The past is a foreign country - they do things differently there
- LP Hartley, The Go Between, 1952
There is a deceptiveness about the ease with which we appear to be able to understand past ways of thinking and viewing the world. We read what our predecessors said and believe that we understand it. But if England and America are, as George Bernard Shaw said, 'two countries divided by a common language', how much more are we divided from the thinking of the past by the lacunae and ellipses in our understanding of the world-views of our ancestors. The whole point about a blindspot is that you can see neither the blindspot nor the thing behind it.
It is impossible for us - scientific and technological 'us' - to imagine the world-view before the theory of evolution had created Creationism as its polar opposite. Because there was no need for a 'theory of Creationism' when your view of the world - the only view of the world - was that it had been created in all its intricate detail in seven days and set in motion for eternity.
There were of course atheists - playwright Kit Marlowe was famously one in the 16th Century - but most people then, like most people now, ate slept and had children in their own towns and homes without challenging eternal verities. And Kit Marlowe was many things, but not a philosopher.
The Music of the Spheres
The concept of a divine plan is seductive and comforting. The medieval view was that of a geo-centric and fallible world, embraced by the voices of angels reaching outwards in celestial spheres of increasing purity to the compassionate and judgemental perfection of God.
Copernicus and Galileo challenged this, by proving that our particular rock spins around the sun. But mathematics continued to seduce: Newton (1643 - 1727), discovering calculus and the laws of physics and motion, saw them both as proof of a divine plan and not a challenge to it. And even in the 19th Century when Mendeleev (1834 - 1907) drew up the periodic table of elements he could deduce and name undiscovered elements to fill in the gaps because he presupposed a divine order.
The 'Evolution' of Evolution
But during the 19th Century there was a sea change. The answers people get are dependent on the questions they ask. But if a questioner who becomes aware of a blindspot continues to ask questions, eventually they start to see what is lurking behind it. It was Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903) who coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest', and he used it in a social, not a biological context. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 - 1829) was aware (as were generations of stock-breeders) that characteristics could be inherited, and he postulated an evolutionary theory based on this. But he misunderstood the mechanism and assumed that this applied to characteristics acquired during an animal's lifetime. It was Darwin (1809 - 1882) who first published what is seen today as the seminal theory of evolution in 1859, deliberately pipping Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913) to the post.
And, ironically, Darwinianism spawned Creationism. The concept of a divine plan was finally undermined. Evolution is not mathematical, there are no Fibonacci series here to ensnare the imagination. And theists suddenly had to answer the challenge of blind chance.
The 'Evolution' of Creationism
There were, broadly speaking, two responses. 'Old Earth Creationists' combined a continued belief in God with an even longer world-view. As Carl Sagan says in a different context, 'If you want to make an apple pie from scratch you must first create the universe'. They looked at Genesis and interpreted it as a metaphor. God no longer created the world in seven days. Instead - and with a certain sweet irony - he took 7.2 billion years. But - hey - what is a billion years in the timespan of eternity?
Creationists also found themselves looking at the texts and examining them in their historical contexts. They asked how old they are, who wrote them and when, how long were they oral before they were written down, and they started to examine the New and Old Testaments for that most reassuring of things: proof of Holy Writ.
New Earth - Old Story
But this was not good enough for 'New Earth Creationists' whose response was based on the axiom that the Bible is the 'literal truth'. Forget that Genesis itself comprises two distinct creation myths1. They were caught in a tautological loop, basing their arguments entirely within the revealed truth of the scriptures, and backing them up and demonstrating and proving them to their own satisfaction from within the 66 books of the Bible. A blindspot as big as all outdoors.
As the received scriptures made no comment about evolution - other than 'God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them'2, which does not really address the issue - the New Earth Creationists had to fall back on attacking the theory of evolution itself. They attacked it on the basis that it was ungodly and secularist. And indeed it was secularist - we have already seen that it was the first branch of science to step outside a godly worldview based on the wonder of mathematics and engineered design. They made progress for a while, because they were talking in a world where taking Christianity to the Heathen was seen as the best thing you could do; where Imperialism was an ideal not an insult.
And ultimately they do not even try to argue that the Bible is true. They simply argue that because it is true, evolutionary theories must therefore be false.
The irony is that New World Creationism evolved in response to the change in the environment brought about by the theory of evolution... and the argument itself is not exactly the fittest.
Other Entries in this Project
- Evolution and Creation - an Introduction and Glossary
- The Tension Between Science and Religion
- The 'Genesis' Creation Account
- The Theory of Evolution - Part II
- Discrepancies in the Theory of Evolution - Part II
- Human Evolution - the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
- Creationism and Creation Science - A Perspective
- Creation - A Mainstream Christian Viewpoint
- Creationism in the UK