Another Review of Among the Creationists

Adam Laats is an assistant professor of education and history at SUNY Binghamton, and he is the author of Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America's Culture Wars. Over at his blog, he has posted a review of Among the Creationists. So, what did he think?

Rosenhouse's book is required reading for any outsider who hopes to understand the world of American creationism in the twenty-first century. Rosenhouse deliberately eschews the simple, satisfying approach of most outsiders. He does not belittle or deride these ideas or their adherents, though he does forcefully argue against them.

Score! Anything else?

So stop reading this tripe and go get yourself a copy of Rosenhouse’s book. For those of you who are creationists or recovering creationists, the volume will give you a sense of how the movement appears to a socially pleasant but intellectually hostile outsider. To us outsiders—liberals, scientists, and others who have only tangential knowledge about American creationism—this book is an absolute must read. It joins other indispensable books in this field, such as Ron Numbers’ The Creationists, George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, and Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods as starting places to understand this durable culture war battlefield.

Double score!

The comments thread makes for some interesting reading as well. A creationist troll calling himself ChazIng showed up to spew some venom in my general direction. Normally I would ignore such a thing, but in this case his criticisms are so amusingly demented that I thought it might be worth providing a few counterpoints.

He seems to have based his opinion of the book on a few pages he found at Google Preview. That leads him to say things like this:

Ch 2 contains the term “superficial sophistication” without explanation of the specifics and he seems to conflate ID with YEC and then YEC with fundamentalism.

Actually, Chapter 15, which bears the subtle title “Intelligent Design vs. Young-Earth Creationism,” is all about the distinctions between the two. Even taking Chapter 2 in isolation, however, shows that ChazIng is making stuff up. I describe ID as a softer form of creationism, which it is. Later I imply, but do not explicitly state, that YEC is one part of “the strongest forms of fundamentalist beliefs,” which, again, it is. There are no false conflations to be found here.

Here's something else that made me smile:

Ch 5 shows Rosenhouse relishing in gross theological ignorance. He makes no attempt to obtain more first-hand information about the views he disparages or to engage the wealth of scholarly theological books and articles which he can easily source from his library.

Chapter 5 addresses a few general problems I have with religion. It is from the book's introductory section, in which I was merely setting the stage for the rest of the book. Just so that there could be no reasonable misunderstanding of what I was doing, the chapter includes the following paragraph:

Let me stress at the outset that it is not my intention here to develop a comprehensive philosophical argument for the views I profess. Some of the issues I raise shall be dealt with more carefully elsewhere in the book, but this chapter's main purposes are simply to tell you what I believe and to give some indication of why I believe it.

Since Chapters 14, 18, 24, 26 and 27 are all specifically about the scholarly theological and philosophical literature on science and religion, I'd say ChazIng's criticism falls a bit flat. My book of barely 200 pages has more than 300 items in its bibliography. A quick perusal of my references will show that I discuss every major theologian and philosopher of religion that has discussed the evolution issue, and quite a few minor ones as well.

But ChazIng is especially incensed by my lack of respect for Werner Gitt, a prominent YEC who has made some very dubious claims about the concept of information. ChazIng writes:

Rosenhouse's chapter on Gitt is a rehash from a 2005 post here (is that legal?): []. He claims that Gitt stated that (1.) “mutations ALWAYS degrade information” and (2.) he would be refuted if someone were to “produce a single natural mechanism that could increase the information content of the genome” and (3.) that a main creationist argument was the same as point (1.).

First, point 3 is incorrect unless he is talking about pop-creationism […]. Second, Gitt (2000) states: “This idea is central in representations of evolution, but mutations can only cause changes in existing information. There can be no increase in information, and IN GENERAL the results are injurious.” He said this in the year 2000, some 5 years BEFORE meeting Rosenhouse. Third, I have sent an email to for a response from Gitt. I hope he responds.

Now, even if a duplicated gene mutates, that shows a statistical increase in information (as Gitt himself has stated). However, does the mutation (or accumulations thereof) add novel function? If Rosenhouse has examples of this, that would be great. He states that there are “several well-known mechanisms which can lead to an increase in information content” but only lists one: “duplication and divergence.” His argument that if A mutates to B and then mutates back to A “must represent a gain of information” is a macro-evolutionary non-sequitur as A was originally coded and there is no new functionality despite informational `increase.' This is just too silly coming from an academic and confirms (for me at least) that one should not trust a mathematician on practical science.

Gitt, W. 2000. In the Beginning was Information. CLV: Bielefeld, Germany: 127. []

ChazIng later went on to say:

I am confused by your answer. First off, this is about Gitt, not larger creationist claims. Second, it is unbelievable (to me) that Gitt would make the statements Rosenhouse asserts he did. Third, there is no groundbreaking notion proposed by Gitt. What gaping hole in mainstream genetics are you referring to exactly?

