Evolution vs. Creationism & But Is It Science?

Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, 2nd ed.

Eugenie C. Scott. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 2009, xxvi + 351 pages, ISBN 978-0-313-34427-5

But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation-Evolution Controversy, Updated ed.

Robert T. Pennock & Michael Ruse, eds. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2009, 577 pages, ISBN 978-1-59102-582-5

Reviewed by Lawrence S. Lerner

Biological research has it all over creationist watching when it comes to advancing human knowledge.  But those of us who study the evolution of creationism have one great advantage: We can actually identify every event in the selection process that drives the evolution. The natural selection elucidated by Darwin has its creationist-watching analogue in judicial selection, and we can follow in exquisite detail the evolution of creationism in the changing environment of judicial opinion.

The bare historical chronicle is simple enough. The 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial was sufficient persuasion for the craven textbook industry; all mention of evolution disappeared from most high school biology textbooks for the next four decades. But when the 1957 Sputnik scare sparked public interest in science education, the NSF-funded Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS) produced excellent texts. Inevitably, evolution took its proper role at the center of the science, and pervaded the entire curriculum.

But in four states, teaching evolution was still illegal. In 1965, Arkansas teacher Susan Epperson sued, arguing that the law made it impossible to do her job properly. In 1968 the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the anti-evolution laws. The court ruled that they promoted a particular religious view in violation of the First Amendment.

Faced with this new legal environment, creationism evolved. “Creation science” soon appeared, purporting to teach a history of the universe–and particularly of life on Earth –entirely consistent with the first few chapters of Genesis but supposedly entirely independent of it. The universe was created roughly 6000 years ago in six calendar days. The creation included all the “kinds” of creatures now alive or having become extinct since then. The geological and paleontological records were almost entirely laid down by Noah’s Flood, which took place about 1500 years after the creation. This “model,” it was asserted, was at least as effective as the evolutionary, old-universe “model” in accounting for the total body of scientific observations.

Laws were proposed widely, and passed in Arkansas and Louisiana, requiring that equal time be afforded to teaching both “models” in public schools. The Arkansas law was struck down in Federal district court in 1982, in McLean v. Arkansas. The U.S. Supreme Court followed with a definitive 7-2 opinion striking down the similar Louisiana law in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987). Again, the courts saw through the thin veil and found it obvious that creation science was sectarian religion masquerading as science.

The courts thus recognized that creation implies a creator and that creators are supernatural–and likely divine. In response, new species of creationism found ways to avoid the God-word. Of these species, the most prominent was “Intelligent Design,” the earliest fossils of which appear about 1984. But just as a long time elapsed from the appearance of the first mammals to their domination of the continents, intelligent design creationism (IDC) was inconspicuous until law professor Phillip Johnson published Darwin on Trial in 1991. Subsequently, IDC came to dominate the public face of the creationist world, but suffered a serious setback with the “catastrophe” of the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover decision.

Accompanying the long evolution from Scopesonward, a vast creationist literature appeared. It was countered by an extensive literature describing the countless failings, falsehoods, and impossibilities of creationism in all its forms. Among the latter works were the first editions of the two fine books reviewed here. The rapid further evolution of IDC during the period leading up to and following on Kitzmiller has spurred the publication of updated editions, which I will now discuss.

The creationist movement is complex, dynamic and replete with deliberate attempts to mislead the outsider. The movement has broad repercussions in the worlds of politics, education, philosophy, and religion. Hence, an initial inquiry into the current situation and its historical background can be confusing. Evolution vs. Creationism is a superb introductory guide through the tangle, whether the reader wishes simply to get a clear basic picture of what is going on and what one might expect in the future, or plans to dig further into the subject. Author Scott writes with crystal clarity and punctilious fairness. She never gets bogged down in excessive detail and yet never sacrifices accuracy to brevity. She is the long-time Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, the national clearinghouse for teaching good science (and especially evolution). Hence she has, and skillfully conveys, a bird’s-eye view of the world of creationism. 

The second edition, expanded by about one-third, is divided into three parts. Part I introduces the basic ideas and methodology of science and sketches the role of evolution in the historical sciences. It quickly focuses on biological evolution, describing the history of life through deep time and describing the role of natural selection (while pointing out that other mechanisms exist as well). Such concepts as adaptation, speciation, adaptive radiation, and cladistics are set forth briefly but very clearly. The “tinkering” nature of the evolutionary process is described. In the following chapter, the author sets forth the broad spectrum of religious belief, especially in America. In doing this, Scott emphasizes the implications of belief for the creation-evolution spectrum. That spectrum ranges from flat-earthers and geocentrists through young-earthers and progressive creationists (who believe that God created living things by multiple interventions, consistent with their appearance in the fossil record), to various types of religious and non-religious evolutionists.

Part II sets forth the history of the creationism/evolution controversy. There is a brief sketch of its history from ancient times through the publication of Origin of Species, followed by a discussion of the scientific and religious reactions to Origin in Europe and America. There follows an account of the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century, and its absorption of creationism.

Scott gives a brief but lucid description of the rise and fall of the various species of young-earth creationism through its heyday from Scopes to Edwards v. Aguillard. A largely rewritten chapter describes the rise of neo-creationism, from the now nearly forgotten “abrupt appearance” strategy of creationist lawyer Wendell Bird to the better known IDC.

IDC asserts that living things are too complex to have evolved. Thus their existence is evidence of an Intelligent Designer. To satisfy the courts, the latter just possibly could be a space alien or even a Flying Spaghetti Monster. But the ID folks make it clear to friendly audiences that the Intelligent Designer is the God of the King James Bible, and none other. (As theologian-mathematician William Dembski has put it, “Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.”)

