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Creationism versus Evolution: From Bad to Worse!

Jere H. Lipps

Article number: 2.2.4E
October 1999

While I hesitate to contribute another essay on creationism, my previous editorial spawned some interesting comments. These ranged (as you can read) from "why are you telling us this since we already know it" to agreement and substantiation of various points. Even more interesting are events that have taken place in the United States since Spring 1999. These events should cause all paleontologists concern for they portend an international effort to destroy evolutionary science and, of course, a step backwards for science education. No country needs that! Paleontologists and other scientists must speak out against this movement in order to preserve science in general and their science in particular. No longer can we simply respond to creationists, we must become proactive and reach out to the general public.

About one-third of humanity adheres to Christianity. They all read the Bible in one degree or another, and they all believe in it in one degree or another. Most Christian religions accept evolution and the methods of science. But many Christian fundamentalists preach that the Bible is the word of God, not to be forsaken or even analyzed. These fundamentalists often characterize evolution as the root of most evils and see evolution as an attack on their fundamental beliefs. They feel so strongly about this that they continually fight to have evolution overthrown in the courts and schoolrooms of the US and, increasingly, the rest of the world.

Since publication of the last issue of this journal the Board of Education of the State of Kansas has declared that evolution need not be taught in Kansas public schools, a philanthropist has provided a multi-million dollar gift to a creationist organization in Seattle, US presidential candidates have declared evolution to be unbelievable, and we all continue to be inundated with creationist literature and debates. Creationist movements are also growing in size and influence in many other countries (e.g., , Australia, Korea, Turkey, the UK, Russia). Owing to these events, and others, it is now clear that this has become an international issue of science versus non-science.

The Kansas situation is the most serious creationist attack on American science education in several years. Although it does not ban the teaching of evolution outright, it leaves that decision up to local school boards. This sort of thing cannot be tolerated in any modern, civilized country for several reasons:

  1. modern civilization exists through scientific consent;
  2. a proper understanding of scientific facts and methods is a requirement for modern life; and
  3. freedom of religious choice negates any "right" of creationists to foist their ideas on others. Moreover, with large donations of money and the influence of significant politicians, creationists have a voice far larger than their numbers.

Creationists seek to convince us that the Book of Genesis is literal history. They argue, among other things, that evolution has been disproved, that scientists themselves do not believe in evolution, that radiometric age dating doesn’t work, that missing links demonstrate the fallacy of evolution, and that the intricate and complex design of organisms (now at the molecular level) demonstrates the hand of a creator...Of course, this is nonsense, but the implications of the Creationist’s arguments go far beyond evolutionary theory. Evolution is not an exception to the general methods of science. If creationists destroy evolution, they will have also destroyed science. The principles that built television, computers, and provide an understanding of so many other important things in our lives are the same principles employed in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biology uses the best of the experimental and historical sciences, and if evolution is not believable, no other science is either! Indeed, the Kansas debacle has already produced statements that other scientific "theories" —such as gravitational theory—are as invalid as evolution.

To some extent the real problem has to do with communication. Scientists tend to explain concepts in detail and to pepper their explanations with the relatively inaccessible jargon of their specialties whereas creationists speak in compelling, familiar and simplistic ways. They win their arguments in many cases because they reassure, rather than alienate and confuse, their audience. Creationists don’t really seek to convince scientists that they are wrong, but to win adherents in the audience to their position. Scientific supporters of evolution must learn to play the same rhetorical game: not to try to convince Creationists they are wrong, but to win adherents in the audience. As I pointed out last time, creationists are often skilled orators, very well organized, and well funded. Comparable levels of skill, organization, and funding will be needed to counter them.

As some of the comments generated by my previous editorial on this topic reveal, paleontologists, as well as many other scientists, remain somewhat complacent about this issue. Most of us have been content to let others fight the battle. Thus far this battle has been fought by the US National Academy of Sciences and the Paleontological Society (among others) with books and programs aimed chiefly at teachers. However, teachers are an embattled minority themselves, and, while useful, these books and programs do not reach the lay public that pressures school boards and others to deny evolution. What is required is a grass-roots effort by paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, and other scientists to correct the misinformation passed by the creationists. Our colleague Steve Gould recently wrote a cover editorial for Time Magazine about the Kansas decision that was read by millions of people. We need more of that sort of exposure at all levels. And we have the perfect tools. Dinosaurs, trilobites, mammoths, and other ancient life forms fascinate adults and children alike. We need to enlist this natural and wholly appropriate fascination in placing the case for evolution (and science) before our audiences.

For the well-being of science and society in general, scientists must win this battle. To do so, scientists must learn to speak simply and clearly about evolution. Straight-forward statements supporting evolution are required. Not complex explanations. Make simple analogies. Use local examples. Demonstrate how the fossil record shows evolution. Explain the simple physics behind radiometric dating methods Show why "missing links" are merely small gaps in the continuous and logical record of evolution, not inconsistencies in its foundations. Be prepared to rebut false statements and answer questions simply.

And if you think this is not a problem in your country, be watchful. Wherever fundamentalist religious groups holds sway, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, creationists lurk. Be prepared. Make sure science is taught properly in your schools. Write for newspapers and magazines that are read by the general public. Keep science interesting and in the public view however you can. We can’t rely on others to do this job for us and we certainly can’t afford to allow the creationists to win.