Creationism Evolves

Creationism Evolves

Creationism Evolves

How you look at things.
Sept. 1 1999 3:00 AM

Creationism Evolves

The media have been in an uproar this month over the latest putative outbreak of creationism. "Kansas Votes to Delete Evolution From State's Science Curriculum," shrieked the New York Times. Liberals thought the steady unearthing of fossils, the decline of organized religion, and several adverse court decisions had rendered creationism extinct. Instead, adversity has made critics of evolution stronger. It has forced them to develop themes and arguments better suited to the new environment.


1.Censorship. The conventional wisdom, put out by evolutionists and picked up by the media, is that the Kansas Board of Education "rejected," "eliminated," and "expunged" evolution from its curriculum. NBC's Today show said Kansas had "banned" evolution. The Times speculated that school districts might "force" teachers to dispute evolution or teach creationism. In phrasing questions about the controversy, several reporters characterized the issue as "censoring" evolution.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

What the Kansas board actually did was remove evolution from the list of subjects on which the state will test students. While liberals call this "censorship," conservatives spin it as an affirmation and exercise of freedom. The safest dodge, adopted by every major Republican presidential candidate, is that "state and local" leaders should be allowed to choose their own curricula. Republicans also argue that "parents" should decide such matters. "I'll trust the parents more than I will bureaucracies," proclaimed Steve Forbes.

Hard-core creationists have mounted a more aggressive libertarian counterattack. In TV interviews since the Kansas decision, Jerry Falwell has deplored the bad old days when the government "forced" creationism on kids. Now, says Falwell, the government is "forcing evolution" on them. Other spokesmen for creationism accuse evolutionist "censors and book-burners" of suppressing "evidence for creation science." Falwell constantly invokes "academic freedom," pleading that schools should "teach both [evolution and creationism] as theories, and trust the children with their parents to arrive at their own conclusions." When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Gary Bauer whether Kansas should be allowed to "ban" evolution, Bauer replied, "What Kansas did was allow both views to be presented. ... That is consistent with America and our free discussion of things."

To protect creationism from "censors," conservatives have adopted the relativism and multiculturalism of the left. Falwell argues that "all models or theories" should "be taught on equal footing." George W. Bush agrees: "Children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started." Steve Forbes says the facts of prehistory are "all up in the air now. A lot of what we thought was true turns out [to be] not true. There's a raging debate. So I leave it to local decisions." Fox News commentator Sean Hannity pleads for "tolerance" and "pro-choice" education. "If some school districts can have ebonics, I think others can talk about creationism," argues CNN's Tucker Carlson. "There is room for all ideas."


2.Meaning. Liberal pundits, eager to pick a fight with the religious right, attack the notion of pairing "religious instruction" with the teaching of "scientific evolution." They accuse creationists of violating "the wall of church and state" by imposing "a religious theory" on "the secular educational system." It's all part of the culture war over sex education and other school controversies, they scoff.

This may be good constitutional law, but it's lousy politics. According to Gallup Polls, 50 percent of Americans believe in evolution, but only 10 percent accept it as a purely secular account. The other 40 percent (within the 50 percent) think God has guided evolution toward human development. And while only 40 percent want to banish evolution from the schools and teach creationism instead, 68 percent think both ideas should be taught. The bottom line is that if evolutionists force the public to choose between evolution and religion or between evolution and divine creation, they'll lose.

Creationists, recognizing this equation, try to force precisely this choice. They dig up quotes in which evolutionary theorists espouse atheism and scorn "divine intervention." A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, titled "The Church of Darwin," called evolution "the main scientific prop" for a philosophy of "materialism" that denies God's existence. In TV interviews, Bauer rigs the debate by juxtaposing the idea that we "descended from monkeys" with the idea that we are "divinely made" and are "creatures of God." Evolution implies "there is no divine intelligence involved," he told reporters last week. Likewise, Dan Quayle attributed the uproar over creationism to "a hostile environment against religion."

Conversely, creationists broaden the appeal of their own theory by associating it with the general idea of "divine intervention" and "intelligent design." Whereas there's no "meaning in life if we're just animals in a struggle for survival," they argue, "If we can teach creation, there is an order, there is a plan. You have a place in this world." On the deepest and most decisive level, this spin has been an enormous success. While privately scorning creationism, the media have thoughtlessly absorbed and promoted the creationists' dichotomy between God and Darwin. The day of the Kansas decision, CBS News posed the question this way: "Are human beings divine creations or the product of eons of evolution?"


Wiser evolutionists know that the better approach is to pose a choice not between science and religion but between literalism and interpretation. While most people want to believe that God created us one way or another, few can swallow the literal creationist reading of the Bible, which holds that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. (Never mind the strictest reading, which supposes that creation took a week.) The first theory is flexible enough to withstand fossil evidence, but the second isn't. When asked about the Bible's literal account of creation, as opposed to the attractive concept of divine creation, every major Republican presidential candidate--even Bauer--has squirmed, ducked, and tried to steer the discussion back to "faith," "morals," and the general idea that humans "were created in the image of God." The smart strategy for evolutionists, in short, is to embrace theism and shift the debate to dinosaur bones.

3.Elitism. Scientists and liberal commentators love to ridicule creationists for "going back to the 19th century," turning kids into "scientific ignoramuses," and second-guessing "experts" and the Supreme Court. "There is no alternative" to evolution, asserted Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, during a recent Fox News debate. "There isn't really anything on the other side." On the Today show, an evolutionist professor scoffed at the Kansas board's decision: "Only in education would an elected board of lay people decline to take the advice of a committee of experts."

Creationists have learned to jujitsu the scornful tone and overreaching scope of these pronunciations. Responding on Today to the professor's crack about "lay people," the chair of the Kansas board observed: "Many parents I've talked to believe that they know what is best for their children. This attitude [of evolutionists] has been characteristic of some parts of the education community that only they know what is best for kids." Bauer and other creationists accuse the evolutionist "elite" of trampling popular values and defying the "American tradition that the people have a right to disagree with the experts."

The conventional populist critique of evolution identifies it with sex education, condom distribution, restrictions on school prayer, and other perceived liberal attacks on religion. But as the public places its faith less in orthodoxy and more in the marketplace of ideas, creationists are developing a hardier strain of populism that appeals to progressive concepts such as "questions," "skepticism," and "investigation." Rather than defend religious dogma, they poke holes in evolutionary dogma, scrutinizing the theory's missing links and the mathematical probability of the emergence of complex life. Schools should "teach the evidence ... that raises questions about how thoroughly evolution explains everything," argues Bill Kristol.

This appeal to skepticism seems likely to flourish. The creationists had only five of the six seats they needed on the Kansas board to remove evolution from the required curriculum. They got the sixth vote by persuading a noncreationist board member that evolution should be presented as a theory rather than as a fact. "Before we start sneering" at Kansas, writes liberal columnist Lars-Erik Nelson, "We might look askance at the supposed scientists and social scientists who defend their own pet theories [such as] global warming, free trade, supply-side economics ... with a religiouslike zeal, denouncing all doubters as either heretics or ill-educated bumpkins."

Creationism, it turns out, is a case study in the evolution of spin. The environment changes, the idea mutates, and new strains and arguments take hold. Is it natural selection or intelligent design? You decide.