Tuatara: Volume 28, Issue 2, February 1986
Creationism: Gospel, Heresy or Science?
Creationism: Gospel, Heresy or Science?
Keywords: Creationism, evolution, fossil, history, philosophy, religion.
The history of the debate between evolutionists and creationists in New Zealand is examined. The history of this debate is compared to that in the United States and the activities of The Institute for Creation Research in the United States and New Zealand is discussed. A general discussion of belief systems forms a basis for discussion of the Institute's activity. The nature of the scientific evidence presented by the Institute is examined and found to be inadequate by normal scientific standards. An appeal is made for New Zealand scientists to recognise the interest people have in their origins and to provide information for the general public.
In New Zealand, debate on the merits of evolution and creationist world views goes back to the 1870's. Arguments occurred between Darwin's supporters, such as F. W. Hutton, a geologist and Anglican lay preacher, G. M. Thomson, biologist and Presbyterian elder, and opponents including Robert Gillies, President of the New Zealand Institute (forerunner of the Royal Society) and an elder of Knox Church. The peculiarities of the New Zealand fauna and flora and the scientific interests of the debaters added immediacy to the debate. The lack of all but two mammals in New Zealand and apparent similarities between the moa and the large flightless birds of the other Southern land masses initially fuelled the debate. Relationships of indigenous butterflies, lizards, fish and plants to those of other countries soon added further data. In fact several New Zealand naturalists supplied information to Darwin (Fleming, 1959).
The arguments were fierce. However, as Stenhouse (1984) strongly points out, the arguments were between scientists who were, and remained, orthodox religious believers. There were no New Zealand equivalents to the militant English agnostics like Huxley and Tynfall. It was not a conflict between science and religion. Attempts to define the conflict in so simple a fashion stemmed largely from the United States.
Over the years local groups, such as the New Zealand branch of the Evolution Protest Movement, continued to produce some creationism literature for local fundamentalist groups (e.g. Milne, undated) or to distribute literature from overseas publishers writing on behalf of groups such as the Jehovah's witnesses (anon., 1967). However support for creationism by scientists had virtually disappeared by the end of the 19th Century (see e.g. Parsonson, 1984).
Public Doubt and Scientific Certainty
Why then do so many of the general public get the impression that the occurrence of evolution is still a live scientific issue? I believe there are two main reasons for this in New Zealand.
First, biologists themselves have been involved in heated debate recently about the mechanisms of evolution. For example it has been argued that Darwin's natural selection is of secondary importance (Grehan, 1984), poorly understood (Cherfas, 1984), well proved (Charlesworth, 1984) and a universal biological law (Reed, 1981). It has been argued that evolution is gradual (Smith, 1981), rapid (Iltis, 1983) or a mixture of the two (Lister, 1984). It has been argued that evolution has come about by subtle molecular mechanisms (Dover, 1982) and as a result of mass extinctions brought about by the impact of an asteroid (Hallam, 1984) or even regular cosmic catastrophies (Maddox, 1984). In this welter of argument the layman could well be excused for thinking that the whole idea of evolution was under attack.page 72
To most biologists, on the other hand, the argument is steadily strengthening our understanding of evolution. Whether that mixture of evolution and genetics often called neo-Darwinism will survive in its classical form with a new lease of life or be so transformed that it will need another title remains to be seen. However that argument resolves itself, there have been no recent suggestions in major scientific journals that evolution has not occurred. A brief argument about whether evolution qualifies as a genuinely scientific theory (“theory” is used here to mean a model for which sufficient evidence exists for it to be used as a base for further predictions, as opposed to a “hypothesis” which must be further tested before it is used in this way) seems to have been firmly answered, and the answer is yes (Sparkes, 1981).
The second reason for public doubt comes from the activities of an interconnected San Diego based group of organisations. These are:
the Institute for Creation Research (I.C.R.)
Christian Heritage Colleges
Creation Research Society.
