I’m working my way through an edit of The Beowulf Effect, or whatever it’s going to be called, after it came back with a lot of helpful comments from referees (I know, I know, taste of my own medicine.)
While I’m doing that, I should add that some of the points I’ve made in the book amplify and extend those in my earlier tome In Search Of Deep Time, still available in the proverbial All Good Bookshops. However, as you probably all know by now, my words continue to be misconstrued more than a decade later – quite wilfully and deliberately, and with intention to deceive. The culprits have been creationists, who quote extensively from In Search of Deep Time in support of their view that evolution is somehow ‘wrong’, such that even a ‘prominent evolutionary biologist’ such as myself ‘admits’ this. Despite repeated attempts to expose creationists for such context-free quote mining, the creationists are still at it.
Perhaps the most shameful activity in which creationists indulge is to present a distorted version of science to regular folk who might not know any better (a practice that’s akin to financial types mis-selling insurance policies.) A couple of years ago an elderly neighbor came up to Mrs Gee in the street and gave her a pamphlet which she thought might be interesting, as it mentioned me. I sighed – it was Christian literature in which my various utterances on evolution from In Search of Deep Time had been quote-mined in support of creationism. Readers in the U. S. and A., who are more used to this sort of thing, will be either comforted or disturbed to learn that creationism runs deep in mainstream English church-going, not to mention mosque-going and (rather more nuanced) synagogue-going.
It is quite true that I have said quite a few grandstanding things about evolution, and if taken out of context, you can see why they fill creationists with glee. That said, I refuse to modify my thoughts for fear of being quote-mined by idiots.
I suspect creationists are sometimes motivated by the suggestion that when evolutionary biologists are in company, away from the public eye, they ‘admit’ that evolution is wrong, while perpetuating some enormous cover-up operation to set before the masses. One shouldn’t like to say in print that this is paranoid, but any suspicion of such a cover-up is immediately scotched by the fact that many books making these points are not kept secret but are widely available to the public. In Search of Deep Time was hardly a massive best-seller – but it wasn’t some dark secret either, the existence of which could only be vouchsafed to the Elect.
Creationists quote material out of context to give you the misleading impression that if scientists ‘in the know’ argue about various aspects of evolutionary theory, then this is a symptom of an activity in terminal decline rather than in rude health. I hold that view now, just as I did more than ten years ago when I wrote In Search of Deep Time – and in that book, too, I made my views clear, except that creationists have chosen not to mention them. ‘If it is fair to assume that all life on Earth shares a common evolutionary origin,’ I wrote on page 5, going on to make clear that this is the assumption I am making throughout the book. Creationists are very good at either ignoring such statements – or, if they mention them, say words to the effect that if even ‘prominent evolutionists’ who explicitly sign up to the fact of evolution can produce statements in which evolution is doubted, there shouldn’t be any reason for anyone else to ‘believe’ in evolution, either. And they just keep rolling along – enter ‘Henry Gee’ and ‘Deep Time’ into a search engine of your choice and they’ll be all over you like a rash. That said, I have had some robust and heartening support.
The sad thing is that no matter how hard I fight, the creationists will still take quotes out of context, because that’s the way they do what they call ‘science’. Like all pseudoscientists and peddlers of charlatanry, they don’t investigate anything systematically, just pick out the things they like and discard anything else – even flat statements to the contrary. Now, I could try quoting scripture out of context to show how such a procedure can be used to mislead. For example:
There is no God .
That’s from Psalms 14:1, and I’m grateful to Andrew Thaler for pointing out this gem. But that approach might be too subtle.
In the end, one can only feel a kind of pity for creationists. Many believe in the literal truth of Genesis, despite the fact that the Bible was written at various times by different hands, and despite the fact that the text has been translated into English from classical Hebrew, a language so tricky that for hundreds of years people of formidable learning and from all shades of faith have spent their lives trying to understand its nuances, in order to extract meaning from the same scriptures to which many people of perhaps lesser intellects cleave without question.
In another way, creationists are like small children who are vouchsafed the answers at the back of the book (or, in this context, at the front of The Book), and feel that they can afford the swaddling comfort and deceptive luxury of Truth, of Knowledge, of Facts that can be Known – because they ‘know’ the answers already, having accepted them without question from a higher authority, as a child from a parent.
Scientists, even those who don’t know their Scripture (‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ 1 Corinthians 13: 11.) have grown up, such that they feel capable of looking for their own answers rather than having them handed down to them from above, should be able to convey the wonder – the awe, terror and insignificance – engendered by confrontation with the unknown.
Those living in Medieval times had perhaps no good reason to doubt the literal truth of the Bible. People living today do not have this excuse.
So, next time you see my words being twisted by creationists, please would you do me a favour and respond with the following?
Creationists will probably always be with us, like death, taxes, poverty or herpes. I therefore tend to regard creationists as an occupational hazard, rather in the same way that those who go walking in the dark, looking up at the stars, will occasionally tread in a pile of dog shit.
And you can quote me.