Is there an alternative to the theory of evolution? (Or: Why people who think so are wrong, misguided and dangerous.)

There are different versions of the dangerous error known as creationism. “Young earth” creationists believe the world was created ten thousand years ago in six days; others gallantly admit the earth is older. But all creationists deny one scientific fact: life on earth is the product of evolution, slow change over time brought about primarily by natural selection acting on variation.

There are a lot of these people. According to a 2001 Gallup poll, 47 percent of all Americans accept a strict creationist view, and only 12 percent accept a strict scientific view of evolution. And the creationists have tried–with some success–to get their views inserted in school curricula across the country, in states like Kansas and Georgia. This despite the fact that nearly all scientists with a specialty in the natural sciences–about 98 percent of them–accept evolution as an established fact.

Two questions, then: Why the difference between public and scientific opinion? And why should we care?

There is an ongoing creationism vs. evolution controversy–but on school committees, not among scientists. Almost all scientists agree that there is an overwhelming consilience of evidence for evolution–from fossils, genetics, developmental biology, population studies, biochemistry, and anatomy. There is also evidence that makes sense only in light of evolution, like fossilized early whales with legs and the latent ability of chickens to grow teeth.

The controversy goes back over a century. After Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, most scientists were soon convinced, but there was strong religious opposition. States wrote laws against the teaching of evolution, and some of the laws remained on the books as late as the 1960s. But in the ’70s and ’80s, fearing that they were losing the battle with science, creationists changed their tactics: They would not try to outlaw evolution, just try to win “equal time” for creationism. Under the banner of “fairness” they argued that both “models” (they did not use the term “theory”) of origins should be taught to students, who could then make up their own minds.

To make their religious faith seem more scientific, creationists came up with

Intelligent Design

. The central argument of ID is that life displays structures that are “irreducibly complex,” which means structures that could not carry out their current function if they were any simpler–and since evolution requires that they have passed through simpler stages, they could not have evolved.

For example, ID proponent Michael Behe argues that the flagella of the single-celled paramecium–the tail-like motor that it uses to propel itself through water–could not function if any of its pieces were missing. This “irreducibly complex” argument, however, was shot down long ago by evolutionists who noted that a complex structure could have evolved from a simpler structure that served a function different from and simpler than its current purpose. A flagellum did not have to evolve to function as a motor; it could have evolved from a simple food gathering appendage. Intelligent Design proponents have no answer to this fatal criticism of their core claim.

But back to the real controversy: Why should we care about what our children are taught about science? In a world increasingly ruled by science and technology, the benefits of having a scientifically literate voting population and workforce should be obvious. Furthermore, more important than teaching the current findings of science–what scientists currently think is true–is teaching how science works. Intelligent Design should not be taught as science in the public schools because it is not science. For example, ID cannot state its hypotheses in a way that can be tested by observation and proven false. The wizards of ID distort the process of science.

The sad fact is, creationists have been successful in making evolution publicly controversial even though no scientific controversy exists. They have spooked textbook companies into removing the “e” word from their texts, or watering down the treatment of evolution. It is no wonder that public opinion differs so much from scientific opinion: Creationists have been successful in destroying good science education. They have created the public ignorance they now exploit to further their cause.

But here’s a useful principle: The scientific community, not politicians, should determine what is proper science. People trained in laboratories, not seminaries, should be trusted on questions of the origin of species. Especially in a world where technology is a matter of national security, a world in which education is the key to defeating poverty and terrorism alike, we owe it to ourselves to heed scientists, not snake-oil salesmen.

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