What about creationism?


I get a lot of questions about my forthcoming book, Written in Stone, but the most popular by far is "What are you going to say about creationism?"

Presently there is a glut of books that confront creationism in one way or another. There are books that counter creationist claims with scientific evidence (Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, Why Evolution is True, The Greatest Show on Earth, &c.) and others that, while they present many of the same scientific arguments, are also concerned with making the idea of evolution less threatening to religious audiences (Only A Theory, The Language of God, Thank God for Evolution, &c.). Entries of both varieties continue to contribute to the ongoing public discussion over evolution, but there have been so many that I have grown a bit weary of reading scientific arguments fashioned to refute creationist claims.

While the refutation of creationist nonsense is certainly important, I did not want to let the faith-based claims of fundamentalists determine what I wrote about evolution in my book. I had no desire to waste precious space repeating their skewed views even if my intent was to knock them down. Such techniques have already been tried, and I would rather not let the faith-based delusions of charlatans such as Ken Ham and Jonathan Wells frame my contribution to the public debate.

Furthermore, thinking about this as a new author, the market for books on the evolution/creationism controversy has been so thoroughly saturated that there really is no need for yet another book full of repackaged counter-arguments.* I realized relatively early on that if I was going to be successful I would have to carve out my own niche and do something different. The question was how to present something original in a sub-genre in which the consensus was that everything had already been said.

*[This became abundantly clear during the search for a publisher. There was a widespread belief that the publication of Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth would make all other evolution books superfluous. I certainly hope this is not the case.]

I found my solution by going back to basics. In On the Origin of Species, the magnificent book whose 150th anniversary we celebrate tomorrow, Charles Darwin did not directly attack "scriptural geologists" or natural theologians. Instead he tried to build a positive case that recognized the complications of his theory, and in doing so he kept religious objections to his views in mind.

As a young student Darwin was enthralled by the work of theologian William Paley, the expositor of the famous "watchmaker argument", and this respect for Paley's work stayed with Darwin. Just two days prior to the release of On the Origin of Species, in fact, Darwin wrote to his neighbor John Lubbock that "I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley's Natural Theology. I could almost formerly have said it by heart." The significance of this is that in On the Origin of Species Darwin reinterpreted some of the examples Paley cited of Providential design in nature, such as the eye, but through an evolutionary viewpoint. Darwin's knowledge of natural theology allowed him to more effectively hone his arguments while still keeping the focus on the positive evidence for his theory.

[The reaction to the anonymously-published Vestiges of the Natural History of the Creation showed what could happen if theological considerations were too prominent in a book suggesting that life evolved. While naturalists were critical of the scientific assertions in Vestiges some of the most scathing reviews came from religious conservatives who were threatened by the book's theological propositions. Though the book was immensely popular it also served as a warning to Darwin as to what could happen if his arguments were not refined enough.]

I thought it fitting to follow Darwin's example. I do refute a number of creationist arguments in Written in Stone but I do so without giving the creationists a platform in my own discussion. This requires no great effort. Describing what we have learned about the history of life automatically counters common creationist myths, and the historical perspective of the book allows for issues like intelligent design, flood geology, and the like to be dispensed with in a way that does not disturb the narrative. This strategy has allowed me the freedom to spend more time digging into the details of evolutionary science that are fascinating by themselves.

The only section in which I directly address current religiously-motivated views of nature is in the conclusion. The "Dinosauroid", the evolutionary views of Francis Collins and Simon Conway Morris, convergence, and contingency all figure prominently in the closing summary. Anthropocentric views of evolutionary "progress", in which our evolution was inevitable or somehow preordained, are still very popular and I personally find it more interesting to engage this goal-oriented view of nature than to squabble with religious fundamentalists who so fervently believe in their interpretation of scripture that no evidence will be sufficient to change their mind.

Such is the complicated answer to the relatively simple question that I am persistently asked about Written in Stone. The book certainly does refute creationist nonsense, just in a more subtle manner. Yet, as a whole, the book is not meant to be a stealth attack on the beliefs of fundamentalists. It is a celebration of the fossil record and what it can tell us about the world we inhabit. That, I think (or at least hope), is more compelling than yet another book on why creationists are wrong. I guess I will find out when the book hits shelves around this time next year.

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Excellent!!! I am very happy you chose this tack. It promises to be an exciting book to read!

Brian, is this a possible foreword for your book?

