U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Kuhnian Paradigm Conflict”: Evolutionists and Creationists

Happy Election Day! As we wait impatiently for results to start rolling in, I offer a distraction (that’s nevertheless implicitly related to the Big Thing on everyone’s mind). Today’s post is about how evolutionists and anti-evolutionists understand science in such radically different terms that they might as well be speaking different languages. On this, I follow an excellent essay written by religious historian George Marsden, “Understanding Fundamentalist Views of Science.” Marsden’s smart piece appeared in Science and Creationism, an anthology published in 1984, just as debates about evolution and creationism were heating up to a degree not felt since Scopes. His central claim was that the divide that separated secularist scientists from fundamentalist creationists was a quintessential “Kuhnian paradigm conflict.”
In the wake of its remarkable mobilization in the late 1970s, which helped contribute to Reagan’s landmark election in 1980, the Christian Right grew more ambitious in its efforts to shape American culture more to its liking. This more than anything else explains the rise of “creation science” in the early 1980s. Fundamentalist thinkers, many of whom worked for the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), a creationist think tank housed in southern California, innovated somewhat novel theories and school curricula that challenged evolutionary biology on supposedly scientific grounds. They reasoned that their new creation science, devoid of religious language, should be taught alongside evolution in the public schools because it was scientifically superior to evolution. Creationist science was introduced in several state legislatures and became part of the Arkansas state science curriculum in 1981. (The Supreme Court ruled all creationist curricula unconstitutional in its 1987 case, Edwards v. Aguillard). Scientists, predictably, scoffed at the very premise of creationist science, which they deemed an oxymoron (along with fundamentalist scientist).
Marsden, arguably the best historian of American fundamentalist thought, countered by pointing out that fundamentalism was not strictly anti-science. Rather, it adhered to a different scientific method, one developed prior to Darwinism and other modern forms of thought. “The epistemology that prevailed in Western culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries dominates much of their thinking,” Marsden wrote, labeling fundamentalists “Baconian” in their belief that “true science” “is a matter of induction.” This meant that while their method included observation and classification, it did not include “speculative hypotheses incapable of verification by observation.” Henry Morris, a foremost creationist thinker, exemplified such an approach. “Science is knowledge and the essence of scientific method is experimentation and observation. Since it is impossible to make observations or experiments on the origin of the universe,” he argued, “the very definition of science ought to preclude use of the term when talking about evolution.” In short, evolution could not explain human origins.
Of course, contradictions abounded. Most creationist scientists believed that the existence of a divine creator, an unobservable hypothesis if ever there was one, could be explained scientifically. Marsden explained that evangelicals had confidence in their knowledge that the existence of God was an “objective scientific certainty” due to their “philosophical foundation of trust in the ‘common sense’ of mankind.” This allowed for normative claims about God and human nature. Marsden paraphrased a few such claims: “All normal humans are, by the very constitution of their nature, forced to believe certain basic truths, such as the existence of the external world, the existence of other persons, the continuity of one’s self and of others, and the reliability (under certain circumstances) of one’s sense perceptions, memory, and the testimony of others.” In short, Common Sense closed the gap between objective scientific knowledge and unobservable hypotheses in a way that wild speculation could not. Such a theory of science was grounded in the assumption that knowledge was stable across time. To hold on to such a theory, fundamentalists not only had to reject Darwinism, but also most other modern forms of thought—to say nothing about postmodernism! Derrida’s playful dictum that “there is nothing outside the text” did not comport with Baconian sensibilities about the external world, to put it mildly.
Marsden’s historical analysis of fundamentalist thought was his way of showing scientists that they had to do better when talking to fundamentalists about human origins. The simple admonishment that evolution was “fact” was not a good means for getting fundamentalists to be more sympathetic to evolutionary science. It was not the way to bridge alternative Kuhnian paradigms. What was viewed as fact by one side seemed like wild speculation to the other. This, at its core, is the modern epistemological gap that structures so many of the conflicts that we call the culture wars.
Marsden does a nice job describing these epistemological distinctions:
The fundamentalist outlook preserves essentially Enlightenment and pre-Kantian philosophical categories. Truth is fixed and eternal and something to be discovered either by scientific inquiry or by looking at some other reliable source such as the Bible. Much of the rest of modern thought, however, had gradually come to view the human mind as imposing its categories on reality. Perception itself in this view is an interpretative process. Truth, moreover, is relative to the observer and to the community or culture of the inquirer. Speculative theorizing is essential, since human thought in any case involves such imposing of one’s constructs on reality.
The essay immediately following Marsden’s in the Science and Creationism anthology, Stephen Jay Gould’s “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” made clear the Kuhnian paradigm conflict. Gould was one of the most famous evolutionary biologists in the world, partly because he was in the forefront of pioneering a new theory about evolution that went beyond Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” posited that evolution was much more random than Darwin and his epigones had theorized. “Trends, we argued, cannot be attributed to gradual transformation within lineages, but must arise from the differential success of certain kinds of species.”
Gould was also famous because he was a clear and prolific writer, unlike many of his scientist colleagues.  For example, Ashley Montagu, the editor of the Science and Creationism anthology, wrote the following sentence in his contribution: “What we do have is incontrovertible proof of the fact of evolution, namely, that genetic changes have come about in populations which have resulted in the great variety of plant and animal forms on this Earth, or put more simply, the transformation of the form and mode of existence of organisms in such a way that the descendants differ from their predecessors.” This was not very clear, to say the least. Gould was much better at clearly communicating complex ideas. As such, his writing acts as a a good control to see if Marsden’s Kuhnian paradigm conflict applied in all instances.
Gould’s main point was that creationists “play upon a vernacular misunderstanding of the word ‘theory.’” In short, they believed that theory was somehow less than fact. Reagan echoed this misunderstanding when speaking to a group of evangelicals about evolution: “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science—that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.” Gould countered with a definition of theory commonly understood by scientists: “structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.” When scientists debated competing theories, he argued, facts didn’t evaporate. “Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome.” In other words, for scientists, evolution was both fact and theory: “humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.” Darwin was right about the fact of evolution, even if Gould and others believed he was wrong about the theory (natural selection) that explained the mechanism of evolution.
This is all very clear to me. But how would a fundamentalist reader interpret it? 

