How does one explain the stubborn resistance to Darwinism?

January 2, 2007 | By | 8 Replies More

In this recent interview, published by Salon.com, Ronald Numbers (a former Seventh-day Adventist and author of the definitive history of creationism) discusses “his break with the church, whether creationists are less intelligent and why Galileo wasn’t really a martyr.”

Here’s a sampling.  Aren’t anti-evolutionists anti-scientific?  It’s not that easy, according to Numbers:

[M]ost people who reject evolution do not see themselves as being anti-scientific in any way. They love science. They love what science has produced. It’s allowed the conservative Christians to go on the airwaves, to fly to mission fields. They’re not against science at all. But they don’t believe evolution is real science. So they’re able to criticize one of the primary theories of modern science and yet not adopt an anti-scientific attitude. A lot of critics find that just absolutely amazing.

They see religion as informing their scientific choices. I think it’s extremely hard for human beings to see the world as others see it. I have a hard time seeing the world as Muslim fundamentalists see it. And yet, there are many very smart Muslims out there who have a totally different cosmology and theology from what I have. I think one of the goals of education is to help students, and perhaps help ourselves, see the world the way others see it so we don’t just judge and say, “They’re just too stupid to know better.”

What was the evidence that tipped Numbers into accepting evolution?

The thing that stands out in my memory as being decisive was hearing a lecture about the fossil forest of Yellowstone, given by a creationist who’d just been out there to visit. He found that for the 30 successive layers you needed — assuming the most rapid rates of decomposition of lava into soil and the most rapid rates of growth for the trees that came back in that area — at least 20,000 to 30,000 years. The only alternative the creationists had to offer was that during the year of Noah’s flood, these whole stands of forest trees came floating in, one on top of another, until you had about 30 stacked up. And that truly seemed incredible to me. Just trying to visualize what that had been like during the year of Noah’s flood made me smile.

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Category: Evolution, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    One problem with "Darwinism" is that we are playing on their field. The term implies a faith, or a fealty to the ideas of an individual, rather than just noting him for his contribution to a theory that was generally accepted before his time.

    Darwin was a third-generation contributor to the theory of evolution. His contribution to the idea that all species have evolved over long periods was to note the simple mechanism by which the environment causes changes to populations: Survival of the Fittest.

    Saying that modern evolutionary theory was invented by Darwin is like saying that modern astronomy was invented by Kepler, whose work descended from Copernicus and was later refined by Newton and Einstein (among others). Had Kepler been as gifted in self promotion as Darwin, people might be just as familiar with his name.

  2. RK Hudson says:

    Very well put Dan. Better science education is always in order. If my non-religious friends desire to make some headway in this arena, (and sometimes I wonder) I suggest more Dan Dennett and less Richard Dawkins.

  3. Scholar says:

    In terms of resistance to Darwinism, his name has been dragged through the mud by the Church so much over the past century, that even today, anything associated with him (such as Darwinian Evolution) is seen as blasphemous by the unknowing/naive masses of middle America.

    I have heard people make arguments about "Piltdown Man" and how it's discovery challenged evolution. To clear things up, "Piltdown Man" was determined to be a hoax, therefore, the fact that it DIDN'T FIT into the existing fossil record is PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE to evolution.

    Here is a link to an article by Sam Harris
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/there-is

    Here is a testimonial of a Baptist who has come to believe that all children are born as Atheists, and that religion is taught to us by our culture.
    http://www.sfatheists.com/essays/davidfitzgerald-

    Sorry if I have been rambling a bit (like our friend Larry), but here is a link to an fun Atheism blog I came across just now… http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com

    If you are wise enough to use the internet for learning and exploring it is only a matter of time until you are exposed to enough knowledge and unbiased/biased viewpoints that you will become an atheist by default. If you don't believe me, just keep trying, and when it finally all comes clear, please keep on spreading the good Word of Atheism.

    famous quote… "Everyone is an Atheist to some extent, I just believe in one less God than you do".

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    I lost track of my point, above: Calling the theory of evolution "Darwinism" is detrimental to the cause of education. Darwin was wrong about continuous gradualism. He was wrong about certain ancestors of modern species. He was wrong about many other small details of the theory in his time that have been corrected since the 1870's. Creationists broadly publish the proofs of his errors in hopes of discrediting the idea that keep being proven.

    Darwin was right about the survival of the fittest, although he might not recognize its current usage by biologists.

    If you try to pin down an anti-evolutionist for long enough, it usually turns into a Young Earth argument. Or else about the semantic distinction between a breed and a species.

    "Darwinism" is an evil buzzword to that vocal minority of American Christians whose faith hinges on a belief in Biblical literalism. Let's not try to use it to defend the theory of evolution.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    I agree with the point that we shouldn't refer to evolution as Darwinism. I should have been more careful. I took the term off of the headline in the Salon article.

    What's really amazing is how hard smart people need to struggle to break free of religious brain-washing. How could ANYONE believe, ever, that 30 layers of trees just fell on each other? How could anyone have the audacity to teach this? How could anyone think that Noah's ark really held two of each species (including dinosaurs, if you believe Ken Hamm see here)?

    I need to read these conversion-to-science accounts periodically to appreciate the blinders that many religions put over the eyes of many hungry minds.

