Evolutionism vs. Creationism
The 1999 decision by the Kansas Board of Education to delete any mention
of evolution from educational materials used in that state's public schools
resurrects the arguments between evolutionists and creationists about whether a
"creation" model deserves at least equal billing as an alternative theory to
evolution. It does, but not in a way that would please the religious advocates
of a biblical form of such a model.
It is appropriate that public education should present alternative
scientific theories, but it is also appropriate that it should exclude theories
that are not scientific. Creationists argue that their biblical creationist
model, or at least an "intelligent design" model, is a scientific theory, and
the evolutionists argue that it is not, and neither of them do a very good job
at explaining just what is and is not a scientific theory. Modern public
education needs to impart an understanding of this.
Too many defenders of the evolutionist position confuse the issue by
talking of scientific "facts", "hypotheses", "theories", "proof", etc. The use
of those words should be discouraged. They are not hard categories but only degrees
of confidence. Strictly and logically speaking, in empirical science there are
only three elements: operations, observations, and models.
Consider an object like a small cube of metal. Recognition of its
existence is the result, an observation, of applying the simple operation of
distinguishing it from its background. Now suppose we apply several other
operations to it. First, we put it between calipers, adjust them until contact
is made with the object, and read the scale which indicates "length". That is a
"distance-measuring operation" and the result, the observation, is a "distance"
or "width" for that object obtained at a particular moment in time.
Now let's put the object on a balance or spring scale. The result of
performing this operation is what we call "gravitic mass". Third, let's apply a
known force to one side of the object and measure its acceleration. The result
of that operation is what we call "accelerative mass". (The General Theory of
Relativity is just the result of expanding on the implications of the key
assumption that gravitic and accelerative mass are always the same in the same
frame of reference.)
A model is anything we use to represent something that behaves like it
in ways that are of interest to us. It could be a mental concept, a statement
in some ordinary language, a mathematical proposition, a computer program, or
even a physical object like the one of interest to us. Strictly speaking, any
object or phenomenon is a model of itself, but it is not always convenient to
handle the object or phenomenon itself, and so we use models of it that are
more easily manipulated, and that we think we understand because we constructed
Everything in empirical science that is called a "fact" or "theory" is
either an observation or a model. That means that every "fact" not specific to
a particular event is a kind of "theory", albeit perhaps a very simple one. It
is better to use the word "model". We may speak of the object having a width of
1 centimeter as a "fact", but logically, what we have is a model that if we
apply the operation of applying the calipers to it repeatedly, we will always
get 1 centimeter.
Now, of course, if we apply the calipers to the object at different
temperatures, we discover that our initial model, or "fact", is incorrect. We
get larger values at higher temperatures. Indeed, we can use such values to
measure temperature. Therefore, we modify our initial model to cover a range of
temperatures, resulting in a formula that relates width to temperature.
We can do the same thing with mass. We will get the same results at low
relative velocities, but as the relative velocity approaches the speed of
light, we get larger values of mass, so we have to adjust the model to cover a
full range of possible relative velocities.
So a "fact" is just a kind of model in which we have a high degree of
confidence. But it is still a kind of theory. Under certain circumstances it
might not be confirmed, and then the model would have to be modified to take
those circumstances into consideration.
For a model to be scientific it must be refutable. To be refutable, it
must divide the class of conceivable phenomena into those which do occur and
those which do not (or almost never occur statistically). No model can be
considered "scientific" that allows anything to occur, because it could not be
That brings us to theories of divine intervention and "intelligent
design". Let us say that we want a model to enable us to explain,
predict, and perhaps control some phenomenon, and someone answers
that "George did it that way". Now we posit some actor named "George" and try
to discern the principles according to how it does things or doesn't do them.
But if every conceivable phenomenon can be explained by "George decided to do
it that way" and "George can do it any way he wants to", then we don't have a
way to explain, predict, or control events, which, together with the cost of
use, are the elements of the utility of the model. There is nothing
refutable about a theory of George. That doesn't mean that there might not be a
George who controls everything any way he wants to, but such a model is not
useful for explaining, predicting, and controlling events, and therefore not
useful for our purposes or for education. Even if there is a George behind
everything, if he does things according to some consistent pattern, we want to
find out what that pattern is, and it doesn't help to speculate on the
mysterious nature of George if what we want is that pattern, something that we
can presumably discern without reference to George.
