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June 07, 2005

Kansas, Intelligent Design and Creationism, the importance of historical amnesia

Jay Manifold has an excellent first hand account of the goings on in Kansas as they relate to evolution. Here are the posts in chronological order:

The Matter With Kansas (I) - Introduction.
The Matter With Kansas (II) - Where I Stand
The Matter With Kansas (III) - KCRSDP (I) (keeping scrolling down past the post linked).

In the 3rd post Jay reports on a talk he went to recently on the topic and Ronald L. Numbers, author of The Creationists, notes that the model presented by Young Earth Creationists, and probably normative among conservative Christians today, has its origins among the Seventh Day Adventists, and importantly, the older generation of evangelicals adhered to a less radical "literalist" interpretation of Genesis. This is a common phenomenon, where "conservatives" or "traditionalists" espouse a position that is actually of rather recent pedigree, but all (even many who espouse the "modern" evolutionary paradigm!) tend to tacitly agree that it is the pre-modern null position, when St. Augustine of Hippo in this case would have dissented from many of the talking points rooted in Biblical "literalism" espoused by the Creationists.

I will offer another example of what I see as this phenomenon, unrelated, but I think deriving from the same cognitive bias to ascribe ancient legitimacy to recently agreed upon orthodoxies: my father often complained when people from other parts of South Asia would tell him that if one learns Urdu one is a "good Muslim." He would object to this generally out of Bengali chauvanism (he does know Urdu as a point of fact), but in any case, those in the know understand that Urdu is a language that has become associated with the Muslim elite, or Islamic identity, in much of South Asia. Though it is not the mother tongue for ~90% of the population of Pakistan, it is nevertheless the official language in that nation, and throughout much of India Muslims converse in Urdu.1 Clearly the assocation between Urdu and Islam is historically contingent, because the language itself only emerged in the past 2-3 centuries out of the milieu of the Mughal armies and courts, a synthesis of the substrate of "Hindustani" dialects of northern India with a strong overlay of Persian and Arabic vocabulary and Arabic script. This is well after the period when for Sunni Muslims the religion was formalized and codified, so the assocation of Urdu and Islam is clearly something that is in the zeitgeist, and in particular the South Asian zeitgeist as Muslims in other parts of the world do not concede such status Urdu (or even know of its existence). It is the outgrowth of explicable historical processes and the perception of Islam's association with Urdu and vice versa is socially conditioned (if there are no Hindus out and about its salience is diminished, so I doubt Pakistani Americans are teaching their children Urdu so they can be "good Muslims").

My point is that social issues, even scientific or religious ones, where fact and faith are assumed to be sharp and parsimonious arbiters, are very complex and difficult to parse. But, that should not, in my opinion, lead one to be bogged down in "Post Modernist" thinking, where one simply surrenders and concedes that reality is an insoluble problem. Rather, people should read more, think more and reflect more. A simple clear solution to an arcane and complex problem. There is nothing "inherently more Christian" about the Young Earth Creationist position, there have been debates about how literally to take Genesis since the initial founding of Christianity, and usually (from what I can gather) the intellectuals who fleshed out the details of Christian doctrine tended to lean toward metaphor and morality as the mode of interpretation and the reason being Genesis and the Creation story, not an eye witness account or scientific guide. From the secular perspective of those who wish to assert the reality of the dominance of the scientific theory of evolution within science itself, one must be careful not to oversimplify the "opposition" and simply assume that their talking points are natural outcomes of sincere Christian faith, after all, how could we account for Jay Manifold himself? Ultimately, Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design are simply social-historical movements that have tapped into religious sensibilities. It is not for the areligious to tell the religious what their faith tells them should be, but, it behooves us to consider the process how they do reach conclusions that they think are rooted in the axioms of their religious tradition.

1 - It seems to depend by region to region. In south India the Mappila of Kerala speak the native language, and have a strong literary tradition in Arabic. They distance themselves from the Turco-Persian element that is in the cultural background, at least mythologically, of most Indian Muslims. In contrast, the Muslim population of Hyderabad not too far from Kerala in south India is Urdu speaking, though the surrounding population speaks a Dravidian language. In Bengal many of the elite Muslims once spoke Urdu, but there has been a transition toward Bengali speech for most of them (going three generations up a few branches of my family tree speak Urdu, though they were residents of long standing in Bengal).

Posted by razib at 05:34 PM