JDN 2455997 EDT 21:27.
If you follow Crocoduck at all, you’ve heard us talk about how Creationism is ridiculous, make fun of Creationist stupidity, and point out the mountains of evidence for evolution. Yet I’m sure some of our readers are thinking, “Yeah, but so what? What’s the big deal? Sure, it’s stupid; sure, it’s crazy; but it’s harmless, right?”
Wrong. First of all, when most people hear about Creationism, especially Noah’s Ark, 6000-year-old Earth, totally whacky Young Earth Creationism, they tend to respond, “Come on! Nobody really believes that, except maybe a few fringe lunatic.”
39% of Americans agree that it is “definitely true” that the Earth was created in its present form less than 10,000 years ago. 53% say that God created man exactly as it said in the Bible (which apparently means Adam from clay, Eve from Adam’s rib). 54% believe that Creationism should be taught in public schools—only slightly less than the 61% who believe that evolution should be taught. These statistics are so horrifying I’ve heard people straight up deny their accuracy when I bring them up; but please, look it up. Poll after poll shows around 40% of Americans believe in the most extreme Answers in Genesis kind of Creationism. About another 40% believe in some sort of Intelligent Design or theistic evolution. Less than 20% of Americans believe in actual unguided natural selection—which is of course what evolutionary biology is actually about. It would be as if 40% of Americans don’t even believe in gravity, 40% think God occasionally intervenes in gravity, and only 20% actually understand how gravity works.
But maybe you’re still not concerned. “Okay, so 100 million Americans believe incredibly dumb things about science. So what?” Well, keep in mind: We live in a democracy (more or less). That means that when the population believes something, that something tends to get enacted in policy. The larger the majority, the more true this is. Right now, at least the most whacko Creationism is still in the minority; but can we count on that forever? Even as it stands, there are so many “fringe lunatics” that if they had very good voter turnout, they could elect a President. There are several Creationists in Congress right now, though fortunately when it becomes a campaign issue this seems to hurt them—usually.
To go back to the gravity analogy, imagine people really did think that God intervenes in gravitation. Suppose an asteroid were hurtling at the Earth, poised to unleash a mass extinction; how would these people react? Would they do what they should—building a really big rocket to crash into it or detonate a nuke across its path? Or would they instead huddle together and pray, knowing that if we are pious, God will save us? Now imagine if they think God literally holds the solar system together with his magical powers, and they don’t even believe in gravity at all.
Are there any things in biology that could be as dangerous as asteroids hurtling toward Earth? How about pandemics? As we currently stand, scientific and medical organizations are fairly good at handling pandemics—H1N1 was remarkably well controlled, and I owe my life to the cautious and comprehensive medical response to the pandemic. To be so effective, medical organizations need to utilize evolutionary principles at many steps along the way. When bacteria mutate to defend themselves against antibiotics, natural selection is at work; knowing how natural selection operates can allow us to predict and respond to their adaptations. Understanding the conditions under which our immune systems evolved helps us understand the conditions under which they can be compromised.
If this knowledge were forgotten, or locked away by a Creationist government, we would no longer have these defenses in place. Instead of finding ways to anticipate the adaptations of the bacteria to improve the vaccine, people would gather together and pray, and make speeches about how God is punishing us for our sinfulness. (Think this is an exaggeration, that no one is that crazy? Here’s a clip of Pat Robertson on national television blaming tornadoes on secularism and impiety. Here’s an article about a Catholic bishop who blamed hurricanes on homosexuals.)
Personally, I think ignorance is inherently bad. A world where people believe things that are false, or fail to know things that are true, is worse than a world where people know the truth. But even if you don’t believe that, even if you think ignorance per se is harmless; still you must admit that certain kinds of ignorance, especially when widely held, can be disastrous.
Asteroids and pandemics could wipe out Homo sapiens as a species; but there are plenty of smaller ways that false beliefs can cause harm. Teaching bad science in school could lead to fewer scientists in the future, or scientists who aren’t as good. The medicines never invented would leave people to die. The technologies not developed would hurt economic growth, leaving people in poverty.
We’ve seen what happens when scientific advancement is halted and religious fundamentalism dominates society and government. We called it “the Dark Ages”. In addition to the political and economic turmoil, I think it’s worth noting that it was a time of pandemics (the Black Death) more terrible than we can imagine today. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed about three percent of the world’s population; the Black Death killed over thirty percent—almost one in three. (The 2009 H1N1 pandemic killed less than 5000 people, which is only 0.000,01% of the world’s population.)
Islamic culture went through a similar series of events shortly thereafter, and that is why the Middle East is now a place of tyranny, oppression, poverty, and war. There was a time when Islamic societies let the world in science and mathematics; witness the words algebra (al-jebra) and algorithm (algoritmi, from al-Khwarizmi; medieval European scholars couldn’t pronounce kh either). Back then, Islam was liberal, open to new ideas; when fundamentalism took control, the result was total economic, technological, and cultural collapse.
Could this happen in America? Could religious fundamentalists cripple our scientific advancement and throw us into a new Dark Ages? The third-leading contender for President of the United States wants Creationism taught in schools and doesn’t believe in global warming; can there be any doubt that it’s possible?