Nearly half of Americans still don't believe in evolution. I understand; I once was one of them.
One December evening in 1992, I set two books side by side. One championed "scientific creationism," offering an alternative to biological evolution. The other was a collection of essays by noted evolutionary scientists, rebutting special creation. My self-assigned task was to study a chapter of each book in turn, taking notes and highlighting differences. The goal, based upon my faith in the Old Testament record, was to further hone arguments in favor of the Genesis account. I was a crusader, assaulting the citadel of science, and entertained no doubt concerning the conclusion of my analysis.
A few days later I closed the books and reviewed my notes. Over many hours of intense concentration it gradually dawned on me that I no longer accepted my initial premise; I did not believe the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis were a literal chronicle of how the Earth and its life forms originated. It was an astonishing revelation, shattering my worldview, and a painful experience. Though devastated on one hand, I was also pleasantly awed that I'd confidently set out to accomplish precisely the opposite result, and this right-angle pivot in my mental life was as valid and honest as such mutation can be.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans believe "that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years." I understand why and how they believe this -- I was in their number for several years -- but even I was surprised that so many still support creationism. What does this mean? Is it just a tidbit of contemporary Americana that causes Europeans to shake their heads, or are there potentially serious consequences when almost half of us reject a basic tenet of modern science?
First, let's be clear that where you stand on creation (a k a intelligent design, these days) vs. evolution has nothing to do with personal intelligence. There are very smart people on both sides of the issue.
Second, the rationale behind most of the arguments against evolutionary science is to support religious faith. In a drive to place creationist textbooks in public schools, sympathetic organizations eschew all direct mention of God and divine agency in their publications, but that is merely cosmetic. If the universe was designed and/or created, the implication is clear: There is a designer and/or creator -- that is, God. There is nothing nefarious about such belief, but as I learned at my desk 20 years ago, it is not scientific.
Third, the word "theory" carries a popular connotation that does not exactly tally with the scientific meaning. In science, a theory is a body of knowledge that is incomplete, but not necessarily tentative. For example, science speaks of "The Theory of Gravitation." No one doubts the reality or effects of gravity; "theory" in this case just means we don't thoroughly understand how it works. Similarly, the vast majority of scientists do not doubt the reality of evolution, but debate over details of the process continues. In contrast, the popular usage of "theory" implies a guess or conjecture, that evolution itself is in question, and an alternative view is, if not likely, then certainly possible. The only option currently on the table is some variant of creationism, a religious solution.
So when I was a believer in a literal interpretation of Genesis, was I a danger to society? As are most creationists, I was a law-abiding voter, volunteer and taxpayer, involved with my community and concerned about the nation and the world. I did, however, support a self-righteous contempt for the scientific community -- how can you not when you believe its foundation is delusional at best, or Satanic at worst? This was not mere skepticism, which is an intellectually healthy response to data and pronouncements from all sources, including scientists. It was, rather, a philosophical hostility that denied credence and even sincerity to the other side.
In those years I was fond of arguing creation/evolution with all comers, and I recall the evening I dominated a sometimes heated exchange with an anthropologist. This individual later told me, laughing, "I wanted to kill you." He wasn't outraged by my actual arguments, but rather by my overweening stance of rectitude, and my smug disregard for the facts he marshaled in defense of his position. Despite my intransigence ("keeping the faith" in my mind), we remained friends, and simply avoided the topic instead of each other.
The problem I posed to society was not my beliefs, but their form of expression. In our politically polarized society we must at least allow that our ideological opponents are sincere, and that the vast majority mean no harm. As a stunning bad example, consider that the Virginia legislature, noting that coastal flooding is becoming a problem, nevertheless decreed this year that the term "sea-level rise" must be omitted from a state-funded study because it's "a left wing term." Courteous and honest discourse is the cornerstone of civilization, and a prime purpose of civilization is to avoid blood in the streets. Another motivation for courtesy is the understanding that you are highly unlikely to directly change anyone's mind, and that's especially true if you are arrogant and uncompromising.
Yes, my mind was altered dramatically concerning creationism/evolution, but I accomplished that myself, in solitude and not in disputation. A collateral benefit was that my hubris was tempered. My belief in a literal interpretation of Genesis had been rock-solid and long-held, so what other personal views might be worthy of revision?
Why is it that despite convincing scientific evidence so many Americans are creationists? For me, at least, the answer was clear: I had never seriously studied evolution and the facts supporting it. I'd graduated high school and college with honors and continued to read widely, and yet was not adequately exposed to a key concept of science. The chief fault lies with the scientific establishment. We hear much about the widening income divide between the haves and have-nots, but there is also a knowledge divide. Just as I was an arrogant religionist, so too are many scientists arrogant materialists. All too often those who reject Darwin and his successors are considered ignorant rubes by the cognitive elite. Scientists wonder -- incredulously -- how can 21st-century people possibly believe that God fashioned the world in seven days a few thousand years ago? Why? Because it is emotionally comforting and anthropomorphic -- the creation myth of our tribe -- and therefore naturally attractive to humans; and because those in the scientific community have failed to effectively share the knowledge they've gleaned.
In his latest book, E.O. Wilson, distinguished biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, addresses "the human condition," that is, the framework around the timeless questions of: What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? He writes: "Religion will never solve this great riddle. Since Paleolithic times each tribe -- of which there have been countless thousands -- invented its own creation myth [revolving around] God, a tribe of Gods, a divine family, the Great Spirit, the Sun, ghosts of the forbears, supreme serpents, hybrids of sundry animals, chimeras of men and beasts, omnipotent sky spiders -- anything and everything that could be conjured by the dreams, hallucinogens, and fertile imaginations of the spiritual leaders." These creation myths were important to the cohesiveness of the tribes and therefore aided the survival of the group and the individuals comprising it. In that sense, in prescientific eras, the veracity of the creation stories, or lack of it, was irrelevant.
However, in a scientific age of fossil records, DNA, genomes and genetic engineering, there is a higher standard for evidence and truth. Wilson writes, "Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life."
It seems to me that if we are going to successfully navigate our way through the crises generated by our dominion of the planet, such as climate change, overpopulation, unsustainable agriculture, forestry, fisheries and energy use -- biological issues -- it would be helpful to collectively accept a scientific basis of our origins. Such acceptance doesn't preclude religion. For example, several years ago the Catholic Church officially recognized evolutionary theory as compatible with its doctrines.
In order to know where you are and where you're going, you need to know where you've been. If half the population is consulting a different map, then how can we possibly travel together? At the least, we should all do our homework, whether still in school or not. Too much to ask? Then so is democracy. And civilization.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the fire chief in French Township and is the fire technician for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He is the author of "Ghosts of the Fireground," "Letters from Side Lake" and other books.