That's all completely unhinged. Shall we begin?

First, yes, it's legal to use material in a book that you previously posted at a blog (for heaven's sake). As it happens though, if you compare Chapter 12 of the book to my earlier blog post, I think you will find that the book contains far more detail than I included in the post. My presentation of the basic facts of what happened is the same in both, for what I trust are obvious reasons. But my discussion of the scientific issues is more comprehensive in the book. Does anyone else think I behaved improperly?

Next, Gitt claimed in his talk to have discovered ten new laws of nature about information, and then used these laws to suggest that he had proved the existence of God and the soul, among other things. So, yes, I'd call that a groundbreaking notion. It's also a ludicrous notion, which is why no one outside the creationist subculture has paid any attention to it.

Moving on, I accurately described what Gitt said during the talk and during the Q and A. He was completely unambiguous. Moreover, that little quote from Gitt is only trivially different from what I reported. (It is also completely false. Mutations are not generally injurious. They are generally neutral, meaning they have no discernible effect on the organism's fitness.) The statement that mutations cannot increase the information content of the genome is precisely what we were arguing about. Nothing in my argument hinged on the difference between “always degrade information,” and “are generally injurious.”

The one example I gave of a genetic mechanism that can increase the information content of the genome, duplication with subsequent divergence, is both easy to understand and probably the most important such mechanism in evolution. And it is more than enough to refute Gitt's claims, which is what I was discussing in the book. If you're curious for more, here's a helpful primer.

His incomprehensible discussion of my simple point about mutations reversing themselves, that if the mutation from A to B represents a loss of information then the mutation from B back to A would have to represent a gain, had nothing to do with macroevolution. The point was that as a matter of logic it is impossible for all mutations to degrade information.

Finally, ChazIng is right that I didn't provide any examples of mutations accumulating to provide novel functionalities. That is because such examples would have been entirely irrelevant to the subject of that chapter, which had to do with information growth. But if you would care to have a look at Chapter 21, I think you will find that I provide scholarly references to several such examples.

Believe it or not, ChazIng makes a variety of other claims, all of them silly. Go have a look for yourself. He's plainly just an idiot trolling for attention. So let me end by calling attention to a far more sensible comment, from an anonymous commenter to the same thread:

Former Creationist here… I was a homeschooled kid who was so into apologetics that I donated money for the building of the Creation Museum. I knew a few Christians who believed in evolution, but they were pretty quiet about it. I did not run into ANY “out” atheists until I was over 20, but I wish I had met some sooner. It would have done me good. I was so, so curious about why people would believe crazy things like evolution, and thought that believing in evolution naturally should lead to despair and nihilism, so it took some major crises in my life before I actually decided what the heck, I’m going to face these questions head-on.

It sucked to realize just how much I’d been lied to in all that Creationist literature over the years, but I’m really glad I did do the research. However, it took a LOT of pain to force me to do that. There is a great deal of fear driving Creationist beliefs, so if you are polite and casual in conversation with believers, while not letting them get away with fallacies, you can over time deconstruct some of the angst blocking the facts from being heard. Really, for eager young teens like myself, presenting oneself as an actual atheist (or theistic evolutionist) and simply being available for questions would go a long, long way. Nothing more needed.

Well said!

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Having had many dealings with the commenter you describe at my own blog, I expect the comment thread on this post to get very long indeed.

By Jonny Scaramanga (not verified) on 12 Jun 2013 #permalink

"I describe ID as a softer form of creationism"
We could argue about the term "softer", as in my experience (Dutch) IDers are as rabid as YECers. But replace "softer" by for instance "superficially more sophisticated" and I agree completely!

"gross theological ignorance"
You may have 300 items in your bibliography, but that only confirms your theological ignorance as there have been written 10 000's of important books on theology. Checkmate, evolutionist!

"just an idiot trolling for attention"
His/her Dutch counterparts are idiots too indeed, but I doubt if it's just trolling for attention. For some reason the illusion that science "proves" their faith is very important to them; they claim to be rational and logical. I give you one example.

"Of course the Celts, Indians and Eskimo's knew there had to be a loving Creator of Heaven and Earth. Or in any case they could have known using logical means, because you don't need a Bible for it. What they didn't know (yet) is that the Creator has a plan to save mankind. ..."
He sees the evolution theory as a threat to his ideas, so it has to be refuted by any means. I'm pretty sure Chazlng has the same attitude, which means he/she is not a troll, but a completely sincere idiot. Which is why they always avoid

"I did do the research"

Courageous guy, that anonymous poster - and I'm of the impatient and impolite brand on internet.

