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We're all monkeys
The battle for hearts and minds between creationism and Darwinian evolution theory goes on and on. And on.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution offers an explanation for the development of modern man, and all life on Earth, over millions of years, by a process of natural selection and mutation. Creationism suggests that, essentially, the world and everything therein was created in between six days and ten thousand years, by God.
Scientists, academics and clerics are all getting involved in the argument as to which is the definitive explanation for the development of life on Earth. The argument is raging on as it has been for years, and it looks like it shows no sign of slowing.
What are the basics of Darwinian evolution theory? What are the creationists’ main arguments, and why is creationism dangerous?
Creationism v Evolution
The pseudoscientific offshoot of creationism, basically creationism in a lab coat, is Intelligent Design, or ID – which “holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection”, and claims to be backed up by scientific research. Creationism is not restricted to Christians as a theory for the development of life – some Muslims also believe that, as an example, animals were created from water by Allah.
Let’s get my position on this clear from the outset, as if it wasn’t clear already. Evolution theory is the best explanation we have for the development of life on Earth, backed up by an overwhelming amount of fossil evidence as well as the physiological evidence present in numerous species, including humans. Creationism is untenable, unproven hokum; an attempt by religion to ascribe our development as a species, our entire lives, to the work of a divine entity. I find the idea that millions of years of struggle, survival, mutation and development by life on Earth, and that we have become Earth’s most successful species, awe-inspiring – and the idea that it was all the work of a divine creator abhorrent and laughable.
Creationism versus evolution has become a central issue for debate between religious fundamentalists on one side, and rational people on the other. Indeed, in the future, the reality could be that people define themselves as Creationists or Darwinists even before they define themselves as Christians or Atheists. The thing is, Darwinian evolution theory is not just supported by Atheists, but also by many moderate clergy, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Pope.
Letters and more letters
We are skeptical [sic] of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.
The Discovery Institute letter was signed by 514 scientists. The Alliance for Science letter was signed by over 10,000 clergy, scientists and educators. Furthermore, an article in the New York Times printed a day after the release of the Discovery Institute letter revealed that most of the scientists who had signed it were evangelical ID proponents.
Here lies the essential problem with creationism. There is no proof for creationism as a theory, other than anecdotal evidence from scripture, which is no scientific evidence at all. To say that religious explanations of creation are simplistic is an understatement:
His command when He desires a thing is just to say to it, “Be!” and it is. (Qur’an, 36: 82)
So, in the absence of any useful theories as to how we evolved to where we are today, the position of most creationists is to dispute Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Evolution, common descent and the ‘tree of life’
One of the central principles of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is called ‘descent with modification’ or ‘common descent’. This says that all living organisms on Earth are essentially descended from a common ancestor – maybe an amino acid at the earliest stage.
Theories exist as to how life began through a process called abiogenesis – that biological life began from non-living matter. Sparks fired somewhere in the primordial soup, skip four billion years, and here we are, all digital TV and Chinese takeaways. Aristotle expounded on an early theory of abiogenesis, suggesting that life appeared through a process of ‘spontaneous generation’, as a by-product of the decay of organic substances – giving examples such as mice appearing from old hay stacks or maggots in rotting meat. This explanation, needless to say, didn’t catch on – but it wasn’t refuted until the 17th century, when Francesco Redi finally got around to proving that maggots on rotting meat had grown from eggs laid by flies.
Modern theory for abiogenesis centres on the development of amino acids, simple molecular building blocks for life, and how the perfect combination of conditions on early Earth led to the evolution of single-celled organisms.
As the original, simple organism evolved, minor differences would appear in individuals until eventually those differences became sufficiently great to classify them as separate species (known in Darwinist theory as ‘speciation’). Those species would evolve and diversify enough to be classed as different genera; those genera would then evolve apart to become separate families, families evolving into separate orders, orders to classes, classes to phyla, and phyla to kingdoms. This is the classification of all living things, which incorporates humans, plants, fish, birds, fungi and bacteria.
Such successive splitting yields the common metaphor of an evolutionary ‘tree of life,’ whose root was the first species to arise and whose twigs are the millions of living species.
