2 September 2010

The Creationists by Ronald L. Numbers

Posted by Callan Bentley

Over the summer, I finished reading an excellent history of creationism called The Creationists, authored by Ronald L. Numbers. Many of my students at Northern Virginia Community College come to my geology classes from a creationist background. Some are true believers, some are looking for the perspective of science. Some are quiet about it, others flaunt it. Regardless of whether their minds are already made up or not, I deal with creationist perspectives every semester. But how much do I really know about creationism as a phenomenon?

I found out about this tome (431 pages, 606 if you include the end notes) a few months ago via Pharyngula, when author PZ Meyers brought it up in the context of Queensland’s school system adopting a policy of teaching the creationism controversy in history classes. (Meyers also live-blogged a presentation by Ron Numbers on the same topic at the Chicago Darwin conference last fall.) I would like to use this post to review the book, and share some of the thoughts I had while reading it.

Before you read further, you should recall that my ideas and opinions are my own, and do not reflect my employers, past or present. People are touchy about religion; I feel like I need to offer that disclaimer. I’m also happy to discuss any of these ideas with my students in a non-confrontational and rational way.

The item that most surprised me in The Creationists is how recent a phenomenon Young Earth Creationism is. Author Numbers demonstrates that at the turn of the last century (~1900), acceptance of an ancient Earth and of organic evolution was common, rising, and un-extraordinary. There was a declining interest in creationism until a series of key people made certain moves. The first of these is the prophet of Seventh Day Adventism, Ellen G. White (1827-1915). It was this woman, unknown to me until I read this book, who first put forward the idea that the Noachian flood was global rather than a local affair. She also suggested that the Biblical book of Genesis described a literal six-day creation, and that the Genesis story was not metaphorical in any way, but a literal record of happenings. This idea was in stark contrast to the traditional readings of Genesis: most people subscribed to the “Day-Age” or “Gap” interpretations of Genesis.

If you’re not familiar, “Day-Age” creationists think that the six days mentioned in the book of Genesis are metaphorical – that even though the Bible says “days,” they really represent much longer spans of time. Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, expressed this point of view in 1778, when he said, “A year is to God as a thousand years is to man.”

The “Gap” interpretation essentially says, “A whole lot happened before the Biblical story gets started.” The basic idea is that God created life recently on a very old planet. A variation on this idea is that there are multiple temporal gaps within the Genesis yarn itself: time went by, stuff happened, but it didn’t get transcribed into the Bible. I suppose you could say that this is a sort of “non-depositional disconformity of Scripture.”

One of the basic issues for people interpreting Genesis is that it is internally self-contradictory, and therefore either part of it is literally wrong, or the other part is literally wrong, and therefore it’s best to just chalk the whole thing up to being metaphorically “true.” At least that’s what most people do.

To Ellen White, however, these ideas were anathema. Her personal conversations with God had convinced her that there were no gaps and no metaphorical intent. She came to the shocking and trend-bucking conclusion that the Genesis account is literally true: 6 days of 24 hours apiece, and another 24-hour day of rest.

White’s ideas were taken up by fellow Adventist George McCready Price and explored on the basis of undermining geology (particularly the sequence of fossil forms). After reading a friend’s books on evolution, Price came to the conclusion that if “geology were true, the rest would seem more or less reasonable.” Because he had already decided that he didn’t like the idea of evolution, he dedicated himself to going after its supporting science, geology.

photo from creationism.org, which has taken some of Price’s work (now in the public domain, as with this image) and re-published it on the web.

Among other superlatives, Price was the first to advance the oft-repeated creationist canard that it is “a circular argument” to date strata with the fossils they contain and to date fossils by the strata in which they are found. The book was full of similar “Aha!” moments for me as a reader: “So that’s the asshole who came up with that for the first time!” The origins of many similar shallow but infectious ideas are revealed by reading Ron Numbers’ fine book. Another example of creationist silliness that we can thank Price for is the Niagara Falls/ Grand Canyon carving claim: that the receding flood waters drained over the sediments they had deposited a few days or weeks earlier (quite rapidly lithified, it would appear), and carved out these large (American) gorges.

