Just another site

Monthly Archives: March 2013

Where’s the harm in creationism?

I was talking to a friend about being sceptical about being sceptical, and he raised the question: “where’s the harm in creationism?” Creationism is offensively stupid, of course, but then so are lots of other commonly held beliefs – like that anything Paris Hilton (2016 update: any of the Khardashians. Paris Hilton has lost her appeal, it seems) does is interesting and should be monetised – which are equally stupid, but probably don’t do much harm. Other –isms – racism, sexism, sectarianism, homophobia-ism – are clearly harmful and can be directly linked to discrimination, ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, war….Those are isms clearly worth combating – but is creationism anything to get het up about? What did the creationists ever do to us?
A good question, and it got me thinking. Here is why I think creationism is damaging. I’m talking here about Abrahamic creationism – mainly because that’s the only kind of creationism that I have any theological grounding in: I was raised as a Christian. There are lots of other versions of creationism (the ones involving Raven and Halibut are part-way convincing), but I guess one set of creationists aren’t prepared to co-opt other sets’ versions to work towards a general theory of creation.

So, where’s the harm in creationism? What did the creationists ever do to us?

1) It supports lots of the other –isms.
Sexism: Woman was created secondarily to Man, and therefore inferior and subservient to Man.
Speciesism: Man was created master over the rest of creation.
Racism: the curse of Ham falls on people with dark skin (‘a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’*) – no, wait: that is in Genesis, but it’s not really part of the story of the Creation, which ought to end with the abatement of Noah’s flood, if not with the expulsion from Eden.
Sectarianism: no, that’s probably post-Holy Scripture.
Condemnation of same-sex acts: biblical, but not part of the creation myth (though it could have been: lots of creation myths have the creator making several false starts before getting humanity right; so there could have been a version in which God first created two same-sex individuals, rather than a man and a woman, and then decided that that wasn’t a good basis for procreation. Missed a trick there, 5-10th century B.C.E bigots.)
But then many evolutionists are just as bad. The eugenics movement developed alongside, and as a natural extension of, really, the theory of evolution. The (mistaken, admittedly) notion that some species and races are ‘more evolved’ than others is used to justify speciesism and racism.
There’s a whole genre of sexist evolutionary thought. You know the kind of thing: women evolved to have better colour discrimination than men because back in the old hunter-gatherer days, out on the savannah, those women with excellent colour discrimination were better able to choose the right colours to use to knit** effective camouflage garments for their mates, which enabled those men to go out and kill more sabre-toothed mammoths than those who had partners with mediocre colour discrimination, and therefore raise more offspring. Conversely, men are more stupid than women because back in those evolutionary days, you had to be stupid to go out trying to kill sabre-toothed mammoths when you could easily have raised (rather fewer) offspring on worms and beetles. Evolutionists have a problem understanding same-sex relationships, too: what’s the point? However, I think you can model an evolutionary advantage to having a gay uncle (a lesbian aunt probably enhances infant survival odds even more). So, from the point of view of harmful isms, there may not be much to choose between creationists and evolutionists (though maybe not all evolutionists are as bad as evolutionary psychologists).

And don’t get me started on Social Darwinism.

2) Some of the big problems and dangers which face us depend on evolutionary mechanisms, and if we don’t understand or believe in those we could be stuffed.
One of those problems is species loss and reduction in biodiversity, and the food security risks of genetically limited monocultures. Reasons for thinking these things are dangerous depend on at least some acceptance of evolutionary processes (though presumably lots of good creationists got the point of the Irish potato famine at the time).
From a creationist point of view, what’s the problem?

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food. Genesis 1: 28-29

There you go; we’ve been given it, and it’s there for us to exploit AS WE THINK FIT.
Well, you’d hope that a sensible creationist would think that even if the rest of the world was created to serve humanity, that doesn’t mean we can trash it with impunity – and for less sensible creationists, surely any act of deliberate or negligent extinction is blasphemy? Do we really have the right to destroy what God saw fit to create?
Of course, selective breeding itself ought to be a problem for creationists. Obviously it can’t work, because the mechanisms we use (artificial selection) are too close to the natural selection which doesn’t work and doesn’t modify organisms. Or if it does work, we shouldn’t do it. Modifying that which God saw fit to create in all its perfection has to be blasphemous, again. Every heavily overbred bulldog  is an Abomination Unto The Lord (they’re probably right on that one***). This interpretation seems logical to me, but I’ve not heard it raised by creationists, though it does appear in John Windham’s post-apocalyptic novel The Chrysalids.

