Why Creationism Appears in Debates About Scientific Racism

By Adam R. Shapiro | September 8, 2021

In 2014, visitors examine a Montana Historical Society exhibit in Helena, Montana, showing artifacts discovered at a site at least 12,600 years old. The remains of an infant boy were also discovered at the site in 1968, and they were reburied in 2014 in a Native American ceremony as close as possible to the original burial site. (AP Photo/Matt Volz)

Almost a century ago, the American politician and anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan asserted at the 1925 Scopes trial that he did not believe that the creation account in Genesis took place in “six days of twenty-four hours.” Others apparently did, and it’s been clear ever since that there is a range of different beliefs that can be called “creationism.” Mark Looy, one of the cofounders of Answers in Genesis (perhaps the largest creationist organization in the world today), acknowledges that viewpoint diversity, stating “creationism is a very broad term with multiple definitions.”

But it would have to get a lot broader to include someone like Holly Dunsworth, a biological anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island who studies human evolution—and a self-described atheist. Nonetheless, earlier this year, Dunsworth and other scientists were somewhat surprisingly described as “cognitive creationists” in the first article published by the Journal of Controversial Ideas, a new publication that accepts anonymous peer-reviewed research on contentious ideas. The piece on creationism, credited to the pseudonym “Shuichi Tezuka,” targets these scientists’ criticisms of recent publications claiming that IQ is genetically determined and that different nationalities or ethnicities score differently on IQ measurements of mental abilities. What Dunsworth and other critics call a dangerous reprise of racist (and often sexist) tropes corrupting scientific research, Tezuka likens to the creationist practice of rejecting scientific truths because the results are morally or ideologically distasteful.

This isn’t the first or only time that the language of “creationism” has been used in recent years to question the anti-racist criticisms of particular scientists. About ten days before Tezuka’s article was published online, Elizabeth Weiss of San Jose State University delivered a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology titled, “Has Creationism Crept Back into Archaeology?” In this speech and in her writings on the issue, she has argued U.S. laws that regulate the use and allow for the repatriation of Native American human remains (including many long unearthed by archaeologists) have prioritized the religious values of Indigenous people over the need for scientific research. She decried the “threat of religious literalism” being invoked to override science. By claiming that Indigenous people’s rights to reinter desecrated human remains is based on a religious belief, Weiss and her co-author James Springer suggest that the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)—or the way that it is typically applied—violate the Establishment Clause.

In both of these instances, “creationism” becomes a powerful rhetorical term. At a time when the politicization of science-based public policy has led to overly broad platitudes about “belief in science,” and at a time when increased awareness of historical and current inequities and wrongs have raised fresh questions about systemic racism, this trend towards labeling opposing viewpoints as “creationism” combines these two political issues in a way that stretches the limits of what counts as “religious” identity. The effect is to use religious rhetoric and reframe discussions about “pseudoscience” or “science denial,” as well as about anti-racism in science. This linguistic tactic has implications for both how the public understands these issues as well as potential policy and legal ramifications.

The science of “intelligence” has a long and fraught history, one that has frequently been used to justify sexist and racist public policies, including segregation in schools. But historians and philosophers of science, as well as many scientists themselves, have raised concerns not just about how intelligence research is used. They also maintain that the systemic inequalities and cognitive biases that affect scientists themselves have shaped what people do with the results of objective research—and have called into question whether there can be pure objectivity in this kind of scientific inquiry.

Tezuka’s article refers to questions such as these as “postmodern perspectives on science, which regard the scientific method as less a search for objective truth than a way of constructing viewpoints based upon cultural presuppositions.” The article rehashes a debate that first came into full force in the 1980s and 90s as historians, social scientists, and other scholars working under the interdisciplinary umbrella of Science and Technology Studies (STS) started to examine science as a cultural activity, performed by humans imperfectly living up to the ideals they profess to value, and influenced by money, prestige, power, and all the other motivations of humanity. In a series of testy academic disputes known as the “Science Wars,” some scientists attacked STS’s “postmodernism” for undermining the claim that sciences discover pure truths about nature. Frequently pointing to creationism in particular, these scientists accused the “postmodernists” (many of whom were perceived as left-leaning) of providing aid and comfort to the anti-scientific language used to mobilize evangelical right-wing Christians in the United States and elsewhere.

The Science Wars aren’t new, but recent years have seen new developments in the relationship between STS and the natural sciences. On one hand—seen from an STS-style analysis of prestige, property, and power—it’s pretty clear that the arts and humanities “lost” the science wars to the STEM disciplines by the early twenty-first century. Across the country, longstanding humanities departments and majors are being cut, while new programs in STEM fields are inheriting those resources. On the other hand—in terms of intellectual influence—the outcomes are more complex. The generation of scientists who began their professional careers since the turn of the century are generally more receptive to incorporating STS insights into their work, acknowledging that scientific knowledge is made within complex human and institutional hierarchies, and that the sciences themselves have long lacked diverse participation and have ignored their own histories of exploiting minoritized populations. There are many possible explanations for this trend, from the increased diversification of the sciences themselves to scientists’ awareness that political neutrality has not helped to combat climate change denial, anti-vaccination efforts, and other science policy topics.

