Jere H. Lipps
Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology
University of California, Berkeley, California 94720
The United States is a peculiar place at times. We impeach a President who presides over the best of times. We call ourselves Americans when a whole hemisphere deserves that right. The most outrageous cults are wholly protected as long as they don't break the law. We celebrate National Ground Hog Day. And we kill more citizens with guns every two years than died in the entire Viet Nam War. All of this is our heritage, but sometimes the rest of world wonders what we are all about. Tradition and constitutional rights to freedom guarantees that will be the case. All views have protection, and we would have it no other way.
In America, as nowhere else, science, especially paleontology, evolutionary biology, and geology, are assaulted from one of those very different sides of America. You have heard about it, because we have made it a very big issue, even though it has been almost exclusively American. And it is rising again. Let me briefly fill everyone in on it, although it is far more complex than can be dealt with in this editorial. It is creationism--that religious viewpoint that the Bible (King James Version) is literally correct; especially The Book of Genesis. This view is held vehemently, particularly by evangelical, largely fundamental, Protestants in the United States. Creationists are not easily classified, for even they themselves don't see the scriptures in the same way and differ in their own interpretations of what they believe. But they cause much confusion in the general public and degrade science whenever they can.
Last year about this time, I got a first-hand view of one of the foremost creationist organizations. I visited the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and its Museum of Creation and Earth History in Santee, California (near San Diego). I was with a group of skeptics, including Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. Genie and I were teaching a weekend course called "Creationism vs. Evolution" in San Diego, and we took our class to ICR so they could study the movement first-hand. It was a little scary, a little funny, and a wholly useful experience. The Museum is part of the Institute itself, and in spite of its location in an industrial park, the Institute is well-run. It is home to one of the most active anti-evolution, anti-paleontology, and anti-ancient earth history movements in the United States. The ICR maintains a "firm commitment to creationism and to full Biblical inerrancy and authority", and only one bible will do, the King James Version. To evangelize this way, ICR runs a graduate school, radio programs heard in nearly every US state and some Canadian provinces, a publication program, a major mailing effort, creation research in geology, biology and other sciences, and the museum with displays telling the creationist's story alongside some anti-evolution tracts. This is an impressive organization! Yet it remains a Christian evangelical movement that believes the exact words of the Lord are recorded in the Bible, and its brand of "scientific" research aims to prove the biblical stories of creation in Genesis are correct. ICR does this with a fervor matched only by other similar creationist organizations.
I was in hostile territory, I feared, for I had read the literature of the Institute. I learned that evolutionists (this includes paleontologists and most geologists, of course) foisted all kinds of horrors on society--murder, rape, adultery, homosexuality, abuse, robbery, and most other societal ills. Believers in any science that contradicts or questions the biblical creation stories were characterized as being misguided at best and the devil's handmaidens at worst. Predictably, the ICR staff was hospitable, if a little quiet, for they knew our group included paleontologists, geologists, anthropologists, and evolutionists. Nevertheless, we were treated to a lecture on how quick (less than a day) 30-foot thick ash layers were deposited at Mount St. Helens during its 1980 eruption, and how rapidly (a week or so) "The Little Grand Canyon of Mt. St. Helens" was cut (into loosely consolidated ash deposits only days old). The lecture ended with slides of the real Grand Canyon. Though unspoken, the implications were clear--all of these geological features were formed so fast that there was no conflict with the King James story. Questions from the audience about very slow deposition in modern environments and in ancient rocks near San Diego were met with silence. Statements from the audience about the great age of the Grand Canyon went unanswered. No arguments here. Apparently, ICR doesn't engage in controversy with scientists in uncontrolled situations. A practiced debate is safer and better.
The lecture hall's walls were lined with a library of creationist, some genuine peer-reviewed scientific literature and a lot of general textbooks. Not a bad library. The creation-scientists do not publish their results in peer-reviewed journals, however. They claim they are excluded by the scientific establishment, but the truth is that they never submit their work to those outlets. Instead, they search that literature for information that they can use to support their claims. Any seemingly inconsistent data, for example, an out-of-place fossil that might be used to claim that the paleontological stratigraphic order is incorrect, is seized on to support their views.
At the start of our museum tour, the guide told us that ICR aimed to demonstrate through scientific research that The Book of Genesis was true. This they attempt with gusto. The museum has seven main rooms, one for each day of creation described in The Book of Genesis. Every display, most of which were well-designed, supports Genesis and other biblical stories. They answer fundamental questions like: Where did I come from? What is the meaning of life? What happens when I die? Do religion and science clash? Why is there pain and suffering in the world? What is the evidence for the Genesis Flood? When did the Ice Age occur? How old is the earth? And what about the origins of: mankind? nations? languages? This is powerful stuff that everyone thinks about! ICR's answers are rooted in the Bible; not in logic, evidential reasoning, and critical thinking. Their approach can be very appealing, for it requires little effort, provides comfort, and is familiar to Christians.
In addition to my group, many parents and children were viewing the displays. They were excited and clearly enthusiastic. The bookstore, loaded only with creationist literature (published mostly by ICR) was so crowded with visitors that I could not find anything to buy myself, except for a wonderful poster showing a "battle" between evolutionists and creationists from two castles. The evolution towers were labeled with all sorts of evils while the creationist towers were loaded with a heavy dose of morality and biblical literalism. Paleontology, of course, shows up in the museum displays but in ways you might not recognize. In a young Grand Canyon display, Neanderthals, sabre-tooth cats, modern shark jaws, ammonites, and other fossils are mixed together to support the biblical flood story. I was surprised to see that they had a cast of one of my own museum's sabre-tooths recovered from the Rancho La Brea Pleistocene in Los Angeles.
