Does Scalia really think that humanity is 5,000 years old?

June 7, 2015 • 12:00 pm

Here’s a bit of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s commencement address at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic girls school teaching students from kindergarten through 12th grade (age 18). This was his granddaughter’s commencement, which accounts for why he spoke. Scalia is a devout Catholic.

I start the video at 2:32, where Scalia remarks that humanity has been around for 5,000 years or so:

Of course the Vatican officially accepts the existence of evolution, but 23% of its adherents are still young-Earth creationists. It’s not impossible that Scalia is one of them. Of course how you interpret the word “humanity” is variable: it could mean “civilization” (but “urban” settlements began around 10,000 years ago), the advent of the genus Homo (about 2.5 million years), or the time when our ancestors diverged from those of modern apes (around 5 million years).

The Washington Post reproduced Scalia’s remark without comment, but some sites, but others, like Think Progress, have called this an episode of Scalia “blowing the creationist dog whistle,” while the Patheos website Progressive Secular Humanist argues with confidence that this expresses Scalia’s belief in young-Earth creationism, noting that, in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard (a creationism-in-school issue that 7 of the nine judges rejected), Scalia wrote a dissent claiming that the evidence for creationism was stronger than that for evolution, and that evolution could be accurately called a “myth”.  (The other dissenter was William Rehnquist.) And I’ve written before how Scalia does appear to accept the existence of Satan (see here and here),

Still it’s hard to believe that a guy with this kind of brain (yes, he’s smart) could really be a young-Earth creationist. My guess is that it was just an offhand remark that’s been blown out of proportion. But I might be wrong, and a savvy interviewer should ask him.

60 thoughts on “Does Scalia really think that humanity is 5,000 years old?

  1. Paraphrasing:

    “With or without religion, smart people can be intelligent, and dumb people can do stupid. But for smart people to do stupid, that takes religion.”

  2. I suspect that it WASN’T an off-hand remark, that Scalia really thinks humanity is 5,000 years old. Yikes!

  3. There’re some other rather disturbing bits in this speech…he goes to great pains to tell the students that he’d rather they sit down and shut up and follow those who know better than they are than that they try to actually do something to make the world a better place. Then some full-throttle American jingoism — and, in so doing, setting forth that we are a nation first of people and secondarily of laws…most especially distressing coming from a sitting Supreme Court justice. And a “use your freedom and lose it” lecture! “Legal restraint is a cure for irresponsibility.” And, in so many words, “your parents know best, but you’re not going to have the benefit of their wise supervision.”

    This man is pure evil.


    1. It’s refreshing* to hear a little from the old school totalitarian right since we’ve been hearing so much from the “progressive” authoritarian left lately.

    2. Sometimes I think I’m just no longer a part of the West and some of its politicians crazy ideas. Canada just passed a bill that allows the government to take away your citizenship if you do something bad. This applies only to those who are emigrants or hold dual citizenship. Although I was born in Canada, as someone with dual citizenship, I could lose my Canadian citizenship. Those born in Canada with only Canadian citizenship can never lose their citizenship, no matter what. So, we basically have second class citizens now and I am one of them.

      My friend who holds Canadian and Australian citizenship remarked that if Australia revokes her citizenship, she could very well end up stateless.

      1. Oh so that’s where Tony got the idea! Our embarrassment of a Prime Minister, has recently suggested that people be stripped of their citizenship for doing things he didn’t like (mostly going overseas to fight with ISIS). Tony hasn’t the brains to think of things himself, so I guess he’s been following Canadian politics. He wants to rescind the citizenship of those with only Australian citizenship as well, which isn’t constitutional, but hey!

        1. Yeah those two are best buds. When Tony was here last summer he kept talking about how he looked up to Harper and tried to emulate him. Yikes!

      2. Holy fucking shit.

        Do they not realize that the State needs citizens even more that citizens need the State? That disenfranchisement is intolerable, and that every instance of historical disenfranchisement is seen as the worst of the worst possible black marks on a people’s history? That the remedies to disenfranchisement invariably involve civil unrest, and not infrequently revolution?


        What the hell is going on up there? Canadians are supposed to be the sane ones!


        1. Our prime minister is a big ol’ authoritarian. I hope we vote his party out in October. I’ve noticed that whenever Canada has conservative government, The U.S. has The Democrats in power. One of us is in trouble for a few years in the next election if this pattern continues. Let’s hope for literalness all around!

          1. Any more, Democrats in the US means ultraconservative government, and Republicans means full-throttle Fascism. I’d love to hope for something better here, but I just don’t see it happening next November….


