Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Vine Deloria Jr, Creationism, and Ethnic Pseudoscience

Vine Deloria, a Standing Rock Sioux, has been an important advocate for American Indians for more than 25 years. He has defended Indian claims in the courts; he has acted as an Indian spokesman in Washington. Deloria is also a professor of history, law, and religious studies at the University of Colorado.

His books have brought Indian concerns to a broad audience. He burst upon the scene in 1969 with Custer Died for Your Sins, and he has continued to write about injustices done the Indians by the government, the schools, the church, anthropologists, and the courts. Most recently he has taken on the scientists in Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Imagine how Deloria's own people must have felt when this distinguished man returned to the Standing Rock Reservation to talk — no, to consult — with them about science. Deloria describes just such a scene in this book. He returns to the reservation and delivers a speech. In this speech he discusses a problem in paleontology that he is currently working on. Deloria believes that a certain sawtooth-backed "monster" in one of the Sioux tales is really a stegosaurus:
After my speech a couple of the traditional people approached me and said that the next time I came, if I had time, they would take me to see the spot where the people last saw this creature, implying that it was still possible to see the animal during the last century before the reservations were established. I gave their knowledge credence (p 243).
Deloria is telling us that he believes that these "traditional people" have helped him to prove that the scientists are wrong — that dinosaurs did not go extinct millions of years ago; a hundred years ago the Sioux saw the stegosaurus walking in the Badlands. He "gave their knowledge credence." Imagine how these "traditional people," these Standing Rock Sioux, must have felt to have Vine Deloria, a university professor and one of their own, talking with them seriously about paleontology — and giving credence to what they were able to tell him about the stegosaurus, what they were able to tell him out of the storehouse of their traditional knowledge. Anyone who knows anything at all about American Indian history must understand what a moment this must have been.

Red Earth, White Lies was written in the spirit of that evening — the book promotes not just the value of American Indian oral traditions, but the scientific value of American Indian oral traditions. And the book is also a heady indictment of the white man's science. The only problem, of course, is that Deloria is wrong. He was wrong on that memorable evening — whatever the beast in the tale might be, the Sioux could not have seen a stegosaurus a hundred years ago. And he is just as obviously wrong on almost every page of Red Earth, White Lies. Some examples follow.

On the Earth as a Youthful Planet

Deloria doubts that the earth is billions of years old; indeed, he writes, "Most American Indians, I believe, were here 'at the beginning' and have preserved the memory of traumatic continental and planetary catastrophes" (p 251). The geologists are simply wrong in their reading of the geological record. For example, "vulcanism was a onetime event" (p 235).

Dinosaurs and Human Beings

Indians tell stories about a time when there were monsters on the earth. Some of these monsters Deloria recognizes as dinosaurs: "That is to say, humans and some creatures we have classified as dinosaurs were contemporaries" (p 241). Deloria is inclined to credit one western tribe's belief that they have in their possession "an unfossilized dinosaur bone" (p 241). And as we have seen, he believes that the Sioux saw the stegosaurus walking in the Badlands a hundred years ago.

On Noah's Flood

Deloria believes in the historical reality of the biblical flood, because "Indian traditions also spoke of a great flood... and they had their own culture heroes who followed the same procedure as Noah" (p 61-2). In fact, the Old Testament account of Noah's flood "may very well provide evidence of the basic accuracy of the Indian story" (p 207). Just as his forefathers built their encampments in a circle, so Deloria builds his arguments.

On Pilgrims and Mammoths

Deloria argues that "there were mammoths or mastodons still living in the eastern United States at the time the Pilgrims landed" (p 143).

On the Mormon View of the Origin of the American Indians

Deloria gives credence to the Mormon contention that the American Indians came from the Middle East (p 62).

On the Effects of Increased Levels of Carbon Dioxide

Deloria is convinced that increased levels of carbon dioxide lead to gigantism; this explains the size of the mammoths and the giant sloths — just as it explains the increasing size of human beings since the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Indeed, Deloria sees the increase of carbon dioxide (which most of us worry about in connection with global warming) as one reason for the increased size of football and basketball players since he was in high school (p 172-7).

On the Change in the Coefficient of Gravity

Deloria is inclined to think that the coefficient of gravity has fluctuated so widely as to account (with the increased levels of carbon dioxide) for the gigantism we find in the age of the dinosaurs and again in the age of the mammoths and giant sloths (p 174).

