You are here

Keep Science Free from Creationism

by Eugenie C. Scott

Who is Dean Kenyon and why are we mindful of him? Twenty-five years ago he co-authored a pretty good book on the biochemistry of the origin of life. He started publishing creationist articles a few years later, and hasn't published much in mainline science journals, since. He teaches at a good state university with a graduate program, but has no graduate students of his own, and hasn't had a research grant since the mid 1970's. He recently co-authored a high school biology supplemental text (Of Pandas and People) that was criticized by scientists for inaccuracy and by teachers for bad pedagogy.

Such is the resume of the man whom Stephen Meyer, co-author of a section of that text, calls "a world-class scientist." This may be a bit hyperbolic. More accurately, Kenyon is a scientist of modest accomplishments who apparently has let his religious views cloud his scientific judgement.

Kenyon is embroiled in a debate at his university, which, depending on your view, either centers on the right to advocate scientifically defendable if unorthodox views, or the right of a department to protect less-knowledgeable students from faulty scholarship. Kenyon was not fired, nor given a pay cut, nor forbidden to teach his ideas to advanced students. He was removed from teaching ideas outside of science in an introductory biology class.

Can a college professor teach anything he wants? Obviously, if I offer a class in physics, I should not teach students French literature; no one argues whether class content should match the course description. Now, suppose the physics course description directs me to teach mechanics. I might want, for historical purposes, to discuss both Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics, and that would be appropriate. But what if I taught that the two views are equally viable explanations? Do I have the academic freedom to teach students erroneous science? Maybe, but my colleagues would certainly not want me indoctrinating freshman non-majors in such irregular physics.

This directly parallels Kenyon's situation. Kenyon is teaching inexperienced students that evolution did not occur. (He describes his position thus:"Microevolution is well-documented but macroevolution is far less well documented and may not have occured.") While the general public understands that advocating Aristotelian mechanics is "wrong" physics, it doesn't realize teaching that evolution didn't occur is equally "wrong" biology. Kenyon is teaching that the organizing principle of biology - evolution - just did not occur. This is like a chemist claiming academic freedom to teach students that the periodic table of elements is irrelevant to chemistry.

Let's define some terms. The creation/evolution conflict reflects two views of the history of the universe. Creationists claim that the galaxies, the solar system, the planet Earth, and the plants and animals on it were produced all at once, in their present form. Evolutionists say that the universe did not appear all at one time, but gradually over billions of years. Elements were formed in suns, space dust coalesced into planets, and the earth gradually took form. Simple life appeared, and later gave rise to a great diversity of living things. Rather than being created separately as "kinds", living forms are descended, with modification, from common ancestors.

"Simple life appeared" is a major issue for creationists. Was it through natural or supernatural causation?

The study of how life originated is an active area in science today. The "primal soup" theory, the formation of replicating molecules on crystalline clay substrates, and the seeding of amino acids and other components of life from comets and meteors (in which these molecules form spontaneously in space), and other ideas are under consideration.

Meyer's contention that life is too complex to form naturally ignores research exploring the possibility that life is actually self-organizing. Combining the tools of mathematics, physical properties of matter, and information theory, this field has its roots in the work of Nobel Laureate Manfred Eigen, and has been expanded by Peter Schuster, Bernd-Olaf Kuppers, and in the US by several investigators including Stuart A. Kauffman, whose newest book, The Origins of Order; Self-organization and Selection in Evolution was just published in 1993.

These investigators observe that the building blocks of life (amino acids and other compounds known to form spontaneously) can link together, and some of the compounds formed are "autocatalytic": they cause other amino acids to link up. Something like a primitive metabolism emerges in these models -- and scientists are testing these models in laboratories. Exciting developments in the production of something very close to RNA, a major chemical of life, have recently been announced. If life is capable of self-organization, the criticisms raised by Meyer against "primal soup" biochemistry are irrelevant.

Scientists do not agree on how life began - yet. And "yet" is a very important word in science. One should not assume that just because something is not currently understood that it never will be understood. Meyer suggests that because some models of the natural origin of life have been disproved, we must give up our search and seek a supernatural explanation.

Resorting to the supernatural violates a major canon of modern science: explain only through natural causes. The reason is not antireligious, but purely practical: better answers are found when only natural causes are specified.

Consider: if I grow two plots of corn, fertilize only one, and find that both yield the same number of ears, how do I explain my results? I can examine the chemical content of the fertilizer, and find that it contained no nitrogen, or I can say, "God wanted both plots to produce the same number of ears." Well, maybe so.

So I plant two more plots, fertilize only one, and this time the fertilized plot produces more ears. How do I explain this? Looking for natural causes, I might find that this batch of fertilizer has nitrogen, and maybe I can make a generalization to test further. But if I allow supernatural explanation, I have to consider that maybe God did it. Where would this get me? How can I establish general explanatory principles, like corn needs nitrogen to grow well, if I can explain away my results by invoking a capricious Creator? If I am to understand the natural world, I have to conduct my science as if only natural forces affected my subject.

And indeed, the world appears to operate according to regularities -- it looks like God doesn't reach down and arbitrarily mess up experiments. So we don't need to look for miracles: just keep trying to find the natural explanation. In Pandas, Meyer claims that scientists don't allow supernatural explanation because the supernatural is not observable. Nonsense. Particle physicists study phenomena they can't directly observe, and so do many other scientists. But you can't (scientifically) study variables you can't test, directly or indirectly. You can't use supernatural explanation because you can't put an omnipotent deity in a test tube (or keep it out of one.) As soon as creationists invent a "theo - meter" maybe then we can test for miraculous intervention.

