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Ron Numbers: On Palin, “Intelligent Design” and Us

h/t to Julius Nam for passing this along.

The Harvard University Press Blog writes: When we read this LA Times story on Sarah Palin’s apparent belief that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together a mere 6,000 years ago, we wondered, despite acknowledging how patently awesome it would be to pet a dinosaur, where exactly such a belief comes from (hint: it’s not from modern science). To that end, we asked our friend Ronald Numbers, who has made a calling out of tracking the origins and development of modern creationist thought, to fill us in on Young Earth creationism, where the idea came from, and whether or not, as its proponents claim, it can truly be called “science.”

Numbers is the author of the near-canonical The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, released in an expanded edition last year, and is editor of the forthcoming Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. So, a pretty good person to ask! Below is what he had to say.

According to a recent article by Stephen Braun in the Los Angeles Times (September 28, 2008), Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States, believes that the earth was created about 6,000 years ago and that humans and dinosaurs once lived together, a belief supported, she has claimed, by evidence of human footprints inside of dinosaur tracks. A conservative Christian with strong Pentecostal and Fundamentalist leanings, Palin favors teaching creationism along with evolution. “Teach both,” she once urged during her race for governor of Alaska. “You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”

I don’t much care, and I don’t think other voters should care, about the religious peculiarities of candidates for public office—so long as their views don’t impinge on public policy. It makes little difference to me whether Joe Biden, a Catholic, subscribes to the doctrines of transubstantiation or the Immaculate Conception, or whether Mitt Romney affirms the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon, if these doctrinal idiosyncrasies remain privately held convictions. But we have every right as voters to express concern about a Pentecostal being in charge of protecting the environment (think James Watt, President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior) who believes that we are living in the Last Days before the total destruction of that environment; or, say, a Christian Scientist, who denies the efficacy of modern medicine, being appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services. In such instances, examining the religious beliefs of political candidates is not bigotry.

Although Palin has not as governor of Alaska tried to impose her anti-evolutionary views on the schoolchildren of her state, her advocacy of teaching both creationism and evolution is more than a little worrisome. The young-earth creationism (a.k.a. scientific creationism) she seems to favor grew out of religious group known as the Seventh-day Adventists, founded in the nineteenth century by a young prophetess named Ellen G. White. Inspired by her visions and interpretation of Genesis, one of her disciples, a Canadian named George McCready Price, cobbled together a distinctive creationist model of earth history that attributed the formation of virtually all fossil-bearing rocks to the year of Noah’s flood. During the 1940s, Price and a small group of devotees in the Deluge Geology Society announced the discovery of gigantic fossil footprints of humans (supposedly those of the antediluvian giants mentioned in the Bible) alongside, and occasionally overlapping, those of dinosaurs, who, according to the best scientific authorities, had died out about 65 million years before the appearance of humans. For decades these footprints, found in the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas, served creationists as proof that evolutionists were wrong. However, careful research by creationists, first published in the 1970s, eventually convinced all but the most obstinate believers that the stories of giant human tracks were a myth; indeed, some had been carved by local craftsmen to sell as souvenirs. By the mid-1980s, even the leaders of the Institute for Creation Research had abandoned the giant-footprint argument.

Given this history, Palin either hasn’t been keeping up with developments in creation science or questions the authority of the most reputable young-earth creationists. Ironically, her home town, Wasilla, sits in the shadow of the Talkeetna Mountains, home of some of the most impressive—and oldest—dinosaur fossils found in Alaska.

During her campaign for governor, Palin endorsed the teaching of intelligent design (ID), a more recent variant of anti-evolutionism. It’s unclear from her public statements just what she knows about ID except that it’s not evolution. Most of the leading advocates of ID have little use for Bible-based arguments such as those associated with young-earth creationism; their primary goal is to overthrow the centuries-old ban on supernatural explanations in science and to “reclaim science in the name of God” (source) by allowing appeals to the supernatural to count as legitimate science. The first major legal test of intelligent design began with the Dover (Pennsylvania) Area School District Board’s decision to make students “aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” To implement this action, the board instructed ninth-grade biology teachers to read a statement to their classes describing Darwinism as “a theory … not a fact.” At a subsequent trial in 2005 to determine the constitutionality of this directive, the biochemist Michael J. Behe, a star witness for the defense, acknowledged that intelligent design lacked a mechanism for explaining how designed structures arose. In the end the judge, a conservative Christian, excoriated the Dover school board for its actions, which he memorably described as a “breathtaking inanity.”

Like Palin, John McCain, a Southern Baptist, advocates teaching students “all points of view” about the origins of humans. The Democratic candidates, though also personally religious, unequivocally support orthodox science. Barack Obama, a member of the United Church of Christ, has dismissed ID as “not science.” As he explained to the York, Pennsylvania, newspaper: “I’m a Christian … I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith. That doesn’t make faith any less important than science. It just means they’re two different things. And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.” His pick for the vice presidency, Joe Biden, has dismissed ID as “malarkey.”

I’m reluctant to dismiss anyone’s religious beliefs as “malarkey,” but the ID theorists insist that intelligent design is science, not religion. That’s malarkey.

Ronald L. Numbers is Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine, University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has served as president of both the History of Science Society and the American Society of Church History and is currently president of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science, Division of the History of Science and Technology.

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