Date: 07 Apr 94 06:09:42
From: KG Anderson
Subject: Gould: Science and Creationism lecture
From: KG Anderson
Organization: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Lecture Outline: Steven Jay Gould's Science and Creationism
By popular demand, here it is. Be warned: it's a bit lengthy.
This outline is based on the 1994 John Calvin McNair Lecture
delivered March 29, 1994 in Memorial Auditorium at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I have tried to flesh out the lecture
outline as much as possible, but I wouldn't treat anything in quotes
as a real, bona fide SJG quotation--I'm just trying to capture the
"feel" of what Dr. Gould said.
Incidentally, this lecture was advertised with the title "A Wonderful
Life." I'm sure most of the audience came expecting, as did I, as
speech about the Cambrian fauna of the Burgess Shale. (I even
brought my copy of the book, in case he was giving autographs
afterwards. Hey, it never hurts to be prepared.) However, apparently
Gould was not informed that this was the topic; he blamed his agent
for the mix-up (how many evolutionary biologists have agents?), and
proceeded with the lecture he'd prepared. This was probably more
appropriate anyhow, since the McNair Lectures were created
(according to the program) "to examine the harmony of science and
religion." Not that there's much harmony between science and
creationism--but at least it gave the lecture a religious theme.
Dr. Gould began with a few anecdotes about Galileo. Legend has it
that the church officials showed him the instruments of torture;
they knew they did not need to use them upon Galileo, because "he's a
good physicist; he'll figure it out." Legend also says that when
Galileo abjured his belief that the earth revolved around the sun, he
muttered under his breath as he rose from his knees, "But it still is
Gould then outlined the two major points he wanted to make with
1) "I just don't understand literalism."
Gould hammered home the point that he just couldn't understand how
anyone could attempt to interpret the Bible as literally true. Eg,
Genesis 1,2 contain contradictory accounts of the Creation; the
Gospel of John has Jesus spending much of his time in Jerusalem,
while Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus coming to Jerusalem only
at the end of his life; etc.
2) There is no conflict between Science and Religion.
The traditional view of science and religion as incompatible and
always at odds is incorrect. Most theologians are not biblical
literalists, and do not see evolution as a threat to their beliefs. In
McLean v. Arkansas (the 1981 trial against the Arkansas "Equal
Time" law), for example, McLean, who filed suit *against* the
creationists, was the Episcopal bishop of Arkansas. When Gould
refers to Creationists, he wants to make it clear that he's referring
to a minority group of religious extremists.
Gould then went on to point out that nowhere else in the world is
Creationism as strong as it is in the US. There are a few C'ists in
England, a somewhat stronger enclave in Australia, but by and large
Creationism is an American phenomenon. It doesn't exist in Catholic
or Judaic traditions, by and large, because they don't have the
history of biblical literalism. Creationism is a uniquely American
sociopolitical issue--not an intellectual one; to a certain extent
Gould felt he was not qualified to comment on these aspects of
creationism, since he's not a historian but an evolutionary biologist.
As a conclusion to the lecture's introduction, Gould discussed his
definition of fact, which he said he had originally offered "half-
facetiously." Fact in the vernacular tends to mean "absolutely
confirmed and 100% true." In science, however, fact means
"confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold
provisional assent." Evolution is thus a fact. "Theory," on the other
hand, has a sense of vagueness in the vernacular which Creationists
are always using to their advantage: "Aha! Scientists claim evolution
is true, but it's really just a theory and they can't even make up their
minds what the theory is!" Of course, scientists have a very
different meaning of theory in mind; the theory of evolution, for
example, is a mechanism proposed to explain the observable fact of
evolution, just as the theory of gravity is a mechanism to explain
the fact of gravity. Apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air
when people debated the mechanism behind gravity; likewise, any
controversies about the *theory* of evolution did not change the
*fact* of evolution.
The body of the lecture fell into 3 sections, which I will outline here
before going into more detail below.
I. Review of Evolution as a Fact
II. History of Creationist Thought
III. Analysis of Creationist Arguments
I. Review of Evolution as a Fact
Gould outlined three main branches of evidence that have convinced
the overwhelming majority of biologists that evolution is a fact.
1. Small, observable changes.
For example, those brought about by animal husbandry/artificial
selection/laboratory experiments, as well as field studies such as
the classic case of the peppered moth in England. (I'd call this
microevolution, although Gould never used that term). Do
creationists accept that these occur? Of course they do, how could
they not! But they claim that such small changes are insignificant,
and nothing on the scale of, say, dogs evolving from cats (although
as Gould pointed out, that's a stupid example since dogs didn't evolve
from cats; they both come from the same carnivorous ancestors).
