What If? World War I and the Creationism-Evolution Controversy, Part 2

“Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” by Savile Lumley

How would the creationism-evolution controversy have been different if World War I had never happened? Today the question is answered by Taner Edis. Professor of Physics at Truman State University, Edis is also interested in the creationism-evolution controversy in the Islamic world, which he discusses in a number of articles as well as in his book An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam (2007).

I don’t think World War I affected the course of Islamic creationism in a significant way, so if it had not happened, creationism in Muslim circles might have been very similar to what we see today.

 Flag-map of Turkey by Darwinek from Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, World War I did indirectly affect the social and intellectual climate that gave rise to Islamic creationism. The frenzy of self-destruction Europe descended into took much of the sheen off the claims of “The West” representing a universal modern civilization. World War I strengthened the claims of culturally conservative modernizers among Muslims who wanted to import technical knowledge from Western countries but avoid the corruptions of Western culture. Rejection of evolution has found an intellectual home among their present heirs, who feel free to discard aspects of science that appear uncomfortable from a conventionally religious point of view. Evolution appears to them as an artifact of a nonuniversal culture that long ago descended into materialism and mass slaughter. If World War I had not taken place, there might have been less opportunity for hostility to ideas associated with the modern West.

On the other hand, World War I also destroyed the Ottoman Empire, which provided an opportunity for military-based secularists to take power and found the Republic of Turkey. Much of Islamic creationism today has Turkish origins, which is rooted in reactions against the failed experiment with secularism in Turkey. Without World War I, Turkey’s political course could have been more similar to other Middle Eastern countries that, while making some gestures toward secularism, always retained a stronger Islamic presence at the center of political life. Evolution in Turkey is associated with strong secularism—without such secularism to react against, creationism would likely have remained a rarely articulated conservative default that would not have been elaborated into an alternative pseudoscientific point of view. That is, evolution might not have been enough of a presence in education to inspire a reaction.

Perhaps, then, without World War I, we would still have what is common in the Middle East: a low-level default creationism or superficial acceptance of change in non-human life forms, but little interest in elaborating this into a deeper religious critique of modern science.