Controversy II: Creation "Science"

Guide for Study:
The Arkansas Equal Treatment Act
Creation Science is an Establishment of Religion
Logical Objections to Creation Science
Creation Science is Not Science: Michael Ruse on Demarcation
Confirmation and Refutation: Karl Popper on Science
The Supreme Court Decision in Louisiana (Edwards vs Aguillard)
On-line Resources on Evolution vs. "Creation Science".
Questions for Study
Further Suggestions for Reading

Documents for Study:
The Arkansas Equal Treatment Act
The Overton Decision in the Arkansas Case
Michael Ruse: Why Creation Science is Not Science
The Supreme Court Decision in the Lousiana Case
Justice Brennan for the Majority in the Louisiana Case
Justice Scalia for the Minority in the Louisiana Case

This week we will look at the most recent controversy between evolution and creation: the debate over "creation science". Laws like the Tennessee law under which John Scopes was convicted had either been repealed or were defunct and dormant by the 1970s. Yet there remained private groups which opposed the teaching of creation. Starting in the 1970s, they began to press for "equal treatment" and equal time for "creation science." Their premiss was quite simple: given the controversy between evolution and creation, equal treatment should be given to each in biology courses in public schools. A series of laws were passed to this effect, of which two: one in Arkansas and another in Louisianna, were the object of federal District Court and Supreme Court judgements.

The origin of the strategy of equal time for "creation science" has been traced to a 1978 article by Wendell Bird in the Yale Law Journal, where Bird argued that "scientific creationism was science, not religion, and teaching it did not violate the constitutional restrictions against religious instruction, while not teaching it violated the free-exercise rights of creationist students." (Quoted in Ronald Numbers, 1992,. The Creationists, p. 320). This suggestion was picked up by Paul Ellwanger, a creationist who headed a group called Citizens for Fairness in Education. Ellwnager formulated model laws for state legislatures that were adopted in Arkansas and Louisiana.

The Arkansas Equal Treatment Act

The Arkansas Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act became the central example. Designated as Act 590 of 1981, it was passed by the 73rd General Assembly of the Arkansas state legislature, and signed into law on March 19 of that year by Governor Frank White.

Evolution was termed by the act "evolution-science" to create a terminological symmetry with "creation-science", the newly coined term for the special creation of species. The law required that if evolution were taught, equal treatment (in terms of amount of time devoted to the subject in the course) had to be given to creation science. A teacher could choose not to devote any time to creation science only if they devoted no time to evolution. In a related development, the state of Texas had required "equal time" for evolution and creationism in its textbooks. Texas was the largest single purchaser of textbooks, and the result was that many textbooks, in order to meet the law had no mention of evolution whatever, since if no mention were made of evolution, no mention need be made of creationism. Authors who rejected creationism (almost all biologists) therefore were forced to omit evolution.

In the Arakansas case, the law followed the creationist lead in defining "creation-science" in parallel to "evolution-science" (see Section 4 of the act). The stated purpose (section 6) was that of "protecting academic freedom for sutdents' diverse religious convictions", and specifically: "preventing the establishment of Theologically Liberal, Humanist, Nontheist, or Atheist religions". By this the framers of the law referred to what is sometimes termed "secular humanism" by creationists, a viewpoint which they define as a "religion" -- including under this rubric all of evolutionary biology, as well as any ethical or moral systems not based on the Biblical Ten Commandments. Yet at the same time, the law (in section 2) requires treatment of each of creationism and evolutionism that is limited to "scientific evidence for each model and inferences from those scientific evidences, and must not include any religious instruction or references to religious writings". In this way the legislators hoped to stigmatize evolution as a renegade religion ("liberal, humanist, nontheist or atheist"), while arguing that creationism is a scientific theory.

The challenge to the law was made by a wide coaltion of secular and religious groups on the following three grounds: (i) it constitutes an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which is made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, (ii) the Act violates a right to academic freedom which is guaranteed to students and teachers by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment., and (iii) the Act is impermissibly vague and thereby violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (as stated in the preamble to Judge Overton's decision in the case). Note that two amendments to the Constitution are invoked: the first and the fourteenth (this latter having been unsuccessfully invoked in the 1925 Scopes Trial).

Creation Science is an Establishment of Religion

You may read Judge Overton's decision in its entirety. In his rejection of the claims of the Arkansas legislature, and his decision to strike down the Equal Treatment Act as contrary to the first amendment, Overton relied on the "Lemon criteria" established in the federal case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971): "(i) First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; (ii) second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion ...; (iii) finally, the statute must not foster 'an excessive government entanglement with religion.'" Overton stated that failure on any of these three grounds was sufficient to invalidate the law. He found that the Equal Treatment Act violated the Lemon criteria because the notion of "creation" was an intrinsically religious one, intimately associated with the Biblical God, according to the various witnesses in favor of the Act.

