Creative Accounting

LES MURRAY tries to make sense of the endless creation-vs-evolution argument.

THE ENDLESS acrimony of creationists versus evolutionists seems to have flared again, intransigent and purblind as ever. It is about power and the setting of world-views, but the weapons used have at least as much to do with style as with content. Evolution explains, interminably and interestingly, but in the end does not explain anything, yet it holds the social and intellectual high ground because creation lacks a respectable modem style and cannot step back far enough from its older style to finesse itself. Both positions arise from the Judeo-Christian tradition and are inherent in it. Creation is evolution seen end on; evolution is creation seen lengthwise.

Creation stresses ultimate significance and is extremely foreshortened in its time dimension; while evolution gives full play to the dimension of time and shies from ultimate significance, if it is wise, in favour of infinite process. The creationist picture is nearly all beginning and end, yet between those it does carry the earliest sketch of evolution, of the world and the creature being brought into existence on the so-called days of creation, the unfolding of the plan of redemption in this world and beyond; everything starts from perfection, from all things seen as good, then crashes into the pain and turmoil of a process in which more beings than God have free will and they and God have, as it were, to evolve toward a higher and final perfection. By contrast, the evolutionist picture as commonly presented nowadays is speculative and ever-changing at both its ends, and consists mainly of interminable middle, highly interesting but quite labile even there, as new insights and breakthroughs, which are driven as much as anything by the demands of career-making, continually turn it over; we may say that it not only describes process, of forms and species arising out of each other, but in fact lives in process, never achieving finality. Adherents to it have to keep up as long as they can, then become obsolete no matter how hard they previously served the cause. When this perspective-affecting-to-be-a-world-view attempts to account for ultimate beginnings, it becomes either highly speculative, approaching infinite instability, or bossy and assertive, as in the silliness of its guesses at the origins of life, with lightning striking the primeval soup kitchen in a desperate attempt to keep God’s fingers out of the clay. Cooler scientific heads keep right away from ultimates, and make the fair point that final significance need not be excluded from their enterprise, but had better be greatly, perhaps infinitely postponed, because as soon as it is introduced, the story ends and further discoveries and perspectives are closed off.

The point is fuzzed, but secretly within the declared methodology of science, which claims to deal only with data and observation, there is an enlightenment wager nearly three centuries old that we can produce a complete account of nature without reference to a creator. The short, sharp way to do this, of course, is not to allow a creator to be invoked anywhere, or to treat such invocation with freezing politeness that threatens expulsion from the club. Invoke the divine as anything but anthropology and you do not get published in Nature. But the world-view of creation more completely mirrors the inner life of human beings. It may be simplistic and wrong about the order and time-scale in which things came to be, but it has the potential to be corrected in these and, more important, it has the potential to satisfy us. Doing that requires a Dreaming story and creation is one of those, as scientific evolutionism is not. A Dreaming story, which is a better term to use now that “myth” has been taken over by science and devalued, does what any worthwhile account of the world has to do: it answers to our whole nature, not just to our driest intellection. Science, and evolution appropriated by science, is not without deep passion, but it denies it and disguises it, especially within its professional life.

Its cool, like all its other inner conventions, are thus matters of style. And that style is a pretence that we can, by denying most of the components of our inner life, somehow get beyond the human into some sort of superhuman objective space, by pretence and self mutilation to the stars, as it were. Mr Spock for captain of the Enterprise.

If scientific evolutionism replaces infinite Godhead with interminable monotonous discourse, that is less dangerous than when its buried religious origins start it hungering for value. Then it typically mutates into ideas of development, of progress, in which things move from lower to higher, cruder to more sophisticated, primitive to advanced. The countryside starts to be cluttered with the bones of shot indigenes, and you cannot go home again. Unease at all this, slow enough to arise but now prevalent among political evolutionists, at least leads them to claim that progress, while real, is not actually going anywhere; it is just activity, change with no known purpose. Which leaves them with a large debt of apology to the billions who have suffered upheaval and even destruction in its name. We can perhaps derive a law, though, from the relations of creation and evolution over the past couple of centuries. It would go, roughly, that when an element of a large poem, which is what creation is, splits off and turns into an ideology, it becomes elitist and finally too dry to satisfy anyone. It then tries to turn back into a poem, and bathes in blood to give it new life along the way.

First Published in The Independent Monthly May 1995

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changed December 28, 2010