Back to the Dark Ages: teaching creationism in school

Commentary by Jim Walker, 22 Aug. 1999



"There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as The Dark Ages."
-Ruth Hurmence Green

The decision of the Kansas Board of Education to drop evolution in the state's science classes has put Kansas back into the Dark Ages. Considering that about 45 percent of Americans take the Bible's story of creation literally, over 50 percent believe in some form of godly creation, with only 10 percent that subscribe to a purely scientific explanation, this indicates the power and danger of religious belief to rule our education system.

Beliefs, however, regardless of how strongly believed or the number of believers, do not determine how nature works. Beliefs do not equal facts.

The decision to drop evolution does not come from scientists, but from a purely religious-political thrust. Our religious leaders and religion controlled politicians have convinced the majority of Americans that public schools should teach both creationism and evolution. After all, this seems fair, right? Wrong.

The problem stems with a confusion of category. One describes a science, the other a religious belief. To teach creationism in a biology class would produce the same kind of error as teaching flat-earth beliefs in a geometry class, an earth centered universe in an astronomy course, or a zoology lecture on how unicorns once lived. (flat-earth, geocentric universe, and unicorns, all occur in the Bible).

Recently, pseudo religious leaders like Jesse Jackson and Jerry Falwell appeared on CNN (no scientist appeared on the show), explaining that they both agree that schools should teach both creationism and evolution because they both describe valid theories. They make it seem as if they both have some sort of equality. As a matter of fact, there occurs a vast difference between the two.

The theory of evolution rests on interpreting the facts of evolution; Intelligent Design (Creationism), on the other hand, has no facts at all to support it.

And to call Creationism a theory gets about as misleading as one can get. A theory applies to an explanation of the nature, behavior, or to a specified set of phenomena (facts). And because Creationism rests on no such known nature or phenomena (a god creating life), to call it a theory betrays the very meaning of the word.

Creationism does not consist of a theory, but rather a hypothesis or a belief. A hypothesis describes an explanation subject to verification by evidence. Please note that both hypothesis and beliefs require no verification or evidence at all. At all!

Theories, however, rely on some knowledge of evidence; things measurable, analyzed or simulated.

All of the sciences hinge on theory as an explanation for the facts. We understand the fact of gravity with the theory of gravitation. We know how to build and fly aircraft because of the theories of flight. Quantum theory rests on the factual nature of the subatomic world. Theories explain facts. You cannot have a theory without facts. Creationism or Intelligent Design does not have facts, because no one has ever established intelligent life outside planet earth, much less an omnipotent one, therefore you cannot have a theory of Creationism. You can, however, have a belief, story, legend, or a hypothesis of Creationism. Creationism has as much validity as the tooth fairy or Peter Pan.

Interestingly, most religionists can look back in history and acknowledge the ignorance of the early church regarding the Copernican sun centered solar system and the injustice against Galileo when he had to submit to the Jesuits and withhold from defending the concept of a moving earth. But if we used the same logic that our present creationists use, then why not teach about a geocentric universe along with modern cosmology? Why not Jesse? Why not Jerry? It appears in the Bible.

Has it ever occurred to these religious believers that Creationism rests on similar kinds of intransigent belief as did ancient beliefs of the cosmos? Today we have such an abundance of evolutionary facts that to reduce it to a belief and teach it beside a superstition gets about as silly as all the other non-scientific ideas of the Bible.

Scientists now understand the mechanism of life, DNA, and how it can change through time. They have abundant fossil evidence of evolution, including transitional forms in diverse taxonomic groups. They've observed evolution in microbes, plants, and animals. Computers simulate evolution. Animal breeders utilize artificial selection. Scientists have even developed laboratory experiments, using actual simple life forms that show evolution in real time. Ever wonder why we suddenly have resistant strains of streptococcus, or gonorrhea? Because they evolved.

But if Creationism has any validity, that a god produced all animal kinds at one time, then why hasn't anyone found blue-jay fossils, lion fossils, poodle fossils, etc., in prehistoric ages such as the Cretaceous period (136 million years ago)? Creationism has produced not a single shred of scientific evidence for its claims.

Natural selection (Darwin's theory), however, gives us the only working explanation for how life changes on our planet-- evolution. Scientists have discovered many convincing examples of natural selection, including both extant and extinct. Nature determines evolution, not human beliefs. Evolution, and all natural occurrences happen with or without our consent. Evolution does not require beliefs.

In fact, virtually all information systems evolve with time, not just life. DNA provides the linguistic information for all known life. But information systems like language and religions evolve also. How did languages like English and French get here? How did Christianity get here? They both evolved from earlier forms. Virtually the same questions that puzzle Creationists about evolution can apply to any information system. We know that French evolved from Latin. So you might wonder about their transitional forms, the missing link between the two. We know that Christianity evolved out of a Hellenized version of Judaism (yes folks, even Christianity evolves).

Beliefs do not equal facts. And the demand to teach creationism as science shows how beliefs produce ignorance. In spite of these setbacks, I have some optimism and confidence that people in the future will look back at our time and acknowledge the ignorance of the Creationists. Unfortunately, our children will suffer the consequences of this temporary religious backlash, and it will keep them from understanding how science works, an unfortunate set back to Dark Age beliefs.

"Our creationist detractors charge that evolution is an unproved and unprovable charade-- a secular religion masquerading as science. They claim, above all, that evolution generates no predictions, never exposes itself to test, and therefore stands as dogma rather than disprovable science. This claim is nonsense. We make and test risky predictions all the time; our success is not dogma, but a highly probable indication of evolution's basic truth."

-Stephen Jay Gould