Membership of the Creation Research Society stands at about 550, all with M.Sc. or Ph.D. qualifications, and all having signed a statement of faith as fundamentalist Christians. The Christian Heritage Colleges exist to train fundamentalist Christian teachers, with a strong emphasis on creationist teachings. The I.C.R., which I visited in July of 1983, is physically adjacent to a Christian Heritage College, shares staff with it, and works under contract to it. Thirty students have graduated over the past three years although only one has been in biology. This student's thesis was entitled “A rationale for the Christian College Biology Curriculum” (Anon, 1983). Research generally has been “literature based” or “field based” (Dr Morris, pers. comm. 1983). The I.C.R. is only now in the process of building laboratories, although it has accepted graduate students for training for several years.
I.C.R. members are seldom represented at scientific conferences, their publications tend to be published by the organisation itself and therefore are not subject to the usual peer scrutiny, but they are very active politically. They are, for example, putting pressure on boards that select schoolbooks in the United States not to buy books that devote time to evolution unless they also give space to creationism. In general, publishers have not been willing to promulgate creationism, but they have tended to seek to increase their sales by cutting back sections dealing with evolution. Boards are also being pressured to include “creation science” in their syllabi (Budiansky, 1983). This pressure would be even more effective if it were not for the activities of scientists who, with the backing of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, attend school board meetings and put the case for science. Pressure on legislatures has produced bills for equal time for creation and evolution in schools in Arkansas (where one such bill was recently declared by a Federal Court to be a constitutional violation of the separation of church and state), and in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and 21 other states where the bills were defeated in the legislature (Budiansky, 1983).
In the States this crusade dates back to William Jennings Bryan and his concern that people with a university education were caught up in a flood of disbelief sweeping campuses and which he attributed to the teaching of evolution (Numbers, 1982; Marsden 1983). Support for the cause is widespread in the United States to this day. One Judge Braswell Dean was quoted in Life magazine for January, 1982, as saying: “This monkey mythology of Darwin is the cause of permissiveness, promiscuity, pills, prophylactics, perversions, pregnancies, abortions, pornography, pollution, poisoning and proliferation of crimes of all types.”
The Institute for Creation Research and New Zealand
Many scientists reading this may well have the reaction that this is the kind of thing one expects to encounter in the United States but it couldn't happen in New Zealand. In page 73 fact the founder of the I.C.R. and Christian Heritage Colleges, Dr Henry Morris, has visited New Zealand, as has the Deputy Director of the Institute, Dr Duane Gish. Here they have talked at Universities (e.g. Christoffel, 1983) as well as at churches and schools. There is no doubt that their influence in some schools has at times been profound. These men are specialists. Their forum is not the journal article or scientific conferences. It is the one or two hour debate. Scientists thus debate with them at their own peril. It is a bit like holding a complex criminal trial by allowing both lawyers an hour each and five minutes for rebuttal. The result in the minds of the listeners is likely to depend more on the persuasiveness of the lawyers than on the evidence since so little of the evidence can be presented in the time available. It may be difficult for a scientist, not used to public debate, to get the point across that while the basic concepts of evolution are simple, the evidence to support these concepts is vast, and that therefore evolution cannot be tossed aside without also throwing out many of the central theories of chemistry, physics, biochemistry and astronomy. For all its underlying simplicity it takes years of study to get to know the huge accumulation of evidence, and public debate is not the best way of establishing the truth in such complex issues. None the less, I believe that scientists have a duty to answer the creationists' arguments. I suggest the best way to do this is for scientists to make themselves available to local schools and universities, and perhaps even to seek invitations to churches, to redress the balance after visits by the creationists. In saying this I am not suggesting that science teachers are not capable of redressing the balance themselves. Rather I would argue, on the experience of the universities, that it often pays to have second “visiting expert” to balance the first.
I believe that there are a number of important issues that need to be raised in this context. The first is the intensity of belief involved and people's rights to their own beliefs.