On Ecology

By way of dismissing the idea that such animals as the mammoth might have gone extinct because of climate change, Deloria writes that "It hardly seems possible that any animal, living in a more benign region for a change, would promptly expire" (p 164) — as though penguins, for example, would really be better off in San Diego.

On Evolution

Evolution is a failed theory: "[E]ven the most sophisticated of modern scientists, in explaining the fossil remains, finds that species in the rocks are distant relatives to each other, not direct lineages" (p 40). At one point Deloria refers dismissively to "the outmoded sequence of alleged human evolution" (p 217). Once Deloria has considered the evidence he asks, "Where is evolution?" (p 238).

On the Character of Science

Scientists are virtually incapable of independent thinking; they are hobbled by their reverence for orthodoxy (p 42-4, 50-1, 154-5, 180, 202, 231-2). Scientists characteristically persecute those who dare to advance unorthodox views. Science is thus essentially a religion (p 17-8, 41, 87, 178, 251) — and scientists are in the thrall of their scientific myths. In many areas science is nothing more than "a hilarious farce" (p 202).

Most readers will recognize in much of this the lineaments of "creation science". But for those who have (quite reasonably) paid little attention to "creation science", here is a good, brief characterization of the movement:
The creationists have learned a lot in their long struggle to unseat evolution. Trial and error has shown them what doesn't work: Anti-science doesn't, efforts to ban [the teaching of] evolution don't, and purely religious invective is also a losing proposition. The idea of being open-minded, religiously neutral, and scientific has gained such wide credence (or at least lip service) that creationists can't successfully oppose it, no matter how much they might like to. So, their new tactic is to declare creationism scientific, then join in with the majority and espouse the virtues of the times in their own name. In this way they can pose as latter-day Galileos being persecuted by "orthodox" science (Edwords 1980: 4-5).
Add to this a large measure of standard-issue American Ethnic Invective, and you have Deloria's method exactly.

Ethnic Pseudoscience

Of course Deloria is not the first American ethnic to question mainstream science and scholarship. Deloria's closest pseudoscientific cousins may be in the Afrocentric movement. African-American "melanin scholars", for example Martin Bernal, have as their basic tenet that melanin (the pigment found in all humans) has remarkable properties (Ortiz de Montellano 1991, 1991/1992; Griffin 1996; Lefkowitz and Rogers 1996). So those who have lots of melanin have large powers.

Thus it is melanin that is responsible for the athletic prowess of African-Americans and for the superior intelligence and extra-sensory potential of blacks in general. Melanin also accounts for the achievements of the ancient Egyptians, who were black, according to the melanin scholars. This allows the melanin scholars to provide pseudoscientific underpinnings for an Afrocentric creation myth. According to the melanin scholars, then, it was melanin that allowed Africans to "invent" fire, language, and time.

None of this would matter much if scholars who know better would respond to such arguments on their merits. But educated people of good will recognize in such scholarship the aspirations of disadvantaged peoples for a place at the table of learning. Sympathizing as they do with the yearnings of the dispossessed, educated people of good will often pretend to see real contributions to learning in ethnic pseudoscience and pseudoscholarship.

I was struck, for example, by the dust jacket blurbs for Red Earth, White Lies. Leslie Marmon Silko writes that the book "shoots down a whole herd of sacred cows — from Charles Darwin's cow to Samuel Eliot Morison's bull." Goodness; does Silko — who is a university professor, after all — really believe that Deloria has disposed of the theory of evolution? In genuine puzzlement, I wrote to ask her this question, but I received no response. (I am not certain that she received the letter.)

Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, one of the best known books on American Indian history, wrote that Deloria is "lambasting scholars and scientists for filling our heads with nonsense while they ignore the traditional knowledge of native tribes." I wrote Brown, again in genuine puzzlement, to ask him if he really meant this: "Deloria even argues," I wrote, "that human beings and dinosaurs were on the earth at the same time."

Brown reminded me that "some of the creation myths tell of green scum heated by the sun being washed ashore to begin terrestrial life." Yes, one might respond, and a Navajo myth tells of four consecutive worlds with the creatures passing from one to the next by ladders. Probably paleontologists and geologists would be as little aided by the one myth as by the other. And of course it is only the work of the scientists which makes the "green scum" myth seem more like science than the "ladders" myth. Surely Brown cannot really think that geologists and paleontologists would be further along if they spent less time looking at rocks and more time interpreting Kwakiutl myths.