Sounds like this Chazing guy is at best confused, and at worst willfully ignorant. I don't think you claim that all fundamentalists are YECs (which is good, as that statement is almost certainly false). You do claim that YECs are overwhelmingly likely, if not certain, to be fundamentalist. That is a defensible statement as long as you don't take "fundamentalist" and "fundamentalist Christian" to be synonymous (and I have no evidence you do, but somebody like Chazing might). There are some YECs who practice Islam, but AFAIK they tend toward fundamentalist versions of Islam. There may even be some Orthodox Jewish YECs, but I don't know that for sure. Basically, I don't see a good reason for maintaining the cognitive dissonance required to be a YEC unless your worldview depends on it, and you pretty much have to be a religious fundamentalist for your worldview to depend on it.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Jun 2013 #permalink

Re MNb @ #3

ID is a softer form of creationism for some. For instance, IDiot Michael Behe accepts an old earth and common descent. At one time, he questioned common descent, citing the lack of intermediates between a land dwelling hoofed wolf-like creature and whales in his book, Darwin's Black Box,. Of course, since that time, explorations in Pakistan and elsewhere have identified a dozen such intermediates (Pakicetus, Ambulocetus anyone) which forced him to testify at the Dover trial that he now accepted common descent. No respectable YEC would accept an old earth or common descent.

I posted the following comment on Prof. Laats' blog in response to the nonsense comments from ChazIng.

Re ChazIng

If you are referring to macro-evolution, there is no reason to think that if an earth shattering discovery invalidating evolution was found that there would be widespread embrace by scientists. That is not how humans work and also not how science works

This is an incredible statement. Just for example, consider the Theory of Relativity which was an earth shattering development. Consider quantum mechanics, another earth shattering development. Consider the Theory of Continental Drift, yet another earth shattering development. Although it is true that none of these developments were immediately accepted, they were eventually because of their vast explanatory power and the lack of falsification evidence. Even eminent scientists were dubious at first. Albert Michelson, whose experiments led to the Theory of Relativity never accepted it. Einstein, whose work on the photoelectric effect led to quantum mechanics was dubious about it, saying, “god doesn’t play dice with the universe”. George Gaylord Simpson, one of the developers of the evolutionary synthesis, rejected continental drift well into the 1960s.

Contrary to ChazIng’s claim, the surest way to scientific fame and a Nobel Prize is the overthrow of an existing scientific paradigm.

His [chazing's] incomprehensible discussion of my simple point about mutations reversing themselves, that if the mutation from A to B represents a loss of information then the mutation from B back to A would have to represent a gain, had nothing to do with macroevolution. The point was that as a matter of logic it is impossible for all mutations to degrade information

I believe (but have no specific examples) that there are real-life cases where "normal" human development of some trait or characteristic depends on a chromosome having a certain range of sequence duplications. Too many duplications, and you get a genetic problem. Too few duplications, and you get a genetic problem.

This poses exactly the sort of logical issue for IDers that you discuss. Is duplication an ID-allowed mechanism? Well, in such a case, if your original genome had only 1 sequence, it will add functionality, but if it already had 9 sequences, it might reduce it. Hmmm. Okay then, is failure to duplicate an ID-allowed mechanism? Well, if you have 10 sequences in place already it may increase developmental function, but if you only have 2, it may reduce it.

What this demonstrates is that any claim of "no positive mutation" requires a very ridiculous assumption to be true: it requires that the chemical reactions taking place in genetic duplication somehow "know" what the future development of the organism will bring. Without that knowledge, there is no biochemical way to distinguish the good from bad mutations because the same mutational mechanisms can lead to good or bad results depending on the circumstances.

Oops, forgot to say - congrats on the great review!

and he seems to conflate ID with YEC

Crikey. What a dishonest cdesign proponentsist. As if most of us don't remember the curious reluctance of ID proponents to discuss the age of the earth, and the former YEC proponents who became ID proponents. The Kitzmiller v. Dover trial happened a mere 8 years ago, in an Internet-enabled world.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 12 Jun 2013 #permalink

Because we love links:
Phillip Johnson’s Bold Stand, Redux

Phillip Johnson has once again “clarified” his position on the age of the Earth...

I have consistently said that I take no position on the age of the earth, and that I regard the issue as not ripe for debate yet. I have also rejected all suggestions that I should denounce the YECs and instead have said that I regard high-quality YECs like Andrew Snelling as respected allies.
I am not upset when YECs criticize me for not embracing their position, nor am I upset when theistic evolutionists or progressive creationists criticize me for being overly friendly with YECs. For now I am standing right where I want to stand. When developments make it appropriate for me to clarify or adjust my position, I will not hesitate to do so.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 12 Jun 2013 #permalink

The first paper in the new creationist volume, Biological Information: New Perspectives (open access), is Gitt et al., "Biological Information — What is It?" The authors develop a new measure of "Universal Information."

