Dr. Massimo Pigliucci University of Tennessee
Creationism vs. Evolution: The Twin
Dangers of Religious and Scientific Fundamentalism
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci (pronounced MAH-see-mo Pill-YOO-chee, or at least
he says that's pretty close) holds degrees in genetics from the University
(Italy) and in botany from the University of Connecticut. He's published numerous papers and co-authored the technical books Phenotypic Evolution and the soon-to-be released Beyond Nature vs. Nurture. He's currently an Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
In addition to his scientific achievements, Dr. Pigliucci is active
in the creation/evolution debate. He's lectured across America on
the topic and has debated the creationists Duane Gish, Kent Hovind, and
Charles Liebert, as well as Christian theologian William Craig. He
is active with the Rationalists of East Tennessee and maintains his own
Skeptic and Humanist website. Dr. Pigliucci has written articles
for the magazines Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, and has just published
a collection of essays and personal accounts under the title Tales of the
Rational, published by Freethought Press, Atlanta. You can purchase
the book by sending $20 check or money order (which includes shipping and
Atlanta Freethought Society
P.O. Box 813392
Smyrna, GA 30081-3392
Throughout the 20th century there has been an ongoing battle for the minds
of Americans. This battle, which doesn t seem to be nearing an end at the
dawn of the 21st century, sees the opposition of Christian religious fundamentalism versus modern evolutionary biology. More in general, the problem is the result of complex social and psychological phenomena, ranging from the excess of scientism to the many forms of anti-intellectualism. This essay aims at the following goals:
(i) to investigate the roots of the conflict;
(ii) to enumerate egregious mistakes and logical fallacies being committed by both sides; and (iii) to propose how biologists and educators should approach the problem depending on the kind of audience they face.
My overall thesis is that this sorry state of affairs is derived
at least in part from the confluence of two distinct problems,
one on the fundamentalist
side, the other affecting scientists and how they relate to the public. The first component is reducible to a widespread anti-intellectual sentiment that characterizes the American public at large (in contrast, for example, with the situation in most European countries). The roots of anti-intellectualism in America run deep and have been the object of several studies. The following is based mostly on the work of Richard Hofstadter and of Daniel Rigney (Rigney 1991).
There are essentially five forms of anti-intellectualism, which I shall
briefly discuss in turn. First, anti-rationalism. This is connected
to religious fundamentalism, and it is the idea that reason is cold and
dull, and that skeptical inquiry threatens authority (usually, of the Church).
At the base of this kind of anti-intellectualism is a fear of moral relativism,
which in turn really is the fear that one s absolute morals are no better
than anyone else s. Second, anti-elitism, the idea that intellectual
activities are undemocratic. This is a populist political ideology and
it is rooted in the special American concept of democracy, which is much
broader than the European one. In Europe, people living in democracies have little problem accepting the idea of intellectual hierarchies based on knowledge and skill. Third, unreflective instrumentalism, the concept that thought has no value unless it is of practical importance, which yields a disdain for theoretical inquiry and for intellectual pursuit for its own sake. This attitude is rooted in rampant capitalism, where the Protestant work ethics and material success are more esteemed than esoterica. Fourth, unreflective hedonism, that is to say, to think requires hard work, so why bother? The mass media and entertainment industries are the chief
catalysts of this kind of attitude. Most news media essentially provide pre-interpreted information, discouraging independent and complex thinking and leaning instead toward superficial sound bites. To paraphrase Neil Postman, we are a nation that is amusing itself to death (Postman 1994). Finally, we have that recent and very special form of anti-intellectualism known as post-modernism or deconstructionism (imported in the US chiefly from France). This is the idea that all
knowledge is relative, that different cultural traditions are equivalent, and that therefore science should not enjoy any privileged status as a particularly effective method of inquiry. The bizarre thing about this type of anti-intellectualism is that it originates from within, being pushed by the so-called academic left, and flourishing within humanities and social sciences departments throughout the country. Perhaps the best critique of post-modernism ever published was the hoax perpetrated
by physicist Alan Sokal in 1996. He managed to get a paper entitled Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity into a major post-modernist journal, Social Text (Sokal 1996). The problem was that Sokal had made up the entire text of the manuscript out of a senseless sequence of phrases spiced up with impressive-sounding terms borrowed from mathematical theory and quantum mechanics. While a social critique of science is absolutely necessary because science is a human and therefore social activity, the problem with post-modernists seems to be that they literally don t know what they are talking about.
