Creationism is the belief that human beings, the planet Earth and the universe were created by God. Sometimes this belief is expressed in parallel with the claim that the book of Genesis is true in some or all of its claims in such a way that can be verified through science, a view called "scientific creationism" by its advocates in the United States of America. Many who subscribe to creationism see it as irreconcilable with evolution, and often end up denying that evolution took place (but see also progressive creationism). Young earth creationists, for instance, believe that the Earth is between six and ten thousand years old, when science states that it is about 4.55 billion years old. Creationism, at least in the form of young earth creationism, is considered by many in the scientific community to be pseudoscience.
Types of creationism
Among Christians, creationists are divided into two main groups, based on a disagreement over the age of the earth. Young earth creationists, comprising about 40% of Americans, maintain that God created everything less than 10,000 years ago. Old Earth creationists accept the age figures supplied by astronomers and geologists.
Eugenie C. Scott of the NCSE places a variety of different beliefs along a line between creationism and evolutionary beliefs: flat earthism, geocentrism, young earth creationism, old earth creationism, gap creationism, day-age creationism, progressive creationism, intelligent design, theistic evolution and materialistic evolution (the latter being on the evolution side of the divide). While advocates of intelligent design disagree with Scott's characterization, the U.S. District Court in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005) agreed with Scott, the NCSE and the plaintiffs that intelligent design's religious nature "would be readily observable to an objective observer" and that the "evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism", "a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory".
In the current day creationism of the intelligent design variety, a lot of these boundaries are blurred or not specified and positions on topics like the age of the earth are often not specified in order to try and build a 'big tent' coalition.
The Omphalos argument, an idea put forward in 1857 by Philip Henry Gosse, is an interesting variation on young earth beliefs. Gosse put forward the idea that the history as revealed by geology is only apparent. God created the Earth with the appearance of an old earth, despite it being young, as per the Bible.
The creationist chronology was originally developed in 17th century England by Archbishop James Ussher, an Anglican, in 1651. Ussher calculated, using the chronologies given in the books of the Bible, that the first day of creation occurred on October 23, 4004 BC. His chronology appeared in the margins of English Bibles starting in 1701; however, the year 4004 BC was already well known among theologians.
The Biblical story was not a contentious issue until the 19th century, when theologians started reinterpreting the Bible as a historical document (rather than divine revelation), and geologists such as James Hutton and Charles Lyell developed evidence, based on their analysis of geological processes and formations, the earth was not a few thousand years old but, in fact, several millions of years old. Lyell developed his theory of Uniformitarianism because his teacher, William Buckland, was trying to use the then-established theory of Catastrophism as evidence for the Noahic flood.
The appearance of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 and the associated Theory of Evolution, provided evidence that life was much older than 6,000 years. Nevertheless, Darwin on pages 16-17 of the book spoke favorably of an alternative theory, parent species, in contrast to his own belief in a common ancestor:
"When we attempt to estimate the amount of structural difference between the domestic races of the same species, we are soon involved in doubt, from not knowing whether they have descended from one or several parent-species. This point, if it could be cleared up, would be interesting; if, for instance, it could be shown that the greyhound, bloodhound, terrier, spaniel, and bull-dog, which we all know propagate their kind so truly, were the offspring of any single species, then such facts would have great weight in making us doubt about the immutability of the many very closely allied and natural species—for instance, of the many foxes—inhabiting different quarters of the world. I do not believe, as we shall presently see, that all our dogs have descended from any one wild species; but, in the case of some other domestic races, there is presumptive, or even strong, evidence in favour of this view."
The Scopes trial
By 1910 a new theology of "fundamentalism" had emerged among conservative Protestants, especially in the Southern Baptist church in the U.S. The theory of evolution had no role for God, and fundamentalists saw this as a threat to their core beliefs, and launched a crusade in the 1920s to stop the teaching of evolution, a crusade that continues into the 21st century. They revived the 4004 BC dating and organized political opposition to the teaching of Darwinism in the public schools. The Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, in 1925 and was seen as a watershed event in the creation-evolution controversy. A law passed in March 1925 in Tennessee made it unlawful for any teacher in any of the public schools of the state to teach any theory that "denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began a campaign to challenge this law and sought someone who would be prepared to admit to teaching evolution in a state school and stand trial so that the law could be challenged in court. John T. Scopes volunteered to play that part. William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential nominee dominated the prosecution, while famed criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow dominated the defense. Reporters from across the world covered the sensational trial, especially when Darrow made Bryan a witness and questioned him about Biblical stories, such as Jonah and the whale. Although Scopes lost the trial (his conviction was reversed), the resulting publicity brought the issue to the forefront of the minds of the American people and fundamentalists saw it as a humiliating set-back for their crusade against modernity, much of this due to the acerbic commentary and coverage of H. L. Mencken.
