How could there be anything else to say about evolution and creationism? Over the last thirty or so years, writers have published an avalanche of books on the subject. In the United States, a series of high-profile Supreme Court cases over the teaching of evolution in public schools prompted scientists, theologians, and politicians to weigh in on the subject. In these books, the standoff between creationism and evolutionary theory is often seen as the archetypal conflict between science and religion. This seems obvious at first. After all, creationism proposes that the world was made by God, while evolution is a scientific theory that explains the world without God. In the minds of many, particularly evolutionary activists, creationism is simply the dying gasp of religious dogma that will eventually fade before the truth of science.
But framing evolution and creationism as a timeless debate obscures the political and social contests that lie behind this war of cosmologies. Historians have shown that modern creationism is just that—modern. The argument that the world is 6,000 years old and that the Noahic flood is responsible for geology only became important to American evangelical Christians during the twentieth century. In this issue, we feature an interview with Ronald Numbers, whose historical work has demonstrated that creationism was not simply a conclusion of Protestant Christianity. It gained steam through grassroots campaigns in evangelical churches in the 1960s and 1970s. And it became a defining feature of this community during the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s. Evangelicals brought creationism, along with the rest of their political agenda, to the Republican Party during the 1980 election. Creationism was part of a campaign to bring Biblical authority into American law-making and governance. It had as much to do with debates over gender roles and sexual morality as it did with the mechanism of organic change.
During the twenty-first century, the rejection of Darwinian evolution has traveled around the world. In global contexts, the altercation between evolutionary science and religious tradition has moved beyond the specific concerns of American Protestantism. Debates between evolution and creationism are tinged with the specter of colonialism. Evolution is a theory of the history of life; it is also Western science. The Western claim to exclusive truth left a long history of racial oppression in its wake. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the impulse to civilize the rest of the world into the advantages of science helped European nations rationalize their imperial conquests. Disavowing evolution in our globalized world is a way for cultures to reject the cultural hegemony of the west.
The pieces in our Fall 2015 issue each open an important window into how cosmologies (and debates over them) shape everyday lives. In the midst of technical debates over the age of the earth and the fossil record are questions that have troubled people for time in memoriam: What is the good life? What responsibility does the state have to its citizens? Where does morality come from? Are race and gender in our bodies or in our cultures? Science and religion are not simply abstract knowledge systems. They are modes of existing in the world and communities of practice that tie together ethnicity, place, and identity. Our contributors approach creationism and evolution with these questions in mind, helping us to understand how cosmological debates impinge on lived reality.
Image from Flickr via Benjamin Jakabek