Opinion

Creationists have gotten clever, but there's still no debate over evolution

Creationists and intelligent design proponents have gotten clever. Instead of pushing for creationism to be taught in science classes, they're merely asking that schools fairly present 'the scientific evidence' against evolution. The only problem? There isn't any.

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As 2011 gets under way, those who care about the integrity of science education are bracing for the latest round of state legislation aimed at undermining the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Every year, a host of these bills are filed across the country. In 2008, one was passed in Louisiana, despite protests from scientists and educators. In Oklahoma, State Senator Josh Brecheen (R) has vowed to introduce a bill in the coming legislative session that requires schools to teach "all the facts" on the so-called fallacies of evolution.

The tactics of creationists have evolved since 1925, when Tennessee’s Butler Act forbade the teaching of evolution, and high school biology teacher John Scopes was put on trial for doing so. (Creationists believe that God created the physical universe and all organisms according to the account in Genesis, denying the evolution of species.)

But creationists’ tactics have also evolved since 2005, when a federal court in Pennsylvania established that teaching intelligent design (ID) in public schools is unconstitutional. The judge in the case ruled, "ID is not science" and derives instead from "religious strategies that evolved from earlier forms of creationism." (Intelligent design holds that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.")

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The favored strategy of intelligent design proponents and creationists now is to try to undermine the teaching of evolution by arguing that “evidence against evolution” should be taught, in order to foster a spirit of critical inquiry among students. Arguing that students ought to be exposed to an alleged scientific debate over evolution, intelligent design proponents call for a radical rewriting of textbooks and curricula.

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The new strategy is craftier – but just as bogus.

No debate on evolution

Despite the constant claims of creationists to the contrary, there simply is no debate among scientists about the validity of evolution. If you search research journals and attend scientific conferences, it becomes readily apparent that while there are controversies over the details of evolution, there is no controversy about the basic fact that living things have descended with modification from a common ancestry. Scientists argue how evolution happened, not whether evolution happened.

This doesn’t stop creationists from imagining they can conjure a debate by repeating the claim that there is evidence against evolution. Intelligent design advocates claim they aren’t asking public schools to teach creationism, just the “scientific debate over Darwinian evolution.” The problem, again, is that there is no debate to teach. The National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most prestigious scientific organization, emphasizes, “There is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution.”

If there were credible scientific evidence against evolution, scientists would be the first to discover it, the first to publish it in peer-reviewed journals, and the first to debate its validity and importance. After all, discovering credible scientific evidence against evolution would be a revolutionary accomplishment, worthy of a Nobel Prize. That’s why accusations from creationists and intelligent design advocates that scientists are conspiring to suppress evidence against evolution are, to put it mildly, silly.

Creationists are cutting in line

Because scientists are not debating evolution, it is wrong to teach students otherwise. In public school science classes and textbooks, the basic methods and results of the mainstream scientific consensus are presented – not untested fringe ideas, not speculations, but information fully supported by evidence. By demanding to cut in line, creationists ask to bypass the normal process of verifying scientific claims. They try to misuse public resources to foist their scientifically unwarranted denial of evolution on a captive student audience, and to force their culture war into America’s classrooms.

What creationists regard as “scientific evidence” against evolution is really a collection of debunked claims circulating and persisting like urban legends. For example, from the Scopes era to today, creationists have eagerly cited the so-called Cambrian explosion, a 10-million-year period about 530 million years ago when fossils record a blossoming of animal life. Creationists claim that the standard model of evolutionary change is incapable of explaining how so many new kinds of animals could have flourished so quickly.

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As Mr. Brecheen, the Oklahoma state senator, recently garbled it, “The main fallacy with Darwinian theory is the sudden appearance at about 540 million years [ago] of fossil records.” (In fact, the earliest fossils were formed about three billion years earlier than that.) The Cambrian explosion, he wrote, “debunks the tree of life” – a view not shared by practicing paleontologists.

Selective quotes from real scientists

Lacking any substantive evidence to make their case, creationists offer a few selective quotes from real scientists to give their arguments authority. For example, noted National Institutes of Health evolutionary biologist Eugene V. Koonin was recently quoted by a program officer with the leading intelligent design organization (The Discovery Institute) as saying that the modern synthesis of evolution has “crumbled, apparently, beyond repair.” The implication was that Mr. Koonin would agree that there is a scientific debate over evolution that deserves to be taught in the schools.

But when I talked to Koonin, he told me this interpretation was simply wrong. Creationists, he said, “delight in claiming that whenever any aspect of ‘(neo)Darwinism’ is considered obsolete, evolution is denied. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Koonin explained that what is “crumbling” in his view is a half-century-old approach to thinking about evolution. Modern evolutionary theory is “a much broader, richer and ultimately more satisfactory constellation of data, concepts, and ideas.” Evolution is alive and well, while creationist understanding of it is apparently stuck in the Eisenhower era.

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Whether by banning the teaching of evolution, or requiring the teaching of creation science or intelligent design, or encouraging the teaching of long-ago-debunked misrepresentations of evolution, creationist proposals are bad science, bad pedagogy, and bad policy. Instead of proposing scientifically illiterate and educationally harmful measures, state legislatures – and other policy-makers – should help students learn about evolution. As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said – and as Eugene Koonin explicitly agreed – “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Steven Newton is programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit defending the teaching of evolution in public schools.

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