All living organisms sit somewhere on this ‘tree of life’. Humans sit on the primates branch of the Animal Kingdom, making us cousins to gibbons and almost brothers and sisters to gorillas, chimpanzees and orang utans. The classification of living things was obviously applied retrospectively by Darwin – he hadn’t been present with a clipboard to spot when a protozoa was a sufficiently different shade of purple that it belonged to a new species – but it is the best taxonomy available to categorise living things as they have diversified and developed over millions of years, and is used by biologists today.
For a very long time indeed on Earth, life was nothing more than a mush of bacteria and other single-celled organisms. Fossil records exist for bacteria from 3.5 billion years ago – three quarters of the age of the Earth. From then on, various different fossil records appear for progressively more sophisticated organisms – algae two billion years later, but nothing much more than that.
Along the timeline from the formation of life to the present day, fossils have been found which have been given a classification, a family, and which support the principle of common descent through their age and makeup. Organisms have become more and more sophisticated as they have evolved over millions upon millions of years. In the grand scheme of things, looking at the history of the Earth as a 24–hour clock, humans have arrived on the scene in the last two minutes, and change has been imperceptibly slow.
Nevertheless, occasionally, evolution appears to leap forward. Richard Dawkins said “if we arrange all our available fossils in chronological order, they do not form a smooth sequence of scarcely perceptible change”. One such apparent leap was the Cambrian Explosion, and it is this phenomenon that is one of the main points for attack by creationists.
The Cambrian Explosion – creationist’s delight
The Cambrian Period is one of many periods of Geological Time, that is, time periods measured in millions of years, over which life has been evolving. The Cambrian was between around 545 and 495 million years ago – recent, considering the Earth’s 4.5 billion year age.
From the beginning of the Cambrian Period, there was seemingly an explosion of life – the Cambrian Explosion. Beginning 545 million years ago, there are fossil records of molluscs, starfish, worms and vertebrates, sponges, brachiopods and echinoderms. However, when Darwin wrote his 1859 book ‘On the Origin of Species’, there were relatively few fossil records predating the Cambrian Period.
Darwin admitted in the Origin of Species that there was “no satisfactory answer” to the problem of having no rich fossil record predating the Cambrian Period. His problem was that, if there were not enough fossils predating the Cambrian, it was difficult to prove that, as he theorised, all of those diverse life forms had in fact evolved from a common ancestor - he’d apparently gone from primordial soup to a wide array of different creatures in a single leap.
Creationists identify the Cambrian Explosion as the point at which the ‘sudden’ apparent biological diversity of life on Earth could not be explained away by the absence of fossil evidence proving common descent, and that this diversity was in fact due to intelligent design. They claim that the sudden “appearance of many new body plans [physiological characteristics] in the Cambrian” was evidence that there just must have been too much going on for the slow process of evolution to account for. This is the nub of creationism – it’s all too sophisticated, therefore God did it.
Countering creationist arguments
Firstly, since the time of Darwin there has been a significant increase in the amount of fossil evidence supporting his theory of evolution. If he wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’ with today’s fossil records, there would be almost no doubt about the validity of his theory. As it was, his findings at the time were convincing enough to encourage several ‘natural theologists’ (creationist scientists) to abandon their theories and accept his.
One possible explanation for the relative paucity of fossil records from before the Cambrian Period was, well… squishy bodies. Before the Cambrian Period it appears that many fewer animals had hard protective shells or skeletons, meaning that they would have simply been pulped, rather than accurately preserved, over time. The evolution of predators in the late Precambrian Period may have resulted in the coevolution of harder shells on prey animals by the Cambrian Period, leading to better preservation of fossil records.
An explanation for the relative boom in development seen in the Cambrian Period is that an increase in temperature on Earth around the beginning of the period, due to the end of a global ice age, led to a jump in the pace of development as creatures exploited a change in their environment. There are numerous other explanations, including increased levels of atmospheric oxygen and water oxygenation. Apart from anything else, this ‘boom’ in biodiversity happened over a period of ten to thirty million years – not exactly a flash in the pan.
The idea that the Cambrian Explosion was some kind of Genesis for life, as suggested by creationists, is absurd – after the Cambrian it would take many more millions of years for most of our recognisable animals and plants to show up;
…bony fishes and land plants first appeared around 440 million years ago, reptiles around 350 million years ago, mammals around 250 million years ago, flowering plants around 210 million years ago, and human ancestors around 5 million years ago.
