The Creation Debate as co-created spectacle

There’s no question the the Creation Debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye was a success – from the point of view of creating a spectacle event.  According to reports, the audience reached over half a million viewers at one point.  Whether it was equally successful intellectually, whether any new ideas, agreements, concessions, or reconciliations were reached—whether there was any real exchange of ideas at all is another matter entirely.  Most of the arguments that both men brought up were unoriginal, and many of the refutations they offered to the other’s perspective were either question begging, or simply mentioned and then ignored.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  we should really see this not as a debate between two individuals, but as a performance by two individuals for the purposes of a larger audience.  In that respect it is very similar to the creation of the spectacle during the 1925 Scopes trial (in which the legal question at hand – over the guilt or innocence of John Scopes, and later even the legal question of the law’s constitutionality) were left behind entirely.  In fact, observing the Creation debate as a co-created spectacle has helped me think more clearly about  some of my own research, contrasting the spectacular Scopes trial with the utterly obscure evolution trial that came a year earlier.

 

 

Tacit Consensus about Science and Religion

Seeing the Debate as a collaborative production of Ham and Nye can help make sense of some of the more confusing parts of last night’s debate.  Most important is the amount of tacit agreement between the two debaters.  I’m certainly not suggesting that Nye and Ham didn’t have some real points of difference, but they also agreed on the grounds of their disagreement and in so doing, created a strong impression of what the issues of creation are about.  When groups like the Discovery Institute and BioLogos both decried the debate, they did so because the presentation of Nye and Ham’s views as the two poles is dismissive of the distinct positions they each advocate.  More importantly, if forces advocates of Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution (or any number of gradations of belief) to represent themselves as being somehow between these extremes.

This is something that happens frequently in science-religion discussions.  They’re arrayed on a spectrum, in which something like theistic evolution is portrayed as closer to atheism than religious antievolutionism, but also as less evolutionary than its atheistic cousin.  Some of the questions from the audience, and especially from the moderator conflated Intelligent Design with theistic evolution as if the ‘middle ground’ was all some unified position.  Even though Ham would claim that it’s not all of science, but evolution specifically that he opposes, this had the effect of setting up a science-religion dichotomy (with a quisling middle ground that compromises both its religious and its scientific values.)

 

The Debate and the Metadebate, 

On the face of it, the debate was over the question of whether or not creation was a ‘viable’ model of explanation of the origins of life.  But simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly, there was also a metadebate going on about the nature of creation as a kind of explanation, particularly if it counts as a form of science – or whether evolutionary science rest on foundational assumptions that can be seen as equivalently religious or ideological.

It seems that oftentimes, Nye took the debate at face value in a way that left the metadebate to Ham.  In effect, it feels like Nye may have won the scientific debate, but in failing to challenge the idea that this was a scientific debate, Ham gained the larger victory.

The metadebate matters in part because of legal rulings in the US about the teaching of evolution.  Th US Constitution prohibits the promotion of one religion above another, or the State acting to establish a religion.  There is no Constitutional mandate to promote science (despite Nye mentioning one in the debate – I’ll discuss this more fully in a later post.)  However, an effect of the 1983 McLean v Arkansas federal court ruling (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1987’s Edwards v Aguillard) one way of determining whether an ‘alternative’ to evolution is religious is evaluating whether or not it is science.  It was precisely for this reason that Judge John Jones III’s opinion in 2005’s Kitzmiller v Dover trial bothered to rule on the fact that intelligent design is not science.

 

The Metadebate and the Nature of Science

There is a real and historically longstanding difference between how Ham and Nye understand what science is.  Ham’s views were almost verbatim what some of his displayed in the Creation Museum says.  A trip through the museum begins with learning that “different scientists reach different conclusions because they have different starting assumptions.”  Ham emphasized this point early in the debate, claiming that there’s no difference in the available evidence from nature, the natural world doesn’t reveal itself in a different way to the creationist of the evolutionist, but that all scientists have operating assumptions that influence how they interpret evidence.  The act of interpretation is a human—and fallible—one.  (A point I will return to later on.)

 

"different scientists can reach very different conclusions, depending on their starting assumptions." From the Creation Museum's online virtual tour

“different scientists can reach very different conclusions, depending on their starting assumptions.” From the Creation Museum’s online virtual tour

 

 

 

 

For Ham there are two main possibilities for stating assumptions.  One is that God’s revealed Word (the Bible) is a source of certain and true knowledge, and teat investigations of teh natural world can confirm or extend that knowledge, but it cannot contradict it.  Revelation and Scripture has epistemic priority: it’s the thing we must know in order to make any other kind of knowledge possible.  The fact that the natural world shows itself in ways that we can study scientifically is made possible by the Creator God (note you don’t have to be a creationist to accept this last claim – it’s been a core tenant of natural theology for centuries.)

