Sunday, January 23, 2005

Why Creationists Need To Be Creationists

I always loved animals and always loved science. I read the kids' science and nature books and encyclopedias, as well as adult stuff, like huge volumes about animals e.g., "The Life of Animals" by Alfred Brehm. The best present I ever got was a chemistry set my brother brought me from a trip to Egland.

I started learning English when I was five years old. No surprise here, as my parents met at the University, both studying English. It took a while until I was capable of reading serious books in English, though. The first one, at the age of eleven, was a biography of Bruce Lee, followed by "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull" and "Karate-Do: My Way of Life" by Gichin Funakoshi, then a bunch of books about horse-training. The next big one, at about the age of thirteen, was Darwin's "Origin of Species". That was a tough read and I don't remember if I ever made it to the end. But it certainly made an impression. Growing up an atheist in an atheist family in an atheist country meant that reading the "Origin" did not create or resolve any cognitive dissonances as none were present. It was just so fascinating. And reading it was a turning point of sorts: moving from reading fun stuff about animals to actually understanding nature, moving from description to explanation, from one's intellectual childhood to adulthood. Now, I am certainly not the Raving Atheist, I just grew up with it and never had to really think about it very hard. I lamented how, of all the numerous drawbacks, the biggest single factor that would prevent me from being elected to any office in the USA is my open atheism (also: On Religion and Power of Internal Pollesters).

All of you interested in the whole evolution/creation debate probably know the ubiqutous little book with light-blue hard covers by Henry Morris, the kind you can find in every church bookstore. Well, I got one from an old lady in a remote village in Eastern Serbia and read it in Serbo-Croatian translation when I was a teen. I just laughed at it. I wish I still had the copy for historical and sentimental purposes (I got myself an English-language copy here - that was easy).

I did not take this seriously until I arrived in the United States in 1991, and soon afterwards realized how many people here truly believe that crap. I was astounded. I could not believe it, even less understand it. I started reading about the phenomenon, then got sick of it, then got back into it when I started blogging last year and encountered the news of renewed efforts to push IDC into the school science curricula. I was still resisting immersing myself into the old tired controversy until I heard that the Minister of Education in Serbia tried to push evolution out of schools there. As a Serb, and as a biologist, I felt I had a responsibility to cover the whole saga on this blog (I Take This Personally, Saga Continues, Serbs Like Darwin After All, Darwin In Serbia, and More On Darwin In Serbia) and then, I could not stop any more (Definition Of Theory As In Theory Of Evolution, Evolution/Creation Debate, Evolution/Creation Discussions On DailyKos, Skeptical Or Not Skeptical Enough, Sweaty After Debating Creationists, and IDC Blog Craze).

As regular visitors to this blog know, I spend most of the time here trying to understand the Red/Blue divide, what makes a conservative a conservative, or a liberal a liberal. I have read Lakoff, Ducat, Carse and Parenti, as well as many good blogs and articles on this question, trying to get into the psychology of one's ideology. At the same time, I am trying to understand the psychology of people who reject evolution versus the psychology of people who reject creationism. And I see some parallels. Of course, not every creationist voted for Bush, and not every rational person voted for Kerry, but still, some similarities are emerging.

I want this post to be a philosophically sound one. However, I have absolutely no formal training in philosophy (or religion). I have read the cartoon book "Philosophy for Beginners" and a couple of collections of popular essays by Bertrand Russell. I had Marxism in school and barely remember reading the "Manifesto" in high school. As a kid, I started to read the Illustrated Bible for Children, but abandoned it as boring once I got into the New Testament. The only serious philosopher I
found useful to read a lot, including thick obscure volumes full of boring details, was Charles Darwin. Yet, I have been quite a regular participant in bi-weekly meetings of the Duke University Philosophy of Biology group and found that a sufficient philosophical training for my purposes as a biologist. I hope that commenters will set my arguments straight.