In Price’s 1923 book The New Geology (and an earlier piece called Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in the Evolution Theory, published in 1906), he reexamined the geologic record in light of a global flood: to explain where the water came from, he called upon “massive subterranean reservoirs of water”; first killing “smaller and more helpless animals” and then working its way up the fossil sequence. Why were jellyfish among the first to die (considering that they float at the top of the marine water column), killed before mammoths, considering it was a flood? The story he came up with (which he later admitted couldn’t possibly be true) was a far-fetched saga of specific organisms succumbing en masse to floodwaters in a characteristic order which just so happens to match the order in which scientists think they evolved. Harold W. Clark (profiled in Chapter 7) is another noteworthy creationist, one who was convinced of the validity of the sequence of fossils via oil well holes (page 144). Following Price’s lead, Clark reconciled this directionality with his a priori “Flood geology” conclusions by suggesting that the fossil record shows organisms succumbing to flood, group by group. This silly idea (which, like so much of Price’s output, is parroted today by modern creationist crackpots) got a lovely evisceration on pages 99 to 101 of Richard Dawkins’ excellent The Greatest Show On Earth).

Price further suggested that flooding could explain how mountain ranges formed. He said that they must have come from “great lateral pressure” that resulted from subsiding flood waters… an interesting idea to ponder, insofar as it makes absolutely no sense. We never observe small floods pushing up small mountains, so why Price would postulate that a larger flood with have such a novel effect is beyond me. It may have something to do with the fact that his geological training consisted of a single mineralogy class, and that his agenda was dismantling geology, not generating robust science.

On pages 902-905, Numbers describes how Price’s biography had its ups and downs. In particular, he had some hard times: no jobs; became suicidal, and he eventually he went to Takoma Park, Maryland to work construction. (Takoma Park is a funny place — a suburb of DC equally populated by aging hippies who believe the world is worth taking care of, and Seventh-Day Adventists, who believe that the second coming of Christ is imminent, and that the world is about to be destroyed). It took fifteen years for Price to find his niche pushing his “peculiar” interpretation of the Bible. In chapter 9, Numbers demonstrates that creationism was pretty much dead in the United States in the era of 1930-1950. But then Price’s ideas were rediscovered and spread, and have continued doing so ever since.

Price dubbed his ideas as “Flood Geology,” a name that has stuck to the branch of thinking that combines select elements of geological thought with the pre-determined conclusion that “the Flood did it all.”

One particular bugbear of Flood geologists like Price is the directionality of the fossil record. An undisturbed sequence of sedimentary rocks shows unidirectional changes to the suite of fossil organisms. Price used the Chief Mountain area in Alberta and Montana as example disproving fossil sequences’ directional change. There, of course, Mesoproterozoic strata overlie Cretaceous strata:

Chief Mtn

Chief Mtn_anno

Nowadays, we recognize this is tectonic shuffling due to the Sevier Orogeny, accommodated along the Lewis Thrust, but Price used it as an example to say “geology must be wrong.” He never bought the thrust fault idea.

This is a New Catastrophism: a single great flood (Noachian) which is responsible for the geological record; in contrast to old catastrophism of Cuvier and Agassiz: those men were advocates of multiple catastrophes spread over immense periods of time. One problem with the New Catastrophism is that it fails to explain what people lived on before this great flood. If all the world’s rock layers were laid down during a global deluge, on what foundation did Noah build his ark? What was underneath the garden of Eden? Another criticism, pointed out by people more familiar with the Bible than me, is that Biblical landmarks and place-names before the flood are same as post-flood places. It’s hard to reconcile this with the the ramifications of a global flood burying everything in sediment. (And where did all the sediment itself come from? More “vast subterranean reservoirs”? Sheesh.)

