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COLUMN

Where Creationism Fails Teaching of Evolution is Central to Biology, Ethics, and Science Policy.

Guest Column
Brad Hersh

Guest columnist Glenn McMillon, Jr. would have us believe that creationism “is an equally valid scientific theory in opposition” to evolution [“Clearing Up Creation,” Sep. 24]. His column is erroneous, highly misleading, and betrays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of science. It also concludes with the false image of the creationist as the open-minded individual merely asking for equal time against the closed-minded evolutionist. As I will argue, creationism lacks explanatory power and is an example of special pleading for a particular religious viewpoint, and as such does not deserve time in a public school science classroom.

McMillon repeats the old saw that evolution is not science because it is impossible to “repeat, observe, or measure.” This statement wrongly disqualifies historical sciences such as geology and astronomy, while at the same time ignoring field and laboratory evidence for evolution occurring in populations today (for one well-documented example, see the work of Drs. Peter and Rosemary Grant as related in The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner). Furthermore, fossil evidence for evolution, too voluminous to detail here, remains solid, despite the unfounded aspersions McMillon attempts to cast on it.

Judge William Overton, in the 1982 McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education decision against Arkansas’ “balanced treatment” act, discussed “essential characteristics” of science based in large part on the testimony of philosopher of science Michael Ruse. These characteristics, as enumerated in Robert Pennock’s Tower of Babel, are that science is guided by natural law, that it has to be explanatory by reference to natural law, that it is testable against the empirical world, that its conclusions are tentative (not necessarily the final word), and that it is falsifiable. Creation science fails to meet each and every one of these criteria.

Creation science starts from the postulate of a supernatural designer and rationalizes evidence to support that, rather than starting from observation of the natural world. As such, creation science is not science; it is religion. And having failed in introducing creation into schools, creationists now take the opposite tactic of trying to dilute the teaching of evolution.

What I (and many others, no doubt) would like to see is the much-vaunted evidence for creation science. I have never seen positive evidence for creation science, only negative argumentation. Arguments of the form “Evolution does not explain X” are not positive evidence for creation. Does anyone believe that gravitation is not true merely because we don’t have a fully-explained mechanism by which gravitational forces act? Creationists would apply such an absurd standard to evolutionary biology. Creationists delight in pointing out gaps and deducing therefrom an intelligent designer, but it is only the scientists who actually endeavor to fill explanatory gaps.

Arguments of the form “X can only be explained by a designer” are likewise invalid. They lack any explanatory power and stifle further research, as absolutely any experimental problem can be explained away by invoking a designer. In such a system, how does one rationally decide when to pursue a natural explanation that may be difficult to discern, and when to simply give up and invoke a designer?

The only evidence for creation is by special revelation, and science is a public enterprise that does not operate by personal revelation. Science operates by methodological naturalism and must ignore supernatural forces in its explanations or else it fails as a public form of knowledge. By definition, the only insights we can get into the supernatural (that which is beyond the natural) are by special revelation and cannot be publicly verified in the manner of scientific data.

McMillon also claims that this is a two-sided issue, and that public school students deserve to be exposed to both sides. McMillon -- as well as Kris Schnee in his earlier column [“A Bridge to the 11th Century,” Sep. 21] -- greatly underestimates the number of sides involved here. Since revelation is the only way by which we can gain knowledge of supernatural explanations of biological diversity, what basis do we have for determining the revelations to use? That is, the revelations of which creation story are we to use in school as the basis of creation science? The Pueblo Indians’? Hindus’? Perhaps the story found in Genesis? Use of any of these (or countless others) would clearly be a government endorsement of one religion over others.

But isn’t this really what creationists have in mind when they ask for “equal time” -- for everyone to be exposed to the Genesis creation story as part of the public school curriculum? Such a goal is not simply a democratic request for equal treatment, but is instead a ploy for government endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. It should be obvious why this is undesirable.

Evolution does not conflict with religion, in the same way that physics and chemistry do not conflict with religion. Religion and science are separate realms of human experience. Religion should not comment on matters of science, just as science does not attempt to prove or disprove matters of religion. Creation science wrongly attempts to import the supernatural into scientific methodology.

This exchange of letters and columns was prompted by the actions of the Kansas Board of Education in their revision of the state science standards. The board altered its definition of science, eliminated references to geologic time and the age of the earth, and specifically weakened its presentation of evolution. Societal issues raised by the human genome project, genetic testing, and the war against antibiotic-resistant diseases (as just a few examples) require a thorough understanding of the biological issues that underlie them. To undermine public understanding of biology by diluting the teaching of evolution is to undermine the role of society in shaping science policy and biomedical ethics.

To paraphrase geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, nothing in biology makes sense without evolution. Evolution is not supported by one or even a few critical proofs -- props that can be knocked out to bring down the whole edifice. Rather, evolution permeates biology, both supporting it and being supported by it. To teach biology without regard to this central nature of evolution does students a grievous disservice. It is this critical importance that both McMillon and the Kansas Board of Education seem to have missed.

Brad Hersh is a graduate student in Biology.