Intelligently Designed: The Creationist Assault on Science

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Lecture date: Sun, 16th Mar, 2014
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Before anything else, a plea for action. Please write to your MP in support of the BHA campaign to combat Creationism, including Creationism in publicly funded schools; details at http://campaign.publicaffairsbriefing.co.uk In a sense, the rest of this article, like the talk it is based on, is an explanation of why, shockingly, such action is necessary.

Next, let me describe some recent events. Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, near Bristol, which claims to be visited by 15,000 schoolchildren annually, displays posters arguing that apes and humans are too distinct to share a common ancestor, and suggesting how the different kinds of animal could have been housed in the Ark, which it regards as historical. The giraffes, for instance, would have been housed in the highest part of the vessel, next to the T. Rex.

This Zoo Farm recently received an award from the Council for Learning Outside the Curriculum, which justified itself by saying “CLOtC believes that an important aim of learning outside the classroom is allowing children and young people access to education that challenges assumptions and allows them to experience a range of viewpoints; giving them the tools needed to be proactive in their own learning and develop skills to enable them to make well informed decisions.” Connoisseurs of creationism will recognise this as a variant of the ‘teach the controversy’ argument, which advocates presenting creationism and real science as alternatives both worthy of consideration, and inviting uninformed schoolchildren to choose between them.

Copies of a book called Truth be Told; Exposing the Myths of Evolution were given out last September in a school assembly at a non-denominational primary school in East Kilbride, near Glasgow. This book not only claims that Noah’s Ark is historically correct, but has pictures of people using dinosaurs as beasts of burden, and suggests that their extinction may have been the work of Nimrod, the mighty hunter. Subsequent investigation showed that the school chaplain handing out this book was connected to an extreme sect, Churches of Christ, based in Alabama, and that he had been active in the school for eight years, during which he had advised, not only on Religious Observance, but on Religious Education, which according to Scottish educational policy should be informative and non-confessional.

Yesodey Hatorah (Haredi Jewish) Senior Girls School blacked out questions about evolution on pupils’ science exams in 2013. One wonders how this was even possible, given that exam papers are supposed to be sealed until opened at the specified time in the presence of the pupils. However, when the relevant Examination Board, OCR, investigated, they were satisfied that no students had received an unfair advantage*, and took no action.

The Board now tells Ofqual, the government agency responsible for the integrity of examinations, that it intends “to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will protect the future integrity of our examinations – by stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place – but at the same time respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs.” And OCR’s chief executive says the case has “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools”.

Yesodey Hatorah is a Voluntary Aided school and as such will have to teach evolution when it becomes part of the National Curriculum in 2014. However, it would not have to if it were to change its status to Academy or Free School. The Government assures us that this freedom from the Curriculum is not a problem, because all schools need to prepare for external exams, and these exams, of course, include evolution – exams which the schools have now been invited to censor.

In all these cases, the actual offence is compounded by official complacency or collusion. I can only guess at why is this allowed to happen, but among relevant factors may be official concern with procedures rather than outcomes, scientific illiteracy among decision-makers, free market forces (the exam boards, after all, are competing for the schools’ business), misplaced respect for differences, the fact that religious zealots form an organised political pressure group, and the reluctance of their reality-orientated co-religionists to condemn them. Ironically, these co-religionists have even more to lose than the rest of us here, as their schools are subverted from inside, and their faith brought into disrepute.

Creationism is Part of the Higher Lunacy
Nonetheless we need to study it. Knowing your enemy is sound tactics, and we can actually learn from examining both their strategies and their arguments. A commentator on The Art of War enjoins us to build our enemy a golden bridge to retreat across, and I will return to how we can possibly do this for creationists. The obvious response to creationism is to dismiss it as the product of ignorance. This, however, merely restates the problem: why do people choose to be ignorant about evolution? And how should we respond?

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    Creationist motivation is almost invariably religious. On the surface, it is driven by respect for the holy text seen as God’s word, but it goes deeper than that. To quote Jason Rosenhouse, mathematician and philosopher, who has attended creationist conferences, “[I]t is a mistake in my view to think that antievolutionism is primarily about an idiosyncratic interpretation the Bible clung to by a handful of extremists. Of far greater concern are the implications of evolution for human significance, the cruelty of the evolutionary process, and the demise of the traditional design argument.” In other words, creationism is not a matter of stupidity, or even of biblical literalism, but a failure of nerve.

There are many varieties of creationism. The most virulent is Young Earth creationism, which bases itself on biblical literalism. Closely related is Old Earth creationism, which attempts to reconcile the biblical account with reality by treating the ‘days’ of creation as indefinite periods of time, while retaining the crucial concept of separate creation. We also have Intelligent Design (more on this below); Epistemological Creationism, which maintains that our minds are so wonderful and rational that they could not be the mere result of natural selection; God of the Whole Creationism, the mostly harmless doctrine that God is responsible for the existence of the universe and its laws; Deconstructionist Creationism, which is part of the Higher Lunacy that regards scientific knowledge as no more than a sociological construct, and various other weird outliers. Individual creationists often move between these, making rational discussion difficult.

A Mid-20th-century Heresy
Creationism in its current form is a mid-20th-century heresy, although it has much deeper roots. The Genesis Flood, 1961, is its foundation document. This book builds on 7th Day Adventist precursors, and one of the authors was himself an Adventist minister. The name of the publisher, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., looks back to 17th-century Calvinist fundamentalism, while the book itself anticipates many current creationist and ID arguments.

Creation Science invites you into an alternative Universe, where the biblical ‘waters above the firmament’ and ‘fountains of the great deep’ supplied the waters for the Flood, geological sediments and the deep ocean basins, are results of the Flood. So is the fossil record – spare a thought for the poor drowned dinosaurs! The sediments of the Grand Canyon were deposited in the Flood, while the Canyon itself was carved by its receding waters. Radiometric dating of these sediments is not to be trusted, because different methods give different results. Plate tectonics was not widely known in 1961, but more recent creationist works explain that this, also, was a result of the Flood. This answers a question that has troubled many people; how did the kangaroos get from Mount Ararat to Australia? My own contribution to creation science is to suggest that they just hopped onto a passing plate.

Biological structures, in Creation Science land, are so intricately improbable that they could not be the products of evolution. Intelligent Design (ID) is an attempt to make creationism intellectually respectable. It hinges on the claim that biological complexity could not have arisen without a designer, and is also now extended to the laws of nature (fine tuning argument) and the facts of astronomy (the increasingly implausible claim that we live on a privileged planet). Its adherents almost invariably believe in Old Earth or Young Earth creationism, but do not advertise the fact, and I recommend that they should always be asked whether they accept the fact of common descent, and what age they assign to the Earth. I classify ID as a variety of Creationism, because it rejects evolution as source of novelty, is almost always linked to denial of common descent, and argues from the appearance of design to the existence of a designer. Furthermore, its advocates give no explanation of how design becomes embodied, and show no awareness that such explanation is needed; this betrays their unconscious assumption that the designer has supernatural powers. Historically, ID is simply a relabelling of Creation Science, a fact established in court in the US (Kitzmiller vs Dover School Board), in a judgement so persuasive that it is unlikely to be challenged, unless and until the US Supreme Court has a majority sympathetic to creationism.

Creationists are of course aware that the scientific establishment accepts evolution, and infer that the scientific establishment is either misguided or perverted. To quote a school textbook from the creationist Bob Jones University, “Satan wants people to believe in evolution…. He keeps a belief in evolution popular because they can use it to [lure] the people away from God.”

There are a handful of standard Creationist arguments. Evolution can’t explain, for example, the origins of life or indeed the origins of the universe (this is like arguing against accepting chemistry because, prior to the 1950s at any rate, we could not explain the origin of atoms). There are alleged gaps in fossil record, and new discoveries are ignored because either (a) they are so close to what is already known that they can be neglected, or (b) they are different from what is already known, leaving us with even more unexplained gaps, or (c) both. Much play is made on the complexity and a priori improbability of biological structures, some of which are alleged, in the face of the evidence, to be irreducibly complex. Informative anomalies are paraded as fatal objections (as in the case of radiometric dating; see above), and the laws of thermodynamics are misconstrued, misused, and misapplied to bolster the claim that evolution cannot be the source of novel function.

One Argument Worthy of Discussion
There is one creationist argument that is, I think, worthy of discussion; where does the information come from? Creationists are at great pains to point out that random change cannot generate meaning, and that selection cannot generate novelty. For me, this actually highlights the mechanism of evolution. Randomness (as in mutation) is the source of novelty, but it is the subsequent operation of natural selection that selects for meaning. The information comes, ultimately, from the fitness landscape.

Creationist tactics include infiltration of schools and Churches, quote mining and quote mangling, other forms of misrepresentation, concealing their own identity and agenda, extreme cherry picking (they talk about Piltdown man, not Ardipithecus), fake philosophy about the nature of science (discounting the history of life because it cannot be replicated in laboratory), absurd straw man versions of standard biology, and, most recently, mimicry. Thus the Seattlebased Discovery Institute (DI), dedicated to Intelligent Design, calls its antievolution website Evolution News and Views. Stephen Meyer, senior DI Fellow, is the author of Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, weighty tomes with an appearance of erudition that succeed in impressing those with no knowledge of the relevant science, and of an imitation textbook Explore Evolution, which misrepresents the very interconnectedness of life as evidence for separate

Truth in Science, a UK group responsible for distributing Explore Evolution to every secondary school library in the UK, claims to be an educational group, although in their foundation document they describe themselves as a Creation group, working for God’s glory. The Discovery Institute, who claim that their concern is purely with science, are pursuing what they themselves call a wedge strategy, whose aim is “to replace naturalistic explanation with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” The DI forms ‘broad tent’ alliances including Old Earth, Young Earth creationists and design theorists. These are behind the largely successful ‘teach the controversy’ campaign in the US, have a reactionary political as well as theological agenda, and are funded by evangelical Christian donors.  

No Cause for Complacency
The situation in United Kingdom is no cause for complacency. When asked in October 2009, 54% agreed that ‘Evolutionary theories should be taught in science lessons in schools together with other possible perspectives, such as intelligent design and creationism.’ This is probably less worrying than it sounds, since the question will suggest to an uninformed person that these other perspectives merit consideration, but nonetheless the response shows ignorance and vulnerability.

There is supposedly clear guidance for state-funded schools in England. Michael Gove, Education Secretary, declared himself (see Guardian 21 March, 2011) “Crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and official guidance to Free School applicants states “We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.” The reality however is that what are clearly creationist establishments do get government funding. Creationist preschools, to which the guidance does not apply, openly teach rigid biblical creationism along with even more rigid gender roles (see http://leavingfundamentalism.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/tax-funded-sexism/).   In addition, a number of Academies and Free Schools have been licensed despite clear warning signals. Grindon Hall Christian School , formerly private, was licensed to receive public funding in 2012, despite a record of teaching creationism, and a website Creation Policy, hastily deleted after it received public attention, which stated “We will teach creation as a scientific theory”.

Newark School of Enterprise, licensed and expected to open in 2014, is a thinly disguised relabelling of Everyday Champions Church School, which was originally denied licensing because of its obvious links to a creationist church. Ibrahim Hewitt, of the Association of Muslim Schools, has said that his members’ schools, including six state-funded ones, taught children about Darwin, because they had to, but they also taught a different, Koranic view, and the ill-fated al-Madinah School originally specified ‘Darwinism’ as un-Koranic on its website.