One great thing about this book is that Ron Numbers traces the evolution of ideas through time. While a lot of modern-day Christian young-Earth creationists might cringe to hear that their viewpoints are directly traceable to a Seventh-Day Adventist “prophet,” Numbers shows how ideas were transferred from Ellen G. White to George McCready Price to others, and thence to the modern creationist. One nice example is how Price followed White’s lead with regard to the presence of species. White suggested that after the Noachian flood, Satan supervised the amalgamation of man and beast. Price referred to Satan as ” the great primal hybridizer.” Satan is responsible for not only sin, but also… biodiversity?!? This strikes me as a very strange idea indeed, and hence a neat sort of “marker meme” that you can watch being passed from one person to another, like a fluorescent dye.

Though the idea of evolution is of course anathema to creationists, the notion of ‘devolution’ was pretty widespread amongst these early creationists. The idea of amalgamation producing biodiversity by hybridizing humans and (non-human) animals is one example. But there is a strong racist element to this thinking, too. On page 102, Numbers quotes a horrific poem by Price about “the Negro race.” I won’t reprint it here, but it definitely indicates his sense of superiority as a white man, and presents that idea that black people are the way they are because of a degenerative path they took. Similarly, Price claimed that racial mixing had produced apes. They were degenerate men in his view. I was astonished to read this: so apes are related to us; just in an opposite sense of derivation? This is wild stuff: how is it that people can think this way and have anyone respect them?

Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb are two other creationists that are well worth knowning. They wrote the modern ‘creation science’/’Flood geology’ text, The Genesis Flood. They took Price’s ideas and dropped all allusions to Price himself or the disreputable Seventh Day Adventism cult. Many modern evangelical Christians, the audience for whom Whitcomb and Morris were writing, viewed the Seventh Day Adventists as a fringe sect. It would be much easier to swallow Flood geology if they thought it was derived by their people from the Bible. So that’s how Whitcomb and Morris presented it, to great success. (Read the reviews on Amazon – not surprisingly, they show a bimodal distribution.)

I was also interested in the part of the book that deals with the spread of Creationist thinking in Mormonism. Mormonism strikes me as not only “another sect” of Christianity, but also a particularly weird one, with absolutely wacky ideas about many things. For instance, the notion that the American continents were populated by Middle Eastern tribes (via boat and “barrel”) rather than by Siberians (via the Bering Straight land bridge), is a wackaroon notion readily disproved by genetic comparisons between the three groups of people. This idea stems from another prophet, Joseph Smith, who (like Ellen White), claimed to have had a conversation with God, and later translated some golden plates that he found in a glacial drumlin in New York, and produced the Book of Mormon from them. He translated them, of course, with a magic “seer stone” (as would any of us, I’m sure). Read Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven for a eyebrow-raising account of these events – it’s a stunning revelation of how one loon/charlatan/mentally-ill-person can inspire an entire religion. I have several friends and family members who are Mormon, so I was eager to hear what Numbers’ historical research revealed…

On page 342, Numbers describes the reaction of Mormons to The New Geology, George Price’s flood geology book. Sterling Talmage (1889-1956, a professor on the geology faculty at the New Mexico School of Mines) was asked about Price by his father (James Talmage, 1862-1933, a mining geologist and engineer on the Quorum of Twelve, who was sussing out what his  co-Quorum-er Joseph Fielding Smith was preaching to the Quorum about Price’s flood geology). Smith (1876-1972) was the grandson of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, which is why he got to be on the Quorum. Turns out he was instrumental in introducing creationist ideas into the Mormon church, though not without some friction: Sterling Talmage responded to his father’s query about The New Geology by saying that it neither contained anything “new” nor any real “geology.” –– “With these two corrections, the title remains the best part of the book,” he said. Ouch!