All of these anti-intellectual currents (and I am not suggesting that these
are organized in a nationwide conspiracy, though clearly at least religious
fundamentalists and left wing academics are independently rather well organized
and the same may be said for corporate America) converge on the attack
against public schools that has been mounting for some time. Religious
fundamentalists think that public schools indoctrinate children
in the religion of materialism or secular humanism. Populists
see book learning as elitist. Social development (feeling good about oneself
and relating to others) is considered the most important objective of schools,
which supersedes the acquisition of critical thinking skills and of basic
knowledge. And corporate America would rather push for more vocational
schools so that the new labor force is ready to be exploited as soon as
they get out of high school or college. All this amounts to radical criticism
of already poorly funded public schools and to a strong push for public
funding of private (i.e., mostly religious) schools. The entire public
in this country could collapse as a result, with very dire consequences for the future of the United States.
The second component of the creation-evolution problem, in my judgment,
is the attitude that at least some scientists take when it comes to
popularizing their findings and the field of scientific inquiry in general. The word "scientism" has been used to refer to two different frames of mind, one of which is in my opinion correct, the other one implying a degree of intellectual arrogance that is unwarranted and dangerous. Scientism can be the idea that science is the most powerful method at our disposal to inquire about reality. I think this is eminently sensible and clearly demonstrated by the innumerable achievements of science
which no other approach to knowledge has been able to compete with even remotely. On the other hand, scientists can succumb to an overreaching attitude characterized by too much confidence in what science can do. Scientism in this second sense is rightly perceived as an arrogant stance which betrays the very ideals of humble inquiry and nature-inspired awe that characterize science at its best.
Scientists should be the first to clearly explain to students and the public
what science is and on what premises it is based. For example, the practice
science is built on several fundamental philosophical assumptions and axioms: realism, the idea that there is a unique and consistent reality out there. Naturalism, the supposition that the universe can be explained entirely in terms of natural phenomena. Occam s Razor, the idea that one should attempt to explain phenomena by recurring to the minimum necessary number of theoretical constructs. And what Michael Shermer calls Hume s dictum (Shermer 1992), a fundamental component of skepticism which requires extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims (i.e., a sliding scale of stringency commensurate to the novelty of the phenomena being studied). Realism and naturalism are, of course, leaps of faith, but very small ones compared to those required by any religion or other method of inquiry proposed so far.
||Scientists are often accused of arrogance and intellectual snobbism. Alas, the accusation is sometimes justified. While it is true that we value intellectual achievement over other kinds, and an argument can be made for the importance of brain power in our society, there are at least two other things to consider. First, no society made of only intellectuals would be able to survive. Second, intellectualism is still a human not a universal value: there is no cosmic reason why smart people should be considered more than any other individual|
Errors of the Creationist Community
Let us now proceed to take a look at some of the major logical fallacies of creationism. This is not intended as a laundry list (which would have to be much longer) but rather as an illustration of the conceptual errors embraced by evolution deniers.
Certainly one of their most widespread and dangerous misunderstandings
is the equation between evolution and immoral behavior. Creationist
publications often show a tree representing evolution and encompassing all sorts of evils from abortion to sex education, from hard rock to genetic engineering. The logic of such comparison is, of course, flawed. While evolutionary theory, especially in the guise of social Darwinism can be (and has been) invoked to justify all sorts of bizarre social and political ideologies, the link is tenuous at best. On similar grounds, one would want to condemn genetics simply because Hitler wished
to implement a eugenic program, or abolish the study of physics because we built the atomic bomb. While scientists are certainly not exempt from moral choices and the responsibilities that come with them, science as an enterprise is indeed morally neutral (a-moral, not immoral). We wish to know about the structure of the atom, and such knowledge is not good or bad per se. It is up to humans (and usually politicians, the military, and religious authorities more than scientists) to decide what to do with that knowledge. As a related point, notice that most of the evils attributed to evolution have actually been around well before Darwin, and cannot therefore be logically blamed on evolutionary theory. Others, such as sex education, moral education, and humanism are hardly evils .