The Scopes trial would later be parodied - Bryan, Mencken and all - on the Broadway stage, and then on screen, in Inherit the Wind, although at the time the play was intended as a critical reaction to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The rise of "scientific creationism"
During the Scopes era, creationism was not a movement that used the word "scientific" a great deal - as Ronald Numbers points out, most creationists were professional figures like doctors, clergymen and lawyers, but after the Scopes trial, creationism changed into a new movement called scientific creationism or Creation Science. It is called scientific creationism not because the scientific mainstream took them seriously, but because they put their position in scientific terms. Instead of mention of God, they put forward a group of claims. The Arkansas creationism law in 1981 defined creation science as follows:
Creation-science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate: (1) Sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing; (2) The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism; (3) Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals; (4) Separate ancestry for man and apes; (5) Explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood; and (6) A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.
This followed the work of scientific creationists starting in the 1960s. Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications in 1961, marking a culmination in creation science. There were organisations set up too: the Creation Research Society, the Institute for Creation Research. Numbers has traced many of the early scientific creationist organisations back to Seventh-Day Adventism.
The scientific creationists tried to push for legislation for "equal time" - in Arkanas in 1981, the state legislature passed Act 590, which mandated a balanced approach with evolution sharing classroom time with creation science (as defined above). This was challenged in court by the ACLU, with many scientists, theologians and philosophers testifying in the case of McLean v. Arkansas, including Stephen Jay Gould, Michael Ruse and Langdon Gilkey for the plaintiffs. In 1982, Justice William R. Overton ordered that the teaching of creationism under Act 590 be stopped, as it conflicts with the protections of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
A key component of the decision in McLean and subsequent trials is the question of whether creationism falls within the realm of science. Creationists claim that they are engaging in a scientific process, and some later advocates of intelligent design argue that the definition of what counts as science is a demarcation line that is drawn arbitrarily, by scientists in order to protect their turf and their atheistic or naturalistic metaphysical assumptions - and that creationism is ruled out of science simply because of this dogmatic assumption of naturalism rather than because of an evidential shortcoming. These kinds of questions about the demarcation of science and non-science are usually discussed by philosophers under the label of the demarcation problem.
Judge Overton in ruling against the Arkansas law requiring "equal time" for creationism and evolution explained that the law was unconstitutional as creationism is not science. He used five essential characteristics of science, derived from the testimony of Michael Ruse and other expert witnesses.
- it is guided by natural law
- it has to be explanatory by reference to natural law
- it is testable by reference to natural law
- its conclusions are tentative, i.e., are not necessarily the final word
- it is falsifiable
Overton cited Duane Gish and Henry Morris to argue that creationism does not meet the stated criteria, especially on the grounds that they are not tentative: no evidence can be presented that would invalidate reference to the Creator and Biblical revelation.
Laudan argues that though Overton's verdict is "probably to be commended, it was reached for all the wrong reasons and by a chain of argument which is hopelessly suspect". He argues that some aspects of creationism can be tested and falsified: if a theory contains empirical content, it can be tested and possibly falsified. He argues that for most of the claims Overton makes of creationism are true for sciences we easily accept as science: not all aspects of physics can be tested in the same way creationism is required to be testable. Some aspects of creationism aren't falsifiable, but so are some aspects of some scientific practices. That creationists a dogmatic is an ad hominem: the law would have required creationism be taught, not that creationists would be doing the teaching.
The intelligent design movement
After the defeat in McLean, creationism regrouped under the label intelligent design. The father of this grouping is most commonly assumed to be the University of California at Berkeley retired law professor Phillip E. Johnson. The story goes that he was spending a year in London on a sabbatical, walked past a bookshop and saw Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis in the window, bought both and then had an epiphany that he should become a critic of evolution. In 1991, Johnson published Darwin on Trial.
