Science in Christian Perspective

 

 

 

"Scientists Decry a Slick New Packaging Of Creationism"

Wilbur L. Bullock
Editor,
PSCF
Professor of Zoology, Emeritus
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH

From: PSCF 40 (September 1988): 165-166.

A Response to William Bennetia by Wilbur L. Bullock, Editor, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation.

Since I don't think either you or your "noted scientists" were fair or scholarly in your emotional response to Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy (TSCC), I would rather not continue that discussion at that level.  Therefore, my remarks will be as specific as possible. My response is in three parts: 1. to your editorial introduction, 11. to each of the nine scientists. and 111. a concluding summary. 

1. Your Editorial Introduction 

(A) The title is emotional journalism: "decry," "slick," and "creationism" are pejorative terms and not scientific. "Slick" is a derogatory term and a headline grabber. By  flaunting "creationism" you immediately conjurc up textbook censorship and court cases. That has never been an objective or method of the ASA.  But more of that later....

(B) The major inaccuracy in your editorial and by most of the scientists quoted is a refusal (stubborn or careless?) to define your terms. Just a little library research would indicate that the "creationism" which is "a fundamentalist political movement" is a small (but aggressive) fringe which maintains a strictly literal 24-hour day creation and a young earth. That was not the stance of TSCC. You should read the "excellent AAAS Symposium volume, Science and Creation (Macmillan, 1986). Most of the participants in that symposium clearly differentiated these extreme claims -  quick-creationism, recent creationism, young earth, and creation-science - from a multiplicity of alternate views. Craig Nelson, in Chapter 9, did a commendable job in differentiating the extremes of recent creationism from atheistic evolutionism and the numerous other views, views that reflect the diversity among scientists and others. ASA members, as all Christians, recognize a Creator, but that neither makes us "creationists" in the pejorative sense in which you use that word nor are we "anti-evolutionists."

(C) You and Lynn Margulis castigate ASA as "a religious group." Since we are all committed Christians that is true, but most of us are practicing scientists and, in addition, have an interest in integrating our faith and our science. From a historical perspective ASA was organized primarily to "plain science to the Christian community. Yes, we accept the Bible as the inspired and unerring word of God as our "guide of faith and conduct." (Why did you leave that out?) The "fundamentalists" with which both you and I have problems try to make the Bible a textbook of science. We in the ASA have serious reservations about this.

(D) You refer to "ASA's rejection of evolutionary biology." That is completely..false. If you have read any of the real "creationist" literature you would have found out that they consider ASA to have capitulated to theistic evolution. I recently retired after 39 years in teaching and research at the University of New Hampshire, and I am currently an honorary Research Affiliate of the Harold Manter Laboratory of Parasitology, University of Nebraska. One of my research interests has been in parasite systematics. I am not an anti-evolutionist. I have absolutely no problems with "microevolution" and I readily accept macroevolution as the most logical working hypothesis in biology today. Therefore, I too have problems with the "creation scientists" who do not accept any possibility of macroevolution.

(E) You say that TSCC "is an ordinary exercise in creationist pseudoscience," then a few lines later recognize that we reject the young earth concept. It is the young earth, recent creationists who are suing school boards and writing laws in favor of the teaching of creation science on an equal time basis. That is not what TSCC is about. Other authors make the same error. Just as you object to the dogmatism of the "creationists" (and I likewise). I object to the the dogmatism of a "science" that preaches that we know all the answers.

 I could go on and on with criticisms of the emotional,  unscientific reaction on the basis of assuming the ASA  authors were "pamphleteers" using "innuendo." Now let me just give a list of the statements that I find objectionable as book censorship and court cases. That has never been an they unjustly, on the basis of the prejudices of your common objective or method of the ASA. But more of that later commentators, impugn the motives of the authors of TSCC.

II. Comments on Other Authors

(A) Futuyma (and others) complain about "selective omission." The booklet was to help public school teachers deal with an emotional situation in a calm way. It was not to oppose evolution; neither was it a textbook of evolution.

Comparison of the Piltdown and Paluxy episodes may have been a bit overdrawn, but when I was an undergraduate 50 years ago, Piltdown was one of the "facts" that proved human evolution. It is not one of the episodes in science of which we can be proud, except that it was scientists that exposed the hoax, but some "extreme creationists" were involved in the discrediting of Paluxy.