But Brown makes another suggestion:
Deloria has a Siouan sense of black humor, and likes to tease his readers. Unless he has changed in the last few years, he would laugh at the idea of men and dinosaurs living together. But then he might tell you that.
So, Brown is not convinced, really, that dinosaurs and human beings were on the earth at the same time. No, Brown thinks it likely that ol' trickster Deloria is just counting coup in his on-going culture war with the Anglo establishment, just having fun with me — and all the others who might be willing to fork over $23 for a book advertised to dispel "the myth of scientific fact". But if Deloria's book is just a politico-ethnic practical joke, it seems to have taken in another of the blurb writers.

Father Peter J Powell wrote that this book "is the most important scholarly work" Deloria has written. Powell expresses the hope that the book will "persuade Anglo scholars to accord American Indian elders that respect owed them as repositories of the greatest wisdom concerning the nature of this continent that exists." Powell has written widely on American Indian history, and he has worked for many years among Indians of several tribes. He is a learned man — and so I wrote to him in puzzlement. He wrote back to assure me that, yes, he really does believe that "geologists should take American Indian traditions seriously." He really is "convinced that ultimately geologists will discover the succession of geological events recalled in the tribal traditions to be empirically sound" — but then Father Powell reminds me that he is a priest, that he writes as one for whom "theology is the queen of the sciences." And so we return to creationism.

Political and Legal Consequences

All of this is diverting, but we should remember that when theology or affirmative action drives science, there can be real-world consequences. Most immediately, we should worry that Deloria's affirmative-action science might work its way into public school science curricula. Deloria puts it this way: "All we ask is respect for the other traditions and some of their versions of origins" (p 187). This is, of course, exactly the disingenuous argument of the creationists, as they strive to get "creation science" into the schools and textbooks: "We are only asking that both theories be taught." But well-meaning academics who scorn this argument when it comes from Christian creationists, often encourage ethnic pseudoscience curricula out of a sense of cultural noblesse oblige. And so we end up with real science for the nice, white suburbs, and self-affirming pseudoscience for the reservations and inner cities.

Deloria has another motive of ethnic self-interest as well. Deloria must be hoping that Red Earth, White Lies will have real legal consequences. For Deloria the lawyer, "proof" of the veracity of Indian oral traditions can be crucial in treaty claims — where Indian tribal memory is sometimes importantly in conflict with written treaties (p 230). Numerous court cases pit Indian understanding of a treaty against the literal wording of the treaty. In many of these cases, this means that Indian tribal memory — oral tradition — is being pitted against what is written.

The Idaho Court of Appeals (Swim v Bergland 1983), for example, ruled that agreements between the United States and Indian tribes are to be construed according to the probable understanding of original tribal signatories. The Washington Court of Appeals (Fry v US 1981) decided that evidence of tribal custom is a proper basis for judicial conclusions about the present effect of Indian treaty provisions. Such arguments will be easier for Deloria the lawyer to make if he can point to Red Earth, White Lies as "proving" that Indian oral traditions have real scientific standing. If academics agree that his book "proves" that oral traditions can help the paleontologists, then oral traditions obviously ought to be accepted as proof in questions of legal ownership dating back a mere century, say.

I would not be misunderstood: I do not mean to deny that oral traditions might be important evidence in a court of law; I certainly do not mean to deny the worth of oral traditions. Indeed, I have devoted a good deal of attention to certain aspects of American Indian oral traditions (see Brumble 1988). And of course a good deal of scientific attention is being paid to oral traditions having to do with plants, to ethnobotany. But Deloria devotes only two pages of Red Earth, White Lies to ethnobotany (p 58-59). The book has mainly to do with "geomythology" (60).

