EXPLORER graphic by Rusty Johnson
Science is about to lose the public debate between evolution and creationism in the United States.
Here are five reasons why:
1. Public support for creationism has been growing steadily while belief in evolution declines.
According to the results of a Harris Interactive Poll released in July, 54 percent of U.S. adults do not think human beings developed from earlier species, compared to 46 percent in March 1994.
In the same period, the number of adults who believe humans developed from earlier species dropped from 44 percent to 38 percent, according to the poll.
2. The creationist movement is well funded, politically savvy and extremely well organized.
Creationism draws support from national organizations, including the Institute for Creation Research in California, the Discovery Institute in Seattle and Answers in Genesis in Kentucky.
"They have a very effective public relations machine. We're doing everything ad hoc, with no budget," said AAPG member Lee Allison, an evolution supporter and former Kansas State Geologist who chairs the Kansas State Energy Council.
Also, dozens of community-based, grassroots creationist groups across the United States are working to thwart the teaching of evolution in public schools.
3. Creationists have shown the patience for the long, slow process of changing the perspective of the courts.
Legal rulings against teaching creationism in public schools and placing evolution "warning stickers" on textbooks caused problems for creationists.
As the courts evolve toward more conservative and less secular, judicial decisions may become, and probably will become, more favorable to the creationist outlook.
4. Creationists now use the broadest possible public media to promote their beliefs.
In the United States, support for creationist ideas is broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on religion-based television and radio networks.
At best, scientific explanations of evolution are broadcast from 4:30-5 p.m. every other Saturday, on a UHF station from your local college.
5. Pro-creation forces have introduced the concept of fairness in science teaching, arguing that schools should teach all viewpoints on biological development.
That tactic is working brilliantly.
In the Harris poll of 1,000 U.S. adults, 23 percent said public schools should teach only creationism, while 12 percent said schools should teach only evolution.
But a substantial majority, 55 percent, said schools should teach all views: evolution, creationism and Intelligent Design (ID).
That group, according to a Knight Ridder Newspaper report, includes the president of the United States.
"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," President George Bush added at an Aug. 1 question-and-answer session with the media at the White House.
"Pillars of Creation" from the Hubble telescope
Photo courtesy of NASA, ESA, STSci, J. Hesler and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)
"Intelligent Design, as far as I can tell, is really a gussied-up version of an idea that was first presented in the 19th century," said Les McFadden, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M.
ID supporters would say "if you found a watch, after even a cursory examination you'd know it must have been created," he said.
In the same way, proponents of ID claim that life is so complex, it could not have occurred by accident and without design.
Critics of ID see it as an attempt to put a scientific and non-religious face on creationist ideas -- an effort to bring creationism back into public school classrooms under a different name.
When ID proponents speak in public, "they say, 'We don't know who the intelligent designer is, and it's not really important,'" McFadden observed.
"Well, they're being totally disingenuous," he added. "I don't think they're being honest about their deeper beliefs."
Keith Miller, a research assistant professor in the Department of Geology at Kansas State University, holds deeply fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
He's a sharp critic of creationism and ID, even though he believes the universe is the direct creation of a divine creator.
"That is a perfectly legitimate theological understanding, and one that I share. That's something not necessarily in the scientific understanding. I believe that God is involved at all times," he explained.
"Then there is the idea that God intervenes to interrupt cause-and-effect processes," he said. "Ultimately, that is where the problem is."
According to its critics, ID operates along the following lines:
ID proponents spread their ideas through books and in papers published almost exclusively outside of peer-reviewed journals.
They often pursue obscure arguments that link several subject areas, for instance, biology, paleontology and information theory.
When mainstream science hasn't offered a complete explanation for a specific phenomenon, supporters of ID offer that as an indication of divine intervention.
Critics call this approach "the God of the Gaps."
"They are essentially looking for gaps in our current scientific understanding and then using them as evidence of divine action. That is an effort that has failed, historically," Miller observed.
"To say on principle that something cannot be explained is really deferring to our ignorance. Most of the specific critiques the intelligent design community have provided have been thoroughly debunked," he said.
Scientists opposed to ID also see it as undermining the public's opinion of and understanding of science.
"What it really comes down to, and what they want to incorporate in public education, is this idea that science is atheistic and naturalistic," Miller said. "They are pulling the rug out from under the fundamental methodology of science."
"I simply say this: Intelligent Design, no matter what else you might think, ultimately relies on supernatural intervention and not science," he said.
"What they're trying to do," he added, "is change the epistemology of science from naturalism to saying, 'Why don't you let the supernatural into scientific explanations?'"
