Science in Christian Perspective

                          Review Essay

Scientific Creationism and its Critics
Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology 
University of Toronto Canada

From: JASA 37 (June 1985): 104-108.

DARWINISM DEFENDED: A GUIDE TO THE EVOLUTION CONTROVERSIES by Michael Ruse. Reading, Mass., Addison-Wesley, 1982, xvii + 356 pp., $12.50 (pb).

THE MONKEY BUSINESS: A SCIENTIST LOOKS AT CREATIONISM by Niles Eldredge. New York, Washington Square Press, 1982, 157 pp., $2.95 (pb).

CREATIONS: THE QUEST FOR ORIGINS IN STORY AND SCIENCE Ed. by Isaac Asimov, George Zebrowski and Martin Greenberg. New York, Crown, 1983, xii + 351 pp., $23.95 (Cdn).

ABUSING SCIENCE: THE CASE AGAINST CREATIONISM by Philip Kitcher. Cambridge, Mass. /London, MIT Press, 1982, x + 213 pp., $15.00 (1983 pb ed ., $6.95).

Scientists have sniffed the air, perceived danger, and risen to meet the threat that dares to speak its name: "scientific creationism. " Though you wouldn't know it from a reading of Henry Morris et al., eds., Creation: The Cutting Edge (Creation-Life Publ., 1982), Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. VI (Word, 1983), Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Evolution and the Authority of the Bible (Paternoster, 1983), or even Morris, Creation and its Critics (CLP, 1982), there are more and more difficulties with the recentcreationist position. just as works sympathetic to that program at the levels of science (Francis Hitching, The Neck of the Giraffe: Darwin, Evolution, and the New Biology, Ticknor & Fields, 1982) and of worldview (Donald Chittick, The Controversy: Roots of the Creation-Evolution Conflict, Multnomah, 1983) assume a less strident and inflammatory, almost accomodating tone, they are confronted by a bibliographic barrage as uncompromising as it is comprehensive.' What follows is a brief review of a small sampling of the burgeoning literature critical of so-called "creation-science."

Ruse's Darwinism Defended

"I love and cherish Darwinian evolutionary theory," writes Michael Ruse, whose "whole essay is intended to be a refutation of the Creationist position" (pp. 329, 303). "Darwin's case for evolution is definitive" and "overwhelming." Indeed, "Evolution is a fact, fact, FACT!" (pp. 57, 58). Darwinism Defended is vigorous apologetics with a devotional air. For Ruse, Darwinism "touches at chords and beliefs of the most fundamental kind." It is "stirring" intellectually, while embodying a social philosophy "dear to the heart of all civilized people" (pp. 281-282).

A prolific philosopher of biology, Ruse has written a book much like himself: informative, opinionated, cheeky, exclamatory and entertaining, with an honestly passionate though cavalier concern for history. The book comes adorned with period paintings, photographs, maps, charts, drawings and diagrams. The first nine chapters (Parts I-III) cover Darwinism yesterday, today, and tomorrow. While "singing the praises of Darwin" (p. 30) the author includes technical discussions of subjects ranging from genetics to population ecology. He defends Darwinian orthodoxy against challenges from punctuated equilibria paleontology and cladistics, both of which he likens to passing fads. With more than a hint of triumphalism, Ruse concludes that neodarwinism is "a theory with a proud past, a secure present, and prospects of an even more glorious future" (p. 226). Part IV contains three enthusiastic chapters on human evolution, sociobiology and ethics. Chapters thirteen and fourteen make up the fifth and last part of the book, a soldier's-eye view of the creationist war on Darwin.

Ruse's motivations in writing become clear in Part V where he repeatedly charges creationists with dishonesty (pp. 303, 304, 310, 321, 322, 324). His credo is laid down in black and white: "I believe Creationism is wrong: totally, utterly, and absolutely wrong ... Creationism is not just wrong: it is ludicrously implausible. It is a grotesque parody of human thought, and a downright misuse of human intelligence ... it is an insult to God" (p. 303). This last point seems a trifle excessive, coming from one not well-known in pious circles. But like Thomas Henry Huxley, Ruse fights for Truth.

