11.4 The Debate Over Origins--an Illustration of World View Clashes

Because of timetabling conflicts at MUSHEAT, Nellie is taking her biology course at the local public community college. Hoping to finish at least his first year of university before completing high school, Lucas is also enrolled in this course. The instructor is Ed Mandel, and this scene takes place the night before their seminar at the university, close to the end of class time as Mandel is summarizing his lesson.

Mandel: This great panorama presented by the evolution of the universe and of life from nothing at all ought to result in a sense of awe at the wisdom of nature. We are who and where we are because of being the best adapted product of that grand process, superior to all else, and veritable lords of all we survey. We do not need to hypothesize that some god created us, for we have created the gods. Man is the epitome...

Lucas: (interrupting) How can you be so sure of all this?

Mandel: (smiling coldly) What do you mean?

Lucas: I mean, you seem pretty dogmatic about it. How do you know it all happened the way you say, when you weren't there to see it? Isn't evolution a theory rather than an absolute fact?

Mandel: Evolution is a theory. It is also an absolute fact. We are as certain that it happened as it is possible to be about anything in science.

Lucas: But the "certain" mechanism seems to change with each new generation of scientists. There isn't much in common between biology text chapters on evolution that are more than five years apart. For instance, isn't natural selection now rather discredited?

Mandel: It makes no difference whether we know what the mechanism is or not. Even if every possible mechanism for evolution were proven to be wrong, we would still know it happened.

Lucas: How would we?

Mandel: Because we're here, and there is no other possible explanation other than evolution.

Lucas: But that's an ex post facto argument; it's not valid to say that the present determines what history must have been, only that the present is a result of whatever history was. Aren't there other possibilities?

Mandel: Well, for one thing, you can see it in embryology. You started out as a one-celled creature, passed through a variety of stages including that of a fish with gills, and became a human. Thus your own development recapitulates that of the species.

Lucas: I've read about the ridges you are referring to as "gills." They never actually serve such a purpose, and develop into important structures in themselves. Besides, no one who knew anything about it could ever mistake a human embryo at any stage of development for the embryo of any other species, so that argument won't hold water either. Not only that, but it has been conclusively shown that the man who first suggested that theory faked his photographs, and the whole thing is now discredited.

Mandel: What other explanation could there possibly be for the existence of complex organisms like ourselves than that they all evolved by chance through natural processes? You cannot deny the similarities among various forms of life that prove their evolutionary relationship.

Lucas: Similarities don't prove relationship, even if they may suggest it. If you see two similar buildings in downtown Vancouver, you don't think one evolved from the other, though you might suppose both were designed by the same architect.

Mandel: You're not one of these creationists, are you? What's your name again?

Lucas: Lucas Dominic, sir.

Mandel: (startled) Dominic? You're not related to that old Bible preacher that used to live up near Cultus Lake are you?

Lucas: (biting his lip and speaking almost inaudibly) I live at Berea, sir, and Mr. Dominic is my guardian.

Mandel: So the old fellow is still infecting impressionable boys with the disease of Christianity, eh? What do you think he would say to a public debate on the believability of evolution versus that of the creation myths? Oh, never mind--I'll go phone him myself right now. Just wait here.

As soon as Mandel has rushed out the door, an excited buzz of conversation erupts. A few sidelong glances are shot Lucas' way, but others seem embarrassed to speak to him. Finally, Nellie leans over and whispers:

Nellie: What's Berea?

Lucas: (in a very pained voice, and after a long pause) It's an orphanage.

Nellie: (startled) I'm sorry, I didn't know such things existed any more.

Lucas: (looking forward) I'm the last one there. (and then, turning accusingly to her) You weren't much help.

Nellie: Well, I couldn't get a word in between you two. Besides, you have little to lose.

Lucas: What do you mean?

Nellie: This is a required course for me. I have to pass it. You can always take it again later.

Lucas: What are you getting at?

Nellie: Mandel fails anyone who defends creation in the class.

Lucas: I didn't. I'm not certain what I believe in myself; I just thought he was too sure of himself, so I challenged him. Look, I feel sick and I don't want to be around when he comes back; I'm heading out.

Lucas leaves, and a few minutes later Mandel enters by the other door. He is rubbing his hands together and seems pleased with himself. He immediately notices Lucas is missing, and remarks to the rest of the class:

Mandel: He actually agreed to do it. We'll settle his hash. A few invited experts will make mincemeat of a country preacher, and I'll arrange for it all to happen in front of a few thousand people and some television cameras.

