Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Write-Up: Scientists Confront Creationism

Laurie R. Godfrey, ed.  Scientists Confront Creationism.  New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1983.

Scientists Confront Creationism contains essays by scientists, anthropologists, and others that attempt to explain and critique young-earth creation science.  I have seen this book in libraries for years, but only recently did I decide to read it.  Because the book is from the 1980's, it has references to Ronald Reagan, and the creationists who are criticized include Henry Morris and Duane Gish.

I am not a science person, so I cannot claim to have understood everything (or even most things) in this book.  There were cases in which the arguments of both creationists and evolutionists went over my head.  But, in contrast to my recent reading of Gabriel Vahanian's The Death of God (see my post about that experience here), I did not feel totally in the dark when reading Scientists Confront Creationism I could understand what was going on: creationists were appealing to science to make certain claims, and evolutionists were attempting to refute those claims by depicting the creationists' understanding of the issues as limited or outdated.

I found the book to be a good resource in terms of addressing prominent creationist claims.  One creationist claim that I have heard, for example, is that the earth must be young because the magnetic field has been decaying, and it would be gone by now if the earth has been around for millions of years.  The response that this book gives to that argument is that the magnetic field does not just decrease, but it also fluctuates, meaning that it has not experienced an inexorable decline over the years.

Another creationist argument is that evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics: whereas the second law supposedly states that nature tends towards increasing disorder, evolution is an example of increasing order.  The response to this argument, if I understood it correctly, is that such an understanding of the second law of thermodynamics is incomplete, for there are cases of increasing order within nature.  The second law of thermodynamics does not exclude such a possibility, the argument that I read was saying, for it allows for increasing order when there is assistance from outside of the system, plus its claim is that there has to be more movement towards disorder than movement towards order, not that movement towards order cannot exist.  John W. Patterson states on page 101: "As long as the downhill flows, off of which [the uphill flows] feed, exceed the build-up or construction processes, no violation of the second law is involved." 

Yet another creationist argument is that evolutionary explanations tend to be circular: they argue that there is evolution on the basis of the succession of animals in the geologic record, then they date the succession in reference to evolution.  A couple of the essays in the book retorted that the succession of animals in the geologic record was seen and acknowledged before Darwin's theory of evolution even existed.  While these essays said that there may be cases in which a newer layer is underneath an older layer (when one would usually expect the opposite), due to an earthquake, for example, they do not believe that this overthrows scientists' argument that earlier species are deeper in the ground than later species, for one can often identify when there are exceptions to the rule and account for them. 

A couple of essays in the book seek to correct misconceptions about evolution, some of them held by certain evolutionists themselves.  Often, one hears the argument that less complex animals are older and deeper in the ground, whereas more complex animals are newer and higher.  Some creationists attempt to account for this alleged phenomenon through an appeal to the flood of Noah: the more complex animals were able to reach higher ground when the flood was occurring, and that's why they're higher in the ground!  Two of the essays in the book, however, dispute the idea that more complex animals are necessarily later, while less complex animals are necessarily earlier, for this is not always the case.  There are, for example, less complex animals that are later.  One essay, if I read it correctly, was disputing that evolution consistently moves in the direction of complexity.

The essays in the book maintained that creationism was inadequate and flawed.  As on the evolutionist web site talkorigins, there is a kind word said about creationist Robert Gentry, yet an essay goes on to note an example of Gentry having to retract one of his articles.  On creationism, one essay in the book argued that creationism is nebulous about what a "kind" is.  Genesis 1 presents God creating "kinds" and commanding the animals to reproduce according to their kind, and there are creationists who have argued that, while there may be microevolution that occurs within a kind, there is no evidence for macroevolution, in which an animal of one kind becomes an animal of another kind.  The problem, according to this one essay, is that there are animals within the same species who cannot reproduce with each other.  Are these animals indeed part of the same kind, or did God create them all separately, and all of them somehow fit onto Noah's ark?  

But, to my surprise, there were also essays in the book that struggled somewhat with evolution.  It's not that they denied its facticity, for they noted evidence for it: fossils of animals that are different from what exists today, skeletons that are human-like and also ape-like, and similarities between animals that, when mapped out, are consistent with the evolutionist hierarchy of development and taxonomy.  But some of the essays puzzle over why there are not too many fossils of intermediate species (they exist, but even Darwin wondered why they didn't exist in greater number), or how one can explain the sudden appearance of certain species.  Punctuated equilibrium and the rarity of fossilization are solutions that are explored in this book.

Those are examples of the book's scientific angle, and I hope that I expressed them accurately!  The book also had a decent humanities component.  I enjoyed the essay about populism and its relationship with anti-evolutionism.  Populism was a leftist movement, composed largely of farmers, and populist politician William Jennings Bryant was a prominent opponent of teaching evolution in schools.  But the left changed as it came to accept the insights of intellectuals, whereas the right-wing became the place where anti-evolutionism tended to reside.  One essay talked about the controversial 1980's MACOS (Man: A Course of Study) curriculum in public schools, which taught evolution and cultural relativism, inspiring opposition from many on the right.  The essay noted that the cultural relativists were not as effective at mobilizing support for their position, since they could understand where the right-wingers were coming from, whereas dogmatism was what enabled the right-wing's political success against MACOS.  I guess that dogmatism sells!

Robert J. Schadewald's chapter, "The Evolution of Bible-science," was definitely worth reading.  Schadewald compares young-earth creationism with flat-earthism, and the part of the book about the contributors states that Schadewald "has accumulated one of the world's most complete flat-earth libraries."  Both question scientific consensus with religious motivations.  Both offer money to anyone who can prove the opposite of what they believe (i.e., evolution, a round earth).  Both engage in public debates with scientists, and they are effective in that they attack, attack, and attack.  (Schadewald notes an example in which a panel declared the flat-earth proponent the winner of the debate!)  And there is even some intersection between the two movements: When creationist Duane Gish denied that there were members of the Flat Earth Society in the Creation Research Society, a flat-earther member of the CRS stepped forward.  Schadewald states that "Ironically, Gish may have created a fact". for the flat-earther then quit from the CRS!

I enjoyed the final essay, "Is It Really Fair to Give Creationists Equal Time?", by Frederick Edwords.  For one, as an ex-Armstrongite, I liked that Edwords mentioned the Worldwide Church of God's support for the gap theory in his discussion of which creationism should be taught if creationism were to be in public schools!  (Edwords' point is that young-earth creationists only want for their own brand of creationism to be taught alongside evolution, implying that they are as intolerant as they accuse evolutionists of being.)  Second, I appreciated Edwords' point that there should be a class----outside of the science class----that explores different beliefs about human origins.  Overall, while I found this book to be quite sarcastic in places, I did think that it maintained a rather tolerant tone towards those who embrace religion.  It was a far cry from the new atheist rhetoric of people like Dawkins and Hitchens.

In terms of criticisms I have of the book, there were some issues that I wished it had explored further, such as how creationism went from being a part of the political left to becoming a part of the political right.  I also think that the book could have been clearer, especially when discussing the scientific evidence for evolution.  But my main criticism is that I wish that it had addressed another young-earth creationist argument: that the universe must be young because there is not much dust on the moon, and the moon would be buried in lots of dust if the universe were old.  The book addressed a creationist argument about the moon, but not that one!

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