    3. Re “full-throttle American jingoism”, we’ll see how much market value it will have soon. There was a swedish conflict scientist [Agrell] that made the presses today on how some of them (if I remember correctly) concludes that there is a WWIII of sorts sneaking up. From the western Asia mess of course, and claiming that the public blame will fall on the US 3 recent wars in the region. (Two lost and the one ongoing, with the help of the anti-Daesh coalition.)

      If clear heads, which I take it Agrell is, thinks this is a risk, it is quite possible it could happen.

      I think I will have to buy Pinker’s book and dream back to more peaceful times. :-/

      1. I think the old game theory ideas of MAD still apply. There’s certainly no (realistic, widespread) appetite in the States right now for war with China, and I have no reason to think that China is idiotic enough to get into a nuclear exchange with the States. Especially considering the truly insane margin we have over them in the warhead count.

        I wouldn’t at all be surprised if some of the blowhards in the commentariat have recently been salivating over the prospect, but that’s as far as that sort of thing would ever make it.


        1. I would think China is well aware of their technological shortfall, at the moment.

          But things are afoot in my part of the world, with the US and China manoeuvring for power in the Pacific. We have had talks of extra marines and even B1 bombers being stationed here, Australia that is.

          1. As long as I’ve been alive, there’s been additional troops stationed on this border or heightened tensions along that border or the expansion of some strategically-positioned air base or surveillance operations intruding into the other disputed territory.

            Before I was born, we pretty much figured out how to deal with that sort of thing, where the boundaries are. We didn’t go to war over nuclear missiles in Cuba, and nothing since then has come remotely close to that level of tension or provocation. Nor, frankly, will it. That was much too close for anybody’s comfort, and it set the threshold for future confrontations. Not only do nuclear superpowers not put their troops (obviously) against each other in conventional warfare because of how quickly that sort of thing could “go nuclear,” you don’t even escalate tensions to the point that anybody starts to think about putting armies within spitting distance of each other. Spies, yes. “Training exercises,” even — but only if the size and scope isn’t excessively provocative. Nose-tweaking is permissible; a slap in the face, not.

            Besides which…neither side has anything to gain from warfare. Not territory, not resources, not prestige…nothing. And the inevitable halt to trade…that alone would cause at least as much damage and misery to the two countries as any non-nuclear war. Remember: America would be dead without Chinese manufacturing, and China would be dead without American consumers to buy their goods.


            1. Besides, according to Ted Cruz, dingbat from Texas, Iran is the number one threat in the world. He plans on evaluating how close they are to nuclear when he’s elected and take action as needed. The idiot probably would think it would be ok to nuke them first.

    4. Legal decision making, as every beginning law student learns, consists in determining the applicable facts and applying the law to them, possibly with a dollop of equity where applicable. Manifestly, Scalia is incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction, making him unqualified to be a lawyer let alone a judge.

      Which leads me to propose that our Judiciary be limited to exclude anyone capable of reaching a conclusion based on other than facts. Facts, that is, as science understands that term and as distinguished from faith-based beliefs.

      This would vastly improve the quality of the current Supreme Court, which is easily the most doctrinaire in my memory. Only atheists, then, would be permitted to be judges. Problem is, the inmates are running the asylum!

  4. I understand the catholic church accepts evolution and maintains we are all descended from Adam and Eve, in order to preserve the account of original sin.

  5. Scalia wrote a dissent claiming that the evidence for creationism was stronger than that for evolution, and that evolution could be accurately called a “myth”.

    Scalia was actually quoting Senator Bill Keith.

    Before Scalia quoted Keith, Scalia made this disclaimer:

    “Before summarizing the testimony of Senator Keith and his supporters, I wish to make clear that I by no means intend to endorse its accuracy. But my views (and the views of this Court) about creation science and evolution are (or should be) beside the point. Our task is not to judge the debate about teaching the origins of life, but to ascertain what the members of the Louisiana Legislature believed. The vast majority of them voted to approve a bill which explicitly stated a secular purpose; what is crucial is not their wisdom in believing that purpose would be achieved by the bill, but their sincerity in believing it would be.”

    1. Progressive Secular Humanist hasn’t corrected or clarified their post yet. (I suspect they will sometime.)

      1. Progressive Secular Humanist hasn’t corrected or clarified their post yet. (I suspect they will sometime.)

        Actually it doesn’t look like they are going to. Well this is interesting. Everyone appears to be “circling wagons”. That or I’m invisible. (Which I’m not.) Interesting to be on the side of the quote-miners this time.

    2. The fact he called it creation science says something to me.

      The other thing I noticed was his reference to the French longbow. The longbow was English, and used to great effect against the French, most famously at the Battle of Agincourt.

