The Shared Assumption Behind Creationism and Anti-GMO in Europe

Creationism, like baseball, is an American pastime. And, like baseball, creationism can feel like a uniquely American sport—“a local, indigenous, American bizzarity,” in the words of Stephen Jay Gould.

There’s no question that anti-Darwinian sentiment occupies a special place in the American psyche. But there is nothing uniquely American—or, for that matter, especially right-wing—about feeling as if nature works in ways other than those specified by contemporary biology. And skepticism toward evolution is a global phenomenon, from Turkey to South Korea.

And in Europe, too. In Creationism in Europe, a recent release from Johns Hopkins Press, a group of scholars survey the continent’s creationist scene. Curious to dig deeper into the more global side of these ideas, The Cubit rang up Stefaan Blancke, one of the book’s editors and contributors. Blancke, a postdoctoral fellow at Ghent University, in Belgium, studies the cognitive biases that shape our views of nature. We spoke about creationism in Europe, the influence of the First Amendment, and what anti-GMO and anti-evolution activism have in common.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Is the appeal of creationism different in Europe than it is in the United States?

Creationist beliefs are far more widespread in the US. But, [in Europe], we do have some opinions about how nature works, how nature functions, that I think are anchored in the same cognitive predispositions that creationism is. So we don’t have a lot of creationism, but we do have a lot of anti-GMO resistance. There are quite a lot of similarities between the two positions.

What do they share?

It’s about intuitive expectations that we have, apparently, about how nature functions. Research in developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and anthropology shows that we have a predisposition to think about organisms as having an essence: they have an immutable, unobservable core that determines the identity, the behavior, and the development of an organism, and we shouldn’t mess with that. This kind of thinking is essentialist thinking.

We find it, of course, in creationism: [the organism] has been created from the start, and nothing has changed much since then. But we can also find it in anti-GMO propaganda. If you take DNA from a fish, and you put in the DNA of a tomato, will the resulting tomato taste like fish? A lot of people get it wrong. They think that it tastes like fish. It’s like the whole essence of the fish gets inserted into the tomato. It’s this kind of thinking.

Another intuition about nature is that we think about purely natural processes in terms of purposes—that things exist or happen for particular purposes. For instance, that it rains to water the plants, so that’s the reason rain exists. There are a couple of anti-GMO activists that claim, for instance, that GMOs are not the result of natural selection. They have this idea that natural selection is this benign force that has a particular purpose that we shouldn’t mess with. And of course that kind of thinking also returns in creationist beliefs about adaptations, with the very old design argument that things are made for a purpose by God, and that we can infer the existence of God from [these] works.

Are there certain segments of European society where creationist ideals tend to take root? 

They usually pop up within very conservative religious circles, of course. But there is no real distinction whether these conservatives are Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. Where creationism is most popular and most influential is more in Eastern Europe.

I wouldn’t say that [creationism] is dramatic in Europe, of course. When you compare it to the United States, it’s very small and marginal. But you don’t have to have a lot of people. In Germany, there are not so many creationists, but they’re widely influential, they’re quite active. They are quite capable of making themselves heard.

In the book, one contributor talks about the German state of Hesse, where a minister seemed to defend the teaching of creationism in a pair of state-funded schools.

There was also an incident in the Netherlands in 2005. The minister of education made a proposition that, well, maybe we should consider intelligent design as a means to combine or to reconcile science and religion.

To what extent are these ideas American imports? Or is there a homegrown European creationism, too?

I think it’s both. On the one hand, you have the introduction of typical young earth creationist belief [from the U.S.]. But, on the other hand, you have to have a fertile soil where these ideas can take root and develop. People take from the American creationist version whatever elements they can use within their own cultural context.

In the United States, it’s very important to creationists that one can give at least the impression of [creationism] being a science. So you have the development of scientific creationism, intelligent design, under the pressure of the First Amendment. But you don’t have something like that in England. English creationists are much less worried about making sure that their beliefs can be interpreted as being scientific. You can be quite bold about the fact that it’s just Biblical creationism.

Where is the future growth of creationism going to take place?

It’s difficult to make this kind of prediction. I think creationist belief might have quite a difficult time becoming more widespread [in Europe]. One reason is that a lot of the educational system is centralized, whereas in the United States there are a lot of opportunities to influence school boards.

I think the most widespread version of creationism might be Muslim creationism. A lot of young Muslims pick up these ideas. We hear from biology teachers all the time. That’s not really a big thing, but it’s depressing, as a teacher, that you’re unable to reach these children that have these convictions that come from the internet, and that they use as a means to create an identity for themselves.

Creationist ideas can be a way to signal things to people in power, and to the people around you.

It becomes a marker of the group that you belong to.

Exactly. Returning to this deeper idea of essentialism: what are effective ways for science communicators to explain that things in nature don’t have, as you put it, “an immutable, unobservable core that determines the identity, the behavior, and the development”?

Especially in the United States, there are quite a few people who work on this. You have to recognize the influence of these predispositions in order to find good ways of overcoming them.

All kinds of studies show that even people who study biology have systematically misinterpreted or misunderstood basic aspects of evolution theory. You also see it, for instance, in history of science, if you take a look at the way that Charles Darwin represents evolution in his notebooks.