The matter of the motivation of the sponsors of the Act was important to the judgment whether the act served a secular or religious purpose. The first amendment prohibits advancing religion within the state sector (though it protects the practice of religion in the private sector). The judgment that the proponents of the Act all shared a common committment to furthering one religion: Christianity, and one version of it: fundamentalism, played an essential role in determining Overton's decision.

(Note: the first amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Subsequent amendments and interpretation extend this to state laws as well).

Logical Objections to Creation Science

But Overton went further, and rejected the "two model approach" which was included in the act and promoted by the Institute for Creation Research, one of the leading "scientific creationism" groups. Overton rejected the logic behind this model, which held that given the two models, any argument or evdience against one was evidence for the other. In other words, any claim against "evolution-science" was automatically a claim for "creation-science". (see IV(A) of the Overton judgement).

We can reformulate this problem as follows: Suppose I argue that either I am King of England, or I am Kind of France. You present evidence that I am not King of England; so I conclude that you have presented evidence that I am King of France. On the face of it, this seems fallacious, and the problem lies with the original disjunction: either I am King of England, or I am King of France. I have not justified this proposition, and indeed, I cannot, for there are other alternatives: for example, that I am a Professor of Philosophy. More than two alternatives may obtain, and with respect to evidence about species, this is certainly the case. These facts may be explained by (i) Special Creation, (ii) Darwinian Evolution, or (iii) non-Darwinian Evolution.

The Arkansas Act and similar laws make the same logical mistake. The disjunction: either Evolution-Science or Creation-Science is groundless, since the creationists have failed to distinguish between the many different theories of evolution, which range from classical Darwinism (based on natural selection) to theories (such as "neutral mutation") which do not require any substantial use of natural selection. Evidence or argument against one theory of evolution does not automatically constitute evidence for (or against) another and different theory, and most importantly, does not necessarily provide evidence for creationism. For example, suppose I accept Steven Jay Gould's thesis that in some cases, species have formed much more quickly than proposed by Darwin. This does not constitute evidence for special creation; rather, it provides a ground for adopting Gould's theory of "punctuated equilibrium."

Creation Science is Not Science: Michael Ruse on Demarcation

One of the key witnesses for the litigants against the Act was Michael Ruse, a philosopher and historian of science who is an expert on Darwinism and evolution. Ruse, who was born and raised in England, is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Guelph University in Ontario, Canada. Ruse has made important contributions to Darwin studies, and is a noted authority in the area. Overton retained his testimony as key to a further objection to creation-science: it is not science. Overton summarized five criteria of science advanced by Ruse:

You may read Ruse's defence of his testimony, in the article "Creation Science is Not Science". Overton was evidently aided by the clarity of Ruse's views. The first two points of the five cited by Overton require that natural science be guided by and provide explanations relative to natural laws (not supernatural ones). So, to natural species as effects, natural causes must be assigned, not supernatural ones such as divine, or special creation. (This point was already raised by Hume in his critique of natural theology when he rejected assigning supernatural causes to natural effects.)

The third point cited by Overton requires that scientific theories be testable against the empirical world. In other words, scientific theories must be such as to have implications (or predictions) which can be compared to empirical phenomena. In the case of creation science, the purported cause -- a supreme or divine being -- is not empirical, and so the creationist theory cannot be considered scientific according to this criterion.

Confirmation and Refutation of Theories: Karl Popper on Science

Points (4) and (5) refer to a prominent theory of science developed by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. Popper had been a leading theoretician of the origin of scientific thought and its demarcation from non-scientific thought in his native Austria before he was forced to leave because of the Nazi ascension to power. After World War II, he became a professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics. His theory of science relied heavily on the following idea: a scientific theory it scientific because it has met attempts to refute it. Refutability is key to the notion of being scientific.

Commonly, we assume a scientific theory is "true" because it has been "proven" through experiment. Popper made central to his theory the critique of a logical fallacy in this argument: If theory A predicts phenomenon p, and phenomenon p is observed through experiment, this does not "prove" that A is true. The reasoning is formally as follows:

If A then p;
Therefore A.

This is a fallacy of reasoning, for p might occur for reasons other than A. However, Popper pointed out that the following reasoning is valid:

If A then p;
Therefore, not-A.