      1. It does seem like he got swindled by creationist baloney. But still he made the effort to make disclaimers. Sometimes maybe we are justified in being mind readers, but I’m not so sure about this time.

  6. Scalia probably does not believe humans have been around for only 5000 years.

    But he does believe it’s useful to tell young people that this is so.

  7. Scalia is a menace and is more evidence that Ronald Reagan has done more harm to this country than any other President…even Bush W. imho. Reagan’s policies and actions still screw the masses long after his death.

  8. Not sure whether Scalia is a really smart guy or not. I’m not smart enough to measure that item. All we really know for sure in a justice of the court is their decisions and I’m not too crazy about many of them. I do not like the fact that so many of these justices are Catholics. Roosevelt may have wanted to pack the court but the Vatican did.

    As I have heard Scalia do before, he talks about how he interprets the Constitution by referring to the Federalist Papers, as if they were always the answer and want to look at. I do not understand this faith in the Federalist papers. It could have something to do with his not knowing the history that well, I am not sure.

    Please note that the Federalist Papers were written after the Constitutional Convention by Madison and Hamilton primarily and published for the people of New York before their ratification convention. So much of the work in these papers were to campaign or convince the people of the positives of the Constitution and promote if you will, to get it passed. I would not be so sure that these papers are as he thinks, the true way to know the meaning of the constitution. Some of it was naturally propaganda. I do not think he and some others are aware of this??

    1. As I understand it, you are correct about New York being the target of the Federalist Papers. (Because without NY in the U.S., the U.S. simply would not have worked. Geography, if nothing else.)

      But I’ve also read that the FP were specifically targeted at the NY legislature, which was in session, and that the objective was to get the ledge to ratify before going home and chatting with constituents. Ratification proponents feared that New Yorkers would be opposed. In other words, the Federalust Papers were an attempt to persuade legislators to ignore the (assumed) will of the people. A delightful irony.

  9. One really needs to read the dissent Scalia wrote in 1987. It’s easy to find with Google. I try to verify quotes, especially when they contain the infamous ellipsis, but in this case the quote is accurate and the …’s jump around citation numbers.

    Scalia wrote that creation science had more evidence than the theory of evolution which he called “only a theory” and at best a “guess.” He also called it a “myth.”

    If that’s not a creationist then I’m a monkey’s uncle. Oh, wait …

    Just because somebody’s smart doesn’t mean they are well-read or don’t harbor crazy and bizarre notions, he said thinking about Ben Carson.

    1. He was summarizing Senator Keith.

      Before summarizing the testimony of Senator Keith and his supporters, I wish to make clear that I by no means intend to endorse its accuracy. But my views (and the views of this Court) about creation science and evolution are (or should be) beside the point. Our task is not to judge the debate about teaching the origins of life, but to ascertain what the members of the Louisiana Legislature believed. The vast majority of them voted to approve a bill which explicitly stated a secular purpose; what is crucial is not their wisdom in believing that purpose would be achieved by the bill, but their sincerity in believing it would be.

      So what do I make of that. I’m blind or something? 😀 What am I not getting.

      1. You’re right. However, I think the fact he used the word “science” after the word “creation” is a sop to the creationists. He may not believe it personally, but he certainly has sympathy for their cause of Bible in schools imo.

        1. Sure he seems way too sympathetic. But still he basically was quoting some other guy. Fair is fair! 😀 Couldn’t agree more though.

        2. @ Heather Hastie

          That’s not just Scalia, that phrase appears throughout the case. The first sentence of Brennan’s opinion, referring to Louisiana’s law, was, “The Creationism Act forbids the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools unless accompanied by instruction in “creation science.”

        3. I’m not sure that’s a sop. At the time the proponents calling their idea ‘creation science’, so he’s just using their own name for their idea. I wouldn’t necessarily see this as him making a strong philosophical claim.

          Scalia’s dissent in Edwards is focused on his disagreement with the other justices that the legislation failed the first prong of Lemon (i.e. that the legislature had a secular purpose in passing the laws). He didn’t think there was strong evidence that the legislature had a religious-promotion motive and he took as sincere their claims to have a secular motive.

          Whatever his personal opinion about young earth creationism, my guess is he would use the exact same reasoning to support any creationist or ID curricula today: “well, the proponents say it’s good science and that they have a secular purpose. Who are we to say they are lying?” Its kind of like a legal Mel Brooks joke: what hump? What evidence of religion promotion?

  10. Maybe, most likely in fact, Scalia is one of the many ultra-conservative (or fascist) catholics (and christians too) who accept evolution for non-humans but believe the Genesis explanations about how humans came to exist. A “separate creation”.

