Saturday, April 07, 2012

A new book on understanding creationism in the US

by Salman Hameed

As I write, the Tennessee legislature has passed a bill that allows teachers to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of ideas such as biological evolution, etc. On the surface this may seem reasonable, but in reality this phrasing has a history and it is a another way of sliding creationism into the science classrooms in the US (for example, see this earlier post from 2008, "Strengths and Weaknesses" = Creationism). Since there are so many people covering creationism battles in the US, I usually don't have posts on this. But this is a good opportunity to point out a new book on creationism in the US: American Genesis: Antievolution controversies from Scopes to Creation Science by Jeffrey P. Moran. What is interesting about the book is its emphasis on the issues of race, gender, and regional identities in the Scope trial (also in Tennessee - in 1925). While it may seem obvious, but it is worth re-emphasizing that many of the evolution issues are not really about epistemology but rather about what evolution has come to symbolize for different groups of people.

Here is the review of American Genesis from Science (you may beed subscription to access the full article). Here is an interesting bit about the fact that most people were not really familiar with any issues or controversies surrounding evolution, and that the Scopes trial brought the controversy to the forefront:
One might expect that the earliest evolution debates were primarily found in southern states and rural areas. But in fact, as Moran points out, until the 1920s southern Americans paid scant attention to Darwinism. When potential jurors were questioned for the Scopes trial, most confessed that they had not heard of any controversy over evolution and the Bible until after Scopes had been arrested. Before that time, the conflict was largely confined to the Northeast, where modernist views were rapidly advancing and sectarian groups were emerging to combat them. 
Exploring the racial dimensions of the Scopes trial, Moran notes that teaching evolution in public schools was not a major issue for the African American community at the time. In the South, relatively few black students attended high school; for those who did, the segregated schools emphasized agriculture and practical trades. A general acceptance of evolution represented a no-win situation for African Americans. Although some black intellectuals hoped that scientific advancement would undermine the South's oppressive social structure, it was evident evolution could be marshaled to further justify black inferiority. In fact, George Hunter's Civic Biology—Tennessee's official biology text, used by Scopes—explicitly described a hierarchy of races. The lowest was the “Ethiopian or negro type,” and it culminated with “the highest type of all, the Caucasians, [are] represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America” (2).
I knew about the social Darwinism in some of the textbooks in Tennessee at the time, but I didn't know about the reaction of African-Americans to that. Yes, we know that social Darwinism is not biological evolution - nevertheless, it serves as a powerful narrative against the acceptance of evolution. Interestingly, Obama has started to brand Republican economic policies as "social Darwinism". This is in response to the Republicans calling him a socialist and I think this social Darwinism brand will stick with the general voters.

But back to the book. I think one of the interesting components is about gender:

Beyond race and regional identity, the most surprising insights in American Genesis concern the role of gender. Moran persuasively argues that in the 1920s antievolutionism was primarily a female-led reform movement that sought political support against threats to children's moral and religious development. Women had recently secured the right to vote, and given their high visibility in the prohibition movement, politicians felt obliged to heed their concerns. During debate over the Butler bill, the speaker of the Tennessee Senate “proclaimed he had been petitioned to support the bill by ‘the women of the state and the teachers association.’” At the time of the Scopes trial, nearly all letters to newspapers in support of the Butler bill were written by women, whereas dissenting letters more often came from men. 
In the decades that followed—particularly after the 1961 publication of The Genesis Flood (3)—the antievolution movement shifted in emphasis from moral arguments to more “scientific” rebuttals. This transition toward natural science has galvanized greater male participation. Nevertheless, the female voice remains strong. In a 2005 Kansas survey (4) on whether evolution should be taught in the public schools, 74% of men answered yes while only 58% of women agreed. Asked whether it was “possible to believe in both God and evolution,” 73% of men agreed, whereas only 57% of women did so.
This is fascinating. We have been interviewing Muslim physicians and medical students in several countries. Once we are done with the survey, we will be able to see  if we find similar trends amongst different Muslim groups.  

Read the full review here


Asad M said...

Interesting, esp. women’s anti-evolution stance which is surprising as well.

There is another book called “Darwin’s Pious Idea” by Conor Cunningham, a philosopher and theologian at the University of Nottingham. Haven’t read the book but saw a programme where he said that the supposed clash between Darwin and God has been hijacked by extremists on both sides– fundamentalist believers who reject evolution on one side and fundamentalist atheists on the other, and quite rightly says that both are wrong.

He showed that since the early days, mainstream Christianity’s view of God and Creation has not been literal. There were scholars in Roman times such as Philo of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo who interpreted Genesis as having a deeper allegorical meaning. Augustine even warned Christians against treating the Bible literally or using it as science, saying that they would be ridiculed for talking nonsense.
Such views are also shared by Orthodox Christianity since antiquity till present times.

But in the 17th century, Irish archbishop James Ussher interpreted the Bible (esp. Genesis) literally, even calculating from clues in the Bible that the earth was created in 4004 BC and these ideas made it to every King James Version for the next 300 years.

Then in the early 20th century this American Creationism phenomenon started which basically has very little to do with either science or religion and a great deal to do with the morality and politics of that time. William Jennings Bryan, who led the prosecution against Scopes, was a left-wing politician with right-wing religious views. He (not unlike Obama) hated ‘Social Darwinism’ used by right-wing politicians to justify the richer members in society crowding out the poorer. But he wrongly connected Social Darwinism to biological evolution, the theory which undermined his literalistic religious beliefs and thus led to his opposing its teaching in schools.

Even Bryan didn’t take the creation of the world in 6 days at face value, rather he believed in what may today be called Old Earth Creationism (of the kind that accepts the earth as millions of years old but rejects the flood geology). The modern creationism phenomenon really took off after the 1961 book ‘Genesis Flood’ which attempted to provide a so-called ‘scientific’ explanation to the Genesis account of creation and followed Intelligent Design in late 1980s.

As for why he believes that ultra-Darwinists like Dawkins and Dennett are wrong in claiming that evolution implies that there cannot or is not a God on the basis of their idea of the selfish gene, read more here in this short review:

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Asad. I completely agree with you here. In fact Bishop Ussher at the time was doing good work - as he was making a reasonable guess about the age of the Earth from the best available information he had. And he wasn't the only one. There are a number of estimates from that time - but Ussher's result made it into the King James' Bible..and that is what most people quote.

And yes, William Jennings Bryan was a much more complex figure than we get from the popular accounts and from movies like "Inherit the Wind" (which - as a movie is terrific!). Stephen Jay Gould had a very nice essay on Williams Jennings Bryan trying to correct some of the misconceptions and in showing that much of opposition to evolution was due to the social causes he thought were linked to evolution (Bryan was big on the women's suffrage movement etc.).

Also - Thanks for the link.

Anonymous said...

Mashallah, Jazakallah for the article. I am sad I could not find any Arab Muslim Evolutionist blogs since I am Arab and want to my area progress but I love reading your blog!