Sympathy for Creationists

Jesus! vs Darwin!
Jesus! vs Darwin!
Creationists suffer the kind of derision from the scientific community usually reserved for flat earth proponents, faith healers and those who do not appreciate Star Trek. Well, that’s not entirely true; detractors of Star Trek are probably more deeply reviled.

In the spirit of stirring the pot though, I recently gave a presentation ‘Sympathy for Creationists, and Other Thoughts from a Sceptical Anthropologist,’ and thought that I might do an online version. I want to suggest that many ‘believers’ in evolutionary theory share some of the intellectual errors evidenced by Creationists. You know the general principle: try to irritate everyone in your audience so that you at least know they have a pulse.

Many thanks to the Macquarie University Sceptics’ Society for their kind invitation. The Sceptics were a great audience, and I only regret that there was no way to audiotape the lecture — well, actually, I’m probably not half as funny as I like to remember myself being, so maybe it’s a good thing. In addition, I can’t post all the slides because they are, as usual in my lectures, filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the Interwebs, including unlicensed cartoons, pilfered photographs, swiped graphics and other materials. Although it’s one thing to use these sorts of images in a non-commercial presentation, I don’t feel comfortable pinning them up on

So although this post will not follow my lecture point-for-point, nor will it have the excellent questions that the audience presented (which my failing memory is already turning into my ‘own’ thoughts in an act of cerebral self-aggrandizement), this should be fun, and it will allow me to link to evolution-related stuff all over the place.

Giving it to Creationists

From my position in Australia, surrounded by the ivory façade of academe and far from the school board wars of Kansas and other Creationists nonsense, it’s easy to forget how much anger and derision Creationists generate. Their claims that the earth is quite young, that humans shared the planet with dinosaurs, that the Flood and Noah explain patterns of species diffusion and the like… well, it’s easy to laugh from the mostly secular soil of Oz, viewing Creationists with the kind of benign and slightly condescending amusement reserved for the tooth fairy and those who follow closely America’s Next Top Model.

From Dr. Amy Skeptical OB
From Dr. Amy Skeptical OB
I started the lecture with a few samples of cartoons taking the micky out of those who look to Genesis for their paleogeology.

You could just as easily spend the next few hours checking out videos of the very smart but exceptionally brittle Richard Dawkins delivering smackdowns of all sorts, numerous skewerings of Ben Stein’s ‘if-I-can’t-understand-it-evolution-can’t-be-true’ approach to argument, or the 30-part series (no, that’s not an exaggeration), ‘Why People Laugh at Creationists’ by Thunderf00t on YouTube.

People like Dawkins and the stupendously prolific scourge of Creationists, P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula, seem to have an inexhaustible supply of fodder sent in waves from the other side, a never-ending supply of Creationists’ lame arguments with which to demonstrate the many intellectual weapons in their arsenal. Like heroes in a samurai film, evolution proponents who choose to engage the armies of Creationism are supplied with a steady stream of victims who charge at them with hopeless ineptitude, merely allowing the heroes to demonstrate their extraordinary abilities by shredding them one after another.

You can almost hear the director:

PZ Myers Simpsonized (hey, from his own site)
PZ Myers Simpsonized (hey, from his own site)

‘Cue the fight music… pan out from Richard’s and PZ’s narrowed eyes under their helmets, back-to-back, swords raised in preparation… keep panning… hordes from Texas School Board and Creationist Museum and textbook publishers all wait on your cues… wait for crescendo… wait… NOW! come screaming at ‘im!

*sounds of shrieking followed by unbelievable carnage, screaming, sword slicing.*
*more screaming*
*more slicing *
*screaming less frequent *
*groaning and whimpering *
*Ben Stein begs for mercy *
*slice *
*last groan *

BRILLIANT! Zoom in on PZ as he cleans blade on the flag of the regiment from Kansas State Board of Education, Richard spits out shreds of textbook warning stickers… and, CUT! That’s a print!’

The critics of Creationism — and theology-in-sheep’s-clothing version, Intelligent Design — find more than enough to criticize in the sermons and ‘instructional’ videos filled with simplistic arguments, opportunistic fact poaching, aggressive ignorance, moralistic posturing, and monumental self-deceit of all sorts. I could say that the ‘critique is easy,’ but after watching a few of the more clever videos that are critical of Creationism, I’d have to say that some of the critique is quite sophisticated and thoroughly trounces many of the points that Creationists make, taking them seriously enough to actually refute the outrageous claims point by point.

So in my contrarian spirit, I offer some sympathy for Creationists (apologies to the Rolling Stones), although I have no intention of suggesting that I believe their account of the origin of species. In addition, I have the luxury of not having to deal with these people directly very often, and they are certainly not making decisions about my child’s education on the basis of their understandings of sacred texts. So, if what I write seems too generous, please understand that these folks really aren’t my problem – condolences to you if they’re yours.

Why believe?

TeachbothOne of the first points I made to the Sceptics is that one of the problems that I think we run into when arguing with Creationists is a basic disagreement about the concept of ‘belief’ or ‘faith.’ When I say that I ‘believe’ in evolution, it’s like saying that I ‘believe’ in the theory that matter is composed of atoms, or even that I ‘believe’ my car is still in the parking lot where I left it. This ‘belief,’ not surprisingly, is pretty damn easy for me. Believing in these things is not something I struggle with or question or have any angst over, although all three (evolution, atoms and my car), ironically, depend upon assumptions about things that I cannot directly perceive at the moment.

