Ronald L. Numbers is a historian of science whose work has been extremely influential, even foundational, to the study of modern creationism in the United States. Numbers’s seminal book, The Creationists carefully traces a dramatic transformation among Christian fundamentalists, from an acceptance of the earth’s antiquity to the contemporary insistence of creation-science that the geology of the earth emerged during the Noahic flood.
Numbers other books include Darwinism Comes to America (1998), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009). and Wrestling With Nature: From Omens to Science (2011), coedited with Peter Harrison and Michael H. Shank, each of which masterfully historicizes contemporary debates over science and religion. Cosmologics spoke with Professor Numbers about his work, as well as his perspective on changes to the field over the course of his career.
—Myrna Perez Sheldon for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: How did you get started studying creationism? What was your interest in it, and were there any barriers to studying it in a scholarly way?
Ron Numbers: I became interested in creationism at my mother’s knee, or hearing my father’s voice. My father was a fundamentalist Seventh-day Adventist minister, and from first grade through college I attended Adventist schools, where they taught nothing but young-earth creationism. Historically, the revival of young-earth creationism comes from Seventh-day Adventism. Then I left it alone—I lost my faith when I was in my mid-to-late twenties.
When I moved to Wisconsin, I had a good friend in the history of science, Dave Lindberg, also the son of a fundamentalist pastor, who encouraged me to do something on young- earth creationism. I had been collecting books and materials, and he knew I had an interest in that. So I did, and published a version of it in Science, and then another version of it in a book we edited, God and Nature. People responded very positively, because unlike almost all the rest of the literature, this work was neither pro nor con, but historical. We published this around 1980.
Cosmologics: Did you feel at the time that most of the literature was either for or against creationism?
Ron Numbers: I didn’t feel that, I knew that!
Now Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are in the middle of building a 150-million-dollar Ark Encounter. So creationism is certainly not fading away, if anything it’s growing.
Cosmologics: So you had an interest in it from your own background, and then you received some encouragement at Wisconsin. How did you go about collecting the sources for your initial historical work?
Ron Numbers: I had been collecting books on the topics and continued to do so. When I thought about doing something scholarly, I began looking for manuscript sources and I did a number of oral interviews. The founder of the Creation Research Society, who had gotten his doctorate in genetics at Berkeley and then taught at UCLA, had retired, and when I visited him at his semi-rural home, he had all the papers scattered around the floor. He was delighted that someone was interested, and I arranged to have them deposited at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. Nobody was really doing much research then, so whenever I would travel, if I knew there was a prominent creationist in the area, I would try to set up an appointment. Sometimes they would offer me documentation. There was one at Purdue who had been very prominent in the movement before he lost his faith: he gave me a complete run of the Creation Research Society Quarterly, of which there wasn’t a complete collection in any research university library.
Cosmologics: Where did all these materials end up?
Ron Numbers: There’s a Ron Numbers Collection in Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and some at the Andrews University Library in Michigan.
Comologics: You’ve mentioned that when you began working that the subject wasn’t treated very much in mainstream scholarship, and many of the materials you gathered personally and deposited in more accessible locations. Have you found that as your career has gone on that interest in the subject has increased?
Ron Numbers: My, my yes. It comes from everyone: science educators, science popularizers, religious people. A lot of people initially thought creationism was just a fad, but now we know that it has been spreading internationally. For example, in my series on medicine, science, and religion with Johns Hopkins University Press, I recently published a book on creationism in Europe, which surprised many people. The 27-million-dollar Creation Museum outside of Cincinnati has attracted a lot of attention, too. How in the world could you build something like that? And now Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are in the middle of building a 150-million-dollar Ark Encounter. So it’s certainly not fading away, if anything it’s growing.
There are quite a few smart and well-educated people who don’t reject creationism. In fact, education isn’t really a major factor in explaining why someone is a creationist or an evolutionist.
Cosmologics: Why do you think that early on there was such a dearth of academic interest in the topic?
Ron Numbers: At major universities, it’s extremely rare to find someone interested or involved in young-earth creationism. You might occasionally find someone who has moved away from that years ago and doesn’t want to be reminded of it. The widespread belief is that creationists are ignorant biblical literalists, but often fundamentalists are anything but literalists. I think a lot of academics who are critical of creationism think that if they find some kind of contradiction, this will invalidate the entire creationist worldview. What they don’t realize is that there are many nuances in the specific movements. For instance, for the past 50 years, leading flood geologists have not defended the special creation of species. Think about it: if you have an ark, with space for a limited number of species, you simply can’t get them all in there. So for the past 50 years or so, young-earth creationists have argued that the Bible never mentions species. Instead they argue that God created “kinds,” which they now equate with the taxonomic level of biological families. And if you believe this, and a young age of the earth, that means you have to have what they call “microevolution” on fast forward! However, they contend that the evolutionary process doesn’t extend beyond families.
Cosmologics: What do you think of creationism as a political issue? Do you take a stance on whether it should be taught, for instance?
Ron Numbers: As a historian, it’s not my call to make. My goal is to understand and to contextualize, not to embrace or to damn. One of the things that I try to get away from is dismissing creationists as simply ignorant. There are quite a few smart and well-educated people who don’t reject creationism. In fact, education isn’t really a major factor in explaining why someone is a creationist or an evolutionist. America is pretty well educated and still some 60 percent of adults believe in creationism or support its being taught in public schools.
Cosmologics: What do you think normally confuses people about the topic? What would you say are the common misperceptions?
Ron Numbers: I wrote an article on the meanings of creationism, and in it I showed that creationism wasn’t originally the term used until the late 1920s. My feeling is that they didn’t call it creationism because they couldn’t decide on what exactly creationism was. They could, however, agree on what antievolutionism was. Eventually, the advocates of flood geology adopted the term themselves; later, about 1970, they start using “scientific creationism,” which is really just a synonym for flood geology. This wasn’t true of earlier antievolutionist activists. Even at the Scopes Trial, William Jennings Bryan accepted a day-age theory of the earth and all of historical geology. Even today, we don’t have a good poll of individuals’ beliefs that distinguishes, for example, between Intelligent Design and creation-science.
Cosmologics: What do you think are the important new areas of research on creationism?
Ron Numbers: For one thing, it’s thriving and spreading around the world. There are active groups in Islam, some in Judaism, and others elsewhere. It’s been impossible to create a creationist organization in sub-Saharan Africa because there’s no active push for evolution there, except possibly in South Africa. It’s booming alongside evangelicalism in South America and the embrace of Pentecostalism generally. So much of the new research looks at this global movement. There are so many new developments it’s hard for the historian to keep up.
Ronald L. Numbers is Hilldale Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
 “Day-age theory” refers to an interpretation of Genesis that understands the six “days” of creation not as literal twenty-four periods, but much longer time periods.
Image from Flickr via Neil Howard