Despite this negative assessment, Smith published Man: His Origin and Destiny in 1954, a book which presented Smith’s case against evolution. He cited his grandfather the prophet and non-Mormons like George Price. He argued that evolution was unscientific and un-Mormon. This was a break with the longstanding Mormon tradition of recognizing the knowledge gained via science as being valid. Numbers quotes an unnamed scholar as saying that Smith went “for schism rather than synthesis.” Like White and Price, this act of a lone individual provided fuel to a small fire, and set many Mormons on a more fundamentalist, non-scientific path. Bummer.

There are similar bifurcations of thinking in other faiths. One particularly telling example is presented in the book’s final chapter, “Creationism Goes Global” (page 429).  This time, the religion chewing on what to do with evolutionary thinking is Judaism. One ultra-orthodox group of Jews in Israel was threatening to withdraw their kosher certificate from a dairy that distributed dinosaur stickers. The complaint? The stickers piqued the kids’ curiosity about dinosaurs, so they went and looked them up in (gasp!) encyclopedias. These insidious factual references gave the age of dinosaurs as hundreds of millions of years old. Another rabbi commented on the controversy: “If the haredim want to ignore scientific proof of the existence of dinosaurs, that is their right,” he said. This struck me as very… shall we say, “accommodating” – but also as totally crazy. If it’s a person’s right to ignore the proof of dinosaurs, then I guess it follows that everyone is equally allowed to ignore the existence of squirrels. Believing in God is one thing… I mean, there’s no proof of that, so I can’t complain. But disbelieving in dinosaurs? I am not so accommodating as the rabbi. Those who willfully ignore demonstrable physical reality forfeit their right to be respected, at least by this humble blogger. Yes, you have a right to believe that dinosaurs didn’t exist (or that squirrels don’t, for that matter). But if that’s the way you roll, I think you’re a frakking idiot.

Some of my favorite passages in the book had to do with conflicts between creationists, as they hashed out what was true and what was foolishness. For instance, on page 113, Melvin Kyle (1858-1933) asks Price about the fossil record. The order of fossils is either perfectly forwards (i.e., the order predicted by the geologic timescale) or backwards (when strata are folded onto their backs) but never jumbled; this seemed to Kyle to present “too great a strain upon [creationist] credulity.” Tee hee! Another example occurs when Price’s protégé Francis Nichol (1897-1966) questioned just how exactly the flood let one layer of sediments settle out and “take definite shape” before another was “hurled upon it.” Good question, Mr. Nichol…and we’re still waiting for an answer.

Self-reflection can be equally damning. On page 108, Numbers quotes Price as admitting that you would never work out the creationist story from an examination of geology alone based in first principles; it required knowledge if the Bible to “see” the creation story in the rocks. That’s a classic example of the way science doesn’t work: starting with the conclusion, and then going out in search of evidence to support that conclusion. Sounds more like lawyering to me.

On page 347, Numbers quotes Gary North (b. 1942) with lauding The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris as “the most important book in the revival of the six-day view of Genesis.” However, he pulled no punches with criticizing creationist arguments that were clearly logically flawed, like the idea that because evolution is a directional phenomenon (one-way where order is maintained or developed), it therefore violates the second law of thermodynamics (tendency towards disorder) and is therefore false. This idea was first developed by Robert Clark, a chemist, as detailed in chapter 8 of The Creationists. North found it to be a weak argument. Among the reasons offered for this point of view is that Christ was resurrected, and that violated the second law of thermodynamics, too.

My favorite quip of North’s had to do with the practical benefits of a creationist paradigm (as opposed to the benefits of the scientific paradigm which we all enjoy every day: automobiles, air conditioning, antibiotics, shelf-stable food). What benefits does creationism offer to humanity’s day to day living? North said, “If six-day creationism could be used to locate oil and mineral deposits less expensively than the methodology of evolutionism does, we would begin to see the abandonment of evolutionism.” I think that’s a great point, especially coming from a creationist. “What we need,” North continued, “is for evolutionism to start drilling more dry holes than we do.” How’s that working out for you, Gary North?