Paradigms, Models, Belief Systems
Everyone has a unique way of explaining the mass of data they take in through their senses. We perceive the sights, textures, odours, tastes, sounds, and words of our world and then seek to make sense of these by making pictures, saying words or using our imagination to reproduce inside our heads, patterns which allow us to give an imaginary past, imaginary future or an imaginary internal working to what we see (Lankton, 1980). Since we are receiving far more information that we can possibly pay attention to, the way we perceive the world, i.e. what we pay attention to, is itself influenced by the patterns we use inside our head to explain things. None of us likes to change these patterns we have developed. Most of us do change them from time to time, either to make them more internally consistent or to bring them more into line with other people's. This applies to all belief systems. Scientists are no happier to give up their belief systems than anyone else. Thus as Sparkes (1981) points out, there are “core theories” in science which are heavily protected, i.e. we would rather explain away exceptions than change the “core theory”. The core theory with its subsidiary explanations is what Kuhn (1970) refers to as a paradigm. There are paradigms in the study of history and religion. What is different about science is that “core theories” and all other scientific hypotheses and theories are constantly producing predictions which can be tested in the real world in a repeatable way. If too many of these predictions fail, then even “core theories” will be modified, as Newton's theories were by Einstein's.
Paradigms of the Origin of Life
People are naturally very interested in their origins and every group seems to have its own paradigm of how we got here. Sproul (1979) gives 134 versions, including seven biblical versions and four Maori versions. This in itself, by the way, makes nonsense of the I.C.R.'s claim for “equal time for teaching creation and evolution in science courses”, since they only want “equal time” given to their own particular version of creation. The scientific equivalent of these creation myths is the theory of evolution. That scientists have as much emotional investment as anyone else in their favourite version of “how we got here” can be measured by the heat that is sometimes generated in discussions of the mechanism by which evolution operates. Because of the large page 75 emotional investment we all have in this area it seems important to me that scientists, when discussing these matters, especially with an audience of non-scientists, be open about their own belief systems outside of, but no doubt influencing, their scientific views. This is necessary so that the audience can assess the impact that the scientist's overall belief system is having on his assessment of evidence and would also, I think, help to show the public that it is possible to hold a wide range of religious views and at the same time accept evolution as a well established theory.
For example, my own background is that I was a fundamentalist Christian as a teenager. I was unusual in that I accepted most of the doctrine, e.g. need for salvation through a conversion experience, but had no problem in also accepting evolutionary theory when I came across it. Later I read widely in other religious writing and became convinced that it was unlikely that any one group has a monopoly on religious truth. My present position is that I am a theist in the sense that I believe that we are all part of some thing/being, and that sacred writings are an attempt to come to terms with this. From this point of view creation and evolution are equally satisfactory models. My prejudice towards evolution comes from 25 years experience of finding it a useful thinking tool in looking at biological systems as they exist today. Creationism does not make sense of the data.
Members of I.C.R. on the other hand are all committed fundamentalist Christians. They believe that the bible is literally true and they are convinced that the results of their “research” will be “even greater confidence in the Word of God” (Vardiman, 1984). Jukes (1984) accuses Gish of deliberate lying about the nature of a chemical reaction (Gish continues to claim the bombardier beetle uses an impossibly explosive mix of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone “Although he knows that — the mixture slowly and quietly turns brown” instead of exploding). From my contact with members of the Institute I doubt that they would lie deliberately to further their cause. I was invited by them to visit their Institute and at no time had any impression that they wished to mislead me or hide anything from me. Rather, I have the impression of very sincere men with a paradigm so inflexible that even correcting obviously wrong detail is very difficult for them.
With this in mind the we can look at I.C.R.'s claim to be a scientific organisation. I.C.R. has also been criticised by the British Biblical Creation Society as being ascriptural and anti-scriptural (Professor Edgar Andrews, reported in Howgate and Lewis, 1984) and on numerous grounds by a wide spectrum of theologians (Frye, 1983) but these are theological arguments and beyond the scope of this paper. I wish to suggest that from a scientific point of view the work of the Institute can be broadly divided into two categories or parts. The first part is not scientific, and in some cases is anti-science, in that it uses unscientific methods to attack scientific work, and a second category which is science but simply poor quality science.