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci (right) with Dr. Kent Hovind, a noted creationist,
just before their May 12, 2000 debate in Roswell, Georgia.
Evolution, contrary to creationists claims, is not a theory in crisis.
Of course there are plenty of areas of active research in evolutionary
there consequently is disagreement among scientists on many specific topics. This, however, does not constitute a crisis. The major (unwilling) culprit here is Stephen J. Gould, who together with Niles Eldredge in 1972 proposed the theory of punctuated equilibria. According to this theory, evolution may occur rapidly around the time of origination of new species (punctuation). After that, not much happens for most of the time (stasis, or equilibrium). While it is true that this theory has
stirred much controversy and very fecund new lines of inquiry, not even Gould himself considers it a challenge to Darwinism, so it is not clear why the creationists would. Notice that the sudden changes theorized by Gould and Eldredge do not happen overnight, but during the course of hundreds of thousands of years. They appear instantaneous only from a geological perspective. It is in the nature of science to proceed by continuous open discussion of new ideas. This does not
mean that every time somebody disagrees we are about to witness a revolution.
Creationists love to say that evolution is just a theory. They
are using the word theory in its vernacular (and diminutive) sense of a
half-baked idea. In science, however, theories are complex and well substantiated explanatory models of major aspects of nature. That does not guarantee that they are correct, but it means that we cannot dismiss them by shrugging our shoulders at them. It is peculiar that nobody refers to the Copernican or relativity theories as just theories.
There are plenty of articles by badly informed mathematicians and statisticians who claim to have demonstrated that the theory of evolution is mathematically impossible. Usually, such demonstrations are based on calculations of how extremely unlikely it is for something as complex as even the simplest living organism to come about by chance. No biologist would ever dispute this. Adaptive evolution (the kind of evolution that produces organisms fit to their environment) is the result of at least two processes: mutations (which are random) and natural selection (which is directional and absolutely non-random). Organisms are indeed designed, but evolutionists maintain that they are designed by natural (not just random) processes. Evolution is NOT analogous to a tornado going through a junkyard and assembling a perfectly functional jumbo jet, as creationists love to say.
Gaps in the fossil record certainly exist. However, they do not negate
the theory of evolution. All a scientific theory needs to be consistent
is the presence of confirmatory evidence and the absence of disproving evidence (that is why scientific conclusions are always tentative). Not a single fossil ever found disproves the theory of evolution, and all of them confirm it. However, this does not mean we have (or will ever have) the complete sequence of all transitional forms among organisms. The point is, we have several, and they are exactly what the theory predicts.
One of the major problems in talking to creationists is that they truly
have an incredibly naïve conception of reality. I am not saying this to
or demean people. I rather consider it a major failure of our educational system. Some of the best examples of such naiveté can be observed in relation to the story of Noah s flood, which Bible literalists maintain is correct in its details. Not only it is very easy to show numerically that the ark (of which we know the alleged size from the Bible) could not possibly hold all known species of organisms. Not only it is unclear where all the fossil species would fit; it is also plainly evident that the
story does not take into account even elementary notions of ecology. For example, how were food chains maintained on the ark? How was the recycling of organic nutrients achieved? Creationists also maintain that the flood created the Grand Canyon in a very short period of time. Never mind that the numbers do not add up and that geologists estimate the age of the Canyon in hundreds of millions of years.
