Friday, June 6, 2014

Denying History: Does it Really Matter How Old the World Is?

The other day, the Gallup polling organization released the results of its biannual survey of American beliefs about creation and evolution. Since 1982, they've been asking people to pick between three views:

Over the last 32 years, the percentage of people who believe the world was created less than 10,000 years ago has stayed pretty constant--between 40 and 47 percent. The main change has been an increase in the number who believe humans evolved with no input from God--that's doubled in the last three decades, while the percent who believe humans evolved with divine guidance has decreased in the last few years. The people who believe in evolution and an old earth are growing more secular, while the young earth creationists are sticking to their guns. It looks like yet another case of growing polarization in this country.

Geologic Timescale. United States Geologic Survey
But polarization isn't what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about that 42% of people who believe everything was created a few thousand years ago, and whether they can truly understand science and nature while believing that. When I talk to those people, I find they aren't usually very insistent on the dates. They say things like, "Well, I wouldn't put any particular number on it...a few thousand, a few million...I'm not saying I know exactly how old it is." I get the idea they don't think it matters much. What difference does it really make, anyway?

The answer is: a gigantic difference. Imagine that someone from another country wants to learn about the United States. He wants to understand its geography, its culture and how it changes from place to place, its values, and so on. The only catch is that he doesn't believe in Jamestown, or the American Revolution, or the Progressive Era, or the Cold War, or that different groups of people settled in different places...none of that. He thinks that was all made up by godless historians. In fact, he thinks, the United States isn't a few hundred years old at all. It was created more or less as it is. All at once. About eight hours ago.

Is that person ever going to really understand what makes the United States tick? Of course not. In the same way, you can't truly understand science and nature if you think the world is 10,000 years old. That's exactly like saying the United States is 8 hours old (I did the math).* Nature has a history, just like the United States does, only much, much longer. To understand it, you have to understand how it's come to be. If you want to understand why South America and Africa look like matching puzzle pieces, you need to understand that they once fit together. To understand why Australia's only native mammals are marsupials, you need to know that Australia has been isolated from the other continents for a long time, so its mammals evolved in a different direction than elsewhere. To understand why Long Island is there, or why there are big boulders and deeply scratched bedrock in Central Park, you need to know that mile-high ice sheets once plowed across Manhattan, and left Long Island behind as a terminal moraine when they retreated. All these things happened on timescales longer than a few thousand years. Much longer, in the first two cases.

It makes far more sense to accept that the world is ancient and evolving, and that what we see today is the reflection of a long history. If you want to say God started the process, and maybe even tweaks it from time to time, I don't have a problem with that. Maybe that's even true--I can't prove it isn't. But I do have a problem with people saying it was all created all at once just a few thousand years ago. To say that is not just denying evolution or the big bang. It's denying some of the central discoveries of physics, astronomy, geology, biology, and even archaeology. It's saying that much of the history of these sciences has been one of delusion; of smart people collecting clues and painstakingly piecing together a coherent history of the universe...and being completely, utterly wrong. It's saying that, while God created the world all at once, he seems to have gone to a lot of trouble leaving false clues to fool scientists into thinking it has a long and fascinating history.

To see the world as being that young, and to see nature having so little history, is just such a shallow, intellectually-unsatisfying view. It's like looking at the twisting streets of some old city that built up over ages, and thinking, "Why did they lay it out like this? And why does it look old if it was built yesterday?" It's like trying to understand the whole of American music when you've never heard anything but what's currently in the Top 40. In other words, it simply won't work. You'll never truly understand science or nature that way. And that's why the age of the earth matters.


* I picked 1607, the settling of Jamestown, as the beginning of American history. It really begins long before that, of course, but I had to pick something.

First image Copyright © 2014 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 8-11, 2014, with a random sample of 1,028 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.