I was recently asked in an email (not related to this blog) about the harm of creationism. This person tried to make the point that it is only fair to have both sides of the evolution story presented in science class. That this is in keeping with true American democracy and we should let children know that the matter is not settled. The person went further and asked that since most Americans accept creationism and our nation is in a position of scientific leadership, surely that demonstrates that it is o.k. to present creationism (or its insidious cousin, “intelligent design”) as a viable alternative theory. So, I figured I would work out some thoughts on the subject here on this blog. Feel free to add your own comments here.
Where to start? I do have a little anecdotal evidence as I present myself as a witness. Much to the chagrin of my more moderate parents, I rebelled in school against the “dogmatic” scientific establishment view on both evolution, and I recall quite clearly, the formation of the solar system. I refused to learn it and would try to negate the teacher at every turn. There are 2 points to this. Looking back, my educational development was hindered by this. With effort, I did eventually climb out that quicksand, but probably could have covered much more through junior high and high school if I had actually learned the material the first time around. Second, although my email correspondent seems to be suggesting that we, as a nation are scientific leaders even with most of us believing in creationism, the fact is that evolution, even back when I was in school, is what was being taught (At last was taught when I was in school. I understand some teachers do try to steer away from the “controversy”). In spite of that, there are still structural educational problems with science education, even not considering the whack-a-mole creationists that keep popping up in their relentless attempts to eviscerate education.
In regards to the “fairness” issue, and being “sensitive” to the belief of others, look, science is not democratic. Objects will fall towards each other pulled by a force which is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, no matter how many people don’t believe it or are offended by it. To paraphrase that eloquent philosopher, Rumsfeld, you go to science with the evidence you have not the evidence you want. Within the scientific community, there is no controversy. Evolution is what works and there are no alternative theoretical frameworks.
But really, to begin with, we’ll start with the fact that creationism is not science. I’ve seen no reputable published peer reviewed results from creation “science”, never heard of a creationist experiment, and nearly everything claimed in the creation account is in contradiction to the evidence (literal interpretation of the age of the earth, origin of the earth, etc.). As such, it is not science since it does not follow scientific methodology. We don’t spend time in a natural science class teaching kids any of the following: literature, history, mythology, or economics. Why? They are not natural science (although perhaps one could relate them in some way, but that’s another topic). So why should we make an exception for something like creationism? It is a religious story with not one shred, not one iota of evidence from the natural world to corroborate it. Thus it exists entirely outside the scope of science. If we wanted to give all these creation stories equal time, we will also have to cover African creation myths, Chinese creation myths, a Hindu creation myth, and various other creation myths. As a quick example from the Chinese creation myth mentioned (from the Miao people):
How made heaven and earth?
How made insects?
How made men and demons?
Made male and made female?
I who speak don’t know.
Heavenly King was intelligent,
Spat a lot of spittle into his hand,
Clapped his hands with a noise,
Produced heaven and earth,
Tall grass made insects,
Stories made men and demons,
Made men and demons,
Made male and made female.
How is it you don’t know?
I’m not sure what the focus is insects on all about, but this has just as much evidence in its favor as the biblical story of creation. Since our public schools must not give preference to any one religion, if we are going to present one creation myth as an alternative to real science, we must present them all. After a few weeks of presenting all the “alternatives”, how much time will be left for things such as, cell structures and functions, heredity, metabolic processes, etc.? You know, actual science? That’s just one of the problems with asking for equal time. To teach any of these stories as equivalent alternatives to evolution would confuse students, blur the limits of science and undermine the entire framework of evidentiary support and critical thinking which lay at the foundation of science.
Here is another. I mentioned earlier that we do have structural problems with science education in this country. It has been a long time since I’ve been in school, but I do remember that in many of my junior high science classes the emphasis was on memorization of facts. In some of the classes, we were given vocabulary words relevant to the particular unit being taught. Later we would be tested on how well we memorized the words. This does not necessarily lead to understanding the underlying concepts. With “No Child Gets Ahead” and the emphasis on standardized testing, I would suspect that not much has changed (I would be happy to be corrected). To really grasp the science and be able to contribute to the field, it is important to understand the concepts and to be able to tie them together. Evolution is the central thread which weaves through the entire fabric of the biological sciences. No concept is deeply understood except within the context of evolution, a framework which ties together the whole shebang.
I am not a biologist, and do wish I had studied the subject more in college, but there are a few things even I know. For example, the interrelationships between all species (human and chimpanzee to pick the obvious example), as expressed in genetics, is understood via evolution and no alternative theory. Comparative anatomy between other primates and humans is properly understood only in the light of evolution. Evolutionary concepts tie together such matters as evidence from paleontology, genetic diversity, environmental change (particularly important now), adaptation, differential reproductive success, and speciation. Teaching biology without evolution is like teaching classical physics without the concept of force. Including creationism in a biology is like including the Aristotelian notion of earth, air, water, and fire as the basic elements in chemistry. In fact, creationism is worse because the Aristotelian notions are, in some sense, amenable to testing. Creationism is not. It is easy to see how all aspects of biology can be tied to and understood within an evolutionary context.