That is, all of them are simply assumptions about how things work that are, mostly, consistent with the evidence, my own observations, what reasonable people tend to say, and the like. I don’t subject the existence of atoms or the location of my car to constant scrutiny; to do so would probably be the slippery slope to a kind of existential obsessive-compulsive disorder (and I’m a busy man, too busy for any sort of existential questioning…).

When people of faith say that they ‘believe’ something, I suspect that they are describing a very different sort of feeling (and I don’t assume that they all have the same psychological experience of something called ‘faith’). That is, the way people talk about religious ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ suggests to me that they are not experiencing what I do when I sit here at a café table pretty certain that I’m going to be able to find my car and get home when I finish my lunch and coffee.

I haven’t done any sort of systematic research on this, but I’ve spent a fair chunk of my life in Catholic schools, both as a student and as a teacher, and around various sorts of believers (they’re everywhere, I tell you!). If you’ll pardon me for stating the obvious, I’ve found that people tend to describe belief in the supernatural as a kind of achievement. Please note, this is based more on a Christian model than others, and even more of a Protestant than a Catholic approach to faith (although I think US Catholics are often very ‘Protestant’ in this regard compared to my interactions with Brazilian and Irish Catholics, but that’s another posting and maybe on a different site).

In my experience, faith makes the faithful feel happy; they prize having belief; and some seem to be worried about losing it. This kind of belief in God and Creation is an act of will; in the face of anxiety to a greater or lessor degree, to maintain a state of confident ‘belief’ in something that is, if not impossible, certainly improbable, and by most Christian definitions, doesn’t offer much evidence to make a person confident. After all, if a person actually had proof of God’s existence, or a theatre bill from the opening night of Creation, it would sort of make a mockery of the Christian concept of faith itself. That is, if I could come up with a convincing mathematical proof of God, I’d negate the whole need for faith, thus debasing the very attainment and maintenance of faith, the key to salvation, in a manner of speaking.

In contrast, most scientists don’t lose their faith in atoms, nor do they fear losing their belief that atoms exist. I’m reasonably confident that, even if I were to have a crisis of faith in atoms, they’d still be there for me. Few scientists would likely be pleased with themselves for believing in atoms, nor would they think that people successfully believing in atoms was a kind of achievement.

In other words, religious faith seems to be simultaneously more anxious and more precious than other sorts of mundane beliefs, such as confidence in the predictability of the material world such as where one left one’s car. When I had to teach about this at Notre Dame one semester with a very small group of pretty intense undergrads, I gave them Kierkegaard to read, in part to mess with their heads – the ones not already having crises of various sorts – and partially just to see what they thought about Fear and Trembling.

I won’t go into Kierkegaard here, in part because it’s way too rich for a throw-away line, but I think he highlights this difference between confidence in everyday life and faith in the supernatural in his own ventriloquist-like style, taking up various positions within the same debate: ‘It is human to complain, human to weep with one who weeps, but it is greater to have faith and more blessed to behold the believer.’ For some American Christians I’ve come into contact with, faith seems to be relatively easy; in contrast, the faith described by Paul in the epistles, by Augustine, and by Kierkegaard is a much more superhuman accomplishment.

religious_worldIf we look across the human species, believing in the supernatural is the statistically dominant human condition, even if belief in a particular act of ‘creation’ is less dominant. For some proponents of evolutionary theory, the fact that so many people believe in creation is a sign of our species’ fallibility, primitiveness and enslavement to superstition. Sure, probably… But it’s also just a signal of the way that our brains work (something anthropologists like Harvey Whitehouse and Pascal Boyer have much more carefully discussed).

Why resist evolution?

Okay, so if faith is inherently the belief in what can’t be demonstrated, and many theologians don’t have a problem with evolutionary theories (including folks like the late John Paul II), why do some Creationists get themselves so bent out of shape about evolution? We could cite the usual explanations: stupidity, ignorance, fear, obedience to authority, loss of status, guilt-by-association, dislike of pointy-headed science geeks with wire-rim glasses, and so on. We could argue that, in many cases, arguments for the ‘need’ for faith as a moral constraint on society demonstrate great lack of faith in human nature, or that some belief in God looks psychologically like the longing for a powerful daddy…

But I’m not going to go down that road. First, I’ve been down that road, it’s a nice drive if you don’t mind the traffic, and I kind of know where it goes. In the presentation to the sceptics, instead of arguing that Creationism is either a form of psychological compensation or intellectual dishonesty, I suggested that some evolutionary theorists don’t really do the cause a favour when dealing with this hardened core of resistance to accepting evolution as the basic mechanism of species development and change. That is, some of the arguments that extrapolate from evolutionary theory undermine the credibility of evolution in the eyes of a wider public.

Here I don’t just mean the militant atheists who try to use evolutionary theory to prove the non-existence of the unprovable deity, but also those who put forward ‘evolutionary’ accounts to justify present patterns of human behaviour, which often turn out to be intentionally scandalizing or factually challenged on various levels. If you don’t get what I’m alluding to, you might be new around here, but I’ve written extensively about how evolutionary ‘explanations’ for things like sexual behaviour or gender traits are often shallow, overly glib, and do no credit to evolution as an explanatory framework (for some of the earlier posts on this subject, there’s a summary at Sex on the brain & neuroanthropology on sex).

(To all of you out there who want to use evolution to prove that God doesn’t exist, I understand your frustration. Look, I feel for you guys, but the believers did say that God, by definition, is unprovable, so you’ve got a bit of an uphill battle on that one. Yes, I realize that many of these theistically motivated individuals advocate social policies that are well worth getting upset about. You want to argue with them? Go ahead, knock yourself out, and I’ll support you on the social policy front. But I won’t get into the argument about whether the by-definition-unprovable can be either proven or disproven. Our lives are a finite resource: you gotta pick your battles.)

