A Science Student's Guide to Creationism

This is a web page originally written to help a PhD student invited to a debate involving creationism. Debating about beliefs rather than facts is always a dangerous and possibly stupid thing to do, but at the same time I do believe an academic is obligated to educate. Also, evolution is core to biology, and therefore to our research. The spread of fundamentalist belief is dangerous not only to our society but also to our livelihood.

It's almost incomprehensible to most scientists that anyone can still consider this a debate. The below argument is my attempt to express clearly why something that seems so obvious to so many people (creationism) should be so incomprehensible to otherwise smart people (scientists). Note that it is in no way a denial that there are aspects of biology we don't understand. Scientists (esp. those not biologists) can sometimes get hung up in these `debates' by expressing their ignorance of some small part of contemporary theoretical biology. The point of this page is that these details don't matter to the central question. And you should be able to express why that is. You don't need to be an expert on contemporary evolutionary theory to understand why the credible creationism debate ended ages ago. You just need to know a few facts.

By creationism here I am talking about the `young earth' theory, the story of creation as told in what Christians call the Old Testament. Many religious people hold beliefs that do not conflict with science, or hold conflicting beliefs that include respecting science and the scientific method. That's fine. What is objectionable is denying the fact of evolutionary change in the history of species on this planet, or the well-established and understood parts of the evolutionary process. That stops us from doing our job.

I've come to the conclusion that Dawkins is right, at least partly.  Evolution is just a battle; the real war is elsewhere.  Dawkins thinks the war is between naturalism and supernaturalism, and he might be right. However, I think it is more likely that the war is between science and non-science. This may seem like a similar border, but it is a very different perspective and I think a more important one. Science is both a process (the one we do our work with) and a narrative, a narrative which explains where we come from, why we have and need ethics, and other things like that. Some (e.g. political) forces like to be able to control those sorts of narratives, but they can't control the scientific one because science is also a process, and as a process it tends towards the truth established by the physical universe.

I think religion is being used as a tool by these anti-science forces, and to cover themselves they are pretending that science is being used as a tool by the anti-religious. Dawkins plays right into their hands on this, unfortunately.

Anyway, here is my argument. If I were asked to a "discussion" about creationism, I would refuse to go unless I had 20 minutes talking time, in the front, preferably with a chalkboard at the least. And this is what I'd tell them. (From here on in "you" is the audience at the debate, not you, my student.)

To begin with, this isn't a debate about the theory of evolution. Evolution is both a theory and a fact. The fact of evolution is that species change over time. The theory of evolution is how and why that change occurs. Creationists want to debate the theory because they (like scientists) know there are still unexplained problems in the theory. But creationism and biblical literalism don't really challenge the theory of evolution --- they challenge the fact, and that is a challenge they already lost in the 19th century. It's important to understand that if you believe in creationism, you are rejecting science and the scientific method. I don't expect you to just accept that; I'm going to explain how the fact of evolution was established, and in doing that I'm going to explain how science works. In ten minutes.

When Darwin first proposed the theory of evolution, the fact of evolution was not yet fully established. This is why creationists always focus on Darwin and try to pretend he was some flawed scientific deity, someone who compares unfavourably with their deity or prophet. But science doesn't hold still, it is a process of discovery. Darwin was just one smart guy who put together and popularised a few key ideas which helped advance some sciences a great deal, particularly biology. But science doesn't ever claim to be perfect or certain. The scientific process is about approaching truth by finding the most probable explanations of a phenomena.

Let's get back to evolution and creationism. Creationism is a form of biblical literalism. Many if not most deeply religious people today do not believe in biblical literalism; for example, Pope John Paul II formalised Catholic support for the fact of evolution in 1996 (original statement, some analysis). But before the 19th century biblical literalism was more widespread (witness the debates over Copernicus). And biblical literalism was in trouble during the enlightenment. There were two problems:

If you are going to be honest in your creationism you have to go all the way back to this point. You have to explain which of the biblical creation myths you believe, and why you don't believe that species are changing. Because they are changing. This was a debate 200 years ago, now it's not. Now we can watch speciation of bacteria in a test tube overnight. Now we have documented genetic shift in wild species; we've documented both extinction and speciation in the last hundred years. This isn't even to mention the fossil record, because I don't have enough time to explain geology and anyway it isn't necessary to the point: that the creationism argument is long over.

One of the little known facts about science is that no amount of data can in itself overturn a theory --- it takes another theory to do this as well. What Darwin did was finally give the scientific community a way to get a grip on all this data showing that species changed. He proposed a mechanism that, while not refined enough to explain all the nuances of life on earth up to this point, is still the basis of our understanding of evolutionary change. This is selection: the two facts that

are brought together to show that there can be a bias as to which animals survive, and this might explain why there is systematic (rather than arbitrary) change in a species over time.  This process explains, without magic, the diversity of life on earth.

Of course Darwin didn't figure out the whole story. He didn't even know about genetics, or that hereditary units are discrete. (Mendel may have sent Darwin a paper on his research, but there's no evidence that Darwin ever read or cared about it.) But as I said earlier, science is a process of approaching the truth, and Darwin was just one person who applied the process for a while. Baldwin figured out how individual learning could drastically speed up the the process of evolution just a few decades after The Origin of Species was published. Dawkins is famous for having helped explain how altruism could evolve under Darwinian selection.

Many religious people think it's important that religions keep growing and evolving too, and getting closer to the truth. That's why Christianity up until the Protestant reformation had ways of overriding texts and creating new ones. The Bible that exists today was created by the Catholic church over a period of decades and with considerable debate. And it is not physically possible for you to read it with the same understanding as people did back when they chose those books, or two hundred years ago before Darwin, or even as you yourself read it two years ago. Human knowledge changes, our concepts change, and our understanding comes through our concepts. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. So really, the whole idea of perpetual truths recorded in written text is incoherent.

Christianity & Islam would probably be a lot healthier now if that process could continue, if their holy texts could keep being updated, better books were written, evaluated and revered in the place of older ones that have been found to be apocryphal. But unfortunately some people in religion feel the need to assert inerrancy. Creationism, or really, biblical literalism, is not just destructive to science and education --- it's probably also destructive to religion.

That's the end of the argument --- now I'm talking to you, my student again. Of course, it is unlikely you will remember all of this. But the most important point to remember is the form of the argument. Don't get hung up on boring details of modern theory of selection, go to the heart of what's wrong with biblical literalism. To do that, you only need to remember the basics about biblical creation, the basics about evolution, and a little bit of scientific history. Any scientist should know the basics of science, evolution and a little scientific history anyway. It's part of the job. So the only extra thing you should need this kind of debate is to read the first five chapters of Genesis and possibly some commentary on them.
Update for 2008: back to gravity vs. evolution
page author: Joanna  Bryson
Written: Nov 1 2006