Creationists maintain that living organisms cannot be explained by natural
processes because they are so perfectly designed. Darwin was well aware
this argument, and addressed it expressly by pointing out that organisms are not perfect. Humans, for example, get hemorrhoids and varicose veins, and our babies take about a year to learn how to walk. If an engineer had designed us, she would have easily avoided such problems. The reason they are there is because bipedalism (the ability to walk erect) has evolved very recently in the human lineage (it is not the dominant behavior in closely related primates). Natural
selection has simply not had much time to modify our skeletal system and our developmental machinery to minimize the many problems related to bipedalism. Similarly, the human eye has blind spots, and it suffers from the interference of blood vessels positioned in front of the nervous terminals, which can cause detachment of the retina. Squids, octopuses, and other cephalopod mollusks, have a very similarly constructed eye, but with the blood vessels positioned at the rear of the nervous terminals. Consequently, they do not suffer retinal detachment. Why did God design squids better than humans? The general point is that organisms are indeed designed to fit their environment, but the designer is the slow and inefficient process of natural selection, not an omniscient and omnipotent God. To put it into another fashion, evolution is not the survival of the fittest, but simply the survival of the barely tolerable.
One of the major strengths of modern science is the consilience (convergence)
of its branches. This means that the results of one discipline interlock
and enhance the findings of another. Therefore, by denying evolution, young-Earth creationists (one of many brands of creationism) also reject a variety of other scientific conclusions originating from other disciplines. For example, by insisting on a 6000 years old Earth they deny the conclusion from astronomy that the solar system is 5 billion years old. By refusing to accept that the Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years, they reject modern geology. And by negating that
rocks can accurately be dated by using radioactive decay they throw away physics. Now, it is indeed possible that modern biology, astronomy, geology, and physics are wrong on some or even most accounts. However, before accepting such a sweeping conclusion we have to have a lot of conflicting evidence and a suitable alternative theory. If a single book written by various authors a few thousand years ago provides the evidence, and if the theory proposed as an alternative
reduces to saying God did it, rejection of modern science seems at least premature.
When I say to creationists (and even to some of my friends and colleagues)
that education is not a democratic process, I sense that I hit a sore spot.
undemocratic I mean that education is not about teaching alternative opinions for the sake of variety or representation. It is about teaching the best of what we currently know. The fact that what we now know may turn out to be wrong is just the nature of things. We will change what is taught if and when we will know better. It is interesting to me that American parents do not seem to think twice before questioning what teachers teach their children, as if they knew better. Since teachers are (supposedly) trained for that specific job, it would be like advising a brain surgeon on how to cut your brain if you have no degree in medicine. I doubt that many people would run that risk! But the idea of equal teaching somehow strongly appeals to the American ideal of fairness. After all, what is wrong with teaching alternative theories, if they are out there? The problem is that such practice is very much unfair to our children, unless the two theories are genuine
alternatives being considered by the scientific community. We do not teach creation science (an oxymoron, by the way) for the same reason that we do not teach that the Earth could be round or flat, or that our planet may be traveling around the Sun or vice versa. We do not teach all these things (or creationism) because we know better. Not doing so would be a great disservice to our children.
A recent argument advanced by some creationists is that science is just
another religion, and so it deserves no special status in our educational
This is an interesting twist, because so far the suggestion had been just the opposite: that creationism is science, and therefore it needs to be taught in public schools. The latter is still the position maintained by the Institute for Creation Science. Lawyer Phillip Johnson, on the other hand, has published several books (e.g., Johnson 1997) charging that science is a philosophical position much closer to religion than its practitioners would like to admit. This is simple nonsense which one can easily realize by considering the fact that science is an evidence-based, self-correcting activity, while religion is neither.
Errors of the Scientific Community
Let me now turn to some faux pas that scientists make when confronting
creationists. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but simply a series
of points I
wish some of my colleagues and fellow skeptics would consider more carefully.