In my discussion with the Sceptics, I briefly touched on some of the more egregious examples of evolutionary psychology and pseudo-evolutionary thought, and why religiously-minded people might get uptight about these. The example I used was the controversial book, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. In the talk, I pointed out that, even if the arguments about a biological bases for sexual coercion were well-founded, and some critics have argued that they are not, the book still begs a whole series of questions if someone seeks to ask the applications to thinking about everyday existence in 2009 (for a longer review, see American Scientist’s review by Craig Stanford).

One of the key issues for me is the whole notion of ‘human nature,’ and the degree to which behaviour is determined by selective mechanisms. Ironically, I think that the notion of ‘human nature’ sometimes employed in evolutionary psychology is a kind of essentializing error that also comes up in Creationist thought.

Thinking like Creationists: Three basic errors

Darwin_vs_God150 years ago, Charles Darwin published the first edition of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which would go through six editions in his lifetime. Although it met with hostility when it was first published, most historians argue that evolution was widely accepted among scientists within twenty years, leading to a wholesale rethinking of biology, although often in ways that departed significantly from the views Darwin presented in The Origin.

I suggested to the Sydney Sceptics that to truly integrate Darwin’s approach to natural selection into our thinking would require substantial changes in the way we see the world, even though many of us see ourselves as being oriented by science and proponents of evolutionary theory. That is, even though we’ve had 150 years to digest The Origin of Species, the process is still not complete. Elements of pre-Darwinian or non-Darwinian understandings still creep into our worldview, seemingly immune to their logical inconsistency.

I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I pointed out that, just as I have sympathy for Creationists, I also have sympathy for our own failures to fully integrate evolutionary thinking (although not so much sympathy that I wouldn’t deduct credit for incorrect answers on anyone’s midterm in a couple of weeks). Darwin himself clearly suffered a great deal of emotional angst when he was preparing the book and other manuscripts on evolutionary theory, and even his contemporary proponents, the people who acted as his public defenders when his shyness and fragile health prevented him from doing this in person, did not fully assimilate what Darwin was suggesting.

In the bulk of the talk, I focused on three basic errors that I think are commonly shared by both Creationists and by some proponents of evolutionary theory, meeting points where the two theories are surprisingly parallel.

Teleologic error: Evolution ‘designs’

evolutionOne reason that Darwin himself did not like the word ‘evolution’ (he preferred ‘transformation’ and didn’t use ‘evolution’ until the sixth edition of The Origin of Species) was that he thought it suggested improvement or progress or some sort of directionality to changes in species.

The alternative, as I put on my slides: ‘Evolution happens.’ I think both Creationists and many evolution proponents resist the implications of the utter directionless-ness of evolutionary development, either recoiling from the recognition that this is a completely rudderless existence or simply not being able to comprehend what non-intended, design-less development might look like. This is certainly at the heart of many Creationists’ critiques of evolutionary thought: how could something so complex as an organism be the result of unplanned changes?

Some accounts of evolutionary change or trait emergence seem to me to exacerbate this tendency toward teleology by carelessly arguing that physiological changes are ‘for’ a particular function or fitness-related purpose. Human brains are ‘for’ social negotiation or gills are ‘for’ breathing or sexual reproduction is ‘for’ resistance to parasites or the like. The same thing happens when people use the word ‘design’ to talk about the evolution of organisms or their traits; I often find myself getting caught on the phrase, ‘Evolution designed [trait or species] for [purpose or niche].’ For example, in some recent discussions of human anatomy, we’ve seen a theory that some of the distinctive traits of the human body might be advantageous only if the hominins with these traits ran, especially long distance. Does this mean we were ‘designed to run’?

Strictly speaking, no physiological trait is ‘for’ anything in the sense of having a pre-ordained or intended purpose. The preposition is tricky because, of course, traits may be ‘for’ a function in the sense that the function is what they get used ‘for.’ But sometimes the use of ‘for’ implies a degree of forethought, planning or design that is simply not present. Moreover, to talk about evolution ‘designing’ something is to anthropomorphize a process, to treat it… well… like a divine being.

My critique may seem persnickety, but this sort of implied, non-conscious pattern of using design as a metaphor to talk about evolution is exactly the sort of error that many Creationists make, seeing intention where there is only selection. I can understand completely the difficulty in thinking about the intentionless change characteristic of evolutionary development, the challenge of holding fast to a way of talking about species transformation that does not anthropomorphize the process, but it also does give me some degree of empathy for those who see this as a sign of divinity.

Essentializing error: species as ‘type’

One of the other errors that seems to creep into evolutionary thought is the essentializing error, the assumption that all individuals in a species are members of a type or category. To me, one of the implications of The Origin of Species is that species are unstable, constantly changing, and precariously balanced populations of individuals that might, at almost any time, split into multiple species or change into other sorts of individuals, were there not very active processes stabilizing them.

darwin_changeWithout gene flow and consistency in selective forces, for example, there’s no reason to assume that a species will not change even if the environment is relatively stable. This might sound overly dynamic, but in an evolutionary timescale, change can happen much more quickly than Darwin originally suggested.

