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The threat from creationism
to the rational teaching of biology (1/2)

This is the first of two pages containing the text of an article by Athel Cornish-Bowden and María Luz Cárdenas in Biological Research 40, 113–122 (2007). It is based on a plenary lecture given by ACB to the Annual Meeting of the Chilean Society of Biology in Pucón, Chile. It is also available as a PDF file. in November 2006. Esta página existe también en castellano.

INTRODUCTION

CARROLL SB (2006) The Making of the Fittest, pp. 215–247, W. W. Norton and Co., New York

Expelled exposed The reality behind the creationist propaganda film Expelled

Virtually all biologists now accept evolution as a reality that is no longer worth discussing. In the words of Medawar, as quoted by Carroll (2006), for a biologist, the alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all. This universal acceptance makes it easy for biologists to forget that the situation in the world at large is very different, not also among non-scientists but also to a surprising extent among scientists in non-biological fields. Even those who are aware of the creationist threat to the rational teaching of biology in the USA often fail to realize that in recent years the problem has spread far beyond the USA, driven in some countries not by Christian fundamentalism but by Islamic fundamentalism. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to make biologists conscious of the existence of a serious threat to their subject, even if they work in countries such as Chile where very little problem is apparent at present, and to emphasize that the moment to plan how to respond to creationism is now.

We should comment at the outset on the fact that nearly all of our references are to web-sites. In a scholarly journal this is far from ideal, because material on the web can and does change without warning or indication from one day to another, and it is often difficult to identify the author or determine the date of last revision. Moreover, there is no certainty — and even in some cases no more than a low probability — that any citation that is correct at the moment of submitting the article will still be correct when it is published and read. However, much as modern teachers might wish their students to read permanent published documents such as books and journal articles, they all know that what students actually read much of the time, whether at high school or in the university, is what they see on their computer screens. Teachers need, therefore, to familiarize themselves with the sort of nonsense that is purveyed as biological information on the web, and even if the specific sites that we refer to have changed by the time this article is printed, they remain valid as examples of the sort of material that is in circulation. Biologists who have not examined creationist web-sites may find it difficult to credit how bad much of the statements offered as biology are, so it may be useful to quote from an article about kangaroos at Conservapedia, set up as a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American:

According to the origins model used by creation scientists, modern kangaroos, like all modern animals, originated in the Middle East and are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah’s Ark prior to the Great Flood...

Also according to creation science, after the Flood, kangaroos bred from the Ark passengers migrated to Australia...

Other views on kangaroo origins include the belief of some Australian aborigines that kangaroos were sung into existence by their ancestors during the Dreamtime and the evolutionary view that kangaroos and the other marsupials evolved from a common marsupial ancestor which lived hundreds of millions of years ago.

HAM K (1996) Kangaroos, dinosaurs and Eden.

The principal source given for this information is a web page written by the Australian creationist Ken Ham (1996), entitled Kangaroos, dinosaurs and Eden. Readers should remember that the entries at Conservapedia are frequently updated, so although the quotation is correct at the time of writing it may not survive subsequent editing. In addition, the term baramin is unlikely to be familiar to most biologists: it refers to an attempt to place the biblical notion of a kind of animal on a scientific footing.

CREATIONISM AND BIOLOGY IN THE USA

The creationist threat to biology in the USA is so well known that it requires little discussion here, but it is worthwhile to correct a widespread misapprehension. The trial of John T. Scopes in 1925 is often regarded as a de facto victory for the rational teaching of biology in the USA, because, although the fundamentalists won the case, their spokesmen made themselves so ridiculous in the process that other states were discouraged from proposing laws similar to the Tennessee law that Scopes had violated. This is the conventional view of the story, but it gives a wrong reason for the lack of conflict in the USA for a generation after 1925: this is better explained by the fact that there was essentially no teaching of evolution in schools in the USA during this period, and consequently no laws to forbid it were perceived as necessary. This only changed after the launching of the Sputnik by the USSR in 1957, which made it clear that the gap in scientific achievement between the USA and the USSR was much narrower than had been thought, so that serious attention needed to be given to the teaching of science, including biology, in schools.