While creationism has had some successes elsewhere in the world, it remains largely an American phenomenon. It started in the early 1900's when publicly-supported education became widespread in the US, and people discovered that evolution, along with its helpmates geology and paleontology, were being taught to their children with tax-dollars. Evolution, in particular, was (and still is) widely regarded by biblical fundamentalists as leading to amorality and a host of other social problems. Importantly, evolutionary theory, the paleontologic record, and the great age of the earth, as suggested by scientists, threatened their faith in the Bible because these contradicted its literal interpretation. Thus, laws were passed in a number of states to forbid the teaching of evolution in schools. This led to the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925 of John Scopes, who dared to teach evolution in spite of a Tennessee state law against so doing. Although Scopes lost his appeal (he was fined $100) and Tennessee's anti-evolution laws remained on the books, creationism nevertheless faded as a major American issue . . . for a time. Nevertheless, the effects of those remaining laws changed science teaching in America because textbook publishers issued biology books that omitted or downplayed evolutionary theory to insure that no sales would be lost in anti-evolution states. Although creationism was not very evident in general public discussions for next 40 years, its influence deeply affected American science education.
This changed in the 1960's with the reinvigoration of American science. The National Science Foundation issued new guidelines for biology teaching and many anti-evolution laws were overturned. These developments revived the political and legal activities of the creationist movement. Creation organizations began to lobby states to reinstitute anti-evolution laws, with the subsequent filing of many lawsuits. During this time the creationist movement also developed a new strategy, the teaching of so-called creation-science equally with evolution, paleontology, and geology. In Arkansas and Louisiana the laws enacted by the legislatures were repealed by court actions in the 1980's that declared creation-science religion, not science.
Again, creationists were quiet for a time, but then, a new strategy appeared largely centered on making inroads on local school boards and influencing school officials. Unlike European or other countries where curricula are determined at a national level, ordinary Americans can commonly tell the schools what to teach and how to do it. This is so because the schools are paid for by local taxes, not federal ones. Local school boards can insist that creation-science be taught alongside evolution, and the evolution parts of textbooks are covered with pasted notifications that evolution is "just a theory" and not to be considered seriously. Indeed, serious evolution is hardly taught in detail anywhere in the public schools of America. Working through local school boards creationists can intimidate teachers who do not conform to their wishes. They can dictate which textbooks can be used, hence publishers cater to their demands and downplay evolution, paleontology, and geology. Throughout America, teachers (many of whom may not understand evolutionary theory very well themselves) are afraid to teach about evolution for fear of losing their jobs or creating parental hostility. For the most part, they receive little help from anyone. The National Center for Science Education provides on-call assistance, but that is the only organization countering the anti-scientific views of creationists on a daily basis. Creationists have an easy target in most American schools.
Along with these inroads came a renewed attack on the scientific evidence by law school professors, creation-biologists, and creationist leaders. Many of these people are highly educated, possess authoritative credentials, and make superficially compelling arguments. These attacks are received with a good deal of sympathy by a large number of people in America to whom the scientific process is a mystery, and who cannot evaluate the scientific evidence.
To a large number of Americans, creationism is compelling stuff. Survey after survey in the past decade show that between 45 and 50% of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, even if they do not ascribe to creationism. The scientific view, with its sometimes difficult reasoning and mounds of evidence, is simply too much for these people to accept, especially when faced with rather simple statements backed up by the Bible and museums, books and programs like those pushed by ICR and other creationist organizations. But should these creation beliefs be foisted on anybody else? Should these beliefs be adorned in scientific terms? The US Federal government thinks not, because creationism is religion. I think not, because this kind of reasoning promotes failure in our modern technological and scientific society. Religion may well have a place, but not in science.
The creationist movement is more active again, with more organizations promoting it, and with more people involved than ever before. The plan these groups have is not rational discussion, but is frequently described as something akin to war. Take Answers in Genesis, another vigorous advocate of Biblical creationism. Its literature and website claim its purpose is to "Defend the authority of the Bible from the very first word"--not exactly the basis for rationality. Or the newly resurrected "intelligent design" proponents. Their credo is "to defeat the common enemy of creation, to wit, naturalism" (W. A. Dembski in the Introduction to Mere Creation, 1998, p. 14). While these are metaphors, the passions of the adherents run much deeper, for they seem to see evolution and naturalism as a direct threat to their very way of life.
The task before American paleontologists, geologists, evolutionists, and anthropologists is large. We must move to educate the public, not only in schools but on television, in the newspapers and the other media. This means we must first educate those who contribute to these media and to educating school teachers. Another effort is now underway. The National Academy of Science issued a wonderful book explaining science and evolution, written simply and aimed at teachers. The Paleontological Society plans short courses for teachers and interested laypeople, accompanied by second Special Publication on the evolution-creationism debate. Unfortunately, these efforts will not make for a population able to understand science and evolution in the near future. More must be done. The National Science Foundation and other science organizations need to find new ways to reach larger numbers of people through the mass media. Cooperation and collaboration with these media seems to me the only way to accomplish the kind of educated society required by our science and technology dominated lives.
Creationism may not have large impact in your country. But much of what is accepted in America eventually makes its way to the rest of the world. Even now, creationists movements are at work in Australia, New Zealand, Britian, and other places. Paleontologists worldwide might join us in a discussion of this important issue here in Palaeontologia Electronica. What is the extent of creationism now in the world? Is it a threat to science education? Is it a threat to the way we do paleontology? The floor is open.
Discussion of this Editorial
Copyright: Coquina Press, 15 March 1999