There is a fine discussion of the two major “scientific” arguments of IDC – biochemist Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity,” as exemplified by the mousetrap, and Dembski’s logically hopeless “explanatory filter.” The latter, girded about by much fallacious information theory, is an unintentionally comic attempt at a recipe for detecting miracles.

The central role in the IDC movement of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture is discussed briefly. I would have liked to see some discussion of the Center’s Wedge Strategy, which places IDC in the context of a much larger program of restructuring all of American culture and life along fundamentalist lines. But this would perhaps have involved straying from the main subject of the book, and in any case the Wedge Strategy is thoroughly covered in Forrest and Gross’ Creationism’s Trojan Horse (Oxford University Press, 2003.)

Scott then turns to the recent legal history of creationism, with emphasis on the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. Judge Jones’s opinion was a thumping legal finale to several years of scientific, philosophical, and theological publications that had demolished the assertion that ID is science. But creationism does not cease to evolve, and its proponents have since moved to a fallback position with some success. In the current approach, school boards are urged to require the teaching of the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution,” or the “evidence against evolution,” or to “teach the controversy [sic].” Sometimes other subjects unpopular with the political or religious right, such as embryonic stem-cell research or global warming, are thrown in as well. To date, the strategy has worked in Louisiana and Texas, though it has failed in several other states.

Part III consists of seven chapters. The first five comprise excerpts giving creationist positions and anti-creationist rebuttals in astronomy, cosmology, geology, biological evolution, legal matters, science education, religion, and the nature of science. In the chapter on the nature of science, Scott sets forth the creationist argument that over the past few centuries science has wrongly rejected the study of supernatural events (miracles), together with rebuttals. All excerpts are brief and some are very fair paraphrases of publications whose authors have denied Scott permission to quote. Taken together, the excerpts give a lively picture of the debate.

The final chapter summarizes media treatment of evolution and creationism, and surveys of public attitudes among nations and among U.S. population segments. One could hope for a more cheerful picture.

But Is It Science? is a more specialized treatment of creationism, a sort of source book edited by two distinguished philosophers of science. Both have had frontline experience as expert witnesses in two key creationism trials: Ruse in McLean v. Arkansas and Pennock in Kitzmiller v. Dover. Though their main intent is to provide a philosophical framework for evolution-vs.-creationism, they have assembled essays that provide a fine historical, scientific, religious, and legal background.

Part I begins with the major source materials of creationism and evolution. For creationism these are the Bible–in particular Genesis and John I–and the “watch implies a watchmaker” arguments presented extensively and eloquently by William Paley in 1802. Evolution is represented by the magisterial final chapter of On the Origin of Species.

Nineteenth-century objections to evolution are represented by British geologist Adam Sedgwick and American theologian Charles Hodge. These are balanced with a representative passage by “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas H. Huxley. Of four 20th-century essays, the most interesting is one by philosopher Karl Popper, who is best known for his requirement that a statement need be falsifiable if it is to be scientific. Popper, whose background lay largely in the physical sciences, raised a philosophical furor when he made the assertion

I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program–a possible framework for testable scientific theories.

Though this was by no means a rejection of evolution, it was taken as such by the creationist community. A lengthy philosophical dispute, much of which is quoted in this book, led eventually to acquiescence by Popper and most of his school that evolution is indeed a scientific and not a metaphysical endeavor. Not surprisingly, this change of heart has been ignored in the creationist literature.

Part II centers on creation science. An essay by Ronald Numbers, author of the definitive history The Creationists sets the stage. A piece by young-earth creationist Duane Gish sets forth the “two-model” approach of creation science, and it is demolished in Ruse’s testimony and Judge Overton’s decision in McLean v. Arkansas.  Judge Overton used the concept of falsifiability in his determination that creation science is not science. Philosopher of science Larry Laudan, who has written extensive criticism of demarcation–the problem of distinguishing scientific from nonscientific activity–took issue not with the decision but with Judge Overton’s argument. Three essays by Laudan are accompanied by refutations by Ruse and philosopher Barry Gross.

Part III brings the book more or less up to date by describing the rise and decline, but not the fall, of IDC. Special attention is devoted to Kitzmiller, and a portion of Judge Jones’s opinion is given. But the most original and (I think) interesting essay in Part III is the insightful piece by Nick Matzke, now a graduate student in integrative biology but at the time a staff member at the National Center for Science Education.

Matze shows in painstaking detail that for all its claims, IDC is nothing more than a rephrasing of creationism with some changes of emphasis. All the arguments by Phillip Johnson and the Discovery Institute predate his association with the movement. Even the terms of art associated with IDC, such as “intelligent design,” “non-religious creator,” “design theory,” and “irreducible complexity,” are first seen in the works of creationists who were trying to rephrase “creation science” in a way that would circumvent the McLean decision. As Matzke clearly shows, even Johnson’s major political contribution to creationism–the “big tent” that embraces both young- and old-earth creationists–was already in place by 1984. And Dembski’s vaunted “specified complexity” is nothing more than a rehash of the earlier assertion that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. As Matzke puts it so neatly, “The creationists…like to claim that evolution only occurs within strict limits. In biology, this is false; but in the evolution of creationism, it applies in spades.”

Evolution vs. Creationism and But Is It Science? are outstanding additions to the large literature on the creationist movement in all its aspects. They are not, of course, the end of the story by a long shot. Although one might hope third-edition updates of these works will not be necessary, that is not likely to be the case. Matzke quotes an ACLU lawyer, who said at the end of the McLean case in 1982, “Don’t think the creationists will go away. They won’t! They’ll just regroup and be smarter and sneakier next time.”

Lawrence S. Lerner
California State University, Long Beach

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.