The Challenge of Creationist Thinking

How religious doctrine threatens science education

   By Dr. William Thwaites   

I just recently have moved to Oregon from southern California, the home of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). The various "scientists" who labor at ICR were trained at universities such as Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, Pennsylvania State University and others of a similar secular nature where real science is presumably taught.

Nevertheless, the scientists of ICR have pledged that they will never waver from believing that the Earth and the Universe were created in six ordinary 24-hour days not more than about 10,000 years ago. They also have sworn that they believe that all the Earth's organisms that ever lived anywhere were created in one place during that same six day period, that there was one worldwide Flood that caused the extinction of many species, not including people, and that the Flood was created as a punishment for people who turned away from a belief in God, and that all survivors of the Flood rode it out on board one boat that landed on Mt. Ararat in what is now Turkey. Their pledge is not conditional upon future "research" findings. No finding, properly interpreted, could possibly conflict with world history as described in the book of Genesis.

Some of the "scientists" who work at ICR are excellent debaters and they travel to campuses all over the world defeating academic scientists who are foolish enough to accept the debate challenge. Those at ICR who may not fare so well on the debate circuit hold rallies, give talks to packed churches, lead popular trips to geologic wonders, write books and tracts on creationism, write scripts for creationist videos, and otherwise spread the word of how vital creationist belief is for saving the world from the sin and corruption that evolutionary thinking promotes.

My career as an anticreationist began in 1976 when I witnessed two of my colleagues at San Diego State University go down to an ignominious defeat at the hands of two of ICR's top debaters. I took my colleagues' defeat as an embarrassment for academia in general and for San Diego State in particular. Clearly SDSU had to take the lead in challenging the "science" coming out of ICR and other creationist organizations.

The following year, another member of our department, Dr. Frank Awbrey, and I foolishly accepted a debate with the same team from ICR that had so soundly trounced our team the year before. I guess we lost too. The audience apparently consisted of better than 90 percent bused-in fundamentalist biblical literalist evangelicals. (They never seem satisfied with the descriptive terms I use, so I'll use all that I know of.)

Even though we lost, a solid year of preparation brought us up to speed on the myriads of zany arguments twentieth century creationists employ in defense of their peculiar view of Genesis as a science text. Not wanting to waste all of the time we had spent researching creationist claims, we instituted a course at SDSU in which we invited creationists to come and try their best to convince our students of the validity of their claims. On weeks not filled with creationist rhetoric, we would tell the students what was wrong with the previous creationist's arguments and where in the library we had gone to expose their mistakes.

During the heyday of our creation vs. evolution course, we probably got to know more creationists on a personal basis than any other secular scientists in the world. In the last decade we have had a lot less personal contact with them, but we do have an understanding of their motivation that most scientists lack.

Most of our colleagues think of creationists as a bunch of charlatans who are out to make a quick buck. We don't actually know of any who fit this description, although we often had the same first impression.

Most of our academic colleagues also think that creationism has been defeated both in the courts and in the Vatican as well. The days of fighting creationism are over as far as they are concerned. And while it may be that the Roman Catholic Church has dropped its opposition to evolution, the overall situation is actually getting worse.

Consider the following survey for example:
A recent polling of 129 future elementary and 89 future high school teachers found that only 8% of both groups could accurately define the modern theory of evolution. Sixty-four percent of the elementary group thought that creationism should be included in science texts as an alternative scientific theory for the origin of species. Forty-five percent of future high school teachers concurred.

Sixty-one percent of the elementary sample thought that teaching concepts in science that rely purely on naturalistic explanations would lead to a decay of American society. A slightly more encouraging result of the study showed that only 12 percent of the high-school teaching group agreed with the elementary education students.

Admittedly 129 elementary education students, all at one Midwestern university, is not a very large sample. But the responses to questions about including creationism in science classes and the harm of teaching natural explanations for scientific observations is so far from ideal as to be extremely alarming. After all, it is elementary teachers who first expose the next generation to science. They are supposed to show the value of explaining things rationally and teach that finding rational natural explanations for things is what science is all about. But in reality a majority of elementary science teachers and an unacceptably large proportion of secondary teachers not only fail to understand science, they are positively frightened by it.

So what are we to do about this? I think that part of the solution can be found in the questions that were asked of the teachers-in-training.

Let's look at some of them:
(1) Do you believe in Darwin's theory of evolution?

     Elementary (%) Secondary (%)
Yes      43                79
No      57                21

(2) If Darwin's theory of evolution is taught in public schools, should other views (including the divine origin of life through special creation) be taught too?

     Elementary (%) Secondary (%)
Yes      88                63
No      12                37

(3) Do you believe that the teaching of concepts which rely on a purely naturalistic explanation of the world, such as that used in the Modern Theory of Evolution, might eventually lead to a decay of American society?

     Elementary (%) Secondary (%)
Yes      61                12
No      39                88

So the strange views of how science works seem to be related to the topic of evolution. The results of the survey might have been quite different had the questions been about science in general rather than about evolution. It is in the area of evolution where ignorance and fear run rampant. For the past three decades the ICR and dozens of similar creationist organizations have been trying to frighten the public about the supposed harmful effects of teaching evolution. Ironically the "harmful effects" they have observed occurred during a time when virtually no evolution was being taught in either the public schools or the universities. Analyses of public school texts have shown that serious treatment of evolution virtually stopped after the Scopes trial in the 1920s. Only in the past four or five years has evolution regained some of the attention it deserves as the underlying principal of the biological sciences.

