Jennifer Jamesí Essay: Presidential Creationism
Cultural Anthropologist Jennifer James addresses creationism, evolution and science education in this article

Presidential Creationism? - March 18, 2003

The re-emergence of religion in politics is a trend that has our highest official as its most influential advocate. In recent weeks President Bush's personal view of, and reliance on, religion in his policy-making Activities has come to the attention of the national media. This attitude has widespread implications for science, health and education. President Bush's political beliefs involving a "divine plan" in his presidency is just A heartbeat away from advocacy of creationism.

To advocate or to express belief in creationism is to announce one's ignorance. Not "believing" in evolution is the intellectual equivalent of not believing in electricity. To paraphrase the latter notion in the parlance of creationists, "Electricity is just a theory, and no one has ever actually seen an electron".

The precepts of evolution are quite simple and can be understood as Three points. 1). Nature produces more offspring than it can support. 2). There is variation in every population. 3). At any given time some offspring will be better suited to survive and reproduce than others. These principles have come under fire by religious fundamentalists because they expose the evidence that life is not the product of an original event, and that man is part of the process of natural selection and change.

Scientific education in the US has been under fire for a long time, and the attack is deepening. The "Leave no child behind" initiative was not only passed without funding, but also with no provision for testing scientific knowledge. Is it not ironic that the world's technological leader, the incubator of ideas and knowledge gained through basic research, the nation that generates the most Nobel laureates, is questioning the most fundamental principle in biology? The purpose is not scientific debate, but a political agenda based on religious dogma. While the Scopes trial of 1925 is widely held to be a victory of science over religious opinion, it is important to remember that science formally lost that decision, and school teacher John Scopes was assessed a token fine. Teaching evolution in Tennessee Remained illegal until 1967.

The crucial distinction separating religious belief from scientific understanding is the foundation of the two belief systems. When one speaks of religious belief, virtually everyone understands that it derives from one or another source of received wisdom (Bible, Talmud, Koran, etc.) and that the variations within these beliefs are virtually infinite. One estimate has it that there are 27,000 different sects of Christianity in the US alone! There is no single Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or any set of religious beliefs.

Scientific understanding differs distinctly from received wisdom in that the intricate network of proofs upon which science is built have been challenged, tested and continue to be challenged as new information is added. Only when proven does information become integrated into what is collectively termed science. To refer to science as a belief system in the same sense that one refers to religion is inaccurate. How does one Not believe in gravity, when its self-evident presence is omnipresent? Much the same can e said about less self-evident phenomena such as magnetism or evolution; they are nonetheless true, as defined by the test of evidence.

A second, essential distinction of science is that there is only one science. Properties of matter and energy are the same in Seattle, Beijing, on the moon and in galaxies billions of light years distant. This constancy is what has enabled astrophysicists to make such stunning progress in the understanding of the composition and history of the universe in the last century. If the properties of light, radioactivity, atoms, radio waves, etc. were not the same everywhere in the universe, then this revolution could not have occurred. The contrast between participants in the religious and scientific camps is inevitably expressed in their behavior. Creationists are strongly disposed to being right with absolute certitude. They exhibit unfailing resolve on questions from the origin of man to the beginning of human life at the cellular level. Scientists, on the other hand, continually challenge their knowledge based on the evidence at hand. The certitude of President Bush is not only evident in his personal religious opinions, but also in Behavior that expresses itself in national and international policy. It is religious belief that has directed Mr. Bush in his opinions from stem cell research to waging war on Iraq. As he puts it, "God is at work in world affairs". A push to teach creationism may not be far behind.

Creationism is far from a unified religious initiative. The strictest of creationists espouse belief in a young earth, a literal belief that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and all of the universe was created in a six day period. Less literal believers hold that the days of Creation enumerated in Genesis are metaphors for eras of millions, or perhaps billions, of years, in partial concession to science. The most recent and liberal form of creationist thought is called intelligent design. Intelligent design allows for some evolutionary principles, except that it denies the role of probability and development of complexity by natural processes alone. It then decides that certain structures could not have arisen by natural processes and invokes a divine hand.

Prior to the mid 19th century there were two prevalent theories in biology, spontaneous generation and vital force. Spontaneous generation sought to explain the mysterious appearance of life forms in all places, especially on fresh meat which would exhibit growth of fungi, flies and vermin. A few simple, brilliantly executed experiments by Pasteur laid this theory to rest when he demonstrated that if culture broth was protected against access by opportunistic organisms no life spontaneously formed. The vital force sought to account for the mysterious ability of chemicals to behave as living protoplasm. Advances in biochemistry and later, molecular biology, explained the vital force as a network of chemical processes, thus eliminating the need for mysticism, or the hand of God. Intelligent design is similar to these outdated concepts in that it attempts to explain the existence of biological structures by mysticism rather than the result of evolutionary change and natural selection. The one point that creationists make with total accuracy is that they are unable to understand the potential of evolutionary pressure to produce all the forms of life on earth, and thus need to invoke the supernatural to fill in the gaps.

Denial of scientific evidence by creationists is not just a phenomenon of persons uneducated in science: indeed, one the major proponents of intelligent design, Michael Behe, is a professor of biochemistry. In polite terms, this is denial; it is intellectual dishonesty. When the gulf between the scientifically uneducated and educated is expressed through dishonesty, bullying and political slogans they become sinister. Unfortunately, creationists often exhibit these traits locally and nationally.

If creationism existed alone as a selective denial of one branch of science while respecting other scientific disciplines, it would be problematic enough. However, the denial of evolution by natural selection entails a denial of principles of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology, paleontology, botany, biochemistry, and genetics, to name a few. Creationism does not deserve any time whatsoever in the public school Agenda and we must challenge this monster at every level. Perhaps we can begin by insisting that those states that mandate the fixing of a label inside biology texts stating that "Evolution is just a theory" be made to affix a label inside Bibles stating that "Religion is just a collection of myths".

Neither national education policy nor international politics can be successfully sustained by myths.


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Ronald L. Seale, Ph.D., Molecular Biologist
E-mail Ron Seale | E-mail: Jennifer James

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