Also like Huxley, Ruse writes in the best positivist tradition of evolution-and-religion historiography. The past, like the present, is populated with good guys and bad guys-people who from our modern vantage point were "right" or .1 wrong." Not as philosophically simplistic as Eldredge (see below), Ruse nevertheless tries to preserve the purity of Darwin and Darwinism, portraying both as free from the sin of illiberal ideology. Ruse's view of religion can also be Huxleyan, as when he writes that "traditional Christian" belief affirms a "God who intervenes constantly in His creation" (p. 27) and that scientific claims-unlike those of religion-" reflect, and somehow can be checked against, empirical experience" (p. 132), 1 must also object to Ruse's claim that Darwin was a "professional scientist." One only has to compare their respective Beagle and Rattlesnake narratives to see the difference between the outlooks of a naturalist (Darwin) and a scientist (Huxley). James Moore has convincingly argued that Darwin can be even more accurately classified: see his "Darwin of Down: The Evolutionist as Squarson-Naturalist," in Davis Kohn, ed., The Darwinian Heritage (Princeton U.P., 1984),

This reference to Moore brings to mind another problem I have with Ruse: he neglects the finest scholarship on Darwinism and scientific naturalism. One looks in vain for traces of Moore, Ospovat, Manier, Kohn, Turner, Greene, Young, Jacyna. and Durant. Not even Gillespie, whose interpretation of Darwin is so congenial to Ruse, is cited in the bibliography. In seeking to demolish, if not understand creationism, Ruse has thoroughly grounded Darwinism Defended in the scientif ic and creationist literature. But what about the historiograpby not only of Darwinism, but of fundamentalism, and natural theology? if you liked Ruse's earlier Darwinian Revolution (1979), you will love this book. And if you didn't, you won't.

Eldredge's The Monkey Business

Niles Eldredge is the co-author with Stephen Jay Gould of two landmark papers on "Punctuated Equilibria," in T.J.M. Scbopf, ed., Models in Paleobiology (1972) and in Paleobiology, 3 (1977), 115-151. This work has been misrepresented by many creationists, whose resurgence is attributed in The Monkey Business to an upsurge of American "neopopulism" (p. 17). Commendably, Eldredge is sensitive to the political, religious and ideological dimensions of creationism, but unfortunately denies any value to the creationists' critique of evolutionary biology. Part of this is due to conceptually constricted views of religion, science, and the relation-or rather lack of relation-between the two. Not surprising in a short treatment by a scientist, The Monkey Business contains no discussion of orthodox beliefs concerning creation, though theistic evolution is sympathetically mentioned (p. 81). For Eldredge, religion has to do with the "supernatural" and with
.1 spiritual well-being" (pp. 10, 143, 146). The ideological purity of fact-laden science is defended. Religion and science are "completely" and "utterly different," they are "pursued for different reasons, and serve different functions" (p. 18). Religion is about beliefs, but "of course, science is not a belief system" (author's emphasis, p. 27; see also pp. 32, 145-146). But, of course, science is.

Chapter two of the book discusses the nature of science, specifically the notions of fact, theory, and prediction, and chapter three is an introduction to the fossil record. Chapter four rushes the reader from Victorian evolutionism through the neodarwinian synthesis, revisiting the problem of evolution's "tempo and mode." The really controversial ground is covered in chapters five and six which evaluate creationist positions on chance and design, thermodynamics, geological dating, the origin of life, paleontological "gaps," Archaeopteryx, human evolution, and the infamous Paluxy "footprints." Relying on Laurie Godfrey's article, "The Flood of Evolutionism," Natural History, 90 (June 1981), 4-10, Eldredge labels the creationists as liars and mudslingers. Amazingly enough he seems completely unaware of the Bible of creationism, Henry Morris' Scientific Creationism (1974).