* * * * *

Debates over scientific issues arise for a variety of reasons. These may include disputes over the data employed, the methods of doing the research, the qualifications of the researchers, the validity of the results, or even personality conflicts. Many such disagreements can be solved by attempting to repeat the experiments under a variety of conditions to see whether the suggested conclusions are indeed justified. Because of the human element, a variety of ethical issues may become involved in the doing of science, but these too are in many cases resolvable within the scientific community. After all, the premise of the information age is that mismanagement, sloppy research, bad analysis, wrong conclusions, or outright deceit will eventually be exposed to the light of public scrutiny and be corrected. In such situations, there may be no need to appeal to outside absolute ethical authority for assistance in reaching a resolution. The experiments either demonstrate the validity of a theory or they do not.

However, some issues that are not as straightforward touch on the very meaning of science, as well as motivations for doing it and interpretations of the results. As usual, such fundamental issues are further complicated by the ethical or religious questions that are often related to them. An interesting illustration of this is the debate surrounding the theories competing to answer the question: "How did we all get here?" This not only is one of the most fundamental of such issues but also is frequently made a focal point for disputes between science and religion. In one form or another, the question of origins and its principal answers have been around from the beginning of recorded history. The usual answers are often broadly classified as either "creationary" or "evolutionary." However, the meanings of these words vary as much as do the meanings attached to words with ethical content (such as "good"). Moreover, the boundaries between the two principal positions are not always distinct or easy to determine, even though some modern-day protagonists insist that they are. Neither is it always clear what, if any, are the ethical consequences of holding to one position or another. In their most general form, the major views of origins can be summarized as follows:

o Strictly materialist view

The universe and all that is in it, including humanity, can be explained in terms of time, chance, and physical laws. There is no design, purpose, and direction; what is, simply is. All that can be observed is all that there is, and this in turn is entirely the product of time, random events, and the operation of natural processes.

o Deistic/mechanistic view

The universe was created, as were the physical laws governing its operation. After that, the deity stepped back from the process and allowed everything to run its course without interference. Life, including humanity, is the product of the predetermined operation of created processes. If the universe and the life it contains have any purpose or direction, it is to a large extent built-in.

o Theistic view

The universe and its physical laws were created. At certain points in the subsequent action of time, chance, and natural processes, a deity may have intervened. This might have been done once to cause life to come into being, and again to provide a distinct nature to human life. The particular involvement of the deity may imply some measure of purpose and direction to life. It may also imply some accountability to that deity for humanity as a whole. Whether such purposes are knowable or not is debatable.

o Supernatural view

The universe and all that is in it, including humanity, exists by intelligent and personal design. It had a definite beginning, has a definite purpose for being, and will have a definite end. Natural processes operate within a purposefully created framework of both time and space. All of creation is accountable to the creator.

There are a variety of positions on the date of origin, on the duration of various creative or evolutionary processes, and on mechanisms for origins within each group. Summaries such as these four are very broad; they contain statements about both the cosmos in general and the origin of human life in particular. Models for origins that fit in one of the first two categories are, roughly speaking, evolutionary. Those that fit one of the latter two are to a greater or lesser extent creationist. Some theories have elements from two or more of these groups, and indeed the variations shade almost imperceptibly from one to the next. It is not necessary to examine all of the possibilities in order to understand the debate over origins. However, it is important in debating such issues to distinguish among

o the origin of matter, that is, of the initial cosmos,

o the origin of the earth in the cosmological context,

o the origin of life from nonlife,

o the development and speciation of plants and animals, and

o the special case of the origin of human beings.

Many scientists would confine the term "evolution," for example, to just the fourth and fifth of these issues. Others use it for all five. A creationist, on the other hand, would accept variation within species as the only observable form of evolution (i.e., microevolution, if she used the word at all), and might deny that any of the others have ever happened.

Actual debate on such issues tends to involve mostly the extremes, with the deists and theists--who would rather be accommodative than raise issues--being largely ignored, or declining to participate on various grounds. Within their immediate circles, both conservative creationists and strict materialists tend to be outraged at any suggestion that the other side (or any middle ground) has any credence whatsoever. It is important to remember, therefore, that in the detailed discussion of major issues presented in this chapter, mere provocation is not the goal, but rather the inducement to think. As the following section concludes, the point is to consider the nature of scientific debate; a particularly provocative topic is a useful foil to do so. The reader is free to elaborate any position, indeed is encouraged to attempt this, but only after considering positions on some of the issues of concern to the major participants.

Philosophy and World View

Which model for origins is held by a person to be true depends on their world views as it touches such issues as the existence and attributes of deity, the revelation that such a deity is alleged to have provided, and the relationship of human beings to that deity. There are also consequences of holding particular beliefs about origins.