In light of these changes, it’s probably not surprising that Weiss’s conference talk attacking the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) attracted strong backlash among archaeologists and even prompted the conference’s host society to issue a statement in support of NAGPRA. Most of the criticism focused on the suggestion that the pursuit of scientific knowledge supersedes any need to show concern for Indigenous people themselves. Most scientists are somewhat aware of their discipline’s history of turning people into objects of scientific study, often harming them in ways that can take generations to repair. Recent months have seen the discovery of the abused remains of Native American children at residential boarding schools, which were created to eradicate Indigenous cultures through assimilation. It’s also seen how archeological museums effectively stole, and then misplaced, the remains of Black children killed by the city of Philadelphia in 1985. The overwhelming majority of human remains in U.S. natural history museums come from Native American bodies.

People’s connections to their ancestors’ graves and remains are shaped by their spiritual beliefs about death and reverence for their dead. But that does not mean that arguments against looting Native American graves can be disregarded simply because they are “religious.” Weiss and Springer suggest that scientists need not take religion seriously, but the framing of NAGPRA’s support as “creationism” goes a bit deeper than that. Weiss and Springer argue that genetic evidence from those remains may undermine Native American claims that they came from their biological ancestors, and that claims of Native identity are rooted in non-scientific legends which they liken to creationism. This hypothesis comes in the wake of repeated attempts by non-Indigenous Americans to reduce Native identity to a genetic standard, a continuation of efforts to scientifically define race that for centuries has been used to undermine Native American sovereignty. Indigenous STS scholar Kim TallBear has written extensively on the ways that DNA-based claims to identity have been used to supplant Indigenous people’s methods of defining who their communities are.

In both these cases—of intelligence testing and Indigenous identity—“creationism” is being used to describe and delegitimate arguments against a reductive genetic definition of race and identity. While few scientists would claim that genetics play no role whatsoever in one’s identity, the idea that cultural or ethnic identity can be assessed solely or primarily by DNA is frequently criticized. Dunsworth pointed me to a recent article she co-authored arguing against the idea that race is a primarily biologically constructed. “‘Race’ is far more than ancestral/inherited DNA and is far more than geographically patterned morphological variation like skin color,” she said via email. It’s only by treating race as a genetic/biological category—and ignoring the role that history, culture, law, and environment play in how ideas of race are used—that make possible claims that intelligence can be genetically correlated with certain ethnic types or that authentic Indigenous identity can be found though a blood test.

In both cases what’s being called “creationism” is in opposition to the idea that genetics define what race really is. In an email from Tezuka, the pseudonymous author of the Journal of Controversial Ideas article, they explain that they looked to Answers in Genesis as the primary example of creationism from which to draw the parallel with “cognitive creationism.” This definition doesn’t seem to square with the one Mark Looy of AiG provided: “that the God of the Bible was involved in the creation process in some fashion.” Historian of American creationism Adam Laats at Binghamton University told me, “It would be wise to use a broad, inclusive definition of the term. That is, all kinds of beliefs should be considered ‘creationist’ if they harbor at any level an idea that life likely resulted from an intelligent source.” Laats says that his definition “leaves plenty of room for non-religious creationists,” but it doesn’t seem to include those who question the reductionism of complex cultural identities to one’s genome.

Ironically, AiG itself seems to accept a DNA-based vision of what race is, but it does so in order to claim that race is not a real thing because of the common ancestry and fundamental similarity of all people. Says Looy in a statement sent to me from AiG, “We are all related. The biblical perspective that we are all one biological race or of “one blood” (Acts 17:26) is confirmed by recent scientific studies of the human genome.” From this “one blood” perspective, Looy asserts, “racism is a sin.” AiG’s creationist anti-racism is predicated on two notions: that race is biological, and that mental, moral, and other cognitive differences among races are insignificant. Anti-racist scientists disagree with the first claim; IQ-hereditarians with the second.

Despite these differences, Tezuka told me in their email that, contrary to their expectations, “I’ve received several emails thanking me for my comparison from people who identified themselves as young-Earth creationists. My paper goes into great detail about why young-Earth creationism is a form of science denialism, so this reaction has surprised me.”

But in politically polarized contexts in which white evangelical Christians (those most likely to identify as young-Earth creationists in the U.S.) have substantially aligned in opposition to secular forms of anti-racism, an article that suggests that scientific anti-racism is not scientific after all might be expected to find favor. This common cause is hinted at in Tezuka’s comments about their motivations for the article. They explained that the “increasing influence of postmodernism, which is an important element of cognitive creationism,” is becoming more visible in American schools. “Postmodernism is one of the foundational philosophies that underlie Critical Race Theory,” Tezuka’s email explained. Tezuka also credits Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic Magazine, with coining the phrase “cognitive creationism.” Shermer is one of several atheists who have become more vocally critical of anti-racist politics in recent years, as New Atheism has increasingly become a secular right-wing movement.

Perhaps what this rhetorical move ultimately represents is a reemergence of the Science Wars, a clash that will play out differently this time because of shifting power dynamics within the academy and beyond, and the changing demographics of scientists themselves. That “creationism” makes a reappearance in this generation’s reboot is perhaps to be expected. But in this sequel, it seems that instead of both sides of the Science Wars uniting against right-wing evangelical creationism, an alliance is solidifying between right-wing scientists and right-wing religious movements over the common cause of opposing “Critical Race Theory” and the broader use of science policy to advance social justice causes.

 Adam R. Shapiro is a historian of science and religion and the author of Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools.

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