What about creationism?

Columbian mammoth

I get a lot of questions about my forthcoming book, Written in Stone, but the most popular by far is “What are you going to say about creationism?”

Presently there is a glut of books that confront creationism in one way or another. There are books that counter creationist claims with scientific evidence (Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, Why Evolution is True, The Greatest Show on Earth, &c.) and others that, while they present many of the same scientific arguments, are also concerned with making the idea of evolution less threatening to religious audiences (Only A Theory, The Language of God, Thank God for Evolution, &c.). Entries of both varieties continue to contribute to the ongoing public discussion over evolution, but there have been so many that I have grown a bit weary of reading scientific arguments fashioned to refute creationist claims.

While the refutation of creationist nonsense is certainly important, I did not want to let the faith-based claims of fundamentalists determine what I wrote about evolution in my book. I had no desire to waste precious space repeating their skewed views even if my intent was to knock them down. Such techniques have already been tried, and I would rather not let the faith-based delusions of charlatans such as Ken Ham and Jonathan Wells frame my contribution to the public debate.

Furthermore, thinking about this as a new author, the market for books on the evolution/creationism controversy has been so thoroughly saturated that there really is no need for yet another book full of repackaged counter-arguments.* I realized relatively early on that if I was going to be successful I would have to carve out my own niche and do something different. The question was how to present something original in a sub-genre in which the consensus was that everything had already been said.

*[This became abundantly clear during the search for a publisher. There was a widespread belief that the publication of Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth would make all other evolution books superfluous. I certainly hope this is not the case.]

I found my solution by going back to basics. In On the Origin of Species, the magnificent book whose 150th anniversary we celebrate tomorrow, Charles Darwin did not directly attack “scriptural geologists” or natural theologians. Instead he tried to build a positive case that recognized the complications of his theory, and in doing so he kept religious objections to his views in mind.

As a young student Darwin was enthralled by the work of theologian William Paley, the expositor of the famous “watchmaker argument“, and this respect for Paley’s work stayed with Darwin. Just two days prior to the release of On the Origin of Species, in fact, Darwin wrote to his neighbor John Lubbock that “I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s Natural Theology. I could almost formerly have said it by heart.” The significance of this is that in On the Origin of Species Darwin reinterpreted some of the examples Paley cited of Providential design in nature, such as the eye, but through an evolutionary viewpoint. Darwin’s knowledge of natural theology allowed him to more effectively hone his arguments while still keeping the focus on the positive evidence for his theory.

[The reaction to the anonymously-published Vestiges of the Natural History of the Creation showed what could happen if theological considerations were too prominent in a book suggesting that life evolved. While naturalists were critical of the scientific assertions in Vestiges some of the most scathing reviews came from religious conservatives who were threatened by the book’s theological propositions. Though the book was immensely popular it also served as a warning to Darwin as to what could happen if his arguments were not refined enough.]

I thought it fitting to follow Darwin’s example. I do refute a number of creationist arguments in Written in Stone but I do so without giving the creationists a platform in my own discussion. This requires no great effort. Describing what we have learned about the history of life automatically counters common creationist myths, and the historical perspective of the book allows for issues like intelligent design, flood geology, and the like to be dispensed with in a way that does not disturb the narrative. This strategy has allowed me the freedom to spend more time digging into the details of evolutionary science that are fascinating by themselves.

The only section in which I directly address current religiously-motivated views of nature is in the conclusion. The “Dinosauroid“, the evolutionary views of Francis Collins and Simon Conway Morris, convergence, and contingency all figure prominently in the closing summary. Anthropocentric views of evolutionary “progress”, in which our evolution was inevitable or somehow preordained, are still very popular and I personally find it more interesting to engage this goal-oriented view of nature than to squabble with religious fundamentalists who so fervently believe in their interpretation of scripture that no evidence will be sufficient to change their mind.

Such is the complicated answer to the relatively simple question that I am persistently asked about Written in Stone. The book certainly does refute creationist nonsense, just in a more subtle manner. Yet, as a whole, the book is not meant to be a stealth attack on the beliefs of fundamentalists. It is a celebration of the fossil record and what it can tell us about the world we inhabit. That, I think (or at least hope), is more compelling than yet another book on why creationists are wrong. I guess I will find out when the book hits shelves around this time next year.

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