    I suspect that Numbers is correct that those who reject evolution are not "stupid." They are often thoughtful and curious people who have hit barriers that are invisible to free-thinkers. I posted about this article mainly because it gives good insight into this process of conversion (to science). It reminded me that Michael Shermer (now a premier skeptic) was also a fundamentalist science-bashing Christian.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Dan's first comment, Darwin was hardly a self-promoter. He completed his voyage aboard the Beagle in 1837 and did not publish Origin of Species until 1859. He actually delayed publication for many years because he feared the controversy it would create. Moreover, his book is peppered with self-deprecating remarks. He openly and repeatedly questions his own reasoning and conclusions. Taking his book at face value, he comes across as a very humble, guy. He was a clergyman by vocation and was very reluctant to fire a shot across the bow of his own profession.

    Also, to my knowledge, Darwin never used the phrase "survival of the fittest." He used the phrase, "natural selection." Note carefully that phrase, because it is what *originally* created a firestorm of criticism from the Church. Before Darwin came along, many people — even many god-fearing Christians — generally accepted evolution (i.e., morphological change over time), because they still saw God at the helm. God directed the course of life on planet earth, and God decided when and where every living thing would die. Darwin's theory of natural selection directly challenged that belief, because it suggested that *nature*, not God, decided the question of life and death. Creatures that were better adapted to their natural environment than were their neighbors would live; those less well-suited would perish. God, essentially, had nothing to do with it. That is primarily what set the Church against Darwin — not evolution per se, but rather Darwin's theory about how it operated. Darwin's "theory of evolution" (namely, natural selection) explained how the process could work without the involvement of any God.

    The other thing that set the Church against Darwin is that Darwin's book is very, very convincing. If Darwin's book and the arguments in it had been so poorly assembled that people could easily dismiss them, the Church would never have been concerned about it: Darwin would have been seen as just another amateur. What scared the daylights out of the Church was that Darwin's argument was deeply compelling. Origin of Species lays out a solid argument and also anticipates, and ably refutes, the likely objections. The book is comprehensive and well-organized — a powerful combination, and one that the Church found hard, if not impossible, to refute. That's what made it dangerous to Church doctrine and authority.

    Only in more modern times did Christians oppose evolution per se. That, I believe, began with the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. That's when "Darwin's theory of evolution" became not natural selection, but evolution itself — no doubt an error caused by Fundies who had never read Darwin's book and who therefore assumed that "Darwin's theory of evolution" meant evolution. I don't know if that's when "survival of the fittest" made its appearance, but I don't think those words were Darwin's.

    Of course, Darwin is also well-known for his 1871 book, "Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex." It was not the first book that suggested humans evolved from animals — the "common ancestor" theory — but it did introduce the idea of sexual selection to explain how apparently non-utilitarian features (such as the feathers on a peacock) could have evolved.

    In any case, the point here is that the so-called "theory of evolution" is not one theory, but rather a wide range of concepts and theories for which there are varying amounts of scientific evidence. To this issue, Dan's second comment provides much greater value, in pointing out that creationists grossly over-simplify the issue — lumping everything under the title of "Darwinism" — so they can avoid discussing each of the many individual pillars that support the "theory of evolution." We need to force the discussion back to these pillars and demand that creationists address, individually, every aspect of evolution which they dispute: morphological change over time, natural selection, sexual selection, common ancestry, etc. When they respond to every one of these pillars with the empty, knee-jerk assertion that either "it didn't happen" or "God did it," their blather, I hope, will finally receive the ridicule it so richly deserves.

  7. Jason Rayl says:

    Dennett is more a cognitive psychologist than a biologist. Darwin was fairly modest in retrospect. He was careful not to make over-the-top claims, even admitting to the areas where his argument was weakest (like the eye). The bombast was all Thomas Huxley's and for better or worse his legacy of scientific combativeness is what we are still dealing with today.

    What those who misunderstand the science of evolution often get wrong is a problem most lay people have with science in general, which is its conditional aspect. Evolutionists have long said "We know evolution happens, we simply aren't sure of the mechanism." Most people without a grounding in science don't see the distinction. To them it's the equivalent of saying "It's magic" which makes it no different than faith.

    I have said it in other posts: the reason evolution bothers (to put it mildly) most fundamentalists (and, to be fair, many who are more moderately but still committed religionists) is that it strips humans of our special status as somehow "hand made" by Yahweh. It makes us part and parcel of nature, "red in tooth and claw", and makes us by extension part of the whole continuum. It makes us responsible to that nature. It makes us vulnerable to it as well. Simply put, if evolution is true, we have no cause to believe ourselves the pinnacle of "creation". We can be replaced. And probably will be.

  8. Dan Klarmann says:

    By Darwin's self promotion, I meant that he chose to share his ideas via writing popular books rather than letters to peers in his field and papers for house journals, as most scientists still do. Others who roughly simultaneously came up with the same ideas as Darwin remain unknown expect to historians in the field.

    Einstein was good in front of the cameras. Fermi (the man who actually designed and built the first nuclear reactor under the stands in Chicago) is relatively unknown. Try to name the graduate student who actually derived E=MC<sup>2</sup> while working with the mathematically challenged icon.

    Darwin stands out because he put his reputation on the line and published his ideas widely.

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