I.C.R. Activities that are Non-Science and Anti-Science
Each month the I.C.R. publishes an article in its Impact series. In the last 12 months (to September, 1984) the following have appeared: one article on politics (getting “God-centered” theories into schools), one on (?) archaeology (the search for the Ark on Mt Ararat), one on the finances of I.C.R., one on philosophy, and four that are pure theology, using arguments based solely or mainly on the Christian Bible. All eight articles I would rank as non-science. This leaves three that could be called scientific, to which I will refer below, and one that is a good example of what I have called anti-science. In this last article, Morris (1984) uses quotations out of context from cosmologists to attack the assumed views of evolutionists. This is a common method of argument by this group. It is a good debating tactic, used in many of their publications. In Morris (1982) we find scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, Colin Patterson, Kimura Motoo, Pierre Grasse, Roger Lewin, and Sewell Wright, who have made major page 76 contributions to evolutionary theory and discussion, quoted, often out of context, in such a way as to attempt to discredit evolutionary theory. This is like saying I am doing theology and then quoting parts of the Bible or famous theologians out of context in an attempt to disprove Christianity. Good scientists, like good car manufacturers, test their own product to destruction if they can. The less reputable among politicians and used car salesmen work by knocking the opposition. I have recently criticised Saiff and Macbeth (1983) on the same grounds (Hewitt, 1983).
I.C.R.'s Scientific Activities are Poor Science
Those arguments that I.C.R. members use against evolution involve misunderstanding, often of very basic science. I will take three examples.
Creationists' argue that the second law of thermodynamics makes evolution impossible since it requires that all systems increase in entropy (i.e. become less and less ordered with time) (e.g. Wysong, 1976; Morris, 1984). As Hull (1982) and others have pointed out, this law applies only to closed systems, with or without a source of energy. It therefore does not apply to Earth since Earth is an open system (see Fig. 2). In such systems with a heat source (the Sun), a receiver and transmitter of energy (the Earth) and a heat sink to receive the energy (space), entropy either remains constant or decreases. Bernstein et al (1983, p. 190) describe a simple experiment to demonstrate this principle. A frying pan (preferably with a copper bottom and about 20-30cm in diameter) is filled with enough oil to just cover the bottom (about 1 mm deep) and placed on an electric element of about the same size as the bottom of the pan. At high stove settings the surface will appear dimpled as a result of developing a convection pattern. What is happening is that a heat source (the stove) is supplying heat to the oil (the receiver and transmitter) which then radiates it into the room (a heat sink). The parallels to our solar system are obvious and the decrease in entropy (production of pattern) is both obvious and repeatable.
This situation, called a steady-state system, is stable for long periods of time so long as: deS = diS ≤ O [Where deS is the entropy flow between the system and its environment and diS is the entropy production of irreversible processes within the system (diffusion, chemical reactions, heat conduction, etc.)(Csanyi, 1982, p.17)].
The three issues of Impact referred to above as scientific, include that of Robbins (1984) asking if the redwoods of California can be used to date the flood. Since he only raises the question but does not suggest how it could be answered, I will take it no further. Vardiman's (1984) paper speculates on the possible atmosphere before and during the Biblical flood. It is highly speculative and depends on the prior assumption that a world-wide flood has taken place. Geologists have no evidence that this has occurred. The third article (Cumming, 1984) uses examples from life cycles of several organisms and from biochemistry (his later reference to this material as “ecology” is puzzling) to support Paley's (1802) argument that nature is so well designed that it requires the direct intervention of a designer. It seems appropriate to answer such an ancient argument with classic answers. As Darwin and Hutton pointed out over 100 years ago, the following suggest that if a designer had directly intervened it must have been on a bad day:
Certainly there are many examples of fine adaptation of organisms to their environment. Darwin's idea of natural selection following natural variation was based in part on this observation. Darwin's theory also quite happily explains relict structures, retained to be used for some new purpose, or being gradually phased out as page 77
Fig. 2: (a) A model of the energy balance of Earth as presented by an I.C.R. speaker to a meeting in Wellington in the late 1970s. Energy is shown as trapped around the Earth, being neither fed in nor lost (a closed system).
Finally let us consider the work by Wysong (1976). Wysong, more than most creationists, attempts to be scientific (or if one is uncharitable, goes to great lengths to hide his creationist views until late in his book). Let us then examine one of the real scientific tests of creationism as set forth by Wysong. If the creationists are correct and the earth is only about 10,000 years old, then we should find the remains of what we regard as modern organisms mixed in with those which we believe to be from the geological past. Wysong (1976, pp. 370-383) produces 15 items as supporting such “disordering”. Let us consider them in turn.
