Creationism and the Schools

By N.Srinivasan

There has been an outcry in the United States of America since 1980, by the spokesmen of the evangelical right wing, to the effect that something they call "creationism" be taught in tax-supported public schools. They want this to be presented on an equal basis with the concept of evolution as an explanation of the origin of the universe, of life, of human beings. It seems fair. Why should not both cases have equal chance? Why much evolutionists oppose the teaching of creationism? Yet equal time for both view is not fair. It is down-right pernicious.

The concepts of evolution and creationism are not equal. The two views, that is the evolutionary view and creationism are not equal. The two views, that is the evolutionary view has been built up painstakingly over a period of two centuries on the basis of scientific evidence, and it has behind enormous body of evidence and reasoning. All biologists, of any reputation at all, accept the evidence that the present day species have developed slowly from simpler forms: that unit of life, the cell, has developed from pre-cellular scraps of life: and that these, in turn, have arisen from non-living materials by changes that are in accord with the laws of nature over a vast stretch of several billions of years.

The exact mechanism is under dispute, regarding the fine details of evolution, since the process of discovery is not yet complete and may never probably be complete. Even the most argumentative of those who quarrel over the details do not, however doubt the evolutionary concept itself. Creationists, on the other hand, present no evidence in favour of their view. They argue entirely from the negative. They maintain that if the concept of evolution is found wanting, then this alone is sufficient to force acceptance of creationism.

They insist that the concept of evolution is indeed found wanting. They point out insufficiencies, contradictions and uncertainties in evolutionary arguments and say, triumphantly, "Thus we establish creationism!" And yet in the first place, the insufficiencies they present are often advanced in distorted, simplistic, and down right erroneous ways. In the second place,some of these insufficiencies are matters over which biologists are indeed undecided, but which effect merely the details of mechanism and not the concept of evolution itself. And in the third place, even if the concept of evolution were indeed insufficient, that would not, of itself, prove the validity of the concept of the independent production of each species by a "Creator". Other alternative may exist and the choice among them would have to rest on positive evidence. Thus if a close investigation were to show that our notion of reproductive physiology were not entirely right, that would not, of itself, prove that babies were brought by the stork. They might, indeed, have been found under cabbage leaves, or have been delivered in the doctor's little black bag.

In order to establish creationism as a rational concept, the creationists must advance scientifically valid evidence for their beliefs, and not merely try to make holes in others views. They simply cannot question whether the universe is really fifteen billion years old by casting doubt on Hubble's constant. They must present reasonable evidence that the universe is, in fact, ten thousand years old (or whatever figure they would like to maintain). Needless to say, this they have never done. For these reasons, creationism has never established itself in one place that really counts - the market place of scientific ideas.

Science is a self-correcting process, and scientists do change their views, but they do so only on the basis of new evidence or of a new and convincing presentation of a line of reasoning. Scientists refused to accept the notion of drifting continents on the basis of evidence advanced in 1913 and thereafter. New evidence was obtained in the 1960s, and improved version of the concept was then accepted with immediate effect.

It is possible that the day may come when evolution will indeed turn out to be insufficient and when new evidence in favour of creationism will force a change of view, but that day has not yet come. Nothing the creationists say bears promise that it will ever come, and since that is so, it is impossible scientifically, to ask that creationism be taught in the schools today as a reasonable alternative to evolution. The fact that some people earnestly believe in creationism is insufficient.

The existence of that belief is a legitimate matter of interest in courses of history, sociology, and psychology, and in those courses creationism may well be discussed in detail, but it does not belong to science. But suppose were creationism to be taught. What would be the content of the course? Merely that a Creator formed the universe and all species of life ready-made? Is that all? Nothing more? No details?

American creationists seem to accept the biblical tale of creation, but is that the only pattern of creationism possible? Millions of people the world over who believe in divine creator of some sort do not accept the Bible as a holy book. In fact, many people who read the Bible disagree on the manner of interpretation of its account of the creation. They accept the biblical account as poetry, as allegory, as symbolism: they feel in it for a deep ethical and moral meaning - but they do not accept it as a liberal description of how the universe began.

What can one learn if creationism is taught? Which view does one accept? Can one choose among the several interpretations based on scientific evidence? Should it just be taught on equal basis? If creationists simply want the literal words of the Bible taught, then that is manifestly unfair to all the competing creationist notions. It might be possible to argue, that if creationism is so empty of content and so transparently unscientific, there is certainly no harm in offering as an alternative. Clearly no one would accept it. Some people even argue that, if scientists object to "equal time", they must not really have a good case.

Ah, but it is not equal time the creationists want. That little slogan is merely the smile of the crocodile. School is not the only place where the origins of life and the universe are dealt with. There also the churches that have creationists views in the United States of America. In these churches, only creationists view are presented. There is no question of "equal time" there. Children are therefore exposed only to creationist views there, and in their homes, for many years before they hear about evolution in the schools. And they are threatened with hell fire if they doubt. Where is the "equal time"?

The teaching of evolution in the public schools (in U.S.A.) is a very recent phenomenon. It was not many decades ago when in the strong holds of creationism the teaching of evolution was forbidden. That was what the Scopes "Monkey Trial" (in 1925) was all about. Scopes had mentioned evolution in class and that was a crime. Where was the concept of "equal time" then?

Even now the teaching of evolution in public schools is not very strong affair. In many states of America, people of creationist views heckle and have brow beaten the school boards, school principals and school teachers to the point where, if evolution is mentioned at all, it is done in an apologetic whisper. The creationists attempt to ride hard on the libraries, too, and do their best to pull out every book that does not suit them.

And still they demand "equal time"? Do not kid yourself. They want all the time there is. One can see why, too. Their cause is so weak, so non-existent, in effect, that the only way they can feel sure of maintaining it, is to have their victims never hear anything else. Yet none of what I have said so far reaches the real dead lines of the situation.

Creationists views, after all, continue to be firmly rejected in the market place of scientific ideas. There can be no another way as long as creationist views are so empty of content.

So the creationists call on the American Government. They brow beat legislators and executive and insist on laws defining what is scientifically valid and dictating what is to be taught. What a dangerous precedent this is! If the United States, Supreme Court can be bullied to declare these ideas as constitutional, thus it goes a long way for putting an end to pluralism. In America, and to democracy and free thought. Thus the United States is on a path of setting on established church and an official orthodoxy.

All historical precedents show that the ability to censor and to enforce orthodoxy is a delight that has no limits. Today "equal time", tomorrow the world. Today is the creationists view on science, tomorrow probably the way one must dress, speak and behave. It is not merely creationism that one fights in this regard. Behind it are the old enemies of bigotry and darkness, and one need not complain about this endless battle. The price of liberty, according to Thomas Jefferson, is eternal vigilance.

Back to the Indian Skeptic page

The University of Regensburg neither approves nor disapproves of the opinions expressed here. They are solely the responsibility of the person named below.

Last update: 29. August 1998