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Does creationism pose a challenge for geology and evolution?

David H. Bailey
Updated 27 November 2022 (c) 2022

Introduction

In the past few decades, modern science has uncovered a world that is far vaster and more awe-inspiring than ever imagined before, and has uncovered a set of elegant natural laws that govern all the universe, deeply resonating with the notion of a cosmic lawgiver in Judeo-Christian religion. It not just devout believers who find these results inspiring. For example, 46% of Americans (including 54% of atheists, 55% of agnostics and 43% of nones) say that they experience a "deep sense of wonder about the universe" on at least a weekly basis [Masci2016]. With regards to a union between science, philosophy and religion, how could one ask for more?

In spite of these exhilarating developments, some writers, principally of the creationist and intelligent design schools, prefer instead a highly combative approach to science, particularly to traditional topics such as geology and evolution.

Historical background

What is now known as the "creationism" (also termed "scientific creationism" or "creation science") movement was originally founded in the 1920s by the self-taught geologist George McCready Price. Price was a devout member of the Seventh-day Adventist sect, which adhered to a literal belief in Genesis. In several books that he subsequently authored, Price declared that much of modern science is "in the highest degree improbable and absurd." Price, echoing his religious teachings, suggested that a miraculous "cosmic storm" buried the bodies of ancient animals, so that the fossil record reveals merely a sorting of contemporaneous antediluvian life forms, and the conventional geological column is a delusion. Price's book The New Geology [Price1923], which was first published in 1923, sold over 15,000 copies.

Price's works were followed in 1961 by Whitcomb and Morris' The Genesis Flood [Whitcomb1988]. These authors argued that since the scriptures clearly describe a universal flood, Christian believers have only two choices: reject God's inspired Word or reject the testimony of professional geologists. According to these authors, God created the entire universe and populated the Earth with fully grown plants, animals, and human beings, all in six literal days, using methods and processes completely different from those now in operation in the universe. There was no death before the Fall, so consequently all fossils are the remains of animals that perished subsequent to the Fall. The authors attributed the apparent order of fossils in the geological column to "hydrological sorting" of organisms in the flood waters and the superior mobility of vertebrates. They acknowledged that by some indications the Earth and the universe appear to be very old, but asserted that an omnipotent Creator created them with the "appearance of age" [Whitcomb1988, pg. 233-238]. Three other books include Henry Morris's Scientific Creationism [Morris2000], Duane Gish's Evolution: The Fossils Say No! [Gish1973] and Evolution: The Challenge of the Fossil Record [Gish1985].

For many years, creationist organizations have produced creationism-friendly instruction material to be used in parochial schools, and have also made numerous attempts to promote legislation to permit this type of material to be taught in public schools. Most of these attempts have subsequently been blocked by court rulings. For instance, in 1982 a U.S. District Court ruled that a 1981 Arkansas law requiring "balanced treatment" for "creation-science" was an impermissible violation of the separation between church and state. The judge further ruled that "creation science" is not science and is instead a religious notion [Overton1982]. Similarly, in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a Louisiana "creationism act" that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools unless accompanied by instruction in "creation science" [Supreme1987]. More recently, in 2005 a U.S. district judge in Dover, Pennsylvania ruled against a local school district that had attempted to require "intelligent design" material to be presented as an alternative to evolution [Jones2005; Lebo2008].

In spite of these court rulings, creationist groups continue to press their cause to alter or block the teaching of evolution, big bang and related theories in public schools. In one recent case of this sort, creationists on a Texas state textbook panel questioned material on evolution in high school biology books, writing, "The fossil record can be interpreted in other ways than evolutionary with equal justification." [Rich2013]. The most common motivation for these efforts is the belief by creationists that the Bible must be regarded as inerrant, so that it must be read as a scientific document as well as a religious document. For example, many of these writers, even today, insist that the Earth was created in six approximately 24-hour days, or at most in a few thousand years [Ham2013]. However, the vast majority of biblical scholars sharply disagree with these premises. For additional details, see Bible-inerrant.

