Creation research: pushing back(ward) the frontiers

round_earth_controversy.jpgYou’ve got to give creationists some credit for pure mulish stubborn determination. Their strategies to remove evolution from classrooms are themselves a classic example of evolution in response to a changing environment, developing from the initially amateurish claims of “creation science” to the recent hubbub about “intelligent design”, cleverly clothed in its veneer of empirical credibility.  In every case these efforts have been trounced by state and federal courts as transparent attempts to inject fundamentalist Christianity into public education.

Despite its losing record, however, “creation science” is not yet extinct. Like a punch-drunk boxer, it keeps coming back for more. 

Now, in fact, it seems to have come full-circle.  Licking their wounds from the landmark decision of Bush-appointed federal judge John Edward Jones in the Dover school board case (who noted that the suggested textbook disclaimer showed “breathtaking inanity“), the troops are regrouping around their original unabashed embrace of the straight-up biblical creation story as the literal account of the universe’s origin. There remains the nagging problem, however, that no reputable scientific journal has published any paper that supports creationism.

Hence the new International Journal of Creation Research. No, I am not making this up:

“The Institute for Creation Research is pleased to announce the inaugural Call for Papers for the International Journal of Creation Research (IJCR).

IJCR is a professional peer-reviewed journal of interdisciplinary scientific research that presents evidence for recent creation within a biblical framework.

Addressing the need to disseminate the vast field of research conducted by experts in geology, genetics, astronomy, and other disciplines of science, IJCR provides scientists and students hard data based on cutting-edge research that demonstrates the young earth model, the global Flood, the non-evolutionary origin of the species, and other evidences that correlate to the biblical accounts [Editor’s note: “Huh?!“].

It is our hope that you will be encouraged in your study of creation science issues that remain at the forefront of education and research.”

Running across this piece of news got me thinking that this might be an opportune occasion to post an essay I did a few years ago for the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Virginia.  So here it is, in its entirety:

Faith, science, and the mystery of nature
Nature inspires awe and mystery.  The intricate design in living organisms is obvious to even a casual observer.  Since the beginning of time, humans have been fascinated and humbled by this order in the natural world, and our quests to explain it have taken many paths.  Many people find deep inspiration in their faith that the order of nature reflects the purposeful plan of God.  Similarly, many, including both deeply religious and secular people, are drawn to the grand challenge of understanding nature’s intricate workings through science.  Both perspectives have greatly enriched human experience.  Sadly, in recent decades, the scientific and religious paths toward understanding have become increasingly estranged from one another.  The flashpoint for this disagreement involves the teaching of evolution. 

Biological evolution is the foundation on which all of the modern life sciences are built, the culmination of a revolutionary century of exploration, rigorous testing, and synthesis.  It is regarded by essentially all practicing biologists as the most fundamental, internally consistent, and empirically well-supported body of explanation in the history of the life sciences.  Importantly, many world religions have also recognized this, and issued formal statements supporting the validity of evolution.  These include the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran World Federation, the United Methodist Church, the United Presbyterian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the American Jewish Congress, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and others.

Recently, however, a vocal minority has accelerated a long-running campaign to uproot evolution from school science curricula because they perceive it as incompatible with the Bible.  This strategy initially involved attempts to introduce overtly religious statements as scientific alternatives to evolution (“creation science”).  But their non-scientific nature was transparent, and such attempts were consistently struck down by the courts, stimulating an evolutionary change (if I may use the term) in the anti-evolution battle plan.  The latest product of this process is the cleverly packaged concept of “Intelligent Design” (ID), which suggests that living organisms are too complex to have arisen incrementally via evolution, and therefore must have been designed with foresight by an intelligent power.  ID is politically savvier than previous, versions of “creation science”: its proponents claim, at least in public, that it is not religious, and it eschews some of the more obviously indefensible claims of earlier creationist statements (e.g., a 6,000 year-old earth).  With its new clothes and superficial resemblance to a scientific theory, ID proponents are redoubling their efforts to inject their ideas into science classrooms, representing ID as a new scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution, and appealing to basic American values of fairness.   