However, the human brain, especially with the use of language, seems to function much better with types than with pools of variation. We assign names to categories of things and talk about them as if individuals of the type were interchangeable, even if we might suspect on some level that they are not. Fair enough, it’s a trait of language, and we can’t get around it without creating a hopeless situation where every thing and every exemplar of a species has its own name, but we shouldn’t then let the assumption be that there is a ‘type-ness,’ a shared essence in a species which is really a population with inherent variation.

For this reason, even though I may use the term ‘human nature’ myself at times, I think it’s an erroneous concept, even before we start talking about specific behaviours that allegedly make up that ‘nature’ because ‘nature’ gives too much credence to the existence of the type. The sequencing of ‘the human genome,’ for example, is really a sequencing of ‘a human’s genome.’ And there is certainly nothing to guarantee that this specific sequence is either more representative than any other, or that it will remain fixed over time even if it is somehow decided to be statistically representative. Just the simple fact that all human populations do not have the same rate of reproduction suggests that the overall human ‘type’ is undergoing steady modification over time, if we take shifts in the species-wide proportion of different genes as constituting our ‘type.’

One of the consequences of the essentializing error, in my opinion, is that we may be led to ignore both variation and future change, among other things. That is, as a neuroanthropologist, I am interested in variation, no matter how statistically insignificant that variation might be; the essentializing error tends to suggest that the variation is not important or crucial, that there is some shared commonality that is the real identity of the human species. I suspect that the particular forms and possibilities of variation are really want make humans distinctive from other species. That is, we’re not distinctive because we’re all the same; we’re distinctive because we’re capable of producing certain types of variants (such as tool-using variants, cooperative variants, cognitively-sophisticated variants) that other species don’t tend to produce.

There are lots of problem with thinking in ‘types’ but one is that, as soon as you say, ‘A human being has the specific trait of being symbol using, bipedal, …’ what do you do with the individual who is born to a human population who is not capable of using symbols or does not walk bipedally? Philosophically, we’ve created all sorts of trouble for ourselves, but, again, I have sympathy for the error because it occurs in both Creationists and evolutionary thinkers, likely an artefact of the social tools we use to think: language.

Complexity bias: bigger is more interesting

EvolutionDarwinism2In the discussion with the Sceptics, I pointed out that one of the real blows of The Origin of Species to Westerners’ sense of self was that the book seemed to argue that humans were not central to the whole of Creation. Although the book did not mention humans, it implied that there was no separate creation of species with clear divisions among them. I would argue that this displacement of anthropocentrism has only grown worse over the intervening years, just as Galileo’s refutation of the Ptolemaic view of the heavens has only been exacerbated by new discoveries in astronomy.

If we survey all of life on this planet, the ‘average’ organism is single-celled. If we look at ‘tree’ diagrams of the genetic diversity and relatedness of organisms, large-bodied, multicellular organisms are a bit of a sideshow, a collection of huge, closely-related freaks. In terms of just numbers and variety, the big tent houses the incredible variety of life that cannot even be seen with the unaided eye.

I like to point out to my students (and I think I did it in the Sceptics lecture) that, even if we take our own skin as a boundary for our census of life, we still would find more cells within and on that boundary that do not share our DNA than actually belong to our own germline cells. For all of these single-celled creatures, we are a giant, moving host, a kind of living, walking planet that provides them with most of their needs. In addition, without this population of passenger cells to help digest our food, clean us, fight off more dangerous intruders and the like, we would not last long.

Darwin wrote himself a marginal note to himself, ‘Never say higher or lower in referring to organisms.’ Most of us, even biologists, have a hard time sticking to this scrupulousness, and we tend to project value judgments onto even more neutral-sounding language (like my use of the terms ‘complex’ and ‘simple’ or ‘multi-cellular’ and ‘single-celled’).

From Carl Zimmer. 2002.  Evolution (William Heinemann), p. 102.
From Carl Zimmer. 2002. Evolution (William Heinemann), p. 102.
Biologists and Creationists alike tend to share a bias towards the multicellular freak show, if I might be so rude.

Disproportionately, biology journals and doctoral theses focus, not on the vast majority of single-celled organisms on the planet, but on these odd combinations of cells, these walking colonies. Of course, there are exceptions, so please don’t write me to tell me that you love cyanobacteria or have a thing for firmicutes, so my point is moot. In the main, we, as a species, are pretty self-centred, believing that, even if the universe does not revolve around us, at least we’re typical of life.

I’m as guilty as anyone else of this complexity bias: I’m an anthropologist (as in ‘anthropos’ = ‘human’), and I am emotionally attached to the other large multicellular creatures that I share the planet’s crust with rather than the masses of easy-to-overlook little forms of life that make our sideshow possible. Okay, so maybe I’m pushing this leap, but there’s a link from a multicellular bias to human exceptionalism, the idea that humans are special, distinctive, separate from other animals.

We are exceptional, but not in the sense that we are fundamentally different from other animals; we, like our large-bodied evolutionary close relations, are odd and unusual in the grand circus of life. I think that Creationism turns this oddity into a kind of Divine License, a Adamic Stewardship, an assumption that humans are God’s special favourite creatures and Creation was given to us. Even many biologists and environmentalists focus on humans and large multicellular organisms disproportionately. An evolutionary framework, in contrast, is a more sobering assessment of our peculiarity, a sense for our fragility and dependence on all these other ‘simpler’ organisms. (Look, for example, at the fate of large-bodied multicellular organisms in the previous great extinctions.)

(In the original talk, I also discussed the error of hereditarianism, but I’ve already put most of my thoughts on the subject in the section on essentializing. I take the concept from Jonathan Marks, and he does a great discussion of ‘folk’ theories of heredity in his book, What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee.)

