Creationism (written in 2008)

The recent press coverage of the creationism in schools controversy has been characterised by the usual polarisations and misrepresentations. Like George Bush saying “You’re either with us or against us”, atheists and scientists like to portray this as a conflict between creationists and evolutionists and a choice between Biblical literalism and neo-Darwinism. In reality, there is a full spectrum between those two extreme positions, at any point in which people can, and do, take up positions. The chief stances, in order of increasing reliance on evolution by natural selection (or decreasing teleology, which means operating purposefully to achieve pre-conceived goals), are young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, intelligent design, intelligent creationism, theistic evolution, vitalist evolution, Lamarckian evolution, neutralist evolution (aka moderate Darwinism) and what Steven Rose has called ultra-Darwinism.

Traditional Creationists believe that the universe, and everything in it, was created by a pre-existing, teleological, omnipotent God. They vary from those who believe in the literal six days to those who believe in six aeons. Most intelligent design theorists believe that the universe and all the ‘basic types’ of species on planet earth were created by a pre-existing teleological God, and that a limited amount of evolution has happened since then. They vary from those who believe in God as interventionist, in the sense of ‘able to make matter do what it would not naturally do’, and as non-interventionist (except mentally), after everything had been set up. As well as gaining in popularity in the United States now, this was quite a common position in the nineteenth century, when there was no scientific account of the origin of the universe.

Intelligent creationists, who include some intelligent design theorists, believe that the universe and all the parameters that permit the evolution of all living species from scratch on planet earth were created by a pre-existing, teleological God, either knowing what the consequences would be (determinist) or able to control it (interventionist). Theistic evolutionists believe that the universe and the parameters that permit the evolution of all living species on planet earth were created by a pre-existing God, and left to evolve by itself. This is probably the commonest position amongst conventional religious people (Christian and Jewish) and can include the belief that God has had some influence on the mind of man, though not on the rest of evolution.

Once one believes that the universe evolved by itself, as well as all the species on planet earth, then any evocation of God is talking about something very different, which could itself have evolved or been created by the mind of man, and may have some mental powers, though not materially interventionist or teleological. Hard-line evolutionists believe that evolution has occurred only in accordance with the laws of nature, which were themselves created by the evolving universe, though some evolutionists are more doubtful than others over whether those laws have been fully discovered yet, or even whether they are fixed.

As far as the Richard Dawkins of 19th century Germany, Ernst Haeckel, was concerned, the most fundamental question in this connection was over the issue of monism or dualism. As a consequence of his dedication to evolution and extreme antipathy to organized religions, Haeckel based his whole reputation on his adherence to monism, which maintains that the universe contains only one thing, which is usually taken to mean matter (and that which naturally emanates from matter, such as electro-magnetic radiation and magnetic fields). Though Haeckel himself was a pantheist, many other monists are atheistic materialists. The main consequence of monism is that everything that happens does so due to the properties of matter according to natural laws. Therefore, there is no clear distinction between inorganic and organic matter, living organisms arose spontaneously from inorganic matter and have evolved naturally into the vast array of species that we now see, there is no hierarchy of species except in the mind of the observer, and there is no free will, since by definition free will would be independent of material cause and effect chains (though this point is often unconvincingly contested by materialists).

Dualism, on the other hand, maintains that there is something else at work in the universe besides matter, and that many observed phenomena, especially in living organisms, could be due to a control of (or influence upon) matter by that additional factor. It has been equated with mind by many philosophers over the ages, with God by most religious people, and with the life force by vitalists. For many people, the evocation of that other factor is necessary to account for life, consciousness and either the illusion or reality of free will. Whatever it may be, we have no way of assessing what powers it may have, such as how much it can cause matter to do what matter would not otherwise do. We also have no way of knowing, if it exists at all, whether it was pre-existing and teleological, or whether it too has been evolving alongside matter (which is effectively the vitalist position).

As far as the general public is concerned, evolution merely means that every species evolved from another species, usually simpler, going all the way back to the original bacteria (though even that detail may have escaped them). Similarly, creationism means that every species was created by some omnipotent creator, though the method is left unspecified. Consequently, there is no incompatibility whatsoever between evolution and creationism as such. That, together with the issue of dissent amongst evolutionists, is something that scientists don’t want the public to know. The only incompatibility is between natural evolution and deliberate creationism. That raises an interesting question as to whether vitalist evolution, as expounded by the likes of Samuel Butler and Henri Bergson, is actually natural evolution or lies in some middle ground.

Scientists are always banging on about evidence, and it is true that geological evidence is at odds with young-earth creationism (unless of course it had been deliberately planted in order to send the faithless on the wrong track), but young-earth creationism is an extremely minority stance, especially in Europe. Some of the scientific evidence seems at odds with old-earth creationism, but, thereafter, the evidence doesn’t really shed any clear light on the matter (though exponents of intelligent design claim it supports their case). The scientific evidence undoubtedly points to evolution, but what difference would we necessarily be able to detect between natural evolution and controlled evolution? And if controlled evolution happened in jumps, from one species straight to the next in line in one generation, what difference would there be between that and creationism? The real difference between many modern-day creationists and most so-called evolutionists is not over whether evolution happened but over whether it happened naturally. The main dispute within broad creationism is over how much the actual control of evolution is due to good deterministic planning and how much to intervention.

Science undoubtedly will (or perhaps I should say ‘would’, given the current state of the planet) explain how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, and how complex organisms evolved from primitive ones, and how the infinitely complex chemical interactions in every living cell happen. But it cannot explain why the Big Bang happened, why life emerged and evolved, or why molecules behave the way they do in living cells. Their belief that it all happened naturally is based on faith. I raise the issue of cell chemistry because I find it remarkable that philosophers and biologists, who know little about chemistry, are often the most adamant neo-Darwinists, whilst many dissidents (such as Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Behe) are biochemists. The fact is that, to a chemist, it is patently obvious that molecules in cells do not behave as one would expect them to. They don’t do anything that isn’t permitted by the laws of chemistry, but they only start to do what one would expect at the moment of death of a cell. As a crude analogy, you wouldn’t expect a group of nuns on a trip from a convent to a city centre to strip off and shout profanities, though that is not impossible. Additionally, we all know that mind can influence matter, since decisions we make (possibly through the exercise of free will) can have radical effects upon the way the molecules in our own bodies behave.

The existence of a universe, complete with at least one species capable of perceiving it and wondering about its origins, is so mind-boggling that any attempt to explain it is bound to seem preposterous. To many people, the idea that it was deliberately created by some supernatural entity must legitimately seem no more unlikely than a universe that spontaneously created itself, and complex living creatures formed by chance (aided by natural selection, of course). If you can conceive of an entity capable of creating a universe, then presumably creating primitive living organisms, causing them to evolve, and making the evidence look convincingly natural would be pieces of cake by comparison.

We are still profoundly ignorant, and virtually anything is possible. Religious creeds do themselves no favours with their certainties and differences, but scientists also will not win the hearts and minds of the confused public by rubbishing the opposition and staking arrogant, unfounded claims to the truth. What is needed is sensible, rational, respectful debate, both in society at large and in classrooms.

For what I personally think, see “My Belief”.