The alternative starting assumption is belief that human reason is the foundation of all knowledge.  By making human reason epistemically prior, the truth of Scripture, the ability to interpret it in ways we find satisfactory or logical, the ability to judge its credibility or authenticity are all dependent upon our ability to judge it in the light of human reason.  It’s the difference between these “starting assumptions” that leads one to creation science or evolution science.

What Ham does (brilliantly as a rhetorical strategy, I think) is that he initially presents this difference in starting assumptions as an epistemic difference, and only much later recasts it as a moral difference.  It’s not until later in the path through the museum (and later on in the debate) that Ham suggests that making all truths, religious and moral as well as scientific, conditional on the power of human reason leads to gross immorality and (in his view) the ‘fallen’ condition of humanity.  What was initially presented as a philosophical or personal choice is revealed to have moral consequences.  I’m not about to suggest that this argument is without logical flaw, but on a rhetorical level, it’s very well composed.

For Nye, as with other scientists, the rebuttal is that the ways in which nature is interpreted aren’t starting assumptions, they’re entangled with the process of collecting and observing data.  Scientists will readily except that there are sources of ideas outside science itself that inform the ways they interpret data, but (a point Nye failed to address) scientists and philosophers of science have long questioned the view that the aim of science is to confirm hypotheses that are generated from extra-scientific sources.  Nye was correct to say that the fundamental difference was over  “the nature of what you can prove to yourself,” but in part because of his naive views about theology, he didn’t fully understand what those differences were.

 

De-Nye-ing Theology

One of the most personally interesting (to me) parts of the debate came when Ken Ham was challenged to explain his literalism.  In fact it evoked almost exactly the famous Bryan-Darrow exchange during the Scopes trial.  But Nye (and the moderator in framing the question) conflated literalism with literal interpretation of scripture (almost exactly as Darrow did) Ham’s reply to this question started out fairly close to Bryan’s.  The literal truth of the Bible means that the text of the Bible was God-Inspired, that to the letters, the words, the authorship was divine in origin.  But this does not mean that the human act of interpretation is infallible.  Where Ham differed from Bryan however was in that the latter showed far more humility in Dayton Tennessee, more readily acknowledging that there were passages in the Bible that he accepted literally without knowing what they necessarily meant.  by the end of his answer, Ham seemed closer to defending Darrow’s version of Bryan’s literalism (as literal interpretation) than to Bryan’s own expressed views.

But Nye failed to capitalize on this position, in part because his understanding of theology was both logically and rhetorically flawed.  Nye relied on caricatures of religious arguments, imagining himself clever by pointing out that Noah’s ark was technologically improbable when the whole Flood was itself Divine action, or harping on the fact that there have been diverse translations of the Biblical text after Ham had already quoted a few specifics in Hebrew.  Nye’s failure to bother to understand the theological concepts that he was invoking and refuting made him appear religiously incredible.  It also made him appear to be dismissive, rather than engaging the theological questions raised by Ham’s view.

And there are some extraordinary theological presumptions and questions raised by Ham’s view.  As I blogged about a while ago, theologians have argued that the idea that ‘creation’ implied the sudden instance of something from nothing was an interpretation that came centuries into the Christian era, and that the Biblical ‘creation’ had better been understood as the formation of the world from eternal existing matter.

 

For those of us interested in the historical development of science and religion, the debate is an interesting phenomenon.  And it raises some very interesting questions about how public discussion of science religion functions, and what social groups engage in it.  Overall, I think this was an interesting event that will probably prompt a lot of discussion. But most of that discussion will accept the frame of the creation debate without challenging it.  For those interested in a more constructive dialogue of science and religion, this may do more harm than good.

 

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A ‘Forgotten Evolutionist’ – Alfred Russel Wallace at the National Museum of Wales

I had the opportunity to go to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff this week and to see the new exhibit “Alfred Russel Wallace: Forgotten Evolutionist?” which just opened this past week.  I’m not a Wallace scholar, but I am a historian of evolution and biology, so I came to this with a fair bit of knowledge about Wallace’s ideas and some of his discoveries. But I must admit I didn’t know much about his early life.  I was pleasantly surprised by some of the information the exhibit contained.  At the same time, there were a few frustrating errors in the presentation.  And in one instance, there was even material which I found offensive and racist.  The result was a better knowledge of Wallace than I’d previously had, but a conflicted view of the museum’s curatorial choices.

