“This is outrageous!” Red-faced and visibly agitated, the 60-something was darting toward a hyperrealistic silicone reconstruction of Lucy, the world-famous, 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis. After a highly confused couple of minutes it emerged that the man was operating within a 6,000-year biblical time frame. But he did not object to the evolutionary age of Lucy. He objected to her nakedness. “You have to cover her up! It’s almost as bad as going to the beach!”
Lucy is one of the star attractions on the Evolution Stairs in the central hall at Moesgaard Museum in Denmark. The new attraction had just opened, boosting annual visitor numbers from tens of thousands at the museum to a whopping 500,000 in the first year. Great care had been taken in giving the scientific reconstructions individual expressions, making them stand out as persons, not just distant evolutionary relatives.
And there she was—dark and furry, standing one meter tall, with a confident air. The visiting creationist never saw the ape in her, though. He only saw her naked body. Deep time mattered less than morals. The exhibition worked.
We have both had encounters with creationists. They come in all shades and represent all major denominations. They live in cities and in rural areas. Some are well educated, some belong to the establishment, others don’t. Some are well organized and well funded, others are not. Several are dedicated to a cause, many as missionaries with the role of spreading the word of divine creation as opposed to evolution; others keep to themselves. But despite their differences, they have something in common—they are all Europeans.
We are used to thinking about creationism as an exclusively North American phenomenon. It is not. Although it originated in the U.S., organized creationism has gone global. But in Europe creationism does not represent a united community; it varies strongly from one country to the next. In some countries creationism provides an identity to smaller local religious communities, and has little impact. This is the case in Scandinavia. In other places creationism is tied to substantial and well-organized subcultures. We find this in the Netherlands. And in some places creationism exists among religious elites that have considerable political power. Russia is a notable example.
For years, although creationists were growing in number in European countries and gradually developing an influence in schools and local communities, they mostly kept under the radar and were not a major concern. Not until, at least, about a decade ago, when the Council of Europe issued a warning against the growth of creationism and the potential threat to the educational system it posed. At that point, creationism became a matter of public and political debate. Polls were taken all over Europe to determine public opinion. Some online polls were hijacked by creationists in Turkey to alter the outcome. Books, pamphlets and Web sites were launched and circulated. And the media loved it.
Some investigative journalists tried to make sense of what was happening and figure out who these creationists were. Most, they found, were just reiterating the old science versus religion theme—evolution against creation, with Darwin in one corner and God in the other, waiting to go the next round at the sound of the bell. Unaware of all the tricks developed by American creationists, however, European journalists far too often jumped to the standard “balanced perspective,” looking at the case from both sides. News coverage and background stories treated the differences between science and religion as a matter of personal preference. Where there were none, the media helped creationists turn it into a debate and into the public sphere.
The double Darwin celebration in 2009—commemorating the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species and the 200th birthday of the father of modern evolutionary theory—helped the European creationists in unexpected ways. They got far more media exposure than ever before. Everywhere, journalists framed the anniversary in the context of a science–religion conflict. This gave creationists easy access even to mainstream media. But more importantly, with the advent of social media and the ease with which Web sites could be set up, creationists could make far more material available to far more people than ever before. This also provided new platforms for communication in and between creationist communities. Some even called for joining forces across the major religions in what was conceived as a common cause against atheism.
Few in the scientific community saw this coming. In some countries creationists had larger budgets available for antievolutionary activities in the Darwin year than science organizations had to promote science and evolution. Many of the campaigns were well produced, clever and had an impact. Despite the fact that European nations are generally among those with the highest public acceptance rates of evolutionary theory—with the notable exception of Turkey—too many news stories and too many polls were showing a change in public opinion.
We have learned that confronting creationism is not a scientific matter but rather a political one. To engage creationism it does not suffice to line up all the evidence and arguments in support of evolutionary theory. Instead, scientists have to get out and operate on all platforms where creationists are active. This includes giving public lectures, writing op–eds and articles in popular magazines, weeklies and newspapers as well as discussing the issue in television and radio broadcasts, developing and maintaining Web sites on evolution, and via exhibitions.
When creationism finds its way into the educational system, European scientists do not just comment in the newspapers. They organize and rally support for counteractions. When a Serbian minister of education ordered schools to stop teaching evolution, the Serbian Academy of Science prompted an anticreationist campaign, supported by 40 different organizations, that eventually forced the minister to resign.
Although creationists seem here to stay—including in Europe—they do not constitute the main threat to understanding evolution. We have learned a surprising lesson about how people think from dealing with the rise of creationism in Europe. Even if people claim to accept evolution, they tend to interpret evolutionary processes in intuitive but scientifically incorrect ways. Evolution as a topic is often treated marginally or even neglected in schools across Europe. Ironically, being forced to consider antievolutionists operating in Europe, we now know that we need to do more to make people understand what we know about the fundamental processes of life on Earth. We need to work on multiple platforms to succeed and we need good examples. With visitor numbers to natural history museums increasing all over Europe we have the venues and the necessary public interest. Now we need to make the most of it.