One of the assumptions of my argument will be that George Lakoff's model of political ideology is correct. If there is a good fit between his model and the groundwar rhetoric of anti-evolution and anti-creationism camps, this will strengthen his theory. Let's use this case as a test of Lakoffian theory.

I have no idea how this post is going to end. I will think-as-I-go and hope to be surprised by the final conclusion. What I intend to do is start with a hypothesis that the core motivator for rejection of evolution is some kind of fear or anxiety. First, I will try to list all the reasons that creationists, as well as their critics, have put forward to explain rejection of evolution. I will try to look at each of those reasons in the context of fear: what kind of fear it addresses, and what kind of mechanism for coping with fear it provides. Then, I will look at the reasons why evolution appears to be such a threat while other scientific theories do not. Next, I will look for reasons people not just reject evolution, but also accept various types of creationism, ranging from the most primitive Young Earth Creationism all the way to the most sophisticated Intelligent Design Creationism. Finally, by the time I finish, I will probably have developed some ideas of the ways we can fight back, and why. So, buckle up and join me for the ride.

Arguments Put Forward By Creationists

Argument From Logic

Yesterday on NPR, on Science Friday with Ira Flatow, a caller stated that she arrived to her IDC position via logic. Steven Weinberg, in the studio, told her to go back and re-examine her logical steps.

Logic is not as easy as it seems. If you really want to arrive at a particular conclusion you can easily miss an error in your logic. For instance, when Daniel Dennett's book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" first came out, I bought it and started reading it. Dennett builds his argument in a series of logical steps and his starting points are things everyone will agree with. The scheme of most of the first half of the book was: A thus B, B thus C, C thus D, .....Y thus Z, with Z= Stephen Jay Gould is a lyer and a moron. It all sounded neat and impressive, but his final conclusion raised a red flag. I understand (thus like) Gould too well to accept Dennett's conclusion so easily. So, I went back and re-read every logical step, thought about it, and discussed it in a group of several very smart biologists and philosophers of biology, until I finally found which logical step was not as logical as it seemed at first reading. There was, after all, a step P thus Q, where "thus" was not warranted, and everything after that was just plain wrong. Please don't force me to torture myself by re-reading first 200 pages of Dennett's writing again just so I can find the exact P=>Q step all over again after all these years. Take this as a homework assignment - find out for yourself.

If a professional philosopher who is also an extremely intelligent person like Dan Dennett can be blind (to this day, and in spite of criticisms) to his own illogical step, and it is so difficult even for a bunch of well educated and trained people to detect that logical error, how can an average person ever trust his or her own un-trained logic? So many smart people have read Dennett's book and were misled by his good writing and impressive rhetoric to agree with him. Likewise, so many people are impressed by apparent logic of the IDC argument. In the age when rationality is held at high esteem, it is great personal PR to assert one arrived at one's conclusions by logic. It tags the speaker as an intelligent and educated, thus credible person even if that is not exactly the case. Buyer beware.

The argument from logic (or the related argument from "facts") is not very informative about the person who voices it. It does not readily reveal the real motivation behind one's rejection of evolution. Thus, it is impossible to diagnose the type of fear motivating such a person, and how the argument from logic acts as a coping mechanism. It, perhaps, shows that there may be a fear of being seen as stupid and uneducated in a world in which intelligence and education are held in highest regard, but this cannot be the primary fear.

Argument From Morals

People who have grown up religious assume, without much thought, that ethical behavior of humans is dependent on a higher being giving humans the rules of ethical conduct. This view is dependent on a hierarchical view of the world, including the hierarchical view of moral order, in which ethics stemming from basic human emotions, mental make-up, and evolutionary theory are unfathomable.

Impuning immorality to atheists is a logical conclusion from a Strict Father worldview sensu Lakoff, and evolution is seen as particularly dangerous due to its misperception as a theory that removes God from science. This misperception is due to deliberate propaganda by Creationists' PR machines, like the Discovery Institute, as well as to the generally horrendous state of science education in the USA. It also harks back to the time when Darwinism was seen as removal of humans from the center of God's attention, just like Galileo removed the Earth from the center of the Universe and, later, Freud, took us off the pedestal of rationality.

