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The Creation/Evolution Controversy: A Battle for Cultural Power

A friend of mine recommended a book by Kary Doyle Smout called  The Creation/Evolution Controversy: A Battle for Cultural Power.  Kary is an Associate Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, and specializes in rhetoric.  I usually delve more into historical topics, so this was a bit of a change for me, but I enjoyed it.

Smout analyzes the arguments between pro and anti-evolution sides.  He noted that with rhetoric, we often create artificial dichotomies.  For example, on page 6 he gives an example from the movie Mary Poppins.  Male is shown in a positive light, and female in a negative light in the movie .  The father wants to have the children break from “sugary female thinking.”

Often we use these dichotomies to prop our position, while showing the opposing side in a negative light.  This is the case with evolution/creation.  He also notes that while 2 sides use the same words, these words have different definitions.  From page 9,

From a rhetorical perspective, a terminology battle can thus be seen, not as a stubborn refusal to accept correct definitions of terms, but as a power struggle between competing communities.  These communities try to convince other communities that their own word meanings make the best sense.  The problem is that in a culture based on Enlightenment conceptions of a universal reasoning faculty in humans, people do not ask, “Best sense according to whom?”  In effect, the terminology battle becomes a battle about worldviews.  Those who win this battle attain the power to define the terms from within their own worldview for the culture as a whole.

His book has just 5 chapters.

  1. Introduction
  2. Beginnings of the Creation/Evolution Controversy
  3. Bryan and the Scopes “Monkey” Trial
  4. The Arkansas Creation-Science Trial
  5. Conclusion

He goes into great detail into the 2 trials mentioned above, discussing witness testimony and the lawyers involved in the cases.  I was especially interested as he discussed the Biblical inerrancy during the Scopes trial.  I hadn’t realized that the evolution controversy played a significant role in this debate.  From page 62,

This notion of irreconcilable conflict between creation and evolution depends on the concept of biblical inerrancy, which developed late in the nineteenth century in the United States as an important theological position and a historical key to American fundamentalism.29 James Barr defines biblical inerrancy as the belief that the Bible is free of error of any kind.  He writes “The inerrancy of the Bible, the entire Bible including its details, is indeed the constant principle of rationality within fundamentalism.”30 This position on the Bible grounds all fundamentalists arguments; it is the measure–albeit a very narrow one, which is fraught with many disturbing implications for nonfundamentalists–of reasonableness itself.  In evaluating a statement for its truth, fundamentalists compare the statement to the Bible, resolving any conflict between the two by rejecting the statement and keeping the Bible.

It seems to me that fundamentalists have painted themselves into a corner with this notion of biblical inerrancy.  For example, did God really create the earth in 6 24-hour days?  I think most people don’t believe that, but there are some hard core people that apparently do.

While creationists won the battle at the Scopes trial (Scopes was fined $100 for teaching evolution, and many other southern states adopted similar laws as Tennessee to prevent evolution from being taught), it appears that they are losing the war.    We all know that evolution is taught in biology, and few textbooks mention creationism.  I wasn’t aware of the Arkansas battle in 1981; fundamentalists wanted to include creation science in the textbooks as well as evolution but were defeated.

I think it is funny that the two sides have created a dichotomy between evolution and creation.  Why can’t God use evolution?  Smout notes this conundrum as well, and notes that the two sides are continuing to battle as if there is no middle ground.  I liked Kary’s conclusion on page 186-7,

I finally agree more with the evolutionists than the creationists, but I do not want the creationists to give up the fight.  I am increasingly convinced that reason and knowledge are not the only bases on which to found a society, nor even that they are the best.  I am unsure that a strictly rational society it best.  How does one found a society on these values?  I doubt that either the creationists or the evolutionists will ever stop arguing so long as we have no simple way to know the truth beyond our own perceptions.  We in this pluralistic nation have had to continually deal with recurring tensions between professionalism and democracy, between the academy and other cultural institutions, between competing political philosophies, and between other differing persuasions, all arguing for, and from within, their own worldviews.  In this life, we walk by faith.  We must put our faith in those persuasions that seem most worthy of it.

So what do you think?  Must creation and evolution be at odds with each other?

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112 comments on “The Creation/Evolution Controversy: A Battle for Cultural Power

  1. FT:

    Not quite following you there. Are you saying that collectively all human spirits share this infinite number of body copies, or are you saying that any individual human spirit shares this infinite number of body copies?

