Mon 21 Aug 00 18:00
More creationist crap

Unnatural selection

Creation science is far from extinct. On the contrary, says Debora MacKenzie, it's mutating and spreading

IN THE BEGINNING, there wasn't that much fuss. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. By 1900, mainstream Protestants had adapted their theology to it. More conservative Christians had misgivings. But nearly all agreed that the Earth is millions of years old, and there was no organised opposition to the teaching of evolution. Now, a century later, the US is the world's leading scientific nation. Yet 47 per cent of Americans--and a quarter of college graduates--believe humans did not evolve, but were created by God a few thousand years ago. Nearly a third believe creationism should be taught in science lessons. Most teachers avoid trouble by not teaching evolution. Some teach that there is scientific evidence that the Earth was created less than 10 000 years ago, that fossils are the result of Noah's flood and that dinosaurs existed until recently.

What happened? And why has it--so far--happened mainly in the US? Opinions are varied. Douglas Futuyma, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, blames anti-intellectualism in a frontier nation that viewed intellectuals as an elite opposing the spirit of populism.

"The attitude that spawned the creation science movement is the same one that made America a leader in world science: a healthy disrespect for authority," says Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University in Rhode Island. Brent Dalrymple, a geophysicist at the University of Oregon, Corvallis, says creationism offers people in a mobile, insecure society reassurance of their own special status.

However it started, creationism is now being encouraged by right-wing political groups, which are exploiting people's misgivings about science to boost their membership and pursue wider goals. This is spreading the belief far beyond the US. And in the US, it is on the rise.

The history of creationism in the US is intimately tied up with the country's social and political development, says historian Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At first, even literal readers of the Bible were largely reconciled to evolution. They assumed that the six "days" of creation in Genesis were simply very long, or that most of evolution fitted in between the first verse--"In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth"--and the rest of the story. But even so, says Numbers, the origin of humans has always been the sticking point.

Creationists, he says, have two main problems. If humans were not created in God's image, but descended from animals, why should they behave any better than animals? And if people could evolve by the working of natural laws alone, what need is there for God?

This had little political effect until rapid urbanisation in the 1920s in Europe and North America radically changed social structures and caused anxiety about moral standards among conservative Christians. In Europe, people found political or ethnic targets for these anxieties.

But in the US, conservative Christians blamed belief in "godless evolution", says Numbers. In 1925, Tennessee prohibited teaching "that man has descended from a lower order of animals". The American Civil Liberties Union, a campaigning group, asked John Scopes, a physics teacher in Tennessee, to test the law. It is not clear whether Scopes ever actually taught an evolution lesson, but a state court found him guilty nonetheless. The ACLU planned to appeal, sure that the law violated the US Constitution. However, before an appeal could be lodged, the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Even so, the trial had a tremendous impact. "Scopes was the O. J. Simpson of his day," says Numbers. For the first time, the entire proceedings were broadcast on the radio. It was the world's first media circus.

Partly as a result of the publicity surrounding the case, 20 states debated similar anti-evolution laws. Successful counter-pressure from scientists defeated them in all but Arkansas and Mississippi. But the trial fostered popular suspicion of evolution, and it steadily disappeared from school textbooks.

The next upheaval came in the 1950s, when a hydraulic engineer named Henry Morris was troubled by the apparent conflicts between science and fundamentalist religion. A believer in both, Morris reasoned that as Genesis was literally true, there must be empirical evidence for it. So he set out to find it.

The result was The Genesis Flood, published in 1961 by Morris and a Bible scholar, John Whitcomb. It asserted that the entire Universe was created in six literal days less than 10 000 years ago. The second law of thermodynamics started operating only with Adam's sin in Eden. The fossil record, and geological formations such as the Grand Canyon, were created in a year by the planetary cataclysm of Noah's flood. Empirical evidence was cited for everything.

Morris's ideas are utterly unscientific, says Miller. "They started with a conclusion--Genesis--and collected facts that appeared to support it, discarding or misinterpreting any that didn't fit." This included most of the evidence for evolution. The account was made to look scientific, he says, by scientific-sounding terminology and misused data.

For example, Morris claimed Noah fitted the ancestors of all species (including dinosaurs) onto the Ark by taking two juveniles each of 17 500 "kinds".

His view permits limited natural selection, while denying it can lead to really novel variation. So two dogs on the Ark gave rise to all modern canids. But they would have had to do it in 4300 years--much faster than any known rate of genetic change.

The book was an enormous success, though, because it appeared at an opportune time. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, embarrassed American scientists demanded better science education for Americans. As part of this drive for science teaching, a new text book that heavily emphasised evolution was issued by the government-funded Biological Sciences Curriculum Study and bought by half of the school districts in the US.

"There were howls of protest from conservative Christians," says Numbers. "They felt their tax dollars were being used to undermine their religious beliefs." At the same time, Morris's "young-Earth creationism" seemed to reconcile religion and science. "It flooded the fundamentalist world," says Numbers.

It also suited a new effort to promote religion in public schools. Although laws against teaching evolution became impossible in 1968, when the US Supreme Court said the Arkansas law violated the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids the State, and thus state-funded schools, from promoting a particular religion. But while religion couldn't be taught in schools, science could be. So in the 1970s, Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws requiring science classes to give equal time to Morris's "creation science" and evolution.

