Among the Creationists, by Jason Rosenhouse

Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionists Front Line
by Jason Rosenhouse, Narrated by George Orlando

This is the story of Rosenhouse’s exploration of Creationism. Rosenhouse is an intelligent, rational mathematician and declared atheist (though the way he describes his beliefs I’d put him in the agnostic category myself). He decided in college to explore the seemingly irrational views of ultra-conservative Christians to try to understand how they can possibly deny evolution. This book describes his journey through conferences, museums, and personal conversations. It also has a light smattering of history of the creationist-evolutionist debate.

This was a surprisingly considerate and fair book considering the fact that it was coming from an atheist talking about Creationists. From the beginning, Rosenhouse insisted that although he was well-known as “that atheist guy who goes to Creationist conferences,” he was almost always treated with respect and kindness. This is possibly because his main goal was to educate himself rather than to change anyone’s mind. He did, of course, make public comments/questions to the speakers at the conferences, but they always were polite and seemed to be answered politely as well. 

Despite this even-handedness, there were a few times that I cringed while reading this book. For instance, he lumped Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution, Christian Science and and other lesser known ideologies all in with Creationism. He even said that they were pretty much the same thing. They’re really not, though. Denying the possibility of evolution is not the same as saying that God directed evolution. Yes, I can see where an atheist might think the second option wasn’t sensible either. But the basic difference remains – one set denies evolution altogether the other does not. To me, and I would imagine to many atheists as well, an all-out denial of the evidence for evolution is less sensible than saying God directed the evolution. Another lapse in his even-handedness was when he criticized the Creationists as being name-callers – as if that doesn’t go both ways. Trust me, I’ve been disappointed in interviews and essays by prominent evolutionary theorists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. Scientists can disparage and name-call too.

From what I could tell of his book, the conferences were all about getting together with people who totally agree with you to say “Here’s what we agree on, now how can we get others to see the light?” Then they’d have the requisite book signings and other gatherings. So Rosenhouse had plenty of time to hobnob. In his book, he related several interesting conversations between himself and Creationist individuals. Most of these conversations seemed to include teenagers. He’d give information about which authors to read if they wanted to learn more about evolution, or just have an interesting discussion about the points of each argument. I imagine he had a lot of conversations with teenagers because they’re less jaded about trying to convince people of their points of view.

This was an interesting book, and I’m glad I read it. It had some shortcomings (noted above), but listening to this book actually educated me on certain things. For instance, years ago I was turned off by Richard Dawkins when I heard an NPR interview in which he disregarded a question from a Creationist. This question could have been easily answered: it was the old “how could evolution be scientifically possible when entropy (chaos) is always increasing?” (This is the second law of thermodynamics.) 

The answer is: entropy always increases in a “closed system.” A closed system is one that doesn’t have any exchange of energy with the outside. Like the entire universe. There’s only one universe. There’s nothing that it can exchange energy with. On the other hand, Earth is not a closed system. It’s always losing atmosphere to the space surrounding it. It’s always getting light and heat from the sun. That’s called an open system. Animals are open systems too. We breathe, we eat, we poop. That’s energy exchange. Evolution took place in an open system, therefore the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply and there is no contradiction. 

Ok, maybe that wasn’t easy to explain…Point is, Dawkins could have answered the question politely instead of rudely disregarding it. Although I still think Dawkins was in the wrong, after reading this book I now understand how frustrating it might be to be constantly answering exactly the same question over and over and people ignoring my answer. 

Creationism: A Worldwide Phenomenon?

I was rather shocked today to see this in my Scientific American newsfeed: Science and Archaeopteryx Overcome Creationism in South Korea, by Soo Bin Park (reprinted from a Nature publication). I had no clue classroom rejection of evolution in favor of creationism is a world-wide phenomenon! I figured it was something that stubborn ultra-Christians clung to only in the US. I suppose that’s just my Americentric mind at work again. I wonder how wide-spread this problem is?

This issue reminds me of a forum conversation that’s been going on at my favorite book-social-network LibraryThing. We’ve been discussing the movement of some parents to decline immunization for their children–for fear of unproven (and unlikely) threats like the autism-due-to-vaccination scare. These parents fail to appreciate the pain and suffering and endless fear of their parents’ parents during epidemics such as for polio in the early 20th century. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were! By not vaccinating their children, these people are not only risking the health of their own children, they’re risking the health of others’ children AND the health of our already-fragile medical system here in the US. 

Furthermore, there is a discouraging trend in the US for ultra-conservatives to take an anti-science stance. They want our kids to be world leaders in the classroom, but they also want them to be taught that evolution and global warming are “just theories” for which there is scanty evidence. Furthermore, they often approve of huge funding cuts for scientific research. Although I’ve posted a couple of times about studies where I asked “really? my tax dollars paid for that?!” I think funding for scientific research is an investment that the US needs to make if we want to continue as a world power. If we don’t stoke the fire, it’s going to die. I have personally witnessed the changes that have occurred in academia due to the funding lapses during the Bush administration, and the temporary relief that the Obama administration provided. Unfortunately, this relief came too late and academic (rather than for-profit) scientific research is on the decline. It’s harder and harder for professors to get tenure, so more and more of them enter “industry,” where the “evil” drug companies take over their souls. 😉 

I don’t know what the right solution is, but we mustn’t let academic science research go on a decline. We must nip the anti-science movement in the bud before it impacts our global position (and the quality of our health system) irrevocably. 

I am also reminded of this article in the Scientific American newsfeed: Obama and Romney Tackle 14 Top Science Questions. Romney isn’t as supportive of science as I’d wish, but at least he’s not leaning too far in the anti-science direction. There’s a (very small) blessing. I DID get a chuckle about how Romney made almost all of his answers about how Obama is a failure, whereas Obama actually focused on the questions at hand.