The creationist argument, that God designed anything, would make God the most clumsy, five-o-clock-on-a-Friday-night, suck-through-your-teeth, dodgy cowboy operator going. As the human race and the natural world have evolved, signs are abundant of functionality and features in living things that, while once useful, are now useless. These features are literally evolving out of existence before our eyes. Take the appendix. This shrivelled organ now serves no other purpose than to explode once in a while, killing its owner – but there was a time when it was an essential component of the digestive systems of our ancestors, who ate plant diets that were somewhat harder to digest than Starbucks skinny sunrise muffins.
Other examples of ‘left-overs’ in nature are legion: birds grow teeth buds in their embryonic stage, but haven’t gone on to grow teeth since their ancestors hunted; kiwi birds have tiny wings they cannot fly with; human babies grow a coating of hair called lanugo, which usually disappears by birth, but which remains on today’s young apes after birth. All of these phenomena are evidence of a process of evolution that is still going on right now. Evolution and natural selection, most simply put as ‘survival of the fittest’, are the reason we are here in the shape we are.
Virtually any argument put forward by a creationist for intelligent design can be countered with a scientific response, with evidence. If it cannot, however, it does not follow that the explanation is intelligent design. Scientists don’t claim to have all the answers. When a scientist reaches a dead end, they accept that they have exhausted all of the possibilities open to them in a line of enquiry at that time, re-examine their assumptions, and continue to look for evidence to support their hypotheses.
God, however, is a great get-out for creationists – God is the all-singing, all-dancing answer for all of our gaps in knowledge. Where science says, “I don’t have the answer now but I will keep looking”, religion says, “The answer is God, therefore we don’t need to keep digging for evidence, as God is all the evidence we need”. A case in point:
“God is...the one who established all scientific laws, and good science will point to Him. That's why we needn't fear that there will ever be a discovery of some scientific fact that contradicts the Bible properly interpreted.”
Rev. Mark Creech, exec. director Christian Action League, North Carolina
Creationism and ID
How do you turn creationism into Intelligent Design? Simple. ID is creationism without the G word. The central argument of ID is that life is too complex to have developed without the hand of an intelligent designer. Intelligent designer – is that God? Noooooo… well, OK, yes. Well spotted.
Creationists encourage the questioning of Darwinian evolution theory, based on weaknesses in the evidence that supports it - in some US schools, stickers like Parental Advisory notices are put in the front of text books containing Darwinian evolution theory, advising students that Darwin’s is ‘just another’ theory and is ‘unproven’. Darwinian evolution theory has been questioned, tested and revised in line with the evidence that has become available, ever since ‘On the Origin of the Species’ was published. Even Darwin admitted there were gaps in his evidence, but a scientist admitting that they can’t prove everything is just the opportunity a creationist needs to jump up and down shouting that the entire theory is rubbish, and putting stickers in school books is only concerned with nurturing a questioning mind for long enough to introduce a student to ID.
The arrogance and the temerity of creationists is staggering. Where the Darwinian theory of evolution has scientific proof and physical evidence to support it, creationism’s best weapon is not evidence of its own, but finding weakness in existing scientific evidence, engendering doubt, and then addressing that doubt with an implausible explanation, predicated upon belief in a supernatural entity.
The Darwinian theory of evolution is supported by 10,000 plus clergy, the Anglican and Catholic Churches, as well as most of the secular world. Archbishop Rowan Williams went as far as to say:
“I think creationism is...a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories. If creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there's just been a jarring of categories.”
Nevertheless, in the face of all of this, 64% of adults surveyed recently in the US believe in the literal truth of the Bible as an explanation of creation, and 22% of adults in the UK (less than half believing in Darwinian evolution theory). Nearly half of UK adults believe that Intelligent Design should be taught in school science lessons, and faith schools in the UK, such as those run by creationist Sir Peter Vardy’s Emmanuel Schools Foundation, are doing precisely that.
What’s so wrong with ID?