    As for scalia smarts, allow me to quote that great philosopher Foghorn Leghorn…”that boy’s about as sharp as a pound of wet liver”.

  11. It’s possible — and compatible with Catholic theology as I understand it — that Scalia fully accepts the modern ToE while also holding that our species wasn’t truly human until God started infusing us with rational souls. Perhaps he sees the advent of writing about 5,000 years ago as a sign that that infusion had begun.

  12. Whether Scalia is smart or dumb, a creationist or evolutionist, or whatever else, he is a danger to the American people and should not be on the Supreme Court.

    1. I think it might be time to reassess the lifetime appointment concept. Scalia has been on the bench for 29 years. The average life expectancy in America in 1787 was 38. I really don’t think the framers for the constitution envisioned appointments that would stretch into their third decade. William O Douglas is perhaps the greatest defender of civil liberties that SCOTUS ever saw and I’m glad for his 36+ years of service on the bench, but few Justices rise to Douglas’ level. Imagine what fun dealing with the reactionary court of Chief Justice Roberts for two more decades is going to be?

  13. “or the time when our ancestors diverged from those of modern apes (around 5 million years).”

    I think the most recent clock-like data suggest at least 6 million years ago.

    But, perhaps I am just being pedantic, but I have never liked this seemingly common way of phrasing it.

    Sure, the common ancestor of humans and chimps lived five (or 6-7) million years ago. But the lineage leading to humans (and chimps) diverged from the one leading to the gorilla 9 million years ago, and the lineage leading to humans (plus chimps and gorillas) diverged from the one leading to orangs 13 million years ago. And further back for the gibbons.

    Perhaps it is just me, but I read this common phrasing (“our ancestors diverged from those of modern apes”) to suggest that 5 million years ago, a speciation event occurred that eventually led to humans on one branch and to ALL the modern apes on the other (which is clearly not true and not what was intended).

  14. Scalia is a Tortucan, he doesn’t think about things he doesn’t think about. Its likely, like Wiliam Jennings Bryan before him, that the Biblical 5000 years or so framework is all that actually exists in his head conceptually. When I delved into Scalia’s dissent on Edwards v Aguillard in TIP 1.6 at it was evident examining his points issue by issue that he had no curiosity at all about the witnesses’ evidence or reliability, simply accepting those aspects of it that sounded congenial to his comparably Kulturkampf sensibilities.

  15. In his commencement address, I’d like to believe that his 5,000 years remark refers, loosely, to human civilization, not to humanity in sum. After all, Scalia earned his BA (summa cum laude) from Georgetown in history. He was the class valedictorian. Brilliant, then, if blinkered (with respect to the Devil and so forth). But surely he is aware that Egyptian civilization, for example, predates ours by 7,000 years and more.

  16. I think the “at least” excuses a lot.

    Suppose you were addressing a crowd 10% of which believes the Earth is just 6,000 years old. The point you’re making has nothing to do with the exact age of the Earth and only requires that the Earth has been around for a rather long time.

    Under these ciricumstances, I know I would say something like “at least five thousand” – merely to signal that everyone, including those who vastly underestimate the age of the Earth, ought to be persuaded by what I was saying.

  17. …Scalia wrote a dissent claiming that the evidence for creationism was stronger than that for evolution, and that evolution could be accurately called a “myth”.

    The Progressive Secular Humanist post that is the source of the above information mischaracterizes Scalia’s dissenting opinion in Edwards v. Aguillard. The positions it attributes to Scalia in fact come from his summary of the testimony in support of “creation science” presented to the Louisiana legislature. Before summarizing that testimony, Scalia was careful to state: “… I wish to make clear that I by no means intend to endorse its accuracy.” Not even Nino is willing to tie his credibility to such bullshit non-science.

    I point this out solely to clarify the record, not to defend Scalia. I agree with him on very little and find many of his positions indefensible.

    Scalia has grown evermore crotchety during his long tenure on the Court. Unlike the other Justices’, his legal opinions are not meant to persuade; he no longer seems even to have the same zeal for his views to prevail. Instead, his joy comes in doing battle against his perceived enemies, often engaging in individual combat with the other Justices — his weapons of choice being the close-quarters quip and the exchange of mordant footnotes at 20 paces.

    Even the right wing no longer views him as quite the same champion. Instead, its attitude toward Scalia now mirrors that of a redneck toward the spike-collared pit bull chained to the bed of his pick-up truck — up-nodding a be-ball-capped head and gesturing toward the beast with a silver Coors can in hand, while muttering through a chuckle: “Look at him. Ain’t he a pisser!”

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