Genesis of Eden

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Hanson, Robert (ed) 1986 Science and Creation, Macmillan Pub. Coy., New York.

ISBN 0-02-949870-8


Science, Rationality, and the Creation/Evolution Dispute*

Dorothy Nelkin Cornell University

Of the many challenges to science in recent years, the effort of the "scientific creationists" to present creation theory as a scientific alternative to evolution theory is perhaps the most remarkable. However, it is remarkable only in the sense that science, perceived as neutral and associated with material progress, has been relatively protected from public scrutiny as compared to other social institutions. The Scopes trial in 1925 was often thought to be the last vestige of the great struggle between religion and science. Subsequently, there have been relatively few attacks on science teaching, so that scientists have assumed that religious beliefs no longer have significant bearing on science or on science education policy. Clearly things have changed. Defying distinctions between religion and science, today's creationists argue that Genesis presents a viable theory of origins and should be given equal time in biology textbooks. In fact, they claim to be scientists and work out of educational and research centers to document the scientific validity of their beliefs. And, with some success, they use sophisticated organizational and political tools to influence the teaching of science in the public school system.

In the summer of 1981, only thirteen years after the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the last law (in Arkansas) forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools, the state legislatures of Arkansas and Louisiana approved the teaching of creation theory. Indeed, the creationists appear to be an increasingly effective political force. (In December 1981, the Arkansas law was found to be unconstitutional in a landmark decision by judge William Overton; see Appendix A and B.) Scientists often dismiss challenges to science as struggles between the forces of rationality and irrationality, between scientific rationality and religious belief. Such polarization, however, has not helped to resolve the creation/evolution controversy or to stem the growing influence of the creationists on science education. This chapter suggests that the scientists' response is unrealistic in light of the political context of science education and the ideological factors that enter the public acceptance of science. After reviewing creationist demands, I will argue that claims of neutrality and rationality as a basis for accepting the teaching of evolution are less than convincing in the present context of public concern about religious and moral values, and about order and certainty.

The Controversy

The Creationists' Demands

During the 1960s, a group of scientifically trained Fundamentalists began to reevaluate fossil evidence from the perspective of special creation as described in the Biblical record. These "scientific creationists" believe that "all basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative act of God during the creation week described in Genesis."i Literalists in their interpretation of the Bible, they choose to reinterpret organic evolution according to Biblical authority. The catalog of Christian Heritage College, the home of the most active creationist institute, describes the creationists' doctrinal position:

We believe in the absolute integrity of Holy scripture and its plenary verbal inspiration by the Holy Spirit as originally written by men prepared by God for this purpose. The scriptures, both Old and New Testament, are inerrant in relation to any subject with which they deal, and are to be accepted in their natural and intended sense... The creationist account is accepted as factual, historical and perspicuous and is thus fundamental in the understanding of every fact and phenomenon in the created universe.'

The creationists are mostly solid, middle-class citizens, and many of their leaders are technically trained people working in high-technology professions in centers of science-based industry. Their broad base of support comes from Fundamentalist sects and from the most conservative wings of the Lutheran,

Science, Rationality, and the Creation/Evolution Dispute 35

Baptist, and Seventh Day Adventist churches. Yet the creationists work out of organizations with such names as the Institute for Creation Research, the Creation Research Society, and the Creation Science Research Center.' Creationists argue that Genesis is not religious dogma but an alternative scientific hypothesis capable of evaluation by scientific procedures. They present themselves as scientists, engaged in a scholarly debate about the methodological validity of two scientific theories. And typically the active creationists have,scientific credentials and sometimes academic appointments in accredited colleges and universities. The creationists differ from evolutionists in their explanations of the origin of life, the transmission of characteristics, the nature of variation and complexity, and the character of the fossil record. Their world view rejects the theory that animals and plants have descended from a single line of ancestors, evolving over billions of years through random mutation.' Creationists cannot accept the idea that natural selection is opportunistic and undirected, that selection pressures act to cause genetic change only because of immediate reproductive advantage. According to creation theory, biological life began only five to six thousand years ago, when all things were created by God's design into permanent basic forms. Subsequent evolution has been a directed and purposeful process. Change would not modify the original design, for nature is static, secure, and predictable, with each species containing its full potential. Faced with a formidable amount of evidence that supports the theory of evolution, the creationists try to demonstrate that such evidence is biased and incomplete, or that it can be reinterpreted to fit whatever conceptual system is convenient. For example, their theoreticians argue that the fossil record is far from conclusive, failing to provide the transitional forms or linkages between diverse living groups that would suggest evolution from a common ancestor. They deny the evidence from radioisotope dating, arguing that such techniques are based on unproved assumptions about the constant rate of radioactive decay. Ultimately, when pressed by contradictory evidence, creationists argue that design in nature simply exists because of the will of the Creator. And when criticized for introducing supernatural explanations into science, they contend that evolution is but today's creation myth; that, hardly amenable to testing, it is entirely based on faith; that if one simply accepts a different set of assumptions, creation theory becomes fully as workable and fruitful a scientific hypothesis as evolution. Creationist Influence

