Will Storr’s The Heretics [US: Unpersuadables], 1: Full Frontal Creationism, and other kinds of unreason
Is this book worthy of your time and attention? Yes. But this is not a book review, so much as a conversation with myself, triggered by reading it, and what follows is as much mine as his, especially as I have focused on those chapters that overlap my own concerns. There is no shortage of writings debunking creationism, or homoeopathy, or others covered here, beliefs that fly in the face of massive evidence, and yet this evidence has no effect at all on their believers. Why is this, Storr asks. What is going on? And what makes us think that we ourselves are so different?
Storr starts by telling us of his meeting with John Mackay, a Young Earth creationist, who was talking to an appreciative audience in a small town in Queensland. This seems to have been his first encounter with the full-blooded version of modern creationism, according to which evolution science and old Earth geology are fundamentally unsound, and the Bible is the infallible word of God. At the end of Genesis 1, God speaks of His work as being “very good”. “Very good” must mean no pain, and no death. It follows that tigers and tyrannosaurs coexisted happily with Adam and Eve in Eden, all of them adhering to strictly vegetarian diets, until the Fall went and spoiled everything. And “Tonight, the choice you have to face up to is this – do you put your faith in Darwin, who wasn’t there? Or in God, who was?”
Mackay claims to be able to feel the presence of God. What turned him against evolution, he says, was a biology textbook he was reading as an adolescent, which followed its exposition of evolution with a chapter advocating atheism. Unfortunately, he does not tell us which textbook he was referring to, giving me no way of checking his perspective, although such a chapter would of course be completely out of place in a biology textbook.
Mackay’s audience were universally sympathetic, a fact that Storr observed with bemusement that turned to dismay when, the following Sunday, Mackay mounted the pulpit to deliver a scathing attack on the wickedness of homosexuals and the compromising Churches who countenance their activities.
Mackay speaks proudly of debating with ordinary sane scientists or, as he would call them, evolutionists: “We frequently win public debates… They presume they will be fighting against theologians with no science degrees.” He himself has a degree in geology from Queensland, where he also took a class in genetics. As a teacher in a private school, he was able to promote creationism under the guise of “critical thinking”, comparing the claims of evolution and creationism as he saw them. He met up with Ken Ham, a kindred spirit, and together they set up the Creation Science Foundation. Mackay was forced out after some bitter infighting, and now directs a relatively small outfit known as Creation Research. The Creation Science Foundation, meantime, has turned into Answers in Genesis, a multi-million organisation based mainly in the US, famous for its Creation Museum and Ark Encounter Theme Park.
I have no doubt of Mackay’s sincerity. His arguments against creationism will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has studied the subject. Didn’t Darwin himself complain about the inadequacy of the fossil record? Why don’t we ever observe intermediate species? What about polystrate fossils, tree trunks that project upwards through different geological layers, supposedly separated from them by huge banks of time?
“The first dinosaurs look like dinosaurs… The last ones look like dinosaurs too. So within that timeframe – even if you did put in a millions of years – they produce their own kind, just as Genesis says.”
Let me invite the reader to respond to Mackay’s arguments, and to answer a question of my own: if your last common ancestor with a flatfish was 430 million years ago, how long ago, roughly, was the last common ancestor of a flatfish and a frog? (Answers at end)
Storr is in no doubt that Mackay is completely misguided. And yet, he says of Mackay and others pursuing the unreasonable,
“There is something noble about their bald defiance of the ordinary, something heroic about the deep outsider-territories that they wilfully inhabit… I feel a kind of kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.”
Storr gives us, later, more detail about his own past than I intend to divulge about mine, beyond saying that I too have explored strange places of the mind, and entertained bizarre beliefs.
Later Storr discusses Mackay with Nathan Lo, an Assistant Professor at the University of Sydney, who describes creationism as appealing because very easy to understand, unlike evolution which requires time and thought. Lo dismisses the leaders of the creationist movement as just in it for the money, prompting the kind of observation that makes this book so interesting:
“Nathan Lo and I… see ourselves as the rational ones, the clean-sighted bringers of 21st-century reason. And yet both of us, I have come to believe, are mistaken. We are wrong about the wrong.”