    Either way, what is the purpose this? Do you believe in a form of reincarnation?
    The concept of evolutionary reincarnation is comforting, but unless I can retain lessons/mistakes learned in the previous life, I don’t see any benefit. Just sounds like wishful thinking to me.

  2. BR:

    I’m suggesting the latter. The physical copies are there. It’s a fairly robust prediction, through one mechanism or another, of all major contending modern cosmological theories. It also seems to match the Book of Moses vision of “worlds without number” in a more sensible way than Kolob would.

    As I wrote in my own blog last year:

    “It’s important to understand that these copies and variants of humanity stand on the same spiritual plane as we do, according to Christianity’s traditional understandings of the relationship between the body and the spirit. After all, those copies have as much right to claim they are the originals as we do, and they are busy debating whether we have spirits. They conceive of an afterlife, and have their various theologies about what it will be like. They struggle to understand right and wrong, and pray to the divine as their religions (which, by definition, must also be identical copies or variants) teach…
    …The interesting (to put it mildly) question then becomes this: what is the relationship of their spirits to ours?…

    “Specifically, it is very strange that, if the only difference between us and our copies is our physical location in spacetime, why that difference matters in the spiritual realm at all. It is equally strange to place any focus on the “pre” in pre-existence or the “after” in afterlife when our copies now “are, were, and are to come”.

    “So here are some questions to consider:
    What if the location in spacetime of our bodies does not matter at all to our spirits?

    “What if whatever “meta-time” that marks change in the spiritual realm we imagine does not match up with normal physical time in a “before and after” sequence, but in a much more complex way?

    “What if our spirit, not bound by physical constraints of space and time, is actually an emergent, collective property of all the copies and variants — the way the mind is an emergent collective property of the entire brain?”

    It takes a lot of neurons reacting to a lot of different signals to produce the complexity of the human mind. I’m suggesting that it takes the complexity of a lot of human bodies to permit the complexity of the human spirit to embed itself in the physical realm. That’s the purpose — no one physical life can give our spirits the experience they need to progress, even if the body has no more understanding of the spirit’s progression than the individual neuron understands what the mind is doing.

    It’s not reincarnation, because the spirit is always “present” in all of the copies and variants “simultaneously”. The physical moves through time but whatever casality functions in the spiritual realm does not. It’s no different from your brain controlling your right arm and left leg simultaneously. For that matter, it’s no different than your same spirit inhabiting both the four year old you and the forty year old you simultaneously.

    But the spirit does retain and use the lessons (as can the physical body if it learns to listen to the guidance coming from the right spirit.)

  3. If what you say is in fact true, then it doesn’t matter what I do (as an individual neuron), because I’m not the end-game. I’m only 1/billionth of the end-game. You just took away ALL of my incentive. The other billion MEs (neurons) will pick up the slack.

  4. BR:

    Serious question, and one I’ve thought about enough myself. I prepared an answer this way in a paper I wrote for a seminary class.

    Perhaps the most disturbing thing to Christians about the ideas I have been suggesting here is what they appear to omit. Historically, most Christians have been motivated to do good either by external pressures (e.g., threats of punishment, shaming, or offers of reward) or by internal drives freely chosen (e.g., the response to love, a desire for security, or a passion for justice). What is the motivation to do good when our choices are inevitable? Won’t people stop striving to do good if this interpretation is accepted?

    However, upon reflection, we realize that the problem of motivation, like the property of freedom, exists only from the perspective of the individual. From the God’s-eye view, the very inevitability of our “choices” makes the need for motivation moot: the moral (or immoral) behaviors that we will individually practice, to use the poetic language of the Old Testament, are already written into our “hearts”. From the individual viewpoint, we may assign motivation to whatever source we believe plausible in a given situation. The assignment may well be “correct” when considering things solely from the individual viewpoint. From that viewpoint, we may with perfect validity continue to say we are motivated by love, or fear, or longing –- as long as we do not forget that our responses are always consistent with our own nature, even when our nature is to slack off. Our choices and actions make us what we always were; because of what we always were, we could choose no other way. Neither viewpoint is any more real than the other.