2. Examples of transitional forms in the fossil record.
Gould said he can't imagine how the myth that there are no
transitional forms got started--it simply isn't true. The old
chestnuts--eg, _Archaeopterix_--are perfectly valid; creationists
maintain it's a bird by definition since it has feathers, but
anatomically it's extremely reptilian in character. But there are
plenty of other great examples, such as the evolution of the
mammalian inner ear from the articulatory bones of the reptilian
lower jaw joint. Another great example is the evolution of whales--
apparently Gould's next article in _Natural History_ is on this
3. Imperfections in Living Organisms
Imperfection for Gould is the best evidence of all, since it reflects
the historical pathways of evolution. The example he gave was the
panda's thumb--he sure gets a lot of mileage out of that chestnut,
II. History of Creationist Thought
The Scopes Trial--what the public knows about it is almost all
wrong, being based largely on the play/movies "Inherit the Wind." It
was not a dramatic victory for the evolutionists; Scopes was not
reviled by the rest of Dayton, TN; William Jennings Bryan did not die
at the end of the trial (he died a week later), etc.
Gould began with William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a very complex
man who had lined up behind every major liberal crusade of his life,
and yet who used his political clout to get anti-evolution laws
passed at the end of his life. Scopes, for his part, was not
persecuted by the citizens of Dayton; he was actually a very popular
citizen. The trial was a test case by the ACLU; all they wanted was
quick conviction under the new law, so they could appeal to a higher
court to have it overturned. The trial was originally supposed to be
in Chattanooga, but that didn't pan out. Dayton decided they could
have it there because they needed the publicity. It soon spiraled into
a much larger affair than the ACLU had expected; Bryan came to
defend the Bible, Clarence Darrow came to defend evolution, and it
was a huge media circus. Scopes lost the trial (he had taught
evolution, after all), but the verdict was overturned on a
technicality. Thus, the ACLU's goal was thwarted; they had no
conviction to appeal, and the laws stayed on the books until the late
60s. (It wasn't until 1967 that the Supreme Court threw out the old
In a very real sense, Gould said, the Creationists won the Scopes
trail: evolution was not taught in schools again until the 1960s; the
revival of evolution was basically due to Sputnik, which made the US
realize that if it was ever going to win the space race, it needed to
start teaching science in school again.
(In this section of the lecture, Gould showed a lot of slides
contrasting the Scopes trial with the Arkansas trial of 1981. Gould
visited Dayton, TN in the early 80s, and met with the son of the man
whose idea it had been to have the trials in the first place. Gould
was also close friends with Kirtley Mather, one of the scientists
that Darrow had wanted to testify at Dayton; however, the judge
would not allow their testimony, so Darrow put Bryan on the stand
instead. Gould himself was one of the six scientists who testified at
the Arkansas trial; he had a great photo of him and Duane Gish
standing in front of the courthouse in Little Rock, followed a similar
photo with Gish replaced by Niles Eldridge. Gould spiced up the
lecture with several quotes from H.L. Mencken, most of which I did
not write down, alas.
Gould concluded this section with an anecdote about the flight back
from Little Rock. He got out of his seat to go to the back, and
a familiar looking man said, "Dr Gould, I want to say I appre-
ciate your coming down to help us out with this trial." Gould
asked who the man was; he replied, "I used to be governor of this
state, and let me tell you, I would have vetoed that law in a second!"
It was Bill Clinton.)
III. Analysis of Creationist Arguments
Gould discussed the debate strategy of the C'ists: focus on the
negative aspects of your opponent's argument, and never, ever put
forth anything positive about your own position because it is liable
to be attacked. They play this game extremely well, but every so
often even the creationists are forced to come forward with an
explanation for how they view the world as having come to be. Their
biggest challenge is the geologic record, which contains miles of
sediments laid down over billions of years; somehow, the
creationists have to come up with a non-evolutionary explanation
for the strata. Their mechanisms rely upon Noah's flood, but every
explanation put forth violates three essential criteria of science:
#1) Science is based on naturalistic processes.
Gould read quotes from Morris and Whitcomb's _The Genesis Flood_
which directly point to God as a supernatural agent responsible for
the flood. Science cannot address such miracles, since by definition
miracles are a suspension of what are believed to be universal laws
of nature. After 1975, when C'ists began to concentrate on the
"Balanced Treatment" legal approach, such direct appeals to the hand
of God become rarer in creationist textbooks.
#2) Scientific statements have to be falsifiable
Creationists have proposed 3 major hypotheses to explain the
invariant, worldwide pattern of the geologic strata (only
invertebrates at the lowest levels; dinosaurs in the middle, below
large mammals; human fossils only at the top, etc). All three have
been soundly refuted, yet the creationists refuse to give them up.