He joins a group who are taking part in a 10-day programme of extremely rigorous meditation. Halfway through, a woman participant starts screaming in distress, but he does nothing to go to her aid. Why not? Excessive obedience to authority. Later, he compares himself to participants in Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiment. Here, subjects were told that they were taking part in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning, and believed that they were administering electric shocks to the learner, who was in the next room. The subjects obediently administered increasing shocks, even when the person in the next room (an actor) started screaming, and many went all the way up to levels of shock clearly labelled as lethal and not to be used. Then there was the strip-search scam, where a bogus policeman claims be investigating a reported theft, gives a vague description that the management applies to one of the waitresses, and that waitress is then told to strip naked and cavort, kiss the “policeman”, and even submit to spankings, in front of the manager, and her boyfriend acting as chaperone. And does what she is told, with neither manager nor boyfriend raising any questions. And this performance has been repeated in over 70 diners throughout the United States.
Excessive obedience, according to Storr, is but one of the many ways in which our brains differ from the standards of rational judgement that we naïvely believe ourselves to be applying. Notice that I said “differ from”, not “fall short of”. We are evolved animals, and the brain has more investment (if I may so put it) in seeing us survive and prosper in our societies, than in making us aware of objective truth. We are influenced by others, and if enough of our neighbours say so, we will actually come to see one line as being longer than another, even when our eyes plainly tell us that it is not.
That’s the least of it. Storr finds himself forced to confront a much larger question, perhaps the largest question in the whole of philosophy: what really goes on inside our minds (or our brains; for me, as for Storr, these come to much the same thing) and how well does that enable us to cope with reality?
Storr deals with this question in a tightly argued (but, given the difficulty of the subject matter, surprisingly readable) chapter, of which I can do no more than convey the general favour. He quotes from Bruce Wexler’s book, Brain and Culture, which describes the brain and mind as highly plastic and shaping themselves to the environment, until early adulthood. From that stage onwards, the process is reversed, and “much of the [brain] activity is devoted to making the environment conformed to the established structures.” From which Storr draws the unpalatable conclusion:
“Your brain is surprisingly reluctant to change its mind. Rather than going through the difficulties involved in rearranging itself to reflect the truth, it often prefers to fool you. So it distorts. It forgets. It projects. It lies.”
This is true for the brain of the deluded creationist. And Storr’s brain. And yours. And mine. Our brains spend most of their time satisfying themselves that things are as we expect them to be, and spring into action (and denial) when this comfortable belief is disturbed.
Our entire sensory world is a construct. We see in three-colour vision, and our inner worlds are that extent richer than those of a skate, which has no colour vision at all, but poorer in ways we cannot even imagine than those of birds and insects that have up to six separate kinds of colour receptor. So colour is not something in the world, but a construct that we impose on it. Light itself has wavelength, but no colour. (Here Storr seems to me to be making a common philosophical error. When we are seeing normally, our colour vision is causally determined by the wavelengths of light impinging on our eyes, as well as by the way our brains process that information. Colour vision may encode only part of the information out there, and the particular code may be specific to humans, or even to individuals, but that does not invalidate the information obtained. But perhaps this is nitpicking.) Storr goes on to describe our inner world of perceptions as “A vision. A useful guess about what the [external] world might look like, that is built well enough that we are able to negotiate it successfully.” The point is that we do not handle reality, which is far too complex, but the model we make of it. Accuracy beyond what is needed is irrelevant for the serious business of surviving and reproducing, or even harmfully distracting.
Even our emotions are constructs, based on expectation. Depending on your culture, you will when drunk become more convivial, or more aggressive, or more sexually uninhibited, and some of these effects (I trust that no one tested for the last one I mentioned) can even be produced by alcohol-free fake drinks.
