Note: this Entry is part of a series of Entries on Evolution and Creationism, and is not intended to be read in isolation.
Creationism is a religio-political movement based mainly in the USA. Its proponents are fundamentalist Christians who oppose the theory of evolution, on the grounds that it is in conflict with the teachings of the Bible, which many of them believe and maintain to be the literal truth.
Their principal aim has been to either prevent the teaching of evolution in science classes or, failing that, to have it taught as being merely one theory, on an equal footing with the story of the Creation as related in the Bible. Creationists are mainly concentrated in the conservative states in the south and central areas of the USA where religious, specifically evangelical Christian, influence on education policy is strongest. The movement is not currently having as much influence as it once had and, at the time of writing, Alabama is the only state left where biology textbooks are required to bear warning stickers if they contain discussion of the 'controversial' theory of evolution. It does remain permissible, however, for parents to withdraw their children on religious grounds from science classes where evolution is taught.
Creationists often label their belief 'creation-science', although it bears little relation to science as it is practiced in the rest of the world, but is rather an extension of religious faith.
Common Creationist Claims
'Scientific Proof of the Creation'
Creationists often claim to present scientific proof of the Creation. However, there seems to be a misunderstanding among them of what constitutes proof. Despite claiming to present positive evidence of the creation, the only evidence they generally cite in favour of Creationism is the Bible, a book written by many authors several thousand years ago. They generally prefer to present what they maintain is evidence against evolution.
This is a basic error of logic as, even if you could prove evolution to be false, such proof would not in itself support any other theory in particular.
An analogy: it is possible to show that Newton's theory of gravitation is inaccurate. However, merely showing this inaccuracy does not support any alternative theory - it merely shows the need for one. There is considerable positive evidence for relativity, which shows it to be the best currently-available alternative. No positive evidence for an alternative to evolution is offered by Creationists, merely statements aiming to undermine evolution and those who teach it.
'The Fossil Record is Incomplete'
Creationists argue that evolution makes too many assumptions. They claim that the fossil record is incomplete, and that without a complete set of fossils of every lineage of creatures it is impossible or unreasonable to make assumptions based on the limited evidence. They further claim that as scientists have been collecting fossils for over 150 years, the very paucity of the evidence casts doubt on the theory of evolution. They argue that after so many years of collecting fossils, if evolution were true we would by now have a complete fossil record.
It is perfectly true that the fossil record is incomplete. However, there are perfectly sound reasons why one should expect it to be so. In fact, one should be surprised if it were otherwise. Fossils form when animals are buried very quickly after death. This happens very rarely to animals that live on land. Fossils then form part of layers of rock which, over the course of millions of years, are compressed and folded by the movements of the earth's crust. Most fossils that exist would be destroyed or warped beyond recognition by such action. It is then necessary for a fossil to come somehow to the surface, on land, before it can be discovered by a human. And finally, it must be recognised for what it is before it is any use as scientific evidence. With all these factors against us, it is more surprising that we have found as many fossils as we have.
Even so, there are fewer fossils found than many people realise. Probably the best known dinosaur to have existed was Tyrannosaurus rex. You might expect that this very well known animal was very common, or at least known from many, many fossils. However, until 1993, the total number of T-rex fossils known was just three. Three more have been found since, due to the increased funding available to paleontologists since the release of the film Jurassic Park, but this is still a total of only six complete fossils of the best known predator of the Cretaceous Period. These six fossils are spread over a range of about five million years, and T-rex was, as is well known, very large. However, given the paucity of T-rex fossils, statistically speaking it is perfectly credible that a fair-sized animal (say about the size of a man) could have been around on the surface of the earth for five million years and have no fossil record at all.
'Nebraska Man and Piltdown Man Show Evolution Theory to be False'
'Nebraska man' was a fossil that was originally believed to be that of a hominid. Extensive background theory was developed to describe the life of Nebraska man. The fossil was later found to be the tooth of an extinct species of pig.
'Piltdown man', which purported to be the fabled 'missing link' between man and his ape ancestors, was a deliberate hoax perpetrated on the scientific community. It was eventually shown to be a combination of hominid fossils and orang-utan jawbones.
The Creationists' use of these examples is puzzling, as nobody, especially reputable scientists, believes either of these examples to be anything other than an embarrassing error and a hoax, respectively. No textbook on evolution uses them in evidence. They are therefore utterly irrelevant to any discussion of the theory except as minor historical detail and as a demonstration of the fact that science, when presented with new evidence, adapts theories to fit the facts rather than the other way round.
'There Are No Fossils of Transitional Species'
Creationists often point to the lack of what they call 'transitional species' in the fossil record. They state that, as the only fossils that have been found are of 'well-defined' species, there can have been no evolution. However, they do not define what constitutes a 'transitional species'.
In fact, there are many transitional species in the fossil record and many, many more in the modern world. For instance, there are many species of flying squirrel, which would seem by any standards to be almost exactly in the middle of the process of evolving from tree dwelling, squirrel-like creatures to airborne, bat-like creatures.
