Monday, October 5, 2009

Conference on Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World: Ronald Numbers lecture, "Creationism Goes Global: From American to Islamic Fundamentalism"

It is always a pleasure to share news of the accomplishments of one’s colleagues and home institution. Elsewhere in these pages, I have cited the innovative work of Salman Hameed, who has undertaken major initiatives in the study of Islamic creationism. In order that far-flung scholars working in this new field might share their insights and develop a common agenda, Salman organized a conference on "Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World," which brought together speakers from the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East.

In addition to the private sessions among the attendees, the conference included two major public events, a keynote lecture on Friday evening, followed by a panel discussion on Saturday. Herewith, a report on the lecture:

"Creationism Goes Global: From American to Islamic Fundamentalism"
by Ronald L. Numbers (Hilldale Professor of History of Science & Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The prompt or point of departure for the lecture was Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion (2000) that, creationism, although strong and growing stronger in the US, was not likely to establish itself elsewhere: . “As insidious as it may seem, at least it's not a worldwide movement,” he said reassuringly. “I hope everyone realizes the extent to which this is a local, indigenous, American bizarrity.” Obviously, even the best scholars don’t always make the best prophets.

Professor Numbers began by noting that both the rise of organized creationism and its connection to Islam began in the 1980s. In order to explain that development, however, he had to review the evolution (no pun intended) of creationist thought itself.

He took the notorious Scopes Trial as a point of entry, saying, quite correctly, that the film and play of “Inherit the Wind”—which is how most of us know the incident—was great drama, but that, as history, it got almost everything wrong.

Contrary to popular opinion, for example, William Jennings Bryan and other opponents of evolution at that time were not simple-minded biblical literalists who thought that the world had been created a mere 6,000 years ago. All believed in the antiquity of the earth: it was the fact, not the date, of creation that was at issue. (They were perfectly content, for example, to take the “days” of the creation account in Genesis as metaphors for eras rather than literal 24-hour periods. (A then-popular variant or alternative form of Old Earth creationism was so-called “gap theory,” which posited a long chronological gap between the events described in the first and second verses of Genesis and thus allowed scholars to harmonize the biblical account with the geological record. The gap theory, as Numbers explained, was even enshrined in Oxford’s Scofield Reference Bible of 1917.) Even pre-human evolution did not necessarily pose an insuperable problem for many American religious conservatives, but the notion of human descent from “lower” species was unacceptable.

By contrast, it was primarily the Seventh Day Adventists who held to the notion of a literal seven-day creation. The crucial change occurred between the 1920s and and 1980s, this once “highly marginalized interpretation of Genesis moved from the margins to the center of evangelical Christianity.” A key step was the founding of the Institution for Creation Research in San Diego in 1972 by Minnesota engineer Henry Morris. As Numbers drily remarked to his sympathetic audience, the term was a horrendous oxymoron because creation is a miracle rather than something that can be substantiated by research. The Institution pursued a two-track agenda, seeking, on the one hand, evidence for the truth of the biblical account of a global flood, and on the other, errors in the scholarship on evolution.

The position of these advocates is often misunderstood, Numbers explained: They don’t defend the miraculous origin of species, and in fact have not done so for 50 years. Rather, the key shift consisted of abandoning acceptance of the antiquity of the earth and instead asserting a young earth, a move that requires them to rely on the Flood as the crucial explanatory mechanism for the destruction and survival of species. The Flood, accordingly, became much more important than the Creation, as such. It was, he said, relishing the irony, an unfortunate problem that the Bible gave the precise dimensions of the Ark, and yet modern scientists kept discovering ever more species. Numbers then detailed some of the contortions that advocates have to perform in order to square this circle: Did the Ark hold all species, or were the “kinds” referred to there perhaps biological orders, etc.? He also mentioned the problem of food and waste: Did the passengers on the Ark perhaps go into some form of hibernation or suspended animation for the duration of the voyage. (Had I been delivering a talk on this subject, I of course could not have restrained myself from quoting Calvin, who marveled that “Noah and his household lived for ten months in a fetid heap of animal droppings, in which he could hardly breathe”—and immediately went on to liken this plight to that of the fetus, which, “shut up in its mother’s womb, lives in filth that would suffocate the strongest man in half an hour.” Calvin had his own particular “issues” regarding confinement and contamination, but that’s another subject.)

Up to this point, there was nothing particularly novel in the talk, at least for specialists—even though Numbers’s skillful explication of both the complexity and shifting emphases in anti-evolutionary thinking was a revelation for the general audience that attended this public lecture rather than the conference, as such. Still, the heightened importance of the Flood was the crucial practical connection between evangelical and Islamic creationism. As the quest for Noah’s Ark took on new importance, teams of explorers went to Turkey, where it had presumably come to rest. In order to obtain the requisite permissions, they had to deal with the Turkish authorities. Then in the 1980s, the Ministry of Education in Istanbul asked the Institute for Creation Research to help produce materials for the schools. In 1992, American representatives took a prominent part in a large creationist conference in Turkey.

In the meantime, however, a major indigenous brand of creationism had arisen in Turkey, marked by the establishment of the Scientific Research Organization (BAV) in 1986. The central figure here and in Numbers’s narrative was the prolific Harun Yahya (pseud. for Adnan Oktar), “the Mary Baker Eddy of Islam.” Already as a student, Yahya is said to have became deeply concerned about the threat of materialism in the sense of both philosophical materialism and modern secular and consumerist culture. Like others before and since, he placed the blame on communism, the Jews (Numbers called him violently antisemitic, though Yahya denies the charge), and Freemasons. Yahya saw his mission as destroying materialism and evolutionary thinking in Turkey. He has since become something of a one-man industry, cranking out such a proliferation of publications (more than 300, at last count; among the best known is The Evolution Deceit) that many accuse him of being but a name behind a consortium of hired pens (though he of course denies it).

Numbers went on to explain some of the distinctive features of this brand of thinking, noting that the growing alliance between evangelical and Islamic creationism was in many ways rather strange. For example, because Islam is not bound by the evangelical Christian concern with the young earth and recent appearance of species, Yahya has no trouble embracing the Big Bang or radiocarbon dating. Still, for both, human evolution is anathema.

The rise of Intelligent Design as the new incarnation of creationism—the Discovery Institute was founded in 1990—should in theory have strengthened the alliance, but for the fact that the US side did not want one. Later, after one of Yahya’s associates collaborated with the Discovery Institute, Yahya, motivated by envy, turned violently against Intelligent Design, as such.

Numbers, who has both met and intensively studied Yahya, clearly relished the opportunity to relate some of the latter’s quirks and travails, including several arrests on charges ranging from cocaine possession to corruption and irregular sexual activities. At one point, he explained with evident restraint, Yahya was incarcerated and diagnosed as a “paranoid schiophrenic”—though later, a higher body adjusted that to ‘passionate idealist.’”

Numbers closed the lecture by noting that there were alarming signs on several fronts. An ultra-orthodox Jewish creationism has arisen. More ominously, belief in evolution is slipping in places other than the United States. Even some 20 percent of Europeans espouse creationist views. And what of Darwin’s birthplace, England, in this, his bicentennial year? A majority of Britons now reject evolution. Numbers concluded, “So much for celebrating Darwin.”

Video of the public proceedings will be available at the conference website.

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