Creationism in Kansas
Michael Padilla, an administrator at the University of Georgia, currently serves as president of the National Science Teachers Association.
He believes the resurgence of creationism is a major problem for science teachers in the United States.
"I think it's a big problem because these nouveau-creationists are working at the policy level in Kansas and other places," he said. "Their arguments are becoming more refined."
Calls for fairness in teaching evolution and opposing concepts present an especially difficult challenge for educators, according to Padilla.
"The problem is that many Americans who don't have a scientific background resonate with this fairness idea. And I don't think we are handling it very well," he said.
"I think it appeals to the basic American ideal of fairness. It appeals to the public belief that there is a God, and that God created the world," he added.
Padilla worries that evolution supporters take the wrong approach when they respond to creationists with confrontation, rebuke and even ridicule.
"That's the wrong way to do it," he said. "You just can't be in everybody's face like that."
Creationists gained a majority on the Kansas State Board of Education and tried to change the state's standards for school science classes in the late 1990s.
That attempt came to halt when they lost the majority in the subsequent school board election.
"They're pouring a lot of resources into Kansas because they see us as being kind of a bellwether. It's heartland America," Allison said.
"If they can get this through here, they can use it as kind of a model for the rest of the country," he added.
Allison said each of 10 geographical districts in Kansas elects a representative to the school board. The 10 members serve four-year terms, with half elected every two years.
"In 2002, a couple of candidates ran very low-profile races and upset incumbent, pro-science board members," he said, and in 2004, more vocal and open supporters of creationism won seats.
Consequently, creationists regained majority control of the board.
"Since then, they've pretty much publicly laid out their plan, and they're stepping through it," Allison said.
The school board appointed a committee to revise the state's science standards for schools, and the new standards were reviewed nationally with very favorable feedback, according to Allison.
At that point, the board rejected the standards proposed by its own committee and decided to hold hearings on the issue of teaching evolution, he said.
Leading scientists, creationists and ID proponents were invited to give testimony and answer questions, Allison said.
The mainstream scientists didn't show up.
"We boycotted, and we convinced everyone around the state and the nation to boycott," Allison said.
Many felt the hearings were an attempt "to prove that evolution is a science in crisis," opening the door to teaching opposing views, he explained.
"The scientific community decided there was no use going there. They (creationists) already have the votes on the school board," Miller said.
Today's situation in Kansas leaves evolution supporters hoping for a reversal in the 2006 school board elections.
Recently, the board decided to vote on new science standards at its October meeting and also chose to define evolution as an unguided process, according to Allison.
"They've redefined science with their definition, which is that evolution is unguided. When you define evolution as unguided, you deny the religious belief of many people who believe that nature is guided by the hand of God. That's a fairly radical step," he noted.
"When you talk to some of the really conservative board members, they say you can't accept evolution and believe in God at the same time," he said.
Creationists often refer to evolution science as Darwinism or neo-Darwinism, painting it as antithetical to Christian beliefs. They argue that evolution should never be taught as scientific fact.
An example of that approach appeared in a newspaper opinion piece, "Teach the Controversy," written by Rick Santorum and published earlier this year.
"In the science classroom, public schools should not teach intelligent design and they should certainly not teach biblical creationism," Santorum wrote.
But, he noted, "Darwin wrote about his theory of evolution at a time when evidence was weak.
"In recent years, evidence of the complex circuits, miniature machines, sophisticated feedback loops and digital information inside the cell has enabled scientists to poke holes" in evolution science, Santorum stated.
"For all these reasons, Darwin's theory of evolution should not be taught as absolute fact in the science classroom," he wrote.
Santorum, of course, is neither a scientist nor an educator, but is a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who holds an M.B.A.
Another evolving viewpoint of creationism is the belief in subtle guidance.
In this view, God has subtly but directly intervened in the history of life for a specific purpose, including the development of human beings.
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, a leading Catholic theologian, seemed to embrace both intelligent design and divine guidance in an article published in the New York Times in July.
"Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not.
"Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science," he wrote.
Many scientists ignore the conflict between evolution and creationism, saying "This debate has nothing to do with science. Why should scientists be involved?"
In the end, science can't distance itself from popular debates.
Whether or not genetics is subject to divine intervention, there's a growing conflict over human intervention. Think genetically altered plants, stem-cell research and cloning.
And the creationism controversy plays into a broader, ongoing debate in science, between gradualism and various concepts of catastrophism.
Miller, the mainstream scientist and unswerving Christian, believes a better public understanding of science will provide the answer.
"That is where my optimism lies. There is a way to move forward, and that way is better education," he said.
"That's not a six-month solution, or even a five-year solution," he added. "It's the long-term solution."