Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reading: The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, by Ronald Numbers

I recently finished reading the expanded edition of Ronald Numbers "The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design" (Harvard University Press).

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Numbers at the recent Perceptions Project conference and he autographed by copy.

I learned a number of new and useful things from the book.

The book traces the history of various flavors of creationism back significantly further than I had originally thought. After introduced in the late 1880s, Darwinian evolution was actually gaining some acceptance among mainstream Christian denominations until a more fundamentalist revival began to perceive it as a threat and points of resistance arose.   Prior to reading this book, I actually thought creationism was more marginalized, limited to small churches (where I first encountered it in high school) since the Scopes trial (Wikipedia).  I had thought that creationism did not achieve a higher profile until the Louisiana incident settled by the Supreme Court Edwards vs. Aguillard case (Wikipedia) in 1987.

One of the aspects I found most interesting covered in the book was the incredible range of disagreements among religious people over just what the Bible actually said about 'deep history'. There were discussions of the many attempts to form a consistent 'creation model' of the universe. Many different denominations, and even individuals within a denomination, occasionally advocated radically different positions on the age of humanity vs. the age of life vs. the age of the Earth vs. the age of the cosmos. Some creationists wanted to include geocentrism in the creation model, to the disagreement of others (pg 264). This in itself tells you that creationism has no truly objective standard for deciding on the evidence, unlike regular science.

The claim by creationists that they believe the literal truth of the Bible runs afoul of history. The geocentrists and the young-Earthers and the old-Earthers can all find biblical verses supporting their position, or a subset of the models of the other. So how do you determine which is the Truth?  The same Bible has been used to support peaceful coexistence (the Golden Rule) as well as genocide; to support slavery, as well as free slaves; to support segregation as well has inclusion. Invoking the 'literal truth of the Bible' can mean whatever agenda one wishes to impose.

The book mostly explored creationism as it applied to evolutionary biology and geology, with little discussions on cosmology. It focused more on the history of the movement and the interactions between the personalities involved, rather than particular issues of the science itself. Pages 280-281 explored Robert Gentry and his work with polonium halos, a topic which I have explored on this blog.

Chapter 13, titled "Deceptions and Discrimination", explored the persecution, both real and imagined, experienced by creationists when they tried to seek higher degrees. The creationists often hid their inclinations from the university faculty while enrolled in the degree program. However, a severe problem encountered was that many creationists seeking advanced degrees in geology would encounter the incredible level of care exercised by mainstream geologists in determining things such as radioisotope dating or defining the geologic column for a region. It would often grossly contradict all they had been taught in their creationist studies and giving them a crisis of faith. At this point, options were limited for the creationist and those who wished to continue their studies would often switch to safer topics.

One item that I was really hoping to find more about in the book was evidence of the impact of big science projects like the Manhattan Project and the Space Race on the history of the creationism movement. Sadly, I did not really finding anything addressing these issues in any detail. Pages 264-267 mention the impact of the pro-science movement at the start of the Space Race and an effort by creationists to assemble a textbook to compete with the BSCS biology textbook.   Many creationists expressed concerns about finding a publisher for such a textbook as this was shortly after the backlash from the scientific community from the Velikovsky affair (Wikipedia).

While the book did not cover much of my particular areas interest, I found it a very useful history of the movement that I may reference occasionally. I regard it on-par with Robert Schadewald's "Worlds of Their Own".

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