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

This is the second 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.

CREATIONISM AND RELIGION

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

DAWKINS R (2006) The God Delusion, Bantam Press, London

Expelled exposed The reality behind the creationist propaganda film Expelled

Religious fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim, claim that the theory of evolution is essentially atheistic and hostile to religious belief. Atheist biologists do exist, of course, as illustrated by the recent book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006), but that is not all the same as claiming that belief in evolution is incompatible with religion. The view of the more moderate religious leaders was cogently summarized by the late Pope John-Paul II in a statement published in L’Osservatore Romano in 1996, quoted by Carroll (2006):

Fresh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory.

DOBZHANSKY T (1973) Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Amer Biol Teacher 35: 125–129

The Pope’s statement is important in that it gives the real reasons for the universal acceptance of evolution by biologists: not that evolution is in itself a religion — a claim advanced by some creationists in the USA in the hope of perverting the constitutional separation between religion and government to their own ends — but that it is the result of a great accumulation of data pointing in a consistent direction. The point was succinctly put by the great evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973) in the title of an article in American Biology Teacher : Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Biologists believe in evolution not because of any religious commitment to it but because of overwhelming evidence for it.

The title of Dobzhansky’s article is frequently quoted, but the article itself, which contains some additional important points, is less well known. It opens by discussing a Muslim fundamentalist’s attack on the Copernican view of the solar system. Although in 1973 most biologists thought that the major threat to rational science teaching came from Christian fundamentalism, it may be that even then Dobzhansky realized that other varieties of fundamentalism needed to be taken into account. He went on to declare that

I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s, method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.

His reference to God in this quotation is much more than empty rhetoric, as throughout his life he was a practising Russian Orthodox Christian, for whom the idea that evolution was incompatible with his religious faith was absurd.

TWO MODELS

MANTHEI D (1998) Two worldviews in conflict. Creation 20: 26–27

Creationists frequently demand for fairness and equal time for their ideas in education, basing their demands on the claim that just two models are possible. Manthei (1998), for example, makes this claim explicitly when he discusses the direct conflict between evolution and the Bible in which only one system can be correct [emphasis in the original].

Spectrum of views

Figure 1. Range of creationist views. The figure shows a classification by Eugenie Scott (2005) of the wide variety of views that exist about biology and geology, ranging from those who believe in a flat earth no more than a few thousand years old to those who believe in an earth several billion years old and reject any form of religious explanation for it. Note that the intelligent design movement is not uniform, but encompasses a wide range of views within the creationist range.

ANONYMOUS (2007e) Providing powerful new reasons from science to believe in Christ.

BABINSKI ET (2005) The Evils of Copernicanism.

HAM K (1996) Kangaroos, dinosaurs and Eden.

MORTENSEN T (2004) Philosophical naturalism and the age of the earth: are they related?

NEYMAN G (2005) Creation Science Commentary — Ham Can’t Tell the Simple Truth! — Web page no longer available, formerly at http://www.answersincreation.org/commentary/ham_truth_csc12.htm

SCHADEWALD RJ (1980) The Flat-out Truth: Earth Orbits? Moon Landings? A Fraud! Says This Prophet.

SCOTT EC (2005) Evolution vs. Creationism, University of California Press, Berkeley

This claim, however, is false. It is by no means true that creationists are all in agreement with one another, or that their disagreements are at a more superficial level than the (legitimate) arguments that occur between real scientists. We can probably set aside the most extreme views, such as the idea that the earth is flat (Schadewald, 1980), or the claim that belief in a heliocentric solar system set the stage for most of the evils that the world has seen in the past few centuries (Babinski, 2005), because these are now held by very few people. This still leaves a wide range of incompatible varieties of creationism (Figure 1), ranging from young-earth creationists, who believe that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old (Mortensen, 2004), to progressive creationists (Anonymous, 2007e), who accept that the universe may be millions of year old but believe in miraculous interventions guiding the appearance of new species. Moreover, although these various groups may try to present the appearance of unity when confronting conventional biology, they do not do so when confronting one another. Young-earth creationists, for example, say that The Intelligent Design movement is such a mixture of agnostics and theists of great theological variety that it can never be concerned about faithfulness to the true God and His Word (Mortensen, 2004) [emphasis in the original]; for their part progressive creationists complain about myths about them circulated among Christians (Anonymous, 2007e) (not, we should note, myths circulated by scientists), and they accuse Ken Ham, a well known young earth creationist (Ham, 1996), of showing his willful ignorance of old earth belief (Neyman, 2005).

SCIENTISTS OPPOSED TO EVOLUTION

In an effort to show that creation science is science, its advocates have assembled a list of scientifically qualified people willing to sign the following declaration:

I am skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

EDWARDS M (2001) 100 Scientists, National Poll Challenge Darwinism.