    Thus, like the target of the old Carly Simon recording, “You’re So Vain You Probably Think This Song is About You”, there would be those who revel in taking these ideas as justification to experience their baser natures more fully. But the God’s-eye corollary of such an individual viewpoint interpretation is that the individual who adopts it chooses what was consistent with his/her essential nature from the foundations of spacetime. And the evidence of that corollary is the existence of all of the copies of that individual who are exposed to these ideas and yet do not embrace that baser nature.

    Similarly, there are many who strongly recognize something deep within them calling us to love, justice, mercy, and self-sacrifice. The nature of these individuals (in the God’s-eye view) drives their responses. Yet, from the individual perspective, causes and effects are always visible that create a story of why these individuals choose virtue. Each perspective predicts the same behavior, and each perspective is equally valid.

    I would further suggest that this picture both reproduces the particular Mormon belief that some were high priests from the foundation of the world (though, notice, that it doesn’t require that every high priest manifest in a particular reality, or even that high priests be all male in this reality. :D).

    It also suggests that “evil twins” can be cast off into outer darkness, as the scriptures suggest, without doing irreparable eternal damage to the collective Spirit of the person. (Brains do cull useless neurons or restrict their function as part of normal development.) And it also explains why there’s still an incentive for those neurons only needed in the telestial kingdom.

    It also permits an averaging out of life’s circumstances. People who face horrible circumstances here get all the breaks somewhere else. The true character of their spirits emerges in how they deal with ALL situations possible.

    In that sense, the circumstances of life come out in the wash

  5. So if I follow the dictates of the LDS Prophet neurons, I will be given the opportunity to continue to be a neuron in the next life? Seems to me that we all die, thus we all cease to be neurons. Only the Super-Spirit lives on as new neurons are created to take my place. Still don’t see any incentive.

  6. Yes, BR, you find your ultimate meaning as part of something larger than yourself, just as your spirit finds its meaning as part of something larger than itself, just as the Kingdom of God finds its meaning as part of something else, just as the angels find their meaning as part of something larger than themselves. Sorry, but you never get to replace God; you only get to appreciate Him. You or I aren’t at the center of all creation.

    But your spirit continues to perceive you and you come into being again and again throughout spacetime; you never go away. I’m not sure how significant a difference you find that in the way resurrection works.

  7. If that’s all there is, I’m not too interested.

  8. But I have to admit, I’ve often wondered if we aren’t simply a small part of something bigger…almost as you described.

  9. Rob,

    I’ve been on the road for a bit.

    But, I had some thoughts on the whole flood issue.

    One point you’ve continually asserted (and which I have contested) is the claim that sediment is spread essentially worldwide. I’ve had a chance to reread some of your past posts on this topic elsewhere where you make the point that the flood essentially washed the world clean.

    But, that certainly didn’t happen in Mesopotamia. There, there is consistent, continuous layer of civilization from very early Neolithic civilization to modern times. Of note, they all proceed from less complex to more complex in terms of technology.

    There is no regional evidence that all the cities were wiped out simultaneously. There is evidence of this city being raided, or that one growing or that one being abandoned. But, nothing at that the same time. A global flood would have buried them all at once.

    Now, I suspect the claim will be made that all originate after the flood. That fails. The records (since writing) can be chained back until about 3000 B.C. Before that, there are continuous civilization (but without writing) to the rise of agriculture (about 8000-9000 BC). The continuity of the record is really profound.

    But, no where in the region does the geology show thick sediment layers after the beginning of man’s activities region wide or even widespread. The science is clear and definitive.

  10. BR:

    Thanks, anyway, for giving me the chance to explain.

  11. FT,
    I’m actually not discounting your beliefs. I’m just saying that the outcome is not nearly as spectacular as we have been conditioned to expect. Its probably a lot closer to reality than we are willing to admit.

    Steve,
    There are many civilizations that predate the flood with no break. Egypt is another example. Then there is Asia, etc. etc.

    Don’t you think it incredibly unjust to destroy the entire planet because the few people within earshot of Noah didn’t listen? Sounds pretty stupid to me. I’m not interested in that god.

  12. I think it’s a case of assigning (somewhat arbitrarily) a spiritual lesson to a process, the end of the ice age, that burst forth with new possibilities. Just like most large events, they are combinations of life-giving and death-dealing. The earthquake that destroyed so much of Haiti is the same process that raised the land above the sea to live on in the first place.

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