Science vs. Creationism

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by Mark Ostapiak

 

The latest episode in the long struggle between the ideas of evolution and creationism was marked by a Dec. 14 federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of 11 parents in Dover, PA.

 

They insist that the local school board's decision to introduce "intelligent design" theory "in public school science classrooms violates their religious

liberty by promoting particular religious beliefs to their children under the guise of science education."

 

Another lawsuit, introduced before the Atlanta Division of the U.S. District Court on Nov. 8, has six parents of students challenging the Cobb County School District (CCSD) in Georgia for an anti-evolution disclaimer on high school science texts that reads:

 

"This textbook contains material on evolution.  Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."

 

At stake in these suits are (1) the principle set in the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, which clearly stipulates the separation between church and state; (2) a 1987 Supreme Court decision deeming it illegal to devote equal time for teaching "creation-science" alongside evolutionary science; and

(3) the teaching of well-established evolutionary science in public schools throughout the country.

 

Fact versus "theory" is the basis and most compelling aspect of the historic argument between proponents of evolution and creationism, where the latter’s

religious dogma asserting that the earth was created by a divine being is thinly veiled behind the euphemism, "intelligent design."

 

Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at Berkeley, is credited with establishing in 1991 the philosophical underpinnings of intelligent design. He argued that

Darwinian evolution was based on weak assumptions and scant evidence.

 

In addition, according to a Dec. 21, 2001, article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "in 1996, a biochemist at Lehigh University, Michael J. Behe,

offered scientific argument in favor of intelligent design. Mr. Behe introduced the idea that some living things are irreducibly complex, meaning that they

could not have evolved and must have been designed."

 

Behe's claim of irreducible complexity, the topic of his 1996 book “Darwin's Black Box,” “may well represent the most sophisticated and the most

seductive-creationist attack on evolution in a quarter century,” says H. Allen Orr, writing for the Boston Review in 1996.

 

Behe states in his book that "by irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic unction, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively stop functioning."

 

However, an all-important fundamental cellular process, the Krebs cycle, is known to be able to skip certain crucial stages, and continue to operate.

Otherwise known as the citric acid cycle, Krebs is a key piece to cellular metabolism, necessary for all life.

 

It’s also peculiar that the argument of irreducible complexity is limited by Behe to our planet, as if chemical, biological, and physical processes occur

only under conditions here. There’s evidence that the original components of life on earth could have stemmed from processes in interstellar conditions,

billions of years ago. On Sept. 28, 1969, an extra-terrestrial meteorite fell in Murchison, Victoria, in Australia, that contained 60 amino acids.

 

"It now seems possible that at least some of the amino acids found in meteorites predate the formation of our solar system and were in fact synthesized in interstellar space," says Dr. Christopher Chyba, head

of the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe (LITU) at the SETI Institute.

Amino acids are essential for all life, and they can be reproduced in lab experiments when a mixture of methane, ammonia, water, and hydrogen sulfide (inorganic compounds that are enormously abundant throughout interstellar space) is exposed to ultraviolet light to simulate the effect of sunlight on the chemicals. Nucleic acids, the fundamental substances of life, were also produced.

 

Given the tens of billions of years that those same compounds had to interact under innumerable conditions throughout the universe, the possibility of what could be done in the lab is not unlikely to be duplicated in space.

 

Obviously, from science, with all its various disciplines, a general explanation for the root of life’s origins can be achieved. However an intelligent design approach acts as an unnecessary brake on further scientific exploration. Its limitation on what is knowable is not good science.

 

History of the debate

 

The creationism vs. evolution debate predates the emergence of modern evolutionary theory. The debate got underway in the 1820s, when the Rev. William Buckland, the first professor of geology at Oxford University, refuted the Biblical basis for geological history.

 

Since Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection was published in 1859, creationists have had to additionally defend the scientifically proven ideas

of earth’s biological history. Their version of the two natural histories has no foundation other than the book of Genesis, though modern-day rhetorical nuances have often made the underlying religious message difficult to spot.

 

A precursor of the current ideological struggle was the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial," in which Dayton, Tenn., high school biology teacher John Scopes was

charged with illegally teaching evolution in his class.

 

In 1980, the McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education case resulted in a decision deeming Arkansas law #590 unconstitutional on the basis that it was meant to advance religion in school under the guise of "creation-science."  

 

Today, many advocates for this view dress-up their dogma in different ways, but for the staunchest evangelicals there is no equivocation: a divine force

created the earth and all of its life forms in seven days; the present day geological column is the result of Noah’s great flood; and biological diversity is the work of a supernatural being, who is referred to as God by most religious advocates of creation-science and as an "intelligence" by proponents of intelligent design.

 

When faced with the well-established fact of a sequenced geological column, the creationists often resort to pseudo-scientific rhetoric to explain why fossils of primitive sea-creatures are invariably found in sedimentary layers beneath that containing dinosaur fossils, and early human remains above that of dinosaurs.