And then maybe 30 or 40 years later, you have this representation by Ernst Haeckel: he draws evolution like a tree that grows up in the air, and you have man at the top of the tree. So it’s this teleological process, instead of this natural thing. There are lots of difficulties with understanding evolutionary theory and accepting evolutionary theory that are due to these intuitions that we have, these intuitive views on nature.

It goes way back.

It becomes expressed differently within different cultures. But, you take a look at, for instance, Western philosophy, there’s lots of essentialism in there. You have the forms of Plato, for instance. There’s always a way in which these notions find expression. And because they’re so hard-wired in our brain, it’s very difficult to handle them, to overcome their influence and their impact.

  • Jim Reed

    GMOs are proof of intelligent design. You have plants and animals on earth that could never have evolved. Obviously from looking at their DNA they must be the work of a creator.

  • Marian L Shatto

    There are other reasons besides the essentialism described in this article to oppose GMOs. As I understand it, one of the primary reasons for GMO foods is to make the food plant able to survive large doses of herbicides and insecticides that would otherwise kill it. Those poisonous substances in turn are devastating to larger ecosystems. Look at what is happening to honeybees. Testing is needed to determine whether or not the current widespread use of pesticides and herbicides has any relation, as is now suspected, to the increased incidence of food allergies and behavioral difficulties in today’s children.

    Another reason for GMOs is to permit huge corporations to patent life forms. Predatory practices by Monsanto and other greedy chemical corporations have caused suffering among millions of subsistence farmers in developing countries. They are trapped in a system that punishes them for the traditional practice of saving seeds from one harvest to plant in the next season. Being forced to purchase seed each year keeps them perpetually in debt. And farmers have been sued for theft by Monsanto and other big chemical companies when GMO plants and pollen migrate into neighboring fields.

    These are excellent health and social justice reasons for opposing the use of GMO seeds with their attendant toxins and abusive practices. Drawing a parallel between such opposition and a belief in creationism seems to me to be far-fetched and unpersuasive.

  • DKeane123

    While I tends to agree with you about the potential issues with pesticides, much of the research opposing GMOs in this area have paralleled “creation science”, in that the studies are highly flawed or have methodologies specifically designed for a particular result. A good example of this is the RoundUp study out of France that showed test rats getting huge tumors (the study had to be retracted).

    On Monsanto – this company is an excellent buzzword, that tends to immediately invoke images of horrible business and environmental practices. The company actually has much less influence on the total market and very few farmers ever save seeds from year to year. Their business depends upon seed reliability, and they would much rather have the guarantee that comes with purchasing than save a couple of dollars on seeds.

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/10/18/163034053/top-five-myths-of-genetically-modified-seeds-busted

    https://www.facebook.com/theskepticsguide/posts/10153127692961605

  • Anton

    In some ways, I agree with you. However, the use of genetically-programmed sterility in GMO crops is not much different than the patent protections drug companies receive to protect their intellectual property. It makes is so people cannot grow a new crop from the previous crop, which would be like a person being able to produce all the pills they need for the rest of their life from their first prescription. Is there a hint of essentialism in your own thinking? In addition, you need to consider that we are now using far less toxic chemicals to produce our food than we did a generation ago, and we are producing far more food at the same time.

    I think a line between creationism and essentialism is pretty clear. But then, I think many Buddhists practice essentialism too. So I would not say it based in creationism. I think it is much older than that, and may simply have to do with the notion that living things, including ourselves, are in some way special. I know of no people who feel a similar kindredness with rocks.

  • It’s fun that the illustration for this article is a bunch of tomatoes. For a couple of generations North America suffered from the supermarket tomato. This is apposite to the comment that baseball is an American pastime. Only in the 21st century did edible tomatoes come back into wide availability beyond the home grown.

    Sadly, progress marches on. I bought a cantaloupe the other day that is clearly a triumph of the marketing arts. Completely inedible. Presumably indestructible.

    As with tomatoes, I suspect there is a ten or twenty year valley of the shadow of genetics. First they breed for the railroads and the truckers. Eventually they get around to breeding stuff for the table.

    -dlj.

  • Jim Reed

    They breed for what sells. We vote for what kind of fruit we want with our purchases.

  • CitizenWhy

    Nonesense. there is no shared assumption. Anti-GMO people almost all believe in evolution and in science. they simply look at specific GMO negative factors: low nutritional bvalue, leeching nutrients form the soil, ridiclous need for high amounts of especially toxic perticides, the flow of the pesticides into our waters, the fraudulent “research” backing GMO’s, and the distrust of giving a few corporations a monopoly over otr food.

  • kso721

    but what designed the intelligent designer?

  • Jim Reed

    We evolved.

  • ArthurFrayne

    This article, and Zack Kopplin – whom I came to this article from – are WAY out of line. Many of use are not opposed to GMO’s or trying to get them banned, but we want to insure that they are THOROUGHLY vetted, they do NOT harm the environment, and that they are LABLED so that those who chose to avoid them can make the best informed decision. It has nothing to do with ‘science denial’, but more so caution about taking the words of corporations who in the past have told us the following things were safe: Lead paint, lead in gasoline, asbestos, saccharine, uranium-filled glow in the dark paint, just to name a few. Furthermore, just because the current crop of GMOs may be safe, doesn’t mean that future progressions in GMO will also be equally safe. As for the trustworthyness of the Monsanto spokespeople, one has to look no further than the shill who claimed Roundup was perfectly safe to drink and then when offered some replied “I’m not stupid!”.