By DAN CARDINALE
I’m just going to come out and say it. Creationism is not science. If it were, it would be bad science. Not just incorrect, which it is, but bad science, right along side HIV and climate change denialism. To pretend otherwise is a gross misrepresentation of both science as a discipline and creationism.
To begin, let’s examine just what science is, and what a scientific theory is. Science is simply the process of using controlled experiments and observations to test hypotheses about the natural world. Put another way, as stated by Ken Miller during Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (the “intelligent design” case), “science is finding natural explanations for natural phenomena.” Scientific theories must fulfill two criteria. They must have broad experimental support and they must make empirically testable positive predictions. In the approximately 150 year life of the theory, evolution biologists have made thousands of predictions, in fields as diverse as microbiology, genetics, molecular biology, ecology, paleontology, and biogeography, and these predictions have been overwhelmingly confirmed, providing extensive support to evolutionary theory.
Creationism, on the other hand, makes no empirically testable predictions, at least not those that would lend positive support for creationism should they be accurate. Rather, the predictions made by creationism are negative predictions aimed at what evolution cannot do, or where evidence is supposedly lacking. For example, consider the concept of irreducible complexity, used by creationists to attack evolution, which states that if there should exist a system or structure that fails to function if any one of its components should be removed or defective, then that system cannot have evolved, because the probability of all of the components assembling in their present configuration is prohibitively small. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that such a structure were to be discovered. Would this lend credence to creationism?
Before I answer that question, let me first examine the underlying premise, that irreducible complexity (IC) carries with it some degree of scientific weight. This premise is not just false, but absurd. There have been numerous systems identified as examples of IC. These include the bacterial flagellum, the eye, and mammalian blood clotting. By the “textbook” definition of IC, each of these systems qualifies, since they are essentially non-functional should any part be lost or significantly altered. Evidence of this fact is the long list of defects that cause hemophilia in humans. But does this mean that such systems can’t have evolved? Hardly. For every example of an IC system that requires every part, there exists a homologous system that functions just fine without one or several components. The flagella found in E. coli may require dozens of parts, but other species make due without the P ring, or the L ring. Dolphins lack several clotting factors critical in humans, but as a species do not suffer from chronic hemophilia. It isn’t even required that the intermediate or incomplete stages of a structure have the same purpose as the modern forms in order to be favored by natural selection, only that there is some benefit to having the intermediate stages. For example, birds’ feathers probably weren’t for flight originally. It’s more likely that early feathers were used for thermoregulation and were only adapted for their present use more recently.
But that didn’t answer the original question. Even should IC be a credible, testable concept with broad experimental support, and natural selection discredited, is creationism supported? The short answer is no, it isn’t. To use IC (or some other invented deficiency of evolution) as support for creationism establishing a false dichotomy, one that states that the only two options on the table are evolution by natural selection or special creation. Could there not be some other hypothetical evolutionary mechanism that could produce such a structure? Certainly; IC favors neither that nor creation over the other. In order for creationism to have actual support, there must be positive, experimental evidence in its favor, rather than merely against evolution by natural selection. Because it lacks such evidence, it cannot be considered even a remotely credible scientific theory.
Let us now examine the issue from a different angle. Creationism is not science, and has no positive support, but what of the supposed deficiencies in the theory of evolution? How can sexual reproduction have evolved? Complex structures such as the eye? Systems as layered and complex as blood clotting? In the interest of space and accessibility (assuming the reader is still awake), I’ll look at only the first example I’ve mentioned: sexual reproduction. The objection goes something like this: sexual reproduction requires two individuals of opposite sexes (or mating types), so they would have to have evolved independently and simultaneously, which is highly improbably, essentially statistically impossible. How did evolution “know” to develop sex?
I frame the question thusly since that is representative of the most common presentation when a counter-evolutionary argument is made, but to ask such a question is absurd. Evolution doesn’t “know” anything. Evolution is a process, not an entity. Even natural selection, the actual driving force of evolutionary change, isn’t forward looking; the traits of those organisms that have higher fitness (meaning reproductive success, not that they work out every day) will be present in higher proportions in the next generation.
