Don’t let creationism make liars of us all

Don’t let creationism make liars of us all March 14, 2016

At the AHS Convention on Saturday, I was lucky enough to meet Nick Lane, a biochemist at UCL and renowned expert on abiogenesis. He had given a superb talk, discussing experiments which promise breakthroughs in our understanding of how life first arose. To a former creationist, this is some of the most exciting stuff you could ever hear.

I collared Nick with two minutes to go before the next talk and said I wanted him to know how thrilling it was to hear that stuff having been a creationist. I thought he would thank me and leave, but to my surprise he engaged me in conversation. He was remarkably generous about creationists. He said that there were a lot of very bright creationists out there who have raised problems with evolution, and if you were a PhD student looking for a topic, a good place to start would be to pick an area creationists have identified as a weak spot.

Life-Ascending

Nick Lane is not a creationist sympathiser. In fact, I first heard his name in a Twitter exchange between Brian Cox and a creationist, in which Cox recommended Lane’s book Life Ascending to correct his interlocutor’s misconceptions about evolution. Nick explained that he ultimately did not think creationism could be reconciled with a scientific understanding of the world, but he was still remarkably kind about them. It’s not that I’ve never heard a scientist be magnanimous to creationists before—my PhD supervisor, Michael Reiss, has also said thoughtful things on the subject—but it’s certainly unusual when the loudest voices are those of Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.

Surely Nick has a point. Most creationist arguments are, to quote Dana Hunter, incredibly embarrassing. But many excellent popular books on evolution only exist as responses to creationism. Without creationism, we would not have Ken Miller’s masterful demonstration that the bacterial flagellum is not irreducibly complex, or of fused telomeres showing the shared ancestry of humans and apes. As critiques of mainstream science, even relatively weak ones, creationism and intelligent design have at least stimulated efforts at the public understanding of evolution.

He went on to repeat a point he’d made in his talk, which is that science (especially the science of what happened billions of years ago) is by its nature tentative, open to revision, and uncertain. He criticised the tendency to make evolutionary theory sound more certain than it is. I was reminded of something Stephen Jay Gould once said, but I can’t find the quote now (I’ll be immensely grateful to any commenter who can help). Gould and Nick Lane make essentially the same point, I think: creationists tend to jump on disagreement between scientists and the uncertain nature of science to ‘prove’ that evolution is bunk. This is an annoying tendency. But what both go on to say is that we should not submit to the temptation to pretend that things are clearer than they are just to silence creationist critics.

Nick asked why I had stopped being a creationist, and in my bid to give a 15-second summary of a ten-year journey, I mentioned how my science GCSE had helped me realise that there was at least a plausible mechanism for evolution. Nick suggested that even this plausible mechanism is not so cut and dried. “Knowledge is fractal”, he said, although I’m not completely sure what he meant, and sadly our conversation was about to be cut off by the arrival onstage of my Patheos colleagues Aran and Lilandra Ra. He explained that the more you dig down into scientific knowledge, the more you realise how much is uncertain. There are a lot of certainties at the top, as we are introduced to science, but the deeper you go, the less robust those certainties seem. He bemoaned the way evolution in schools is taught as a series of facts, when even these facts are themselves open to challenge. I didn’t get to ask which facts he had in mind.

This, of course, is a point creationists often make. It’s a point they make especially when I complain about the gross inaccuracies in creationist curricula. I do not feel these criticisms are equivalent: creationist textbooks often contain claims (taught as fact) which no credible scientist has ever believed. That’s rather different from teaching something that was widely accepted at one time but which by the time it filters down into the school curriculum is starting to look old hat. But the problem, in both cases, is seeing science as a body of facts when it is better seen as a social process. Alom Shaha, also speaking at the AHS Convention, had made a related point: students need to understand what science is—a series of models, a way of making sense of the world which enables us to do things and make predictions. The creationist complaint about evolution—that it is speculative and cannot be absolutely proved—is not fundamentally wrong. It just expects an unrealistic level of confidence about the world.

An aside: When I read Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, I was (as a former creationist) uncomfortable with how speculative it is. Words like ‘may’, ‘might’, and ‘could’ feature prominently. Creationists see this as a weakness (compared with the cast-iron certainties of biblical literalism). Actually, it’s just the way things are.

I wished we could continue the conversation, but the Ras took the stage and Nick made good his escape. I was still thinking of all this when Aran and Lilandra began talking about their experiences as campaigners in the Texas textbook wars over evolution in schools. Different context, different political battle, so they spoke about evolution as entirely settled and factual. In their context, where evolution is being attacked by people who do not understand it and often do not wish to, this approach makes sense. And it’s here that I have to feel that Nick Lane’s generosity about creationists is misplaced. Perhaps some areas of evolutionary theory have been sharpened in response to creationist critique, but can that begin to offset the mass ignorance spread by specious religious objections to credible science? How have the textbook wars done anything to promote a proper understanding of science as a provisional, ongoing process of constant challenge and revision?

Ultimately, science is ill-served when educators get defensive about it. A decent response to creationism is to keep evolution out of it: if the entire neo-Darwinian synthesis collapsed tomorrow, there would still not be a shred of evidence of a global flood or of the instantaneous creation of life as we know it in six days. So let’s push not just for education about evolution in schools. Let’s push for a better understanding of what science is.

Postscript

I emailed Nick this blog post to check he was happy to be quoted in this way, and he replied promptly. He wanted to clarify that he thought I had perhaps made him sound more sympathetic to creationists than he actually is: “When I say many of them are clever people, that’s true, but clever in a legal-minded kind of way – very good at picking holes and spotting weaknesses, and realising that it doesn’t matter how many times a specific argument has been refuted, they can keep on repeating it because the large majority of people haven’t heard the refutation.”

He later added: “I don’t know how to win this war, which I think is maybe the most important of our age because it is the difference between enlightenment and fundamentalism, but I think that misrepresenting science is probably the last thing we should do; and misrepresenting creationists as idiots might not be helpful either.”


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