Glenn Branch's picture

Creationism and Evolution in 1001 Ideas

I don’t spend all of my time working at NCSE. Once in a while, I moonlight. The fruits of a moonlighting stint recently arrived: a chunky volume entitled 1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think (2013), edited by Robert Arp. In his introduction, Arp explains that the book contains “1,001 of the most important ideas that have ever been imagined, conceived, and articulated throughout the course of recorded history. These are 1,001 ways that changed the way we think.” Each idea is described in the space of about 250 words apiece, often ornamented with a particularly apropos quote or a marvelous illustration. They’re arranged chronologically, by their inventor or most prominent exponent when known, from “Human Control of Fire” (circa 1,600,000 BCE and attributed to Homo erectus) all the way to “Not-Junk DNA” (circa 2012 and attributed to ENCODE: don’t tell Dan Graur, because he’ll be livid).

As you will have guessed, I received a copy because I was a contributor. You might think that I was asked to write the articles on, say, creationism, flood geology, and baraminology. Nope. I was asked to write thirty-one articles on various scientific, philosophical, and cultural topics, none of which really significantly intersect with my work at NCSE. But that’s perfectly okay. In the first place, Arp had to distribute 1001 topics among several dozen contributors, and I’m sure that the last thing that he needed was the added burden of negotiating with people about who wrote about what. Plus Arp is a philosopher of biology (whose publications include Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology [2009], coedited with Francisco J. Ayala, and a review of the anthology Evolutionary Theory: Five Questions [2009] for Reports of the NCSE), so he could have written on those topics himself perfectly well; he didn’t need me to do it.

I was interested, though, to see how evolution and creationism were represented in 1001 Ideas. “Creation Myth” appears early, but without any discussion of attempts to portray creation myths as scientific—understandably, since there’s only 250 words per idea. It’s immediately followed by “Miracles,” which interestingly mentions methodological naturalism—the principle that science is incapable of investigating the supernatural—but implies, falsely, that only “Materialists or Naturalists” accept it. “Flat Earth Myth” follows a few pages later. The article on “Flood Myth,” illustrated by a lovely thirteenth-century miniature showing Noah’s Ark, actually doesn’t mention the Genesis version of the myth at all, which is a harmless omission, I think. I was surprised to see “Catastrophism” on the same page; the essay credits the idea to India circa 2150 BCE, on the strength of flood mythology there, but briefly discusses Cuvier and Walter Alvarez.

It’s only in the late eighteenth century that evolution starts becoming foreshadowed. Articles for “Uniformitarianism” and “Geological Deep Time” attribute both ideas to James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1785), followed in a few pages by “Gradualism,” likewise attributed to Hutton but in 1795. There was a new edition of Theory of the Earth in 1795, with supplementary material included, but did it really introduce any ideas as significant as gradualism that weren’t in the first edition? The article on “Malthusian Law” mentions Malthus’s influence on Darwin. The article on “The Watchmaker Analogy” credits the idea to Paley, whom it wrongly describes as a bishop (he was archdeacon of Carlisle), ignoring the horological analogies to be found in Derham, Nieuwentyt, and Cicero, and cites Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box as “a development in the tradition that Paley helped to advance.” “Lamarckian Evolution” appears in 1809.

And then boom! On p. 510 appears a full-page picture of Darwin, to whom is accorded “Natural Selection” (Wallace is mentioned, although his middle name is misspelled), “Last Universal Ancestor,” and “Sexual Selection.” His influence is swiftly felt: Huxley is credited with “Darwinism,” defined as “[a] movement in support of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution”; Lyell is credited with “The Missing Link”—the essayist concludes, rightly, “Verification of the theory of evolution does not hinge on the identification of missing-link fossils”; Spencer is credited with “Survival of the Fittest.” The article on “Recapitulation Theory,” while dismissing the slogan “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” might have acknowledged that embryology still provides excellent evidence for evolution. “Social Darwinism” is correctly not blamed on Darwin. From 1859 onward, evolution is a recurrent fixture in the book, in articles too numerous to itemize here.

How about the competition? “Christian Fundamentalism” is dated to 1897, and “Fundamentalist Christians are largely responsible for the modern Creationism movement.” But there are no significant developments until “The Genesis Flood,” credited to the book of the same name by Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb Jr. published in 1961. “Darwin’s Black Box,” credited to the book of the same name published in 1996, is the last entry related to creationism: the subtitle “A scientist’s challenge to the Darwinian assumption that there is no God” is rather a howler, and the article itself actually underestimates Behe’s argument, suggesting that he’s simply arguing that the case for the evolvability of irreducibly complex structures is not certain, whereas he’s actually arguing that irreducibly complex structures are in principle unevolvable. His argument limps badly, of course, but it’s not a mere stare of incredulity.

I haven’t mentioned every idea in the book that could be thought to be relevant to the creationism/evolution controversy: there’s plenty more, from “Adam and Eve” to “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” That’s not surprising, I suppose: after all, there’s science, religion, and philosophy involved in the controversy, and those are all areas chock full of ideas. Plus there’s plenty of fascinating articles on topics not relevant to the controversy—including my piece on “Tantric Sex,” which was, shall I say, interesting to research. (Not as interesting as you might think, though: I researched it in the public library, all by myself, with no equipment beyond notepad and pencil.) I have already been paid for my contributions, so take it as a wholly uncompensated testimonial when I say that 1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think would make a lovely gift to anybody with a curious mind. (And why would you give anything to the incurious?)