On this subject I wanted to post for a long time now. But before I deal with two current issues, a longer introducion - what is creationism?
It is not merely the belief that the holy book of Christianity, the Bible, is the literal truth. Creationism is the collection of diverse, often contradictory hypotheses, claims and phoney arguments attempting to reconcile the literalist belief with reality, and more importantly, attempting to 'disprove' and replace scientific theories with - and also the movement pushing it. Altough the bogeyman in creationist-talk is 'evolution' - or, as they like to twist the word, 'evilution'
- their assault (which is integral part of the 'moral values' back-to-the-Middle-Ages offensive of evangelicals) in fact is against much of modern science in a lot of fields. So to better answer the question of what is creationism, one best starts with the attacked sciences:
still needs most details, because creationists often mix up things not known reliably by most people. First there is the fact
of evolution - that is, that the inherited characteristics of species change over time. (It is rarely known that 'evolution' became the term of usage only later on, Darwin used "transmutation of species".) From Darwin's finches through flu epidemics with changing viruses and domestic plants and cholesterol-resistant Italian villagers to fossils, this is an observable. Darwin could convince the scientific community about this
already in the eighteen-seventies. Then there is the theory
of evolution - or better, theories
of evolution[*]. One Darwin also had early success with is the Theory of Common Descent (all species are connected through evolution at points of divergence in the past) - it suddenly made sense of the hierarchic taxonomy of living species and of the fossil record. A further theory that, and this is less well known outside profesional circles, Darwin had no early success with[#], is natural selection (mode of evolution driven by natural conditions, by determining which variant of an inherited trait results in a higher rate of survival and reproduction) - this one defeated rivals like lamarckism only in the nineteen-thirties.
But there are more: sexual and artifical selection (modes of evolution driven by what is coded in instincts as sexually attractive, resp. by selection with a desired outcome by humans), genetic drift (there is a population with variants that don't make much difference in fitness - say a bird species that is mostly all black but a few have white tail feathers - from which isolation or climatic change or some catastrophe breaks off a smaller sub-population with a different dominant variant - mostly white-tailed birds - that then becomes dominant); punctuated equilibrum (most evolutionary change by either of the previous modes happening in small populations that got into a new environment, by isolation or climatic change or some catastrophe; in a geologically short time - while little change happens in more time). Then there are the hypotheses of abiogenesis (which, note, is not itself part of evolution). Paleontology is incompatible with Biblical literalism not just on grounds of timescales, but also the inferred not-at-all-like-today complete biospheres and living conditions. Finally, in genetics, there are variants of the same genes in different species, with differences indicative of distance, and genes inactive in some species but active in related ones.
Then there is geology
, in almost its totality - and, connected to it through dating methods, nuclear physics
. Let's not forget about thermodynamics
is an obvious target, as are the applied basic theories of modern physics: quantum mechanics
and Einstein's Theory Of General Relativity
. But one field that is - to me, who was trained an astronomer (but not working as one), surprisingly - rarely recognised as under assault is astrophysics
: after all, just look at stellar evolution: we have clouds condensing into main sequence stars over hundreds of thousands of years, followed by ten million to hundred billion years [depending on mass] of normal hydrogen fusion (whose energy propagates from the core to the surface of stars in roughly one million years), followed by some millions of years of blowing up into a red giant, followed by the shedding of a planetary nebula or blowing up as supernova, also shedding a nebula - expanding nebulae that are detectable for tens of thousands of years... And I din't yet mention the larger-scale Universe, for example quasars spewing yets millions of lightyears long and even more years old.
Usually, creationists counter
the fact of evolution with massive denial and distortions, or special pleading - they are more imaginative with the theories. When attacking common descent, rather than attempt to pinpoint a sequence of fossils apparently fitting into a reverse family tree (i.e. looking as if a number of species subsequently merged into one) as proof that evolutionary family trees are all fantasy, they have a whole literature attempting to portray found missing links as fully integral part of one linked group (say, Archaeopteryx is a modern bird), and make much about examples of parallel evolution (even tough most of these examples show similar adaptation from different
organs). Natural selection, when not countered with the 'tornado in a junkyard' or 'something from nothing' strawmen (also applied to abiogenesis), is countered with examples of organs which wouldn't function with various parts left away (even tough genes don't function like that - they change or dublicate or even make more complex a body feature, rather than make it appear from nowhere) - or, in a less clueless way, by attempting to show that intermediate stages are without benefit for survival (for example the human eye, even tough the intermediate stages actually exist in various other species).
