Should creationism be taught in schools?


HEAD TO HEAD:Scientists deprive our children of scientific knowledge in order to protect a theory that does not explain life on earth, writes Mervyn Storey. Creationism simply isn't science. It lacks explanatory power and makes statements that, unlike real science, cannot be disproven, writes Gavin Conant.

Mervyn Storey: Yes.

WHAT KIND of people do we want our schools to turn out? Sounds like an easy question - doesn't it? Suppose I suggested we should produce people with inquiring minds, who probe and question, who examine all the evidence and facts - who refuse to be indoctrinated into the dominant philosophical view of the day?

Or what if I suggested that we should want to produce people not easily "radicalised" or not easily swayed by soundbites and spin? I think most people would agree - after all what could be wrong with that approach?

Ah, but there is a problem. There is one area where this is not allowed. There is one group who believe themselves beyond critical analysis. There is one section of society who will suppress evidence, demonise those who offer the mildest forms of critical analysis and do all in their power to keep people indoctrinated in their philosophy.

There is one brand of fundamentalism that insists that it cannot, and therefore must not, be questioned, and demands and receives the backing of the state for that insistence.

I refer of course to Darwinian evolutionists. Never mind the holes in the theory. Never mind the chunks of evidence that point in another direction, nor that the central, basic tenet was long ago debunked.

The theory must be protected and there must be no quarter given to any critical analysis pointing in another direction, or offering an alternative scientific explanation.

But surely evolution was proved long, long ago? Surely it has been proved in the rocks and seas and forests and grasslands? Well . . . er . . . no actually.

The central, core belief of naturalistic evolution is that somewhere in the universe at some time in the far distant past, non-living matter of itself, with no outside influence or mind to guide it, gave rise to living creatures.

It doesn't matter what else is said to have followed. It doesn't matter what vehicle or engine is described to explain how life developed from that point in space and time.

The foundation of each and every form of naturalistic evolution is that basic, unscientific piece of superstition.

Our forefathers used to believe that kind of old wives' tale way back in the unscientific and unenlightened dark ages. You know the kind of thing - that mice spontaneously appear in stored grain or maggots spontaneously appeared in meat. This particular superstition was thoroughly and scientifically debunked long ago by scientists who proved - scientifically proved - proved using the scientific method - that an organism, any organism, all organisms, must have had a parent.

This work was so conclusive that biology codified the "Law of Biogenesis", which states that life only comes from previously existing life and in the process the old myth of spontaneous generation or abiogenesis was a busted flush.

You see, when something is a scientific theory it means that there are facts that suggest that it might be true - like the old earth "inch by inch" evolution is a theory. Some of the science can be interpreted to suggest that the earth is many hundreds of millions of years old.

A much younger earth and the sudden appearance of fully formed species is another theory. Here again there is scientific evidence that can readily and easily be interpreted to suggested that this is the case.

However when something is a scientific law, it is something that has been shown to be true all of the time: for example, the law of gravity; and in this case, the law of biogenesis.

But never mind any of that, the theory must be protected and no child can be contaminated by the huge question marks that hang over it, or of the huge swathes of scientific data that point in another direction.

For that reason too, people brave enough to hold this up to question are subjected to the modern day equivalent of the kind of inquisition that Galileo went through back in his day.

There is no doubt that there is an insidious indoctrination occurring in our education system. There are those who would deprive our children of scientific data and knowledge in order to protect their philosophical notions.

There are those who would choose intellectual stagnation so long as their philosophical bias was protected.

There are those who would prefer to restrict the amount of scientific data made available to pupils if in the process this ensured that their philosophies and superstitions are buttressed.

Yes there is a nasty form of fundamentalism in the air - and it is witnessed each and every time an "old earth" evolutionist tries to stop the furnishing all of our children with all of the facts.

Surely this is wrong. Surely we should not be bullied in this way any more. Surely the time has come when, in the name of science, we should reject them!

Mervyn Storey is a Democratic Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and chair of the Assembly's education committee

Gavin Conant: No

WHAT ARE we to make of Mervyn Storey's argument, reported in this newspaper, that the teaching of creationism in the biology classes of Northern Ireland " . . . is about us having equality of access to other views as to how the world came into existence . . ."?

Fairness is (rightly) a central preoccupation for our societies, so well-intentioned observers may not understand why scientists' reactions to Storey's proposal fall between wearied frustration and outrage.

The analogy I would draw is with a legislator who proposed requiring the teaching of algebra in art history classes. Whatever creationism may be, it is not science. Now, given that science is a global endeavour, it is natural to ask how a single participant in that endeavour can make such a strong, exclusive statement. I do so because there are two distinguishing features of the creationist view (including its newest nom de guerre, "intelligent design") that are incompatible with the scientific perspective.

The first is that it lacks explanatory power. Humans, whales and giraffes all have seven cervical vertebrae (the bones of the neck that run from the skull to above the first rib) - despite the very obvious differences in these animals' necks.

Evolutionary theory, as with all science, is incomplete: we do not know why there are seven of these bones. However, that this number is shared between the three species is not surprising: they share many features of this type, similarities deriving from their recent descent from a common ancestor.

Creationism offers no predictions regarding such phenomena and only the most banal of explanations: the whim of the creator.

Evolutionary biology is being used today to help address human concerns such as the development of cancer, the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics and how genetically-modified organisms may fare in the environment. The failure of creationism to offer similar insights is telling.

Creationism's other weakness might at first appear to be a strength: it cannot be disproven. Although counterintuitive, it is the process of trying to refute scientific ideas that gives us much of our confidence in those ideas that survive. But no conceivable test can disprove the idea of a created biosphere, since the creator can always arrange matters to avoid showing his hand. Indeed, even a world perfectly in accord with rules of evolution is consistent with creationism. Of course, then we take leave of Einstein's God for one who is both subtle and malicious, creating a world that gives the appearance of being uncreated.

Returning to my original question, I think the problem with this principle of equality is illustrated by another of Storey's statements.

Discussing the age of certain geological samples, he says: "The problem . . . has been that we only have a narrow interpretation . . . as to how these particular stones were formed." What a strange view of the nature of a fact. A rock has an origin and an age, just as it has a height. We would never say that there are differing, yet equally valid schools of thought about the height of a mountain. Now, it is possible that our methods of dating rocks are flawed. But if so, it is not simply a matter of correcting a few errors. Changing the age of the earth requires us to change our understanding of nuclear physics (radioactive decay), geology (how rocks are formed), astronomy (the distances between stars), and electricity and magnetism (a much younger universe implies huge errors in our measurements of the speed of light).

But perhaps our ideas on the nature of the universe are indeed wildly wrong. If so, wouldn't it be better to discover and correct this, not disguise it with talk of interpretations? If there is no scientific content to creationism, is there any point in discussing it?

This affair reminds us that there are students and parents for whom the study of evolution is a cause for alarm and doubt.

Storey seems to believe that students must choose between their faith and a scientific education. Now, it is true that scientists take a range of positions on whether faith is compatible with a scientific world view. But even those who emphatically refuse any rapprochement with religion do not ask for a renunciation of belief as the price of studying biology: there are no loyalty oaths in science.

So in answer to Storey's suggestion, I would reply that while creationism has no place in our science classes, creationists are quite welcome. Perhaps science's greatest strength has always been its welcome of anyone willing to listen with an open mind. This welcome is predicated on the one item of faith in science: faith in the seductive power of ideas.

One of the best is at stake here: the idea that the varied forms of life on this planet are all interrelated and that each is the product of simple rules acting over inconceivable timescales.

Dr Gavin Conant is Assistant Professor of Animal Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and was previously a research fellow in the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin