By Robert Hazen, George Mason University
In spite of the overwhelming observational evidence for an ancient Earth and gradual evolution of life, science cannot absolutely prove that creationists are wrong. Evolution, it seems, poses a direct challenge to their religious convictions. How?
Creationism is based on a literal interpretation of versions of the Bible, primarily as they have been translated into Latin or English. It rests upon three principal ideas.
The first of these is that the Earth, and the rest of the universe, were created relatively recently, perhaps about 10,000 years ago. This is based on a literal reading of the Bible and its chronology. The second precept of creationism is that all life forms were created by God in a miraculous event, more or less in their modern form. This comes from the first verses of Genesis, and the description of the creation of life. A third precept is that the present, disrupted surface of the Earth, and the distribution of the fossils, are primarily consequences of one great, catastrophic flood; this corresponds to Biblical accounts of the great flood, the Noachian deluge.
Creationists accept these three statements on faith. They’re not falsifiable by the scientific method; they’re not subject to modification based on observations in the natural world. These are religious beliefs.
This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Evoking Passionate Objections
A quote from the December 1989 issue of The Voice states:
All the dialectic materialism, intimidation, subterfuge, isolation, terror, ruthless use of force and murder associated with Communism is based on atheism and evolution.
It gives one a sense of the degree to which evolutionary theories have evoked passionate objections. Indeed, the Earth and the universe could have been created by God 10,000 years ago to appear as if they were extremely ancient. But if that’s true, then we have to ask ourselves two questions. What’s the meaning of observations of the natural world if we’re going to be fooled by them? Second, why would God have done such a thing?
Does Science Exert Authority?
Most scientists do share a belief; they believe that observations have meaning and that our senses tell us truths about the natural world. If the observational evidence overwhelmingly shows an ancient Earth, then we believe the Earth must be ancient. If there’s any conflict here between science and religion, the conflict has to be in the meaning of the observations themselves.
Recent controversies over evolution, particularly over teaching evolution in public schools, in biology classes, are not the result of science trying to exert authority over religious beliefs. It’s actually quite the opposite.
Discrediting the Theory of Evolution
Creationists have been trying to disprove evolution under the guise of, what’s called ‘scientific creationism’. Scientific creationists attempt to discredit the theory of evolution, and they do it on three broad fronts.
First, creationists point out that theory of evolution is implausible; it defies imagination. They feel it defies common sense to think that humans could have evolved by any natural process from a one-celled organism. Well, they’re correct, in a way. The natural process is amazing, and we certainly don’t understand all the details of it.
However, many scientists that feel that the essence of God lies in a natural process that can lead from non-life to life without miraculous meddling. The natural laws are quite sufficient to give us life from non-life, and then humans from that first cell. It gives one a great deal of awe at the natural system of order.
As a second approach, to discredit the theory of evolution, the creationists look for anomalous data in the geological or the fossil record.
The Vulnerability of Scientific Theory
One recent episode involved the ‘discovery’ of human footprints in ancient limestone, which should have been long before the period of the dinosaurs, when no humans would have walked the Earth. They hold up this to say that evolution has to be wrong.
However, presented as a contrary fact, this only just points to a vulnerability of a scientific theory. A scientific theory has to be falsifiable, and so a piece of evidence has to be taken seriously, if it seems to contradict the theory. Scientists do try to address each of these cases, one by one, in a meticulous, reasoned, concerted fashion.
Yet, this is an exhaustive process, and can’t easily be explained in the creationists’ favorite venue, a public debate. For that one has to go into the laboratory and study each of these cases.
When it comes to the creationists, however, they don’t spend equal time trying to explain the myriad facts that point to an extremely ancient Earth.
Evolution: Just a ‘Theory’?
The creationists’ third strategy is to describe evolution as ‘just a theory’, which should be taught side by side with creation science, which is also a theory. This argument fails in two very important ways. First, it misses the distinction between evolution—that is, the change of life over time, which is an observational fact—and various theories of evolution, which explain how life changed over time. Second, the use of the word ‘theory’, in science, often refers to principles and ideas that are extremely well-tested and established. A theory is not just a guess; it’s not just an opinion. It actually has a great deal of weight behind it.
In today’s modern times, science and religion need not come into conflict, at least ordinarily. The scientific principle of gradual evolution, and the vast body of biological and geological evidence that support it, are seen by many creationists, however, as a challenge to their faith.
Common Questions about the Theory of Evolution of Life and Creationism
Creationism is based on a literal interpretation of versions of the Bible, primarily as they have been translated into Latin or English.
Creationists point out that theory of evolution is implausible; it defies imagination. It defies common sense, they feel, to think that humans could have evolved by any natural process from a one-celled organism.
To discredit the theory of evolution, the creationists look for anomalous data in the geological or the fossil record.