First, world-view considerations, and the degree of allegiance to those views, tend to determine attitudes toward interpreting data that bear on the question of origins. Whatever that may be, scientists necessarily work within the framework of some such world view, fully convinced of the reasonableness of their beliefs. It is therefore natural for them to filter their scientific experiences through their world view in a way that yields results supporting their beliefs. There is nothing wrong with this as long as those involved are aware of it. However, in some cases, it may be that there does not exist any conceivable data or argument that could ever be accepted as invalidating the world view held. Such a position, in effect, removes the matter in question from the realm of the scientific altogether, for something that is not even conceivably falsifiable by scientific methods is also not verifiable by them either.

Thus, to some the deity is creator by very definition, and a random universe without that creative power is inconceivable. A completely mechanistic universe is a denial of the existence of the overseeing deity in whom they trust. Even if they cannot explain how creation was performed (in the scientific sense), and regardless of how many people claim that the physical evidence not only supports but completely documents materialism, they must still say, "We absolutely know that we were created."

To others, the world can only conceivably consist of the material, and it is meaningless to suggest that anything called the "supernatural" could exist or be perceived if it did. That is, they must believe in some form of evolution, as generally defined above, and do so regardless of the current state of the evidence for or against; the alternative is not possible even to consider. Theirs is an episteme that requires evolutionary explanations for origins lest it be self-contradictory. That is, even if every mechanism for it were shown to be impossible, strict rational/empiricists and materialists must still say, "We absolutely know that we evolved." Even if they do not completely reject religious accounts of origins, they will consider them as subject to scientific analysis and potential refutation, for the ideal of this brand of science is that no beliefs, including their own, are free from the possibility of being falsified by actual experiment.

Others, who are between these two extremes, may want to believe to some extent in a creation, but are also persuaded to accept the majoritarian view that evolution is an established fact rather than a model. This group seeks one of a variety of possible accommodations between two extremes, but their faith is in a world view more compatible with materialistic models than supernatural ones.

Second, answers to the question of whether or not there is a God who created are related to whether one believes that such a God has the authority to make ethical demands. If a creator does exist, and has made ethical rules, then such demands constitute a higher authority than human opinion, reasoning, methodology, or law. To a greater or lesser extent, this is the position of most religions, though they may differ on the details of ethical demands. If, on the other hand, human life exists solely because of the operation of time, chance, and natural processes, then no external moral authority need be assumed. That is, if any meaning exists for humanity as a whole or for human ethics in particular, it can be found only in the natural world, and by using natural processes. In summary, some claim that there are answers to meaning questions and preexisting rules of ethics that affect the entire human social dynamic and that these transcend the natural order. Others claim that answers can only be found in the observable natural order, for there is nothing else. One possible conclusion from this is that the principle of "survival of the fittest" can be applied not only to the development of life itself, but also (in some fashion) to moral rules--indeed that it is itself the only moral rule. This conclusion is problematic, for it makes morality not only relative to the situation, but also to the evolutionary place of the one applying the rules, and it is unclear how this could in the end produce anything but hedonism.

It is not hard to see that this debate involves far more than science and religion, for anyone who ascribes transcendence to any aspect of the human experience, in such things as art, music, or philosophy, will also be in conflict with strict materialists.

Recent Developments

Many people are happy with what they see as a compromise on one of the two middle positions outlined above, and it was on this centre ground that most North Americans probably stood before the 1950s. However, deists and theists may have the most difficulty formulating a belief framework for their position, for their desire is to find a middle ground that allows for the action of a creator, but that still accepts the mechanism of evolution as an established fact. It is not easy to do this when the underlying principles of two positions they are attempting to reconcile contradict each other so fundamentally and so thoroughly.

Moreover, since that time, new conservative creationist groups have arisen and the debate over origins has been rejoined in earnest. This has resulted in the founding of such organizations as the Institute for Creation Research and the Creation Research Society, both of which consist of scientists committed to working and publishing within a creationist world view. Much of the material produced by these groups is sharply at variance with the interpretations of the majority of modern scientists and is severely criticized or ignored by mainstream schools and journals.

The new creationists assert that time, chance, and natural processes could not possibly have produced life in the first place or resulted in any evolution afterward other than minor variations. They claim that the fossil record is better evidence for creation than for evolution, and that neither biology nor geology support an evolutionary scenario. Many (not all) of them doubt or deny that the earth is very old, suggesting an age of thousands rather than billions of years. They flatly deny there is any evidence for human evolution. They attempt to conduct the debate on scientific rather than religious terms, and try to use scientific methods to demonstrate their points, though few in the majority scientific community will engage them on those terms. As will be seen below, those at the other extreme have counterattacked in force on all fronts.

While one could argue about the degree of success both sides have had in convincing the general public of the rightness of their views, a major effect has been to polarize the lively discussion, all but excluding the middle ground from the debate.