Two other lapses may be mentioned. Poor old James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, is once again blamed for claiming "that the earth was created on October 26, 4004 B.C. at 9:00 in the morning" (p. 19). The creation-year of 4004 B.C. was calculated by Ussher in 1654 and made famous in this century by its inclusion in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909). However, the precise time of creation-usually dated October 23-is normally (and erroneously) attributed to another seventeenth-century divine, Dr. John Lightfoot. 9:00 a.m. as the time of the day for the creation of Adam (not the earth) was indeed offered-as a lighthearted conjecture-by Lightfoot, but that's another story. The other lapse is also historical. Virtually all of the critics of creationism refer to their enemies as "fundamentalists." Fair enough. But the term "fundamentalist" did not originate in a document called the "Five Fundamentals" (concerning biblical inerrancy, and the virgin birth, miraculous power, substitutionary atonement and historical resurrection of Christ) issued in 1895 by the Niagara Bible Conference. This popular folklore is recycled by both Ruse (p. 287) and Eldredge (p. 18) and is traceable to an erroneous passage in Stewart Cole's History of Fundamentalism (New York, 1931), p. 34. In fact, the Niagara Creed was written in 1878 and comprised fourteen articles; and the only five-point fundamentalist declaration was adopted by the U.S. Presbyterian General Assembly in 1910. The term "Fundamentalist" itself was coined in a convention report by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of the Baptist Watchman -Examiner (see vol. 8, 1 July 1920, p. 834).

The Monkey Business is a convenient source for the familiar arguments for evolution and against creationism. Its popular style and small price make it ideal for high-school level students and teachers. However, for this sort of thing I much prefer Toronto paleontologist Chris McGowan's In the Beginning ... A Scientist Shows Why the Creationists are Wrong (Macmillan, 1983). Though more expensive and less well-known, it is as readable as The Monkey Business but covers the issues in greater detail and with a puckish sense of humour.

Asimov's Creations

Isaac Asimov's is the dominant editorial voice in Creations, a stimulating anthology of science fiction and cosmological explanation organised in four parts: the origin and nature of the universe, of the solar system, of life on earth, and of humankind. Each major section begins with a reading from Genesis (NEB); there are twenty-seven readings in all-complete articles and short stories, as well as book excerpts written from the 1920s to the present.

There are two main reasons for believing that the purpose of this unusual collection goes beyond simple education and entertainment. The first is found in the introductory notes which Asimov has supplied for every section, and each individual reading. The second is found in the essay, also written by Asimov, located at the physical and spiritual centre of the book. The notes attempt to contrast scientifically-based wonder with religiously-based "superstition" (e.g., p. 147). Naming what it considers to be the real enemy, the central essay concerns itself with "The Threat of Creationism." It originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine, 14 June 1981, 90-101; in that year, with that article, and with his book In the Beginning (Crown, 1981), Asimov emerged as a leading public critic of creationism. In Beginning he offered a verse-by-verse commentary on Genesis 1-11, scientifically refuting a hyperliteral reading of the text. Though it is not obvious (given his consistently primitive hermeneutics), perhaps Asimov was only meeting creationists on their own turf. Yet, in treating scripture as if ancient myth and sacred history were intended to convey modern physical and biological knowledge, Asimov seemed to exhibit a scientific fundamentalism as breathtakingly wrongheaded as the religious version he sought to discredit.

As reprinted in Creations, Asimov's argument against creationism, proceeds on two fronts, exposing the intellectual emptiness of the attacks on evolution, and warning of the dire consequences of undermining science education in public schools. Conventional, heartfelt stuff, to be sure. However, for all his familiarity with biblical narrative (see Asimov's Guide to the Bible, 2 vols., 1971), this scientist's case is theologically somewhat careless. Asimov confuses the venerable argument from design (or at least a caricature of it) and the practically universal belief in a Creator-both of which admittedly are adduced as confirming evidence in the creationist literature-with the essential contention of creationism: that the details of the Genesis story represent an alternative account of the history of nature and therefore legitimately deserve an equal place in textbooks alongside evolutionary science. Asimov acknowledges that not all believers are fundamentalists in their understanding of either the Bible or science, but by merging the two issues just mentioned be implies that all theists-even Teilbard de Cbardin?-are 1. creationists" in the current unorthodox, right-wing sense. This misunderstanding contributes nothing to the political debate on the place of religion in general, and creationism in particular, in American public schools. For its popular science and provocative science fiction, Creations is worth reading. But its Sagan-like scientism is irritating.