Foundations of Competent Scholarship

I do want to point out that Deloria, the creationists, and the melanin scholars differ importantly from scientists. Deloria and company are fundamentally anti-rational — even as they try to wrap the mantle of science about their beliefs. Thus they are content with seeming scientific arguments to buttress beliefs which they hold independent of evidence. Deloria, for example, takes up a familiar creationist strain in mocking the evolutionists for lacking any "transitional forms" in the fossil record:
[E]ven the most sophisticated of modern scientists, in explaining the fossil remains, finds that species in the rocks are distant relatives to each other, not direct lineages.... Apparently somewhere, and at a time unknown, when species were ready to evolve they went offstage, made their changes, and then rushed back into the geologic strata to leave evidence of their existence (p 40).
In fact, by the time Deloria was penning these lines, the paleontological world was already abuzz with the news that transitional forms had been found. In the January 14, 1994 issue of Science Thewissen and Aria described the fossil skeleton of a whale with large, complete, and functional hind legs — legs which would have allowed this early whale to get about on the land! Gould calls this a "bag packer for creationists", the paleontological "smoking gun" (1995: 366-7). This was big news, and Science is not exactly an obscure journal. The publication of the article was early enough for Deloria to have read the piece (or even Gould's April, 1994, account of the discovery in Natural History reprinted in Gould 1995: 359-76), had he been doing the kind of reading one would have to do in order to write a book responsibly attacking the basic tenets of geology and paleontology.

But even had he read the article, Deloria's thinking would probably have been undisturbed — for the same reason that the melanin scholars are undisturbed by easily available scientific accounts of melanin. They are not doing science really — they are promoting a cause. But one of the many sad things about affirmative-action ethnic pseudoscience is that their cause doesn't really need pseudoscience or pseudoscholarship. It has been the anthropologists, after all, who have been largely responsible for providing the scholarly foundation for cultural relativism. And the weight of scientific research, for another example, now opposes the idea that intelligence is tied to race. Deloria seems to forget this when, in the course of recounting the sins of the scientists, he mentions the notorious case of Cyril Burt:
Perhaps the epitome of scientific fraud was the work of Sir Cyril Burt on twins. Fearful of criticism of his work, Burt simply performed the peer-review process by himself, writing glowing reviews of his work using pseudonyms. This deceit, and the manipulation of statistical data in his studies was eventually exposed (p 41-2).
Deloria misses much here. Burt's work claimed to find a very high correlation between IQ scores of twins raised apart. This was regarded as important evidence for hereditarian views — evidence which was useful to those who claimed that race could determine intelligence. But ethnic pseudoscience was not necessary to reveal Burt's fraud. Here is the story as Gould tells it:
I think that the splendid "official" biography of Burt recently published by LS Hearnshaw (1979) has resolved the issue so far as the data permit (Hearnshaw was commissioned to write his book by Burt's sister before any charges had been leveled). Hearnshaw, who began as an unqualified admirer of Burt and who tends to share his intellectual attitudes, eventually concluded that all allegations are true, and worse (1981: 236).
Hearnshaw, then, actually began as an apologist for Burt, but when he found real evidence of fraud, he was forced to change his mind. This is real scholarship. My guess is that Deloria will not change his mind about "transitional forms" (and so about evolution and creationism) just because of the walking whales.

Concluding Parable

In the hope of influencing those who read ethnic pseudoscience with affirmative action in their hearts, I offer in closing this parable:
A man in tweed stands before an academic audience. He is, let us say, a professor of English (as I am); he has (like me) no scientific training, aside from some amateur reading. He delivers a series of lectures on "creation science". He acknowledges that his religious affiliation is, let us say, Pentecostal, to suggest that he is guided by the spirit.

In his lectures he argues that the scientists have it all wrong, that the earth was created, and not created some unimaginable billions of years ago. He asserts that, while he is not certain of the age of the earth, he is fairly sure that human beings were on earth with the dinosaurs, that human beings were on earth to see the formation of the mountains. And all of the earth's igneous rock poured forth in one great volcanic cataclysm triggered by the impact of a great meteor. He argues that the universal flood of the book of Genesis is probably historical fact.

His scientific breakthrough, he explains, is that he is bringing to bear the testimonies of the people who actually witnessed these events. He presents the testimonies of pre-literate peoples as preserved in their oral traditions of which he is a skilled interpreter; he shows how these oral traditions are very often exactly in keeping with Old Testament accounts. He argues that many scientists actually know the truth of the biblical account of creation (as corroborated by pre-literate peoples) — but they are cowed into dishonest silence by the fear of ostracism from the cozy scientific community. His lectures are applauded by this academic audience and endorsements are written by some rather eminent figures in attendance.
This would, of course, be highly unlikely. Most of the well educated people who praise Red Earth, White Lies would be embarrassed even to be found in the audience on such an occasion. Most academics would work hard to prevent such "fundamentalist" notions from intrusion into the science curriculum of their children's school. But change lecture to book published by Scribner's, change Pentacostal Christian to charismatic Sioux religion — and this unlikely fantasy is exactly what Vine Deloria has accomplished.
By H David Brumble
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.