(note – the Museum expressly prohibits posting photographs of exhibits online, so I will not put any up on this blog.)

While I certainly understand that Wallace gets much less public attention than Darwin, this idea of the “forgotten” Wallace seems to be a bit of overstatement—yet it is the rhetoric that the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Wales has been employing and which the press has picked up on in this 100th anniversary of his death.

The exhibit is laid out in a single room with several alcoves.  An anti-clockwise progression takes us through Wallace’s early life, to some of his voyages and discoveries, to his connection to Darwin and Darwinism and the fallout from their similar theories, and finally to his public persona by the end of his life.  In the center there are two video screens with headphones.  There are also a few cases of specimens that Wallace collected during his voyages.

There’s a bit of subtext that the collective Wallace-amnesia might be due both to the class differential between him and Darwin’s circle, and also perhaps the tendency of Wales (with only 5% of the UK population) to be ‘forgotten’ within the larger context of Britain.  At one point, the exhibit recounts his collecting voyages and publications with the pithy conclusion: “Not bad for a self-educated man from Usk in Wales!”

It’s not surprising to see the National Museum of Wales emphasising the Welshness of a famous son such as Wallace. But the exhibit does suggest that Wallace’s Welshness wasn’t mentioned just for the sake of patriotism; it actually mattered to his progression in science.  It was the economic and technological circumstances of Wales at the time of his upbringing that led Wallace to employment and background as a land surveyor (although the exhibit also hints at a social activism by claiming that Wallace recognised that much of the surveying was being done to take the land away from local control into national and private economic interest—land surveying as the vanguard of economic and cultural hegemony at the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.)  The point is made that Wallace’s experience and training as a land surveyor was critical to his ability to precisely map the locations and distributions species, and made possible his understanding of biogeography.

That was perhaps the best of the exhibit.  Although there was also some very useful discussion of the rather famous scene where Wallace sent his paper outlining an evolutionary theory to Darwin, leading to the joint presentation of the two’s theory at the Linnean society and the resultant publication of the Origin of Species.  The exhibit slyly suggests that there’s more to this story:

So ends a scientific fairy tale? Two men from very different backgrounds arrive at the same cutting edge idea separately? Maybe not.  Some scholars question these events, arguing that conspiracy robbed Wallace of his proper credit.

What do you think?

I find the – What do you think? –  rhetoric a bit disingenuous.  It’s not as though the exhibit gives its audience the evidence necessary to decide this and relegates historical interpretation (you know, using facts) to be reducible to gut opinion.  Moreover, contrasting Wallace receiving “proper credit” with a “conspiracy that propagated a “fairy tale” to “rob” Wallace certainly slants the story.  There was also the suggestion that his beginnings in a “lesser social class to the ‘eminent men’ of English [of course not Welsh…] natural history like Darwin.” This meant that “Wallace didn’t have a reputation to lose!” The implication is that this made Wallace a bolder naturalist than the overly-cautious, reluctant-to-publish Darwin.

But ultimately because “Wallace was prepared to champion unpopular causes without regard for his own reputation,” his legacy suffered.  The exhibit suggests that this very boldness and willingness to be unpopular was responsible for the quick fading of his fame after his death.  By contrast, “Darwin was remembered thanks to his popular book ‘On the Origin of Species’ whilst Wallace remained in the shadows.”

This has the feeling of trying much too hard.  The effect is one of creating a Darwin who was: cautious of publishing to the point of cowardice (pushed forward only because of Wallace); socially privileged and part of a good old boys club of Victorian scientific elite—and of course English; who usurps Wallace’s rightful legacy because he wrote a ‘popular’ book.

While the exhibit presents some of the important aspects of Wallace’s thought and does so in ways that are not too technical, it doesn’t always do a good job explaining how Wallace’s ideas fit into the broader conversations about evolution.  We are told that Wallace’s evolutionary idea “suddenly flashed before him” “while suffering from malarial fever.” This depiction of a disease-induced hallucinatory revelation doesn’t really fit with the earlier idea of Wallace as a hard-working “self-educated man from Usk.” So is it the case that scientific discovery is the result of a lifetime of hard work or a brief moment of insight?