The creationists try to press these ideas on local school boards, state curriculum committees, and state legislatures throughout the country. They have introduced bills proposing the teaching of creationism in biology classes in the legislatures of fifteen states and in many more state textbook commissions. They won their first major success in California in 1969, where, in response to political pressure, the guidelines for a state educational system that serves one million children included a formal recommendation to teach creation theory. The guidelines provoked a deluge of letters, petitions, and resolutions from people representing all sides of the issue, and in December 1972 the state curriculum committee announced that it had found a way to ensure the neutrality of science textbooks. The committee proposed to eliminate all scientific dogmatism, to avoid any discussion of ultimate causes, and to indicate the conditional nature of evolution theory. The state board of education then published a revised science framework that avoided the question of "e(jual time," only to be challenged again by a creationist lawsuit in 1981. While a number of local school boards throughout the country have approved the teaching of creation theory as a legitimate alternative to evolution theory, in fact the political and legal effort of the creationists won them few formal victories until after the 1980 presidential election and the unambiguous political ascendance of the Right. In 1981 the state legislatures of Arkansas and Louisiana each voted to approve a "Balanced Treatment for Creation Science and Evolution Science Act." But even where there is no possibility of favorable legislation, creationists attract public support and gain legitimacy by using the courts and engaging scientists in debate. Their actions are organized to gain maximum media attention. Take, for example, the 1981 lawsuit against the State of California for violating the religious beliefs of Fundamentalist Christians. This case was touted as a "rerun of the Scopes Trial:' "the trial of the century," a "test of religious freedom." The State Attornev General, preparing for a major challenge, gathered together twenty eminent scientists as expert witnesses to vouch for the validity of evolution theory, but the creationists then reduced the case to an administrative detail concerning the wording of the state guidelines. For them, the event served as a major victory of public relations and helped to legitimatize their cause. Like many other protest movements, creationists have learned to use such tactics as a means to mobilize public support. There is no doubt these days that creationists have a constituency that is receptive to their social and religious goals. Thus, they have been able to exercise considerable influence on science education in secondary schools even where there is no facilitating legislation or formal set of guidelines. First, textbook publishers, dominated by the economics of potential markets in the large and conservative Sunbelt states, have been quite ready to accommodate creationist pressures by adding qualifications to statements about evolution theory or by avoiding sensitive issues. One publisher proposed replacing a section about Leakey's archaeological discoveries of primitive man with a reproduction of Michelangelc;s painting of the creation from the Sistine Chapel. Some textbooks have avoided the word evolution altogether by substituting "change:' A new edition of one textbook reduced the discussion of the origin of life from 2023 to 322 words and the Darwinian view of nature from 2750 to 296 words. Another introduced a study of geology with the statement that "present ideas about the Earth's history include many speculations about the meaning of the relatively few facts that have been discovered ' 115 For publishers, the economic stakes are high. Competition, especially in the nineteen states with commissions that determine textbook adoptions, is fierce. These states, including Texas (allocating more than $50 million each year for textbooks) have stringent selection procedures and are subject to heavy influence by textbook critics. If a publisher can accommodate and win acceptance, sales are virtually assured.' Second, and perhaps a more important source of influence, is that many teachers are intimidated by disputes and afraid of the growing willingness of parents and local citizen groups to challenge their authority. Some have therefore chosen to avoid the subject in their classroom rather than risk confrontation. (See Chapter 5 for discussion of some cases of this type in Iowa.) Scientists have been incredulous about the creationists' growing success. That such groups could exert influence on the definitions and boundaries of science as taught in the schools "just does not make sense in this day and age." Incredulity first led to amused disdain. A Stanford biochemist placed the creationists' arguments "in the same arena as those advanced by the Flat Earth Society." Facetious remarks were abundant. It was proposed that the Bible publishers insert a sentence in Genesis to indicate that "scientific method rejects the supernatural approach to explaining the universe." A biologist and member of the California State Advisory Committee inquired if a scientific course on reproduction should mention the stork theory. As creationists persisted in their efforts to influence textbook selection, the biologists' amusement gave way to defense. They mobilized the most prestigious organizations in the scientific community to document the validity of evolution theory and the mass of evidence that supports evolutionary hypotheses. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Association of University Professors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and groups of Nobel laureates have all issued strongly worded resolutions distinguishing science from religion, emphasizing the rationality and neutrality of science and trying to discredit creationist views.