Modern-day popularity

In recent years the intelligent design movement has garnered considerable attention, but traditional creationism continues to be very popular. In a 2013 Pew Research poll, given a choice "Humans existed in present form since the beginning of time" or "Humans and other living things have evolved over time," 33% of American adults selected the first option [Pew2013]. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 42% of Americans believe that "God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years." [Newport2014]. These results are essentially in agreement with a 2009 poll, which found that 39% agreed that "God created the universe, the Earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals and the first two people within the past 10,000 years." In this same 2009 survey, 35% agreed that "The theory of evolution is not supported by any confirmed facts," and 43% agreed that "Human fossils have been found mixed in with dinosaur fossils showing that humans existed at the same time that dinosaurs existed." [Bishop2010].

Another indication of the continuing (and perhaps growing) influence of creationism is the popularity of the new Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (near Cincinnati, Ohio). This facility features a series of exhibits depicting, among other things, the creation in 4000 BC, a global flood in 2350 BC that deposited all fossil layers, and humans and dinosaurs living together. Murals contrast "human reason" with "God's Word." Since it opened in 2007, the museum has attracted over 3,000,000 visitors (as of May 2017). In July 2016 the Answers in Genesis organization, which operations the Creation Museum, opened an even larger museum devoted to Noah's Ark. The Ark Encounter, like the Creation Museum, presumes a highly literal reading of the Bible, and takes a hostile stance to modern science in general and to evolution in particular.

Groups supporting creationism and intelligent design are very active politically, pressing their case in the U.S. and internationally [Lebo2008; Lebo2010]. Some of these groups have now joined forces with opponents of environmental protection measures. Together they are promoting legislation to require that students be taught "all sides of evidence" on evolution and global warming [Kaufman2010; Zimmerman2010].

Along this line, a 2013 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the surprising result that only 11% of Americans belong to religions that openly reject evolution. These results suggest that the main issue here is not between science and religion, but instead between religious movements that have made their peace with science and small fundamentalist groups who have not. Evidently many religious adherents who oppose evolution do not understand the official positions taken by their own denominations [Lee2013].

Creationism and scientific evidence

Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science who testified in the 1981 Alabama creationism case, describes science as a discipline that (1) is guided by natural law, (2) is explanatory by reference to natural law, (3) is testable against the empirical world, (4) reaches conclusions that are tentative, and (5) is falsifiable [Pennock1999, pg. 5]. So how does creationism measure as a scientific theory?

At this point in time, the conventional scientific picture of the Earth as approximately 4.5 billion years old, with primitive bacteria in the distant past to flowering plants and vertebrates several hundred million years ago and ultimately to Homo sapiens within the past million years, is extremely well established. Geological dates are particularly well established, confirmed by numerous independent schemes that rely on fundamental processes such as radioactivity. As biologist Kenneth Miller has observed, "The consistency of the [radiometric] data ... is nothing short of stunning." [Miller1999, pg. 76]. For more details, see Radiometric dating and Reliability.

In other words, the central tenet of creationism, namely that Earth is only a few thousand years old, has been overwhelmingly refuted by modern scientific data. The only option for those creationists who still nonetheless hold to a young-earth paradigm is to accept the theory advanced by Whitcomb and Morris, namely that an omnipotent Deity created the Earth (or even the entire universe) a few thousand years ago, but meticulously designed it to have an "appearance of age" [Whitcomb1988, pg. 233-238; Morris2000, pg. 203]. In addition to the severe difficulties presented by the "God the Great Deceiver" theology implicit in this speculation, such a notion is non-falsifiable and thus unscientific -- one could just as well assert that the world was created two weeks ago, with everyone's memory intact, and no one could cite any empirical evidence to prove otherwise. This is discussed in more detail at Deceiver.

With regards to biological evolution, in recent years some powerful new tools have arisen to test and explore the details of evolutionary history. These new tools, based on comparisons of DNA and amino acid sequences, have confirmed the traditional taxonomy of the biological world, determined in earlier years solely by similarities of anatomy and function, and now permit scientists to estimate times to evolutionary branching events in the past. To cite but one well-known example, the 141-amino-acid-long human alpha globin molecule (a component of hemoglobin) is identical with that of chimpanzees, differs by one location in gorillas, by 18 in horses, by 25 in rabbits, and by approximately 100 locations in various fish species. This is discussed in more detail at DNA.