One of the specific cases that evolutionary biologists tend to overstate
when confronted by creationists is the one concerning macroevolution. This
is usually defined as evolution above the species level, and it deals with major transitions between types of organisms, or with the origin of so-called phenotypic novelties (i.e., new body structures, such as a four-chambered heart). It is true that biologists are starting to understand at least some macroevolutionary events. For example we now have several intermediate fossils that allow us to trace the evolution of whales from terrestrial ancestors. However, we still know very
little about how these transitions actually occur. We do not have a good knowledge of the genetics of whales, for example, and we understand even less about their developmental systems, the very ones that had to be altered in order to produce the changes that led from terrestrial to marine mammals. Once again, there is no contradiction between this limited knowledge and the theory of evolution, but we do not know even close to what we would like to know on such matters.
Creationist Michael Behe has published a book called Darwin s Black Box
(Behe 1996) in which he restates the old argument from design in terms
modern molecular biology. Biomolecules such as DNA and RNA and biochemical pathways, Behe says, are irreducibly complex. That is, they could not be the result of natural processes and had to be designed. Behe s argument is essentially an argument from ignorance: we don t know how something happens, therefore it must have been God the same reasoning that led ancient Greeks to explain thunder as a change in Zeus mood. It is also true that Darwin s objection to the argument from design holds at the molecular level: biochemical pathways do not seem to be particularly well engineered, and we do have a few well studied cases of intermediate links between different versions of extant pathways showing historical processes at work in shaping them (Miller 1996). However, to shrug off the hole business implying that we know all about the evolution of biochemistry in living organisms is a gross act of intellectual dishonesty.
A favorite topic of creationists is the origin of life, which they ascribe
to miraculous intervention and consider inexplicable by scientific means.
Scientists tend to fall into old clichés when they respond to this challenge,
citing the famous experiments on the so-called primordial soup conducted
by Stanley Miller in the 1950s. Miller s demonstration that it is possible
to obtain some of the building blocks of living organisms by completely
chemical means if given the right conditions indubitably is a good step
in the right direction. But it is a far cry from saying that we know much
about the origin of life. We actually don t, despite plenty of theories
on the subject. This is not surprising, however, given that life originated
almost four billion years ago under conditions that are difficult to define
that the process probably took several million years. It is not only honest to admit this with creationists, it is necessary, since they usually do their homework and they will nail any biologist who will try to bluff her way out of the topic. Instead, we should point out that this is an exciting field for young biologists to get into. For one thing, they can rest assured that should they make any major contribution to it, a very well deserved Nobel prize would soon follow.
||Creationist arguments span the whole of science, not just biology,
and that is why they find some scientists unprepared. An evolutionist does
necessarily know much about the Big Bang, in the same way in which a cosmologist may be at a loss discussing the theory of natural selection. One of the recent challenges of creationists is the anthropic principle, which (in one of its many versions) is the idea that the universe is so fine tuned to sustain life that it must have been designed. The AP is flawed in many respects. For example, it completely reverses the flow of causality, inferring a prime cause (God) based on its latest outcome (humans). Furthermore, it reaches conclusions out of an argument based on the statistical improbability of the known set of physical constants while we only have one universe to study and don t know how improbable the values of such constants really are. However, it is true that physics is only now beginning to understand (with superstrings theory, which is in the process of reconciling quantum mechanics and relativity theory) why the elementary particles have the characteristics that they have. Once again, science is a continuous challenge, and our ignorance justifies neither supernatural nonsense nor intellectual arrogance.
Of course, it is easy enough for creationists to point out that science
has had its share of frauds and hoaxes, the famous Piltdown man (an alleged
The big question facing us given all of the above is: what do we do about
it? I do not think that things are going to dramatically change overnight,
even within my lifetime. It seems to me that all that educators can do is to try to hold their turf and hope to advance by a few percentage points at a time. However, I think it is important to realize that different approaches need to be used with different audiences. Education is a matter of tailoring the explanation of the same oncept to the particular level and needs of the audience one is facing. The theory of relativity is one, but how you explain it to the general public, to high school students, or to graduate students in physics is very different. There are three categories of audiences that evolutionists face, and to which they have to adapt their presentations. The first consists of other scientists and educators. Here the best thing to do is to teach how to teach and to convince people that it is important to go public on science education. Most people in this category do not need to be convinced of the correctness of evolutionary theory (there are exceptions, though). Yet, there is a fundamental difference between knowing something and being able (or willing) to teach or communicate it. Second, the general public. Here we need to convey the idea that science is relevant to everybody, and that literacy in science is of vital importance to everybody. Do not forget that both science and public education are funded by taxpayers, if they don t think science and education deserves money, we will not see any. Third, we have religious fundamentalists. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a waste of time to talk to these people. I know from first-hand experience. But one has to scale down expectations: you are not going to convince anybody overnight (and you wouldn t want to, because she could as easily change her mind back the following morning). But seeds of doubt meant to stimulate critical thinking are very important to plant.
