Q&A: Creationism v.  Evolution

What is creationism?
Creationism is the belief that the Biblical Creation, as described in Genesis, is literally true - that God created the world and all creatures and plants in six days. Creationists generally believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old; that humans co-existed with dinosaurs (the "Fred Flinstone hypothesis"); that there was no Big Bang; there was a worldwide flood from which man and other animals were saved by Noah's Ark; and that humans were created in their modern form, and did not evolve from apes.

What is evolution?
This is the theory first developed by Charles Darwin and accepted by virtually every serious scientist in the world that every organism evolved from simpler ones by a process of random genetic mutation. Some mutations led to advantages that helped species to survive, leading to a process of natural selection that favoured improvements. As well as being a scientific orthodoxy, evolution is accepted by both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church as true.

Are there different forms of creationism?
Yes, though the broad tenets are the same. Most adhere doggedly to Genesis. Recently, there has been a rebranding of the movement as "creation science" or "intelligent design theory", which seeks to point out flaws in the theory of evolution and gaps in scientific understanding, and to argue for a supernatural creator. Organisms are so complex, they say, that they could not have arisen randomly - a banana, for example, is perfectly shaped for a human hand to hold, it is sweet, it has a tab at the top to remove the wrapper, and a built-in green-yellow-brown ripeness indicator. Geneticists say that there is no reason why these traits could not have been developed through evolution.

Does creationism have many supporters?
It is very much a minority opinion in the UK, where evolution is taught as part of the national curriculum, though there are no firm figures. There are millions of followers, however, in the United States. A recent poll found that 45 per cent of Americans believe that the Earth was created by God at some point in the last 10,000 years. Life on Earth is in fact known to be 4 billion years old, with the Universe 13 billion years old, and anatomically modern man emerging about 100,000 years ago.

How does creationism affect the teaching of science in a "creationist school"?
The main effect is that evolution and creationism are taught as theories carrying equal weight, even though the former is backed by a mountain of scientific evidence and the latter is unsupported by anything other than faith. Other examples include American science teachers telling pupils that the Grand Canyon was carved by a tsunami during the Flood rather than being eroded over millions of years. Biology textbooks in Alabama carry the legend: "This book may discuss evolution, a controversial theory some scientists give as an explanation for the origin of living things. No human was present when life first appeared on Earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be treated as theory, not fact."

Can the two disciplines co-exist in the classroom?
The school in question achieves exceptional science results for its pupils and is regarded as a beacon school, so can the two co-exist? Most scientists would say no. Children indoctrinated with creationist beliefs might be able to pass exams, but they will not be educated in science as the discipline is generally understood.

Why do scientists object to creationism?
Most do not object to individual adults who choose to believe in the literal truth of Genesis, though they might regard them as a little wacky. They get angry, however, when they see it taught to children as a viable scientific theory on a par with evolution, while evolution is presented as "controversial" when it is nothing of the sort. Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University says: "Any science teacher who denies that the world is billions (or even millions!) of years old is teaching children a preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood."

Are there many, if indeed any, scientists who take a creationist stance?
There are a handful - the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego lists the names of a few dozen on their website - but even in the US they form a tiny minority.

[Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent, The Times, 14/3/02]

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