Friday, May 8, 2009

Failure

The latest issue of Genome Research arrived in my mailbox this week, and the theme is "Genomics and Darwinism." There's lots of interesting stuff in the issue, including the body louse mitochondrial genome (in pieces) and several interesting papers on detecting selection in the human genome, which I might comment on later. Another article that caught my eye was Francisco Ayala's "One hundred fifty years without Darwin are enough!" It opens with a kind of a lament about creationist influence in modern culture, but the bulk of the article is an argument that Darwin completed the Copernican revolution, in the sense that
It was Darwin's greatest accomplishment to show that the complex organization and functionality of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process - natural selection - without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent. The origin and adaptations of organisms in their profusion and wondrous variations were thus brought into the realm of science.
That's kind of a whiggish way of putting it. I agree that Darwin in some sense completed the Enlightment project of expelling unjustified authority from scholarship. In the interaction of natural philosophy (what we now call science) and theology, it was Galileo, not Copernicus, who had the greatest impact with his doctrine of accommodation, which insisted that revelation not be allowed to have authority over astronomical observations (and by extrapolation, over all natural philosophy). By removing the apparent necessity of design inferences from biology, Darwin, in a sense, completed the expulsion of biblical authority from science. Sort of. But I'm not going to quibble about the nuances or details of his historical interpretation. I'm more intrigued by Ayala's opening paragraphs, which raise the alarm about the widespread influence of creationism and concludes, "It is pathetic that at this point in history we need to proclaim that 150 years without Darwin's Origin of Species are enough." You can read a generous chunk of that intro for free right here.

This is a theme I hear repeated again and again, even occasionally in a defeatest tone: "Despite our best efforts at getting the word out and educating the public, you guys are still winning." What's stranger is that I hear the same thing from both sides. Like Ayala, the anticreationist crowd focuses on such developments as the sudden "popularity" of Intelligent Design and the explosive growth of AIG and the opening of the $27 million Creation Museum. Since the Gallup polls still show that only half of the people polled accept evolution, then clearly creationism must be winning. The antievolution lobby looks at the prominence of evolutionary interpretations in museums, on television, and even in most Protestant denominations as evidence that evolution is winning (or perhaps has already won). Since the Gallup polls still show that half the people accept evolution, then clearly they must be winning.

But let's look more carefully at those Gallup polls on creationism, conducted since 1982:


Now let's think about this very carefully: There is no doubt that there has been a proliferation of creationist materials and a growth of creationist ministries, such as the Creation Museum. Most of that growth has occurred since the 1990s. In response, there has also been a growth of organized opposition to creationism, most notably the National Center for Science Education and various online venues dedicated to debunking creationist claims. Both sides are basically duking it out for cultural influence and power. So who is actually winning?

Based on the Gallup polls, I think it's pretty obvious that no one is "winning." From the early 1990s to the present, Gallup has conducted eight polls that ask about the origin of humans, and every one shows basically the same results. Unguided evolution gets about 9-14% of the answers, God-guided evolution gets 35-40%, and creation gets 43-47%. If you add in the 1982 poll, before the big boom of the 1990s, you get the same result. Despite all the effort to produce and distribute new propaganda on both sides, there has been no significant change in the proportion of people accepting creation or evolution in 27 years. In the struggle to influence the culture, both sides have failed (or perhaps they've succeeded in not losing any "territory" to the enemy - basically a stalemate).

This raises some interesting questions: What and who are sustaining this culture war? What accounts for the perceived (and real) gains of creationism in the past twenty years? Is there anything that can break the stalemate?

I think it's pretty obvious that ideology sustains the culture war. I basically perceive a lot of "culture wars" as fringe minorities on different extremes beating each other's brains out, while the rest of us sort of shrug our shoulders and watch. There seems to be only a small minority who really get passionate about "defeating the enemy." Yes, there are plenty of creationists convinced that evolution caused Hitler, and therefore will lead to another Holocaust (or worse). Likewise, plenty of anticreationists think creationism will destroy American dominance in science and technology and that creationists want to make America a theocracy and reinstitute witch-burning. Obviously, people who really believe these extreme ideas will act in extreme ways.

From my perspective, the growth of creationism in the past twenty years is really easy to explain, and I'm surprised that it seems to have been overlooked. It parallels the rise of the internet. Coincidence? Possibly, but I can testify that the internet was my gateway to organized creationism. When I was growing up in the 1980s, I knew about creationism (my family had a few creationist books), but I had no idea how to contact other creationists or attend creationist meetings. Through email and the world-wide web, I was finally able to meet other creationists, initially just through correspondence but later in person. Today, creationism is just a Google search away. Why should we be surprised that something that intrinsically appeals to many people's religious preferences should become more popular at the same time it became more accessible, without actually changing their responses to poll questions? It would be a fun project to try to show that there is a direct connection between the growth of the internet and the growth of creationism.

As for breaking this stalemate, is it even possible that one side could win? In theory, any stalemate can be broken, but it generally takes something new to do it. Just pouring more resources into the same old strategies will only maintain the stalemate. If people aren't convinced by the arguments that exist now, it's unlikely that they'll change their minds if you just say it again. (It reminds me of the teams on the Amazing Race who try to communicate to their cabbies by repeating the same English words only slower and louder.) It also doesn't matter how you repackage the same old arguments: Special exhibits in major museums, New York Times bestsellers, major motion pictures, television specials, etc. (Don't even get me started on the resources wasted on court cases, school board elections, and state science standards.) If it's the same stuff, people are unlikely to pay much attention. Getting their attention will require something truly new that they haven't heard before.

So we should just quit publishing new media or making new museums or new educational resources? Not if you have a goal other than just influencing the culture. For example, if you want to help recruit or educate a new generation of creationist or evolutionist researchers, you could be extremely successful. If your only goal is beating the "other guy," then you appear to be on a rough and sad road of failure. Unless you're another Charles Darwin, and odds are you're not.