Springtime for Darwin

By JAMES PARKER  |  May 7, 2008

Giberson is an ex-creationist himself — part of what makes Saving Darwin’s account of the evolution wars so compelling is that its author has experienced them, as it were, within the formations of his own brain. Raised a fundamentalist Christian in Maritime Canada, Giberson arrived in Boston as a student in 1975, fully intending to make a career in scientific creationism. Reality, however, had other plans: mainstream science and contemporary biblical scholarship did their pincer move on Giberson’s head, and under this alien pressure he “evolved rapidly” (as he writes) “from the simple intellectual life-form called Homo fundamentalis to something more complex, in the process passing rapidly through the various intermediate forms that emerged in the decades since Darwin.”

Creationism, the most rustically vigorous of these intermediate forms, was kick-started in 1961 by the publication of Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb’s best-selling The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications. Fundamentalists had been stoutly denying Darwin for more than 100 years, but until The Genesis Flood they had no science of their own, so to speak. Now Morris, a Southern Baptist with a PhD in hydraulic engineering, gifted them the beautiful “vapor-canopy hypothesis” (in which misty cupolas of steam shielded the Earth from radiation before condensing, at God’s command, into the downpours of the Flood) and some sensational photographs (later disowned by him) of human and dinosaur footprints together on a Texas riverbed.

It’s a very American thing, creationism, combining at a stroke an Old Testament mindset with a distinctive and touching faith in novelty. Think of Steve Martin in The Jerk, sending back the vintage bottles: “Bring us some fresh wine! The freshest you’ve got — this year! No more of this old stuff.” Not for the creationist the shabby, long-suffering Earth of conventional geology, the scorched and pockmarked planet with its billion-year crawl of radioactive decay; he wants a young Earth, 10,000 or 6000 years young, fossil-free, bounced into being at the snap of God’s fingers and then — at the first sign of age — hosed off with the Flood.

The Genesis Flood spawned creationist journals and creationist research institutes, but despite the fact that Morris, in Giberson’s words, “could hardly have been more qualified to work on flood geology if he had been Noah’s first mate,” creationism got no respect from the scientific community. Attempts to maneuver its Biblically inspired flood geology into the classroom were laughed away. It was time for something a little less homespun: it was time for intelligent design.

ID, as defined by its leading advocate, Dr. Stephen C. Meyer of Seattle’s Discovery Institute, “holds that there are telltale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by a designing intelligence.” At the heart of ID is the notion of “irreducible complexity” — the proposition that there are certain structures in nature (the structure of the cell, for instance) that are simply too marvelously intricate to have been created by natural selection. Ergo: design. Ergo: God. “Well, the intelligent-design people would challenge that,” says Giberson. “They would say, ‘It’s not religious. We don’t specify the origin of the design, we just say that there is design.’ But it’s a strange coincidence that basically every single person in the intelligent-design movement is a conservative evangelical.”

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