Take the eye for example. Light is of course, is accepted as a range of frequencies within the electromagnetic spectrum. We have other cells also sensitive to portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Skin feels heat, or infrared radiation, which simply has a somewhat longer wave length than visible light. Changes in some cells seemed to make them more specialized to what we now call the visible portion of the spectrum. Interestingly enough, visible light sensitive cells were adapted for because that was the range of frequencies which could travel through water at the appropriate depths. To see this, check out this link. The material is a good read, but if you scroll down to the figure labeled “Absorption coefficients for water”, you’ll see that water has very low absorption coefficients in the roughly 600-1000 nm (nanometer) wavelength range, and so is quite transparent to visible light. So even the colors we see are understood within an evolutionary context of the environment in which the first species to develop photosensitive cells were aquatic (consistent with the fossil evidence). There is, of course, much more about the eye that is understood within an evolutionary context. We see different varieties of eyes reflecting parallel paths in evolutionary development in say, verterbrates and mollusks. Many, if not all, of the intermediate structures in the evolution of the eye can be found among creatures living today. Our eye itself is a mess. From the wiki-link:
The mammalian eye, for instance, is built “backwards and upside down”, requiring “photons of light to travel through the cornea, lens, aquaeous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and bipolar cells before they reach the light-sensitive rods and cones that transduce the light signal into neural impulses- which are then sent to the visual cortex at the back of the brain for processing into meaningful patterns.”
Why so messy? Evolution does not strive for perfection, in fact, it has no goals at all. Evolution is the gradual accumulation over many generations of many small changes, each one of which may have conferred on the organism the ability to survive long enough to reproduce. Why do we humans have so many back problems? Most of which occur after the age of 30. Evidence shows vertebrates (animals with a backbone) developed 500 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion. The transition to walking upright occurred during the early stages of hominid evolution only 6 million years ago. The changes to our backbone were just sufficient enough so that our earliest ancestors onward could survive long enough to reproduce. The basic structure of our backbone is still geared towards walking on all fours. It is actually not the most optimum design for upright walking.
Of course, other critical matters such as the evolution of superbugs in the presence of antibiotics is also understood in terms of evolution. It also possible to explain via evolution the development of new features, such as in this amazing study in which lizards introduced to a small island had developed cecal valves in the gut which enabled them to adopt to their environment.
Now, to be fair, let’s see what all the fuss is about. Let us take a look at the account of Genesis to see what sort of biological insights we might be able to use. I’ll paraphrase things for time.
- In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.
- Earth without form with darkness and God moving on the face of the waters.
- Let there be light, and it was good.
- Light gets divided from the darkness. (useful, you wouldn’t want them to get mixed up)
- Light is called day and darkness night. (Ah.. so, the sun surrounding the earth earlier…huh?)
- Waters divided from waters from above and below the firmament. (implication here that satellites need to go through a wall of water?)
- Dry land appears.
- God let the earth bring forth grass, herbs, and fruit trees. That was the 3rd day.
- Puts up lights in the heavens to be signs. (Creation of stars now, although some apologists have argued that this means when stars could be viewed from the earth..parting of clouds or some such.)
- Made 2 great lights, apparently the sun and moon now. (Now we get the sun. huh? Again, some argue that now they’ve become visible. Though how the grass and fruit trees were alive without light, I don’t know.) Then he sets them in heaven. 4th day.
- Has the waters bring forth life and also birds that can fly in the open firmament of heaven (Heaven is pretty clearly identified as the sky.)
- Whales, more fowl. Told them all to be fruitful and multiply. 5th day.
- Let the earth bring forth every living creature, cattle, and everything creeping on the earth.
- Made man, male and female, made he them. Then told them to subdue the earth. 6th day.
Right. O.K. What exactly does that explain in the biological sciences? There is in that description of events not one shred of biological insight. There is not one biological fact that can be understood or learned from within the context of that story. There is nothing to test. Even the order of events is known to be incorrect (whales evolved from land animals). Evidence is quite clear that birds evolved from dinosaurs (and we have the evidence of dinosaurs with feathers to further corroborate this), but here we have birds made before the land animals. Of course the long period of dinosaur rule of the planet is not even hinted at. We hear nothing about how genetically similar we are to other primates, in fact, we don’t even read about other primates. Let alone hear anything about any sort of microscopic life. There is nothing here to help us fight disease or understand genetically inherited diseases. Ballpark? This isn’t even on the same planet as actual science. Why, in the name of all that is good, would this even be mentioned in a science class?
What about the charge that America is a science leader even though the majority of my fellow citizens believe in creation? First of all, since neither intelligent design or creation have been taught in our schools, it is not clear how this argument can be used to allow creation myths to be taught. Aside from the fact that teaching kids that made up stories like I’ve shown above can be on the same footing as actual science (a profound dumbing down of science already), how is it that we are making good scientific progress in spite of silly beliefs? Quite simple. The creationists are not the ones doing the science. Take ID/creation proponent Michael Behe, one of the few scientists that camp can claim. Since he has jumped on that bandwagon, he has done very little, if anything useful. He keeps repeating the same claims which are answered by scientific evidence every time, but never seems to learn from the answers.
The fact that some creationist proponents want their children learning myths as science raises a high threshold against the kid’s chances to enter into the scientific workforce. As our global economy depends ever more on scientific and technical expertise, as the issues place before our electorate demand some amount of scientific literacy, this can only be a dangerous move. It is bad for society, and it is bad for the future opportunities for those kids. It also has the bad effect that if such nonsense were to make its way into nationwide textbooks, we would not only be dumbing down the willfully ignorant, but the entire up and coming population. Our American populace will no longer be able to compete at a global level.