The term p'unctuated equilibrum' is probably more widely known to creationists than even specialists: 'supported' by lots of widely circulated quotes out of context, they handle it as a 'proof', even 'admission' that evolution is unproven!... The expertise of paleontologists is dismissed on the basis of past frauds like Piltdown Man - even tough it was evolutionist paleontologists who exposed these. Also, rare examples of very fast fossilisation of dead bodies under special conditions are taken as shoes-that-fit-all explanation for all fossils.
Geology is the field where creationists are most active dishing out hypotheses: dozens of often contradictory scenarios - yeah, you'd never guess how many different literal meanings the Bible can have!... - try to explain every geologic feature with Noah's Flood
, from mountain-building through tectonics, both sediments and the Grand Canyon cutting through them; while ignoring such niceties as the geographical changes in typical flora and fauna. (Connected to it, there is much activity trying to explain in detail how animals on Noah's Ark could have been sufficient for the survival of life - to the extent of raping mathematics: one celebrated 'creation scientist', instead of adding up volumes needed by various animals, calculated their mean and median - and when multiplying with the number of species to get total volume, incredibly, he declared the latter is applicable!...) Combing from the literature examples of the radiological clock in rocks not re-setting (f.e. in the relatively cold lava of a Hawaii volcano), which for science mean an error factor identified, neutralised and hence promising greater precision, creationists claim dating based on nuclear decay is unreliable. As for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which in a simplified form says that entropy ('disorder') in a closed system
increases over time[+] , the closed system part is dropped and applied f.e. to the DNA of a species - nevermind that a living bird, a bridge built by humans, or a snowflake forming from moisture violate the Creationist Second Law Of Thermodynamics
, too. Basic astronomy is a tough problem, given that galaxies billions of lightyears away are seen by the light their stars emitted just as many years ago - so creationists built an extended 'theory' of changing light speed, or assume God created the photons on their way - coming dangerously close to calling God a cosmic liar
. I also note that creationists make much about semantics - the "evolution" in "stellar evolution" is taken as proof that this is the same thing as in biology!
These creationists have their own 'research institutions'
- like CRI or ICR. What do these 'creation scientists' research? Well, ever since one of the 'institutions' sent out two students to do field work in the Grand Canyon, who subsequently concluded that 'scientific creationism' doesn't fit reality, its not Nature. Their main work, beyond dreaming up hypotheses upon hypotheses without testing, constructing false but compelling analogies, and building a 'moral' case against 'evolution', consists of combing through scientific literature - collecting and creating hundreds upon hundreds of out-of-context quotes. Their dishonesty either covers a spineless non-believer, or a crackpot with a 'Liar For Jesus' attitude - another example: their star, one Duane Gish, tours with a story about a beetle which produces a two-component explosive in its glands - and he still does it, altough the non-explosiveness of the mix was demonstrated to him live a couple of times.
Above I cheated a little. For creationism has two versions: Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism
. What I described above is the former. The latter serves the beliefs of non-fundamentalist Christians - people who acknowledge a Universe billions of years old, admit that not all of the Bible is literal truth, and even accept evolution - but believe in divine intervention at key points: kicking off Big Bang, creating life, and creating moral beings i.e. humans (by implanting a soul, or guiding evolution). The more honest and intelligent Old Earth Creationists have their hypotheses too: f.e. the nontrivially faulty argument about the improbability of a Universe fit for human life ('Strong Anthropic Principle'), and Intelligent Design
. The latter is based on the faulty argument that if the origin of some complex order in nature is otherwise unexplainable, then the simplest explanation is design by some intelligence (obviously, positing the existence of some even more complex thing is not simple but exactly what Occam's Razor was invented for) - and OEC seek to present some basic molecular-level elements of living cells that couldn't have been evolved (proving a negative is problematic in itself, but worse for them that each and every of their exaples was picked apart by some scientists willing to play along).
Now here is a complication. Young Earth Creationists, after a series of failures to get legal recognition for their pseudoscience as either an equal or superior of 'evolution', have seized upon their more intelligent Old Earther counterparts' work[§], and are now promoting Intelligent Design - of course not as a complementary of, but as an alternative to 'evolution'. Here is their first success (via Steve Gilliard
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A Pennsylvania school district on Friday defended its decision to discount Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and take a lead in teaching what critics say is a version of creationism.
Dover Area School District in south-central Pennsylvania is believed to be the first in the country to approve the teaching of a new theory called "intelligent design," according to the National Center for Science Education.