Belief and Faith

Thus, someone like Steven Jay Gould will say: "Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact." (Montagu, p 118) and also: "'Scientific Creationism' is a self-contradictory, nonsense phrase . . . dogma, not science" (Montagu, p. 120). Another in the same vein is Isaac Asimov, who says of Creationists [ibid, p 184] that they use the general belief of most peoples in a Creator as evidence there must have been one, and dismisses all such accounts as myths, none inherently more credible than any other. The essential point made at this end of the spectrum is that the very idea of creation is inherently religious and so not open to examination. It can therefore have no connection whatever to science. Most of its writers do go further, however, and assert that creation is not only unscientific, but actually false.

In a piece written as a direct response to Asimov for the Institute for Creation Research, Henry Morris responds that creationists do not use such arguments, but that evolutionists: "use the argument that 'all scientists believe evolution' as the main proof for evolution." (Impact #99 pamphlet) It ought to be clear that majoritarian arguments are not sound logic, so that it makes little difference whether either side actually uses them or not.

Both creationist and evolutionist scientists believe themselves to be engaged in legitimate and experimentally sound searches for knowledge. The result is an indefinite impasse, for apart from a religious-style conversion experience, neither can ever convince the other to abandon what they believe to be valid science consistent with their world view. And yet, truth is unique, for the fundamental principle with which science begins forces one to believe there is such a thing as a 'right answer' to a scientific investigation of the physical universe, that the cosmos as we perceive it today only has one history. The assumed uniqueness of truth would appear to mean that one side or the other could be proven wrong, but as indicated above, no such purported proof could ever be accepted by the "losing" side. Asimov: "...creationism has clearly lost. But creationists, placing myth above reason, refuse to accept the decision..." [ibid p. 191] Morris: "Asimov, in his anti-creationist harangue, does not attempt to offer even one slight scientific evidence for evolution." [ICR pamphlet]

The problem is that the issue is not decidable by physical means, because at least part of the argument is not about science at all. The difference in world views causes the two groups to search in different places for different things and to interpret what they do find consistently with what they already believe. Because the question of the existence or otherwise of a creator's initiation of the universe is fixed in the empirically unknowable remote past, it is not decidable by the kind of mechanistic process that the strict rational/empiricist claims science to be, and so there is no possibility of resolving the impasse in general terms. One of the difficulties in analysing a debate of this sort is that the two sides do not agree on what it is that they are debating--science or religion. Indeed, both sides will claim that theirs is a scientific position and that the other's is a religious one.

Turning to the scientific aspects, evolutionists say that having a falsifiable mechanism for evolution makes it inherently superior to creation on the grounds the theory of revelation by a deity is un-falsifiable, and is therefore not science but accepted by blind faith. Asimov: "To those who are trained in Science, creationism seems like a bad dream ... a renewed march of an army of the night risen to challenge free thought and enlightenment." [ibid, p 183] They are not concerned if they have disagreements about the possible mechanism for some aspect of evolution: "However much scientists argue their differing beliefs in details of evolutionary theory ... they firmly accept the evolutionary process itself." [ibid, p 187]

Creationists claim that such an insistence that evolution must have taken place in turn constitutes the faith of the other side. Morris says in the ICR pamphlet: "Evolutionists walk by faith, not by sight!" One side accuses the other of naivety in belief systems, and the other counters that proposals to fill in evolutionary 'gaps' involve more wishful thinking and flights of fancy than factual evidence. Both believe that the opposing world view is mythological, fragile, and unscientific, and they do so principally because of their opposing world views. In addition, the two sides reject each other's interpretation of things like fossil evidence, claiming that this too is based on faith and not reason.


When they turn from the philosophical to consider more specific scientific matters, creationists argue that the idea of a high degree of order in both the cosmos and in living organisms could arise spontaneously from a primordial chaos is a violation of the entropy principle, also known as the second law of thermodynamics. They assert it is not good enough to claim that matter in chaos is inherently able to organize itself or that the provision of raw energy to a system causes its order and information to increase spontaneously without any previously existing program. Evolutionists reject these arguments as simplistic and assert that energy input to the earth from the sun is sufficient for evolution (i.e., the earth is not a closed system, so the second law is inapplicable). They also search for mechanisms whereby order can increase even in closed systems, but the examples of this, such as the growth of crystals in solution, are rejected by creationists as irrelevant. They insist that there are no known physical laws by which the voluminous information coded by a DNA molecule could self-organize.

It should be noted that the two sides profess to be unable to understand each other's arguments on these points, and they differ sharply on the meaning and applicability of entropy to the whole question of evolution.

Mechanism--Chance and Design

An important argument of the creationists derived originally from an analogy to the old Copernican "clockwork" view of the universe. If one found a watch somewhere, it would be immediately obvious from its very intricacy that it did not come about by chance and that no one would dispute that a designer was involved. A single living cell, much less a human being, displays an intricacy of far greater order than does a watch, and therefore also implies a designer. To put it another way, if one beholds a woven wicker basket full of flowers, one would immediately "know" the basket had a maker. However, the flowers are much more complex. Surely therefore, the argument goes, they have a maker too.

