Pharyngula

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 FtB)