Conclusion: are you feeling the sympathy?

authoritative source unknown
authoritative source unknown
This piece doesn’t really explore the most absurd assertions of the most radical Creationists, I freely admit.

I recognize that Creationists sometimes offer examples of logic tortured so badly that Dick Cheney would cringe, arguments so acrobatic that P. T. Barnum would be awed, assertions so tendentious that Johnnie Cochran would blanche (I’ll stop…). This piece is more about the difficulty of really seeing the world through an evolutionary lens.

When Charles Darwin first started working on the ideas that would become The Origin of Species, he knew that they would be hard to accept, even difficult to grasp, as well as counter to social and theological frameworks of the day. That is, although some theorists like Stephen Jay Gould have argued that Darwninian natural selection is quite simple, ‘almost axiomatic,’ I suspect that the psychological distances needed to travel to truly become Darwinian in outlook are a challenge, even if the individual is favourably predisposed toward the theory. For example, some of the early proponents of his theories, like Alfred Wallace and Thomas Henry Huxley who famously acted as the public defender of Darwin, subtly reintroduced some of these same biases into their thinking about evolution. (For example, Wallace thought that there was an unbridgeable gulf between human mental faculties and those of other apes.)

My point is not that some people are habitually wrong, although that’s likely true. Rather, I want to highlight that, although natural selection may be simple in axiomatic terms, it is a real challenge to integrate it into everyday thought. Even our ways of speaking tend to reintroduce errors of teleology, essentialism and complexity bias, leading us to use terms like ‘design,’ a species’ ‘nature,’ and ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ organisms without considering much their implications. I say this as a fellow offender, but one that is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with these chronic errors.

As an undergraduate, I once heard George Mentore say that theologists and anthropologists were polar opposites. I can’t remember what specifically he identified as the polarity, but I would argue that it is an interesting contrast: theologists are very concerned with what we believe, more so than other sorts of scholars, and sorting out right from wrong belief. Oddly, anthropologists are less concerned about the rightness or wrongness of belief; you say you’re possessed by evil spirits or live on the back of a giant turtle or travel to the moon in your dreams? Excellent! What’s that like?

Anthropologists are professionally credulous, believing for the sake of exploring cultural worldviews nearly anything people tell us, at least for the length of time it takes to interview someone. Maybe my sympathy for Creationists comes from a professional commitment to respecting people’s worldviews and seeking to understand how on earth their various accounts of reality might seem plausible to them. That is, it’s very hard to hold for long a worldview that comes up against an obdurate reality again and again, especially if you hope to pass on this worldview to anyone else.

Global statistics tell us that Creationism must have some sort of consistency with observable facts (note: I said ‘observable,’ not scientific), some ability to make sense of empirical reality even if it is simply wrong in scientific terms. Like a description of the sun being a flaming chariot that travels across the sky, we know it’s wrong, but we also can seek to understand how it might appear to be plausible.

bizarro-creationismIn fact, I think that Creationism exhibits some of the same errors that I might expect to find on trick questions in a multiple-choice midterm for a class in human evolution. Creationism adheres to patterns of error in thought: belief that our intellectual categories are reflected in reality; attribution of purpose and direction to the unfolding of events; and a firm conviction that we are both distinctive and fundamentally important to reality. In fact, Darwinian thought and evolutionary theory more broadly are an existential assault on this sense of the world, one that Western societies have struggled to integrate since the first publication of The Origin of Species. I still don’t think Creationists are right, but I do feel like I know where they’re coming from.

Stumble It!

Jesus! vs. Darwin! from Flickr uploaded by The Searcher.

Intelligent design cartoon from Dr. Amy, The Skeptical OB.

P. Z. Myers Simpsonized from Pharyngula, What happened to my chin? (Don’t worry, PZ. I think chins are selected against in Simpsonization…)

Teach Both Theories cartoon from Durango Bill (original source unknown).

Graphic showing proportion of global believers in different religions taken from Traiperserond, God and science line up for another dance. Originally, the graphic comes from an article in New Scientist, but I’m loathe to cite the article because it commits a serious teleological error, well, several. I feel justified though because it’s behind a subscription wall.

Darwin, Very Gradual Change cartoon from

Evolution Darwinism graphic by Austin Cline, appears at

Tree of Life diagram originally from Carl Zimmer. 2002. Evolution (William Heinemann), p. 102. Available online at Classification of Living Organisms,

Creation Museum Cartoon from CREATION MUSEUM: ANOTHER WAY TO FLEECE THE SHEEPLE, at Musings from the Coast.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

25 thoughts on “Sympathy for Creationists

  1. This is clearly what we Melanesianists call a case of “mimetic conflict” in which two groups fight over one identity. On the one hand you have a group of people who believe that a single omniscient figure wrote a book which explains the history, purpose and structure of the entire universe, and they are so committed to it personally that they foreclose debates which might challenge their point of view. And then on the other hand you have the creationists.

    1. Rex, there is no debate. You can keep your mythology (and believe it is real as fervently as you wish) in your churches and in good comp lit classes and book clubs. We’ll leave the science to those who are interested in coming with answers that actually fit with empirical evidence. Most importantly, lets just stick to teaching science in science classrooms. If we are going to mandate that science classrooms teach religious mythology as an alternative to evolution, then perhaps we should mandate that churches teach evolution in Sunday school as an alternative to creationism. Either mandate would be a serious violation of separation of church and state.

  2. Excellent post.

    I disagree with you on the differences of belief, although I have little to base my (ahem) beliefs on other than nonsystematic untested observations.

