Creation/Evolution Journal

The Supposed Dichotomy between Creationism and Evolution

The Supposed Dichotomy between Creationism and Evolution
Reviewed by
J. B. Gough

One of the questions most frequently put to biblical creationists is that if from notions of fairness we must teach creationism in our public schools, then should we not in fairness also teach all the alternative theories dealing with the origin of biological forms? And if we are, indeed, obliged to teach them, where can we possibly find the time to do so? To this objection, biblical creationists reply that there are only two mutually exclusive alternatives, only two logically-possible explanations for the origins of biological species—creationism and evolution—and that students will profit from being exposed to both models (Morris, July 1975, p. 4; Morris, 1974b, p. 16 and 1977, p. 3).

Rarely in the realm of ideas do we find alternatives so sharply defined as to leave no room for intermediate views. Almost any idea worthy of serious consideration is composed of numerous, independent parts with subtle shadings of emphasis and some measure of openness, flexibility, and capacity for growth and change.

Fanatical, embattled groups seem prone for some reason to create a closed, rigid dogma and a spurious dichotomy between themselves and all those who are not in complete accord with their doctrinal enthusiasms. It is, perhaps, this "us-them" mentality which seems to preclude the possibility of a middle ground. Religious and ideological zealots tend to lump all their opponents together no matter how wide a diversity of opinion they may represent. To McCarthyites, for example, there existed on the one side only those who wholeheartedly supported the vituperative senator from Wisconsin and on the other a nefarious band of communists, communist sympathizers, fellow travelers, and dupes—all, of course, sub-species of one and the same thing. Similarly, biblical creationists have constructed a sort of Manichaean dualism between their own little inner world of blessed light and the satanic outer world of Darwinian darkness. They hold evolution responsible for many, if indeed not most, of the major ills of our times—for communism, fascism, racism, imperialism, rising crime and modern education (Morris, 1974a, pp. 25-48). Evolution, so they preach, is the creed of Satan himself and to combat it, to place in its stead the antithetical doctrine of creationism is, by implication, nothing less than to point the way toward the world's salvation (pp. 75-76).

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However, in order for a sharply defined dichotomy between two mutually exclusive intellectual positions to exist, the definitions of those positions must hinge on the acceptance or rejection of a single, simple proposition. In the case of evolution, this is very nearly the case: those who accept the idea that the various species have a common descent can probably be counted as evolutionists. (Some might also wish to include in the definition of evolution the notion that the descent takes place in relatively small steps and that the entire process is naturalistic.) Those who reject the idea of common descent are quite definitely not evolutionists. But not being an evolutionist does not, in itself, define a single intellectual position. Not being an evolutionist does not, for example, make one a creationist. In order to discover why this is so, we must examine the fundamental premises upon which biblical creationism rests.

Creationists have a lamentable tendency to confuse matters by making an issue of speculations concerning the origin of life and cosmogenical theories such as the "Big Bang" (Morris, 1974b, pp. 17-51). I will limit my analysis here to the central scientific issues, that is, to theories concerning the appearance of diverse life forms on the earth.

If we examine the creationist literature in this regard, I think we can isolate at least five independent propositions that are basic to the biblical-creationist view: all living "kinds" on earth were (1) suddenly and (2) nearly simultaneously (3) created (4) at a relatively recent date (5) by a supernatural cause. Since none of these propositions is tautological, and each is independent from the others we may accept or reject the propositions in any combination whatsoever. Thus from these five propositions alone (without introducing any new or different ones), we may construct no fewer than 32 distinct positions with regard to the origins of diverse life-forms. Some of the resulting theoretical schemata, it is true, are prima facie absurd, or at any rate, difficult to maintain in face of the scientific evidence, but scarcely any more so than the biblical creationist creed itself. If, in the name of fairness, we are obliged to introduce biblical creationism into the public schools, then should we not in fairness be obliged to bring into the classrooms at least some of the more sensible choices as well?

It might be thought that the dichotomy that the creationists are trying to draw is not really between creationism and evolution per se, but between the acceptance of supernatural causes in science and the admission of naturalistic explanations only. Henry Morris seems, in fact, to draw nearly this distinction in his book The Scientific Case for Creation (1977, p. 3).

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There is, however, a supernaturalist position that the biblical creationists consistently reject. Some people have adopted a hybrid theory of directed or theological evolution which posits both supernatural causes and quasi-telic acts of creation in a framework of common descent, but which rejects the three creationist suppositions of suddenness, simultaneity, and recent origin. In fact, this option was the choice (much to Darwin's consternation) of the first, great American champion of evolution, the Yale botanist, Asa Gray, who believed that the Deity manipulates the variation in offspring in order to produce favorable results (Dupree, 1968, pp. 296-301). Directed evolution of some sort must still be common enough among some of the more liberal fundamentalists since creationists never miss an opportunity to condemn it on both biblical and "scientific" grounds (Morris, June 1973; Niessen). The theory, they say, is merely a sub-species of evolution. Obviously, then, the dichotomy that exists in the minds of the creationists is not founded solely on the distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism.

From the evidence of the creationist literature and from the model creationist law circulated by Paul Ellwanger's Citizens for Fairness in Education, it is evident that contemporary, conservative, biblical creationism presupposes all five of the aforementioned premises (and, perhaps, in addition, some geological propositions designed to preserve the historicity of the Noachian Deluge). This leaves innumerable, perhaps even unlimited possibilities that are neither creationism nor evolution.

For example, one could accept the suddenness and simultaneity of the appearance of life forms on earth (while rejecting the other three creationist criteria) by supposing that the original members of various species (both living and dead) were off-loaded from a kind of cosmic ark, piloted by astronauts from another stellar system. This in turn could be placed in the context of a theory which supposes that the basic life-forms are co-eternal with an eternal, steady-state universe and that interstellar colonizing is the way life propagates itself in the newly emergent regions of the cosmos. In the changing environment of the freshly-inhabited planet, not all species were successful, and some eventually died out. On other worlds, with different climates and geologies, the dinosaurs still reign, and most mammals exist only as fossil remnants. This "biostatic" theory (which is about as sensible and as easily reconcilable with modern science as biblical creationism), is clearly neither evolution nor creation and deserves about as much consideration as the latter.

Elements of this biostatic theory are reminiscent of pansemnia, a hypothesis that dates back at least to Benoit de Maillet's famous Telliamed of 1748 (Corozzi, 1969 and 1974). According to Maillet's formulation of the theory, seeds of the various life-forms are distributed throughout the universe, and when they by chance find themselves in a favorable (usually aqueous) environment, they mature and reproduce. Over time, the species undergo a slow transformation, better adapting themselves to the changing environment of their new-found planet, becoming more complex and versatile, and finally extending their range from the sea to the land and even to the air.

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Although Maillet includes in his hypothesis a slow development of the species over time, his theory is not at all evolutionary. In Maillet's view, distinct kinds of species have distinct ancestors. The progenitors of men, for example, were mermen; the progenitors of apes were presumably mer-apes. There was no common descent and thus no genuine evolution. This limited type of specific metamorphosis is called "transformism" (to distinguish it from evolution), and it was relatively common in French biological thought before Darwin. With some doctoring and a little imagination, it would be possible to make "pansemnial transformism" (as we might designate this theory) at least as conformable to the discoveries of modern science as biblical creationism, and if the latter deserves equal time in our public schools, then so does the former.

A true dichotomy (or something very close to it) could probably be maintained if creationists would only choose the one criterion that has to be the essence, the sine qua non of any hypothesis that calls itself creationism, namely the assertion of creation itself, the affirmation that life has arisen through creative acts. Generally speaking, things exist either naturally or artificially; they are either designed or made consciously, or they arise fortuitously through the blind operation of the laws of nature. With the possible exception of directed evolution, this formulation of the alternatives leaves little room for a middle position. Indeed, Richard Bliss of the Institute for Creation Research has come close to defining the creationist position in just such a way. In a letter to the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune, he writes:

The models, as they stand, evolution being random, mechanistic and naturalistic on the one hand, and creation being design oriented by a Creator and not random on the other are, in fact, mutually exclusive models.

It should, of course, be pointed out that the alternatives here are not really creation and evolution, but biocreationism and bionaturalism. The choice is between the notion that life-forms were consciously and purposefully designed and the notion that they simply "sprang up" accidentally within the limiting framework of the basic laws of nature. In this formulation of the dichotomy, the previously-mentioned theories of biostasis and pansemnial transformism count (along with evolution by natural selection) as sub-species of bionaturalism.

But even this delineation of the alternatives would, I fear, not begin to satisfy the biblical creationists: it leaves far too much room for the most blatant forms of heresy.