In other words, a theory can be refuted by a negative instance of its predictions, but cannot be proved by positive ones. In this latter case, the theory can only be "confirmed" (and the more often predictions are true, and the more surprising they are, the more the theory is confirmed; even if it can never be fully proven).

Popper's theories lies behind points (4) and (5) of Overton's conclusion: Science is falsifiable (point 5), and so its conclusions are tentative (point 4), subject to modification and even refutation. In his consideration of "creation-science" arguments, Overton noted that the proponents of the theory would not accept even the possibility of the refutation of their basic idea: that a Supreme Being had specially created each species. Consequently, creation-science, whatever it might be (and most likely it is a form of religious fundamentalism), did not meet the "refutability" test for a scientific theory.

The Supreme Court Decision in Louisiana (Edwards vs Aguillard)

The Arkansas case was not appealed to the Supreme Court (it was settled in Federal District Court), but when a similar Act in Louisianna was struck down in District Court, the State did appeal to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Edwards, Governor of Louisiana v. Aguillard decision of 1987. You can read the terms of the judgment by clicking here. This case is interesting since both affirming and dissenting views of the Justices were published:

The Brennan opinion rehearses with some modifications of formulation, arguments already made in the Overton decision, upon which Brennan bases his conclusions in large part. The Scalia opinion includes arguments of the following sort: (i) The Louisiana law was passed by the legislature and so had majority support, (ii) The law claims to be secular, and (iii) Some people who claim to be scientific reject evolution. These arguments lack the analytic framework of the Overton decision, and appear to accept what people say at face value, without critical scrutiny or the application of tests.

On-line Resources on Evolution vs. "Creation Science"

Considerable material is available on-line concerning this on-going debate. The Talk.Origin archive is a major pro-evolution site; material on this site is generally trustworthy, though the usual caution should be used when consulting on-line resources which are not peer reviewed like journal articles or scholarly books. Another specialized pro-evolution anti-creation site is the National Center for Science Education. An important document is the recent National Academy of Sciences document Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science, a position paper prepared by the the internationally recognized association of American scientists.

It is possible to confirm or refute the claim that Creation-Science is based on a religious creed by examining whether the charters of the various creation science groups require adherence to a specific religion (and more specifically, to a specific interpretation of it). These sites include: The Creation Research Society, and The Institute for Creation Research, which are among the oldest organisations of this type. (I have done this experiment at these and other sites found by on-line searches, and have concluded that all explictly require adherence to a particular religion as conditions for membership. This supports Judge Overton's claim, since their charters provide an insight to the motivations behind the "Equal Treatment" laws which they have supported and sponsored.)

Questions for Study

(1) Why did Judge Overton consider that the Arkansas Equal Treatment Act violated the First Amendment prohibiting the Establishment of Religion?
(2) How do you evaluate the problem of the logical fallacy in the Creation-Science/Evolution-Science dichotomy? (3) How does Michael Ruse argue that Creation Science is not Science? (4) Does Creation-Science meet the "burden of proof" standard of debate theory needed to reverse Evolution as a part of Biology or receive "equal time" with it?

Further Suggestions for Reading

The following books are recommended on the topic of the creation science/evolution controversy:

Ronald Numbers (1992). The Creationists (NY: Knopf). Numbers is an historian of science and medicine whose father was a creationist. His study is sympathetic to the individuals involved in creationism, but critical of their theories.

Ruse, Michael (ed, 1988) But is it Science? : The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books). Ruse presents a collection of essays critically examining the philosophical basis of the creation science claims.

Morris, Henry M. and Gary Parker (1987). What is Creation Science? Rev. and expanded. (El Cajon, CA : Master Books). This is the classic statement (first edition, 1982) of creation science by its most prominent exponents. The book is published by a non-academic, non-peer review press; I've found a copy at a second-hand store. It reads like a doctrinal statement (which it is), with no reference to biological research, though it contains interesting expressions of creationist reasoning and argument.

Gilkey, Langdon Brown (1985). Creationism on Trial : Evolution and God at Little Rock (San Francisco : Harper & Row) This volume represents an account of a 'theological' witness for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at the 'creationist' trial in Little Rock, Arkansas, December 7-9, 1981.

Montagu, Ashley (ed, 1984) Science and Creationism (New York: Oxford University Press). Montagu is a leading anthropologist, best known for his opposition to the idea of "race" as scientific.

Kitcher, Philip (1982). Abusing Science: the Case Against Creationism (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press). Philip Kitcher is, along with Michael Ruse and Elliot Sober, among the leading philosophers of biology. Kitcher has also written on socio-biology.