The other evolution-based problem that’s worrying me is the evolution of antibiotic resistance in common bacteria. Here’s somewhere where lack of belief in evolution and natural selection will surely kill our grandchildren. This one in itself is enough to condemn creationism.
Having said that, the bland refusal to bother with scientific stuff shown by our ruling and communicative classes is just as dangerous. Last week, I heard an interviewer on Radio 4’s Today programme, interviewing an expert about antibiotic resistance, twice saying that antibiotics had become less effective because ‘our bodies have got used to them’. The second time he said it, the interviewee gently (much too gently, I think) corrected him – but such cluelessness can be as dangerous as creationist resistance. I blame Oxbridge education.

3) Creationism sets a bad intellectual example, which may warp people’s ability to cope with other aspects of the world. Ever since Darwin, what we’ve discovered in all kinds of areas apart from the zoology and botany he was mainly using for evidence – geology, physics, molecular biology – has fitted in with the general notion of the change and diversification of organisms and the age of the earth, most spectacularly in genetics and molecular biology, where we’ve understood the mechanisms for processes which Darwin could only infer, and plate tectonics, where we understand the mechanism for a process which seemed necessary to account for the distribution of living things (and rocks) over the surface of the earth, but which, even in my lifetime, seemed manifestly impossible. By and large (there are always complications in science) the evidence FITS, even in areas which seemed to have little to do with the original thesis****.
If you’re prepared to deny all that, you’re prepared to deny almost anything in science, and probably everyday logic as well. So a the cast of mind which allows a belief in creationism (or, more accurately, denial of evolution and the age of the Earth) is a serious intellectual handicap which can spread to all kinds of other areas of life, with potentially damaging effects, like starting wars to protect ourselves from Weapons of Mass Destruction. Put more simply, creationism is monumentally stupid, and choosing to be monumentally stupid is a hazard to your health, and probably to the health of those around you.

4) Creationism is a subset of a wider problem: literal belief in every single word in the Christian Bible, as the word of God. One problem I have with this is that I can’t find a solid provenance of the fully divinely Authorised Version. I’ve read lots of English versions of the bible, which are all translations of translations, as far as I can make out, and different versions say different things, and I know that in the past people were put to death for asserting that some sentences in the bible should be translated one way rather than another. But maybe that can be put aside as an epistemological problem for believers which we non-believers don’t have to worry about.
But have you seen what the Bible says outside of Genesis?*****
Leviticus 11: 30 forbids eating ferrets and chameleons, which seems fair enough, but 11: 23 forbids eating flying creeping things with four feet (which are extinct now, though not as a result of evolutionary pressure), and 11: 10 bans lobster bisque and moules marinière, which is going a bit far.
Leviticus 19: 19 bans linen/wool blends, though the abomination that is cotton-rich seems to be spared.
More seriously, Leviticus 19: 33-34 says:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

– which rules out any anti-immigration policy. Exodus 35: 2 says:

Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.

This should be grim news for many workers in modern retail.
The New Testament is worse. We are encouraged to undermine the economic and moral order:

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
Matthew 19:21


But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Matthew 5: 44

(The quotes above are from the King James version: authenticated by the King as the Lord’s agent on Earth at that time.)
So, apart from decimating fine dining and retail, the Bible requires us to welcome immigrants, sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, and do good to those that hate us. That would hit the Home Counties like a Zombie Apocalypse. Imagine what the Daily Mail would say.

If creationists believed all this stuff, and acted on it, society as we know it would be in big trouble. THAT’S where the real harm in creationism would lie.

5) However, either most fundamentalist creationists don’t believe what it says in places like this in the Bible, or believe it and aren’t prepared to act on it – which seems like monumental hypocrisy. And, eventually, that may be the biggest harm: just as creationism is a training in intellectual inadequacy, claiming to believe and follow the Divine Word of God as set out in the Bible – but not doing so on matters like those above – is a moral failure, which softens people up for accepting all the other injustices, cruelties, prejudices and meanesses of life.

Many thanks to Andy Sutton for the original question.

* Although Wikipedia points out that in the original story (or factual account, if you want it that way), there’s no reference to Ham being Black, and Abraham’s curse is on Canaan (Ham’s son, or maybe the nation descended from Ham’s son), not on Ham himself: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” (Genesis, chapter 9)

** Yes, I know that’s pastoralist, but it’s a shame to get historical accuracy get in the way of a good evolutionary psychology story.

***And the hairless cat is Satan’s Work Right Here On Earth:

**** Note that this is strikingly different from modern cosmology, where developing research and theory has led to more and more weird notions because the evidence doesn’t fit. Dark matter and dark energy do seem very like theological inventions to explain away awkward reality, and not that unlike celestial spheres. Doubting the big bang theory because of these counter-intuitive accretions is probably unjustified, but does make intellectual sense.