Notice that this declaration is mild in tone: few legitimate scientists would have difficulty in putting their names to the second sentence; even the first sentence is objectionable more for its implications than for what it specifically says. Not surprisingly, therefore, a little more than 100 people were quickly found who would sign it (Edwards, 2001). What is more surprising is that only about a third of them have even modest claims to expertise in biology, and five of them work at Biola University (formerly the Bible College of Los Angeles), not an institution noted for its research in biology. To illustrate the futility of assembling lists of people (rather than lists of cogent arguments), as if scientific questions were decided democratically, the National Center for Science Education has compiled its own list of scientists called Steve (in honour of Stephen J. Gould) willing to sign a much more forthright statement of support for evolution:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to intelligent design, to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

ANONYMOUS (2007f) Steve-o-meter.

ROWNING BA, WELLS J, WU M, GERHART JC, MOON RT, LARABELL CA (1997) Microtubule-mediated transport of organelles and localization of β-catenin to the future dorsal side of Xenopus eggs. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 94: 1224–1229.

WELLS J (2005) Do centrioles generate a polar ejection force? Riv Biol 98: 71–86.

This list rapidly exceeded the total of 100 initially claimed by the creationists, and now, after several years, contains nearly 800 names (Anonymous, 2007f). More important, however, is the extremely meagre nature of the creationists’ list, which contains only three names with any prominence at all, Michael Behe, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells. Of these, only Behe has any serious claim to be regarded as a biologist, and we shall return to him later. Dembski has no publications at all in refereed journals of biology. Wells has very few, and although one of these (Rowning et al., 1997) is in a major journal it has no obvious relevance to his creationist beliefs. He has, however, succeeded in publishing a creationist article in a refereed journal (Wells, 2005), though one must remember, of course, that not all refereed journals adhere to the same standards of refereeing.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN

ANONYMOUS (2007g) Darwin’s Black Box.

BEHE MJ (1998) Darwin’s Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, The Free Press, New York

BEHE MJ, ENGLANDER WS (1979) Quantitative assessment of the noncovalent inhibition of sickle hemoglobin gelation by phenyl derivatives and other known agents. Biochemistry 18: 4196–4201.

BEHE MJ, LATTMAN EE, ROSE GD (1991) The protein-folding problem: the native fold determines packing, but does packing determine the native fold? Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 18: 4195–4199.

LUTHMAN K, BEHE MJ (1988) Sequence dependence of DNA structure. The B, Z, and A conformations of polydeoxynucleotides containing repeating units of 6 to 16 base pairs. J Biol Chem 263: 15535–15539.

As noted above, young-earth creationists complain that intelligent design encompasses a great variety of different sorts of belief, and in this respect (if in few others) they are right; it does. It cannot be ignored, however, because it provides almost the only justification for claiming that creation science has a scientific basis. Phillip Johnson, the originator of intelligent design, is a retired professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, and has no scientific credentials, but the idea has been given some credibility by Michael Behe, who tries to justify intelligent design in terms of of irreducible complexity, the idea that living organisms depend on numerous systems (like blood clotting) that can only work if all of the components are simultaneously present and functional. Behe does have some legitimate publications in relevant areas of biochemistry, such as studies of sickle-cell haemoglobin (Behe and Englander, 1979), DNA structure (Luthman and Behe, 1988) and protein folding (Behe et al., 1991), and his book Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 1998) is widely cited by people desperate to find a book by a real biologist that attacks the idea of evolution. For example, the British organization Truth in Science mentioned earlier calls it an excellent and essential introduction to the scientific theory of intelligent design (Anonymous, 2007g). Behe himself modestly describes his work as so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrdinger, Pasteur, and Darwin.

BRACE M (2007) Department position on evolution and intelligent design.

As many reviewers of Darwin’s Black Box have noted, Behe (like Johnson) is careful never to name the Designer supposedly responsible for the design that we see all around us in the biological world, in this way trying to support the claim that the motivation is purely scientific and that religion has nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, only the most naive readers are likely to be left in any doubt about which Designer they have in mind. A point of more importance for biochemists is that Behe claims throughout his book that his conclusions follow necessarily from the study of biochemistry, giving the impression to non-biochemist readers (though stopping short of the outright lie of saying so in so many words) that anyone trained in biochemistry will agree. This is so far from the truth that his own academic department at Lehigh University have taken the almost unprecedented step of posting a statement on their web site describing him as the sole dissenter from the position of the departmental faculty, unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory (Brace, 2007).

CORNISH-BOWDEN A, CÁRDENAS ML, LETELIER JC, SOTO-ANDRADE J (2007) Beyond reductionism: metabolic circularity as a guiding vision for a real biology of systems. Proteomics 7: 839–845.