Item 1 refers to the finding of pollen from Angiosperms in supposedly pre-Cambrian rocks. Stainforth (1966) in reporting this find admits it poses a problem but suggests several possible mechanisms. The item then goes on to quote Axelrod (1959) on woody plant remains from Cambrian rock. Wysong says: “Woody plants supposedly did not arrive on the evolutionary scene until over 200 million years after the Cambrian”, implying that this find represents an anomaly. Axlerod on the other hand actually states on the first page that the finding of these ancient plants solves many problems concerning the early evolution of land plants, and goes on to quote other records of early Cambrian land plants.
Item 2 refers to the finding of pre-Cambrian arthropod fossils by the U.S.G.S. but gives no references.
Item 3 quotes the speculative writer Velikovsky as saying that a figurine made by humans was found under “tertiary” larva in the course of drilling for water.
Item 4 quotes a newspaper report that a gold chain was found embedded in a “chunk of coal” and item 5 deals with an iron pot also encased in coal reported in a Creation Research Society publication.
Item 6 brings up the suggestion of human foot prints found among dinosaur footprints. The only reference given is to Ingalls (1940). Ingalls states “unless 2 and 2 are 7 … these prints were not made by Carboniferous man”. The possibility of mistaking dinosaur footprints for human ones, given their lack of clarity and the possiblity of fraud by local guides or other persons, has all been pointed out before. Milne and Schafersman (1983) give examples from the Paluxy River-Glen Rose site which seems to prove fraud by someone.
Item 7 is an old (1860, 1886) record of human remains in “pliocene strata” quoted from the British Evolutionary Protest Movement.
Items 8 and 14 refer to human remains found in coal or rock. Unfortunately the references are unavailable to me.
Item 9 is a picture that purports to be a trilobite squashed into the impression of a shoe. The trilobite is not clear and no evidence is given to suggest that the two shallow symmetrical impressions are made by a shoe rather than some natural agency.
Items 10—13 concern pottery designs and pictures made by primitive peoples and said to be of 5-toed llamas, dinosaurs and mastodons. This is then used as an argument that the animals concerned must have been contemporaneous with the peoples who made the representation. The one example figured (fig. 123) does not reveal anything like the detail which would be needed to back up such a claim.
Item 15 lists several similar items from one of the Society's own publications.
Fig. 3 a and b: Fossil records that could be expected following a creation event (a) and evolutionary origins (b). In (a) modern organisms are found back through time with little change. In (b) modern organisms differ from fossil ancestors, some fossil lineages converging toward common ancestors. Both records suffer from incomplete preservation of most lineages.
The Appeal of the Creationist Approach
It is not surprising that some people like the creationist approach. Modern science has reached a stage where we are forced to recognise that the world is complex beyond our power of understanding. It is much harder to imagine a beginning for our universe 20,000,000,000 years ago than to go with Bishop Usher, who in the 17th Century worked back through the genealogies in the Bible and decided that creation occurred at 9a.m. on the 23rd October, 4004B.C. People prefer simple answers. So do scientists, for after all we often use Occam's razor to choose between hypotheses. As good scientists we will choose the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. That people can accept that the creationist argument, as put foward at present, fits the known facts of Biology, Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, etc. is a sign of the organisation and commitment of I.C.R. supporters and an indictment of the job we have done as scientists in communicating our knowledge to the general public. Perhaps the best way to rectify the situation is for scientists to make themselves available to schools, churches and other interested bodies. I hope that those responsible for education and for informing the public will feel free to approach our universities and research centres for assistance.
I wish to thank Professors J. A. F. Garrick, J. B. J. Wells, and Dr. C. H. Daugherty (Zoology Department, Victoria University, Wellington) for constructive criticism of this paper and Dr. D. H. Milne (Evergreen State College, Washington) for additional references.
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Fig. 4 a and b: Details of fossil changes before and after an extinction episode as reflected in a lineage incapable of evolutionary change (a) and in one capable of evolutionary change (b). In (a) the fauna is severely depleted. In (b) it is as diverse as before and may include new forms. After Milne (1981) by permission of the author.
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