  3. Very nice article here, with a useful examination of thought-processes on both sides. I still think, though, that comparing the mindsets behind creationism and science is comparing apples and oranges. That is to say that while we may talk about adaptation as teleological and species as monolithic, we need not actually believe these things. Rather, we use what you call metaphor and I call shorthand. The problem comes when these concepts are presented to the general public (or, indeed, to scientists outside evolutionary biology), and these terms are still used and not sufficiently explained. To a degree, this is inevitable: much of any science is sufficiently complicated that terminological shortcuts are unavoidable if any presentation is to be kept to a manageable amount of time. On the other hand, this is also a failure of science communication: these very facts are in fact interesting, and should be presented to the public (and scientists) more clearly and more often. And certainly there are plenty of scientists, even biologists, who have not thought through or been trained in the concepts here, and take the metaphors for reality — and that is indeed a failing in common with Biblical literalists. At the same time, though, I do not think it appropriate to tar everybody with the same brush. The most prominent proponents of evolution are aware of the mistakes presented here, and try (though not always succeeding, being human) to avoid them; the most prominent creationists can say no such thing. This is a fundamental difference: scientific understanding may be tarnished by these overgeneralisations, but ultimately they can be explained as simplifications or representations of reality, while creationism is meaningless without them.

  4. Well done. As someone who grew up in Southern Appalachia and later became an anthropology graduate student, I would like to suggest another similarity between Creationists and evolutionists—they seem to have a need to tell you your business. If I had a nickle for every Baptist that told me my mother should be ashamed for letting me go to a Methodist church because they don’t preach the Bible and for every bioanthropologist that made a patronizing remark about non-atheists…

    There’s a rather brilliant two-part episode of South Park that you might enjoy if you haven’t seen it already –

  5. I don’t know if I can endorse the main philosophical idea behind this argument, namely, that nothing occurs for any purpose. It seems indisputable that terrestrial life has evolved into more and more intelligent forms, culminating in human life, which is able to ask itself these questions and figure out how it evolved. We might be ‘98% chimp’, but the remaining 2% is a difference that makes a difference, is it not? No lesser creature than humans is remotely close to being able to do what we do.

    What of the idea that the same kinds of developments occur by different routes – that eyes developed three times, seperately, and photosynthesis by a number of different routes?

    It seems to me that the whole thrust of evolution seems a tropism towards higher and higher levels of awareness. Of course this is not an explicit part of evolutionary theory, but there is nothing in the theory that rules it out, either.

    I agree that creationists and evolutionists have much in common, but I think this is because of the historical circumstances of the debate. Evolution is intrinsically less antagonistic to (for example) Indian religions, because they don’t put nearly the same stock in creation mythology. I doubt that it would have worried the Ancient Greeks either. Plotinus would have had no trouble with evolution I am sure.

    I like the humour and the sense of irony though, overall a great read. Especially the cartoons. Still laughing over the top one.

  6. Great article! I also see plenty of creationist tendencies even within evolutionary biology – ‘evolutionary creationism’, if you will. As if evolution happened just to make us, as a rather convoluted design process by a slightly dumber creator. Some, like Simon Conway Morris, even make such claims explicitly. Interestingly enough, Conway Morris is also quite religious. Hmmm.

    “large-bodied, multicellular organisms are a bit of a sideshow, a collection of huge, closely-related freaks.”
    Slight nitpicking: the ‘famous’ multicellular (it’s actually ok to use that word, I think) lineages have attained multicellularity independently, and are, in fact, scattered throughout the eukaryotic tree (fungi and animals being sort of close to each other, land plants being quite far away); in fact, multicellularity can be said to have evolved upwards of 16 times (King 2004 Developmental Cell). In fact, that tree you used is actually a good decade or so out of date, and ridiculously wrong by now, at least in the eukaryote side of things — no worries, many current evol biol textbooks haven’t bothered fixing that yet, and most biologists are too zoocentric to care. I have a couple trees here and on the bottom here that may be more representative, although keep in mind that there have been some changes already in how some of the groups are organised.

    But I do thoroughly approve of your message – in this case at least, bigger is not neccessarily better! Especially considering that neutral evolution may actually have a substantial role in gain of complexity. I’ve ranted about the whole ‘ascent’ idea here, if interested…

    @Jonathan – as a non-animal biologist, I REALLY REALLY cringe at what you wrote there. A lot. First of all, the ‘98% chimp’ thing is a rather irrelevant statement – genes function in such complicated manners that merely comparing organisms by percentage of shared genes/sequences is just stupid. The media insists on doing it, for some reason, and some evolutionary anthropologists seem to savour that factoid a little too much.

    What of the idea that the same kinds of developments occur by different routes – that eyes developed three times, seperately, and photosynthesis by a number of different routes?
    Convergent evolution?

    It seems to me that the whole thrust of evolution seems a tropism towards higher and higher levels of awareness.
    Toxoplasma, Warnowia and Trypanosomes may disagree with you there. Just as some examples. Gould has a good point on this in his book The Full House, where he discusses this ‘law’ that popped up in paleontology that lineages get bigger with time (same type of directionalism as the awareness argument, in my opinion). After each mass extinction, tiny marine shelled-organisms (foraminiferans) are found to be bigger and bigger until the next one hits. However, this is a simple misunderstanding of statistics (something we all seem to innately suck at) – the lineages grow in VARIANCE, ie they get more diverse. There is a lower limit, ie they cannot get much smaller than a certain point. However, the upper limit is less restricted, and some specimen can get quite huge – while the vast majority remains on the bottom. This is akin to a drunk man staggering home after a pub night, to use Gould’s example – there’s a limit on one side of the sidewalk (the wall), while the other limit is much further away (other side of the road) — the drunk invariably ends up in the middle of the road, given enough time. While staggering blindly. I think this is a wonderful illustration of how apparent ‘trends’ can arise from aimless evolutionary processes. =D

    Of course this is not an explicit part of evolutionary theory, but there is nothing in the theory that rules it out, either.
    Is it testable? No? Then it lies forever in the realm of philosophy, and is therefore irrelevant to evolutionary science. We can argue about this until the cows come home, but if there’s no way to settle it experimentally, I don’t see a point in mixing it with science. It’s ok to extrapolate science into the less experimental grounds, but then let’s explicitly label it as such.