In the private sector, we have Christian Schools Trust (CST), with 42 schools. Some of these are applying for Free Schools status, so far unsuccessfully, but Tyndale Community School, which has been approved, is run by Oxfordshire Community Churches which also runs the CST Kings School in Whitney. CST schools teach Genesis as historical fact, with the Fall as the source of all evil, and discuss evolution in such a way as to make it seem incredible. According to the Ph.D. thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder of CST, 75% of students end up believing in Noah’s ark. Dr Baker is also directly linked to Genesis Agendum, a Creation Science website, and language in her style appears in the WorldAroundUs ‘virtual museum’, which claims to show that evolution and old Earth geology are outdated scientific paradigms in the process of crumbling. Since 2008, CST and the Association of Muslim Schools have shared their own special inspectorate, of which Sylvia Baker is a board member. The fox not only runs the hen house, but is called on to evaluate it.

In an even grosser scandal, NARIC, the National Academic Recognition Information Centre, which is responsible for providing information on qualifications on behalf of the UK Government, has approved the ICCE advanced certificate, based on Accelerated Creation Education (ACE), as equivalent to Alevel. ACE has claimed, and in the US still does claim, that Nessie is evidence for a persistence of dinosaurs, and teaches that evolution has been proven false, and that those who accept its “impossible claims” do so in order to rejct God. This in a text that prepares students for a certificate that NARIC would have us accept as preparation for the study of biology at university.

How Should we Respond?
The British Centre for Science Education (website at http://www.bcseweb.org.uk/) has prepared critiques of specific creationist literature, such as Explore Evolution, and the World AboutUs website. Specific instances in schools should be discussed with the Head Teacher, and if necessary with the regional science adviser (please also inform BCSE and BHA). There is need for coordinated public pressure, through teachers’ organisations, other educational bodies and learned societies, publicity and protests after specific cases revealed, and campaigns such as the BHA letter-writing campaign that I commended in the opening paragraph.

In the broader arena, sneering is deservedly futile, while simply ignoring is to play the ostrich. I do not favour debating young earth creationists, since it merely increases their visibility and resolution, although there may be some limited value in debating Intelligent Design creationists, in order to show to show that ID is scientifically empty. Creationism is yet another reason to oppose the setting up of denominational schools.

I am convinced that we should for both tactical and logical reasons keep the science separate from issues of religious identity. Committed believers, such as Ken Miller and the late Stephen Jay Gould in the US, have proved valuable allies, and we should welcome support from religious bodies. After all, the Vatican has accepted the material fact of evolution, while the Church of England has gone so far as to issue a formal apology for having been beastly to Darwin. There is an entire school of theology known as Evolution Theology, and an international movement to celebrate Evolution Weekend at the time closest to Darwin’s birthday. To me, and I imagine most readers, believers face enormous problems, whether or not they except evolution, but they are their problems, not ours, and it is not our place to tell them how to deal with them.

Darwin’s View
Let me cite Charles Darwin’s letter to Edward Aveling in support: “[I]t appears to me … that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follow[s] from the advance of Science.” The other thing we should do is write. Write to newspapers, use social media, and write about evolution and creationism in our blogs and in more formal ways (my current writing project is directed at helping schoolteachers deal with creationism). When the occasion arises, we should seize the opportunity to write to schools and local education authorities, and to use Freedom of Information requests when appropriate.

We must become recognised as a constituency, not necessarily in any formal sense, but in the sense that politicians are aware of the depth of our concerns. Numbers are increasingly on our side, since young people are more sceptical than their elders, and Humanists, secularists, sceptics, and even geeks are our natural allies. And so, on this issue, are liberal-minded believers from all faiths. In conclusion, I would say that creationism is driven by the search for personal identity, which goes even deeper than belief. So this debate will not end any time soon, and we will need to keep up the pressure. On this issue at any rate, we should embrace as allies all who accept the central scientific facts, including (to return to an earlier metaphor) those who retain a bridge to faith, and use reality itself as our wedge.

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Humanism, Philosophy of Science, Rationalism

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Paul Braterman is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow University, and former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, where his research related to the origins of life was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Astrobiology program. He is a committee member of the British Centre for…