Going back to the question itself, we have a case where a faulty assumption is implied. Reproduction is not either sexual or asexual, with no room for compromise. There are abundant examples of organisms that exhibit both sexual and asexual reproduction, from primitive bacteria up through multicellular animals, such as aphids. Which reproductive strategy a particular organism employs is often based on its environment: a relatively stable and nutrient rich environment will maintain purely asexual reproduction. Essentially, it’s a case of “it it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” where “fixing it” through sexual reproduction actually reduces the fitness of many individuals. However, in a dynamic environment with relatively scarce resources, propagating the same clone infinitely will have little benefit. Instead, the genetic diversity (and corresponding adaptability) created by sexual recombination is a winning strategy. Those organisms that employ both “know” when to utilize each simply through natural selection against those individuals that reproduce sexually too often or too infrequently, leaving only those that exercise the right combination. As a casual read through an evolutionary biology textbook or journal archive would reveal, this information is not a secret.
This brings me to my next objection to “scientific” creationism: its proponents and adherents, in order to support creationism, must (knowingly or ignorantly) selectively ignore swaths of data in order to find problems with evolutionary theory. Creationists pretend to be creation scientists while trampling all over the scientific method. They claim that evolution cannot account for this feature or that system, while ignoring stacks of research on that very subject (sometimes quite literally). This is symptomatic of the most unscientific feature of creationism: beginning not with a question, but with the conclusion, and tailoring the data to support it, either through omission (“there is no evidence that sex could evolve”) or misrepresentation (“Darwin said the eye couldn’t evolve”). This leads to objections to evolution based on the argument from personal incredulity: “there may be evidence for evolution, but it isn’t good enough for me.” While this may be personally persuasive, it carries no scientific weight.
When push comes to shove, creationism isn’t about science; it’s about faith. Philosophically, faith and science are in complete opposition to each other. The former is belief without evidence, or in many cases in the face of contrary evidence. The latter is the refusal to accept a proposition without supporting evidence. To draw this distinction is not close-minded. There have been countless experiments testing the veracity of evolutionary theory, each one a chance for the theory to fail. The fact that it hasn’t in a century and a half of examination is testament to its strength. In order to receive serious consideration in the scientific community, Creationism or any other theory must stand up to similarly rigorous investigation. The fact that Creationism has failed to do so is simply further evidence of its scientific vacuity. These are not merely two theories competing in the open forum of scientific investigation. Creationism violates each of the most basic components of the scientific method; evolution defines what a good scientific theory should be.
I will now diverge significantly from my previous discussion, and turn towards a considerably less straightforward subject: that of right and wrong. As a scientific theory, evolution neither takes nor implies a position on morality. For the purposes of scientific investigation, methodological naturalism (investigating natural causes of natural phenomena) is required, but this is separate and distinct from philosophical naturalism, the belief that nature is the entirety of that which exists. But can evolution by natural selection lead to a sense of morality?
Natural selection acts to increase the fitness of populations, and many species exhibit altruistic behavior, increasing the fitness of their respective populations, even if their personal fitness is adversely affected. This is especially the case when close relatives benefit. Is it such a mental leap of faith to posit that this inherent tendency, coupled with a brain intelligent enough to perceive the effects of one’s actions on the well being, both physical and emotional, of others, leads directly to an intrinsic sense of right and wrong? Are we to believe, that for all the depth and complexity of the human mind, it takes an outside force to impose some sort of order on our species, that we are not up to the task ourselves?
All available evidence tells us that evolution, not God, has created beautifully complex beings in humans. Our self-awareness is, as far as we can tell, unique among living things. We can perceive when we benefit others, and when we harm them, and thanks to our well-developed brains, we can go beyond perception. We can empathize, we can imagine. And we know that have to respect that. I don’t need God to tell me what’s right and wrong, nor does anyone else. We’ve learned it, collectively, over the lifetime of our species, and to put it back in evolutionary terms, those that learned the right lessons survived, while the populations that failed to do so died out. The development of an intellect sufficient to care for others because it’s right, and for no other reason, might be the crowning achievement of evolution.