By Tom English (not verified) on 12 Jun 2013 #permalink

@5 SLC: I would call that "superficially sophisticated".

What to do about this? One part is here: "He does not belittle or deride these ideas or their adherents, though he does forcefully argue against them." Another part is here: "Really, for eager young teens like myself, presenting oneself as an actual atheist (or theistic evolutionist) and simply being available for questions would go a long, long way. Nothing more needed."

At root, fundamentalists are terrified of a universe they don't understand (even if they won't admit it), and a deity they believe will cast them into a literal hell for the slightest misdeed or even the slightest "bad" thought. (Has anyone else noticed the parallel with Stockholm Syndrome? Love your kidnappers/captors, lest they shoot you?)

They are probably equally terrified of the prospect that IF they're wrong, then they will have wasted their lives on illusions, and after they die either they'll cease to exist altogether or they'll encounter something that's at odds with their beliefs. The extreme insistence on certainty is a defense against the terror of uncertainty.

One of our goals should be to find antidotes to their fears. And the way to deal with an unpleasant emotion isn't to "explain it away" but to offer a better emotion with which to replace it. Emotions are contagious, whether pleasant or unpleasant. For our purposes, pleasant emotions are more effective than unpleasant ones at getting peoples' heads un-stuck.

As I see it, two things in specific are needed. One is the view of the natural universe as awe-inspiring and deserving of reverence. The other is the view of one's own life as part of a continuity of the human endeavor that will continue long after one's individual existence has concluded.

Many of the saints and enlightened individuals in the history of religion, and the founders of major religions, did not obsess about their chances of personal reward hereafter, but instead dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to the service of others. They were not fearful, they were at peace. These individuals' lives could be cited as examples to emulate.

Something I've been saying would be useful for atheists, is to state in positive terms where your ethics and morals come from, and how you live up to them, and how you correct yourself when you transgress your own values. Saying only that one doesn't believe in a deity or a hereafter isn't sufficient: the human brain has a tough time representing negatives; two NOTs don't make an AND. The more interesting approach is to discuss the AND: what you believe and why, and how you act on it.

This will illustrate the point that one can believe there is no deity and still lead a morally consistent life, something a lot of fundamentalists do not believe is possible at all: and the more counter-examples they see, the more their prejudice will evaporate. Breaking down the walls of prejudice is the first step toward opening the doors for intellectual immigration.


They are probably equally terrified of the prospect that IF they’re wrong, then they will have wasted their lives on illusions...

This general concept is true for most of us; humans tend to deal badly (i.e., very economically irrationally) with sunk costs. Once we put personal resources towards some project - from small things like poker antes, to big things like a house remodeling, or 20-year participation in some club - we find it very hard just to walk away. Creationists are just behaving like everyone else when they see a problem with their beliefs or club mebership but nevertheless refuse to walk away.

As I see it, two things in specific are needed. One is the view of the natural universe as awe-inspiring and deserving of reverence. The other is the view of one’s own life as part of a continuity of the human endeavor that will continue long after one’s individual existence has concluded.

I'd add that we need some good arguments against the sunk cost bias, because that's what your up against, big time. I'm not sure what they are.

Regarding Tom English's commen t

“Biological Information — What is It?” The authors develop a new measure of “Universal Information.”

My impression is that Gitt and his co-authors Robert Compton and Jorge Fernandez have just prepared a short version of their book "Without Excuse" ( they refer to their book 17 times while the other 13 reference are mentioned 18 times) leaving away the money shot which would have been:

With his co-authors, information scientist Dr Werner Gitt provides the most rigorous and useful definition of information thus far. He distinguishes this Universal Information (real information) from things often mistakenly called information, and shows how ultimately all biological information comes from God.

(cited from the Amzon blurb of "Without Excuse"; emphasis mine)

Read the Amazon reviews for one pro side of the book. Eight 5* and one 4*, none lower. If someone buys this book and is willing to give an Amazon review, it may be a revelation for some. It won't be me.

Your book provided me with some insight into the mindset of (mainly) American creationists. I must admit that although he is a fellow German I would count Gitt rather as a proponent of American creationsts. In Germany he seems to be much less relevant which IMO is due to the fact that most mainstream Christians (protestants and catholics paying "Kirchensteuer") would consider him a die-hard secterian. He is really not a public figur in Germany. E.g., even when I was living in Gitt's hometown Braunschweig I never heard anything about him.

"This will illustrate the point that one can believe there is no deity and still lead a morally consistent life, something a lot of fundamentalists do not believe is possible at all:"

Plenty of non-fundamentalists believe this too. This Gallup poll suggests only 54% of the general population would vote for an atheist candidate - and only 40% of those over 65 would.…

Ignorance of science and philosophy is not restricted to fundamentalists.

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