Kitcher's Abusing Science

Philip Kiteber's Abusing Science is a cogently written work that, within a year, became an alternate selection of the Religious Book Club. A concise yet thorough analysis of the
11 science" of creationism, it is well-suited as a textbook for undergraduate courses in evolutionary theory or philosophy of science. For Kiteber, the creationists are not so much reprehensible deceivers as victims of self-delusion who misunderstand more than distort modern science. The standard bones of contention are elegantly examined: the Piltdown Hoax, the second thermodynamic law, the "tautology" of natural selection, Popperian falsifiability, the meanings of 11 chance," the techniques of radiometric dating, and the implications of the apparent lack of transitional fossil forms. After this careful presentation, the impressively technical and statistical arguments of the leading creationists (Gish, Morris, Wysong et al.) come across as illogical and confused.

As a scientifically-informed philosophical critique of creationism, Abusing Science has been praised by reviewers as incisive, even devastating. But from an historical perspective there are some disappointments. Rather naively, Kitcher persists in portraying Huxley as the paragon of virtuous reason. Once again-gratuitously-Darwin's Bulldog "demolishes" that ignorant obscurantist, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (pp. 1, 200). Quite apart from the fact that Huxley qua scientist was no Darwinian, this use of the 1860 Oxford incident is tiresome. After such studies as J. R. Lucas, "Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter," Historical journal, 22 (1979), 313-330, and Sheridan Gilley, "The HuxleyWilberforce Debate: A Reconsideration" in Keith Robbins, ed., Religion and Humanism (Oxford, 1981), it is historically unlustifiable. Latter-day creationists, for all their inexplicable neglect of history, sometimes deploy evidence and arguments identical to those of such nineteenth-century scientists as St. George Mivart, the Catholic biologist who wrote On the Genesis of Species (1871) against Darwin's version of evolution. But suggestions of an actual continuity of "creationist" theory in this case (pp. 117, 119) is dubious and apt to mislead. It would have been most helpful if Kitcher had included some consideration of the historical shifts in the meaning of creation in geology and biology. To his credit, Kitcher does acknowledge the creationism of such naturalists as Buckland, Sedgwick, and Agassiz as scientifically legitimate in their respective contexts (pp. 125-126).

In The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth (CLP, 1972, p. 75) Henry Morris wrote: "Evolution is the root of atheism, of communism, nazism, behaviorism, racism, economic imperialism, militarism, libertinism, anarchism, and all manner of anti-Christian systems of belief and practice." In this catholic litany we find the heart of modern antievolutionism; its vehemence stems from an anxious perception that science in its ideological more than its theoretical or factual mode gravely threatens cherished social, religious, and moral convictions. The final chapter of Abusing Science, co-written by Patricia Kitcher, attempts to argue that this should not be the case. I found the discussion inadequate in several respects. Some account of the relevant theological and sociological literature would have made the chapter more convincing. Unconcerned with the social and political provenance of fundamentalism, the Kitchers do not explain how American creationists came to desire and acquire such secular clout. Nor is the glaringly inconsistent social Darwinism of the anti-darwinian Religious Right explicated.

Finally, for Kitcher as for Ruse (another philosopher of
science) creationism is "pseudoscience. " Historians and sociologists of science, with good reason, increasingly regard this category with suspicion. Without considering this issue in any detail (see Roy Wallis, ed., On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge, Keele, 1979), it is at least worth wondering what ideological interests are being served by maintaining a rigid science- pseudoscience distinction. But, various concerns aside, readers looking for a tight rational repudiation of creationism as an intellectual system will be well served by Abusing Science.

Indeed, I am beginning to think readers are now a little too well served by the scientific critics of creationism. The strategy of painstaking refutation has now passed the point of diminishing returns, something perhaps inadvertently demonstrated with relentlessly Talmudic efficiency by Robert Moore in "The Impossible Voyage of Noah's Ark," Creationl Evolution XI (vol. 4, Winter 1983), 1-43. With theological critiques now complementing evolutionist onslaughts, creationism as a rational enterprise has been overkilled. This is not to disparage the humane reason of Stephen Jay Gould's "Evolution as Fact and Theory," Discover (May 1981), 34-37. But different things now need to be said.