GOULD SJ (1984) Creationism: genesis vs. geology, in Science and Creationism (ed. MONTAGU A), pp. 126–135, Oxford University Press, Oxford

The reappearance of evolution as an essential part of the teaching of biology brought with it a reawakening of vehement opposition to it from Christian fundamentalists. Starting with Arkansas in 1981, several states have proposed laws that would require balanced teaching of biology, with creation science taught in secondary schools on an equal basis with evolution. One may suspect that this is just a delaying tactic, and that once the battle for equal time is won the creationists will proceed to their real objective of eliminating the teaching of evolution altogether. As quoted by Stephen Jay Gould (1984), the anti-evolution activist Paul Ellwanger made this quite clear in a letter to a state legislator. The wording of the Arkansas law is worth noting: as part of the state’s efforts to protect academic freedom it will require balanced treatment of creation science and evolution science in public schools — a novel interpretation of the idea of academic freedom to mean that teachers must be forced to teach material that they do not believe in!

By 2006, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology had become sufficiently concerned to organize a symposium on Teaching the Science of Evolution under the Threat of Alternative Views at its annual meeting, to complement a symposium on Current Themes in Molecular Evolution during the same meeting. Speakers at the former of these emphasized that anti-evolution activity is nationwide, but, as we shall discuss, it is now far more than just nationwide.

CREATIONISM AND BIOLOGY IN EUROPE

The UK

Royal Society statement on evolution, creationism and intelligent design.

In April 2006 the Royal Society (effectively the Academy of Sciences of the UK) issued a statement that evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the development of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species and that it is rightly taught as an essential part of biology and science courses in schools, colleges and universities across the world. Why should such a statement have appeared necessary or desirable in the UK in 2006, given that most educated people in the UK suppose that the academic arguments were essentially settled by the end of the 19th Century?

BROWN A (2006) What the Christian Institute really believes.

The case of a state-supported school in Gateshead, a town in the North of England, illustrates the answer to this question. A lecture by Steven Layfield, Head of Science at Emmanuel College, was at one time posted on the site of the Christian Institute; it was subsequently removed temporarily from there after its content had been criticized in a newspaper, but is preserved on another site (Brown, 2006). It expresses very surprising opinions for the head of science in a school: If, as Jesus clearly taught, the Bible really is the Word of God — and the internal evidence is overwhelming — true Science will always agree with it. In other words, the Bible provides the criterion by which the truth or otherwise of scientific hypotheses must be assessed.

ANONYMOUS (2006b) How did we get here?

WHEEN F (2003) Crystal balls, primal screams.

The British Magazine The New Humanist has reported on a discussion in Parliament about Emmanuel College and other similar schools (Wheen, 2003). When the Prime Minister was asked if he was happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in state schools, he replied merely that in the end a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children. This reply should be carefully noted by anyone who is tempted to believe that political leaders can be trusted to protect academic standards, and we shall show below that the lack of concern of political leaders for academic standards is no less evident in other countries, such as Germany, Poland and Brazil. The consequence in the UK may be judged from the results of a survey published in the British newspaper The Guardian (Anonymous, 2006b) in August 2006: more than 12% of UK students questioned preferred creationism to any other explanation of human origins, and another 19% favoured the theory of intelligent design. Hardly a week now passes without further evidence of a sustained and concerted attack on biology teaching in the UK; in September 2006, for example, an organization calling itself Truth in Science distributed its resource pack of creationist propaganda to the head of science of every secondary school in the UK.

Germany

ANONYMOUS (2006d) Publikationen.

ANONYMOUS (2006e) German scientists concerned about rise in creationist belief.

ANONYMOUS (2007b) Wissenschaft im Evangeliumsnetz.

The situation in Germany is certainly no better than it is in the UK, and may be worse. Creationist activity is very evident in Germany (Anonymous, 2007b), and creationist texts of high technical quality are readily available for children and students (Anonymous, 2007b). Creationist teaching in two schools in Giessen, in the State of Hesse, was discussed in a documentary film on the Franco-German television channel Arte, and after it had been broadcast the Education Minister of the State of Hesse, Karin Wolff, said that she believed biblical creation theory should be taught in biology class as a theory, like the theory of evolution (Anonymous, 2007e). Again, the conclusion must be that biologists cannot rely on politicians to protect academic standards.

Poland

GIERTYCH M (2006) Creationism, evolution: nothing has been proved. Nature 444: 265

GRAEBSCH A (2006) Polish scientists fight creationism. Nature 443: 890–891.