Is the "argument from morals" actually an argument from fear of modern civilization? Is the world becoming too confusing? Is this a nostalgic pull towards some imaginary Golden Age in the past? Or is this a fear that humans, left to their own devices, cannot build a reasonable moral code? After all, conservatism as a worldview is based on the (outdated and erroneous) view that people are inherently bad and that only strict upbringing through harsh (Dobsonian) discipline can build "character" and lead to moral behavior in adulthood. If people get their morals from strict childrearing practices of their parents, and parents get their moral guidance from God, then removing God will, logically, lead to the emergence of a whole generation of immoral brutes incapable of raising another generation of moral people. The precarious chain has been broken and there is no way to put it back together again.

This is a fear of what the world would look like if people behaved according to their "animalistic" instincts (ah, what a confusion - belief in animal nature of humans leads to rejection of animal ancestry of humans). In the conservative worldview, the world is very dangerous as it is, and will always be dangerous no matter what people do. This is why a threat of terrorism works on psyches of people living in rural Idaho where no terrorist will ever invest time, money and energy to attack. The only thing we can do is prevent the world from becoming even more dangerous than it already is, an almost unthinkably dangerous world of total chaos, murder and mayhem. This is fear of not being in control of external events and blaming other people's inherently bad natures for such a bleak state of things.

Need for Literal Reading of the Bible

This is a direct offspring and an extreme position of the argument from morals. If the Bible is not to be read literally, that means the Bible is not a Word of God, thus there is an opening for disputing God's existence, thus there will be no source of moral code, thus the world will be run over by people "behaving like animals" (which is a misunderstanding of the way animals behave, as the intraspecies murder and cannibalism are quite rare in the animal kingdom). Everybody who has read first two chapters of the Bible can see that it is impossible to read the Bible literally: which of the two accounts of Creation is correct? Yet, the insistence on literal reading of the Bible reveals an extreme insecurity about one's own strength in dealing with the external world, the complexities of the human civilization, and the vagaries of nature.

The extreme Dobsonian Strictfathering results in an extreme need for an external locus of moral authority. As American children (unlike their counterparts in most of the world) are kicked out of the house to fend for themselves at the age of eighteen, the reliance on one's father for moral guidance is forcefully replaced by a need for reliance for moral guidance on one's Higher Father (isn't this something Bush said to Woodward?). This type of childrearing leads to people too insecure to find strength of moral conviction within themselves, thus the idea that our code of ethics stems from our psychological make-up honed by our evolutionary history is not just unfathomable, but extremely threatening. The notion of internal moral locus is just not something that people raised this way can comprehend.

Need for an Activist God

A couple of years ago I invited Dr.Matt Cartmill to give the traditional Darwin's Birthday Seminar in our Department of Zoology. I have not found his argument online or detected if it was ever published somewhere, so I am not able to provide a link. You will have to trust me that I am not completely butchering his account (though, perhaps I am, so only Matt would know).

Christian theology postulates a God who is omnipresent (i.e., aspatial) and atemporal. God is not just everywhere, He is also everywhen. Christian God does not travel in time with us, from past through present to the future. When God created the Universe, he did not create just its beginning, he created ALL of it, including the whole HISTORY of the Universe, much of it is still in the future from our perspective, but can be seen all at once by God. When God is looking on his Creation, he is SIMULTANEOUSLY seeing the primordial soup, Galileo's trial, bomb exploding in Hiroshima, you praying, and your great-great-grandchildren going on a school field-trip to Mars. Why would He make changes in his Perfect Creation just because someone is praying for something? A little tweak of the fabric located just after the act of the prayer? Why? Our future has already been created for us long time ago, and that future is exactly what God wanted all along. No free will. No reward. No punishment. And remember that a folk behaviorism of stick and carrot is the core of strictfathering childrearing philosophy and a core conservative understanding of human nature (thus need for death penalty, more prisons, tougher laws and more invasions of other countries, as well as the "enabling" frame of welfare).

