I recently picked up a very disturbing book. No, it wasn’t Sarah’s Palin’s “Going Rogue.” It was Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”
A couple weeks ago, swarms of evangelicals and creationists descended on college campuses around the country, including Harvard, to distribute their unauthorized version of “The Origin,” complete with an insidious introduction by Ray Comfort, the creationist author.
Like Palin’s book tour, Comfort’s stunt had more to do with generating media attention and feelings of self-righteous victimhood than anything else. Both Comfort and Palin tap into middle-American rage at perceived elitists, particularly those in the media. Both care more about consolidating an angry base than bringing others over to their side. The only thing we might say on Comfort’s behalf is that at least he has the guts to try to spread his message where it’s bound to be unpopular, even if only as a way of stirring up controversy. Imagine if Palin’s tour had included the Harvard Book Store!
But, in fact, it’s apparent that Comfort did not intend for his student readers to even reach Darwin’s actual text. He had claimed that his edition of “The Origin” would include every word of the original, but the first printing left out four whole chapters. And the second edition, while complete, has such small font that it’s readable only if your eyes are irreducibly complex. Needless to say, though, Comfort’s introduction has always been printed in children’s-book lettering.
And the words that those letters form are something else entirely. There’s warmed-over intelligent design nonsense; outrageous insults, e.g., Darwin was a racist, a sexist, and a proto-Nazi; and totally ridiculous claims about evolution, like that it requires the discovery of a “crocoduck.”
Comfort’s crusade is threatening not because there’s any chance that his silly introduction will win new converts, but because his PR strategy couches his mission in educational, even humanistic terms. Like most recent creationist activists, he paints a picture of intolerant school administrators, of scientists who take evolution on “faith,” of atheists too cowardly to debate in public. He cries censorship when anonymous online commenters declare that they’d like to burn his book. He portrays himself as an open-minded intellectual who gives both sides their due and who comes out, after much rational consideration, against the very existence of evolution.
This is scary stuff. It appeals to Americans’ innate open-mindedness and ultimately to their over-the-top postmodernism: Nobody really knows the truth one way or the other, so let’s put evolution and creationism side by side and let the children decide. Comfort and his kind are trying to embarrass secular liberalism on its own terms.
By all measures, this strategy is working. A substantial majority of Americans supports teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools. Many Americans are so confused about the interaction between science and faith that two different majorities, in the same poll, report believing that humans evolved over millions of years and that God created us in our present form 10,000 years ago. But maybe that’s not fair. After all, when Gallup gave people the opportunity to say, essentially, “I have no freaking clue what you’re asking me about, and I wish you would leave me alone,” a solid 36 percent chose that option. The problem isn’t inconsistency, it’s ignorance—and Comfort is feeding it.
Until we persuade a sizable majority of Americans to believe in evolution and establish the legitimacy of teaching science in science classrooms, it seems pointless to wrestle with bigger theoretical and theological questions. Some ask whether we can reconcile science and religion. I have a better question: Can we have a productive debate about such issues before we first share some common ground on the legitimacy of science? The problem with the so-called New Atheists is not that they’re wrong (I’ll leave that question open), but that they put the cart in front of the horse. You can’t hope to convince people that evolution undermines religion if they don’t already believe in evolution.
So I welcome Richard Dawkins’s new entry in the growing “evolution for dummies” literature; maybe he should have come out with “The Greatest Show on Earth” before “The God Delusion.” Because unless he gets everyone to see that, contra Comfort, the banana’s “no-slip grip” does not provide evidence for God, he’ll never get to the bigger Jesus-fish he has to fry.
Sam Barr ’11 is a government concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.