Futuyma complains that TSCC does not "mention the complete absence of evidence for special creation." That's really beating a dead horse, since very few of even the "extreme creationists" defend that long discarded concept. ASA does not support "special creation"!

Futuyma in the next sentence refers to "creationists' unquestioning commitment to beliefs that must exclude biological evolution." Here again he is attacking an imaginary position that is NOT found in TSCC or in the ASA. I have no problem with his statements "that evolution is a fact," that "organisms have descended, with change, from common ancestors." However, to say "all organisms," though it may be true, is not a careful scientific statement. I am sensitive on this concept, not because of any antievolutionary bias, but because I had a major professor who used to remind us that "two words good biologists should never use and always avoid are 'always' and 'never.' " Our theory may be true, but even all biologists together can't be familiar with all organisms. Or, as a UNH colleague of mine used to remind his ichthyology classes: "Fish don't read.

The emphasis on the problems of the origin of life, the origin of the invertebrate phyla, and the origins of humans are the areas in which the general public is most interested. These are also the areas in which the atheistic evolutionist loves to pontificate in the same dogmatic manner as the most ardent "creation scientist." As I look back on my years as a university zoologist, I shudder when I think of some of the things I taught as "fact" which are now wrong. And I'm not talking about nebulous, theoretical things but concrete, descriptive details of the malaria parasite life history, the basic structure of the mammalian liver, the nature of the intercalated discs of the heart, etc., etc. (I taught parasitology and histology all those years.)

(B) Maxine Singer complains that molecular genetics was ignored. Perhaps it should have been mentioned, but again TSCC was not written as a complete, technical treatise on evolution. I wonder if, competent research biologist that she surely is, she has ever tried to explain molecular genetics to the typical pleasure-oriented high school student whose parents may not care what they learn, although a small minority might get upset if evolution is mentioned. And many of those parents are not the least bit religious!

(C) Michael Ghiselin follows the same line by assuming that TSCC is out to disprove evolution. Yes, it emphasizes (but "belabors"?) some inadequacies of evidence in some areas, but nowhere does TSCC "deny" evolution nor does it intend to. He, too, uses that word "innuendo" which reveals his "preconceived and prejudiced philosophical biases" that I find unscientific. He, as others, decided that TSCC was a "creationist pamphlet" before he had actually read it. That is not what a true, open-minded scientist is supposed to do. He would never be the outstanding scientist that he is if he handled his research data like that. Ghiselin also refers to "telling lies." I challenge him to give specific examples of "lies"; and I mean deliberate falsehood, not just a different opinion from his evaluation of evidence.

(D) Niles Eldredge is a bit more restrained in his criticisms but be, too, assumes that, just because a few areas of at least some uncertainty are mentioned, TSCC is against evolution. Certainly, the specific models of human evolution have differed substantially over the last 100 years. I doubt that we are the truly privileged generation that has arrived at ultimate truth in this area.

(E) Lynn Margulis approached TSCC with the same prejudices as the other writers. She used the emotional word "insidious" in her opening statement. She seemed particularly disturbed by our religious commitment. Obviously, she makes the unwarranted assumption that to be scientific and religious are mutually exclusive. I am a Christian and a biologist. Because I am the former does not mean that my "belief in the Bible, in Jesus Christ, and in God as the creator and sustainer of the physical universe" makes me a recent creationist or an anti-evolutionist. On the other hand, just because your writers and I are biologists does not require that we be anti-religious atheists. That is a philosophical, not a scientific, conclusion. TSCC was not trying "to impose [our] particular religious beliefs" on anybody. A majority of the American people, and not just the "fundamentalists," have at least some allegiance to the Judeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we should teach evolution in biology, but there is no justification for the high school science teacher to dogmatically tell a student that evolution has disproved Genesis. That kind of anti-religious bias is just as unethical as it would be to preach one narrow interpretation of the Bible in a public school.

(F) Vincent Sarich "reads between the lines" less than any of the other authors but he, too, lumps everyone who raises a question into THE "creationist" camp. The specific hypotheses (models) are constantly changing. That's the nature of science, and it does not disprove the general hypothesis (evolution). However, it should make us a little more humble and conciliatory when dealing with nonscientists who raise questions. Likewise, gaps do not prove "special creation" as a few of the more extreme "recent creationists" have claimed. The authors of TSCC do not believe that, but certainly the history of science would tell us that "gaps" frequently yield surprises. That's certainly been true in relatively noncontroversial subjects (like my own field of parasitology), but that is one of the things that makes science exciting.