So what’s the big deal?  Why not give “intelligent Design” equal time in science classes?  ID proponents like to claim that they are promoting critical thought.  Although this argument seems suspiciously out of character from religious fundamentalists, it nevertheless sounds reasonable to a casual observer.  After all, challenges to orthodoxy are how science progresses and what makes it healthy.  Think Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein—and, of course, Darwin.  But there is a fatal flaw in this argument when applied to “Intelligent Design”.  That is that, throughout history, challenges to scientific orthodoxy have succeeded by offering a testable alternative, a new explanation that scrutiny by skeptical parties proves to fit the data better than the old one did.  “Intelligent design” fails this test because it not only offers no alternative scientific explanation, it offers no scientific explanation at all.  In a nutshell, ID argues that the workings of organic life are so complex that we not only don’t understand them, we can’t understand them.  There are two basic problems here.  First, the premise is incorrect.  It amounts to saying, “If I can’t understand evolution, it must be wrong”.  But of course, many other people understand it perfectly well.  The failure of ID proponents to comprehend organic evolution no more disproves the theory than my incomprehension at a 747 taking flight proves that air travel is a divine miracle.  The more general problem is that intellectual laziness is not an alternative explanation. 

The crux of this issue is the simple question of what science is.  It is, simply, the systematic search for knowledge about the natural world in the form of evidence gathered by observation and experiment.  Faith is, by definition, acceptance that does not depend on empirical evidence.  Celebrating the order of nature as God’s plan—God’s Intelligent Design, if you will—is a font of inspiration for millions of people, and always will be.  Science cannot challenge the validity of that view because it is based on faith and therefore, by definition, outside the purview of science.  “Intelligent Design” is another story because it purports to be a scientific explanation.  When considered scientifically ID is, to be blunt, nonsense—meaning that it doesn’t make sense.  In contrast, as the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”  Evolution is the heart of biology not because thousands of diverse, independent, and often mutually antagonistic scientists worldwide have somehow conspired to agree on something.  It is the heart of biology because, simply, the explanation works. 

So, if “Intelligent Design” is really intellectually empty, why are we hearing so much about it these days?  As a cursory Google search reveals, ID is in the public eye because of a well-funded, highly organized, and ideologically motivated marketing campaign.  This is not the way that scientific ideas compete for acceptance.  More importantly, it is deeply unhealthy for science and society, as history has repeatedly demonstrated.  A classic case with chilling parallels to the evolution/creation controversy involves the disastrous decline of Soviet science and agriculture during the Stalinist period resulting from state promotion of T.D. Lysenko’s ideologically motivated, but tragically mistaken, theories of genetics.  Bad science begets bad economics and bad social policy.  

Bad science is also bad politics.  Science is intimately intertwined in every aspect of modern life: agriculture, global commerce, medicine, homeland defense.  It is critical to our future.  Applied evolutionary biology specifically has given us flu vaccines, AIDS treatments, and many essential products of modern agriculture.  The bottom line is that we cannot have the economic and social benefits of modern medicine, high-tech industry, world-class universities and hospitals without rigorous science—including modern evolutionary biology.  Nor is the health and independence of science a partisan issue.  If we don’t recognize and support this with our votes and tax dollars, in a decade or so our kids will be working low-wage telemarketing jobs for multinational companies based in India, rather than vice versa. 

So, my fellow Americans, I have a proposition, and it will require faith—a faith-based initiative.  Let’s keep this country’s historical faith in the power of objective, rational science that has brought us one of the highest standards of living in the world.  Let’s keep the faith in rigorous, free scientific inquiry that made us a leader in science, engineering, and industry, and an economic and intellectual beacon to the entire world.  Let’s have a revival of our historical faith in rational thought, so that we can fix the alarming decline of high school education decried recently by Republican and Democratic Governors from all over the USA.  This will require faith that our unity as a nation is more than just a bumper sticker slogan, that we trust that people who vote differently than we do really do have the welfare and betterment of society at heart.  It requires faith that science will continue, as it has in the past, to produce answers to the urgent and difficult questions about how we can survive and prosper in our increasingly endangered world.  And it requires faith that science and religion are not mutually exclusive but are different sides of the same coin, which is our core human need to understand the universe and our place in it.  As the Rev. Benet J. Sims, Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, put it so well, “If the world is not God’s, the most eloquent or belligerent arguments will not make it so.  If it is God’s world, and this is the first declaration of our creed, then faith has no fear of anything the world itself reveals to the searching eyes of science.” 

By all means, let’s celebrate and foster productive, good-faith challenges to scientific orthodoxy.  And let’s discuss critically the merits of all ideas, including modern evolutionary theory and “Intelligent Design”, in their appropriate contexts.  But let’s not cloud the issue by confusing deliberate obfuscation with a scientific theory.   We need healthy, rigorous science now more than ever.  God knows. 

[P.S. If you’re humbled and inspired by the wonder and mystery of creation—and who isn’t?—but can’t quite swallow a 3000-year old legend of how it got here, I recommend E.O. Wilson’s book, “The Creation“, on the Natural Patriot’s essential reading list.]  


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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