***** West Wing fans will know that I got most of the ideas for this bit from ‘Bartlett’s Quotations’:


Chaos, Determinism, & Psychology

I’ve been rereading James Gleick’s excellent book Chaos  (1988), and it started me thinking about the practical usefulness of a deterministic psychology.

Determinism in psychology has always been a personal problem for me, because it’s difficult to reconcile the rigid determinism that the science of psychology must lead to: ‘varying factor X will result in effect Y’, with the feeling of free will and choice which is an everyday experience. As a scientist, I have to go with determinism; as an individual, I feel I have free will and I regret the bad choices I continually make. OK, that’s an existential problem, but what about the practical usefulness of a deterministic psychology?

I think understanding chaotic systems and how they work gives us some ideas about this.

Here’s the creation myth of chaos theory: a meteorologist called Lorenz constructed a simple mathematical weather model in 1961 consisting of a dozen non-linear equations. These describe things like the relationship between temperature and atmospheric pressure, and pressure and windspeed. He fed data on these variables into a computer model and let it run to see what weather it would predict. In those days, computers were slow and calculations took a long time to run. On one occasion, he restarted the calculation that he had had to stop partway through by retyping in the figures that the incomplete run had produced.

To give the machine its initial conditions, he typed the numbers straight from the earlier printout. Then he walked down the hall to get away from the noise and drink coffee. When he returned an hour later, he saw something unexpected, something that planted the seed for a new science.

The new run should have exactly duplicated the old. Lorenz had copied the numbers into the machine himself. The program had not changed. Yet as he stared at the new printout, Lorenz saw his weather diverging so rapidly from the pattern of the last run that, within just a few months, all resemblance had disappeared. He looked at one set of numbers, then back at the other, he might as well have chosen to random numbers out of a hat. His first thought was that another vacuum tube had gone bad.

Suddenly he realised the truth. They have been no malfunction. The problem lay in the numbers he had typed. In the computer’s memory, six decimal places were stored: .506127. On the printout, to save space, just three appeared: .506. Lorentz had entered the shorter, rounded off numbers, assuming that the difference – one part in thousand – was inconsequential.
Gleick (1988), p16

But it wasn’t inconsequential. What Lorenz had discovered was that even a tiny change in the starting conditions of a process which depends on several non-linear functions can lead to unpredictable and far-reaching changes in final outcomes. This is what we now call the ‘Butterfly Effect ‘: a tiny change in weather conditions in one part of the world may lead to large unpredictable changes elsewhere. Because of this, it is now generally recognised that long-term weather prediction is practically impossible, no matter how sophisticated our computer models or how extensive and precise measurements of the conditions are.

I think the same applies in psychology. Although we can describe some psychological functions in terms of how factor X leads to effect Y, those functions are generally non-linear. A trivial but obvious example is the effect of amount of alcohol consumed on how good you feel. At low levels, increasing the amount consumed increases the sense of well-being in many people; a higher levels, increasing the amount consumed just leads to the resolution to never, ever, do this again.

Now, if the deterministic relationships which control our behaviour are non-linear, and we are complex systems in which many of these non-linear relationships interact, we are perfect examples of a chaotic system. As such, no matter how well we understand the relationships, nor how precisely we can measure (or control) the starting conditions, we cannot make long-term predictions of the outcomes.

Gleick sums this up later in the book in describing the views of psychiatrist Arnold Mandell:

To Mandell, the discoveries of chaos dictate a shift in clinical approaches to treating psychiatric disorders. By any objective measure, the modern business of ‘psychopharmacology” – the use of drugs to treat everything from anxiety and insomnia to schizophrenia itself – has to be judged a failure. Few patients, if any, are cured. The most violent manifestations of mental illness can be controlled, but with what long-term consequences, no one knows. Mandell offered his colleagues a chilling assessment of the most commonly used drugs. Phenothiazines, prescribed for schizophrenia, make the fundamental disorder worse. Tricyclic antidepressants “increase the rate of mood cycling, leading to long-term increases in numbers of relapsing psychopathological episodes.” And so on. Only lithium has any real medical success, Mandell said, and only for some disorders.

