Creationism 101: Unscientific?
If you didn’t believe the evolution wars were heating up, you’ll believe it now: The Council of Europe has adopted a resolution calling upon all nations to firmly oppose the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools, which the CE regards as a dangerous and unscientific trend imported from America.
The Council also declared that “creationism could become a threat to human rights,” but I’ll leave that part of it for a subsequent commentary. Here I prefer to concentrate on the CE’s claim that creationism and intelligent design are fundamentally unscientific. The CE said that evolution is markedly different because “the theory of evolution has nothing to do with divine revelation but is built on facts.”
One could begin by asking why the Council of Europe regards itself as a scientific authority, that it should be issuing scientific pronouncements to the classrooms of the world. But one can always hope that it is mere lack of competence which has produced such a worthless judgment. For this statement hopelessly confuses the interplay between worldviews and scientific theories when it claims that any scientific theory is built purely on facts. In reality, theories are born within a distinct worldview, and they depend even more on inferences than on the facts themselves. Further, in most cases the theory of evolution “has nothing to do with divine revelation” precisely because it derives from a militantly atheistic worldview. And so, like any other theory, it is prone to be unduly influenced by the prejudices which precede it. Nothing could illustrate this influence more than the CE’s resolution itself.
In reality, both theories are capable of scientific and philosophical abuse, but both also claim to have a basis in proper scientific evidence. Creationist scientists disagree with the inferences evolutionists draw from the study of geological and biological phenomena, and they offer alternative hypotheses. They explain the apparent age of the universe in terms of either gravitational time dilation, or a decrease in the speed of light over time, or a distinction between local and cosmic time. They criticize the way radiometric data is used. And they propose that a cataclysmic event, such as a great flood, provides a better explanation for both the geologic column and the peculiar patterns of the fossil record.
I am not arguing that creationists have superior scientific models; in fact, I am not persuaded by Young Earth Creationism (though this is not the only kind of creationism), nor by the Fundamentalist insistence that a literal seven day period for Creation provides a useful starting point (though, after all, one has to start somewhere). But there is some very interesting scientific work being done by creationists. At the very least, they have called necessary attention to weaknesses in certain evolutionary assumptions, and some of their theories, such as Walter Brown’s hydroplate theory of geology, are fascinating. For a half-century now, creationists have been gathering scientific evidence for their hypotheses, and it is difficult to see any scientific reason why their theories should be banned from the classroom.
The same is true of intelligent design, which is concerned with this question: When does the complexity necessary for the functioning of a particular biological entity (cell, tissue, organ, whatever) reach a point at which evolution (that is, random mutations filtered by natural selection) either cannot posit sufficient time for the development to occur, or cannot explain it at all? Intelligent design is not necessarily linked with creationism. It seeks to define a concept of irreducible complexity in a scientific way in order to determine when we have encountered something that an evolutionary process alone cannot explain. Such irreducible complexity becomes, in effect, a scientific argument for design, or at least a scientific criticism of the ability of evolution to explain everything.
All scientific hypotheses are not equal, but they must stand or fall based on disinterested scientific review, not on a priori decisions to suppress some ideas in favor of others. Even granting that class time is limited, it would seem sensible to attempt an objective presentation of at least the principal schools of thought to which large numbers of people adhere. Interested readers can find an extremely useful scientific introduction to these various schools in a fine book that I have mentioned elsewhere, The Evolution Controversy by Thomas B. Fowler and Daniel Kuebler (see my review, Evolution:The Missing Link, and an earlier blog entry, The Complexity of the Evolution Debate). It is important to know a little science—and a little about science—if only to figure out when other people are claiming the immense authority of science to act in an anti-scientific way.
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