Dec. '99/Jan '00

The Creationism

Notes from the Cultural Wasteland

The Liberal

Overpriced Musings:

These Are
Not God's Eyes

(music reviews)

Senate to World:
"Screw You!"

E-Mail Us
Your Comments


Subscribe to IMPACT

Buy IMPACT T-Shirts


Monkeying With
Science Education

by Morris Sullivan
art/Marty Kelley

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

In 1925, in a little town in Tennessee, a schoolteacher named John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in a public school. The press called it the "Monkey Trial" because of the popular misconception that Darwinism taught that man's ancestors were monkeys. Scopes was defended by Clarence Darrow, a now-legendary criminal attorney.

Scopes lost the case; his sentence was a fine of $100. By the time the state supreme court overturned the conviction, most of the world had been forced to take sides in a clash between religion and science. For some, the Biblical version of creation was the only possible one; any admission that man might have come into existence by other means was tantamount to questioning the very existence of God.

The Scopes trial serves as a great example of losing the battle but winning the war. While he lost initially and the law stayed in the Tennessee statutes until the 1960s, most of America began to accept that the scientific method would often reveal a glimpse of the workings of the universe that would contradict the Biblical explanations. Of course, this wasn't the first time the world had seen that happen. It happened, too, when the Pope forced Galileo to recant his teachings that the world was not, in fact, the center of the universe.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.

Now, due to the efforts of a handful of activists armed with a set of faulty "evidence," education about the source of creation is in danger of being plunged back into darkness. For several years, "creationism," a movement made up of religious-minded scientists and others has pushed state school boards to require public school science programs to teach "alternative theories" about creation.

A little over a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot teach the belief that a divine power created the universe. However, three states have begun to de-emphasize evolution in their curricula. The most dramatic example is Kansas, whose school board has adopted new science testing standards. Caving in to pressure from creationists, the state has revised the set of information that its students are expected to know and understand. No longer will Kansas students be expected to understand the theory of evolution. Incidentally, they are no longer expected to know anything about the big bang theory, either.

States generally derive their education standards from academic bodies that stay current on important information, and look to these organizations for guidance when creating their testing standards. School Boards then look to the testing standards for guidance when creating their curricula. Teachers are advised to tailor the contents of their course planning to prepare their students to meet the testing standards. For all practical purposes, therefore, dropping a topic from the testing standards removes it from the coursework.

The Kansas State Board of Education applied to the National Research Council, American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association for permission to incorporate portions of their published science standards into the Kansas Science Education Standards. After reviewing the Kansas standards, the organizations denied that permission.

A joint statement released in September of 1999 by the three organizations says that "the Kansas standards effectively eliminated consideration of any aspects of evolution that examine the origins of the Earth and life and processes that may give rise to the formation of new species ... (and) adopted a position that is contrary to modern science ..."

Further, the statement points out a component of the creationist agenda--to show weaknesses in the hypotheses about the extinction of dinosaurs--and identifies "at least an implicit attempt by the Kansas State Board of Education to undermine a currently accepted body of knowledge. In fact, data gathered and analyzed by scientists from many disciplines lend increasing weight to the prevailing ideas about how dinosaurs became extinct."

According to a separate statement released by the National Academy of Sciences, "... many scientific explanations have been so thoroughly tested and confirmed that they are held with great confidence. The theory of evolution is one of these well-established explanations. An enormous amount of scientific investigation since the mid-19th century has converted early ideas about evolution proposed by Darwin and others into a strong and well-supported theory. Today, evolution is an extremely active field of research, with an abundance of new discoveries that are continually increasing our understanding of how evolution occurs."

And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind." And it was so.

The creationists only won a partial victory in Kansas--the de-emphasis of evolution. Their ultimate goal is that "creationism" will be taught instead of, or at least alongside, the big bang and evolution. They argue that evolution is only a "theory". As such, its no more scientific than the Biblical version of creation. Lots of people, who would like to believe Genesis' version, agree. However, for most, their agreement is based on a misunderstanding of the term "theory."

Many people use the term "theory" as a synonym for "opinion." However, in a science classroom, "theory" means something very specific. A scientist formulates a hypothesis which may explain a phenomenon. He or she then tests the hypothesis through some means of experimentation or seeking supporting evidence. If the hypothesis passes the test, then it is tested again and again by other scientists to see if it passes it consistently. If the testing supports the hypothesis over and over, it becomes a theory. If it doesn't pass consistently, another hypothesis is sought. Sometimes, a better hypothesis comes along that explains more or better. In that case, the old theory is discarded and the new adopted.

A theory should not only explain what has happened, but predict what will happen. Theories about the Earth's movement in the heavens, for example, accurately predict when the sun will rise. In science, a theory must be tested using empirical means. In other words, at some point, the scientist must be able to perceive evidence for the theory with normal human senses. Even then, the theory is not considered "fact" unless it becomes somehow empirically observed. For instance, the theory that the earth is round can be "proved" either by travelling all the way around it or by flying into space to look. Only then does it become fact.

