22 July 2012

In praise of Creationists.

Creationists are great. Really. Following on from my previous post about the chirpy little Caleb Foundation pretending that the National Trust had "recognised the legitimacy of creationist views", I wondered whether I had been a little harsh. A major creationist fantasy (and they hope by continually making the claim that it will somehow become true) is that there is an ongoing debate within science about "Creation" vs "Evolution". This ties in with the declared "Wedge Strategy" which has been adopted by creationist organisations such as the Discovery Institute in the US, and while the Wedge has arguably had effects in US, it has been a conspicuous flop in the UK and Europe.

That may be changing - as noted by Adam Rutherford, Creationists have succeeded in getting approval to run Free Schools in the UK, and, although they declare they will not teach creationism "as a scientific theory" (this simply to satisfy the inspectors), they will convey a "creationist ethos". No-one, apart from otherwise sensible people like the @thechurchmouse blogger (worth a Twitter follow, seriously), is taken in by this. The goal of creationists is to get their "theory" into public discourse so that, even if it is treated with total derision in scientific circles, the public are somehow conned into thinking that it poses a credible alternative to the scientific view.

Yet... yet... are creationists really all that bad? Yes, they are pseudoscientific fantasists, and their arguments have been trashed over and over again. But could they actually be useful?

I was mulling this over a while back when it hit me that some of the most beautiful pieces of evidence that we have for evolution have been honed and clarified for presentation the general public by scientists precisely because of misguided creationist claims. For example, the fascinating story of human chromosome 2, while well known to scientists, was never really used as a means to teach the public about evolution - until the creationists started to warble about the impossibility of humans and other apes having a common ancestor. Truth be told, this simply reflected their ignorance of basic biology, but once the tatty old gauntlet was thrown down, Ken Miller picked it up, and in some of the best public engagement with science that I've seen in a long time whacked the creationists up and down the street with it, educating the public and making the arcana of molecular biology accessible to a general audience.

He did the same with the bacterial flagellum; others have done likewise with dinosaurs, birds, bacterial flagella, DNA sequences etc - now the general public are (arguably) much better informed on many of these issues than they would be if the creationists hadn't been around.

So next time you see Ken Ham or Billy Dembski bleating on about Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism, raise a glass to them for triggering some of the best scientific popularisation that we've seen recently, from real scientists, confirming our common ancestry with other life forms, the age of the universe, the mechanism of formation of the Giant's Causeway and Grand Canyon, etc.

It has been said that God needs the Devil to make him look good; I don't believe in either of those blokes, but there's no doubt that when presented with the tawdry attempt at a simulacrum of science from the creationists, many people see the the Real Thing to be even more wonderful and awesome than perhaps they ordinarily would.

So let's continue to ridicule creationism and poke fun at its proponents. I don't think this reduces us to their level - we don't have to debate them in formal arenas - instead, it shows that despite their protestations, evolutionary biology, geology, cosmology and science in general are so much more nourishing than their misinterpretations of ancient mythology. Thanks, Ken!

1 comment:

  1. Hmm... academics ought to write the occasional popularly accessible book about their work anyway. Many historians do (e.g. Ronald Hutton, Simon Schama, Roy Porter); why do scientists need the spur of the annoying creationists to write stuff?

    Also, the creationists are a total embarrassment to anyone who practices religion without believing in it as a literal set of propositions. They and their homophobic and sexist and anti-other-religions colleagues give religion a very bad name.