enough with the sainthood, already

There’s a new geology book coming out, written by a group of geologists and examining the geological evidence for evolution (& the lack of support it offers to creationism). It sounds like a good book & I’ll look forward to getting my hands on it (hopefully one of my geology colleagues will buy a copy!) – but what I didn’t like was Michael Shermer’s comments:

Creationism began with the fossil record and there it shall end. Before Darwin, the geological strata with their accompanying fossils formed the first geological theory of life on earth–creationism coupled to flood geology. It was Darwin who stood that theory on its head and showed that, in fact, these same fossils could be used to support his new theory of evolution by natural selection. Ever since Darwin, geology has unequivocally supported evolution and not creationism, and yet today Intelligent Design thrives in popular culture. Here at last we have a definitive collection of world-class geologists and paleontologists who systematically demonstrate precisely why geology destroys all design arguments, and reveals instead a deep and rich history of life on earth. A perfect companion to all science courses.

As Brian points out, over on Laelaps, Shermer’s phraseology verges on elevating Darwin to the sainthood. But – creationism hardly began with the fossil record: the creation story (including the idea of a global flood) has been around for a lot longer than that. Nor was Darwin the first person to begin to question the explanations for the fossil record that prevailed in the early 1800s. While a ‘typical’ creationist reading of the fossils might claim that they supported the Noachian flood, many of the geologists of Darwin’s day – men who had a significant impact on his thinking, such as Charles Lyell – were most definitely not flood geologists.  

And Darwin also recognised that the fossil record of his time presented some problems for his theory of evolution by natural selection. In fact, he spelled them out in Origins, and stated(correctly) that future scientists would find the transitional fossils that his theory predicted.

Yes, Darwin was a great scientist – but like all scientists he built on the work of others and made mistakes, and we shouldn’t be viewing him almost as some sort of biological saint, or deifying him (as one of my students suggested last year). The story of evolution is interesting enough without that.

5 thoughts on “enough with the sainthood, already”

  • Have to admit I’m not keen on the “sainthood” thing either and by the end of the year I’m sure I’ll be sick to the death of it! (I’m already sick of it in some ways.) When I’m reading papers, I like to try riddle why someone is thinking what they are, what’s supporting their views, what’s not, what reflects their past work rather than what might be a wider understanding, and so on. It’s easier to not put the author up on too much of a pedestal if you’re going to do that.
    It’s wise to consider that they are an intelligent person, though: that serves to remind you that they will have some reasons and if you can’t see any or the ones you see are especially weak, it’s probably more likely that you are missing something. That’s not to say that their reasons are correct or not, just that they will have a reasoned argument.
    I like it when people present all sides of their own argument. Quite a lot of papers don’t, although space limitations in the journals and time limitations will have a fair bit to say in that. It’s one of the reasons that I quite like some of the journals that give authors more space to work with, as they are more likely to explore the issues deeper and you come away with a better understanding of their exploration of the subject matter.
    But I’m warbling on…

  • Too true, there is a difference between respecting the man for his contribution to science, his well thought out postition and this behaviour that verges on mindless hero worship. Scientists and rationalists are already accused of treating evolution as a religion, this kind of fawning only reinforces that view.
    It reminds me of when I went to TAM6 last year, James Randi was treated with a mix of reverence and awe. Like a mythical figure come to life. For me as an outsider to the culture and having never read his books it was kind of creepy. Like wandering into a weird church service.
    But I would like to say that the DVDs of TAM6 are available at: http://www.randi.org
    Just because Neil deGrasse Tyson’s key note speach was so entertaining it alone is worth the price. Turf the rest if you like but his presentation is a must see.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Yes, & as Darcy says, the attitude reflected by Shermer’s comments smacks of some sort of cultish religion, & that does science a real disservice.

  • There’s a lot that’s odd about Shermer’s comments – I would’ve expected better from him. Creationism (as a quasi-scientific explanation for the natural world, as opposed to a component of a religious belief system)has been bumping up against the fossil record since the earliest days of the Renaissance – the Noachian flood was an obvious explanation for remains of marine animals in rocks on mountain tops. But thinkers as early as da Vinci could see that a flood lasting a single year couldn’t possibly explain the fossils as they were, hence the old notion that fossils were the result of “plastic forces” causing them to grow within the rock, and not the remains of dead animals at all. It took until the early 17th century for people like Steno to finally establish that fossils really were the remains of dead organisms. In doing so, Steno had to throw out the idea that the fossil record could be explained by a single event. It’s ironic that modern-day creationists are not just turning the clock back to the time before Darwin, but back to before da Vinci. “Flood geology” was refuted over 500 years ago.
    The reinterpretation of the fossil record in evolutionary and old-earth terms was a process that has taken many centuries. It started long before Darwin and didn’t end with him either. Yet although the fossil record comprehensively refutes creationism, creationism survives. Creationism doesn’t begin and end with the fossil record.
    I’d also query whether Intelligent Design (with the capital letters) is really thriving in popular culture. Creationism certainly is, and there’s a widely held, if rather woolly notion that life is so complicated it must have had a Designer, but the attempt by creationists to have ID recognised as a valid, scientific rival to evolutionary theory seems to be failing. The Discovery Institute is looking increasingly isolated, and the “IDEA Student Clubs” that the movement has tried to get going in US colleges aren’t taking off.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    It’s true that the IDEA clubs haven’t really got off the ground. But we are still seeing various moves to sneak some form of creationism into US science classrooms, & the only ‘flavour’ with any real pretensions to a ‘scientific’ veneer remains ID…

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