Asimov responds: "This argument seems unanswerable ... [but] to surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature ... the complexity of the universe ... is not in itself an argument for a creator." [ibid, p 184] Morris contradicts this in his response: "The principles of mathematical probability and scientific causality certainly do not constitute a 'surrender to ignorance,' but provide a compelling demonstration that complex systems do not originate out of chaotic systems by random processes."

Asimov is correct in stating that this objection is unanswerable; the question of a cosmic design is moot to one who does not or will not conceptualize such a designer. The paradigms of modern science require that the act of such design be demonstrated, even repeatable. Familiarity with the design of machines in actual experience makes the origin of the watch obvious; but nothing less than seeing God in the act, not even doing it in His stead, can satisfy the strict materialist. As things stand, they have at best nothing but what some other people hold to be His word for evidence, and their paradigm for knowledge rejects that as insufficient and circular reasoning.

However, creationists go much too far if they assert the existence of the clockworks proves that the God of the clockworks also exists. At best, it is only a hint that this may be so, not a proof. Existence of a watch maker or a flower basket weaver is only inferred, then believed on the basis of what appears to be reasonable and probable evidence; and this is the best this argument can do for creationists. However, this is also the nature of scientific evidence in general; even the balance of a preponderance of empirical evidence does not constitute an absolute logical proof for a theory, only reasonable support for one. That is, the best conclusion that can be made of this kind of argument is negative--no known physical mechanism could cause the basket, clock (or flower) to self assemble, so asserting that it must have done so places the evolutionist in at least the awkward position of having to assert the existence of a mechanism even though there may be no evidence for one.

Asimov fingers the real issue, for the question here is whether we are ignorant of the existence of the creator, or whether there are reasonably reliable evidences for the existence of one. Science alone is inadequate to answer this question, for the supernatural is outside its realm, and therefore creationists need more than the existence of clockworks to offer it as scientific evidence, they need verifiable traces of the creator's work to carry this argument. The Greeks had it right in their theology of the unknown god. If there was a creator who operated from outside the realm of the physical to create it, he could be known within the creation only by revelation. On the other hand, scientists cannot use the inability of their methodology to examine the supernatural as proof the latter does not exist. Neither can it be forgotten that there are scientists who are also creationists, who believe in a supernatural god-creator employing evolution as one of his mechanisms, so this issue is not as sharply focused as some claim it to be.

Evolutionists at one time believed the entire past history of man, life, the Earth, solar system and the whole cosmos could be completely explained in terms of physical processes now being observed (This principle, in general, is called uniformitarianism). Creationists said that in the ultimate origin of the universe there had to be different processes, because those presently operating are in capable of explaining the very beginning. In particular, they asserted the mathematical impossibility of chance mutations producing better adapted life forms, rather than simply genetic damage, with its accompanying information loss. They reject Thomas Huxley's comparison of evolution to a large number of monkeys at typewriters pressing keys at random, and given enough time producing the entire works of Shakespeare--even this, they say, is clearly impossible even in all the billions of years one might wish to grant the universe, and the probabilities of producing a single protein by chance are far lower.

Uniformitarianism is now less often advanced as a point of argument. Faced with the actual calculations, Huxley's descendents have abandoned the line of argument that given enough time even the most improbable events must occur.

Evolutionists now concede physical laws must have been different in the first few moments of the universe; indeed they claim that the processes that took place then determined what those laws would be. One sees more reference to catastrophe and sudden, sweeping change in their literature than to the old gradualism. However, they reject the creationists statistical and probabilistic arguments as irrelevant; after all, the presence of life on Earth demands some explanation, regardless of its apparent improbability, and they are not prepared to give it other than a materialistic one. They point to the driving force of natural selection, asserting that the changes in life forms are not random at all, but driven by the need to adapt to changed environments. Creationists respond that anatomical adaptions have to come from somewhere, and the only mechanism proposed to this point is mutation. Changes could be selected among after they occur (or if a suitable genetic variant were already present), but they have to happen in the first place, and this puts the argument back into the realm of vanishingly small probabilities.

In the 1990s, Johnson, Dembski, and others brought forth refined and updated arguments that the complexity of natural systems shows characteristics of design, quite apart from what one may believe about a designer. They argue, for instance, that many systems have an irreducible complexity that could not have evolved in stages because any one component or behaviour of the whole has no particular survival value. Among complete complex organisms they may cite the woodpecker and hummingbird, among large structures the elephant's trunk or giraffe's neck, and on a smaller scale the living cell.

