ETSU professor: Opposition to Darwin’s work continues to evolve

Tony Casey • Feb 9, 2014 at 9:46 PM

On his 205th birthday, naturalist Charles Darwin might have directed a tip of the cap to the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum for its annual Darwin Day celebration Saturday. However, museum director Blaine Schubert said his research on the famed scientist revealed Darwin might have shied away from social situations like birthday parties due to anxiety.

The life, but more importantly, the work of the Englishman Darwin (1809-1882), was discussed through various topics of dialogue and activity at the fossil site in Gray.

ETSU Department of Sociology and Anthropology professor Joseph Baker presented his talk, titled “The Evolution of Creationism,” to a packed room of nearly 100 people. He discussed a moving-target strategy of fundamentalist Christians to oppose Darwin’s theory of biological evolution with creationism over the last few hundred years in the United States.

Opposition has gone from creationism to intelligent design to the most recent strategy, “teaching the controversy,” which is a mix of pro-intelligent design and anti-evolution teaching as promoted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based conservative think tank.

Baker showed how this opposition has impacted education in Tennessee, Louisiana and other areas, along with the political and social implications of such opposition.

He argued through a slide show presentation that Darwin’s revolutionary work brought forth a response from Christian fundamentalists who, due to religious beliefs, denied Darwin’s studies that man, animals and plants had genetically evolved over time to adapt to surroundings.

The first well-known founder of such opposition was George McCready Price, Baker said, who wasn’t trained as a geologist by any means, but acted as an expert on geology to promote his creation story and give birth to the idea of Young Earth Creationism, or the belief that all there is was created, including human beings in their present form, in the last 10,000 years.

Through successes with this topic in certain areas, including Tennessee, Price’s work led to the mission that was carried out by William Jennings Bryan in the famous Scopes Trial in Dayton in 1925.

Baker and Michale Brouin played the parts of lawyers Bryan and Clarence Darrow in a recreation of back-and-forth banter heard during the trial, much to the audience’s delight.

Moving on to the alteration of textbooks, the emergence of new creationist-friendly colleges, think tanks and research centers, Baker showed the crowd how Darwin’s work set off a large body of opposition and continues to affect politics to this day.

He cited the 2012 bill passed into law by the Tennessee Legislature that said creationism needs to be taught next to evolution in public schools, regardless of scientific consensus. Schubert said the percentage of scientists worthy of the title who support Young Earth Creationism are represented by “less than a fraction of a percent.”

Creationism was put on display recently at Kentucky’s Creationist Museum, which Baker had visited, when TV’s “Science Guy” Bill Nye debated Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham, who represented the idea that dinosaurs and dragons lived in cohabitance with humans at some point in the last few thousand years, and the story of Noah’s Ark occurred as it was written in the Bible.

Baker said Ham’s opinions were worded differently, but not far from Price’s original ideas.

Baker said he’s found religious affiliation is the driving factor in acceptance of Young Earth Creationism, which is actually made worse by education, because a believer will look to non-mainstream science to support their arguments.

The second presentation of the night was a discussion panel that included Baker; Schubert; the Rev. John Shuck, host of “Religion for Life” on local public radio station WETS (89.5 FM) and minister of First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton; and the Rev. Jacqueline Luck, minister of Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Gray.

ETSU Department of Anthropology faculty member Bill Duncan served as the moderator.

Duncan, a member of Munsey Memorial Methodist Church, injected topics pertinent to the discussion of Darwin and religion and science, as well as taking questions from the audience.

Shuck and Luck both emphasized their use and embracing of leading mainstream science with their congregations and said other religions need to catch up with the rest of the academic world in regard to including accepted science.

“The giant step religion needs to take is to admit that it’s almost entirely mythos, and then go to the meaning,” Luck said about disagreements between science and religion, emphasizing positive, unifying messages in the Bible and other holy books.

Shuck pointed to the Nye and Ham debate, where Ham admitted that nothing could change his mind from his God’s word, where Nye said all he needed was evidence.

Rumors had circulated over the years that Darwin, raised as a non-believer, had made a deathbed conversion to Christianity, to which Schubert said there was no evidence to verify.

Laws like the 2012 bill that passed requiring schools to teach the controversy between creationism and evolution don’t make Tennessee diplomas any less valuable, Schubert said, but can open the state to national and world attention, not all of it positive.

The discussion wrapped up with each of the panelists given a chance to sum up their thoughts, with Luck, like Darwin might have, giving the nod to mainstream science.

“I tell my congregation how happy I am to have a fossil museum down the road rather than a creationist museum,” she said.

Outside of the discussion room, cake was provided to celebrate Darwin’s birthday, as was trail mix from Earth Fare. There were stations set up around the museum to teach different aspects of evolutionary biology, including a table with skeletons of snakes and lizards to represent limb loss, which ETSU students explained to be a process that takes 20 million to 40 million years, or, as they joked, the blink of an eye in terms of evolution.

Leon Rasnake and his wife, Stephanie, brought their daughters, 6-year-old Mia and 5-year-old Chloe, to the museum, and were excited to find a whole day of activities had been planned for Darwin Day. It was a perfect day for interested minds, which is good for the Rasnakes because they arrived to a declaration from their girls.

“We’re ready to learn,” they told their parents as they pulled in.

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