One intimation of new perspectives on creationism. was Robert Young's analysis of "The Darwin Debate," Marxism Today (April 1982), 20-22, which suggested that faithful Marxists could find in creationists allies of sorts in the ongoing struggle against a scientific establishment tainted with militarist, capitalist, racist and sexist sins. Other articles that begin to transcend the usual polemics and heresy trials by the contextual sensitivity of their interpretations include Langdon Gilkey, "Creationism: the Roots of the Conflict," Christianity and Crisis, 42 (16 April 1982), 112-113; Richard Berry, "The Beginning," Theology Today, 39 (October 1982), 249-2-59; Lenn Goodman and Madeleine Goodman, "Creation and Evolution: Another Round in an Ancient Struggle," Zygon, 18 (March 1983), 3-43; Conrad Hyers, "Genesis Knows Nothing of Scientific Creationism: Interpreting and Misinterpreting the Biblical Texts," CreationlEvolution XII (vol. 4, Spring 1983), 1-21; and Walter P. Carvin, "Creation and Scientific Explanation," Scottish Journal of Theology, 36 (1983), 289-307. Two recent essays by historians of science are especially valuable: Ronald Numbers, "Creationism in 20th-Century America," Science, 218 (5 November 1982), 538-544, and James Moore, "Interpreting the new Creationism," Michigan Quarterly Review, 22 (1983), 321-3:34. The opening of the Evolution/Creation Archives at the Iowa State University Library should also assist scholarly understanding of the issues at stake.

About Natural Theologies

I want to end by reflecting on James Moore's call for the undermining of "the natural theologies of our day" (op, cit., p. 333). It is a task in which Christians, socialists, and creationists alike could find themselves united, for the natural theology referred to is no misguided attempt to repristinate Paley, but the attitude expressed by Herbert Spencer when be wrote "that which sundry precepts of the current religion embody-that which ethical systems ... equally urge, is also that which Biology ... dictates " (The Study of Sociology, 4th ed., Henry S. King, 1875, p. 350). What Spencer's father observed about his son in 1860 applied to any number of other Victorian scientific naturalists: "the laws of nature are to him what revealed religion is to us" (quoted in David Wiltshire, The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer, 0. U. P. 1978, p. 61). A new priesthood of unbelievers exalted Nature into God. And more than a century later many evolutionists are still purveying their post-Darwinian natural theology. The trouble is that over the years "Biology" as ideology, as a substitute religion, as a "scientific" basis for ethics, has too often dictated that women or blacks or the poor or the handicapped were "naturally" inferior, justifying less-than equal treatment.

The character of natural theology is usually misunderstood. Historically, it comprised much more than inferences concerning God's existence, attributes and intentions drawn from apparent design in nature. Rather, it functioned as a comprehensive cosmology or worldview. With their "natural peity" and theodicies, natural theologians sought reverently to reconcile people to the ways of Nature, and to find justification for religious, moral, and political beliefs and hopes in data produced by whatever passed for science at the time. In the traditional view, the heyday of natural theology came in the eighteenth century; to this Darwin delivered the deathblow in 1859. 1 would argue instead that "natural theology" is a perennial activity of scientists. Others suspect that this is so. The mid-twentieth century evolutionary ideology of George Gaylord Simpson and Julian Huxley which purported to discover in biology answers to ultimate (and hence religious) questions of human duty and destiny, of meaning and value, of social order and struggle, has been correctly identified as natural theology by John Greene in his Science, Ideology and World View (University of California Press, 1981), pp. 162 163. Most of the applications of sociobiology to humankind represent secular theologising pure and simple. On E.O. Wilson's Bridgewater Treatise, On Human Nature (1978) see J. Robert Nelson, "A Theologian's Response to Wilson's 'On Human Nature,"' Zygon, 15 (1980), 397-405, and James Gustafson's review in The Hastings Center Report, 9 (1979), 44-45. Similarly, I think, we see in the popular writings of .1 exobiologists" expressions of thinly-veiled and unconsciously-beld religious commitments and aspirations. Members of Carl Sagan's "Planetary Society"-if they can manage to avoid the apocalypse of nuclear winter-are promised that the successful completion of the Search for Extra- Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI: the new Tetragrammaton!) will usher in a millennium of knowledge, peace, and prosperity for all.

