Evolution vs. Creationism: The Story

By Robert Wright:

My theory is highly conjectural, but here goes:

A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. I went to a public high school in a pretty religious part of the country–south-central Texas–and I don’t remember anyone complaining about sophomores being taught natural selection. It just wasn’t an issue.

A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. [Which isn’t to say the violation was wholly unprovoked; see my update below.] I don’t just mean they professed atheism–many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.

If the only thing this Darwinian assault did was amp up resistance to teaching evolution in public schools, the damage, though regrettable, would be limited. My fear is that the damage is broader–that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur.

I’m not saying that the new, militant Darwinian atheists are the only cause of what is called (with perhaps some hyperbole) “science denialism.” But I do think that if somebody wants to convince a fundamentalist Christian that climate scientists aren’t to be trusted, the Christian’s prior association of scientists like Dawkins with evil makes that job easier.

I reiterate that this theory is conjectural–so conjectural that “hypothesis” is a better word for it than “theory”. The jury may remain out on it forever.


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  • Scot Miller

    While there may have been a “nonaggression pact” at one time between creationists and evolutionists (for lack of better terms), I’m not convinced that Dawkins, et al, were the first to break the détente. For whatever reason, creationists became far more aggressive in school boards throughout the country (e.g., Texas, Delaware) in the 1980s trying to undermine the teaching of evolution and natural selection. In addition, the 1980s saw the rise of the pseudo-science of “intelligent design,” which was determined by the federal court in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District to be a religious idea, not a scientific idea (http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf). Dawkins and the other militant atheists were responding to the militant creationists.

  • connorwood

    Interesting post, Robert. I’ve thought for a while that it may be dangerous to give religious people in the U.S. the impression that all of science is opposed to their most basic values. This doesn’t just affect classroom learning situations. What happens when we NEED a broad, society-wide consensus on pressing, real-world scientific issues, such as global warming or how to confront fossil fuel constraints, and we can’t get that consensus because half the population has decided that science in general is the enemy? This is why the storytelling of science matters.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The vast majority of my life has been lived surrounded by evangelical Christians and evolutionary biologists (such that I’m both). My opportunity to observe this great misunderstanding spans the years 1964 to present. Almost all of my student and professional life was lived in provinces that could be called Bible belt. It does seem to me, as Scot Miller says, that the current ugly round was started more by fundamentalist Christians than by scientists. Of course, as we sit today, there is plenty of blame to go around. I don’t want to be flippant, but it sometimes seems like many of the loudest voices, on both sides, love this great misunderstanding, feed it and gain from it. It’s difficult to find a solution when one is not looking for a solution.

  • Seth

    I’m a YEC, and I’m also a scientist in the field of genomics, and I share this exact same concern. So much horrible distortion of science has come from likely well-meaning YEC’s over the years, and those in the church who, like me, are convinced that the clearest reading of scripture promotes YEC, tend to listen to these as the only trustworthy voices in science. It’s really very sad, and it’s intellectually crippling.
    I spend a lot of time talking to YEC’s trying correct their false understandings of science and to convince them that there is no grand conspiracy or cause for paranoia. But I also spend a lot of time with non-YEC christians trying to help them understand where YEC’s come from and what the core arguments of YEC’s are when you filter out the crazies and the poor academics. I think all sides would do well to look on each other with more gracious eyes.

  • Phil Miller

    I grew up immersed in the evangelical subculture, and can remember hearing people decry the dangers of evolution all throughout my life. Actually, I always thought it was kind of ironic, because even in my biology classes, it was never something that was a big deal. It was something I was constantly being warned about, but I rarely encountered. This was a long time before anyone ever heard Richard Dawkins’ name.

    Regarding anti-science and anti-intellectualism, I actually think that a good portion of these attitudes are related more to the American ethos than to religion. Although, the two are so closely intermingled, it can be hard to separate them. But I hear skepticism about expert opinion from more than just Christians. Maybe it’s simply because we live in a marketing driven culture, and we are so used to being lied to by so many people, we start assuming everyone is lying.

  • CGC

    Wow Seth,
    I suspect somebody will want to correct you on your incorrect view of science but I find your words both refreshing and helpful. If any group is going to grow and have more balance and maturity, it will only come from those typically “within” who call for it than by those from the outside who typically just bash a whole group from a safe distance.

    As a scientist Seth, I hope you throughly investigate all sides of the issues from various stances (I for one just don’t think its very scientific or scholarly to do research from only reading articles or books from one viewpoint about another viewpoint rather than taking each viewpoints by their own respective representatives). Christians also have a bad habit to read books by other Christians about other religions than to ever read primary sources or listen to actual people who make up those different religious groups.


  • George


    I would like to see your approach on this. A YEC scientific critique from within could be interesting and instructive. Are there resources on the web that you like? Maybe a guest post would be available to you.

  • Patrick

    Anyone ever consider this gentleman’s ideas? Stephan Wolfram’s A NEW KIND OF SCIENCE?

    He’s an atheist, yet he feels natural selection is erroneous.

  • Fish

    Why shouldn’t atheists be able to believe anything they want?

  • PZ Myers points out that Wright’s account doesn’t accord with little things like causality. See his annotated version of the above graph here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/06/12/my-vast-powers-transcend-space-and-time/