When faced with external political pressures, scientists often take refuge in reasserting the neutral character of their work and the irrelevance of political, social, or religious considerations. Scientific societies petitioning against the teaching of creation theory all emphasize the neutral character of science and its distinction from religious or personal beliefs. They appeal to rationality, assuming that others see science from the same perspective as the scientists themselves. However, when they try to transfer their professional expectations about science to the diffusion of scientific knowledge and to their quest for credibility in the public domain, they face frustration. Several factors contribute to the persistence of the creation/evolution controversy and the failure of scientific argument to stem the growing influence of the creationists:

1. The fallacies of arguing scientific neutrality given the political realities of science education. 2. The fallacies of drawing rigid distinctions between scientific rationali ty and religious belief. 3. The strength of the creationist beliefs in light of the political and ideological ascendancy of the New Right.

Fallacies of Misplaced Neutrality

In their defense of teaching evolution theory, scientists emphasize the Apolitical, neutral, and detached nature of science in contrast to the political and religious character of creationism. These arguments have had little influence. First, arguments based on the neutrality of science fail to address an issue of central concern to creationists, the professional control of public education. Creationists define the debate as a political struggle over the education and values of their children. During the Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan asked, "What right have the evolutionists-a relatively small percentage of the population-to teach at public expense a so-called scientific interpretation of the Bible, when orthodox Christians are not permitted to teach an orthodox interpretation of the Bible?"I Scientists responded with a different view about populist control of science curriculum: "What is to be taught as science would be determined not by a consensus of the best scientific opinion, but by the votes of shopgirls and farmhands, ignorant alike of science and the foundation principles of our civil society."8 Similarly, evolutionists today fight the influence of lay opinion. To biologists, one of the more irritating aspects of the controversy is that creationists, claiming to be scientists, ignore the constraints of the scientific community by seeking external political judgments of the validity of their arguments: "The State Board's repudiation of its own committee in favor of a lay opinion from the audience should ultimately become a classic example in textbooks on school administration of how not to proceed with the development of standards."9 "Why are comments related to science made by highpriced technicians such as medical doctors and by persons in related fields of technology more readily acceptable as statements of science than those made by scientists themselves?"" In its testimony to the Louisiana State Legislature on a bill to require the teaching of creation science, the American Association of University Professors strongly argued that members of faculties 11 should be able to teach what they understand to be the truth in accord with professional standards.""

In the 1920s, the scientists' efforts to control the educational agenda had little effect. Publishers, depending on market prospects, continued to ignore evolutionary biology, and as late as 1959 religious views still dominated public school biology teaching. In the current social climate evolutionists may once again lose control over the content of textbooks. Economic factors still prevail, and publishers, more competitive than ever, must avoid controversy to cap ture the local textbook markets. Second, arguments based on the neutrality of science are simply not con vincing on historical grounds. Invariably, creationists have picked up a mode of analysis long associated with the progressive left, emphasizing (as have many of us) the values inherent in science and technology itself. While they have turned this argument inside out, it is especially salient when the issue is the diffusion of scientific ideas. While scientists may assure relative neutrality in day-to-day laboratory work by relying on impersonal procedures of verifica tion, neutral, apolitical criteria have little meaning in the context of science education. The very origin of the new biology curriculum after 1959 was political-a part of the post-Sputnik effort to modernize science education in order to foster American technological supremacy in the cold war. And while scientists argue that academic integrity must rest on neutrality with respect to values, the congruence between scientific knowledge and values has long been explicit. just recall the much-discussed remark by philosopher Mario Bunge-. "All of nature and all of culture can be made to fall under the domain of science. 1112 This indeed has been an important thrust in the history of science. Nineteenth-century biologists had perceived their studies as a means to prove the existence of God through evidence of design and purpose in nature. In fact, the most active resistance to Darwinian evolution came from scien tists themselves. Later scientists described evolution theory as a "naturalist religion" and as "a secure basis for ethics' "I' More recently a tendency to relate scientific knowledge to values is evident in efforts to extend the con cepts of biology and ecology to generalizations about man and society." In deed, scientific knowledge in fields such as ecology, population studies, or sociobiology is expected to have a profound influence on values and behavior. The difficulty of separating science from its value content is evident in the statements of scientists as they try to repudiate creationism. The scien tific discourse in the dispute assumes that peculiar mix of epistemology and values that seems to characterize all debates in which science becomes a vehicle to support competing political claims. Scientists as well as creationists bemoan the moral, political, and legal implications of the alternative ideology and bring their own social concerns to the discussion of science curriculum. The influence of scientific assumptions on religious equality, as well as on educational practice, concerns both groups. Each claims that the other bases its "scientific" beliefs on faith and each group argues with passion for its own dispassionate objectivity. As each side defends its position and criticizes the other, their arguments are strikingly similar. Indeed, the debate often sounds like a battle between two dogmatic groups as the antidogmatic norms of science fade with the effort to convey the validity of a scientific theory. At times in the course of the dispute it becomes difficult to distinguish science from politics and ideology, a fact which only reinforces creationist claims.