Now, Kenyon and Meyer know that science has to work without supernatural intervention, but for theological reasons they make an exception for evolutionary sciences. In Pandas, they redefine science into two kinds: "inductive sciences" and "historical sciences." My corn plot example falls into "inductive science": explanations do not invoke supernatural intervention, but only refer to natural law. The goal of inductive science, they say, is to discover how the "natural world would normally operate on it's own." (We assume that "normally operate" allows even here for a miracle or two when needed.) The supposed goal of "historical science" is "to reconstruct past events and conditions." We're supposed to believe that geology does not refer to natural laws and regularities.

In reality, "historical sciences" boils down to those disciplines that have theological implications, whereas "inductive sciences" are those that don't. Similarly, creationists accept microevolution - genetically based change within a species - but deny macroevolution - the evolution of new species. The mechanisms of microevolution can produce speciation, which is the first step in macroevolution.

What makes the authors nervous is the possibility of descent with modification. Stars and galaxies may be evolving, but not starfish and galagos. The nervousness is theological: if descent with modification occurred, humankind becomes part of nature, less special, and to some, less likely to have been created with a purpose in mind. But purpose or meaning of life is a philosophical matter, not a scientific one. Many accept evolution as the history of life and still believe that life has a purpose. But purpose must be found in metaphysics, not in physics.

Within "historical science," Kenyon and Meyer are especially wary of Darwinism, evolution by natural selection. In modified form it provides the basis of our understanding of how descent with modification has taken place. Darwinism causes them difficulty because it provides a natural mechanism to explain both the variety and similarity of living things. They seem to feel that if life could have come about naturally, and if the variety of life can be explained by Darwinism, then God is diminished: a less active Creator not personally involved in his Creation. Their solution is to reject Darwinism, origin of life research, and the methodology of modern science. Theology overshadows science.

Kenyon and Meyer are now reviving special design and creationism under the title "intelligent design theory." They hearken back to William Paley, who in 1802 proposed the existence of complex structures in living organisms proved the existence of God. Just as a complex artifact like a watch had to have a watchmaker, he reasoned, so a complex structure like the vertebrate eye has to have had a designer. The modern incarnation, "intelligent design theory," claims that complexity is the result of a "plan" or blueprint. Blueprints are too complex to spontaneously occur, thus they must have creators.

Both Paley and "intelligent design" are refuted by the same arguments.

First, people seem to find "design" even when it is not there. An entomologist, after searching through hundreds of thousands of butterflies, has discovered the "butterfly alphabet": naturally-occurring patterns that look like English letters. Does this mean that butterflies read English? Would a Russian entomologist find a different set of letters? It is more sensible to explain the butterfly alphabet as random markings that the human mind has organized into a pattern.

But even if we tend to see design more often than it actually occurs, there are organisms that work well and structures that are quite ingenious. Can perfection be explained by natural rather than supernatural causes? Yes. A complex structure like the vertebrate eye is produced by a plan held in the DNA of the cell. This plan can evolve through natural selection. Complex, well-working structures could have been produced by supernatural intervention, or they could have evolved by natural selection. Observing "perfection" in nature doesn't allow us to choose.

One has to look at the clunkers, the Rube Goldberg structures, and ask if these are more likely the result of omniscient design or of evolution. And there are plenty of examples of questionable design.

How about human bipedalism? If an engineer were to design a biped from scratch, he or she would not take the body plan of an arboreal quadruped and tip it on its back legs. Would an omnipotent designer deliberately create our injury-prone lumbar vertebral region, our hernia-prone abdominal region, our fracture-prone kneejoint? Why don't birds get hernias and slipped disks? Did God design better bipedalism for birds than for humans?

If a panda needed a grasping hand, why make a thumb out of a wrist bone, instead of using the extant thumb? Natural selection operating on available genetic variation could explain such a Rube Goldberg structure. Would an omniscient creator produce a waterbird like the anhinga of Florida that lacked waterproof feathers?

Natural selection does not have to produce perfectly adapted forms; all that's needed is "survival of the fit enough." But the presence of so many structures that barely work, or which are obviously cobbled together from earlier stages of evolution, is more than enough reason to doubt that creatures were separately, specially designed.

Such disproofs of intelligent design do not mean that evolution is incompatible with the idea of a creator. Recently I went on a retreat with a group of ministers all of whom were creationists, but who were also evolutionists, believing that evolution was God's mode of creation. But we should not be teaching their theistic evolution in science class any more than we should be teaching Kenyon's "intelligent design." Evolutionary biologists have given us a very good picture of the history of life, and have earned their place in science. The ultimate cause is a matter of theology, which should be kept out of science classes.

All science, not just "inductive science," has to operate without reference to the supernatural. To study the history of life without reference to the supernatural is no more atheistic than taking a square root without reference to the supernatural.

But Meyer and Kenyon accuse scientists who disallow supernatural explanations for natural phenomena of being philosophical naturalists who deny the existence of God. They are confusing a necessary methodological naturalism with a philosophical naturalism that indeed, some scientists (and some bookkeepers and some ballet dancers) hold. But like bookkeeping and ballet dancing, there is nothing inherent in science that forces someone to accept naturalism as a philosophy.

Meyer's arguments are ignored in universities today not because they are too new, but because they have been tried and found wanting, some of them decades ago. The scientific community looks at these criticisms as an elephant does a fly: if noticed at all, they are viewed as minor annoyances that take time from more important work. As Huxley said, "Life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once."

And that is why Dean Kenyon should not be teaching creationism as science to freshmen.

Reprinted with permission from Insight
Insight February 21, 1994