What in all creation?
Stuart Clark on the danger creationism poses to British science
A letter in the 6th April edition of New Scientist drew my attention to the suggestion that Tony Blair believes creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the science curriculum. If this were to be implemented, it would strike fundamental blows to British science. Creationism often conjures visions of religious zealots who believe the book of Genesis verbatim. That is the Universe, Earth, Humanity and the plant and animal kingdoms were created in six days and that Noah's flood led to the proven extinctions. This idea of creationism, it has to be said, is something of a biased view. As always there is a continuum of beliefs, most of which view creation (to a greater or lesser extent) as a complementary part of the evolutionary process. In fact, most of the Christian church believes in an extremely watered-down version of creationism that has been labelled Theistic Evolution. In this view, God is only involved in those processes which science cannot explain. For example, each child is the result of a sexual union between adults that biology explains as a purely natural process, but God implants the person's soul in an act of creation.
So, by creation, we mean an origin event contrary to natural processes that has been orchestrated or imposed by a greater power. Whilst it is easy to denounce zealots, a new breed of creationists are attempting a more insidious line of attack by trying to claim that science is not only wrong but can be used to prove the story of Genesis.
Perhaps the most vocal of these movements are the Young-Earth Creationists. This is something of an umbrella term for people who reject most of modern geology and evolutionary science and conservatively pick and choose what they believe from astronomy, chemistry and the rest of biology.
Central to their thinking is that the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old and is most likely to be about 6000 years old. Their revisionist strategy claims that science is flawed in both its tools and its interpretation of facts. For example, they believe that radioisotope dating (the common form of which relies on carbon dating) is an invalid method and they point to a number of instances in which this technique returns incongruous results.
It is true that radioisotope dating is not without its difficulties. It relies on an analysis of how much of a radioactive isotope has decayed into its daughter isotope. One obvious complicating factor is therefore how much of the daughter isotope was naturally in the rock to start with. A slightly more complicated method, known as Isochron dating, helps to deal with this particular problem. In addition, there is a large body of scientific literature on how to estimate other potential problems and work around them, so that the age estimates are, finally, as accurate as possible.
The bottom line, however, is that radioisotope dating in whatever form, is not a 'miracle' technique that can be applied across-the-board to all rocks. After all, a psychotherapist would not analyse a house fly on the basis that, because the method works on human beings, it is sure to work on all other living things. This is the point that the creationists miss and the hallmark of flawed science shows itself in the way they will attack mainstream science for its use of radioisotope dating but, when a date determined in this way fits their ideas, they parade it as the truth.
They simply cannot have it both ways, either they discard all radioisotope data, (which gets them nowhere as it becomes a 'your word against mine' situation) or they accept them. In which case, the vast majority point to extreme ages for the Earth. Either way, they lose by trying to play the scientists at their own game.
The origin of life itself is another obvious flash point. It is particularly vulnerable to attack because science has yet to show the sequence of events in great detail. In my opinion, that does not mean science is incapable of the task, it just means it is a difficult problem that requires more work to solve it. This does give the creationists a good starting point.
The origin of life they claim is impossible for science to understand because it contravenes the second law of thermodynamics. This is the one that culminates in the fact that in a closed system (more of which soon), order can only become disorder, never the other way around. So an uncorked bottle of perfume diffuses into a room but never regroups inside someone's wine glass.
By leaving out that challenging caveat about a closed system, the creationists simply quote that order cannot spring from disorder. Then they state that a bunch of disparate molecules coming together to form a living cell contravenes this law of nature, therefore a supernatural hand is required in the process.
To explore this to its logical conclusion, every time you pull your bath plug you see spontaneous order emerge in the way water spirals down the plughole, instead of simply plunging in an every-molecule-for-itself fashion. Does God stick his hand into our dirty bath water and set that vortex in motion? That is what the creationists' argument suggests you should believe.
Closed systems are simply things that cannot receive or transmit matter or energy. In the case of the spiral pattern in the bath, it is an open system because water is travelling through the structure. With living things, chemical energy in our food is passing through, allowing our bodies to maintain their orderly state of affairs. Only when we transform into closed systems upon death does the flow of matter and energy stop and we begin to decay.
This new, so-called scientific creationism is itself a non sequitur. They cannot possibly use science to prove creationism because the whole point about creationism is that it cannot be understood by science. That's why they need God's intervention.
By all means teach creationism in the context of religious education and, if an individual wants to believe, fine. But please do not wrap up a religious belief in scientific clothing to hoodwink people. If creationism is to be taught alongside evolution in science lessons, then it seems only right and fair that evolution is re-taught during religious education periods, along with the creation myths.