The evolution of creationism.

Science, technology, and life.
May 11 2005 4:00 AM

What Matters in Kansas

The evolution of creationism.

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This week, the Kansas State Board of Education will wrap up hearings on "intelligent design," a theistic alternative to the theory of evolution. Scientists have refused to testify, dismissing ID as tarted-up creationism. Newspapers are comparing the hearings to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Liberals, editorialists, and biologists wonder aloud how people can refuse to see evolution when it's staring them in the face. Maybe they should ask themselves. It's the creationists in Kansas who are evolving. And it's the evolutionists who can't see it.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

To understand the fight in Kansas, you have to study what evolutionists accuse creationists of neglecting: the historical record. In the Scopes trial, creationists defended a ban on the teaching of evolution. That was the early, authoritarian stage of creationism—the equivalent of Australopithecus, the earliest hominid. Gradually, evolution gained the upper hand. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that states couldn't even require equal treatment of evolution and creationism. By 1999, creationists were asking the Kansas board not to rule out their beliefs entirely. This was creationism's more advanced Homo erectus phase: pluralism.

Six years later, evolutionists in Kansas are under attack again. They think the old creationism is back. They're mistaken. Homo erectus—the defense, on pluralist grounds, of the literal account of Genesis—is beginning to die out. The new challenger, ID, differs fundamentally from fundamentalism. Like its creationist forebears, ID is theistic. But unlike them, it abandons Biblical literalism, embraces open-minded inquiry, and accepts falsification, not authority, as the ultimate test. These concessions, sincere or not, define a new species of creationism—Homo sapiens—that fatally undermines its ancestors. Creationists aren't threatening us. They're becoming us.

You don't have to dig deep in the fossil record to see this change unfolding. Just go back to the fight in Kansas six years ago, when conservatives on the education board rammed through curriculum revisions co-authored by the president of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America. CSA believes that "Revelation" trumps "scientific pursuits," Genesis is the "written Word of God," and therefore, the world was made in six days. To protect its belief in a young earth, CSA has to argue that "fossilization does not and cannot require a long time," the Grand Canyon could have been formed "in hours or days," and  "dinosaurs lived very recently and coexisted with man."

The curriculum changes co-authored by CSA and approved by the Kansas board in 1999 reflected the young-earth doctrine. They removed references to the big bang, a universe billions of years old, the geologic time scale, and the Paleozoic Era. They changed "long ago" to "in the past." They excised language inferring a time sequence from fossil layers. They told students that "some stratified rocks may have been laid down quickly" and urged them to examine "assumptions used in radioactive decay methods of dating."

Not all critics of evolution shared this view. On May 11, 1999, the Kansas board held a forum to invite public comment. A lawyer named John Calvert testified, "Being a geologist, I find no fault with most geologic estimates concerning the age of the earth and the times at which various stages of life appear to have come into being. I am not a creationist as that term is frequently used in the press and by the scientific community to describe one who believes in a literal and narrow interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. However, I do believe that life has resulted from design rather than by chance." Far from suggesting that a day or two was enough time to make the Grand Canyon, Calvert argued that hundreds of millions of years weren't enough time for random processes to devise the first cell.

In September 1999, Calvert founded the Intelligent Design Network to promote his mutant line of creationism. The next year, a political asteroid struck Kansas. Alarmed by the 1999 curriculum changes, voters went to the polls and wiped out the education board's creationist majority. With the old species out of the way, the new one took over. In January 2001, as the newly constituted board reopened the curriculum standards, IDnet proposed revisions radically different from CSA's.

The board's draft standards said, "The fossil record provides evidence of simple, bacteria-like life as far back as 3.8+ billion years ago." CSA would have tried to remove that sentence. IDnet embraced it and proposed to add a prepositional phrase: "almost simultaneously with the postulated habitability of our earth." This would underscore Calvert's argument that life arose faster than randomness could account for. A few lines later, the board's draft mentioned the fossil record, radioisotope dating, and plate tectonics. CSA would have fought all three references. IDnet affirmed them and asked only for a revision to limit their implications: "Certain aspects of the fossil record, the age of the earth based on radioisotope dating and plate tectonics are consistent with the Darwinian theory. However, this evidence is not inconsistent with the design hypothesis."

Two years later, in a bioethics journal, Calvert and an IDnet colleague, biochemist William Harris, summarized the differences between Biblical creationism and ID. "Creation science seeks to validate a literal interpretation of creation as contained in the book of Genesis," they explained. "An ID proponent recognizes that ID theory may be disproved by new evidence. ID is like a large tent under which many religious and nonreligious origins theories may find a home. ID proposes nothing more than that life and its diversity were the product of an intelligence with power to manipulate matter and energy."

Last year, conservatives regained a narrow majority on the Kansas board. They've reopened the curriculum, but this time, CSA isn't running the show. Calvert and Harris are. At last week's hearings, Calvert presented 23 witnesses—scientists, philosophers, and teachers—to make the case for ID. A lawyer representing evolutionists asked the witnesses how old the earth was. Most affirmed the conventional geological estimate: 4.5 billion years. Only two stuck to the young-earth theory.

Essentially, ID proponents are gambling that they can concede evolutionist earth science without conceding evolutionist life science. But they can't. They already acknowledge microevolution—mutation and natural selection within a species. Once you accept conventional fossil dating and four billion years of life, the sequential kinship of species loses its implausibility. You can't fall back on the Bible; you've already admitted it can't always be taken literally. All you're left with is an assortment of gaps in evolutionary theory—how did DNA emerge, what happened between this and that fossil—and the vague default assumption that an "intelligence" might fill in those gaps. Calvert and Harris call this assumption a big tent. But guess what happens to a tent without poles.

Perversely, evolutionists refuse to facilitate this collapse. They prefer to dismiss ID proponents as dead-end Neanderthals. They complain, legitimately, that Calvert and Harris are trying to expand the definition of science beyond "natural explanations." But have you read the definition Calvert and Harris propose? It would define science as a continuous process of "observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena." Abstract creationism can't qualify for such scrutiny. Substantive creationism can't survive it. Or if it can, it should.

It's too bad liberals and scientists don't welcome this test. It's too bad they go around sneering, as censors of science often have, that the new theory is too radical, offensive, or embarrassing to be taken seriously. It's too bad they think good science consists of believing the right things. In the long view—the evolutionary view—good science consists of using evidence and experiment to find out whether what we thought was right is wrong. If they do that in Kansas, by whatever name, that's all that matters.