A) Hydrologic sorting--the heavy dense things sunk, while the light
ones floated. Completely ridiculous--plenty of light things down
below, and heavy things (like dinosaurs) up above.
B) The ecological argument: sea creatures are lowest, swampy
animals in the middle, highland animals highest. This is one that
makes Gould angry (most of their stuff just makes him laugh),
because it preys upon the ignorance of the uneducated. If you don't
know a thing about ecology, this one sounds vaguely plausible.
Unfortunately, plenty of sea animals (eg, whales) are found only in
the higher levels, while lots of dry land organisms appear in lower
C) Differential Intelligence: Invertebrates are lowest because they
lacked the intelligence to flee the waters, while the smarter
animals (eg, mammals) had the brains to seek high ground. Surely,
however, at least one mammal would have drowned and sunk to the
depths, and at least one trilobite--if only by chance--would have
been preserved at a higher elevation? This one, too, completely fails
a reality test.
#3) In a gentlemanly debate, one is not allowed to lie and distort the
viewpoints of one's opponents.
Gould quoted the Lewis Overthrust misquote from one of Morris's
books, and mentioned how devastatingly effective it was when he
brought it up at the Arkansas Trial. Morris had selectively quoted
from a geology textbook to say that the Lewis Overthrust appeared
to have younger sediments on the bottom; he left out the following
sentences explaining that there is perfectly good geologic evidence
that the older sediments have been thrust on top of the younger ones;
i.e., they weren't formed that way. Gould also had a slide of some
C'ist article entitled "Thank you, Dr. Jay Gould" (they couldn't even
get his name right), which distorted punc eek into a form of
(At this point, because time was running out, Gould decided to skip
what he was going to say about the Paluxy Man Tracks. Alas! He
skipped about half a dozen slides that looked *extremely*
interesting --I really wish he'd skipped the student questions at the
end, which were all rather lame, and did the Paluxy stuff instead.)
Conclusion to the lecture:
Why is all this important? Well for starters, creationists aren't just
attacking the relatively small field of evolutionary biology when
they claim the earth was recently created. Physics also has to go
(because of the independent evidence of various methods of
radiometric dating); so too does astronomy (since astronomers
swear that the light we see from stars is millions of years old). In
fact, if we cede to the creationists on this issue, all of rational
discourse must eventually go. It's the old thin edge of the wedge
argument: if evolutionary biology is forced out of the textbooks, who
knows what will be next?
Following the lecture there were a few questions taken from the
audience. In my mind these put rather a lame ending on an excellent
speech; he should have showed the Paluxy slides instead. The final
question was, "With opening day only a few weeks away, who do you
think is going to take the pennant?" Gould: "Gee, I don't know.
Certainly not either of my teams. I just hope it's not Toronto again--it's
getting to be too much!"
Tero Sand asked me if the lecture was as effective as talk.origins,
and I'd have to say: Without a doubt. However, the audience was very
self-selected, so Gould was undoubted preaching to the converted.
My fiancee pointed out that had the speech been advertised as a
lecture about science and creationism, a very different crowd would
have showed up, full of Bible thumpers and hecklers.
To be honest, I was quite impressed with my own knowledge of the
history of creationism. After hanging out on t.o for the better part of
a year, and having read almost all of the FAQs and a few other books
as well, the only thing new to me in Gould's speech were some of the
details of the Scopes Trial. (In fact, I had to resist the temptation to
cross-reference this lecture outline to the various relevant t.o
FAQs.) However, it took many hours of reading for me to amass all of
that knowledge, even with the help of t.o; Gould presented it all in
one well-planned 90 minute lecture. I definitely recommend it.
Incidentally, I should point out that Gould made it very clear that he
had no problem with anyone believing in Creationism. "I'm certain
they're dead wrong, but it's fine if that's what they want to believe."
The point he took issue with was when Creationists attempt to
present their beliefs as science ("Whatever creationism is, science
it ain't"), or to force evolutionary biology out of the classroom. When
he visited Dayton TN, he met with the son of the man who had helped
bring the Scopes Trial to the town. Mr. Robinson ran Robinson's
Drugstore, the same business in which his father and a few other
men had hatched their plans to put Scopes on trial. Gould showed a
slide of himself sitting with Mr. Robinson and another man who was
the president of Bryan College (a local fundamentalist college set up
in Dayton after Wm J Bryan died). Both of these men were
creationists, and they were sitting with Gould at the very table in
Robinson's Drugstore where the Scopes trial had been planned. "This,"
Gould said, referring to the evolution/creationism controversy, "is
how it ought to be settled--sitting down at a table, having a
discussion over a Coke. Not in a Federal courthouse." I think that
is the image from this lecture that will stay with me the longest,
long after many other details have faded away.