Creationism in other religions
Although creationism is often considered to be primarily Christian - and of a fundamentalist, evangelical subset - creationist advocates have appeared in the other monotheistic religions, and even in Hinduism.
In Turkey, a creationist publishing enterprise is doing extremely well, with many books being distributed under the pen-name of Harun Yahya, a pseudonym of Adnan Oktar, who provides an Islamic version of old earth creationism. A recent publication, The Atlas of Creation was distributed across Europe to schools and to scientists and academics.
Some in the Hare Krishna movement dispute evolution, claiming instead that human beings are 'devolved' forms of Krishna (God), and are getting more and more devolved as time goes on.
Creationists make a variety of claims, both positive and negative, regarding the sciences of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, genetics, ecology, and some areas of the study of complexity and information which are broadly mathematical and computational in disciplinary origin, as well claims about the philosophical underpinnings of science and knowledge, the relationship between science and ethics, the history of science, ideas and particular scientists, and some claims about the Bible (or other religious texts), religion and theology.
Some creationist claims point to the personal opinions or states of mind of proponents of evolution: pointing out the racism of Thomas Henry Huxley and Charles Darwin (or the subtitle of The Origin of Species containing reference to "the preservation of favoured races"), or that Darwin suffered from some kind of psychotic neurosis. None of these make evolution false. Nor does the claim of a chain of influence linking Darwin's scientific work and the political movements of Nazism or Stalinism make the scientific work false.
Regarding biology, some creationists claim that evolution is a form of abiogenesis that was shown to be false by Louis Pasteur. Pasteur showed that this does not happen: if you leave a piece of meat, it doesn't generate flies or maggots - this can be shown by simply sealing the meat in a box that is not exposed to the elements and then observing to see if the lifeforms you expected to be generated are. Evolutionary theory requires some kind of abiogenetic event - life must come from somewhere - but that's not the claim that it happens everywhere. Divine creation theories also posit an abiogenetic event - the Creation.
A fairly central creationist slogan is the idea that while microevolution - which is often defined as evolution within a 'kind' - has been observed, macroevolution, or evolution that goes beyond the limits of a particular kind, has not been observed. Sometimes macroevolution means something like 'unobserved large change', but if the change is defined as being unobserved, that rather begs the question. In as much as the creationist category of macroevolution overlaps with the scientific conception of macroevolution, they are arguing against a phenomena which has been observed by scientists.
Intelligent design creationists claim that some biological systems exhibit irreducible complexity - that is, there are systems within the organism that are complex and fragile: if you remove one of the steps of the process or system, the system ceases functioning. The claim made is this: evolution cannot construct these systems since each evolutionary change must increase reproductive fitness, but if the system does not function at all, it serves no purpose. Those who make this argument, like Lehigh University professor Michael Behe, provide some examples of irreducible complexity: the bacterial flagella, the blood clotting system, protein transport within the cell, the immune system and the metabolic pathway used for synthesis of AMP. This claim mirrors earlier creationist claims about the implausibility of complex organs evolving, usually with reference to the eye, the ear, the brain or sometimes wings. The creationist would question what use half an eye or wing or ear is. The answer, as Richard Dawkins put it, is a lot more use than no eye or wing at all. A primitive eye or light-sensitive patch can enable an organism to get some small amount of information input about the world around them. We can see this with animals: pet dogs have eyes that are much less developed than human eyes, but they still make use of them. A creature with a primitive eye (or other sense organ) is more likely to reproduce than one without.
In response to the irreducible complexity claim, a number of arguments can be advanced to show possible evolutionary pathways that can lead to adaptive but irreducibly complex systems - firstly, by pointing to a form which exhibited redundancy, then show an evolutionary trade-off which made the system lose the redundancy it has. Secondly, one can show how each piece can have some function, possibly one tied to an earlier way in which the process operated. Thirdly, one can point to a formerly-existing 'scaffold' around the system—the system evolved with the scaffolding in place, which itself could serve some other function, but then shed the scaffold.
Michael Behe backs up his claim that some systems exhibit irreducible complexity by arguing that no detailed evolutionary pathways have been demonstrated in detail in the scientific literature. This has been disputed by others, and a large stack of papers were presented to Behe in the courtroom during the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial which conflict with his claim that science has been silent on the topic.
