Teach Creationism in science classes II
Christine O’Donnell, defeated Republican candidate for the Senate from Delaware, and opponent of masturbation and, lately, witchcraft, has recently proposed that Creationism should be taught in science classes in the public schools. Her position seems to be based on two beliefs: first, that the creation story in Genesis is accurate and that Darwinian Evolution is not and second, that local school boards should have control over what is taught in their school districts. Excluding the teaching of Creationism from science classes because the Supreme Court or any other national or state agency rules that it is not a proper scientific subject violates the rights of the people to believe and teach what they want.
I do not need to review at length the history of attempts to inject the teaching of Biblical Creationism into public school science classes. Such attempts have been repeatedly made by religious groups, mostly Fundamentalist Christian, who have tried various arguments to disguise their religious motivations. The latest attempt to disguise Creationism by calling it “Intelligent Design” was seen for what it was by the judge in the Dover, Pennsylvania case a few years ago. So let us accept that the argument over the teaching of Creationism in science classes is a controversy motivated by religious objection to scientific theories and evidence that indicate that the universe is a vast, unsupervised, cold, very very old place and that life on our planet arose spontaneously and then by undirected, purposeless natural selection produced all the varieties of living things on Earth today, including human beings. This is not what the Bible says. If science is right about the age of the universe and evolution, the Bible must be wrong. Some people accept this implication comfortably; others simply cannot and probably never will.
Fundamentalist Christian parents do not want their children taught that the Bible is wrong for fear that they will grow up and lose their cherished faith. Rational secularists and scientists do not want religious myth to be introduced into science courses because they believe that students will be confused about what the scientific method really is if supernatural explanations for natural phenomena are admitted to the courses. The current solution is to keep Creationism out of science courses while teaching it in comparative religion courses. Scientists think that this is the right solution but Creationists do not. So, I would like to propose that we consider bringing the Biblical creation story into science classes as an example of the difference between mythological thinking and the scientific method. Science is a methodology for finding natural explanations for how the universe works. Religion postulates supernatural supervision of the universe.
Let us consider how the teaching of evolution in biology classes would be affected by the introduction of Creationism. The theory of evolution is supported by the fossil record, changes of organisms from layer to layer in strata of different ages, physical resemblances of families of animals and families of plants, ongoing slow rates of mutation in DNA, close DNA sequence similarity between organisms that resemble each other physically and progressive loss of DNA sequence homology in organisms that do not resemble each other so closely, DNA sequence homology and physical homology between fossils and living organisms today, and so forth. The theory is falsifiable but 150 years of work since Darwin first published “On the Origin of Species…” in 1859 have failed to show that it is wrong. The biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, when asked what it would take to cause him to reject evolution, famously replied, “Rabbits in the Precambrian.” No rabbit fossils, or fossils of any modern organism have been found in strata of the Cambrian Explosion, an era about 500-600 million years ago in which we find a profusion of the first fossilizable creatures. Stephen J. Gould’s book, Wonderful Life, describes the fossils in the Burgess Shale in Canada, a stratum where fossils from the Cambrian may be found in large numbers. So, the theory of evolution describes and makes predictions about the relationships of all living and extinct creatures on Earth and so far, all the evidence supports it.
If we now move to the teaching of Creationism, we really need only to read the first two chapters of Genesis in the Bible. They contain the stories of God creating the Earth, Universe, and all life on Earth in six days then resting on the seventh. The Earth was created before the sun, moon and stars. Humans were created last. The creation of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden with all the plants and animals is also described in a second story. In this second story that begins in Genesis 2: verse 4, the order of creation is a little different than in the first story. Later in Genesis we find the stories (there are two woven together) of Noah’s Flood, then Abraham and his family, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. After reading these stories, I would propose that the students should be asked how they would test them for validity. Remember, we are introducing these stories in a science class. How would the students develop a test for how long ago creation happened? The traditional Jewish calendar says that the current year is 5771. Bishop James Ussher, a few hundred years ago calculated that creation happened in 4004 BC, so our current year should be 6014. Which of these is right? Could they both be wrong? How did the Bishop arrive at his date? How do the Bible stories relate to earlier Sumerian and Egyptian creation and flood stories? How do you test the relative age of such stories and who borrowed from whom? How would you test the age of the Earth, the universe, a fossil, and so forth? This should lead into a discussion of isotope ratio methods for dating skeletons, rocks, the Earth itself, and archeological and literary methods of dating and relating stories. It should also make clear that the scientific method requires testing of hypotheses before accepting them.
The Bible says that everything that is on Earth today was created as it is now in God’s creative week about 6,000 years ago. Evolution didn’t happen. We are not genealogically related to the other animals and plants on the Earth. They were all separate creations. Likewise, extinction isn’t mentioned. This should lead to a discussion of genetic evidence for relationships among all organisms on Earth and particularly close relationships between dogs and wolves, all the members of the feline family, the apes and humans, as well as our fossil “ancestors” from which we have been able to extract DNA. Svante Paabo has recently shown that Neanderthals contributed about 1-4% of the genome of modern Europeans and Asians, not just NFL linemen. How would the students reconcile the concept that everything was separately created as it is today with the evidence of extinction and the genetic record of relationships of living things with each other and with putative fossil ancestors? I have read that Thomas Jefferson, when he sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, asked them to shoot and bring back a mammoth. Americans had found mammoth skeletons in the west but no one had seen a live one. The concept of extinction had not yet occurred to scientists in 1803 so Jefferson, a very well-informed man, assumed that there must be living mammoths at that time. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that fossils in different strata were interpreted to show extinction. And, in this century, we have discovered cave paintings in France, made by our ancestors, the Cro Magnons, over 20,000 years ago that show Aurochs and Mammoths that were obviously alive then, but are now extinct. How would the students reconcile such facts with Genesis? As an aside, Carol and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary by going to southern France and visiting three caves with Cro Magnon paintings: Pech Merle, Font de Gaume, and Lascaux. It is a mystical experience, especially when I consider that I have some French ancestry and I can fantasize that one of my ancestors painted some of the pictures that I saw.
I believe that the introduction of Biblical Creationism, and, for that matter, other religious creation myths into science classes would actually serve to illustrate to the students the very clear differences between religious creation myths and the scientific method. Of course, I realize that once the folks pushing Creationism learned that it would be taught this way they would object. But this too would be instructive. After all, the Bible has been traditionally taught as a book to be accepted on faith whereas faith has no place in science. If Creationism were introduced into science courses in the way that I propose, I would bet that the Creationists would be the ones arguing loudly that it should be taught separately from science and the scientists would argue just as strongly to have it included.