Fallacies of Misplaced Rationality

As scientists struggle against the creationists' influence, they emphasize the many facts that contradict the creationists' beliefs. When factual arguments and direct criticism fail to turn the creationists away, scientists respond by emphasizing the rationality of science and the weight of evidence that supports their authority. Their arguments assume a kind of literalism and realism when dealing with religious claims, often ignoring that science itself is approximate and metaphoric. As psychologist Donald Campbell has observed, "Scientists hold up for religious discourse the requirement for a direct realism, a literal veridicality, even though they may recognize that this is impossible for science itself."I'l This literalism on the part of scientists when confronting opposition nearly matches the attitudes of Fundamentalists and hinders both scientific and political communication. Convinced of the rationality and merit of their methods, scientists are constantly dismayed by the popularity of nonscientific approaches to nature, and by the proliferation of cults, sects, and pop cosmologies based on supernatural explanations of nature.16 In 1975, hundreds of scientists signed a statement criticizing astrologers. They were puzzled that "so many people are prone to swallow beliefs without sufficient evidence" and concerned that '.generations of students are coming out without any idea that you have to have evidence for your beliefs.1117 The persistence of creationism is a reminder that beliefs need no evidence and that people are most reluctant to surrender their personal convictions to a scientific world view. For those whose personal beliefs are threatened by science, the social and moral implications that can be drawn from a scientific theory and its threats to the idea of absolute ethical values may assume far greater importance than any details of scientific verification. Increased technical information is unlikely to change well-rooted beliefs because selective factors operate to guide the interpretation of evidence, especially when the nature of such evidence is poorly understood. Creationists, as do others, avoid, debunk, or disregard information that would repudiate their preconceptions, preferring to deny evidence rather than to discard their beliefs."' A great deal of social reinforcement helps them to maintain their views in the face of repeated frustration. Opposition only augments the strength of their religious convictions and their desire to see these convictions represented in the educational system. Scientists respond to the demands of creationists by denying the existence of conflict between science and religious values and by insisting that the two are simply separate and independent realms that must remain distinct. Yet, the recurrence of textbook disputes suggests that the treaty between science and religion based on the assumption that they deal with separate domains may be but another convenient yet unrealistic myth. Religion as well as science purports to be a picture of reality, a means through which people render their lives and the world around them intelligible. People seek in their beliefs about nature the values that will guide their behavior. The heart of the religious perspective, argues Clifford Geertz, is "not the theory that beyond the visible world there lies an invisible one; . . . not even the more diffident opinion that there are things in heaven and earth undreamt of in our philosophies. Rather it is the conviction that the values one holds are grounded in an inherent structure of reality."I'l For many people, religion may be more likely than science to provide a satisfactory explanation of reality on which to base their values. Indeed, except for a recent and very brief period following World War 11, religion has been the major source of moral initiative and emotional fervor in American society. Today, and not for the first time, the Christian Right has monopolized the "moral vision." With strong public support, they have introduced this vision into the presidency, Congress, and-not surprisingly-into the public schools.

Creationism and the New Right

Scientists supporting evolution theory inevitably fail to convince creationists or those predisposed to share creationist beliefs, for these beliefs are motivated not only by religious but also by political and social goals of increasingly powerful Fundamentalist groups. Creationists today are a part of a religious social movement that has developed in resistance to the secularization brought about by science and that sees science as a threat to the legitimacy of religious explanations of reality.111 Scientists may find it difficult to believe, but creationist ideas are entirely plausible for many people, for faith in the inerrancy of the Bible is widespread. According to a recent Gallup poll, some 38 percent of the American population believe that "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word."ii The creationists want to foster this belief as the framework for their moral and political values.

