Pretty much for the pure pleasure of it, I have recently been reading The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. (I chose that link because what it leads to features the same cover artwork as my copy has. Presumably that’s the exact same edition as mine.)
The basic agenda of this book is explained in its subtitle: “The Evidence for Evolution”. I can summarise this evidence by saying that what it shows is that if God did create all of life on earth, in a great surge of Godly creativity just a few thousand years ago rather than over a period of time massively longer than that, then all the evidence – all the evidence – says that this God went to a truly diabolical amount of trouble to make it look as if it was evolution that did it, rather than Him. In this bizarre project of divine self effacement, God has so far not been caught out making one single, solitary wrong move. Okay, God is omniscient, so of course if he wanted to cover his tracks completely, he could. But why do this? Why the colossal subterfuge? Everything in life now looks like it could have evolved. Nothing in life now looks like it could only have been made by God.
The details of how this evidence shows what Dawkins explains that it shows aren’t my concern in this posting. This is not a book review. I recommend this book if you like reading about the many wonders and horrors that life on earth consists of. (Dawkins argues that evolution is not only true, but also awe-inspiring, albeit in a rather morally gruesome way.) And I recommend this book if, like me when I started reading it, you accept the truth of evolution but would enjoy learning a little more about some of the many, many details of the mountainous quantity of evidence which proves the truth of evolution, and which makes a nonsense of creationism. Having been reading this book for a while, I am now more than ever entirely sure that evolution is a fact, for all the reasons that Dawkins says that it is a fact. I entirely agree with him that his creationist opponents are hopelessly and absurdly wrong about how life on earth came to be.
But my concern here is not whether Dawkins is right that evolution has happened and is happening. Of course he is, of course it has and of course it is. No, what interests me is whether the fact that so many people now, still, deny the truth of evolution matters. Dawkins thinks that this rejection of one of the central achievements of science is scandalous and appalling, and that these crackpot creationists must be told the error of their ways, and told and told again, until they return to the straight and narrow. Me? I don’t think I care that much.
To illustrate my point with a contrast, I think it matters a very great deal that so many people have been and continue to be so very, very wrong about the nature of the financial crisis that now afflicts the world. Errors in this matter are not merely erroneous. They are errors with huge and hugely damaging consequences. Millions have already suffered horribly because of these errors. Millions more are about to. But who is suffering because of creationism? Why does it matter to the rest of us what creationists think? Are creationists forcing their nonsense upon others? Maybe to some extent they are. Many potential commenters will know a lot more about the answer to that question than I do. If creationists are doing this, that would be a reason to berate them about all the errors they are making. But, are they?
Another good reason to go after creationists is to demoralise them, because of the other bad things that creationists are doing.
But what other bad political projects are creationists contributing to? Dawkins regards the USA’s aggressive policies in the Middle East as very bad, and thinks that Christian creationists are responsible for these policies in a big way. I agree that occupying foreign countries these days tends to be a mistake, while shorter, in-and-out attacks, with fewer pretensions in the direction of telling the locals how to govern themselves (such as I hope and trust the recent Libyan escapade has been (and fear that it may not be)), are also fraught with peril but seem, on the face of it, somewhat less harmful. But I don’t think that Christian creationists are by any means the only people who support such military operations.
Inflicting demoralisation upon Muslim creationists strikes me as worth doing, because of all the other bad stuff that such Muslims also support.
An atheist friend of mine goes a bit further in the matter of Muslims. He points out that central to demoralising the Muslims is pointing out that their God is imaginary nonsense. But so too, he adds (and I agree), is the Christian version of God. Failing to point out the imaginariness of the Christian version of God means that we then confront Muslims with one argumentative arm tied behind out backs. Christians, my atheist friend argues, are (to use an American sporting metaphor) running interference for the Muslims, and we shouldn’t let them do this. Demonstrating the truth of evolution is central to the process of demonstrating that the Christian God is imaginary nonsense, and also to knocking the intellectual steam out of Muslims. We should be consistent, says my friend, rather than weaken our case with selective atheism.