In science, there are relatively few "facts."

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

Religion is another matter. Religion--or at least Christianity--insists that certain things be considered facts, based purely on faith. In other words, you are supposed to believe, just because the religious view says to. The faithful will tell you, for example, that God exists in fact, in spite of the total lack of empirical evidence for God's existence. If pressed for evidence, they will come up with a series of irrational statements like, "Well, the world couldn't possibly exist unless God made it," or "There has to be a reason for all this to exist." According to the religious world-view, too, all of creation exists for the benefit of man.

In truth, of course, there are alternative explanations for the Earth's existence, lots of things happen for no reason, and there's no evidence that the universe exists purely for our enjoyment. For the fundamentalist who wants to believe every word of the Bible, however, life is a house of cards, with each card a tenet of faith. If you remove one card, the entire house collapses.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

The Christian fundamentalists want desperately to cling to their faith. In order to do that, however, they must somehow reconcile science with the tenets of their faith. That's where Creationism comes in. Genesis says that the world, including the first man and woman, was created in six days. If you add together all the "begats" in the Bible, then you can determine its age at about 10,000 years, give or take a millenium. The goal of the creationists is to "scientifically" support Genesis' version of the creation and to "scientifically" disprove both the Big Bang Theory and Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

The creation scientists enjoyed a few victories in the early 1980's. For example, a 1981 Arkansas bill passed which required the teaching of "creation science" in schools, including "evidences and inferences that indicate sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing"; "the insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about the development of all living kinds from a single organism"; "separate ancestry for man and apes"; and "a relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds." A similar law made it through the Louisiana legislature that year.

Fortunately, the courts overturned those laws. The presiding judge in the Arkansas case, William Overton, called the bill "a religious crusade, coupled with an attempt to conceal this fact" and that "both the purpose and effectŠis the advancement of religion in the public schools."

However, that has not deterred the creationists. Unable to get their own "theory" into the curricula, they simply changed strategy and began trying to get the competition eliminated. They attempt to accomplish this by using every chance they can get to debate and "disprove" the scientific theories. Their methods employ manipulation of fact and evidence; they also rely upon the relative ignorance of their non-scientist audiences and their listeners' strong desire to "believe."

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

Evolution is a scientific theory; the Biblical story of creation is a myth. When you attempt to transform mythology into science, you only succeed in reducing it to so much horse-shit.

Myths contain truths. Those truths, however, are not in the nature of scientific reasoning. Instead, those truths take the form of allegory, of metaphor, of poetry. They bind us to one another and help us understand who we are. The Biblical story of creation is a powerful myth. Reading the verses of Genesis helps us feel the connection to the thousands of generations that came before us and our contact with greater mysteries than those sciences can resolve.

By trying to force fit those same verses to scientific reasoning, however, you defeat their purpose--you make them ridiculous.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning--and it was the sixth day.

In the U.S., much of the power that legislates our day-to-day activities still lies in the hands of the states, not the Federal government. That tradition has derived from the belief that, as William Jennings Bryan said in the 1920's, "the essence of democracy is found in the right of the people to have what they want." Because of the varying "wants" of populations scattered throughout the nation, it has long been assumed that state governments could best determine what the people want.

However, we have another tradition in our country--that all Americans enjoy certain rights. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in order to protect the rights of the minority; the founding fathers recognized that the whim of "the people" would at times conflict with the rights of the individual. Perhaps unfortunately, the founding fathers did not include in their list the right to a good education.

One of the primary purposes of any society is the education of its children. The most primitive societies are structured to provide its children with the knowledge and skills necessary to survive and succeed: to hunt and gather food, to obtain shelter, to procreate and provide for their offspring. The education of the young also includes communicating those values that will support the continued existence of the society.

One or two-hundred years ago, the education received by students in Kansas probably had little effect on residents of Florida, New York, and California. In fact, it was probably a good thing that much of education rested with the states, whose economies and industries varied so greatly. Today, the "global village" has virtually become a reality, and it has become imperative that our society ensure that all its children receive the best possible education.

"The best possible education" would include neither the deliberate teaching of horseshit nor the deliberate withholding of information. As citizens of the global village, we should insist that all of our society's children learn the best and most current information, and should never have information withheld because it conflicts with someone's religious agenda.

The creationists are entitled to their rights to believe and express their opinions, no matter how cockamamie. However, for a public school system within America to deliberately deprive its students of knowledge or teach them shoddy science is almost criminal. All of us, whether parents or not, depend on the education of America's children to create our future. We need to start demanding that education will build the future we want to inhabit, and to use the courts and political systems as its architects.

Email your feedback on this article to

Make an IMPACT



Other articles by Morris Sullivan on this website: