J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Creationist Tries to Claim Thomas Jefferson as Ally

American ideologues of all stripes frequently claim that they’re following in the tradition of the nation’s founders. Some will even suggest that certain prominent statesmen of 1776 would support their cause, even though those men were obviously never able to consider the issue in the present context. (Such claims rarely extend to early American politicians who aren’t famous.)

Last week in the Boston Globe, creationist Stephen C. Meyer topped all such claims. In an essay on the opinion page Meyer wrote:

For too long, an aspect of [Thomas] Jefferson’s visionary thought has been ignored, hidden away as too uncomfortable for public discussion—his support for intelligent design.

In 1823, when materialist evolutionary ideas had long been circulating, Jefferson wrote to John Adams and insisted that the scientific evidence of design in nature was clear: “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” It was on empirical grounds, not religious ones, that he took this view.
To start at the top, Meyer’s suggestion that Jefferson’s theistic vision of the world has been “ignored” and “hidden away” is ludicrous. Scholars have written many books about Jefferson’s religious ideas. Like almost all Enlightenment gentlemen, he believed that a divine force created the universe, and that nature reflected its workings. Even evolutionary biologist and champion of atheism Richard Dawkins has said that in Jefferson’s time “the argument from design...was the only powerful argument for the existence of a creator.”

Meyer then states that “materialist evolutionary ideas had long been circulating” in 1823. In publishing his article, Meyer didn’t specify that he has a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science (rather than, say, biology itself). That history background makes it hard to understand why he neglected to mention the crucial “evolutionary ideas” Jefferson didn’t have available to him. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace didn’t describe their hypothesis of natural selection until 1859. The supporting evidence of an extensive fossil record, hereditary patterns, and genes came even later.

Thus, Jefferson never had a chance to consider the most fundamental ideas of modern biology or the best evidence for it. For Meyer to cast Jefferson as a creationist like himself is therefore akin to claiming that the third President would support only organic farming—after all, that’s the only type of agriculture he had his enslaved laborers practice. Or that Jefferson would oppose nuclear power, genetic engineering, and the mumps vaccine—he undoubtedly never wrote a word in favor of any of those things! 

Folks interested in Thomas Jefferson’s thinking about the history of life on Earth in the context of his time—rather than within a religious polemic—might be more interested in The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, published this year by the Geological Society of America. Prof. Stephen M. Rowland contributed a chapter on Jefferson’s ideas, specifically how he clung “to an eighteenth-century, completeness-of-nature paradigm, after nearly all European and American intellectuals had moved on to a very different view of the history of life on Earth.” Here’s a summary of a paper that fed into that chapter. 

Rowland describes how Jefferson resisted the idea of frequent and recurring extinctions because it was incompatible with his view of the universe as complete. Most “old-Earth” creationists today accept such extinctions—they simply see them as guided by a divine force. Meyer, not surprisingly, doesn’t note that difference when he tries to claim Jefferson for his team. Nor does he recognize that Jefferson is an example not of educated creationism but of the folly of rejecting ideas supported by scientific evidence because they conflict with one’s religious beliefs. 


Larry Cebula said...

A fine and necessary post, John. This "Jefferson-was-a-creationist" meme will quickly go viral in the creationist world, and it is important to get the truth out there as expeditiously as possible.

And I see that this post is already the first Google hit for Jefferson+creationist. Well done.

Peter Ansoff said...

My favorite Jefferson quote on this subject is from one of his letters to Adams:

"We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power, to maintain the universe in its course and order . . . certain races of animals are become extinct; and were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos." (Jefferson to Adams, 11 April 1823)

*Because* of his belief in a creator, he felt that there must be a mechanism whereby new species arise and others become exinct. If he had lived to read "Origin of Species," I'm sure that he would have considered Darwin's theory to be part of the Creator's plan, just like Newton's laws of motion.

J. L. Bell said...

That quote is from the same letter to Adams that Meyer quoted above. Jefferson had come to accept the fact of limited extinctions, but still resisted the wholesale turnover of species that we grow up learning today.

Works2late said...

I like your post, but wanted to point out a factual error in your characterization of Meyer's argument. Meyer did in fact acknowledge that Jefferson pre-dated Darwin's ideas:

"Of course, many people assume that Jefferson’s views, having been written before Darwin’s “Origin of Species,’’ are now scientifically obsolete. But Jefferson has been vindicated by modern scientific discoveries that Darwin could not have anticipated."

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Meyer didn’t try to get away without mentioning Darwin at all. But he claimed that Jefferson, faced with all the information and ideas we have available to us now, would have stuck to late-Enlightenment thinking about biology. That’s so unlikely as to be ludicrous.

First of all, most intelligent, educated people in the world today—i.e., Jefferson’s equivalents—are not creationists. Meyer is part of a very small minority, as he knows well.

And second, Meyer and most creationists build their picture of the world by starting with a literal reading of their faith’s scripture and adjusting as little as they can. In contrast, for his time Jefferson was unusually cavalier about the literature of his religion, cutting up Bibles to distill what he felt were the most valuable lessons inside.

Jefferson was therefore even less likely than an average educated, intelligent person to end up sharing Meyer’s ideas.

And most educated Christians in the West have followed a path more like Jefferson’s than like Meyer’s. They accept the moral teachings of their religion but not the Bible’s literal statements about the age of the Earth, &c. They accept new scientific information instead of trying to bend it to fit inside three-thousand-year-old legends.

Josiah Coffey said...

I think, J.L., that while it is impossible to put anyone who died before the 20th century into a line of thinking that mirrors your own it is also necessary not to put those we deem "creationists" into a box. For example, pretty much ALL those who see some element of design in the universe are labled as creationists. Even those who subscribe to Darwinism. There are scientists who hold to every teaching of modern day science, without the assumptions which border philosophy and not science, but still hold that it was designed that way. It is important to note that what we see in the news is that of those way to one side or the other. Almost never do we see the middle. And "most creationists", if you chose to lump them all in that box, do not start with a literal interpretation of the scriptures. Most subscribe to the Big Bang Theory. I myself see design in the universe and also hold to the Big Bang Theory. Show me evidence of the Big Crunch Theory and I'll belive that too. Shoe me evidence of punk eek and I'll change my view of evolution. But, like Jefferson and Meyer, I would still see design too.

J. L. Bell said...

Jefferson saw design because, like everyone else in his lifetime, he hadn’t been exposed to any other explanations for the biology he saw around him. Meyer sees design because he’s a devout Christian; he started from that position before going to graduate school, and he’s stuck with it.

I don’t know enough about how you’ve come to see design to agree that it wasn’t the equivalent of “starting with a literal reading of their faith’s scripture and adjusting as little as they can.”

However, I stand by my statement that that applies to “most creationists,” and wish that you hadn’t distorted that statement into an attempt to “lump them all in that box” [my emphasis].

Josiah Coffey said...

I believe we are in disagreement mostly about definitions. I see creationists as those who believe the universe was created as is either a short time ago or a long time ago. If one still sees design in the universe but does not think it was created as is no matter how long ago then I don't catagorize them as creationists.

I do believe you are right that it is more likely for Jefferson to have branched off from that thread of thinking as a well educated individual if he were alive today. But that depends on how strong his convictions were to begin with.

As for me, I see design without a literal interpretation because of the shear improbability of anything being here in the first place. The odds of such complexity arising out of nothing and by chance are slim to none. But I'd be open to evidence that suggested otherwise.

The problem with people like Meyer trying to claim deceased figures of stature as advocates for design is that it is impossible not to take them out of context. Which is why I don't take ancient writings litterally and try to fit them in our modern day box, i.e. scripture. Like I said before, we are disagreeing over definitions. And a couple other things as well. But I, like Larry C, think it was a necessary article.

J. L. Bell said...

We may indeed be confused on definitions. I’m having a hard time reconciling these statements from your different comments:
• “Most [creationists] subscribe to the Big Bang Theory.”
• “I see creationists as those who believe the universe was created as is either a short time ago or a long time ago.”

My understanding of the Big Bang Theory and its picture of what follows involves a universe that underwent great changes before it reached a state we can recognize “as is.”

Be that as it may, the fact that the universe and the little part we know well are indeed complex doesn’t strike me as necessary evidence for design. Given how little we still know, how much time has elapsed, and how many other situations might have been randomly created, it seems more like evidence of the need for more scientific investigation rather than the assumption of a design.

MajorRay said...

There are a number of historical figures, including scientists, such as Max Planck That believed in the Genesis account of creation. Why defend being a creationist? Labeling a creationist as anything other than a believer in the Word of God is foolish. I use the Genesis account of creation to support my Genesis hypotheses concerning living creatures. What do you call me? My PhD in chemistry does not make me an atheist; it gives me the background I need to do some real science. Atheists are blinded by their own ignorance.

J. L. Bell said...

That last comment is close-minded, arrogant, and mistaken in important facts.

Max Planck’s religious ideas were much more nuanced than that comment claims; see the Adherents site or even Wikipedia for a more accurate description.

Second, to equate creationism with literal belief in Genesis is far too narrow. Many people from faiths that don't consider that book to be "the Word of God" have believed that a god or gods created the universe.

Both those errors fit a common pattern: deciding that other people must share the writer's own religious beliefs. Hardly a valid approach to learning about the world through any discipline.

Finally, someone who makes the tautological proclamation, "I use the Genesis account to support my Genesis hypotheses" has no standing to say anyone else is "foolish" or "blinded by their own ignorance."