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Creationism: Out of the Mainstream

Science, above all, is a methodology for acquiring testable  knowledge about the natural world-the "art of the soluble" in Sir Peter Medawar's apt phrase. It is not and cannot be a compendium of certain knowledge. If the vernacular word "fact" has any currency in science, it can only be defined as "confirmed to so high a degree that it would be perverse to with-hold provisional assent." By this definition, evolution-the observation that all organisms are connected by unbroken ties of geneal

By | November 17, 1986

Science, above all, is a methodology for acquiring testable  knowledge about the natural world-the "art of the soluble" in Sir Peter Medawar's apt phrase. It is not and cannot be a compendium of certain knowledge. If the vernacular word "fact" has any currency in science, it can only be defined as "confirmed to so high a degree that it would be perverse to with-hold provisional assent." By this definition, evolution-the observation that all organisms are connected by unbroken ties of genealogy-is as much a fact as anything discovered by science, as well confirmed as Copernicus' claim that the Earth moves around the Sun. Evolutionary biologists argue intensely about mechanisms of evolutionary change (and such meaty debates are the soul of exciting science, the chief sign of its good health), but we all accept the fundamental fact of genealogical connection.

As a methodology for research, science adopts as its cardinal postulate (proved fruitful by its enormous success since the time of Galileo, Newton and Descartes) the commitment to explain empirical phenomena by reference to invariant laws of nature and to avoid appeals to the miraculous, de fined as a suspension of those laws for particular events. The notion of "abrupt appearance," the origin of complex somethings from previous nothings, resides in this domain of miracle and is not part of science. Punctuated equilibrium, catastrophic theories of mass extinction, hopeful monsters, and a variety of hypotheses about rapid rates of change in continuous sequences, not about unintelligible abrupt appearances, are part of scientific debate and bear no relationship to the nonscientific notion of abrupt appearance, despite pernicious and willful attempts by many creationists to distort such claims by misquote and halfquote to their alien purposes. Punctuated equilibrium, in particular, is a claim that evolutionary trends have a geometry that resembles a climb up a staircase rather than a slide up an inclined plane. It is, in other words, an alternate theory about the nature of intermediate stages in evolutionary trends not, as creationists have claimed, a denial of these stages.

As a term, "creation science" is an oxymoron, a self-contradictory and meaningless phrase, a whitewash for a specific, particular, and minority religious view in America-Biblical literalism.

As a religious idea, it differs sharply from the tenets of most other faiths-from the enormously lengthy cycles of repetition in Hindu thought, from the usual interpretation of origins in my own Jewish faith, and from the allegorical readings of the Bible accepted by Catholics since the time of St. Augustine. Biblical literalism, like all notions in the diverse array of faiths professed by Americans, belongs in homes and churches, not in legislatively mandated curricula of science courses in public schools.

It is particularly tragic that public understanding of science should be so threatened just when science has become so central and crucial in all our lives. This battle is for science itself, not only for the right of teachers to teach a fact of nature unimpeded by state commands. How can Americans hope to understand the nature of science if a partisan and minority religious doctrine completely outside the norms and procedures of science is taught as science, against the conscience and convictions of trained teachers in the nation's schools?

Gould teaches geology, biology and the history of science at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.
 

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