Wallace is described as having reached “the same brilliant idea” as Darwin.  Elsewhere in the exhibit, points of difference between the two’s theories, such as the development of the human mind and human ancestry are mentioned.  There’s a brief and somewhat distorted presentation of previous evolutionary ideas, which seems to conflate aspects of Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin.  It also includes the unfortunate phrase: “Lamarck came up with an early theory for evolution called Lamarckism.”  There’s a very simplistic mention of the so-called eclipse period, which states simply that evolutionary ideas fell out of favour in the early 20th century, before experiencing a revival in the 1930s.  There’s been some good criticism of this idea (first put into print by Julian Huxley as a narrative to advance his own ‘modern synthesis’) of the Darwinian eclipse (such as this article by Mark Largent).  The exhibit doesn’t explain the causes for this apparent eclipse but seems to suggest that Wallace’s having died at the peak of it might have further led to his quick forgetting.  Unlike the beatification of Darwin that led to his entombment in Westminster Abbey.

The presentation of Wallace’s theory of biogeography is generally much better, and more directly tied to the claims that his experiences as a land surveyor (and his Welsh background) informed his scientific discoveries.  And there’s a good presentation of the discovery of different species on opposing sides of the “Wallace Line” through Indonesia.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t presented as clearly as it could be.  The line is illustrated against a map of the Malay archipelago.  The Wallace line is projected as a thick red line on a pane of glass mounted several centimetres in front of the actual map.  This makes it hard to tell exactly where the line runs through the map.  The actual Wallace line runs through the Lombok strait, between the islands of Bali and Lombok.  But depending on the angle, the line either covers Lombok (not a large island) entirely, or even appears to put Bali and Lombok on the same side, with the Wallace line appearing to wrongly traverse the Alas strait, dividing Lombok and Sumbawa.  (A map of the three islands here)

There’s a few other odd curatorial choices.  Towards the end of the exhibit there’s a cast of a Homo rudolfensis skull found in East Africa in 1972.  This is given as evidence of the human evolution that Wallace championed.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that the same week the exhibit opened, details of new skull finds in Georgia cast doubt of the existence of Homo rudolfensis as a distinct species from Homo erectus.  But moreover, this is a strange choice of skull.  It’s not one that Wallace would have been associated with in any way, having been discovered long after his death.  And it’s not even from a part of the world where Wallace explored.  Yet within Wallace’s lifetime, fossils of Homo erectus were found in Java, an island that Wallace himself explored.

But the most outlandish thing in the entire exhibit is a serious of biographical cartoons depicting stages in Wallace life.  These are done in a style that could have been from Wallace’s own era, however these are quite clearly not nineteenth century depictions of the naturalist, but present-day ones.  They’re all done by the same artist, and they include events (like young Wallace looking for insects whilst surveying land as a teenager) that certainly wouldn’t have attracted any attention for caricature.

In general the use of cartoons to depict biography is accessible, and easily digested.  It’s also child-friendly and humorous.  I have nothing against the medium.  But it’s precisely because the medium is so accessible, and might be the only part that some children really look at, that the cartoons need to be careful about what messages they reinforce.  Unlike some of the other visuals, (like the biogeography map) this doesn’t really require reading the further text to take away a message, and unlike the video, this doesn’t require wearing headphones or waiting a while for a point to be made.  For many people this is the quickest explanation of Wallace the man.  And that’s why I found them so troubling.

A few are harmless attempts at tongue in check irreverence (Wallace on a sinking ship on return from the Amazon, crying out “Women, children, and rare beetle specimens first!”).  The final one, showing the ghost of a deceased spiritualist Wallace hovering over his grave exclaiming “I was right!” seems a bit disrespectful to Wallace’s religious beliefs.

Two of these cartoons, however are quite blatantly racist and inappropriate.  I can’t post photos of them here, so I’ll just describe them.

One shows a bespectacled and kitted up (backpack, butterfly net, etc) Wallace greeting a person in the Malay Archipelago.  Wallace says: “I’m a collector!” In reply, a dark-skinned man wearing nothing but a loincloth, with a hut behind him filled with skulls, replies “Me too!”

The next one shows Wallace reclining under a lean-to, writing in his journals.  Next to him a well-muscled (topless, also in a loincloth) dark skinned man states: “I tell you what – only the fittest survive out here!” and Wallace replying “Waaaait a minute…”

If these were actual Victorian-era cartoons, the depiction of natives of these lands as naked primitives might be expected.  If these were themselves historical artifacts that showed how Wallace was perceived at the time then they might have a place in the exhibit.  But to newly create and reinforce these stereotypes and to present them as humorous depictions of Wallace’s travels is appalling and inappropriate.  In an otherwise clever, if not flawless, exhibit, what in the world are they doing there?