Cosmos and Inherit the Wind

Cross-examination scene from Inherit the Wind
Scene from Inherit the Wind (1960) from The Ticket Booth

I’m enjoying the new Cosmos series. However, Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to spend a lot of time attacking young earth creationism, and the creationists have been fighting back. I find this puzzling. I grew up in the 1960s when we thought this was all settled. Evolution and creationism fought as we saw in Inherit the Wind. Creationism won that battle, but evolution won the war — or so we thought. What happened? Why did creationism lose in the mid 20th century, and why is it even up for debate again?

During the Cold War, we loved science. Science was how we were going to beat those evil, evil Commies. We were going to beat them by building better rockets, more powerful weapons, and more advanced technology. We were going to get to the moon before they did. We were going to win more Nobel Prizes, develop better medicines, grow more crops, and build better consumer goods so we could show how superior we were to them. Our heroes were the men and women in the lab coats, and the astronauts who put their lives on the line to test their creations. Every new innovation and discovery was an exciting victory.

Each victory showed that we were evolving, which was expressed (with not complete accuracy) in the Time-Life Books diagram “March of Progress”. Evolution was not just scientific fact. We saw it as something good, and something we aspired to do. It fueled our optimism. Evolution showed our confidence that our future and ourselves will only get better. It went along with our optimistic science fiction and our thrilling scientific achievements.

In that march of progress, something had to give. That thing was Genesis.

If you were a young earth creationist in the 1960s, you were thought of as a weirdo. You might as well have walked around in a sack cloth and sandals carrying a “The End is Near” sign. Worse, you would have been thought of as subversive. The 19th century bearded man we were fighting was Marx, not Darwin. To stand in the way of science and evolution was to stand in the way of progress — and freedom.

This sentiment was expressed in these lines from Inherit the Wind:

Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.’

‘Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder-puff or your petticoat.’

‘Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.’

Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came, but for this insight, and for this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.

What happened? We “won” the Cold War (although it looks like we’re headed for a rematch). The advances in the computer industry turned high technology into everyday objects. Celebrities became our heroes instead of scientists. We took science for granted.

In fact, science became suspect. Vaccines, stem cells, and genetically modified food became something we feared. Climate became the subject of political, not scientific, debate. It has become fashionable to make unscientific declarations. Take the politician Todd Akin who said women can’t get pregnant from rape. Or Kevin Trudeau who claimed natural cures were being suppressed by the FDA because they were better than medicine. In fact, he said his lack of a scientific background was a reason we should trust him. (The court didn’t, and he was convicted of fraud.)

The danger of rejecting science is that we make ourselves vulnerable to the ideologue and the huckster. We believe whatever false claims and malicious rumors float around because we don’t have (or rejected outright) the tools to refute them. We also lose the optimism that exploration and discovery provide. The unknown stirs our fears, not our curiosity. Faith becomes a stubborn clinging to a dead past instead of the trust that gives us courage to step towards the future.

Rejecting science will cause us to lose our industrial and technological edge. We will fall behind other countries that have the willingness to innovate. And when the next big enemy confronts us with superior science and technology, we won’t be able to defend ourselves.

Religion can be a good thing, but it shouldn’t blind us to the facts we’ve gained from science. Evolution, like gravity, is a fact whether you want to believe it or not. Prayer won’t stop you from falling when you slip off a stepladder. Medieval interpretations of Genesis don’t negate everything we’ve learned about the universe since then. Many scientists and religious leaders understand this and have reconciled science with the Bible. They know that discovering the truths of the cosmos doesn’t have to deny God. It can reveal His grandeur.

The debate over Genesis and Darwin isn’t really between religion and science. It is an issue about progress and the search for truth. Do we want to stay rooted in the past or advance towards the future? Do we want to claim things are true because we want them to be, or are we willing to expand our minds when confronted by new knowledge? Shall we be held back by fear and distrust, or be driven forward by hope and curiosity?

We should remember now what we learned in the Cold War: Progress is the key to survival, and ignorance is dangerous. Like the fool who troubles his own house, our clinging to the past will gain us nothing and cause us to fall behind those who are wiser. Evolution isn’t just scientific fact, it is our destiny and hope. It should inspire us to value science and the pursuit of knowledge once again.