The Fossils

Creationists claim that the fossil record contains the strongest evidence against evolutionary scenarios; that it shows the sudden appearance of the major types of life in the various strata, and that it shows a complete lack of the many transitional forms that would have had to have existed in order for a gradualist mechanism to have ever operated. Indeed, many more lines have now been traced to the Cambrian, now known to have had a rich diversity of complex life forms, a fact they claim to be entirely at variance with Darwinism. They assert that the vast numbers of fossils now catalogued do not show inter-family gradualism, and that it is therefore safe to conclude (from a statistical argument) that still larger numbers never will. They sometimes question the entire concept of the geologic column, claiming that it too is a fanciful interpretation of fragmented data, and that the indexing of fossils by rocks and of rocks by fossils constitutes circular reasoning. They further assert that numerous examples of rock strata laid down in the "wrong" order refutes evolution absolutely.

Evolutionists are confident there are indeed abundant cases of transitional fossils, and that the geologic column, while not existing entire in any part of the Earth, can legitimately be pieced together by comparing similar strata from many places. They are unconcerned about "wrong order" strata, referring to them as "overthrusts" in most cases, and maintaining confidence that they can eventually explain the others as well. They also claim that, in general, geology is the creationists' weakest point, and that the latter would have to do a great deal of work to explain what is seen in the Earth's crust consistently with any of their current sub-models.

However, evolutionists have also now conceded the fossil record does not support the thesis of uniformly gradual changes over millions of years via natural selection. A number of suggestions for a replacement mechanism have been made, chief among them the 'punctuated equilibrium' scenario. This hypothesis holds that evolution proceeded in sudden bursts, perhaps triggered by vast ecological changes or multiple mutations from large doses of radiation. Large changes over a short period of time would leave few or no traces in the fossil record, and this is much more in accordance with what is actually found. In an interesting side-development, this theory has found much greater favour among Marxists, who have promoted it actively because revolution fits their world view better than slow evolution.

This very willingness of evolutionists to change their theories in the light of new data is regarded by them as a great strength, for they point to the unwillingness of creationists to do the same. The latter maintain that changing theories is a weakness, and that holding to revealed religious ideas is their strength.

Creationists use the difficulties with interpreting the fossils as evidence against evolution, but their opponents are unconcerned. If one interpretation fails to work, another can always be tried out as a model; moreover they are confident that the fossils will eventually provide entirely adequate proof that large scale evolution has taken place. For their part, Creationists would look on even the most complete taxonomy of life forms, including intermediates between the various families and orders, as nothing more than an interesting chart of similarities, not as proof that any relationship by descent exists. Indeed, they regard such similarities as evidence of the handiwork of a common designer. From a logical point of view, these two conclusions are equally valid. Whether the evidence does equally support both is another matter.

The Age of the Earth, and Related Issues

Some creationists dispute the multi-billion year time scale favoured by evolutionists. While there is evidence in things such as magnetic field, lunar orbit decay, and sediment deposition (land to ocean and space to Earth/Moon system) for the young Earth this group often advocates, almost all scientists interpret radioactive dating methods as authoritatively yielding much greater ages. Geologists are virtually unanimous in asserting that there is ample evidence in the pattern of sedimentary rock formation and erosion for a very long earth life.

Creationists also have the difficulty posed by light and its speed relative to the apparent size of the universe. They must decide whether to assert that the light from stars was created in transit so that the universe had an apparent age, or perhaps, as a few have, that its speed may decay over time, or that the geometry of the universe is not actually as commonly accepted.

Asimov says of the apparent age suggestion: "Can it be that the Creator is a cruel and malicious prankster, with a vicious and adolescent sense of humour?" [ibid, p 189] Morris responds: "There is no deception involved at all. As a matter of fact, the world does not even look old, except to the distorted vision of an evolutionist." [ICR pamphlet] It should also be noted at this point that some creationists do accept an old earth model, and do not regard these issues as problems. For example, among Christians, there are a variety of hypotheses to stretch the six days of creation into a sufficient number of years to harmonize with the evolutionary scale. However, all such compromises tend to be roundly denounced by those at both ends of the spectrum.

Creationists claim that evolutionists have their own problems with time, and that the data do not unequivocally support either a young or an old earth. They say that the indicators for a young earth need to be properly explained, as must the nature and significance of the assumptions inherent in radioactive dating methods. They point out the problem of the missing mass--galaxies are not observed to have enough of it to have stayed together for as long as their claimed age. Mainstream cosmologists have conceded this is a problem, and are actively trying to find the missing mass. Creationists add that there is no evident source for dust and comets in the solar system that could account for their presence for longer than about thirty thousand years, because such small particles are constantly being swept up by the larger bodies. Some even question the nuclear model for the sun's energy, stating that the observed gravitational collapse is sufficient for current energy output, and suggesting that the predicted but not yet observed flow of neutrinos needed to support the nuclear model will never be found, and that this too supports a young solar system scenario. A new argument is that the existence of halos characteristic of the decay of a very short-lived polonium isotope in granitic rocks indicates an Earth solid from the moment of creation, rather than cooling over time from a molten state. They also assert that rock formations are fragile, and could not bend into the domed upthrusts that are so common except when they were first formed and the rocks were still quite plastic, denying that layering and upthrusting needed to take place over long periods of time.