'Biological Tissues Are Irreducibly Complex'
'Irreducible complexity' is a concept intended to discredit the possibility that biological structures such as eyes could have evolved by random mutation. The general gist of the argument is that a structure such as the human eye is only any use when it is complete, with the lens, retina, iris, etc in place. It is inconceivable that a structure as complex as the eye could have come into being spontaneously by random mutation.
There are well-known explanations, presented by reputable scientists such as Richard Dawkins, describing how the eye can evolve in a relatively short period (only a few tens of millions of years) from being a simple flat spot of light-sensitive cells on a surface to being an eye as we know it.
The Creationist response is that even a simple light-sensitive patch is 'considered irreducibly complex' and is therefore evidence of an intelligent designer. Their example of an irreducibly complex object is a mousetrap. A mousetrap features bait, a trigger, a mechanism, a killing bar and other features. Remove any one of those features, they say, and the trap won't work. It is therefore irreducibly complex and evidence of an intelligent designer.
However, this example starts from a faulty premise - that you can't make a simpler mousetrap. The simplest mousetrap would be a hole in the ground - and a hole in the ground certainly doesn't need a 'designer'. A hole in the ground with some food at the bottom would be even more effective, and still no designer is required.
What the 'irreducible complexity' argument also fails to take into account is that evolutionary advantages are self-reinforcing. A mousetrap cannot evolve, because one hole in the ground will not have offspring that will get better at catching mice. A species, on the other hand, can gain evolutionary advantages that it will tend to use more and more in succeeding generations. Several features can evolve in parallel, thus reinforcing the advantage further.
Ultimately, irreducible complexity is a fallacy that does not support the Creationist argument, but draws attention to basic misunderstandings of the actual theory of evolution.
'DNA Could Not Have Come About by Chance'
Creationists point to the complexity of the DNA molecule and the mechanism of replication as evidence that there must have been some outside agency designing the process. However, their descriptions of the process of replication are often flawed or simply inaccurate, but when these inaccuracies are pointed out by professional molecular geneticists, they simply ignore them.
One creationist argument is that something as complicated as DNA arising by chance would be like throwing a bagful of scrabble letters down and expecting a sentence to be formed. This merely shows an ignorance of the statistics at work. Firstly, the chances against the random formation of a self-replicating molecule are far, far higher than this. The spontaneous formation of such a molecule at any given moment really is incredibly unlikely. But there is an entire planet on which it could happen, and several billion years for it to happen in, and the speed of the reactions is such that random reactions are happening thousands of times every second. Therefore, the number of opportunities for random formation could fairly be described as 'astronomical'. If one has a grasp of the statistics involved, you would be more properly surprised that it didn't happen sooner, and more often, rather than being surprised it happened at all. Of course, humans have a notoriously poor grasp of statistics and probabilities, as shown by the number of lottery tickets sold each week.
Further than this, what the Creationist argument neglects is that this random event by definition only needs to happen once in the whole history of the planet. Once the self-replication process is started, barring accidents (eg, a meteor strike on that specific square foot of ocean during that particular hour in a four billion-year period) the process will repeat, the molecules will spread, and the self-replicators will become more and more common and less and less likely to be vulnerable to accidents.
The theory of evolution, and science itself, are not in conflict with religion as such. Many reputable scientists are deeply religious and see no conflict between their work and their belief. Stephen Hawking described the search for a Grand Unified Theory as an attempt 'to know the mind of God' - hardly an anti-religious statement.
On occasion the evidence of the real world contradicts the teachings of certain specific religious scriptures. When this happens, one has a choice. One can either accept the evidence of the real world, or one can reject it. The latter is the choice of the Creationist movement.
The reasons for the Creationist rejection of the theory of evolution in particular are open to speculation. It is probably because the real-world evidence for it is the most direct challenge to one of the best known stories in the Bible, and one of the most important planks of religious faith - the belief that God created everything exactly as described in the Bible.
However, the dubious methods used by the Creationist lobby to discredit this generally-accepted scientific theory do not do themselves any credit. If anything, their claims of their right to their own beliefs would be perfectly acceptable if they did not feel the need to attempt to discredit others.
It should be pointed out that Creationists are a tiny, unrepresentative - albeit quite vocal - minority among Christians. The vast majority of adherents to the Christian faith are not fundamentalists, and are perfectly able to accept that large parts of the Bible are allegorical rather than intended to be taken as the literal truth.
- Common terms used in discussions of Creationism and evolution are described here.
- For a Creationist viewpoint, visit The Institute for Creation Research.
- For a scientific discussion of evolution and Creationism, try Talk Origins.
Other Entries in this Project
- Evolution and Creation - an Introduction and Glossary
- The Tension Between Science and Religion
- The Theory of Evolution - Part II
- Discrepancies in the Theory of Evolution - Part II
- Human Evolution - the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
- Creationism and Creation Science - A Perspective
- Creation - A Mainstream Christian Viewpoint
- Creationism in the UK