As he saw it, the problem was conceptual. Traditional methods of treating this “most unstable, dynamic, infinite-dimensional machine” were non-linear and reductionist. “The underlying paradigm remains: one gene – one peptide – one enzyme – one neurotransmitter – one receptor – one animal behaviour –  one clinical syndrome – one drug – one clinical rating scale. It dominates almost all research and treatment in psychopharmacology. More than 50 transmitters, thousands of cell types, complex electromagnetic phenomenology, and continuous instability-based autonomous activity at all levels, from proteins to the electroencephalogram – and still the brain is thought of as a chemical point-to-point switchboard.” To someone exposed to the world of non-linear dynamics the response could only be: how naïve. Mandell urged his colleagues to understand the flowing geometries that sustain complex systems like the mind.
Gleick (1998), pp 298-299 (Gleick gives a reference to Mandell’s original writing: I’ve put that at the end).

We might not be quite so pessimistic as Mandell about the effectiveness of psychopharmacology, though even 25 years later I’m not sure that much has changed, and his description of the models used is a bit of a caricature, but the basic point of the unpredictable chaotic nature of the human system is surely valid.

So, even if it were the case that we were completely deterministic systems (like the meteorological systems of weather), and we could determine the relationships within those systems (which we are clearly a very long way away from being able to do at the moment), would that be useless in producing a fully descriptive, fully predictive psychology?

Well, yes and no. We now know that long-term fine-grained meteorological prediction is impossible, but short-term local weather forecasts can still be very useful, even though we don’t expect them to be completely accurate. Similarly (until we started messing around with things with ever-rising CO2 levels, at least) we can make reasonably reliable long-term general predictions. We know how April in Spain will generally differ from August in Spain, and how the weather there will generally differ from the weather in Finland at the same times of year. In many cases, that’s good enough to be going on with, but we are always aware of the possibility of ‘freak’, ‘unpredictable’ weather events.

Similarly, we can make pretty good short-term psychological predictions, certainly in terms of predicting the general outcome of experimental manipulations, and generally useful long-term predictions, based on the climatic differences between ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’, or convergent and divergent thinkers.

In fact, in a chaotic deterministic model, failures of prediction, such as the unpredictable extroverted behaviour of some introverts, and people’s ability to switch from convergent to divergent in certain circumstances, might not be disconfirming evidence for our models. Some unpredictability is to be expected. As long as we limit predictions to the very short term or to generalisms, and have some idea of the unpredictability to be expected (which chaos theory can give us), our models may serve pretty well. That is, they can serve understanding of the processes involved, but may be much less useful for control or categorisation. Even in a fully deterministic world, the ‘gene for believing in flying saucers’ is not going to be simplistically effective, and the test for leadership potential is not going to unerringly detect potential leaders.

So where does this leave the effective usefulness of a completely deterministic psychology, and what does it mean for the existential problem of the possible illusion of free will? I think it shows that the aim of describing, understanding and controlling human behaviour through deterministic (and reductionist) models is over-optimistic. We can make some weather-forecaster-like predictions, but more holistic and phenomenological ways of understanding are going to be equally useful. I think the same applies to determinism and free will. It may be that all my thoughts, reactions, and behaviours are determined, but if so, since they are determined in a way which is unpredictable (and may be unfathomable) carrying on behaving as though I have free will and I’m responsible for the choices I make not only seems to work, but might be the most practical alternative. We are aware that we are to some extent determined; we have ideas of internal and external compulsion, but we also have ideas about ways of working with that, and to the extent that these ideas work, they are practically, humanly, useful – even if fundamentally illusory. This is the solution that that old determinist Skinner came to in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Although he felt that behaviour was determined by reinforcement contingencies, somehow, if we have the ability to understand and manipulate those contingencies, we can choose to create better or worse worlds.

In some ways this is similar to the practical solution of the Cartesian problem, that we can never be sure that the world we experience is as it seems to be – that it is not an illusion produced by our senses. It could well be an illusion, but unless someone is offering us the red pill or the blue pill, there is no way of establishing that, and the only sensible thing we can do is to operate in the world as we experience it. What other world could we operate in? Also, we know that some parts of our world experience are illusory, and the understanding of that gives us a more secure basis for operating in good faith in other parts of the world.

Yes I know that’s simplistic, and ignores problems like the false consciousness associated with late-phase capitalism, but it works for me. Just as Samuel Johnson established the existence of the stone by kicking it*, my world of free will is established by the consequences of the good and bad choices I seem to be making, and the pleasure I experience in looking at the trees  and birds which seem to be in front of me.


Gleick, James (1988) Chaos: Making a new science London: Cardina

Mandell, Arnold J. (1985) From Molecular Biological Biological Simplifiaction to more Realistic Central Nervous System Dynamics: an Opinion in Cavenar & al (eds) Psychiatry: Psychobiological Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry New York: Lippincott (cited in Gleick, 1988)

Skinner, B.F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity NewYork: Knopf

*After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”
— James Boswell In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1820), Vol. 1, 218.