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The Incredible Storytelling of Creationists

fortunesfool's picture

Throughout this course we have repeatedly made note of the great importance of storytelling in science. Scientific stories are constantly changing, undergoing perpetual revision as new observations are made over time. The inconstancy of such scientific stories, however, can weaken reception to science, as vast uncertainties are naturally unsettling, and many people thus prefer to believe stories based in squarely in religious faith. The current story of biological evolution has still not convinced even half of the American population, almost 100 years after Darwin first introduced his theory in The Origin of Species1. This is a somewhat difficult fact to grapple with, as so much physical evidence backs the theory of biological evolution that it would seem somewhat foolish to dismiss it outright, and yet evolution remains an incredibly controversial issue. Although I personally put much stock in evolutionary theory, I am hesitant to label creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design as backwards, ignorant or delusional as some evolutionists are wont to do. Rather, I find their dependence on the Bible and on a historical world view based entirely within a religious context to be quite natural, in the sense that the biblical story of creation has been around for thousands of years, and is a static story, not plagued with change and uncertainty like the scientific story of biological evolution. Additionally, I feel that biological evolution is often grossly misrepresented in the mainstream by those advancing creationist perspectives. Biological evolutionary theory, therefore, is damaged by comforting and effective religious storytelling, Storytelling, therefore, is an incredibly crucial component in the tension between evolutionary and creationist world views.

The Judeo-Christian creation story is (in terms of longevity and endurance at least) an extremely good story. First composed some few thousand years ago, the tale of the Earth's inception at the hand of an all-powerful God over the course of a week has enjoyed a rather incredible shelf life. According to a 2004 poll conducted by CBS, a full 55% of Americans currently believe that God created humans as they are now in concord with the Biblical story, despite a wealth of physical evidence that lends credence to the theory of biological evolution2. The story itself is static, as religious "truth", divinely inspired, does not beg continued investigation or experimentation, and the story presents a view of a static world, in which all creatures were created as they are now by the direction of a cognizant God with purpose. To me, at least, it is not at all surprising that this story has remained so powerful and prominent even in one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world; the notion of a static world and a creator creates a profound sense of comfort, suggesting human worth and purpose, as well as providing for stability and certainty in a world which can seem incredibly unstable and uncertain.

And yet, although I can relate to the need for a static story, I prefer the story of biological evolution, because of the wealth of physical evidence that supports evolution. However, I think it is arrogant to assume that those of us who like the story of evolution more than the story of creationism are simply more educated or less ignorant than creationists. Instead, I believe that the role of storytelling has played an incredibly important role in the current state of the debate between evolution and creationism in the United States.

As Edward Humes reports in his February 13th article in the LA Times, there are in fact two distinct stories of biological evolution that are being told. One story, the "real" story of evolution as we currently understand it, is the biological evolutionary theory supported by physical evidence, and characterized by the ideas of gradualism, multiplication of speciation, and natural selection3. The other story is the biological evolutionary theory that anti-evolutionists attribute to the scientific evolutionist community, but which is in fact either a misconception or a deliberate misrepresentation in an effort to protect the Judeo-Christian creation story. This story, an incorrect summary of scientific observations, is what is loudly broadcast by creationists in order to weaken the support of biological evolutionary theory. In this story, one of the main points capitalized upon is the notion that scientists believe that "life is accidental, a random crash of molecules that magically produced flowers, horses, and humans.4" One can understand why a person confronted with this story would be quick to dismiss it, even to become outraged. Nothing is more discomforting than the thought that life has no purpose and that the universe is utter chaos, and the notion that molecules would "randomly crash" and create a human is somewhat hard to swallow. But this is not what the theory of biological evolution proposes. Rather, in the scientific theory, life as we now know it is random only in the sense that every trait belonging to every creature was a random mutation; evolution, however, occurs through natural selection, which is anything but "random".

Many creationists purport that no amount of scientific evidence could cause them to question anything put forth in the Bible, therefore making scientific storytelling with an aim to refute religious creationism rather ineffective5. However, creationists do attempt to use science itself to not only disprove evolution, but to prove their religious doctrine. It is a marvelous storytelling technique. When faced with so much scientific evidence supporting evolution, what better way to affirm creationism than using scientific storytelling? Organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research do scientific research to support a young-earth, creationist world view. While evolutionist scientists generally accuse the organization of grossly tailoring results to their theory and disregarding proven scientific research methods, their findings offer evidence from a rational, scientific viewpoint to those who are inclined to prefer a static, comforting worldview.6

I do not find it at all hard to understand, then, why a creationist view of the world still has such a strong hold in the United States. Not only is the Judeo-Christian creation story comforting and enduring, but the creationists have proven extremely effective storytellers in the modern world, whereas scientists have not been as successful in broadcasting true biological evolutionary theory. It is worth thinking about why in fact evolutionist scientists have been so unsuccessful in transmitting the "true" evolutionary theory as we now understand it. Perhaps scientists overestimate the power of raw facts and underestimate the profound importance of storytelling in our society.

Endnotes (footnotes in hard copy)
1CBS News (2004), "Poll: Creationism Trumps Evolutionism", Link.
3p.140 Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things. W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 1995.
4Humes, Edward. "Dumbing down evolution to kill it", LA Times, February 13th, 2007. Link.
5p. 67, Harrold, Eve, and Taylor, "Creationism, American Style: Ideology, Tactics, and Rhetoric in a Scoial Movement" in Coleman and Carlin, The Cultures of Creationism: Anti-Evolutionism in English-Speaking Countries, Ashgate, Burlington, VT. 2004.
6ibid. pg. 74.


Anne Dalke's picture

motivating storytelling

You have of course chosen to focus on the core ideas of our class: how storytelling is done, what difference it makes, what role it plays in shaping how we think about the world, as a response to both our curiosity and our anxieties. The motivating question of your paper seems to be why so many people still do not believe in evolution/not prefer that story (you’ve got good evidence that they don’t). And your answer seems to be that the Judeo-Christian creation story offers them something all humans “naturally” need: comfort, stability, certainty, worth and purpose (see the Little Monk’s speech, in Brecht’s play Galileo, for the most eloquent defense of this point of view that I know).

What puzzles me, in the context of your very convincing account of why so many folks prefer the creationist account, is why you yourself “prefer” in the story of evolution. At the end of your essay, you evoke the work of the Institute for Creation Research, as successfully meeting the needs for scientific rationality, but I’m not seeing in your paper an account of how the needs of folks like yourself (who “put much stock” in evolution)--needs for comfort, security, certainty, worth and purpose—are met. Is there anything you’ve been learning in your medieval studies that might address this question? Do you know anything about how the (contrary? Are they really contrary?) human desires for stability and change, for security and freedom, were met during the Middle Ages? Are there stories that allow for both? Has the current spin on evolution failed to capture the public’s imagination because it doesn’t emphasize the latter (there’s one moment in the paper when you do this, in your description of “natural selection” as “anything but random”).

There are a few other spots where I have some questions for you: about the “inconstancy” of science’s stories, about “true” theory, about “raw facts”—which also seem to be versions of these larger questions: truth and facts are gestures toward certainty, inconstancy a move in the opposite direction.

(The Other) Anne