The recent decision of the Kansas Board of Education to remove the theory of evolution from the high school science curriculum has made creationism front page news. Articulating the reaction of the intellectual class, the September 6, 1999 issue of The New Republic devotes two articles totaling nearly three full pages to the refutation of creationism. But these sophisticated rebuttals shed little more light on the matter than the pronouncements of the creationists. While it may be true that “[i]t is not truth for which the creationists hunger, it is meaning” (TNR 11), the unquestioned presupposition that religious “meaning” has no cognitive value reflects a religious epistemology that has remained stuck in the era of Voltaire.
I can cite a more personal example. In the chapter “Science, Religion, and Anthropology” of the recent collaborative “handbook” Anthropology of Religion (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997), James Lett misinterprets a passage in Science and Faith (1989) as proposing that we should “[accord] religious people respect and admiration” (113), and therefore presumably refrain from evaluating the truth value of their affirmations. In fact, the passage Lett quotes says nothing about respecting “religious people”; what I say is that anthropology should “demonstrate a far greater concern and respect for the form and content of religious experience” (Science and Faith, 1), in other words, that we should treat religion with respect as a source of anthropological truth. By making me sound like a candidate for the Kansas Board of Education, Lett illustrates the difficulty the scientific temperament has in comprehending the distinction between religion as a “personal belief system” about the facts of the world (such as the number of days of the Creation) and religious experience as a source of anthropological understanding–in simpler terms, in understanding the difference between cosmology and anthropology. Theology is often good anthropology but it is nearly always bad cosmology. What people say about God in relation to human interaction deserves our most serious attention; what they say about God in relation to natural phenomena may interest anthropologists, but not geologists or biologists.
Darwinian evolution in its general form is a model of scientific minimalism; indeed, it has so few presuppositions that it is difficult to conceive a serious alternative. The sole essential postulate of the theory of evolution is that creatures that can reproduce can also vary. But even if Darwin could be somehow shown to be completely mistaken, creation science still offers no alternative to Darwinism. Creationism is not an alternative theory because it is not a “theory” at all. The very term is an embarrassment, an admission that the truth of the Genesis narrative can only be affirmed in the face of the hypotheses of modern science by borrowing the outer forms of scientific expression. There are, to be sure, a variety of creationisms, some of which make more sophisticated use of scientific vocabulary than others, but it is the concept itself, not its implementation, that is spurious.
The conception of a God compatible with scientific discovery, who started the universe running and then left it to us to discover what “laws” he designed it to obey, is deism, not creationism. But if God is not merely the clockmaker but the ruler of the universe, then everything that happens in it takes place by his will; invoking this will does not explain the creation any more than it explains the weather. Although it has often been pointed out that the (first) Genesis narrative is in reasonably accurate correspondence with what is known of the evolution of our planet, the attribution of this “evolution” to God as its sole causal principle is the very opposite of scientific method, the point of which is to minimize rather than maximize causal assumptions.
But if theology is often good anthropology, then there is at least one point in favor of creationism, one that inevitably gets lost because it is emphasized by neither the creationists themselves nor their critics. The real aim of creationism is not to count the days of creation or shorten the age of the earth or even to question scientific theories of the emergence of life. It is to object to the Darwinian explanation of the “descent of man.” However hostile creationists may be to evolutionary theory in general, what arouses this hostility is not the assertion that birds are descended from reptiles, but that humans are descended from monkeys. However slim its scientific credentials, this “theological” objection to Darwin may at least be said to fall within the domain of anthropology.
The emergence of the human cannot be explained by the theory of biological evolution alone, not because Darwinism isn’t good science, but because the defining human trait of symbolic representation is not a biological phenomenon (see Chronicle 173). The point of the minimal hypothesis or “little bang” is that human language and culture can only be understood as derived from the commemoration of an event, of other events that commemorate that event, and so on. This is an intuition that is preserved in religious traditions in the form of “creation myths.” The use of the condescending term “myth” is unavoidable because these stories are not minimal; they go into great detail in order to avoid taking on the appearance of hypotheses. Religious discourse, including that of Genesis, is not “theoretical” but revelatory, as the commemoration of an event of revelation must be. The starkness of the opposition between scientific parsimony and the deliberate “thickness” of religious language reflects the crucial nature of the subject under debate, which is no less than the nature of the human. Each side appeals to a higher principle than the human, suggesting that the human may be defined by the very trait of appealing beyond itself, but not whether one of the appeals allows us to dismiss the other.
My respect for the anthropological value of religious revelation does not predispose me toward either skepticism concerning evolution or “equal time” for creationism. The decision not to require the teaching of evolution in Kansas high schools is rightly an occasion for condemnation and ridicule. It is a sad day when the religious intuition that there is more to human origin than the procedures of biological evolution can explain is made to justify the rejection of biology itself.
Like the efforts of creationism in general, the Kansas Board’s unfortunate decision points to an anthropological problem–the inadequacy of Darwin to explain the human specificity that is central to religion–but as a means of generating respect for religion’s anthropological content, its solution is worse than useless.
Here is an alternative suggestion. Rather than foolishly claiming that Darwinism is “unscientific,” it would be far more useful to probe its limitations by teaching pupils to reflect on what indeed separates the human from other species. Human language cannot be understood as a biological achievement; on the contrary, our biology–our brain, our vocal tract–is adapted to language. And what of the connection between language and religion? Since they are always found together, should we not assume that they emerged simultaneously, that they are in fact two modes of the same general phenomenon? When we become willing to deal with such issues, we can stop looking at religion as a set of unprovable beliefs that serve to separate us into members of different “cultures” and see it as a means for understanding the specific difference of humanity as a whole.
I am quite aware that the originary hypothesis pleases neither the scientists, who find it superfluous because we are essentially like other forms of life, nor the religionists, who find it superfluous because we are essentially different from other forms of life. But this symmetry tells me that the minimal terrain of Generative Anthropology, whatever name it may eventually go by, is the only one on which the two sides can meet. For the sake of Kansas’ schoolchildren, I hope the meeting takes place soon.