(G) Robert Jurmain accuses ASA of false motives. Our motives were religious only in the sense that the hub of the present controversy is because some religious people propagate a literal recent creationism (NOT the position of ASA) and some scientists try to use evolution as an argument for In American public schools, that means we have to realize their philosophical Positions. Such extremes are not the only options, and the history of science proves this. (Read, for example, James Moore's The Post-Darwinian Controversies.) More importantly, the American high school is a pluralistic community. If we do not want a fundamentalist minority teaching their interpretation of Genesis in science classes then we must not have scientists, untrained in theology, insisting that Genesis is wrong. We must learn to be more understanding of the people with whom we disagree or, worse yet, see fundamentalist plots (like they see communist or secular humanist plots) behind everything that doesn't fit our neat little world view.

Professor Jurmain also objects to the use of the quote taken out of context. It seems to me that the quote was used in a complimentary way. It certainly strikes me as an example of acceptable scientific accuracy, and I don't see where the statement was distorted in any way by using the principle in a more general application in a mildly questioning manner.

It is true that none of the "pamphleteers" were "professional biologists," but they are or have been Professional science teachers at either the high school or the college level. Furthermore, I am one of many biologists in the ASA. We are not anti-evolutionists and we are not "creationists" in the derogatory, distorted way in which that term is used in your publication, in the media, and even in the courts. Most of us are convinced that much-and for some of us, maybe all of creation could have been accomplished through natural selection and other evolutionary processes. In contrast to your writers, we further believe that recognition of natural laws-in this case evolution does not give us the right to tell people who believe in a Creator that they are inferior human beings, or accuse them of innuendo and dishonesty without cause.

(H) Stephen Gould complains that his work was misused. He would be correct if the introductory statement, presumably written by the editor, was correct. TSCC was interested in defending supernaturalism as a valid philosophical premise, but more importantly we were attempting to help science teachers be honest and fair to all of their public. Science neither proves nor disproves the supernatural. TSCC does not suggest "that scientists have no worthwhile ideas about the origins of animals." That is absolutely false! The thrust of the booklet was to emphasize that good scientists such as Gould can be people who recognize that part of the excitement of science is that each new discovery raises more questions for us to work on. There was no intention of misusing or misquoting. Perhaps there may have been some misinterpretation, but Gould misrepresents the authors when he assumes that all who believe in a creator are the extreme "creationist" types he has experienced in his debates.

(1) Alan Portis gives an admirable description of the role of the teacher. However, he is naive when he thinks teachers can or should be "above the battle." Many fine teachers are able to handle controversial subjects in a non-threatening way; many cannot. It is important for teachers, especially biology teachers, to discuss the basics of evolutionary theory. 

In American public schools, that means we have to realize that many pupils and parents have some religious views. For many this means (rightly or wrongly) a "creation" that they think is opposed to "evolution." I agree with Portis that the teacher is not to offer "a synthesis of science and religion," and TSCC was not an attempt at synthesis. Rather, it was designed to show that there were more than two alternative syntheses possible.

III. Concluding Suminary

(A) Our public schools are in trouble in many ways, but especially in the way in which those of us who believe in good education and balanced, informed presentations of controversial issues face the problems of pluralism. We should be working together.

(B) There are some religious people who are not acting in a responsible@r Christian-fashion when they oppose views they ignorantly disagree with, or when they seek to monopolize the public schools for their particular religious beliefs.

(C) There are scientists who allow their philosophical biases to dominate their teaching and their public pronouncements and, in the name of science or separation of church and state, make anti-religious statements.

(D) Such irresponsible actions by both extremes cause controversies to become emotional, stimulate polarization, drag each other into the legal process, and damage the cause of both science and religion.

(E) TSCC was not an anti-evolutionary pamphlet. It was an attempt to face the reality that, although someone's pet theory may be a literal interpretation of Genesis and someone else's an atheistic interpretation of evolution, there are countless numbers of people out there who are in neither camp and, in fairness, shouldn't be.

(F) Therefore, science at the public school level must be taught in an even-handed manner, just as we should teach current events without slanting toward the Republicans, the Democrats, or Lyndon LaRouche.

(G) Above all, we need to stop witch-hunting, looking for communists, evolutionists, creationists, secular humanists, or whatever group about which we have become paranoid.

1988