The most serious fault in the book is the pervasive confusion that it makes and encourages between the origin of life and evolution. Charles Darwin did have some suggestions to make about the origin of life, but his fame rests not on these but on the theory of natural selection, which concerns not the origin of life but its subsequent evolution. It is perfectly possible to think that there remain serious difficulties in understanding how the first organisms came to exist, but at the same time to think that natural selection offers an almost complete explanation of evolution. Indeed, that would be the position of most biologists: hardly anyone considers that the origin of life is well understood (and even the very definition of life is far from being a matter of general agreement, as we discuss elsewhere (Cornish-Bowden et al., 2007), but nearly everyone considers that natural selection is in general correct. In Behe’s book, however, the ideas of irreducible complexity are presented as if they were an argument against natural selection, when they are nothing of the kind. Insofar as they are worth bothering with at all, they draw attention to some of the points that a theory of the origin of life will need to explain. For the question that most exercises creationists, the degree of relationship between humans and apes, irreducible complexity has no relevance whatsoever. Behe’s example of blood clotting operates in exactly the same way in chimpanzees and humans, and has precisely nothing to say about whether or when chimpanzees and humans had a common ancestor.

BEHE MJ (2000) Irreducible complexity and the evolutionary literature.

CORNISH-BOWDEN A (2004) The Pursuit of Perfection, Oxford University Press, Oxford

MELÉNDEZ-HEVIA E, WADDELL TG, CASCANTE M (1996) The puzzle of the Krebs citric acid cycle: assembling the pieces of chemically feasible reactions, and opportunism in the design of metabolic pathways during evolution. J Mol Evol 43: 293–303.

MILLER KR (1999) Finding Darwin’s God: a scientist’s search for common ground between God and evolution, Cliff Street Books, New York

RATZINGER JC (2003) Glaube — Wahrheit — Toleranz. Das Christentum und die Weltreligionen, Herder; English translation by Henry Taylor, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Ignatius Press, 2004

In his book Behe claims that there has never been a meeting, or a book, or a paper on details of the evolution of complex biochemical systems. However, the evolution of the Krebs cycle has been thoroughly discussed (Meléndez-Hevia et al., 1996), and forms an important theme in Kenneth Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God (Miller, 1999), and the more general question of the evolution of biochemical pathways and structures is discussed extensively in another book by one of us (Cornish-Bowden, 2004). Notice that Behe left himself an escape clause in his claim that allowed him to dismiss the Krebs cycle as not fitting his definition of complex, and to say that none of the papers [Miller] cites deals with irreducibly complex systems (Behe, 2000). However, if we take complex to mean what any reasonable biochemist would take it to mean, the claim that the evolution of complex biochemical systems is never discussed in the literature or at meetings is clearly false.

In a passage that seems to have escaped the notice of people who think that Behe has disproved Darwinian evolution he says that he finds the idea of common descent (that all organisms have a common ancestor) fairly convincing. He also says that on a small scale, Darwin’s theory has triumphed... but it is at the level of macroevolution ... that the theory evokes skepticism. A similar idea can be found in the writings of a much more distinguished thinker (Ratzinger, 2003):

Within the teaching about evolution itself, the problem emerges at the point of transition from micro- to macro-evolution, on which point Szathmáry and Maynard Smith, both convinced supporters of an all-embracing theory of evolution, nonetheless declare that: There is no theoretical basis for believing that evolutionary lines become more complex with time; and there is also no empirical evidence that this happens.

SZATHMÁRY E (2006) Birds as aeroplanes: remembering John Maynard Smith. Biol Theory 1: 84–86.

SZATHMÁRY E, MAYNARD SMITH J (1995) The major evolutionary transitions. Nature 374: 227–232.

This quotation appears at odds with the various books and articles by Szathmáry and Maynard Smith, as explaining macroevolution was the central objective of their collaboration, and it seems likely that the author was misled by Behe’s book. The problem with the quotation is not that it is wrong, but that it is incomplete (Szathmáry and Maynard Smith, 1995):

There is no theoretical reason to expect evolutionary lineages to increase in complexity with time, and no empirical evidence that they do so. Nevertheless, eukaryotic cells are more complex than prokaryotic cells, animals and plants are more complex than protists, and so on. This increase in complexity may have been achieved as a result of a series of major evolutionary transitions. These involved changes in the way information is stored and transmitted.

John Maynard Smith probably never saw this reference to his work before he died, but Eörs Szathmáry (2006) has discussed it.

CONCLUSIONS

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

MONTAGU A (ed., 1984) Science and Creationism, Oxford University Press, Oxford

SCOTT EC (2005) Evolution vs. Creationism, University of California Press, Berkeley

In this article we have given comparatively little attention to the emptiness of the arguments against evolution, because this is thoroughly dealt with elsewhere, most recently in the book Evolution vs. Creationism (Scott, 2005), but also in an older but very scholarly book Science and Creationism (Montagu, 1984), and there is also a brief but thorough account in a recent book (Carroll, 2006). We have been more concerned with two points that are hardly mentioned, if at all, by commentators in the USA: creationism now represents a major threat to the rational teaching of biology not only in the USA and in other countries like Canada and Australia that have long had active creationist movements, but throughout the world; in addition, outside the USA it is no longer true that the major threat is coming from Christian fundamentalism, as a substantial amount of propaganda is now produced in Turkey and distributed to Muslims in Western Europe and in many countries elsewhere. Even if the threat has not yet become serious in countries such as Chile, there is no certainty that it will not become one in the future: this is already happening in Brazil, and the time for biologists to think about how to address it is now, not in a few years’ time.


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)