By JefFlyingV (not verified) on 23 Nov 2009 #permalink

Creationists are embarrassing anachronisms who, like flat earthers, refuse to grasp that their dogma has no place in the modern world. That's about all the space that needs to be devoted to them, and the refutation of them has been done very well in other books, as you said. The real story of the history of life on earth, which you are dealing with in your book, will make for a much better read. The pseudo-controversy of creationism versus evolution has been done to death!

Bora and Raymond; Thanks! I hope you will like the finished product.

Jeff; No, this is just a one-off post inspired by a conversation I had with a friend this past weekend. At this stage I do not think there is going to be a formal preface or foreword, but if there is going to be one it will be different from what I have written here.

Good. When I buy this book - as I undoubtedly will - it will be because I want to read about natural history (in the proper sense of the term), and not because I want to read about the views of various religious sects. Keep onwards and upwards with the science!

Will your forthcoming book also have a British publisher?

By Joe Connell (not verified) on 23 Nov 2009 #permalink

When I saw the title of this post in my blog roll I read it as 'What About Cretinism?' before I did a double-take. Don't waste your time trying to refute creationists. Sure, they'll quote-mine you like anything (that happened to my book In Search of Deep Time) but I see no reason to modify one's views, or take extra-special care, because of these people (by the way, I'm not sure I have actually, knowingly shaken hands with creationists, though I trod in some once).

You know that this uncompromising view has to be right because it's one of the few things on which both PZ Myers and I agree. Eugenie Scott, though, takes a more cautious line. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of lunching with both of them at once. 'Creationists will be with us for ever,' I sighed, 'rather like herpes'. Eugenie's response was as quick as it was, I think, wrong - 'that's no reason not to practise safe sex'.

By cromercrox (not verified) on 23 Nov 2009 #permalink

Really looking forward to that book. Hope there's plenty of pictures in it, too.

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 24 Nov 2009 #permalink

*[This became abundantly clear during the search for a publisher. There was a widespread belief that the publication of Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth would make all other evolution books superfluous. I certainly hope this is not the case.]

What they're worried about is that its publication would make the marketing of all other evolution books superfluous, that it would simply suck up all the evolution interest around leaving none for anything else. This is, IMO, a common publishers' mistake, unless they're talking about pseudoscience (always room for another Atlantis book). I think there's lots of room for more evolution books, and that in fact one good book creates more interest in others, and that the new book creates interest in yet more, and so on just like it does in mystery novels, romances, and as we've seen, in books on atheism.

When publishers will start to understand this is another story.

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 24 Nov 2009 #permalink

Good decision: creationists are making their stand for political motives. Theirs is NOT an argument about the science or a discussion of the facts, even if they wrap it up in pseudo-scientific gift paper tied off with a pseudo-philosophical ribbon and a pseudo-intellectual bow, so addressing them in a science book is a waste of time.

There's no need to talk about creationism in any science book. It's not science.

I'm happy to hear this. While I do think that the refutation books have their place, it'll be nice to read a book about evolution that simply is about evolution.

It is unfortunate that young-earth creationists are the focus of discussions about a Creator. The proper discussion should be between scientific atheists, and Creationists of the type that includes many esteemed scientists. Atheists focus on random 'accidents' as causative agent. Creationists focus on God. Believers in randomness actually are similar to believers in God. Both believe with passion, but both lack irrefutable physical evidence. Some randomness may seem evident, but no one can prove there is neither a designed process nor purposeful path changes. Ultimately, each belief is a matter of faith. On this basis, scientists would do well to acknowledge that young-earth creationists merely represent a small, though 'loud', subset of believers in God.

Good decision. Creationism is not important for science, so should not get space.

*[This became abundantly clear during the search for a publisher. There was a widespread belief that the publication of Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth would make all other evolution books superfluous. I certainly hope this is not the case.]
This is bad news at Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth is actually a lousy book.

I think your are right in what you want to do. However, I bet you occasionally will think, but not write, "This particular section addresses that particular creationist argument."

To comment on Lee's post; any set of logical thought is based on one or a few basic assumption which are not testable within the system of thought. Euclidian geometry, for example, is based on the assumption that parallel lines never cross. There is, however, non-Euclidian geometry which is more useful in some situations. One maintains an assumption so long as the system built on it gives useful and satisfying results. My house was built on a flat earth, but the interstate highway system was not.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 25 Nov 2009 #permalink

Sorry for the long delay, Joe. It has been exceedingly difficult to find a UK publisher. The responses I received were that the UK book market is already flooded with science/evolution books (and, being that I am a first-time author, I am a bit of a risk).

At present Written in Stone will be available in the US, Canada, and Japan. I am hoping that other international deals will follow once the completed manuscript is turned in.