We deceive ourselves to protect our expectations without ever realising it. When told that a male applicant for the job of police chief has qualification A, while a female applicant has qualification B, most people will choose A as the more important qualification. Reverse the details, and most people will choose B. Ask them for their reasoning, and they will discuss the finely balanced choice between A and B on its merits, with no mention of gender. From the outside, it is clear that they regard police chief as a man’s kind of job, and pick the criterion that best fits this preconception, but they do not know that this is what they are doing.
We scrutinise arguments attacking our position much more closely, and reject them on much slimmer grounds, than those that support us. And if, in the end and, we cannot avoid the realisation of conflict, we experience the discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. We now have three choices; we can deny that the conflict really exists, or we can change our minds to accommodate the new evidence (the least likely outcome), or we can build a fence round our preconceptions, and hold on to our initial beliefs with more fervour than ever. This helps explain why debates about such topics as creationism, or the reality of global warming, get nowhere, and anyone who has taken part in such a debate will realise how annoyingly the arguments that we direct at the other side merely boomerang. It’s not fair. You just can’t reason with them. The most infuriating thing is that they actually seem to enjoy taking such absurd positions. And, if fMRI results are to be trusted, they don’t merely seem; when we strike a partisan posture, the pleasure centres in our brain light up. We are all, to use it Storr’s expression, “deluded egotists”, and, worst of all, we like it that way.
Storr’s next chapter is about a group of people that I belong to. He does not like them, and gives good reason for this. But that will have to wait for another post.
Appendix: And what about those objections to evolution?
Yes, Darwin complained of the inadequacy of the fossil record and the lack of intermediate forms, but we have dug up a lot of new information since 1859, when the first edition of The Origin of Species was published. By 1863, in time for the fourth edition, we had the discovery of Archaeopteryx and its identification as intermediate between birds and their reptilian ancestors. In fact, we now know Archaeopteryx to be a great-uncle, rather than a direct ancestor, of modern birds, but that is by comparison with hundreds of other intermediate forms, enabling us to establish a bird family tree rooted among one particular group of dinosaurs, with both extinct and surviving branches. There will always, of course, be missing links in the chain, but the existence of the chain itself is now undeniable. So far from being a criticism of the evolutionary account, Darwin’s complaint should be heralded as an implicit prediction, one that has been amply fulfilled.
Polystrate fossils are the expected results of rapid sedimentation, but so what? At one time there was thought to be a conflict between catastrophism, in which geological processes occurred with terrifying rapidity, and a uniformitarian gradualism according to which they were always slow, but both of these extremes had been abandoned by 1865.
And the time elapsed between the last common ancestor of a flatfish and a frog is exactly the same as the time elapsed since the last common ancestor of a flatfish and you, some 430 million years. If you don’t believe me, go to the Timetree website and check. Your last common ancestor with a frog is somewhat more recent, at around 355 million years before present, and deserves to be called a proto-amphibian because it superficially resembles the frog much more than it resembles you, but you and the frog have both, by definition, been evolving for the same length of time since then. True, the changes in your line of descent have been more dramatic, including the ability to give birth on land, development inside the womb, warmbloodedness, and big brains, but your now extinct reptile-like and lemur-like ancestors are intermediate, not between you and the present-day frog, but between you and that remote proto-amphibian common ancestor. The distinction is important but subtle, part of why evolution is so often misundertood.
As for Mackay’s claim that a dinosaur is a dinosaur is a dinosaur, this can only be based on self-inflicted ignorance. Diplodocus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaur are at least as obviously different as a cow, a zebra, and a tiger. But for Mackay, these are all small matters, compared with his eternal salvation.
1] This is based on the behaviour of groups of students, asked to judge which of two lines was longer, and how the judgements were influenced by the opinions expressed by stooges pretending to be fellow-subjects. Storr refers to fMRI work suggesting that the students really were persuaded by their supposed colleagues, rather than deciding to go along with them, but as he says much of this kind of work is still highly controversial.
Adapted from an earlier post in 3 Quarks Daily