The positive claims of creationists are dependent on both the rhetorical strategy used and their theological underpinnings. On the Intelligent Design end of the scale, few positive claims are made beyond the existence of a Designer, who may or may not be God, and that science as they understand it points to that designer, either positively or as the only explanatory framework that makes sense of the world. More traditional creationists like those affiliated with the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis adhere to a form of Christian fundamentalism that sees the Book of Genesis to be literally true, along with some form of young earth. As it relates to evolution, this also means that they believe in the story of Noah and the worldwide Flood. Critics of creationism have brought up a number of issues related to the Flood: how do species get distributed geographically after the Flood? How do current minor variations actually happen? Even granting the creationist claim that rather than two of each species being taken on the Ark in favour of two of each kind, and the claim that macroevolution doesn't happen (instead, only microevolution within a kind), the sheer amount of evolution that has got to happen within only a few thousand years is staggering - to that extent, paradoxically, creationists who subscribe to these premises are sometimes amusingly criticised for believing in more evolution than evolutionists do!
Reaction from scientists
Scientists, including many scientific organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, think creation science is pseudoscience, pointing to the wide acceptance of evolution within the scientific community, and the deceptive language used by creationists. The 2006 AAAS statement on the teaching of evolution states:
Evolution is one of the most robust and widely accepted principles of modern science. It is the foundation for research in a wide array of scientific fields and, accordingly, a core element in science education... Some bills seek to discredit evolution by emphasizing so-called "flaws" in the theory of evolution or "disagreements" within the scientific community. Others insist that teachers have absolute freedom within their classrooms and cannot be disciplined for teaching non-scientific "alternatives"" to evolution. A number of bills require that students be taught to "critically analyze" evolution or to understand "the controversy." But there is no significant controversy within the scientifc community about the validity of the theory of evolution. The current controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution is not a scientific one.
Scientists differ on their approach to the question of whether or not it is productive to engage in debates with creationists. Professors Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould published a letter together explaining their reasoning for not debating creationists. The reason they give is that prominent biologists debating with creationists only affords them respectability which they do not deserve, and they quote Phillip E. Johnson's reporting of the debate between Jonathan Wells and Stephen Palumbi, which shows that Johnson considers creationists getting on stage with scientists to be a measure of success.
Eugenie C. Scott of the National Centre for Science Education says that she refuses to debate creationists in formal live debates, as the terms are set by creationists, but has no problem with appearing in fora where 'point-counterpoint' is possible, like television and radio, and counsels readers to debate only if they are confident that they will "do no evil".
- Chris Stassen, The Age of the Earth, Talk.Origins Archive
- Gallup, Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent Design.
- Eugenie C. Scott, The Creation/Evolution Continuum, National Center for Science Education
- J. G. C. M. Fuller, "A date to remember: 4004 BC," Earth sciences history 2005, vol. 24, no1, pp. 5-14
- "Uniformitarianism: Charles Lyell." Understanding Evolution. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 10 March 2011 <http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/_0_0/history_12>.
- Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species, pp. 16-17.
- Numbers (2006)
- Larson (2006); Douglas O. Linder, State v. John Scopes ("The Monkey Trial")
- Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, p.7; Frederick Edwords (1994), Dealing With "Scientific" Creationists, Internet Infidels
- McClean v. Arkansas Board of Education Decision by U.S. District Court Judge William R. Overton
- Barbara Forrest, "The Wedge at Work: How Intelligent Design Creationism Is Wedging Its Way Into the Cultural and Academic Mainstream", in Intelligent Design Creationism And Its Critics and online at Internet Infidels
- Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box, 1996, The Free Press.
- Sarah Probst, Through the Eyes of Your Canine, University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine
- Pete Dunkelberg, Irreducible Complexity Demystified, TalkOrigins Archive, 2003
- John Catalano, Publish or Perish: Some Published Works on Biochemical Evolution, TalkOrigins Archive
- American Associaton for the Advancement of Science, AAAS Resolution: Statement on the Teaching of Evolution, February 16, 2006
- American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS Resolution: Present Scientific Status of the Theory of Evolution, December 26, 1922
- American Assocation for the Advancement of Science, Resolutions related to: Evolution and Creationism Debate
- In Richard Dawkins, A Devil's Chaplain, ch. 5.5, which contains material from "Why I Won't Debate Creationists", Free Inquiry 23 (1), p. 12-14, available online here
- Eugenie C. Scott, Debates and the Globetrotters, 1994