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January 7, 2007

Filed under: culture»religion»evangelical

What We Can Learn From The Creationists

I read Ronald Numbers' history of anti-evolution fundamentalism so you don't have to!

  • The arguments for creationism (more accurately, "flood geology") are very old. They surface in 1905, and seem to be pretty much complete compared to the arguments of modern creationists by the 1930s. This includes the order of geological strata, the dating of the young Earth hypothesis, the appeal to the second law of thermodynamics, and a primitive version of the argument from design. It's no wonder scientists are a little testy about this--they've been answering these same points for the last hundred years.
  • The basic ideas of flood geology are rooted in Seventh Day Adventist prophet Ellen White. They were then adapted by a number of amateur geologists and random evangelicals, spreading across a number of fundamentalist protestant sects, including Mormonism. But it began with the Seventh Day Adventists, who were also an offshoot of the Millerites, one of this country's great apocalyptic cults. Quite a track record.
  • Although organizations meant to promote creationism are, like their arguments, not new at all, if I've read Numbers correctly it is only relatively recently that they began appealing to the general public. For the early history of creationism, the struggle was actually to spread its theories out into the other Protestant faiths. Only once this had been accomplished did leaders attempt to subvert public education and awareness.
  • Crackpots, all of them. Perhaps this is a consequence of the American dream, wherein mediocre people can achieve greatness, or perhaps it's common to many religious movements from the outside, but the history of the creationist movement comes across as terrifically dysfunctional. The men who wrote and promoted it were rarely trained scientists, and in some cases were guilty of entirely false credentials and fake doctorates. They saw a Ph.D. not as a sign of having learned something, but simply as a shortcut to credibility for their uneducated viewpoints. For a long time, this was a struggle for them. Now, of course, with the combination of increasing political support and an alternative Christian educational system, it is much easier to be an accredited creationist.

Numbers' book is not something I would necessarily recommend to other people. It is organized oddly, by time period and region, lending it a slightly fragmented narrative--sometimes persons will appear, take up a few short paragraphs, and then completely vanish by the end of the next page. This seems to be a sign of exhaustive research (almost a third of the volume is citations and endnotes) without much thought to the idea of a strong narrative backbone. Numbers is also very sympathetic to his subjects, having been raised as an Adventist and losing his faith during college biology courses. For many readers, he may be too sympathetic--this book does not aim to discredit the views of the creationists at all, but simply summarizes them in a matter-of-fact way. It does make sense that Numbers has not tried to detail the flaws in each plan, and accounts for the warm reception this book has apparently recieved from both religious and scientific communities, but newcomers to this material should probably pair it with a good primer on evolutionary biology--The Blind Watchmaker, perhaps.

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