    From a philosophical perspective, I find the most parsimonious and factually-supported view to be monist, materialist and non-anthropocentric (as much as I can; my brain may be ‘wired’ differently). Adding directionality to evolution just complicates things, and raises more questions than it answers. We have enough questions already, thanks. We need to raise good (and specific, testable) ones, not random metaphysical musings.

    By the way, you may find it interesting, for your convergence point, that a camera eye-like structure occurs in some unicellular dinoflagellates (algae), which are even capable of forming an image. Look up Warnowia/Warnowiids/Erythropsidinium ‘ocellus’ – really cool stuff, should be a lot less obscure than it currently is!

    1. Evolutionary theorists see fit to comment on philosophy and religion, so why should a philosopher not comment on evolutionary theory?

      Because evolution is a scientific theory, does this mandate that life is inherently meaningless?

      I suggest that only reason you like materialism is because normality is comfortable, for you, at this time.

  7. Thanks. Your article helped me understand the perspective of creationists, although I still cannot generate any sympathy for the kind of thinking that makes a complete muddle out of science.

    1. I can’t either … but over time, I’ve realized that just as many staunch “believers” in evolution make chicken salad out of science as well. They aren’t carefully considering what they claim to think and thinking it as an active choice based on understanding. Most of them seem to believe in the Great Chain of Being — along with an awful lot of bullsh*t ev-psych — with as little understanding, just to exercise tribal membership in a group that looks down on the members of the opposite tribe of creationists.

      Seriously. If I were uncertain of evolution or had come out of a strong religious background, and the first thing I ran into when I asked about evolution was some guy telling me birds are dinosaurs but who had no clue why, chimps gave birth to humans, and by the way men are naturally inclined to rape so it’s totally okay, I’d be within my rights to round-file them. Even as a hard scientist myself (MS in physics), I’ve run into a lot of disdain for asking simple questions even of professional anthropologists. I have to scare them with the amount of math I’ve learned before they will do anything but roll their eyes at me, and I agree with them!

      I guess I’m just saying that there are unscientific jackasses on both sides.

  8. Not only do evolutionists “cheat” by importing the language of design, purpose, function, etc. into their depictions of biological reality, the fact is, humans apparently lack the very language needed to describe biological realities without resorting to the language of design, purpose and function. It is curious that evolution has (supposedly) stuck us with brains wired to think in ways that more naturally support the premises of theism than atheism.

    1. Richard Ball said:

      This is probably why concepts like evolution are so hard for so many people to grasp, and why as a biological phenomenon evolution is not intuitively obvious. But we think in terms of purpose because that’s how humans operate, and in terms of design because we design, and we have conferred these human traits upon our dieties.

  9. But it does seem absurd that the concept of ‘purpose’ only occurs within human thought. Every creature has a main purpose, which is to survive and proliferate (The Selfish Gene argument would say, these are the activities of the gene, which is engendering its own surivival.) But this overall purpose spawns purposeful activity at every level of biological existence. Beavers build dams, salmon return to their home stream, ants build nests, and so on. Of course this is all instinctive behaviour and the beavers and salmon and ants aren’t consciously reflective in the same way that humans are. But why is it then, that there is this proposed discontinuity between the purpose that nature is alive with, and the human sense of ‘something happening for a reason’? We are, after all, an outcome of all of this activity. Really I have no objection to the idea of there not being a creator-god, but the idea that the universe is devoid of ‘purpose’ just seems entirely fatuous to me. I am sure it is only because of the Enlightenment backlash against the sense of divine providence. ‘If religion believes there is a purpose, well then, it must be wrong’.

  10. Hi all — apologies for being away and not commenting on all your comments, but I’m still bouncing back after our Neuroanthropology conference (more on that soon), the flu (still dogging me), and a death in our family. The discussion has been great, and a couple of you have called me out on a couple of niggling problems in the original post, especially Psi wavefunction.

    You know, I knew that tree chart was out of date, but you’re right, I didn’t realize just HOW far out of date. Unfortunately, when it comes to graphics, I’m a bit of a bottom-feeder, finding most of them out there in the interwebs. I actually searched and searched for a good one that wasn’t too complicated to stick in this post, and I thought that this was the best I could find. Obviously, ‘best’ isn’t necessarily equal to ‘good’ in this case. Thanks for the King (2004) citation and the correction on the relation of fungi and animals to plants — I did overstate the closeness of relations among multicellular organisms, but I would stand by the original point, which is the bias towards focusing our attention on the multicellular in both popular perception and even in scientific research.