However, majority of Christians, especially the vocal conservative creationist kind, do not see the Christian God in this way. They want a God that is like Zeus: travelling through time with us and, being a God, having some superhero superpowers ("miracles") he can use to make some changes in the way history proceeds. Such a God can be potentially mollified through prayer and adoration. Such a God could be expected to occasionally intervene. Such a God would be expected to craft living species one by one in his basement shop. Such a God gives us free will to do whatever we want and that is scary, as other people may choose to do nasty stuff if they want, making the world a dangerous place. Such a God demands that we, of our own choosing, behave morally, as He will personally punish or reward every individual. A Zeus-like God makes us tremble - he is too interested in our day-to-day lives and our behavior. A Zeus-like God behaves like a Father. A person raised by a Strict Father grows up to believe in a Zeus-like father-like God, not the disiniterested God of Christianity who, in his wisdom and creativity (if He exists at all) created the evolutionary process as a mechanism for creation of all living things. Finally, people who believe in such a Zeus-like God are quite open about it. They do not see it as being un-Christian (while the theologians cringe), but as a badge of honor that they are serving in the army of an activist vengeful God. Thus, "Left Behind" books get sold by the millions....

Arguments Put Forward By Critics Of Creationists

Need for a Benevolent (yet Strict) Father

While conservative Christians think their belief in an Activist God is great, the liberals see it as dependence and cowardice, something to ridicule, something akin to the "just followed the orders" excuse at the Nurenmberg Trial. This attitude comes from the liberal dependence on internal locus of moral authority derived from one's Nurturant Father upbringing, which, in turn, stems from the core liberal belief that people are inherently potentially good and that childrearing is an exercise in honing this goodness, not an eradication of inherent badness. From here comes the notion that the world is not THAT dangerous after all (thus much less fear of terrorism by liberals even in places such as NYC - the obvious target for terrorists) and that it can be made less dangerous by human activity. This is basically an optimistic and future-oriented view of the world. Liberals tend to look to the past in horror and look to the future with hope. They see an arrow of time denoting progress. They see evolution as a process that hones the good to become even better. Conservatives, on the other hand, invent a beuatiful pastoral past they keep trying to bring back. They see history as a cycle of time, bringing more and more chaos and danger with each cycle. They see evolution as a process that prunes and kills the perfect and imperfect alike. The world has been going downhill ever since its inception (i.e., being kicked out of the Garden of Eden).

Need For Belogning In A Community

I have written a lot about the way conservative upbringing leads to the "Village" mentality: the need to belong to a tightly knit community of like-minded people. Group selection theory, as exemplified by David Sloan Wilson's application to the origin, evolution and adaptive function of religion, wonderfully explains the way Strictfathering engenders the Village mentality.

One of the most interesting properties of a Village-like community is the importance of a shared "secret" language. This is phatic language, used not to exchange information but to form emotional bonds between the group members. Various code-words and phrases are important components of such language, as they reveal shared membership. For instance, there was a recent analysis of the code-word Dude as it is used in the phatic language of membership in youth cultures. Other recent examples are Dred Scott and Maternity Group Homes, phrases that GW Bush used in the debates to signal the membership in the evangelical, anti-abortion and mysoginist crowd.

Bashing evolution is an example of phatic language. Words like "Darwinist" and "evolutionist" that are never used by actual evolutionary biologists serve as code-words for belonging to the Creationist Village, just like saying "Democrat party" instead of "Democratic party" immediatelly signals one's political party affiliation (GOP). These two words, ending with "-ist" also serve to provide equivalency between creationist belief and evolutionary methodology, infering that evolutionary theory is a religious belief instead of a method for understanding the material world. If the two are seen as two opposed religions, they can have a war on equal footing in which "my religion is better than yours" contest can take place and Christians, due to sheer numbers and the tight community spirit are confident in victory. This kind of rhetoric also allows the creationists to show up on TV as equals to evolutionary biologists, as the naive media misreads phatic language as logical language and, following the American fairness sentiment, indulges in destructive "He said/She said" pseudo-journalism.