And apparently, the creationists activated some moles, some probably Bush-appointee moles at top positions, like in the US Park Services HQ (again via Steve Gilliard
...some four million people annually visit Grand Canyon National Park, marveling at the awesome view. In National Park Service (NPS) affiliated bookstores, they can find literature informing them that the great chasm runs for 277 miles along the bed of the Colorado River. It descends more than a mile into the earth, and along one stretch, is some 18 miles wide, its walls displaying impressive layers of limestone, sandstone, shale, schist and granite.
And, oh yes, it was formed about 4,500 years ago, a direct consequence of Noah’s Flood. How’s that? Yes, this is the ill-informed premise of “Grand Canyon, a Different View,” a handsomely-illustrated volume also on sale at the bookstores. It includes the writings of creationists and creation scientists and was compiled by Tom Vail, who with his wife operates Canyon Ministries, conducting creationist-view tours of the canyon... (Most geologists place the canyon’s age at some six million years)...
Vail’s book attracted little notice when it first appeared in the NPS stores in 2003, until a critical review by Wilfred Elders, a respected University of California geologist, brought it to light and took apart its pseudoscientific claims. That led David Shaver, who heads the Geologic Resources Division of the Park Service, to send a memo to headquarters urging that the book be removed from the NPS stores... The presidents of The American Geological Institute and six of its member societies also weighed in, expressing their dismay to the Park Service...
But when Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Joe Alston attempted to block the sale of Vail’s book at canyon bookstores, he was overruled by NPS headquarters, which announced that a high-level policy review of the matter would be launched and a decision made by February, 2004. So far, no official decision has been announced.
While you may dismiss these happenings as isolated, and point to the creationists' failure in Kansas, creationists could have a worse effect on US public education in a more subtle way: through local schoolboards. Schoolboards decide what textbooks will be ordered - and if many schoolboards are infested with creationists, it can exert market pressure on publishers
, which will respond with self-censorship. And so it happened. The late Stephen Jay Gould illustrated this by comparing subsequent editions of the same biology textbook of one publisher: the treatment of evolution shrunk from two full chapters to a few obscure sentences. Over the decades, this slow but persistent pressure destroyed US public education to the same extent budget cuts did. (And the Kansas defeat may be a temporary
: from 2005, creationists will have a 6:4 majority in the state schoolboard [but at least not 7:3: the Nov 2 election mentioned in the article was a hairthin victory for the moderate incumbent].)
Of course, to realise the above effect of creationists, US liberals living in the Northeast or the West Coast (or non-US-American on-lookers) first have to acknowledge their numbers
(as many of them now do
, belatedly) - some poll evidence for this from the latest Gallup poll
, just released; showing the same trend over decades:
- Is Darwin's theory of evolution supported by evidence? 35% Yes, 35% No, 29% Don't Know;
- Origin of Man? 13% say Man evolved naturally (scientific view), 38% say God guided Man's development (OEC view), 45% say God created Man in his present form (YEC view);
- What about the Bible? 15% say it is fables/legend/myth, 48% say it was inspired by God and some of it not literal, 34% say it is the word of God and literal truth.
As for my fellow Europeans, this is no issue to be smug or complacent about: creationists are busy recruiting on our side of the pond, too. And at some places they already left the underground - thanks to idiots like British PM and religious nut Tony Bliar, who allowed the establishment
of a small network of creationist schools from 2002!
Finally, some links for the interested: the site of the talk.origins newsgroup
(in which I learnt most about creationism & attacked science not in my field), the National Center for Science Education
for Americans, and the Black Shadow
[*] I note that 'theory' in science means a hypothesis that 'works' - i.e., one that passed some tests after its proposition, and did that better than rival hypotheses. A hypothesis is what just attempts to explain already known evidence (and predicts something about evidence about to be collected).
[#] The problem was, long before DNA was understood, people assumed genes mix upon inheritance like solutions - say half a bottle of water and half a bottle of wine - which would dissolve an advantageous gene to insignificance real fast. This problem was solved with the adoption of Mendelian genetics with its discrete genes (i.e. you have two sets of genes in every cell, with one from each parent).
[+] A more precise definition of the Second Law that covers open systems too would be: the balance of imported, exported and generated entropy of a system is increasing over time. For example, while a plant's entropy declines, the entropy of incoming Sunlight and groundwater is much less than that of outgoing heat and water vapour.
[§] YEC also seized from the work of parallel pseudosciences connected to other religions - there are some not at all stupid yet silly guys [I met one, an American too, at a 'lecture' he held] connected to the Hare Krishna who try to prove a static 'Old Earth', i.e. no evolution and all species co-existing over billions of years - by collecting alleged evidence of modern animals in ancient sediments (while also believing that dinosaurs still exist, hidden somewhere).