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For example, a theory quite common in early nineteenth-century Britain supposed that the history of the earth has been one of periodic catastrophes in which large numbers of species are destroyed. Between cataclysms, new species are created to fill the ecological gaps left by the extinction of the old. (The last in this series of catastrophes was the Noachian Flood.) This theory, which is sometimes called "progressive creation," accepts sudden creation by a supernatural cause, but it rejects the biblical-creationist assertions of simultaneity and recent creation.

Perhaps progressive creation is close enough to the biblicist position to be accepted by creationists as a sub-model of their hypothesis. But there are more radical creationist models that I am certain they would reject.

For example, let us suppose that about four billion years ago voyagers from a nearby planetary system happened upon our earth. Recognizing the suitability of the terrestrial environment for the sustenance of life, they decided to use our planet as an immense biological laboratory. In the rich organic soup of the primitive oceans, they planted a simple, but viable polymer of DNA (or perhaps RNA). In subsequent visits over eons of time, they slowly created a succession of life forms by adding bits of genetic material to the genes of already-living beings, by fusing and multiplying chromosomes, and by grafting genes from one species onto genes of others. As their technology improved, they were able to handle the difficult genetics of more complex organisms—engineering first single-celled plants and animals, then multicellular forms, progressing from coelenterates and worms to fishes, birds, and mammals. Finally, in the fullness of time and technology, they created in their own image a rational animal, capable of understanding the processes of his own origins. If one assumes only one visit every four thousand years, they could have achieved the present state of biological complexity in about one million visits.

This "little-green-man hypothesis," or "chloranthrobiogenesis," as we might term it, has all the teleology of the biblical-creationist theory, but unlike biblical creationism, it does not contradict the basic facts of modern science. It accepts the succession of the fossil record, the age of the earth as established by measurements of radioactive decay, and the order of the geological strata. Unlike biblical creationism, it explains quite as satisfactorily as evolution the existence of useless or vestigial organs and the biochemical, morphological, and ethological similarities of related species and genera. In short, it is far more reasonable, far more consonant with modern science than biblical creationism can ever be. And yet, chloranthrobiogenesis is not evolution at all. It is a kind of scientific creationism.

Given, then, this rich array of choices, why is there no Progressive Creation Society? Why no Institute for Pansemnial Research? Why no Fellowship of the Friends of the Chloranthropoids? Why are there no voices raised, petitions signed, pamphlets written, propaganda aired, or laws formulated in support of any of these alternative theories of biological origins? The answer is simple: none of these alternatives is found in the book of Genesis.

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Had the ancient Jews been as fancifully imaginative as Benoit de Maillet, then the Blisses, Gishes, Morrisses and Slushers would all be ardent pansemnial transformists; for their ultimate criterion of truth, the standard by which they measure the validity of any proposition is not reason and experience, but an unshakable faith in an inflexibly literal reading of Scripture. I suppose all theories are to some degree procrustean, but the creationists have made the bed of Procrustes into an altar upon which they sacrifice to their primeval gods any science they find incommodious to their belief. Thus have they dispatched relativity and quantum mechanics, modern astrophysics and cosmology, two hundred years of geology, and more than a century of basic biology.

There exists, in fact, a dichotomy, and it is this: those who use scientific principles to reason about nature choose evolution; those who use the biblicist faith as a presupposition often choose biblical creationism. These are not, as we have seen, the only alternatives that logic and reason can provide. They are, rather, the limited alternatives provided by cultural, historical, and social forces.

Defenders of evolution often complain that the creationists spend virtually all their time attacking evolution and almost no time at all in developing a creationist model or in adducing evidence for creationist ideas. The reason for this, in large part, is that the creationists have been assuming: if not evolution, then biblical creation. In other words, if evolution is false, then creationism must necessarily be true. As we have seen, the logic of this position is utterly without merit.

In conclusion, it is important to note that the repeated use of the term "evolutionist" throughout this article is a necessary consequence of the nature of the discussion and does not imply that there exists anyone within the scientific community who may properly be described as such. Among scientists the term is an anachronism. There are no more "evolutionists" among biologists than there are "round-earthers" or "heliocentrists" among astronomers, "Einsteinians" among physicists, or "antiphlogistonists" among chemists. We may say of a person that he or she is right-handed because there are many who are left-handed, but we would never say of someone that he or she is "one-headed" simply because to say he or she is a person implies as much. So too, to say a person is a scientist encompasses the fact that he or she is an evolutionist. In scientific circles the term is redundant and is, therefore, never used.

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