Inability To Grasp Complex Non-Hierarchical Systems

I have written about this quite a bit here, here and here. Briefly, conservative/churchy upbringing leaves people at a Piagetian developmental stage in which they can make correlations and perhaps some linear (thus hierarchical) cause-effect relationships, but are incapable of grasping complex system of many interacting parts producing emergent complexity. Perhaps some people are afraid of evolution because they are incapable of understanding how it works. It is a complex system, after all. Fear of incomprehensible complexity?

Being in a Pre-Conscious State

Related to the previous argument, the notion that conservative Strict-Father upbringing does not lead to the breakdown of the bicameral mind (sensu Julian Jaynes), thus the envious fear of fully-conscious people by semi-conscious people .

Lack of Education and Sheer Stupidity

These two are probably the most often invoked reasons to understand why some people reject evolution. I do not think that Creationists are stupid, even if my whole Lakoff/Piaget/Jaynes construct is correct. The upbringing may have severely impaired their ability to understand the complex-system nature of evolutionary theory, but they are not stupid. Lack of education is definitely an important factor, but it is an argument of a different kind. It does not reveal anything about the psychology of anti-evolutionists. It deals with a lack of a possible remedy. But, if the Lakoff/Piaget/Jaynes scheme is correct, then it is extremely difficult to turn a creationist into an anti-creationist by schooling alone. The victims need not just remedial education, but remedial upbringing, something that may or may not be possible once a particular developmental age (and stage) has been passed.

Postmodernism As A Self-Inflicted Wound

We live in a post-modern world. Science is passe, so yesterday... On the other hand, creationism is fully postmodern, thus more in sync with the mood of the times.

Barely-Hidden Racism

There is nothing I can add to what these smart people have written about this idea:Creationism and Racism, Creationism Implies Racism, William Gibson on Creationism and Re Creationism. There is something to this argument for sure, though I do not think that this has been fully explored and understood yet.

Anxious Masculinity

If you have read the links just above, under the previous heading, you have seen that racism is, in fact, a stand-in for sexism stemming from anxious masculinity. Since I have written about this A LOT, let me just give you a couple of the best links instead of repeating myself and making this post even more ridiculously long:
Bush, Frogs, Baboons, Horses
Two Americas: Past, Present and Future
Enslaving Women: Not Just Fundies
I'm Gone Country
Rent Wars: It's Sex, Stupid
Hypocrisy Or Natural Order Of Things
Conservative Manly Men: What Are They Afraid Of
Conservatives Are Crazy And Dangerous

Science In General Or Just Evolution?

The same caller to the NPR Science Friday show who said that she arrived to IDC by logic was also asked by Steven Weinberg if evolution is the only scientific theory that bothers her, or if there are any other parts of science that she objects to. Her answer was a fast and strong "Just evolution!". So Copernicus, Galilei, Newton, Freud, Einstein and Weggener are no threat, but Darwin is. Why? And to whom?

I guess the biblical literalists would also object to all the other stuff: after all, the Earth is flat, static and in the center of the Universe. Having harems and enslaving enemies are good ideas, too. But the more sophisticated folks object only to evolution. If their problem was that it is "just a theory", they would have problems with other theories as well. If their problem was biblical inerrancy, they would have problems with all of science. If their problem is dethroning humans from the pinnacle of Creation, at least Freud would also be problematic. And here may lie the key.

