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.