Given the respect for scientific achievements in our society, claims of scientific validity are a means to achieve extra-scientific ends. Creationists present themselves as scientists to gain legitimacy for their beliefs, and, in fact, scientific creationism has become an extraordinary example of the ubiquitous tendency in our society to translate value issues into technical terms. Nevertheless, regardless of their scientific discourse, creationists are explicit about their religious goals: "A revival of solid belief in special creation, especially among young people, could easily spark the greatest movement of true evangelism and Christian conservatism of modern times.1122 These goals are buttressed by social and political values that are powerful in the context of the current extremely conservative trends. Indeed, creationists are addressing a constituency that is receptive to both their religious message and their view of science as a moral and political force. In the 1920s, creationists opposed the teaching of evolution because of its perceived moral consequences;" social problems were attributed to the weakening of the church and to the materialism fed by science. Today, also, creationists' scientific assertions quickly spill over into a mix of moral and political rhetoric characteristic of the New Right. Creationists talk about evolution theory in the same breath as abortion, pornography, sex, socialism, communism, and centralized bureaucratic government. They believe that it is "morally dangerous" to emphasize the genetic similarities between animals and man, that this encourages "animal-like behavior" with disastrous social implications. In the words of the preface to a creationist textbook,

The theory of evolution is the philosophical foundation for all secular thought today, from education to biology and from psychology through the social sciences. It is the platform from which socialism, communism, humanism, determinism, and one-worldism have been launched. Accepting man as animal, its advocates endorse animalistic behaviour such as free love, situation ethics, drug,s, divorce, abortion and a host of other ideas that contribute to man's pre sent futility and despair ... It has wrought havoc in the home, devastated morals, destroyed man's hope for a better world and contributed to the political enslavement of a billion or more people."

For the creationists, order is a fundamental value; they are distressed by the flux, uncertainty, and doubt inherent in science and basic to the theory of evolution. In contrast, creationism provides a model of order, a distinct and coherent logical system that fully and unequivocally explains an uncertain world. This is a major source of its appeal, not only to the public, but also to some scientists. A biologist at the Institute for Creation Research explains his conversion from evolution theory: "Science can't be trusted but God can .... Scientific data is so permanently incomplete that it is hardly a good place to sink an anchor for anything to do with eternity."'@', The resemblance of these ideas to those of the Moral Majority is obvious, and creationism is in essence an ideological expression of the New Right. It is an important part of the grass-roots movement against "secular humanism" or "amoral secularism:' terms loosely used to describe a secular world view that emphasizes the ability to achieve self-realization through the use of reason and scientific method and that minimizes the importance of a spiritual or moral order as a basis of ethical standards. Convinced that humans are inherently sinful, creationists seek to purify education, cleanse the libraries, introduce religion and moral values into the educational system, and take the schools out of the hands of "the elite group of professional academics and their government friends.1116 Modern biology is an especially vulnerable target for textbook watchers who blame the erosion of religious and moral values on the denial of transcendental purpose. Creationists have links to various other organizations that are seeking to mobilize religious instincts for political causes. They have been assisted by prominent members of the Moral Majority such as the Reverend Jerry Falwell. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative political group now a policy arm of the Reagan administration, played a significant role in textbook disputes of the early 1970s when the "scientific creationists" first emerged as an influential political force. The political ascendance of the sunbelt states has given increased political salience to Fundamentalist views, of which creationism is one expression. Those who try to refute these views simply in terms of evidence only help to legitimize the creationists' cause, as the latter are quick to observe:

We are making considerable impact: I think this is reflected in the alarm that is being felt by evolutionists: ... they are feeling a necessity to go out and meet our challenge. Articles have appeared in Science, Nature, Bioscience and American Biology. They are afraid of us and the power of our evidence.27

In the end, rationality and neutrality have little to do with public acceptance of science. For most people, it is efficacy more than evidence that guides their beliefs, and faith in science persists only when it satisfies a social need. Well before the creationist dispute, the French biologist Jacques Monod described the relationship between science and the public:

Science wrote an end to the ancient animist covenant between man and nature, leaving nothing in place of that precious bond but an anxious quest in a frozen universe of solitude. With nothing to recommend it but a certain puritan ar rogance, how could such an idea win acceptance? It did not, it still has not. It has, however, commanded recognition; but that is because, solely because, of its prodigious power of performance. 28

While science has threatened the plausibility of nonrational beliefs, it has not removed the uncertainties that seem to call for such beliefs. Rather, the cognitive obscurity and social isolation of science has left the public dazed, resentful of professional expertise, and therefore receptive to reactionary influence. In today's social context, creationism appears to fill a void. It uses representations that are well adapted to the twentieth century; it claims scientific respectability while arguing that science is as value-laden as other explanations; and it offers intellectual plausibility as well as salvation, and the authority of science as well as the certainty of scripture. It reflects the prevailing politicaldeology, and its influence is likely to persist.