Why is Freud OK, but Darwin is not? Is it because Freud affirms the basic notion that humans are born bad and have to be trained to become good? According to their reading of Freud, men have animalistic natures that can be tamed. According to their reading of Darwin, humans have animalistic natures that cannot be tamed. Both readings are wrong, but popular and consistent with their embrace of Freud and fear of Darwin. They do not understand the naturalistic fallacy to be a fallacy. If what "is" determines what "ought to" be, and we are basically animals, then nasty social Darwinism will take over society, and aggressive brutes will come and kill nice white rich boys. Nice white girls will choose big muscular brutes to marry. Freud is also understood to affirm male superiority, making anxious males much more comfortable with him than with Darwin. Thus racism and femiphobia seem to me to be extremely important motivators for rejection of evolution, and all other reasons, including those based on God and religion, are just add-ons to boost the argument or make it more palatable to the modern (e.g., "PC") social environment.

Mapping Types of Fear to Types of Creationism

All of the discussion so far examines the reasons for rejection of evolution, not reasons for acceptance of creationism in any of its forms. First, let's revisit the taxonomy of creationisms - read this article:
The Creation/Evolution Continuum and keep in mind the graphic from the article, reproduced right here:

If all of the discussion above makes any sense, only the biblical literalists would go for the Young Earth Creationism. Everybody else, no matter what arguments they present and what fear drives them, should be perfectly OK with Intelligent Design Creationism. This is the Age of Enlightement, the post-Darwinian Age in which the language of science, education and sophistication is held in high regard. If wrapping one's fears into scientific rhetorical pita-bread helps push one's anxiety-driven agenda, then by all means, go for it.

What Can Be Done?

If my thesis is correct, the motivation for rejection of evolution is not cerebral but visceral. It does not come from stupidity, miseducation or economic (or political) self-interest (though all of these can help). It is not motivated by religion (although religious rhetoric is used to defend the stance). If one is liberal, brought up in a Nurturant Father's home, and is a Christian, then something like Thestic Evolution is just fine. But Theistic Evolution is evolution, not creationism (see the Figure). Rejection of evolution is, instead, motivated by basic emotion of fear of the dangerous world inhabited by dangerous people. It is motivated by sexual anxiety. It is a coping mechanism for people who cannot bear the thought of losing control over the external events and do not trust in the natural goodness of other people.

Anti-evolution rhetoric is phatic language. We speak a language of logic and reason. We use language to convey information. They use language to share emotional bonds. It does not matter how hard we try to explain the facts about science, scientific method, scientific meaning of the word "theory", or details of evolutionary biology. This they cannot hear. We are speaking Martian to them. We are using the faculty of language in a strange way. It scares them when we talk like that. More we insist more fobic they get, thus more strongly they need to believe what they believe.

It is now obvious why the political leadership of the new Republican party is pushing the battle over evolution in schools so hard. This is a potent way to induce fear OF LIBERALS, as opposed to fear of foreigners and terrorists. This is also a way to induce a racist, sexist and anti-gay frame in conservatives and rally them to the cause. This is also a way to replace the current "Nurturant" model of education (from elementary to graduate school) that undermines their ideology, with a "Strict Father" model of education (a la Dobson) that will ensure the continuous dominance of their ideology.

Thus, we need to see the battle over evolution not as a separate battle, but as a part of a bigger war between Enlightement and Anti-Enlightement. One cannot be won without the other. And while some battles in this war can be and should be fought at the level of national politics, the battle over education, including the battle over evolution, requires us to get at their kids. For that, we need to go local. Winning cases in court works only for the short term - they will come again and again and, with conservative activist judges being appointed left and right, they will start winning soon. Getting elected to school-boards, teaching in schools, teaching the teachers, pushing for non-test-based educational systems, pushing for tests of critical thinking (including evolutionary thinking) in schools as well as for home-schooled children, ...those are the ways to fight them long term, thus the only way to win this battle. Winning this battle - the battle over childrearing and education - will be the key for winning the whole war long term. Without new recruits from the new generations of children, the forces of Anti-Enlightement will dwindle in numbers, lose power, and finally die out. As a liberal, I am an optimist, a believer in progress, and cannot see how, in the long term they can win and we can lose. But in the meantime we need to fight to prevent them from incurring too much damage while they still have the power. Explaining evolution over and over again is not the way to do it.

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