Nov 19 2007

From Scopes to Dover-20: The birth of ‘creation science’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Following the overturning of the 1974 Tennessee “equal emphasis” law, neighboring Axis of Weevils member state Arkansas took the lead in trying to find ways to undermine evolution and introduce religious ideas of creation into the biology curriculum in ways that would not violate the establishment clause. The lesson they drew from the Tennessee case was that any legislation aimed at achieving these goals had to be worded in neutral ways that avoided any and all religious language or references to the Bible. What emerged from this effort is what is now known as ‘creation science’, a superficially non-religious alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection.

On March 19, 1981, the Governor of Arkansas signed into law Act 590, titled Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act. Its essential mandate is stated in its first sentence: “Public schools within this State shall give balanced treatment to creation-science and to evolution-science.” The Act stated, among other things, that “Creation-science is an alternative scientific model of origins and can be presented from a strictly scientific standpoint without any religious doctrine just as evolution-science can, because there are scientists who conclude that scientific data best support creation-science and because scientific evidences and inferences have been presented for creation-science.” (my italics)

The statute defined both ‘creation science’ and ‘evolution 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.

“Evolution-science” includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate:

(1) Emergence by naturalistic processes of the universe from disordered matter and emergence of life from nonlife;

(2) The sufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds;

(3) Emergence by mutation and natural selection of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds;

(4) Emergence of man from a common ancestor with apes;

(5) Explanation of the earth’s geology and the evolutionary sequence by uniformitarianism; and

(6) An inception several billion years ago of the earth and somewhat later of life.

Notice that there are no explicit references to the Bible or religion or god in the definition of creation science, although the original source of the ideas behind them is quite obvious. Creation science is essentially Biblical, young Earth creationism, just using different words.

This law was, of course, challenged and in 1982 in McLean v. Arkansas, US District Court Judge William R. Overton, declared the law to be unconstitutional. He said that it failed to meet all three prongs of the Lemon test for constitutionality.

Discerning the intent or purpose of a law is not straightforward, as Justice Hugo Black pointed out in his opinion in Epperson, and courts take into account more than just the wording of the statute or what legislators say is the intent of a law. As Judge Overton said:

Courts are not bound, however, by legislative statements of purpose or legislative disclaimers. In determining the legislative purpose of a statute, courts may consider evidence of the historical context of the Act, the specific sequence of events leading up to passage of the Act, departures from normal procedural sequences, substantive departures from the normal, and contemporaneous statements of the legislative sponsor.

In his ruling Judge Overton, using the testimony of philosopher of science Michel Ruse as a guide, tried to define what science is, saying:

A descriptive definition was said to be that science is what is “accepted by the scientific community” and is “what scientists do.”…More precisely, the essential characteristics of science are:
It is guided by natural law;
It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
It is testable against the empirical world;
Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
It is falsifiable.

The judge said that creation science failed to meet these criteria and was thus not science. He added “The creationists’ methods do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data, and thereafter reach the conclusions stated in Section 4(a). Instead, they take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it. . . While anybody is free to approach a scientific inquiry in any fashion they choose, they cannot properly describe the methodology as scientific, if they start with the conclusion and refuse to change it regardless of the evidence developed during the course of the investigation.”

Many philosophers of science have criticized the judge’s use of this definition of science (and the testimony of Ruse that it was based on), saying that it is not supported by the historical record of science. (For a thorough airing of the philosophy of science issues raised in this trial, see the book But Is It Science? (1996, edited by Michael Ruse) which is a collection of articles by those who criticized and supported the position put forward by Ruse in the trial.) They argued that while such a definition of science may have served the short-term purpose of keeping creationism out of science classrooms, making the definition of science into this kind of prescriptive list was not only unjustifiable but allowed people to try and find ways to insert religion into the curriculum by devising ways to conform to this definition while yet subverting science. Some philosophers argued that what was wrong with creation science and why it should not be taught was that it was really bad science. But of course, the establishment clause of the US constitution does not explicitly prohibit the teaching of any theories just because they are bad or discredited or even downright silly. Which brings us once again to the unresolved question of who should decide what should be taught in schools and what constraints, if any, apply to them.

Meanwhile, also in 1981, the third member state of the Axis of Weevils (Louisiana) passed an act similar in spirit to the Arkansas one, called the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act that said that “Commencing with the 1982-1983 school year, public schools within this state shall give balanced treatment to creation-science and to evolution-science.” It further said that ‘balanced treatment’ means “providing whatever information and instruction in both creation and evolution models the classroom teacher determines is necessary and appropriate to provide insight into both theories.”

Unlike in Arkansas, where creation science was explicitly described in the statute itself, in the Louisiana statute this was left vague, merely saying that teaching creation science meant just teaching “the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences.” The backers presumably hoped that this vagueness would not constitute a requirement for religious instruction, and thus pass constitutional muster.

Not surprisingly, the Louisiana statue was also challenged and, as we shall see next, the resulting 1987 verdict in the case of Edwards v. Aguilar became, after Epperson in 1968, the next landmark US Supreme Court ruling dealing directly with the teaching of evolution in public schools.

POST SCRIPT: Ask an atheist

The Case Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is having a panel discussion titled Ask an atheist, where popular misconceptions about atheism can be discussed and dispelled. The session will be held on Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 7:00 pm in Strosacker Auditorium.

The panel consists of Gary Parker (double alumnus of electrical engineering of Case and member of the North East Ohio chapter of the Center for Inquiry), Christopher Ryan (physics graduate researcher), Batool Zaidi, (chemistry and biology undergraduate), and myself.

Some topics that might arise are:

How do atheists perceive morality?
Is life empty without religion?
Is atheism the same as nihilism?
Are atheists arrogant?
How do atheists deal with death?

The CFA is “dedicated to promoting and defending reason, science and freedom of inquiry in education, and to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.”

Drop by if you are in the neighborhood.


  1. 1
    Herman Cummings

    False Statements About Genesis

    No one else, presently walking on this Earth, is an expert on Genesis. There is no “close second”. Do not even listen to anyone else trying to expound what Genesis is saying, or what “creationism” is, for they do not understand the text, and are speaking from ignorance. Anyone else speaking about “what Genesis says”, or comparing it to evolution should be considered unqualified to speak on the subject, no matter how many credentials it seems they have. There is no “creation account” in Genesis. There is no such thing as a “creation/evolution” contest. It is “evolution” verses the “Observations of Moses”, shown to him by God in 1598 BC, in biblical order, as revealed by the Living Word in the Gospels.

    The world of theology (and creationism) has never understood Genesis, so of course they would not have told us the truth, since they never did their “homework”. Each day in Genesis, from Gen. 1:2 thru 2:3 was a 24-hr day , shown to Moses, taken from seven different weeks (1 day from Creation Week, 6 days from 6 restoration weeks), and each (first) week was from a different geologic age. The seven days conveyed to Moses were not linear.

    Genesis chapter two covers about a 200 yr period, starting in about 7200 BC, and has nothing to do with chapter one. There was no “evolution”. The 600+ million year fossil record shows that there was Creation, followed by escalating extinction, then six periods of restorations, with five more extinction events in between, ending each era of life. With the third era of mankind (the second restoration), God “redesigned” mankind to be in His image, after His likeness, in about 64 Million BC.

    If you have comments, issues, or questions, direct them to me ([email protected]), or read the book “Moses Didn’t Write About Creation!”, now in print. Have I made myself clear?

    Herman Cummings
    PO Box 1745
    Fortson GA, 31808
    [email protected]

  2. 2

    If you have some time, I would like to see a post on the “Ask an atheist” event.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>