Even so, the censorship of the past 70 years still exerts a powerful effect. For the most part, coverage of the evidence for evolution is just an expansion of the old censored versions. The evidence cited for "evolution" is evidence for natural selection as the principal cause of evolution. Virtually no evidence is given to show that biological changes have occurred during the course of geologic history. Most texts, even now, devote little attention to the mountains of evidence that show the change of species through time. This evidence demonstrates that biologic change over geologic time is an observation that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection explains.

Even the best of contemporary texts fail to show that biological change during the course of Earth's history was well known before Darwin was born. These biological changes were known as "faunal succession" by the animal chauvinists of the 18th century. Apparently floral succession, though also observed, was not worthy of mention.

The evidence for faunal succession is straight forward and is easy to comprehend. First there is the principal of "superposition," i.e. newer geological layers occur on top of older layers. (Hardly a surprise!) Next an understanding of superposition leads to the observation that the oldest fossil-containing layers contain traces of organisms that are different from the contemporary mix of organisms. If one follows individual species of fossils, "faunal succession" is observed. Species somehow come into existence, stick around for millions of years and then go extinct. Meanwhile newer species come on line, so to speak, to fill the ecological vacancies created by previous extinctions.

This simple observation of the fossil record demonstrates the very thing that creationists are successfully denying, i.e. that change has occurred and that no modern species was present shortly after the formation of our planet. Change of biological forms in the course of the Earth's history is what most people would call "evolution." In other words a simple observation of the fossil record, taken as a whole, shows that evolution has indeed taken place. In the eighteenth century, evolution (or faunal succession) was explained by assuming a whole series of divine creations on the various continents, not a single creation in one place. What today's creationists are saying would have been laughed at even by 18th century creationists. It is only in a climate of fear and ignorance of 17th and 18th century paleontological findings that the absurd claims of 20th century creationists can have any credence whatsoever.

I'm quite sure that if the public were aware that biological change over geologic time is a simple observation, the fundamentalists among them would find a way to accommodate this undeniable fact without changing their faith in biblical literalism one iota. After all, the Bible is clearly based on a flat/stationary Earth world view. But biblical literalists have no trouble in believing biblical passages while simultaneously accepting a round/spinning model of the Earth. They would have even less trouble accepting Biblical literalism and evolutionary change if only organizations such as ICR would stop reminding them that there is conflict between biblical literalism and evolution.

As I see it, the hope for the future is that science and a love of rational natural explanations can be taught without interference from the fundamentalists. If this love can find fertile ground in even a tiny additional percentage of the electorate, then maybe, just maybe, rational people could talk the rest of the world out of the next war, holocaust, or holy crusade to kill already-born fellow human beings. At the very least we could hope that the United States would not be completely overtaken and pushed into perpetual poverty by countries less superstitious and ignorant than we.

So get out there and support the National Center for Science Education. And check out a few biology texts. If they don't say that evolutionary change is an observation and that natural selection is a theory that can explain it, dump them and keep looking for one that does - perhaps the latest version of Modern Biology from Holt, Rinehart and Winston - if they didn't edit out my paleontology coverage in the evolution unit.

Introducing Dr. William Thwaites

Dr. William Thwaites will be the featured speaker at the Oregonians for Rationality winter meeting in Salem on January 23. Thwaites is an outspoken defender of evolution and a staunch advocate for maintaining high scientific standards in science education. He has been at the forefront of the Creation/Evolution controversy for nearly 20 years and has studied both the arguments of creationists and the creationists themselves. He helped found the journal Creation/Evolution, published by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), to assist debaters, teachers and others who must confront creationists' claims; and is a regular contributor to this and other NCSE publications. He has been a frequent and successful debater for NCSE, becoming one of "the world's foremost experts on Southern California creationists."

In the Winter 1993 issue of Creation/Evolution, Thwaites and his colleague Frank Awbrey, both biologists at San Diego State University, outlined why they no longer participate in debates: "The debates are creationist affairs," they write. The audiences are packed with creationists bused in from nearby churches, and the debates are usually conducted under creationists' terms. Since creationism is Biblical Creationism, Thwaites and Awbrey found the debates played into and promoted the creationists' charade that creationism is scientific.

As a professor of biology at San Diego State University (SDSU), Thwaites co-taught a popular Creation/Evolution "two model" class with "creation scientist" and debater Duane Gish and other creationist celebrities from the nearby Institute for Creation Research. Discussing their experiences in this class, Thwaites and Awbrey wrote (Creation/Evolution, 1993 13(2):2) :

The creationists who came to our class would pretend to be mainline scientists while they were with us. "Noah's Flood, you ask? I didn't come here to lead a Sunday school class. I'm here to talk about geology," one would say.

Often they would duck all questions relating to creationism by asserting, "That's a question about Biblical Creationism. I'm here to discuss Scientific Creationism." Sometimes students would even ask us if we thought a particular guest was really a creationist. Clearly it was time to start using written and recorded creationist propaganda rather than live creationists.

In their books, tapes and records creationists show their true colors. In these media they are talking to the public. In their public statements the flood was Noah's Flood ... and evolution is inspired by Satan and the root cause of all social ills.

Thwaites received his BS in zoology from the University of Wisconsin and his MS and PhD in genetics from the University of Michigan. He has recently retired from thirty years of teaching and research at SDSU's Department of Biology and is now building a house at Cape Mears near Tillamook, Oregon. He continues to write and review biology textbooks for junior high and high school levels.
"If there is ever going to be a solution to creationism's silliness, the rest of us must learn about creationists and why they behave the way they do," writes Thwaites. The title of his talk is "Creationists' Positions and Tactics" or "Won't the Creationists Ever Give Up?"

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