The Supreme Court overturned the Louisiana statute in 1987, ruling that creation science was really religious belief, so could not be taught as science. Critical to the decision was the active intervention of scientists, who wrote the court a definition of science. Creation science did not meet requirements such as starting with a falsifiable hypothesis.

So in the 1990s, creationists abandoned law and focused on the school boards, which set teaching requirements in state schools. They convinced several to require teachers to describe evolution as "theory rather than fact".

Alabama added a disclaimer to texts describing evolution, labelling them as "controversial". A similar statute in Louisiana was overturned by a local court in 1997, a decision now being appealed to the Supreme Court.

But despite these successive courtroom defeats for creation science, no law actually prohibits a teacher from teaching creationism and few school boards bother, says John Wever, a public school science teacher in New York state. A teacher in his school persists in teaching creation science, even though the school authorities told him to stop. "Given the religious nature of the area, and the fact that school boards are elected bodies, it is unlikely the district will pursue an expensive court case," says Wever. "I teach the students science after the creationist teacher does."

When Wever describes evolution, his students ask "How can that be when God made all the animals at the same time?" or "How do you know, were you there?"--a favourite creationist challenge. Wever tries to explain the nature of scientific evidence, but he is rare. "Teachers constantly tell me they gave up teaching evolution years ago," says Miller.

Last August, the Kansas State Board of Education--which included several fundamentalists--rejected the school curriculum standards written by its scientific advisers. The list it adopted in its place was secretly written by Tom Willis of the Creation Science Association of Mid-America.

It deleted all references to evolution or the big bang, and inserted fundamentalist material. For instance, the original standards defined science as seeking "natural" explanations. That was changed to "logical", which can include supernatural explanations. The revision also says-- incorrectly--that "natural selection . . . does not add new information to the existing genetic code". Willis believes that dinosaurs lived in the US until late in the 19th century, and his school standards ask students to "analyse hypotheses about extinction of dinosaurs" and "show the weaknesses in the reasoning".

Lee Alison, a geologist at the US Geological Survey in Lawrence, Kansas, hopes the fundamentalists on the school board will be defeated in elections in August. "Scientists must remain alert to what is going on in their local community," he advises. "And if something like this happens, they must get involved."

The events in Kansas have inspired a nationwide outcry from scientists, a refusal by national science agencies to let Kansas use their science standards in other areas and a software firm's decision not to locate in Topeka.

This has not gone unnoticed in four other states, where various anti-evolution proposals have been dropped. But similar proposals remain alive in four more.

One thing these defeats in the courts have done is to split the creationist camp. When the Louisiana equal-time law was overturned in 1987, young-Earth theorists could no longer sell creationism as science. "Morris went the way of the dinosaurs after that," says Michael Cromartie, director of evangelical studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a religious think tank in Washington DC.

Instead, many creationists favour "intelligent design", a way of trying to find evidence for God without being wed to Morris's ideas. In his 1991 book Darwin on Trial, Phillip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, did not propose his own theory or estimate the age of the Universe. "Like a good lawyer, he just tries to create a reasonable doubt about Darwin," says Miller.

For instance, he insists that mutation is always damaging and cannot generate the variations required for natural selection, and that fossil species appear too suddenly to result from selection. Miller, whose 1999 book Finding Darwin's God examines all the creationists' theories in the light of scientific research, says that science has clearly disproved this. But that is not Johnson's main concern. "It (evolution) means that all living things are the product of mindless material forces," he wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year. "God is totally out of the picture." Johnson, like many creationists, believes there must be empirical evidence for God -- and if orthodox scientists deny this it must be because they too are pushing a religious agenda, a godless one.

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, a California-based group that supports the teaching of evolution, says that this, not scientific nitpicking, is the appeal of creationism.

"Johnson uses evolution to get people into the argument about theism versus naturalism. He says evolution means you have no purpose or meaning. People don't care about good or bad science, but they do care whether their life means something." This, she says, attracts the majority of Christians who are not Biblical literalists or young-Earthers. "It pushes the debate to a much broader audience."

This includes the 40 per cent of Americans who believe that evolution was God's way of creating life. Miller, himself a Christian, says creationists attract such people by creating a false choice between creationism and atheism, which they equate with orthodox science. It doesn't help, says Miller, when some scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, agree. Nearly half of all Americans, according to recent polls, think children should be taught both evolution and creationism "so they can make up their own minds", as though the two were competing explanations.

And yet, says Miller--and many other scientists who are Christians--religion and science don't compete. They ask different questions and inhabit different arenas. Miller even feels that trying to prove Genesis makes God look bad. Carried to their logical conclusions, he says, the various schools of creationism make God a charlatan, a magician or a mechanic.

Scientists, says Scott, must take that message to the religious majority, those who don't--yet--think creation should be taught as science, but who worry that science challenges their beliefs. "An attack on evolution is an attack on all of science," she says. "Discredit that, and the next generation may wonder why they should support science at all."

From New Scientist magazine, 22 April 2000.

@ Copyright New Scientist, RBI Limited 2000


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