Previous | Next

October 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 4 · pp. 28–31 

Forum: Should Creationism Be Taught in Public Schools? No!

John Carlson

Biology is the study of life and of its many diverse forms. Students of this subject have recognized for some time that these forms are tied together by a number of similarities that suggest development from common ancestors. The theory of evolution describes the developing process and provides a rationale for the interrelationships among all species. Despite the widespread acceptance of the general principles of this theory by the biological community, its teaching in public school systems is the subject of protracted debate. This issue involves the question of whether creationism should be taught along with the evolutionary explanation of life forms. Resolution of this controversy is very likely to affect both what and how we teach one of the most basic courses in the public curriculum. My response to this issue will be based on a comparison of the scientific validity of creationism and evolutionary theory.

The theory of evolution is taught in most biology departments at the college or university level. Its principles are basic to most biology texts, and its implications spread to many subdisciplines in this field. They reach to all levels including the biochemical, cellular and systemic.

The widespread acceptance of evolution is derived from the research record. It provides the general theoretical framework for the experiments of thousands of scientists throughout the world. This experimentation extends to all areas in biology from taxonomy to molecular biology. For example, experiments concluded in bacterial genetics are useful in understanding the mechanisms controlling protein synthesis in all, including human, cells. In addition, experiments are conducted on animals for the benefit of mankind. The purpose may be to test the physiological effects of a new drug, the toxicity of a new pharmacological agent or investigation along a more basic line. Since many of these studies cannot be performed on man, animal models are used. A reasonable extrapolation to humans can be made because of fundamental similarities in the way living tissues function. {29}

For a scientific field to gain respectability and credibility, its research must be published in reputable scientific journals. Those that are most successful operate by peer review for accepting articles. This does not mean that all work in such journals is necessarily theoretically sound but peer review is the recognized standard the world over. It allows for a scientist’s work to be carefully reviewed by similarly trained colleagues, and it provides other researchers the opportunity to confirm original findings. Thus there is a built in safety mechanism working to expose faulty methodology and conclusions. It is this process that gives evolution respectability and credibility as a scientific theory.

Implications of the theory of evolution are supported by disciplines other than biology. One of its main tenets assumes that the world is billions of years old, and that evolution occurred over great geological epochs. Evolution on such a scale provides for the progression of organisms for initial simple forms to the more complex. It is interesting to note that other scientific disciplines also estimate a similar age for the earth. The question of dating was addressed recently by Philip Ableson (Science 215 (1982): 119) who pointed out that chemists have used several different isotopic methods to determine that the earth is around 2600 million years. In addition, he noted that astronomers and astrophysicists place the age of the universe at 10-20 billion years. Other disciplines such as geology indicate that our planet has existed a comparable length of time to account for the formation of petroleum for organic matter. Recent theories of continental drift also require a similar chronological period to account for the present appearance of the earth’s surface.

Despite widespread support among biologists, some important questions remain. For example, the theory does not explain how the initial elements and molecules came into existence. Also, awaiting satisfactory explanation is the question, how did life first begin. How did the particular chemicals of life combine to form a living, reproducing cell? Within the boundaries of the theory itself, there is disagreement among evolutionists whether new species are formed as a result of gradual change or periodic changes. Some of these questions may be answered while others may remain unexplained. Nevertheless, their existence does not disprove the theory or prevent it from providing a valid explanation of the interrelatedness of life in its diverse forms.

An alternative to the evolutionary theory has been put forth by a group known as scientific creationists. They use a literal reading of Genesis as a model for explaining the formation of plant and animal life. Consequently they believe that the earth and the various forms of life evident today were created over a period of six, twenty-four hour days. Thus according to this theory new species are not formed today, and the earth is approximately 10,000 years old. Much of the current {30} support for those ideas comes to the Creation Research Institute, a California based organization formed to gather information substantiating scientific creationists’ accounts of origins.

Does creationism present a scientifically viable alternative to evolutionism? More specifically, should creationism be taught in the public school? It is my opinion that creationism is not a viable scientific alternative to evolution and hence creationism does not merit inclusion in the public school curriculum. I would like to briefly offer several points in support of this position. First, creationism simply does not offer a satisfactorily scientific explanation of the origin of life. In order to support their ideas, the creationists place themselves in the extreme position of rejecting most of the evidence supporting the evolutionary theory. For example, they discount all evidence that places the age of the earth at several billion years. Thus they counter not only the biological evidence but also the chemical, geological and astronomical evidence for this time scale.

Second, as a hypothesis, creationism lacks scientific credibility. The ideas inherent in this position are not scientific. Although a few scientists are associated with the Creation Research Institute, they do not conduct research that is publishable in peer review journals. This should be the basic criterion demanded for all scientific disciplines taught in our school system. Again, this is the established means of determining scientific truth. Such an omission on this important point speaks for the inadequacy of their position.

Third, there are problems in using Scripture as an authoritative source of scientific knowledge. Scriptures were not written to serve as a biology text. While the Bible does authoritatively affirm that God is the Creator, the Bible does not explain how God made the various forms of life. Another vexing question is, whether the writer of Genesis talked of six, twenty-four hour days or of an indefinite period in describing the creation. Did God create man in an instant or by an evolving process? Many of the unresolved questions derive from the imprecise character of Biblical accounts. Since the Scriptural account requires interpretation, I see no reason why science cannot provide some answers. With the unfolding of scientific evidence, it is possible to see how God could have created life through an evolutionary process that took millions of years.

Fourth, in any research effort, it is important that the investigator be as objective as possible. The creationists quickly reject evidence that conflicts with their views. Their denial of an older world is not based on scientific reasoning but on its imagined contradiction with the first chapter of Genesis. At the same time, the creationists offer little direct scientific evidence in support of their position. {31}

Creationism should not be taught in the public classroom because its proponents have too little constructive to offer. Most of their effort is directed at picking away at controversial points in the evolutionary theory, as if this is all that is necessary to dislodge a widely accepted theory and replace it with their own. If life evolves, they ask, where are the transitional forms? These forms exist, but they refuse to accept them even though the evidence is convincing. For example, according to the fossil record, amphibians, the first land vertebrates, arose from life in the sea. A gap between fish and amphibians is filled by the primitive amphibian, lchthyostega, since the skeletal system of this species bears a strong resemblance to fish and early land vertebrates. Study of the creationists tactics reveal that their efforts are largely negative, and they provide little that is beneficial to our understanding.

It is my opinion that creationism falls short of being a legitimate and viable scientific alternative evolution. This stance in no way rules out God as the Creator of the universe, nor does it depreciate the theological truth and significance of the Genesis account. It does however lead to the conclusion that creationism should not be included in the curriculum of a public school system, particularly in a science classroom.

John Carlson holds the rank of Associate Professor of Biology and teaches at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario.

Previous | Next