Evolutionists believe that they are on very solid ground on the age of the Earth, despite the many interesting questions and issues connected with this. For instance, they dismiss the problem of cometary and dust supply by hypothesizing a cloud of such materials at some distance from the Sun, and from which material is periodically ejected into the solar system proper.

Creationists have become somewhat reluctant to offer a specific date for beginnings, so they have confined themselves to criticizing the specific dating methods and assumptions of the other side. If Bible-based, they may claim that the flood of Noah is entirely sufficient to explain the fossil record without any assumption of age beyond a few thousand years, but this group had not until recently worked out such an explanation in any great detail, and is subjected to some of the most scathing attacks on this particular issue, for it is at this point that the lack of detailed work leaves them most vulnerable.

Life From Non Life

A critical issue, on which there seems destined to be no end to speculation, is the way in which life could have arisen from non-living matter in the very first instance. Lately, this discussion has focused on the possible manufacture of life forms from non-living chemicals in the laboratory. Some think success in this area would be definitive evidence for an entirely mechanistic view of life. Creationists are quick to point out that if the application of sufficient time, energy, intelligence, and creative ability resulted in the manufacture of a living thing from non-living components, this would instead be evidence that life was intelligently designed in the first place.

Many possible mechanisms have been proposed to explain how this step could have taken place in the past, based on a variety of assumptions about the primitive Earth; but the suppositions about both the conditions and the mechanisms are highly speculative and change with each generation of scientists, so this discussion is unlikely to bring about any quick resolution of the debate.

Some schools of thought would shift the focus elsewhere, proposing that life, or at least organic chemicals, evolved in outer space and that the Earth was 'seeded' in some manner from there. This avoids the problem of the non-demonstrability of the appropriate conditions at any time in Earth history by simply assuming that these conditions existed in some place that cannot be observed at all. However, this suggestion is also unlikely to provide much in the way of resolution to the argument; for it clearly begs the question. Creationists are also accused of begging the question by assuming that life was created and did not in any substantial way evolve. The issue here is whether either belief is an a priori assumption, or whether it is based on reliable evidence. The problem is that even a demonstrated proof that life as we know it could come about in a particular way does not show that such was the path of actual history.

Human Evolution

By far the most contentious and important issue is that of the evolution of the human race. Whatever else they may concede, Christian creationists at least must insist upon the direct hand of God in the making of the first human beings. For evolutionists, on the other hand, establishing a line of descent for man has always been a kind of holy grail--if found, to be considered as the final and definitive proof that man is the pinnacle of a series of chance processes aided by natural selection, and nothing more. Over the years, many such lines for man have been proposed, and even regarded as firmly established, but a number of once highly-trumpeted ancestors have now been relegated to other roles. As for the current candidates, both Java and Australopithecus, including the skeleton known as "Lucy," are regarded by creationists, and by some others, to have been entirely ape. At any given time, the "missing link" promoted by one group may be derided as an irrelevant evolutionary offshoot by others with their own candidate. As with other such topics, the evidences offered in textbooks all tend to disappear within a decade or so, to be replaced by something else.

The difficulties involved in constructing an ancestry for the supposedly most recently evolved creature ought to provide future interpreters of fossils with a larger dose of the more customary scientific caution, and forestall some of the premature rush to speculative publication that has characterized this particular field. For their part, the creationists have the difficulty that if man came on the scene at roughly the same time as the animals, the bones of man ought to be found with those of all animal species. Likewise, evolutionists require many more bones to be found to make a case for their side. Is the fact that both generally have not found the evidence to support their positions simply a matter of interpretation, or must some grave theoretical difficulty be acknowledged?

Nothing is being conceded by anyone on this front. One side is certain humankind has evolved, and that at least some fossils are evidence of it; the other is certain no such thing happened; that no catalogues of bones (or even of comparative DNA), however arranged and sorted by human-like characteristics, can possibly prove otherwise, and indeed that nothing that could possibly be interpreted as a link between humans and animal primates has ever yet been found. They are confident that none ever will be, and that they will have little difficulty debunking evolutionists' claims to the contrary.