Another nice example of creationists slamming creationists can be found on page 327. There, Numbers describes how the Geoscience Research Institute (a Seventh-Day Adventist creationist think tank) let the geologists on staff go when they concluded that flood geology was a farce (“desperately weak and improbable,” according to one with actual geological training). Edward N. Lugenbeal (b. 1940, studied archaeology at University of Wisconsin) wondered how he could “in good conscience continue to absorb the Church’s resources in what seems to me a futile and self-deceptive effort to disprove the obvious in science and an emotionally and ethically debilitating attempt to bolster our peoples’ faith by telling them a series of partial truths about science.” This strikes me as pretty damming when a creationist and believer speaks about flood geology that way.

Late in the book (on page 369), we are treated to the story of the development of modern scientific creationism, a movement represented by plenty of well-credentialed spokespeople. Numbers expresses this very well, so I will quote his discussion of how modern creationists with scientific training have adopted bits and pieces that they like from other scientists. He focuses specifically on the paleontologist Steve Gould (1941-2002) and the geologist Robert H. Dott (b. 1929):

Although they [creationists] adorned their literature with the names of scientists who questioned evolutionary orthodoxy, […] these citations were little more than literary ornaments. Both Gould and Dott, for example, vigorously opposed creationism of any kind, but scientific creationists nevertheless appropriated their “neo-catastrophism” – Dott’s use of non-uniformitarian “episodic sedimentation” and Gould’s employment of “punctuated equilibria” to develop a theory of evolution by spurts – in defending their deluge model of earth history. To understand twentieth-century creationism, little knowledge of formal science and philosophy is necessary; familiarity with the Byzantine world of popular religion is essential.

I think this is an excellent point. When science encounters new explanations or new data, science incorporates those notions and that information into an ever-shifting world view, and ever-evolving understanding of the natural world. A nice example of that is the recent news that something going on in the Sun may be influencing radioactive decay rates, the supposed constancy of which is the basis of isotopic dating of mineral crystals (and thus rocks). Once verified, this may mean that we end up re-estimating all the ages of rocks that we have calculated. It remains to be seen how it will all play out, but science doesn’t flinch at the data – science is intrigued when new data is revealed. If science were as dogmatic as “scientific” creationism, it would try to suppress or “spin” the news about decay constants not actually being constant. Science embraces what it doesn’t know. New data reveal our ignorance, and point to new questions.

But what creationists do with new data is different: if it doesn’t fit with their pre-determined world view, the data must be wrong. If it does fit with their pre-determined world view, then the data are allowed to be right. If it’s more subtle than that, then they can pick and choose what interests them. There are no new conclusions in creation science, only new angles of attack.

As for Dott and Gould: Episodic sedimentation is clearly the way sedimentation works, both on shorter- and longer-term scales. But “flood geology” creationists take that nugget and extrapolate it to “all sediments were laid down in a big flood.” Gould and co-author (lead author, actually) Niles Eldredge proposed that evolution didn’t proceed gradually, but in sudden jumps separated by long periods of stasis. Super; this new idea allowed science to reformulate its understanding of evolution. But young-Earth creationists took the Eldridge and Gould (1972) idea and said “look, Gould says evolutionary thinking is wrong.” In short, they take the bits and pieces they like, and ignore/undermine the bigger picture. This works fine if you’re not dealing with scientists, but are instead telling the general public what they want to hear.

The non-science-trained public is a mixed bag. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the population of my country “…live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology” (Carl Sagan). Nowhere is this more acute than in rejection of (a) the idea of organic evolution via natural selection, and (b) the idea of an old Earth. Anyone who teaches Historical Geology or deals with anti-evolution or young-Earth-creationist viewpoints should read Ron Number’s history The Creationists. It’s an excellent introduction to the story of where these ideas came from, and how they spread among believers to gain wide acceptance.