Evolutionism vs. Creationism
Jon Roland

The 1999 decision by the Kansas Board of Education to delete any mention of evolution from educational materials used in that state's public schools resurrects the arguments between evolutionists and creationists about whether a "creation" model deserves at least equal billing as an alternative theory to evolution. It does, but not in a way that would please the religious advocates of a biblical form of such a model.

It is appropriate that public education should present alternative scientific theories, but it is also appropriate that it should exclude theories that are not scientific. Creationists argue that their biblical creationist model, or at least an "intelligent design" model, is a scientific theory, and the evolutionists argue that it is not, and neither of them do a very good job at explaining just what is and is not a scientific theory. Modern public education needs to impart an understanding of this.

Too many defenders of the evolutionist position confuse the issue by talking of scientific "facts", "hypotheses", "theories", "proof", etc. The use of those words should be discouraged. They are not hard categories but only degrees of confidence. Strictly and logically speaking, in empirical science there are only three elements: operations, observations, and models.

Consider an object like a small cube of metal. Recognition of its existence is the result, an observation, of applying the simple operation of distinguishing it from its background. Now suppose we apply several other operations to it. First, we put it between calipers, adjust them until contact is made with the object, and read the scale which indicates "length". That is a "distance-measuring operation" and the result, the observation, is a "distance" or "width" for that object obtained at a particular moment in time.

Now let's put the object on a balance or spring scale. The result of performing this operation is what we call "gravitic mass". Third, let's apply a known force to one side of the object and measure its acceleration. The result of that operation is what we call "accelerative mass". (The General Theory of Relativity is just the result of expanding on the implications of the key assumption that gravitic and accelerative mass are always the same in the same frame of reference.)

A model is anything we use to represent something that behaves like it in ways that are of interest to us. It could be a mental concept, a statement in some ordinary language, a mathematical proposition, a computer program, or even a physical object like the one of interest to us. Strictly speaking, any object or phenomenon is a model of itself, but it is not always convenient to handle the object or phenomenon itself, and so we use models of it that are more easily manipulated, and that we think we understand because we constructed them.

Everything in empirical science that is called a "fact" or "theory" is either an observation or a model. That means that every "fact" not specific to a particular event is a kind of "theory", albeit perhaps a very simple one. It is better to use the word "model". We may speak of the object having a width of 1 centimeter as a "fact", but logically, what we have is a model that if we apply the operation of applying the calipers to it repeatedly, we will always get 1 centimeter.

Now, of course, if we apply the calipers to the object at different temperatures, we discover that our initial model, or "fact", is incorrect. We get larger values at higher temperatures. Indeed, we can use such values to measure temperature. Therefore, we modify our initial model to cover a range of temperatures, resulting in a formula that relates width to temperature.

We can do the same thing with mass. We will get the same results at low relative velocities, but as the relative velocity approaches the speed of light, we get larger values of mass, so we have to adjust the model to cover a full range of possible relative velocities.

So a "fact" is just a kind of model in which we have a high degree of confidence. But it is still a kind of theory. Under certain circumstances it might not be confirmed, and then the model would have to be modified to take those circumstances into consideration.

For a model to be scientific it must be refutable. To be refutable, it must divide the class of conceivable phenomena into those which do occur and those which do not (or almost never occur statistically). No model can be considered "scientific" that allows anything to occur, because it could not be refuted.

That brings us to theories of divine intervention and "intelligent design". Let us say that we want a model to enable us to explain, predict, and perhaps control some phenomenon, and someone answers that "George did it that way". Now we posit some actor named "George" and try to discern the principles according to how it does things or doesn't do them. But if every conceivable phenomenon can be explained by "George decided to do it that way" and "George can do it any way he wants to", then we don't have a way to explain, predict, or control events, which, together with the cost of use, are the elements of the utility of the model. There is nothing refutable about a theory of George. That doesn't mean that there might not be a George who controls everything any way he wants to, but such a model is not useful for explaining, predicting, and controlling events, and therefore not useful for our purposes or for education. Even if there is a George behind everything, if he does things according to some consistent pattern, we want to find out what that pattern is, and it doesn't help to speculate on the mysterious nature of George if what we want is that pattern, something that we can presumably discern without reference to George.

Now we come to evolution. Strictly speaking, "evolution", considered as a concept, is not a single model. It is an analytic approach to the development of theories. An evolutionary model is one that says "the species represented by specimen A evolved from the species represented by specimen B", or perhaps that "the species represented by specimen A and the species represented by specimen B evolved from a common ancestor a record of which we haven't found yet". It is a collection of models of the inheritance relations between pairs of specimens. Each such evolutionary model makes certain predictions about what kinds of records we will find if we keep looking for them. The first predicts we will find forms intermediate between A and B in locations that seem to have been laid down at times intermediate between those in which A and B were found, and in a sequence that leads from B to A. The second predicts that if we find a record going back far enough before the times of A and B and it has the common traits of A and B that it will be of a form that could have evolved into both A and B.