The battle over ID is being fought just outside the classroom door – creationists want ID to be taught in schools as a scientific theory alongside, rather in competition with, Darwinian evolution theory. George W Bush indeed suggested that "Both sides ought to be properly taught...so people can understand what the debate is about". Tony Blair also favours the teaching of ID, and supported Sir Peter Vardy in opening his new faith schools in the North of England.
So what’s so wrong with accepting ID in the science classroom?
Firstly, proponents of ID can present no evidence whatsoever to substantiate their theory – it has no footing in science or fact. ID, as I have already said, relies on finding weaknesses in evidence for Darwinian theory, and offering a supernatural explanation for those areas of ambiguity (and let’s face it, Darwin’s theory of evolution is the only one on trial here as it is the only accepted theory we have).
Secondly, ID attacks Darwinian theory on the basis of identifying gaps in fossil evidence – but new fossils are found all of the time which fill in those gaps. If ID is based on a scientific approach as it claims, it must therefore accept physical evidence which contradicts its assertions. ID has one less argument for every fossil found which supports Darwin’s theory.
Thirdly, creationists’ arguments against Darwinian evolution theory are not driven by scientific curiosity – they are not driven by genuine concerns about gaps in fossil evidence. That much is obvious. Creationism wishes to suppress science, to paper over the cracks of human knowledge with the god of gaps, to remove any suggestion that man is descended from apes, and to strengthen the authority of a particularly old-testament form of religion:
…it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds 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.
Tennessee Butler Act 1925, not rescinded until 1967
Many of the same Christian parents, however, are not concerned about the teaching of evolution in public schools. Falling SAT scores and increasing drug abuse, violence, abortion, and homosexual activity are the concerns of these parents. Why the fuss about creation being taught in public schools anyway they ask. As we shall show, there line of reasoning which usually lies hidden when either the subject of origins or morality is discussed, but which actually ties the two concerns together. Once this reasoning is understood it becomes evident that not only does the exclusive teaching of evolution encourage our children's rejection of Judeo-Christian morality, but it also prepares young minds for the reception of religious view which these same parents find unacceptable.
Our commitment is to see the monopoly of naturalistic curriculum in the schools broken. Presently, school curriculum reflects a deep hostility to traditional Christian views and values and indoctrinates students to a mindset through subtle but persuasive arguments. This is not merely a war over ideas, but over young people and how their lives will be shaped. The current deplorable condition of our schools results in large part from denying the dignity of man created in God's image. Even junior high students recognize that if there is no creator, as textbooks teach, then there is no law giver to whom they must answer, and therefore no need of a moral lifestyle, much less a respect for the life of their fellow man. The message of the foundation is that this is simply unacceptable.
Jon Buell, president of Foundation for Thought and Ethics, publishers of Of Pandas and People, a leading ID textbook
Creationism and ID have been repeatedly rejected by teachers, academics and scientists as unable to provide any plausible explanation for evolution, and have been judged as a ruse to foist religion into school science lessons, indoctrinate children, and violate the separation of church and state. That ID was even categorised as a separate theory from creationism in a recent BBC survey for the Horizon program, however, shows the ingenuity involved in having re-branded creationism to make it more palatable to a modern audience.
The statements of the likes of Jon Buell demonstrate that fundamentalist creationism is, rather than encouraging curiosity, concerned with fostering ignorance. To suggest that learning Darwinian evolution theory leads to drug abuse, promiscuity and even homosexuality is insulting and ludicrous, but these are the true colours of the creationist. Creationism is an offshoot of religious fundamentalism – intolerant, ignorant and dangerous.
The new schism
When it comes to evolution, moderate Christians are alongside atheists and the scientific community in agreeing that the Darwinian theory of evolution is the best explanation that we have for our biodiversity. Religion may encourage teachers of evolution theory to suggest that man’s soul is imbued by God, but they can still respect the scientific basis of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
As we move forward, the problem is less likely to be about the schism between religion and atheism, and more about the schism between moderate, rational people and religious fundamentalists – and creationism versus Darwinian evolution theory symbolises just that divide. Religion isn’t going anywhere, but at least the rational thing to agree on is that we’re all basically monkeys.
Related reading and resources
Royal Society talk 'Why Creationism is Wrong and Evolution is Right'