A summary of the huge body of studies that have analyzed evolutionary science and affirmed its central tenets is given at Evolution evidence.

Technical issues raised by creationists

In any event, what are we to make of some of the specific technical issues that creationists have raised? Here is a short summary of a few of these arguments, plus a brief statement of the scientific response:
  1. Flood geology. As mentioned above, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris advanced the theory that the entire column of rocks and fossils that geologists have found were deposited in a cataclysmic flood at the time of Noah. They suggest that the reason that we see more advanced organisms at the higher levels of the geological column is because they were able to maneuver and swim better than others. Rejoinder: Even setting aside the unmistakable testimony of radiometric dating, which shows the various layers to be millions of years old, flood geology has severe difficulties as a scientific. theory. For example, in a huge flood surely some individuals of a certain species would be more successful than others in swimming or reaching higher ground. So why didn't the aged or infirm individuals drown and appear in much lower geological strata? In general, why do fossils appear only in very specific layers worldwide, and not helter-skelter in multiple layers as one would expect as the result of a cataclysmic global flood? Also, as pointed out by a recent article by Davidson and Wolgemuth, salt layers require water to have evaporated; how then are huge layers of rock and soil deposited on top of salt layers? Numerous other very severe difficulties could be cited [Davidson2010]. Creationists' continuing attempts to defend this absurd theory does not speak well for the movement. See Noah's flood for more details.

  2. Gaps in the fossil record. Creationists have long assailed geologists and biologists for gaps in the fossil record. Rejoinder: It is certainly true that gaps exist, particularly in sections of the geological column for which there are few accessible fossil sites. In addition, scientists now recognize that the fossil record documents periods of relative stability, punctuated with periods of rapid change. But many of these gaps have been filled during the past few decades with discoveries of transitional fossils. These include many of the gaps that creationists and intelligent design writers have claimed could not possibly be bridged. Also, many "missing link" fossils have been found in transitions between ancient primates and modern humans [Prothero2007]. This is discussed in more detail at Fossils and Prehuman fossils.

  3. No observed speciation today. Creationists and intelligent design scholars often assert that the splitting of a species into two species has never been actually observed. Rejoinder: Although speciation typically requires many thousands of years, biologists cite can cite numerous examples of present-day species that appear to be in the process of splitting [Coyne2009, pg. 5-8, 168-189]. One example is a certain salamander species in California, which is sufficiently different at one end of its habitat to another that by established standards (such as failure to interbreed), specimens from the two ends would be classified as from two distinct species [Wake2001]. Many more examples could be cited -- see Evolution evidence.

  4. Probability. Some creationist and intelligent design writers have argued that the probability of a biomolecule such as human alpha globin (a sequence of 141 amino acids) forming at random from scratch is so remote that it could not be expected to have occurred even once in the history of the universe. Rejoinder: These probability calculations are seriously flawed, relying on completely unrealistic models and other fallacies. Among other things, this type of argument suffers from the fatal fallacy of presuming that a structure such as alpha globin arose by a single all-at-once event (which, after all, is the creationist theory, not the scientific theory, of its origin). Instead, available evidence suggests that alpha globin and other proteins arose as the end product of a long sequence of intermediate steps, each of which was biologically useful in an earlier context. Thus all such calculations are invalid from the start. For full details, see Probability.

  5. Origin of life. Several creationist and intelligent design writers have argued that scientists do not understand the origin of life, and that this is a fatal flaw for evolutionary theory. Rejoinder: Scientists readily acknowledge that the origin of the first bimolecular species, for instance, is still not understood, although intriguing advances have been made recently. In any event, it is not clear what is to be gained for the creationist cause by highlighting these unknowns, since the evolution of living organisms since the origin of life is very well grounded experimentally (and dated in the geologic record), completely independent of how the first biomolecules formed. Thus concerns about the origin of life, with regards to the scientific support of the evolutionary hypothesis, are largely irrelevant. This is discussed in more detail at Origin.
An encyclopedic collection of creationist claims, together with brief responses from the scientific community, is available in a book by Mark Isaak [Isaak2007]. Much of this material, along with some additional material, is also available an online compendium produced by Isaak [Isaak2006].

Do creationists publish in peer-reviewed scientific publications?

Creationist writers have published their arguments dissenting from conventional science in books and in online articles, but, as far anyone can determine, not in any recognized peer-reviewed scientific journal. There are, however, a few instances where known creationist writers have published peer-reviewed articles on scientific topics not closely related to creationism, showing that there is no fundamental prejudice against these authors in the scientific community [Isaak2007, pg. 28-29].

Needless to say, the absence of peer-reviewed publications or even serious attempts at submitting material for peer review presents a severe obstacle to creationism being taken seriously in the scientific world. After all, if creationists (individually or collectively) believe that any of their technical issues have significant merit on purely scientific grounds, why do they not compose them into well-researched and well-analyzed articles and submit these articles to recognized peer-reviewed scientific journals? After all, as emphasized in a recent Science letter signed by numerous prominent scientists (after brief mention of the prevailing theories of geology, big bang cosmology and evolution), "Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong." [Gleick2010].

Conclusion

The creationist and intelligent design movements were founded out of deeply felt concerns that modern science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular, are a challenge to the Bible and Judeo-Christian religion. Many of their adherents are devoutly religious people and commendably practice their religion in daily life. Their general notion that a supreme Being oversaw or governed the creation in some high-level sense is one that many scientists, religious or not-so-religious, can accept.

However, with regards to the technical arguments raised by these communities, the consensus of the vast majority of scientists who have examined these issues is that their arguments are overwhelmingly refuted by well-known evidence. Virtually all of these issues were settled long ago in the scientific literature. And the latest evidence, such as DNA sequence data (produced thanks to a dramatic drop in the cost of DNA sequencing technology) all but scream "common ancestry between species," sharply contradicting the claim of independent creation of individual species -- there is no other reasonable way to interpret these data (see Evolution evidence) and DNA).

In any event, the creationist-intelligent design arguments have not been published in reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals, so they cannot be taken seriously by the scientific community. If any of these writers have solid arguments that could withstand peer review, they are welcome to compose these arguments in a soberly written, well-organized technical paper, and submit it to a prominent journal in the evolutionary science field.

One overriding difficulty with both the creationist and intelligent design movements is that invoking a Creator or Designer whenever one encounters a difficult question is a "thinking stopper." Such an approach places numerous grand questions of our existence off-limits to human investigation, buried in the inscrutable mind of a mysterious supreme Being: "Why was the Earth (or the universe in general) designed the way it was?" "How did the design and creative processes proceed?" "What physical laws were employed?" "Why those particular laws?" "What prompted the creation?" "Have other earths or universes been designed or created?" "Where are they?" Surely there is a more fruitful avenue for finding a harmony between science and religion than just saying "God created and/or designed it that way" and then deeming it either unnecessary or inappropriate to inquire further -- reveling in ignorance instead of thirsting for knowledge.

It is ironic, in a way, that the creationist and intelligent design movements seek to "prove" the hand of God in creation by seeking scientific evidence that certain aspects of the creation could not possibly have occurred by natural processes. By placing God on the anvil of scientific verification or refutation, these writers are implicitly affirming the scientific materialist worldview of the critics who are their most implacable foes -- see Atheists. Further, these movements inevitably lead to such theological disasters as "God the Great Deceiver" theology, wherein God is thought to have constructed the world with an appearance of ancient evolutionary development [to mislead diligent seekers of truth?] (see Deceiver), and "God of the gaps" theology, wherein God is sought in the ever-shrinking gaps of what is currently unexplained in science [tantamount to theological suicide?] (see God of the gaps).

For these reasons, neither creationism nor intelligent design can be recommended for those seeking rational harmony between science and religion, to say the least! Other approaches, which acknowledge basic scientific precepts, and do not attempt to combat the world of science, are recommended instead -- see Harmony for a high-level discussion of these issues.