The Law

Conservative creationists say they are eager to debate the scientific merits of their theories and that they wish only a fair examination of their ideas and work. To this end, they did manage to convince a few state legislatures their theories ought to be taught in schools alongside the majority ones. There, they attempted to make three points: a) that the intent of the separation clause in the U.S. Constitution was to keep state influence out of churches, not the converse, and that recent rulings to the contrary have amounted to an adventuresome rewriting of that document by the courts, (b) that forbidding any mention of creation paradigms in public schools and allowing only the teaching of evolution is a violation of the free exercise clause of the same amendment, and (c) that if creation is to be banned from schools on the basis of its religious or metaphysical underlay, so must evolution for precisely the same reason.

Evolutionists counter: (a) that whatever the scope of the original intent, the correct interpretation of the U.S. Constitution in the light of present day society is to mandate an absolute separation of church and state, that is, a rigid secularism, (b) that allowing any mention of religious ideas in the schools is a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the first amendment, (c) that creationism must be banned from the schools because it--and not evolution--is unscientific, inherently religious however taught, and promotes sectarian religion in what must be a secular and pluralistic society.

Eminent scientists, theologians, and lawyers lined up on both sides to testify, but in two celebrated court decisions in Arkansas (1982) and Louisiana (1987), laws mandating the teaching of creation as an alternative theory to evolution were ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that they promoted entirely religious doctrines rather than fairness between equal competing theories. The strength of the rulings indicates that it will probably be a long time before such questions are ever again examined in an American court of law, and there is no immediate prospect they will be considered at all by Canadian ones. Thus, from a legal point of view at least, the issue has been settled in favour of the majority scientific establishment. However, law will not stop this kind of debate, for it involves abstractions competing to explain the existence of the cosmos, life in general, and humans in particular. That is, it is a conflict between comprehensive world views, not just on interpretations of the law, and such a conflict will undoubtedly exist forever in some form.

Interestingly, a British Columbia court, in a case involving whether a school board could decline to use homosexual-advocacy books in primary school classrooms, went much farther, when it ruled such public bodies could not make decisions that were even informed, much less influenced, by religious belief. Such a novel doctrine, if upheld, would effectively bar Christians from all public office, not just remove their ideas from public view.


Educational institutions are caught in the middle of this dispute. The religious right claims that its forbearers invented the whole concept of mass education and is dismayed to find its influence and presence there now reduced to naught by the ascendancy of what it calls "secular humanism". They regard this as a threat to their very existence, for if their children are taught only in a hostile philosophical setting, then their beliefs are a generation from extinction at the hands of the state. They argue that the education of children exclusively in such theories is an infringement on their right to hold their beliefs unhindered. For their part, the other side is not about to relinquish any portion of its control over Western educational institutions. They in turn regard the exposure of children to any theory other than evolution as tantamount to the teaching of witchcraft, astrology, and superstition. They are confident in the essential rightness of evolution and of the evidence for it, not just as a good abstraction, but as actual physical truth. Two things seem to have escaped notice here:

first, that the assumption of models as absolute truth has never been historically tenable for long, and

second, that the exclusion of religious based models is inconsistent with holding tolerance as a high value.


Creationists accuse those they term "secular humanists" of practising a narcissistic and exclusive tolerance--one that has room only for their views and none for any other religious ideas. Their opponents countercharge that creationists are censors who wish to replace good science with religious myths, and that they must be suppressed for the good of society. Asimov: "...church and family can easily censor printed matter or television. Only the school is beyond their control." [Montagu, p 191] Creationists respond that it is their views that are being censored, not those of the evolutionists. Morris: "Unfortunately his (Asimov's) last statement is mostly correct." [ICR pamphlet] Both sides accuse the other of having a hidden (or not-so-hidden) agenda--that of the imposition of its own views via a program of mind control and propaganda. Those on the extremes also excoriate or ridicule any attempts to take a middle position, and those who do try for some intellectual compromise are likely to be equally emotional in their views.

Both sides have found weaknesses in the other position--and though from a logical viewpoint it makes a poor argument, the shortcomings of one side are used as a psychological boost for the other. Occasionally, answers to criticisms have been provided by one side in a very speculative fashion, and this practice gives great encouragement to the other. Much of the argument is conducted in extremely emotional and personal terms, which could be used to encourage the other side because of its lack of content, but tends to inflame it to do likewise instead.

On both sides, some old untenable positions have been abandoned. For example, only the most outdated of books still mention "vestigial organs" or claim that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". These were two of the interesting, but ultimately misleading speculations of the past that have now been laid to rest, a fate no doubt to be shared by some of their successors. For their part, creationists concede that life forms can be observed to change via natural selection, even if they do not agree that they do so to the extent extrapolated by evolution's supporters or that mutation is a possible source of this change. Events may also force a realization that humankind will soon have some measure of control over future changes to itself, something sure to enliven the debate, though proving nothing about the past.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises