Rethinking the Evolution Wars: Columbine and mass persuasion

On the morning of April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered their high school in Columbine, Colorado. Armed with a carbine rifle, two sawed-off shotguns, and a semi-automatic handgun, the two teens proceeded to kill twelve of their fellow students and one teacher, while also wounding twenty others, before committing suicide. In the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, speculation abounded about what had precipitated the young gunmen’s actions. The popular press suggested a range of influences, including that the killers were trying to exact revenge upon tormenting bullies, that they had suffered from depression and clinical psychopathy, while blame was also attributed to Goth culture, neo-Nazism, and the side effects of playing video games.1 In addition to these accounts, leading antievolutionists volunteered their own interpretations. According to creationist and Intelligent Design pundits, the key to understanding such school violence was not to be found in adolescent hectoring and cliques, entertainment media stimuli, or even in America’s gun culture. Instead, the horror of Columbine was a consequence of teaching evolutionary biology to impressionable youths.

For Young Earth Creationists and Intelligent Design theorists, who can collectively be styled as Darwin-skeptics, the answer to the question of school shootings lies in a marked depreciation of intrinsic human value. Columbine-like mass violence, they have publicly contended, ensues from cultural and ethical decay linked to society-wide science education that is imbued with naturalistic, evolutionary explanations.2 In brief, this is because evolutionary theory teaches students that humans are nothing more than simple animals descended from common origins, thus robbing humanity of the notion that it bears a unique divine image separating people from other fauna. It is argued that once this status reduction has been accepted and internalized, individuals will begin treating each other as mere beasts; raping, mutilating, and murdering one another without fear of God’s incriminations. This premise formed the basis of a 2006 marketing drive engineered by Answers in Genesis (AiG), one of the world’s foremost antievolutionist organizations. In the words of AiG’s founder and president, Ken Ham, the media effort served as an attempt to “shock people into the reality of what is happening today.”3 The campaign included a short video clip featuring a young male who slowly walked toward viewers before proceeding to raise a revolver. After the adolescent pulled back the gun’s hammer, the image faded to Answers in Genesis’s logo as a narrator pronounced, “If you don’t matter to God, you don’t matter to anyone.”4 Representatives of the organization explained that the advertisement was intentionally designed to invoke the Columbine attack, as well as other recent school shootings. For one of the possible reasons why such murderous rampages occur is because “the bankrupt theory of evolution” is corrupting young people with godless perceptions of themselves and those around them. It undermines the credibility of God’s own words and the cognate truth of humanity’s divine image.

To validate these advertised beliefs, antievolutionist pundits drew attention to the fact that on the day Eric Harris committed the Columbine massacre he was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Natural Selection.” Likewise, corroborating references were later made to Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who carried out a 2007 murderous school attack in Finland resulting in the deaths of eight of his fellow classmates. In a YouTube video posted by Auvinen prior to the incident he referenced the idioms “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest,” while also describing himself as a “natural selector.”5 The corollary, according to numerous Darwin-skeptic pacesetters, is that it is no accident the perpetrators of such evils so explicitly acknowledged ideas associated with Charles Darwin. This is because, “If God really doesn’t matter and perhaps does not even exist - if Darwin was right all along and we just randomly evolved from ape-like creatures, if we aren’t fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of a divine and loving God, then go ahead - let survival of the fittest rule supreme.”6 Antievolutionists have not only connected the biological theory with school shootings but have also associated notions of science with other recent mass homicides, including violence committed by Anders Behring Breivik on July 22, 2011.7 In the harangues of his manifesto, Breivik espoused the ostensible benefits of social Darwinist eugenics programs. Consequently, antievolutionists have correlated Breivik’s slaying of seventy-seven people in Norway with the extremist’s acceptance of evolutionary constructs.8 Such claims reflect the common Darwin-skeptic rhetorical practice of correlating the actions of morally corrupt individuals, or the tenets of unethical political philosophies, with the acceptance of natural selection as both science and ideology. In this vein, antievolutionist organizations regularly produce messages in which Adolf Hitler’s hateful deeds are conflated with his seemingly positive receipt of evolution. Such guilt-by-association logic further couples evolutionary theory and its apparent downgrading of human nature with fascism, imperialism, ruthless capitalism, and various acts of terrorism.9

The factual bases for these suggestions, which propound rather straightforward ties between Darwin and the deeds of Auvinen, Harris, Hitler, Pol Pot, or Joseph Stalin, are certainly precarious.10 But to focus exclusively on the coherency of these allegations is to miss something important about the

Rethinking the Evolution Wars 3 messages themselves. For the import of such communications is not necessarily found in the reasoned expositions upon which their arguments are based. Instead, the significance of these claims rests not merely on rationale or evidences but in their persuasive dynamism. Concentrating on the logic or illogic of such antievolutionist statements alone potentially overlooks one of their major characteristics. This is because, regardless of the accuracy of Darwin-skeptic missives, they may still bear with them a slew of persuasive features that impart their messages with cognitive saliency. Antievolutionist communications, for example, can be convincing to certain audiences if they repeatedly refer to the ostensible academic expertise and credentials of Darwin-skeptic leaders. Such media may also invoke certain audience fears, including worries about children being slain by homicidal classmates, while further appealing to the political values and religious mores adhered to by those whom the messages are endeavoring to reach.

It is to these types of persuasive characteristics that this book is dedicated, with the goal of systematically identifying, examining, and then taking into account the implications of such features in mass media’s criticism and defense of evolution. Namely, the focus will be on the expression of cues, or cognitive mental shortcuts, which can function in media as subtle but effective means of influencing public opinion and behavior. Along these lines, this book will also visit how such persuasive cues can resonate with the core sociocultural values and moral commitments maintained by targeted spectators. What results is an important perspective on Evolution Wars mass media and its ability to prevail upon audiences. This perspective divulges how these communications may influence audiences regardless of whether researchers have unanimously concluded that there should be no evolutionreligion conflict, or if scholars have argued that such Darwin-skeptic communications are philosophically, scientifically, and theologically fallacious. Collectively, what will be contended is that persuasive mass media is a decisive component of science-religion controversies involving evolution, and that the sociological significance of such communications is not merely derived from the merits of their arguments, but by an oft-overlooked ability to still sway publics.

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