to accept that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. However, last year a new and more precise method of the dating of dinosaur extinction was discovered by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. This establishes the unassailable fact that the extinction date for dinosaurs is 65.9 million years ago, give or take 40,000 years. Apparently true Creationists must ignore this evidence.

It is obvious to many, that rejecting empirical evidence does not do much to establish credibility for Creationist beliefs, particularly when compared to scientific facts. In addition, public sentiment relating to respect for science and scientists as a group is quite high. A recent Pew Research poll (July 2009) reveals “Americans like science. Overwhelming majorities [94%] say that science has had a positive effect on society and that science has made life easier for most people. Most also say that government investment in science as well as engineering and technology, pay off in the long run.” The survey also confirms that “Scientists are very highly rated compared with members of other professions; only members of the military and teachers are more likely to be viewed as contributing a lot to society’s well being.”

A Baffling Inconsistency

Here is where we face a puzzling contradiction; if the general public believes so emphatically about science and scientists, how is it that a significant percentage of the population rejects the scientific evidence and believes that “Creationism, that is, the idea that God created humans (as well as all other creatures) pretty much in their present form, at one time, within the last 10,000 years”? That is the question posed in Gallup polls over a period from 1982 to 2008. The result in 1982 showed 44% of the poll respondents agreed with that Creationism statement; the assumption that over those 28 years, the enormous number of scientific advances might have influenced public opinions would prove to be overly optimistic. The latest poll shows that same 44% percent still believe in Creationism.

Mankind’s Folly

In January of this year, the McClatchy Washington Bureau published an article titled “Evolution war still rages 200 years after Darwin’s birth.” It went on to provide a slightly different interpretation of the numbers cited above, stating: “Public opinion surveys consistently have shown that Americans are deeply divided over evolution. The most recent Gallup poll on the issue, in June 2007, found that 49 percent of those surveyed said they believe in evolution, and 48 percent said they didn’t. Those percentages have stayed almost even for at least 25 years.” The next sentence might be interesting to some: “Gallup found a political angle to the split. Two thirds of Republicans rejected Darwin’s theory, while majorities of Democrats and political independents accepted it.” The article then referred to a Harris poll conducted last December that found that “more people believe in a devil, hell and angels than in evolution.”

H.L Mencken was noted for creating a large number of axioms including the one at the very beginning of this article. Here is another one that seems most appropriate to end it: “The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”


At 11:37 PM, Blogger NHB said...

A fantastic blog posting.

I think it is worth noting that the belief in Creationism, carries with it, the implicit (or at the very least a highly correlated) denial of another set of scientific facts: man-induced climate change.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Howard said...


Thanks again for another interesting read. As I nearly always find myself on the same side of issues as you (as I am on the evolution vs. creationism issue), there's not always much for me to write about.

I do not believe in the Bible, certainly not as a literal document. However, there are those who do, and one has to respect their right to do so. I have recently come across an interesting suggestion that reconciles the Bible creation story with science - that is that we do not know what the concept of "day" means in the Bible. A day could have been a very long time, and in fact I've seen some scientific discussion recently that says that the earth did not rotate much on its axis until struck by a large asteroid, which would make days very long. If the seven days of creation are stretched over millenia, they are not that different in sequencing from Darwinian evolution.

The remaining difference is the agent in charge of the sequencing (God vs natural selection). There are those that see the hand of God in everything, and there are those who think the Universe is just chaotic, and there are those in-between.

I don't that that question is reconcilable because it depends on how you define "God". Is God a supreme being existing outside of time and space? Is God a giant alien looking through a microscope at the Petri dish we inhabit? Is God in the infinite paths available to subatomic particles?

Personally, the answer doesn't matter, and I don't think that an attempt to teach an answer should be made. What does matter is that we humans use scientific methods to understand the path our genesis has taken. Dogma instead of evidence is of no use to me.


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