The Trouble With Creationism
February 22, 2005
By Glenn M. Edwards
anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin has come and gone for
another year. This man who did so much to free us from ignorance
was born, happily enough, on the same day as Abraham Lincoln (February
12, 1809). So now is a good time to point out just why Creationism
is a bad idea, even under its new guise of Intelligent Design.
First, there is nothing very exotic or difficult about Darwin's
Theory of Evolution. The simple fact is that no individual generated
sexually is exactly like either parent. There are always differences.
Some of these will hurt the individual's chances of survival; some
will help the individual's chances of survival; most will have no
effect one way or the other.
Darwin's book is The Origin of Species by Means of Natural
Selection, so he was not discussing the origin of life, as many
believe. For him, life was a given, and his concern was to describe
the way in which species develop. All Darwin's theory comes down
to is that those differences that help the individual survive will
tend to spread throughout the population, if for no other reason
than those with a particular characteristic that helps them survive
are likely to live longer and have more offspring. If you add up
many of these differences over time, what will emerge eventually
is a species different from the one that existed when all these
variations started to accumulate.
By now you've probably heard about the stickers on biology textbooks
in Cobb County, Georgia, that read: "This textbook contains material
on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact regarding the origin
of living things. This material should be approached with an open
mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."
Of course, everything should be approached with an open mind, studied,
and considered, and it is true that evolution is "just a theory."But
we need to be clear about just what a theory is. It is not a hypothesis,
which is a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test
its logical or empirical consequences. (Thank you, Mr. Webster.)
A theory is a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle
or body of principles offered to explain phenomena. (Thanks again.)
You can think of is as an explanation that has been rigorously
tested for a long time and has overcome a great many attempts to
prove it wrong.
There are problems with Darwin's theory, and biologists argue
about these, trying to resolve them even as you are reading this.
The theory of evolution by means of natural selection nonetheless
remains the best explanation we have for all the biological evidence
we have so far accumulated.
Creationism may or may not be true, though the evidence is greatly
against it, but in neither case is it scientific. Biology is a discipline.
It has certain rules and procedures that biologists must follow,
and Creationism, or Intelligent Design, or whatever it will be called
in the future, does not follow them. Scientific research begins
with a collection of data and tries to find out what these tell
us about the physical world. Creationism starts with the conclusion
that God specially created the world and tries to find data to support
it. You can do this all you want, but you can't call it science,
and we all have an obligation as thinking beings and as citizens
of the United States to keep such beliefs out of science classes.
Another important aspect of science in which it differs from Creationism
is that Creationism is not falsifiable. Simply put, this means that
its claims cannot be disproven. One of the bedrock principles of
any scientific activity is that ideas are accepted as proven true
if they cannot be proven false. After all, anyone can prove anything
if they put their minds to it for even a short while, but the trick
is to come up with an explanation that cannot be demolished by a
counter-argument. If an idea isn't open to the possibility of being
disproven, it therefore can't be proven and lies outside the bounds
of that collection of procedures and rules we call science.
Here's a quick example. Suppose I were to say that Jesus was not
the Son of God, but rather the son of the Norse god of mischief,
Loki, who sent him to earth to turn people away from the worship
of the true god, Odin. Can you think of any evidence that could
prove this statement wrong? I'm not asking that you produce the
evidence, but just consider this: If the evidence fairy wafted down
and gave you whatever evidence you wished for, what would it be?
If you think about it you'll see that it is not possible to prove
my statement wrong, therefore it is not possible to prove it right,
and it is off limits in any discussion based on the principles of
Some people, like me, object to Intelligent Design on religious
principles. Those who espouse Creationism or some such idea claim
that the rest of us should respect their belief in the inerrancy
of scripture. I'm perfectly willing to do this, but only if they
in turn are willing to respect my belief that using the Bible as
a science textbook is blasphemy. Obviously, neither they nor I could
prove either contention, so there is nowhere for this discussion
to go. Eventually, each side would end up shouting at the other
and blasting away with fusillades of scriptural citations. Belief
in a special creation lasting six days is a religious belief,
and it should not be a specially privileged interpretation of the
Bible that is protected by law and enforced by the state.
Furthermore, as a religious person I think it is a mistake to
try to define God in terms of our ignorance. Proponents of Intelligent
Design are effectively saying that since we can't explain the existence
of something, like an eyeball, through evolutionary theory, it must
be the work of God. People thought that lightning bolts were evidence
of divine displeasure until Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries
knocked the props out from under that explanation. If you lean on
human ignorance to support your ideas, you are leaning on a very
weak reed, and your faith depends to some extent on what research
scientists are doing. And I think that's a religious mistake. I
suspect that proponents of Intelligent Design are trying to find
some sort of support for their faith in what they consider science.
And though I wish them well in their search, I strongly caution
them against going down that path.
What should we do? First, we must maintain and even increase the
defense of our increasingly beleaguered Constitution and its separation
of church and state. (Check out Americans United for the Separation
of Church and State, at www.au.org,
which has been doing great work in this area for a long time. This
is especially important now that the decision of the federal judge
to remove the stickers on those biology textbooks is under appeal.)
Second, never concede the moral high ground to people who want
the state to enforce their brand of religion. All of history and
most of religion argues that combining the power of the pulpit and
the power of the state will lead only to disaster. Despite the erroneous
claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation,
the people who put this country together knew what they were doing
when they decided not to permit the joining of these two powers.
Third, never concede the religious grounds for our opposition
to Creationism in any of its forms. Many of us object to these ideas
because they conflict with our own religious ideas, and since the
issue can never be resolved through argument in the public square,
those who claim the mantle of religion as a cloak for their designs,
even intelligent ones, should stop trying to bully the rest of us
into allowing the state to foster their particular beliefs.
Both reason and Revelation are with us on this, and we must never
let this fact slip from its prominent place in our ongoing debate
with people who want to mind other people's religious business.