Most importantly, we need to teach good science. This means to convey the
idea that science is an open-ended inquiry, not an exercise in magic in
which only the experts can engage. Science is above all a process, a method for finding things out, not simply a body of knowledge. Therefore, that body of knowledge can change, and this change represents a natural component of scientific progress. Finally, we have seen a lot of emphasis on hands-on education in the classroom. This is indeed important, because science is about doing things with nature. But this is too often accompanied by a minds off attitude. Science requires
serious intellectual exercise, it is interesting, but it is not fun fun fun. We have to train our kids to pay attention, to pose and reflect on what they are doing. Otherwise, scientific education will change from a dry theoretical exercise to an equally empty messing around with the microscope.
Scientists and educators should also take heart in and advantage of the
most recent discoveries concerning the physiology of the human brain. As
summarized in V.S. Ramachandra s Phantoms in the Brain (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998), studies of patients with split brains have allowed us to begin to understand the functions and relative roles of different parts of our brain. The left hemisphere, usually referred to as the rational side, is actually the rationalizing one. It is in charge of holding onto one person s current paradigm and worldview, no matter what the evidence. The left brain will distort or discard facts if they conflict with the currently held viewpoint (sounds familiar?). However, people do change their minds from time to time, and this is accomplished by an interaction between the left brain and the right brain. The right hemisphere, the so-called artistic component of our minds, in fact continuously feeds dissonant information to the other side. When the degree of dissonance reaches a threshold (which is presumably different for different individuals) one experiences a Gestaltian change, the
bandonment of a viewpoint in favor of another. I sincerely hope that every reader has experienced this at least once in her life. This knowledge of brain physiology allows us to better understand how people s minds work and to direct our efforts more toward raising doubts and asking critical questions to stimulate the right brain than to simply give long and convoluted lectures (such as I often do).
Of course, if everything else fails, one can always retreat to the constitutionally
sanctioned separation of State and Church, and deny the equal
teaching of creationism on legal grounds. However, this must be considered the last and least appealing option. It is far better if people understand why creationism is not a viable idea, rather than be grudgingly forced to officially ignore it. To seek shelter behind the law is also dangerous because laws can be changed, and if we neglect to educate the people, the day will soon come when the Christian Right will have enough votes to alter the Constitution. Then what? That is why a simple defensive action on the part of scientists and educators is not enough. As any sports fan will tell you, if you keep defending yourself without attacking, sooner or later the other team will score, no matter how good your defense is. So, please let us make a concerted effort to pursue free inquiry and actively and honestly educate about the best that science has to offer.
Behe, M.J. (1996) Darwin's black box. The biochemical challenge to evolution.
Free Press, New York.
Johnson, P. (1997) Defeating Darwinism by opening minds. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
Miller, K.R. (1996) The biochemical challenge to evolution. At: http://biomed.brown.edu/faculty/M/Miller.
Ramachandran, V.S. and Blakeslee, S. (1998) Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. William Morrow, New York, NY.
Rigney, D. (1991) Three kinds of anti-intellectualism: rethinking Hofstadter. Sociological Inquiry 61:434-451.
Shermer, M. (1992) Sum ergo cogito - I am therefore I think: a skeptical manifesto. Skeptic 1, 1:15-21.
Sokal, A.D. (1996) Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Social Text 14:217-252.