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Genesis vs. Geology

September 3, 1999

The Kansas school board's recent decision to drop evolution from the state's required curriculum represents the latest episode in an ongoing battle between religious fundamentalists and secular educators over whether public schools should teach "creation science" or evolution -- or both. The Kansas school board claims that because evolution cannot be replicated in a laboratory, and thus cannot be directly observed, it should only be presented as theory rather than as fact. As a mere theory, they argue, it should be omitted from the curriculum or presented alongside other, competing "theories" (namely, creationism). Educators and scientists troubled by the Kansas decision point out that many scientific assumptions -- like the existence of atoms -- cannot be directly observed in a laboratory, but are accepted because they are supported by the best scientific evidence.

In 1981 the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould served as a witness in an Arkansas court case in which the American Civil Liberties Union challenged a new state law requiring that as much classroom time be devoted to teaching "creation science" as to evolution. In "Genesis vs. Geology" (September, 1982, Atlantic), Gould described the "evidence" that the creationists had marshalled in support of creation science, and explained wherein their methods fell short of true science.

Creationism reveals its nonscientific character in two ways: its central tenets cannot be tested and its peripheral claims, which can be tested, have been proven false. At its core, the creationist account rests on "singularities" -- that is to say, on miracles.... Since science can treat only natural phenomena occurring in a context of invariant natural law, the constant invocation of miracles places creationism in another realm....

But is all creationist writing merely about untestable singularities? Are arguments never made in proper scientific form? Creationists do offer some testable statements, and these are amenable to scientific analysis. Why, then, do I continue to claim that creationism isn't science? Simply because these relatively few statements have been tested and conclusively refuted. Dogmatic assent to disproved claims is not scientific behavior. Scientists are as stubborn as the rest of us, but they must be able to change their minds.

The ACLU ultimately won the case, and the law was declared unconstitutional because, as Gould put it, "so-called 'creation science' is only a version of Genesis read literally -- a partisan (and narrowly sectarian) religious view, barred from public-school classrooms by the First Amendment."


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