    Janis captures the sense I wanted to get across in the piece, that some of the proponents of evolutionary thought in the popular sphere actually do the cause of persuading religious Creationists a bit of a disservice by picking illustrative cases (rape, materialism, etc.) that seem specifically chosen to provoke, irritate and enrage those who like to talk about humanity having a ‘purpose’ whether divine or otherwise. That is, if we really want to persuade believers in purposeful creation, we should probably not choose these incredibly controversial — and in many cases tendentious — arguments as our front line approach. Peter Stromberg (who writes a column over at Discover Magazine on anthropology and psychology) has taken me to task for not appreciating more interesting and recent thinking in evolutionary psychology, and he’s right — I don’t do that enough — but so often the PUBLIC face of evolutionary thinking tends toward the more outrageous (‘Neuron found that makes us believe in God.’ ‘Rape gene discovered — it’s just human nature!’ ‘Girls programmed by evolution to like ponies!’).

    So thanks to all of you for the comments. And to Jonathan, mate, I think you’re hung up on exactly the issue I’m describing: the use of ‘purposeful’ language to describe an unpurposed process. I don’t buy the ‘selfish gene’ argument very much at all, and there are plenty of animals that do NOT successfully reproduce (me, for example). So to say that the ‘purpose’ of life is to survive and proliferate endows the process through which life survives and proliferates too much initial direction. Just because it happens, doesn’t mean that there is anything or anyone intending it.

    Please don’t think my denial of ‘purpose’ is an ‘Enlightenment backlash.’ It is my best attempt to square the clearest understanding of evolution I can come to, as yet, with the meanings and implications of English, an imperfect language. My rejection of ‘purpose’ is not an emotional one, but a very carefully considered grappling with the phenomenon we are seeking to describe, the meaning of the term, and the unintentional connotations that creep in along with the explicit denotations. In simple English: it ain’t like ‘purpose,’ so I don’t want to call it ‘purpose.’ I’m sure that there is some philosopher out there who has redefined ‘purpose’ in such a way to include non-intended outcomes, but that’s not the way most of us use the word, so I’m going to try to hold the line on this one.

    1. They aren’t just picking deliberately inflammatory examples, though. They’re completely screwing up their arguments for deliberately inflammatory examples. Like I said, they don’t actually understand evolution or even get it right.

      Saying that the problem is that they pick deliberately provoking examples is like saying, “Well yes, rape is perfectly natural and hence okay, but don’t say it out loud or else women will get frothy.” It makes it seem like you’re arguing in favor of deliberately hiding the truth because some thin-skinned types won’t like it. What I’m saying is that the deliberately provoking things they are saying aren’t even correct or in most cases vaguely indicated. We have no idea where rape came from, really. The problem with the “what race is stupidest” argument isn’t that it’s provocative. It’s that it’s incorrect.

      And that leads me back to my main issue: most people who claim to be “scientific” aren’t any smarter or thinking any more clearly than your typical bible-thumper. There is absolutely no more good science in “God made dinosaur fossils to test our faith” than there is in “evolution forces chicks to dig middle-aged bald guys.” They are both provocative, both guaranteed to start arguments, and both dead wrong.

      It’s the latter that’s the problem, the “dead wrong” part, not the controversial part. The fact that they love flogging deliberately inflammatory things in creationists’ faces merely makes them assholes. The fact that most of what they say they

      1) don’t actually understand,
      2) haven’t thought through, and
      3) is in direct contradiction to the real world

      makes them just as incorrect as the god squad, which is much, much worse.

      1. Janis is right; I was being overly conciliatory (it was pointed out to me during the Neuroanthropology conference that I may have this tendency). Spot on, the problem with popular evolutionary psychology is not that it just chooses the wrong case studies to present as a form of public relations; it’s that the cases taken to the public are usually just flat-out wrong: badly understood, poorly research, inconsistent with evidence, self-serving, half-baked…

        In my own defense, I’ve written a number of impassioned and thorough trashings of these sorts of projects. But I also realize that there are more thorough, interesting evolutionary psychology projects out there. But maybe it’s a sign that the laws of fitness in the very unnatural selection process which is science journalism tend not to favour accuracy or evidentiary strength.

        In this case, Janis is completely right. My luke-warm comment was dead wrong. Note to self: don’t be nice to idiots in arguments as you might wind up saying something patently wrong in the effort to avoid pointing out they’re idiots. The same once happened to me in an interview with an obdurate journalist, and I hadn’t sufficiently learned the lesson…

      2. Overly conciliatory is okay. I’ve got the opposite problem, which can also cause headaches. 🙂

        I think we were just coming at it from different angles. You were looking at it as “what larger abstract principle of the creationists does the whole evolution thing offend” and I was coming at it from “how are both sides more alike than they realize.”

        I think there is also in some of these types of discussions a little fuzziness in definitions of the different groups. When you say “evolutionist,” you probably envision a rather bright group of thoughtful professor types. When I say “evolutionist,” I want to imagine that, but I tend to think, “Snotty guy on Usenet who calls himself a libertarian, thinks poor people are genetically inferior, and sleeps with a copy of Atlas Shrugged under his pillow.” Unfortunately, I think the latter are more often the ones that your curious creationist looking for more information is likely to run into.

        What you said wasn’t wrong per se, just … maybe only correct along one axis, with an equally important axis left unconsidered. These guys are trying to deliberately prod the religious types to get a scream out of them, absolutely. But they’re also just as unscientific and just as wrong.

  11. Well – it is a vexing issue, and should be. Incidentally on the whole I do really do like this website and the neuro-anthropoligical approach, it is very eye-opening and multi-disciplinary.

    ‘Non-intended outcomes’ – I am still mulling over whether the only intentional activities in the universe are those of humans. But I am inclined to think – not.

    Thanks for your replies!

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