 

They maintain that there are three primary reasons why all extinct creatures are found in subsequent layers of the earth’s sedimentary column:

 

• Hydrodynamic sorting: Those creatures that were denser or more streamlined would fall first to the bottom and should end up in the lower strata.

 

• Ecological zonation: Things living in the bottom of the ocean end up in the lowest strata, whereas those that lived in mountaintops, for example, would

probably end up in the uppermost strata.

 

• Differential intelligence of mobility: Smarter animals or animals that can move and avoid the flood waters (of Noah’s time) might end up in higher strata

because they would have escaped the rising flood waters longer than others.

 

A succinct refutation of these three principles was presented by the late Harvard professor, Stephen Jay Gould, in his expert testimony during the 1980 McLean v. Arkansas case. He used the example of a single-celled creature, foraminifera:

 

"It is a unicellular calcite called foraminifera. Many of the foraminifera are planktonic; that is, they are floating organisms. They all live in the same lake

floating at the top or the upper waters of the oceans, they don't differ in hydrodynamic properties. They live in the same ecological zone, and they certainly don't differ in intelligence and mobility. They don't even have a nervous system.

 

"And yet for the last 20 years there has been a worldwide program to collect deep sea cores from all the oceans of the earth. And in those cores, the

sequence of planktonic foraminifera species are invariably the same. Each species is recognizable and lives in only a small part of the column; some at the bottom of the column, some at the top of the column.

 

Those at the bottom do not differ from those at the top, either in intelligence, ecological examination, or hydrodynamic properties."

 

Geologists, on the other hand, assign dates to the fossil record based on three scientifically proven facts based on firmly proven conclusions that were established by employing the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, and testing:

 

• Original horizontality: This principle states that sedimentary rocks that are deposited over large areas are laid down initially in relatively horizontal layers.

 

• Superposition: This principle states that given the principle of horizontality, those strata that lie on top of others will be younger because they were

deposited later, unless subsequent movements of the earth have disturbed the sequence by folding, faulting, and other such processes.

 

• Biotic succession: This principle states that fossils occur in the same sequence everywhere in the earth. 

 

Fact vs. theory; Gaps

 

The Cobb County, Ga., school district’s disclaimer sticker is consistent with creationists’ past attempts to debunk evolution. They argue, according to Gould in his 1981 essay, "Evolution as Fact and Theory," that fact and theory are "part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess."

 

Actually, evolution is both a theory and a fact, wherein facts are the world’s data and theories are ways in which science interprets these facts.

 

While many different theories—from Darwin’s original theory of natural selection, to Gould’s associated theory of punctuated equilibrium—have sought to explain the natural processes by which amphibians, birds and mammals from reptiles, and humans from other mammals, the factual basis for evolution is firm.

 

It’s much like the fact that gravity exists. No matter how one tries to label this natural phenomenon, when matter is dropped gravity always pulls it to the ground. Likewise, earth’s natural processes tend to produce changes in organisms that often lead to the appearance of new species.

 

Gaps in the fossil record have been exploited by creationists who argue that evolution did not happen.

 

An excerpt of the intelligent design text, "Of Pandas and People," which has been chosen to be used in the Dover, Pa., schools, reads: "The absence of

unambiguous transitional fossils is strikingly illustrated by the fossil record of whales. … If whales did have land mammal ancestors, we should expect to find some transitional fossils.

 

"Why? Because the anatomical differences between whales and terrestrial mammals are so great that innumerable in-between stages must have paddled and swam the ancient seas before a whale as we know it appeared. So far these transitional forms have not been found."

 

However, in Pakistan in 1993, scientist found in younger sediments 120 meters above remains of the oldest known whale ancestor, Pakicetus (some 52 million years old), a “missing link,” Ambulocetus natans (literally, the swimming walking-whale).

 

Crucial parts were found intact that illustrated the transitional status of this species between sea and land.

 

Yet, gaps in the fossil record still remain. Gould has explained these gaps as resulting from the uneven rate at which species evolve. He has argued—and most paleontologists now agree—that the evolutionary process does not proceed in a gradual manner but is characterized by long periods of equilibrium occasionally punctuated by relatively sudden bursts of change.

 

Such a process, rather than producing a smooth fossil record, might result in one characterized by occasional leaps from one species to another.

 

For Marxists, a historical (thus, a dialectical) and materialist approach to all questions is the foundation of scientific thought. Like all scientific disciplines, Marxism itself must stand up to the test of experience in a universe in which all matter is constantly changing. Evolution takes this principle and applies it to natural law and all forms of life.

 

Conversely, intelligent design is simply religious dogma. No matter how scientific its rhetoric, it is inextricably tethered to the creationist line that God

or a supernatural being created all life. Its limited way of thinking runs counter to the dialectical materialist view that the universe and its mysteries are knowable through scientific inquiry.

*This article first appeared in the January 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.

Socialist Action News

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