Personally I prefer to be a selective atheist, despite what my atheist friend says. If your God tells you to do stupid and destructive stuff, then argument number one that I will use against you will be to point out that your God is made-up nonsense. But if your God is telling you to be nice, or even just to be harmless, then I will not constantly badger you with arguments that your God is imaginary. I may say this from time to time, when that’s relevant to other things that I’m saying, as here, but on the whole I’ll leave you to worship your God, and I’ll get on with my life.
If your God says that we should all be libertarians, as the God of several Christians of my acquaintance does say, I’ll regard you as a comrade. If you are a Muslim whose God says that we should all be libertarians, ditto. (Something approximately like that may apply to the author of this book, if the talk I heard him give last Saturday (he’s bottom right in the pictures) is anything to go by.)
Other atheists argue for selective atheism in favour of Muslims, because, unlike me, such atheists agree with Muslims about lots of other things.
Not being that interested in Dawkins’ opinions about matters on which he is not nearly as much of an expert as he is about evolution, I may be wrong in suspecting him of strongly disapproving of the general run of right wing American domestic policies, as opposed merely to being disapproving of those domestic policies which he considers friendly towards or insufficiently hostile towards creationism. This BBC report, recycled at RichardDawkins.net, suggests that Dawkins has swallowed the whole CAGW mantra hole, but I may be wrong about that. If he has, that would be a further reason for him to denounce creationists, if he believes most of them to be unpersuaded by CAGW.
In general, I surmise that being a creationist might make you generally more suspicious of leftist/statist policies, on account of those favouring such policies tending to be so scornful of creationism. If so, then as far as I’m concerned: good for creationism. I would not be at all surprised to hear that some anti-statists favour creationism in various ways not because they believe it to be true, but merely because it enrages all the people whom they like to see enraged.
Does the Tea Party contain mostly, many, some or hardly any creationists? I don’t know, but would like to know.
What does Dawkins think about the level of US government borrowing? Does he agree with the Tea Partiers about that? I do, very strongly. Maybe Dawkins disagrees with the Tea Partiers about US financial policy, and believes that anti-creationism should be used to demoralise them, on financial policy grounds as well as anti-creationism grounds. Maybe Dawkins fears that the Tea Partiers may be right about US financial policy, but that they will use their rightness in that matter to then go on and enforce creationism, far more than they do now or even than they now talk about doing. I also fear that outcome, a very tiny bit, but I fear the consequences of bad financial policies a thousand times more than I fear enforced creationism as a result of those bad policies being somehow reversed.
Dawkins makes much of the fact that public opinion in favour of creationism is on the rise, in both the USA and in Britain. Like so many confronting a graph that is going up in what looks like a bad way, Dawkins, to my mind, continues the graph onwards and upwards in his mind, and sees civilisation collapsing, but ought not to. Me, I also fear the collapse of civilisation, a tiny bit, but if that happens, creationism will not be the cause of the collapse, merely a symptom of it, and arguably not even that.
In particular, I think that creationism seems now to be on the rise in the Anglo Saxon world partly because of the many failures of state education, rather than because of any non-existent creationist intellectual triumph. Anti-creationist statists having made such an expensive mess of running state education, a few creationists are now moving in on the running of schools. But this is not because they have persuaded anyone important of the truth of creationism. It is merely that educational decision-makers who are keen to rescue education think that a bit of creationism is a small price to pay for the educational improvement that will follow from the kinds of reforms that allow creationists to become more active in education. I think that too.
During the last few weeks I have asked various friends the question at the top of this posting. None of them have come up with any answers that I hadn’t. Several of them talked about the general principle that it is always good when truth triumphs over falsehood. I agree. That’s always nice, and in ways it is often very hard to see coming. But my friends haven’t, off the tops of their heads, been able to suggest any considerations involving public policy and definite and immediate harm done by creationism or creationism to large numbers of people that I hadn’t thought of. They could offer nothing saying that people who think as Richard Dawkins does, and as I do, about evolution and about creationism need, as a matter of urgency and for the good of humanity as a whole, to reduce creationism to the status of a theory that only a tiny number of total crackpots even know about. Can anyone here do better than that?
As I often add to questions that I ask at Samizdata (something I do here quite a lot), the question marks in this posting are all absolutely genuine, asking questions being one of the very best things you can do with blogging. I ask because I would truly like to know.