LORENC-PLUCINSKA G (2006) Creationist views have no basis in science. Nature 444: 679

The Deputy Education Minister of Poland, Miroslaw Orzechowski, said in October 2006 that The theory of evolution is a lie. It is an error we have legalized as a common truth. Reporting this in Nature, Graebsch (2006) noted that Maciej Giertych, the father of the Polish Minister of Education and himself a Member of the European Parliament, is lobbying for obligatory inclusion of creationism in Polish biology curricula. In subsequent correspondence Giertych (2006) denied that his motivation was religious, but he undermined this claim by adding that there seems to be total ignorance of new scientific evidence against the theory of evolution. Such evidence includes ... formation of geological strata sideways rather than vertically, archaelogical and palaeontological evidence that dinosaurs coexisted with humans, a major worldwide catastrophe in historical times, and so on. Giertych gave no source for this claim, and in fact no such evidence can be found in the scientific literature; it comes instead from sources that are inspired by religious motives. In a later letter the Director of the Institute of Dendrology (which Giertych had given as his address) pointed out that although she respected his rights to express his views they were not endorsed by the institute, and in her opinion creationism had no basis in science and should not be regarded as scientific (Lorenc-Plucinska, 2006).

France

ARNOULD J (2007) Dieu versus Darwin, Albin Michel, Paris

In many ways the degree of creationist infiltration of education in France appears less serious than in the other countries we have mentioned. Nonetheless, as described in the book by Arnould (2007), a Dominican theologian, France has a home-grown creationist movement, the Cercle d’Étude Historique et Scientifique, or CESHE. This was founded in 1980 and actively promotes the same ideas as American creationists, but also displays at times a remarkable degree of hostility not only towards established science but also towards the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. A spokesman for the CESHE, for example, describes the Pontifical Academy as composed of two-thirds evolutionist atheist scientists, who sabotage Christianity, and suggests that the Pope (John-Paul II) would do better to consult his friend Professor Gyertich of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who is creationist. (Despite the different spelling this is probably the same Giertych as mentioned above.) However, the social and political climate of France is very different from that of the USA, and there is little to suggest that fringe groups such as CESHE have a significant influence; the appearance of the Atlas of Creation (see below) in France in early 2007 caused more of a stir than CESHE has produced in a quarter of a century of activity.

Other parts of Western Europe

Current creationist activity is also evident in Belgium, The Netherlands and Scandinavia. Even if it appears not yet to have reached the proportions noted in the UK, Germany or Poland, there is little ground for complacency, in view of the rapid deterioration elsewhere.

Turkey

ANONYMOUS (1998) Evrim teorisinin çöküsü yaratilis gerçegi uluslararasi konferenanslar serisi-I.

ANONYMOUS (2005) The mechanism behind intelligent design.

ANONYMOUS (2007c) The evolution deceit: the scientific collapse of Darwinism and its ideological background.

ANONYMOUS (2007d) Atlas of creation.

Turkey may well constitute the most important source of creationist propaganda outside the USA, and it certainly explains much of the success of creationists in attracting support from Muslim students in the UK, Germany and France. Large meetings in modern congress centres with high attendance (Anonymous, 1998) illustrate the high degree of financial support, as does extensive publication of creationist texts (Anonymous, 2005): the book Evolution Deceit is available not only in Turkish and English, but also in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Arabic, and circulated in many countries, definitely including Argentina, and possibly others in Latin America (Anonymous, 2007c). Recently the profusely illustrated and expensively produced Atlas of Creation from the same source (Anonymous, 2007d) has been distributed in several languages free of charge to teachers, schools and universities in different countries. One quotation from the Introduction will suffice to illustrate its academic level:

The fossil record is perhaps the most important evidence that demolishes the theory of evolution’s claims. Fossils reveal that life forms on Earth have never undergone even the slightest change and have never developed into one another. Examining the fossil record, we see that living things are exactly the same today as they were hundreds of millions of years ago — in other words, that they never underwent evolution.

CREATIONISM IN SOUTH AMERICA

MARTINS E, FRANÇA V (2004) Rosinha contra Darwin.

There is little at present to suggest a creationist surge in most of Latin America, but in Brazil there is evidence of a threat similar to that in Western Europe. As reported in the Brazilian magazine Época, the state of Rio de Janeiro has instituted classes in state-supported schools in which the evolution of species is questioned, and the Governor of the State said in an interview that she did not believe in the evolution of species, which was just theory (Martins and França, 2004).


These pages are a contribution to the Creation Museum Carnival organized by P. Z. Myers as a coordinated response to the opening of Ken Ham’s Creation Science Museum in Petersburg (near Cincinnati) on 28th May 2007. A selection of other components of the Carnival is as follows: Ham boned | Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics | Spotting Design | The Earth divided | T. rex ate coconuts | Ham's Creation Museum - What Kids Won't Hear About Teeth | Jurassic Pigeon at the Creation Museum! | Creation Museum Carnival (in German)