Such an approach even supports the third utility criterion of a proper scientific model, control. It can indicate how we can transform one species into another by a process of mutation, breeding, and perhaps genetic manipulation, one gene at a time. Contrary to claims that no species has been observed evolving into another, we have observed some short-lived species such as insects evolve from one species into another, both in nature and in the laboratory.

The problem with the "creationist" model put forth by advocates is that while it "explains" every fossil record, it cannot predict further discoveries in the way "evolutionist" models can. It fails the test of being a "scientific" model.

That doesn't mean there is no appropriate place for theories that are not evolutionist. Let us consider what some of those theories might be.

If one produces the proteins that compose living matter by most chemical processes, one gets a 50-50 mix of "left-handed" and "right-handed" molecules. However, all life on earth so far found is composed strictly of left-handed, or "levorotary" protein molecules (and right-handed, or "dextrorotary", sugar molecules). From this we can posit the model that all life on earth had a single origin and that the first living organism was composed of left-handed protein molecules. There is no way that one composed of left-handed protein molecules could mutate or evolve into one with right- handed protein molecules, or even of a mixture of them. The two stereoisomeric forms are produced in equal quantities by non-biological chemical processes, but are mutually exclusive in biological processes.

But now suppose we happened to find a single-celled organism somewhere composed of right-handed proteins. How would our evolutionary approach to modeling handle that? The answer is that it couldn't. We would have to introduce a contamination model according to which the new organism either:

(1) Appeared on Earth (spontaneously or synthesized, by the hand of George or perhaps a human or alien experiment); or

(2) Arrived from somewhere else, perhaps by drifting through space from another planet where life was composed of right-handed proteins. Or perhaps by being carried on a spaceship by visiting aliens and dropped off on Earth, either deliberately or accidentally.

If it was a very, very simple organism we might be able to argue for (1) above. However, if it was complex and evolved, and too large to have drifted through space, then we would have evidence of an alien visitation at some time in the past, perhaps very distant, perhaps not.

So why not use the argument in the latter case that "George did it"? Again, because "George" is not a refutable model. It is also not a "minimal" model. We go back to the principle called Occam's Razor, from William of Occam: "Entia non sunt multiplicanda præter necessitatum" — "Do not multiply entities beyond necessary", or in more modern language, "Keep it simple, stupid!" You might think that "George" is a "simpler" model than "visiting aliens" or "advanced experimenter", but it is not. "Visiting aliens" is refutable and has fewer implications for other theories, all of which we want to fit together into a seamless unity.

The biblical creationist doctrine is, essentially, that every major species is an independent evolutionary descent tree, while the standard evolutionary doctrine is that there is only one evolutionary descent tree on Earth. It should be called a doctrine, rather than a model, however, because the position that no independent descent trees exist is not refutable. One can't prove the nonexistence of something except in a field of observation in which it is possible to exhaustively examine all possible evidence, and that is not possible for something like the geological history of the Earth. All evolutionists can say, scientifically, is that no independent descent tree has thus far been found, but they exceed the bounds of scientific inquiry when they assert that none will ever be found.

So to be a balanced, scientific, investigation, any evolutionary model of the transformation of one species into another by mutation and natural selection needs to be tested against its alternative of the transformation having been the result of some contamination, an uncontrolled variable, such as intervention, genetic manipulation, or artificial selection. The alternative scientific model to evolution is contamination. Any scientific investigation must always consider the possibility of contaminated evidence, and either exclude that evidence or find a model to explain it.

Consider the problem in archeology of distinguishing between an artifact and a natural object. It is not always easy to discern whether a broken stone is natural or the result of the "intelligent design" of some ancestor who fashioned it into a tool, perhaps for cutting meat or grinding grain. Or the problem in paleontology of distinguishing between the remains of a naturally evolved specimen and one that was the result of artificial selection, such as a dog, livestock, or a cereal grain or fruit. Humans themselves are largely the result of deliberate self-breeding by tribal groups. We are increasingly contaminating the geological record with the products of our own intelligent design, and we need to be able to recognize those products when we re-discover them.

But such interventions do not accord with the biblical creationist model, unless one considers the Bible as an allegory for intervention by a race of visiting aliens (or perhaps even by a race that has lived beneath the surface, hidden from us, for longer than life on the surface has been here, and that either arrived from somewhere else a long time ago, or evolved on Earth in a separate, subterranean line of evolution, or evolved on the surface and long ago moved underground).

One suspects that most biblical creationists would not welcome the proposition that the scientific models alternative to evolutionary ones would have us be an ant farm for aliens.

Of course, it is also possible that everything we call "reality" is just a program running in a giant computer, as in the movies Tron or The Matrix. However, even if it is, if it occurs according to some principles that are consistent and universal, then we want to identify what those principles are, before the program gets re-written.

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Original URL: http://constitution.org/col/evolutionism_v_creationism.htm | Text Version
Maintained: Jon Roland of the Constitution Society
Original date: 1999 August 13 — Updated: 2003 June 27