As in the past, "the natural theologies of our day" present no preface to the proclamation of Christ's world-inverting, world-redeeming gospel of love and human liberation. In defending the naturalness and inevitability of prevailing values and unjust hierarchies, natural theology in its various guises is a typically oppressing legitimation not of the new creation, but of the fallen creation. It assumes the goodness and rightness of the socially constructed world as it is-wbieb is, of course, also how it "ought" to be. Those of us who are dismayed by the antievohitionist program, and who believe it may be an evolutionary universe that the Creator continuously lures, would be wise not to replace "scientific creationism" with something far worse.


1Looking for an historical "handbook of doubts about Darwinism" (as Brian Leith subtitled his Descent of Darwin, Collins, 1982), antievolutionists might seek out promising titles like Barry Gale's Evolution without Evidence (Harvester, 1982) Niles Eldredge and Ian Tattersall's Myths of Human Evolution (Columbia U.P., 1982) and Peter Bowler's Eclipse of Darwinism (Johns Hopkins U.P., 1983). But upon examination these works offer no hope but subversion to the creationist cause. As if to add insult to injury, editor David B. Wilson mockingly asks Did the Devil Make Darwin Do It? (Iowa State U.P., 1983). Righteously indignant contributors to the journal dissect the latest creationist claims line-by-line in CreationlEvolution. Richard K. Bambach reviews six negative "Responses to Creationism" in Science (20 May 1983, pp. 851-3). Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (1983) and Evolutionists Confront Creationism (1983), from the Pacific Division of the AAAS are two in a long series of "official" statements. Among the more valuable of the anticreationist symposia in print are those found in Science, Technology & Human Values, 7 (Summer 1982) and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Proceedings, 42 (October 1983). In the wake of her Science Textbook Controversies and the Politics of Equal Time (MIT, 1977), the sociologist Dorothy Nelkin re-enters the fray with The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools (Norton, 1982). It is interesting to compare such works as Nelkin's and Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (Pantheon, 1982) with artifacts from an earlier war, such as Henry Fairfield Osborn, Evolution and Religion in Education: Politics of the Fundamentalist Controversy of 1922 to 1926 (Scribner's 1926) and Arthur Keith, Darwinism and Its Critics (Watts, [1935]). Two of the many anthologies worth noting are Laurie Godfrey, ed., Scientists Confront Creationism (Norton, 1983) and Ashley Montagu, ed., Science and Creationism (OX.P., 1984). Clearly, the critics of creationism are running out of original titles. Editor Marcel La Follette provides almost everything you ever wanted to know about the Arkansas case in Creationism, Science and the Law (MIT, 1983). 1 won't cite any of the literature on the Scopes Trial by way of comparison, except to rescue S.J. Holmes' "Proposed Laws Against the Teaching of Evolution," Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, 13 (December 1927), 549-554, from obscurity.

Perhaps most dismaying for many creationists is the lack of help even from evangelical scientists. The respected geneticist V. Elving Anderson in "Evolution, Yes; but Creation, too," Christianity Today (S October 1982), 38-40, sounds suspiciously like a theistic evolutionist. The geologist Davis A. Young doesn't, but in his Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Zondervan, 1982), and in "Genesis: Neither More nor Less," Eternity (May 1982),14-19, and "An Ancient Earth is not a Problem; Evolutionary Man Is," Christianity Today (8 October 1982), 41-45, he sounds like a heterodox creationist at best. Rubbing theological salt in wounds opened by scientific scalpels, Conrad Hyers in "Biblical Literalism: Constricting the Cosmic Dance," Christian Century (4-11 August 1982), 823-827 and Roland Mushat Frye in "So-Called 'CreationScience' and Mainstream Christian Rejections," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 127 (1983), 61-70, show how antievolutionists have no apparent grasp of the doctrine of creation in its orthodox sense. Frye has also edited a volume in which creationism is systematically weighed and found wanting by Jewish, Catholic and Protestant theologians: Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation-Science (Scribner's, 1983).