Now we come to evolution. Strictly speaking, "evolution", considered as
a concept, is not a single model. It is an analytic approach to the development
of theories. An evolutionary model is one that says "the species represented by
specimen A evolved from the species represented by specimen B", or perhaps that
"the species represented by specimen A and the species represented by specimen
B evolved from a common ancestor a record of which we haven't found yet". It is
a collection of models of the inheritance relations between pairs of
specimens. Each such evolutionary model makes certain predictions about what
kinds of records we will find if we keep looking for them. The first predicts
we will find forms intermediate between A and B in locations that seem to have
been laid down at times intermediate between those in which A and B were found,
and in a sequence that leads from B to A. The second predicts that if we find a
record going back far enough before the times of A and B and it has the common
traits of A and B that it will be of a form that could have evolved into both A
Such an approach even supports the third utility criterion of a proper
scientific model, control. It can indicate how we can transform one species
into another by a process of mutation, breeding, and perhaps genetic
manipulation, one gene at a time. Contrary to claims that no species has been
observed evolving into another, we have observed some short-lived species such
as insects evolve from one species into another, both in nature and in the
The problem with the "creationist" model put forth by advocates is that
while it "explains" every fossil record, it cannot predict further discoveries
in the way "evolutionist" models can. It fails the test of being a "scientific"
That doesn't mean there is no appropriate place for theories that are
not evolutionist. Let us consider what some of those theories might be.
If one produces the proteins that compose living matter by most chemical
processes, one gets a 50-50 mix of "left-handed" and "right-handed" molecules.
However, all life on earth so far found is composed strictly of left-handed
protein molecules (and right-handed sugar molecules). From this we can posit
the model that all life on earth had a single origin and that the first living
organism was composed of left-handed protein molecules. There is no way that
one composed of left-handed protein molecules could mutate or evolve into one
with right- handed protein molecules, or even of a mixture of them. The two
stereoisomeric forms are produced in equal quantities by non-biological chemical
processes, but are mutually exclusive in biological processes.
But now suppose we happened to find a single-celled organism somewhere
composed of right-handed proteins. How would our evolutionary approach to
modeling handle that? The answer is that it couldn't. We would have to
introduce a contamination model according to which the new organism
(1) Appeared on Earth (spontaneously or synthesized, by the hand of
George or perhaps a human or alien experiment); or
(2) Arrived from somewhere else, perhaps by drifting through space from
another planet where life was composed of right-handed proteins. Or perhaps by
being carried on a spaceship by visiting aliens and dropped off on Earth,
either deliberately or accidentally.
If it was a very, very simple organism we might be able to argue for (1)
above. However, if it was complex and evolved, and too large to have drifted
through space, then we would have evidence of an alien visitation at some time
in the past, perhaps very distant, perhaps not.
So why not use the argument in the latter case that "George did it"?
Again, because "George" is not a refutable model. It is also not a "minimal"
model. We go back to the principle called Occam's Razor, from William of
Occam: "Entia non sunt multiplicanda pręter necessitatum" —
"Do not multiply entities beyond necessary", or in more modern language, "Keep
it simple, stupid!" You might think that "George" is a "simpler" model than
"visiting aliens" or "advanced experimenter", but it is not. "Visiting aliens"
is refutable and has fewer implications for other theories, all of which we
want to fit together into a seamless unity.
The biblical creationist doctrine is, essentially, that every major
species is an independent evolutionary descent tree, while the standard
evolutionary doctrine is that there is only one evolutionary descent tree on
Earth. It should be called a doctrine, rather than a model, however, because
the position that no independent descent trees exist is not refutable. One
can't prove the nonexistence of something except in a field of observation in
which it is possible to exhaustively examine all possible evidence, and that is
not possible for something like the geological history of the Earth. All
evolutionists can say, scientifically, is that no independent descent tree has
thus far been found, but they exceed the bounds of scientific inquiry when they
assert that none will ever be found.
So to be a balanced, scientific, investigation, any evolutionary model
of the transformation of one species into another by mutation and natural
selection needs to be tested against its alternative of the transformation
having been the result of some contamination, an uncontrolled variable, such as
intervention, genetic manipulation, or artificial selection. The alternative
scientific model to evolution is contamination. Any scientific investigation
must always consider the possibility of contaminated evidence, and either
exclude that evidence or find a model to explain it.
Consider the problem in archeology of distinguishing between an artifact and a natural object. It is not always easy to discern whether a broken stone is natural or the result of the "intelligent design" of some ancestor who fashioned it into a tool, perhaps for cutting meat or grinding grain. Or the problem in paleontology of distinguishing between the remains of a naturally evolved specimen and one that was the result of artificial selection, such as a dog, livestock, or a cereal grain or fruit. Humans themselves are largely the result of deliberate self-breeding by tribal groups. We are increasingly contaminating the geological record with the products of our own intelligent design, and we need to be able to recognize those products when we re-discover them.
But such interventions do not accord with the biblical creationist
model, unless one considers the Bible as an allegory for intervention by a race
of visiting aliens (or perhaps even by a race that has lived beneath the
surface, hidden from us, for longer than life on the surface has been here, and
that either arrived from somewhere else a long time ago, or evolved on Earth in
a separate, subterranean line of evolution, or evolved on the surface and long
ago moved underground).
One suspects that most biblical creationists would not welcome the
proposition that the scientific models alternative to evolutionary ones would
have us be an ant farm for aliens.
Of course, it is also possible that everything we call "reality" is just
a program running in a giant computer, as in the movies Tron or
The Matrix. However, even if it is, if it occurs according to some
principles that are consistent and universal, then we want to identify what
those principles are, before the program gets re-written.