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  1. Thanks for this excellent post, I’ll be interested to read Marsden. Sad to lose Gould at such a young age he was a terrific writer but we can be comforted with the thought that he’s spending his time rolling dice with the creator.:)

  2. Great post. One addition that might help is one of which Marsden and Gould were both certainly aware: the fundy/creationist scientific paradigm must also be understood with one enormous difference, the difference between “traditional” and “traditionalist.” Creationists at whatever level of intellectual sophistication are likely keenly aware that their vision of science is not considered the equal of mainstream science outside the boundaries of their own intellectual communities. This was certainly not the case for earlier generations of Baconians. We see this tension developing historically from the huffy insistence of 1920s creationists such as James M Gray and William Jennings Bryan to the trenchant “outsider” stance of Duane Gish and Ken Ham. The difference between thinking in Marsden’s Common Sense/Baconian tradition in Edinburgh in 1760 compared to thinking in the creationist Common Sense/Baconian tradition in San Diego in 1960 is enormous and must be part of our understanding of any ‘Kuhnian paradigm conflict.’

  3. If Bacon is the intellectual ancestor of creationism, it’s interesting to note how abysmally Bacon’s approach performed in his own time, especially by contrast to that of Galileo:

    Schwartz, Jacob T. Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei: two approaches to progress in science. 1987 Dec 7. Available from: http://www.settheory.com/bacon_galileo.html.

    And the weakness of Bacon’s approach was precisely that it was insufficiently critical of commonsense groupings, categorizations, and judgments of the significance or interest of phenomena. Galileo’s success was due largely to his willingness to redraw category boundaries and revise judgments of significance in ways that aided scientific insight. Other successful scientists did the same. Artificial intelligence researchers studying scientific discovery have even attempted to formalize this process of revision of categories and judgments of significance in computer programs. Science always begins from common sense, but it seldom ends there. Any a priori commitment to fidelity to common sense, whether driven by religious motives or not, dooms science to failure.

    This is a lesson that should be heeded by all advanced intellectual disciplines, in the humanities and social sciences as well as natural science and engineering.

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