Virginia Heffernan’s Shameful Confession

She says she’s a creationist. Seriously.

Writer Virginia Heffernan attends the third annual New York Times Sunday with the Magazine.
Writer Virginia Heffernan

Photo by Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

Until Project Runway, I never really understood people who are intimidated by science. My officemates at the time were fascinated with the show and talked about it with great passion. They used words I didn’t know and cited famous people I’d never heard of. I felt queasy, confused, and self-conscious.

What did I do about my uneasy ignorance? Did I watch the show, read smart articles about fashion, educate myself about its history and practice? Of course not. I rolled my eyes with disdain. And after a while I finally had my epiphany: Oh! So this is what people feel like when they say they don’t like science and don’t get it and don’t think it’s worth the bother.

This is all just to say that I am trying to sympathize, I really am, with Virginia Heffernan. Heffernan is a writer for Yahoo News, formerly of the New York Times and formerly-formerly a TV critic for Slate. Last week she published an essay in which she revealed that she is a creationist. I’m not exaggerating. The essay is titled “Why I’m a Creationist,” and she wrote: “Also, at heart, I am a creationist. There, I said it.”

Heffernan wasn’t raised in a creationist household. She wasn’t home-schooled to believe that Darwinists are condemned to eternal damnation. She came to her decision as an adult, on the basis of scriptural comparisons:  

 “I wanted to know the truth of how the world began, so I was handed the Big Bang. That wasn’t a metaphor, but it wasn’t fact either. It was something called a hypothesis. And it was only a sentence. I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.”

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was fine, as far as it went: “I still wasn’t sure why a book that never directly touches on human evolution, much less the idea of God, was seen as having unseated the story of creation.” (Darwin was deliberately vague in Origin about how evolution by natural selection shaped modern humans—he knew it would be a touchy subject—but he published The Descent of Man a few years later, which does “directly touch on human evolution.”)

She calls evolution merely “another hypothesis” and says “I have never found a more compelling story of our origins than the ones that involve God.”

At first I thought Heffernan was joking when she additionally described herself as a believer in angels, but she was not: “Those scientists no doubt see me as a dopey sheep who believes in angels and is carbon-ignorant. I have to say that they may be right.”

Heffernan is a talented writer who sometimes writes about technology, which is made by science and not by angels. This essay can’t be a good career move. As Hamilton Nolan tells Heffernan at Gawker: “you should probably expect that, from now on, when people read your musings on, say, the future of internet communications, they might stop, in a moment of gathering doubt, and recall that you are a science-phobic angel-believing climate change skeptic, and that therefore your dedication to facts is somewhat in question.”

She has written ignorant things about science in the past, though, including a New York Times Magazine piece about science blogs that recommended a notorious climate-change denier’s blog. She lumped it with Scientific American’s website, which must be one of the most embarrassing endorsements in that magazine’s 168-year history.

The only glimmer of reason in the new essay comes when she critiques evolutionary psychology analyses of sex roles, but she misses the point that the most sophisticated and vehement critiques of evolutionary psychology come from other scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists, who are trying to make their colleagues adhere to scientific standards—rather than to the literary or narrative standards that Heffernan finds so persuasive.

Evolution is a theory the way gravity is a theory. It’s not a story or an aesthetic choice or one side of a debate; it’s the way the world works. Everything we know about geology, paleontology, isotope chemistry, genetics, taxonomy, experimental biology, biomedicine, biochemistry, paleoanthropology, and yes, in some cases even psychology … all of it enriches our understanding of evolution. Whatever levels of analysis you care to use, from molecular to planetary, they all mutually reinforce the discovery that all living things evolve through a process of natural selection. Absolutely nothing in the 154 years since Origin was published has undermined the theory.

If Heffernan were claiming that the Earth is the center of the universe or that it’s turtles all the way down, I’d just shake my head in disbelief and move on. But creationism matters. It’s a powerful political and social force. Heffernan says she may be the only creationist in New York City, but that is unlikely given that only 44 percent of the U.S. population believes in evolution. Her Facebook feed is now full of seemingly educated people who are thanking her for the essay and saying they agree with her.

People, please. This is important. You may feel clever debating evolution and creationism in New York City, but stop by a school in Louisiana sometime. The Louisiana Science Education Act allows creationism to be taught there. In science class. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a biology major at Brown, endorses spending millions of dollars in state money to support the teaching of creationism. The National Center for Science Education keeps track of similar efforts in other states: Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, and more. If you endorse creationism, you’re giving comfort to people who brainwash children and prevent them from learning about the most powerful and fascinating discoveries people have ever made.

And science is fascinating. As Carl Zimmer pointed out in an epic Twitter war with Heffernan, dismissing the evidence for evolution betrays a profound lack of curiosity. Their 140-character bits of back-and-forth show that she really does think of creationism and evolution merely as competing narratives: “What I believe is stories—hodgepodge of magic & facts—like what you believe. What I do is: aim to be kind.” (She apparently thought people who tweeted about evidence for evolution were being mean. Zimmer has devoted his career to telling excellent stories about evolution—stories that are true. He’s entitled to be incredulous.) Heffernan is simply wrong. There is no hodgepodge. Creationism and evolution aren’t equivalent stories to be believed or not. Creationism is magic and evolution is facts.