Teaching Evolution or Creation
I actually wrote most of this page quite a while ago, shortly after the state of Kansas decided to no longer force the teaching of the theory of evolution and to not keep that as part of the high school graduation evaluation. I feel that such a decision, and others like it that have been unsuccessful, hinder the development of our future generations. At that time, I almost wrote this as a letter to my local paper, but I did not send it. The following is my perspective on the controversy.
The term Mother Nature is often applied to the ecological balance that exists on our planet. Our educational system attempts to provide us with an understanding of our environment - Mother Nature. I have found that my kids have been taught in a manner very similar to what I recall. As I grew up and learned about Mother Nature, I found it easy to be in awe of the intricate dependencies. The elementary grades provide a basic understanding of our planet. The many geological features (e.g., deserts, forests, mountains, plains, lakes, oceans, rivers) provide a home for life on our planet. Earth supports an amazing variety of life forms, from single cell organisms, to plants, to fish, reptiles and mammals.
In the middle and high schools, the complexities of Mother Nature are presented. The variety of life forms can be grasped when the classifications (classes, genus, species, etc.) are taught. Even in such variety, there is structure. All life forms have similarities, whether they have back bones, whether they bear their young alive, whether they draw nutrients from the ground or the air. The internal complexity of certain life forms are also presented. The study of the human anatomy enables a better understanding of oneself. The study of the internal organs of several other life forms (often a worm or frog) adds to that understanding of one's own body. This study also shows how much we have in common with other life forms, including our digestive system, our nervous system, our reproductive system. While other animals look different than humans (in color, size and shape), we all have these same systems in order for us to survive. The interaction among the life forms is also presented. There are both predators and prey, but they live in a balance. In every food chain, one life form is consumed by another life form, that is consumed by another; these food chains are also in a balance.
In high school, the basics of chemistry and biology are also taught. Plants use solar energy to change nutrients into plant matter and produce oxygen. Animals eat the plants and change them into blood, flesh and bones. The elementary table provides a basic understanding of how our physical world is constructed. Different elements have different properties and various combinations of those elements result in compounds that we can see and feel.
In high school and college, an understanding of our cultures is attempted. Psychology, anthropology, archeology and other disciplines try to teach how and why we do what we do. After the previous years of schooling, it should come as no surprise that we are reflections of our environment. Our morals and values are obtained from our upbringing. The arts (books, music, theater) change over time because our cultures are changing. The activities and interests of someone living in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1990's are far different than someone living in the same area 100 years ago. Those are far different than someone living in the same area 500 years ago.
At the end of my educational process, I possessed a 'wonder' of Mother Nature. Everything is interwoven. If too many quail are present, the hawk that preys on them will become more plentiful (because there is more food to support more predators). If the numbers of quail drop (e.g., an epidemic or loss of habitat), the numbers of hawks will subsequently drop (because some will starve). Not only are the life forms linked, but so is the rest of the environment. Heavy rains increase insect populations, which trickle down the food chain. A drought has a similar, but opposite, effect. The El Nino phenomenon in the North Pacific Ocean affects the weather in a very large area; some regions get hotter or colder, some get wetter or dryer. A volcanic eruption affects all life in the immediate area but it also affects the weather over a much wider area. Any disturbance within 'Mother Nature' will ripple throughout.
Some cultures of the world try to live in harmony with Mother Nature, others try to bring it under control. Some just try to predict its changes to minimize the effects. From any perspective, it is easy to appreciate its complexity.
In most educational systems, the geological record of Mother Nature is taught. I am no longer sure about Kansas. Anyone that has visited the Grand Canyon or the Badlands of South Dakota will see that the geologic record seems to reveal many changes. Below the ground, there is never just a solid mass of clay or sand. Many layers, of different depth and composition, will be found, revealing that the earth's environment is constantly changing (though the time line is in many thousands of years, not in human life times). Over the centuries, people have unearthed bones and fossils that reveal life forms that no longer exist on Earth. However our understanding of our existing life forms (each anatomy and metabolism) have enabled these remnants to be reconstructed into a probable extinct life form. Admittedly, our understanding of existing life forms is not complete; therefore the reconstruction is always theoretical to some extent - but that uncertainty does not render the exercise meaningless. Just as existing life forms can be classified by similarities, so extinct life forms can be classified by similarities within the geological record.
The farther back one looks within this geological record, the simpler the life forms encountered. Biologists try to understand this geological record by charting the life forms. The appearance of different characteristics can be noted in this time line - when certain types of plants appear, when birds appear, when man-like animals appear, and so on.
Other patterns also appear on this time line. Over the wide expanses of many years, there are very short periods of time when many changes in life forms occurred, usually the simultaneous extinction of many species. This record helps explain the term 'catastrophic evolution' that often appears in contemporary writings. The term 'evolution' is defined as: a process of change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state (per Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1977, definition 1c). The term 'catastrophic' comes from 'catastrophe' which is defined as: a violent and sudden change in a feature of the earth (per the same dictionary, definition 3). At certain times in earth's history, sudden changes in the earth resulted in an upheaval of many ecological systems, resulting in the death of many life forms. Those life forms that survived and those that were changed had to be able to survive in the new conditions.
But in death came new life; new life forms often have been more complex than those that died. The human organism is one so complex that it still stymies complete understanding. Advances in medical technology assist scientists understand the physiological processes, but computers still cannot match the power of the human brain. That humans can teach and learn enables many to benefit from what a few have discovered. Just a few hundred years ago, few people in the world could read and write. Just a few millennia ago, writing changed from hieroglyphics to symbols that could form words (to record ideas). Human-like creatures before that were not much more advanced than other creatures that can use tools to achieve a goal.
In discussions that compare the merits of evolution (the changing of life on earth of time) with the merits of creationism (the introduction of life on earth by God, as described in the book of Genesis in the Bible), the process of evolution has sometimes been different than I provided above. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, evolution was often described as a slow gradual change in life forms. In the late 20th century, I believe that such a presentation has begun to fall out of favor, in large part due to a better understanding of the geological record, as I described above. Very recently, the theory that the dinosaurs were killed off by a large asteroid is gaining somewhat wider acceptance. An argument on behalf of creationism that uses the problems of the old presentation of evolution is avoiding the progress being made by scientists that endeavor to increase our understanding of Mother Nature - both its past and its future.
In light of what is described above, what is creationism really teaching? The belief that life forms were introduced on the earth in the span of six days ignores the capabilities of 'our' Mother Nature and it ignores the geological record. If all the existing life forms were inserted in the environment in those six days, then for them to survive 'as is' then the environment must be in a state of continual management. But then that implies that everything that is seen and understood is managed by an outside force. Is everything we see and do just like a movie? The recent science fiction movie, The Matrix, had such a managed environment as its basis - but the outside force was a computer network rather than God.
Creationism is consistent with the notion that God directs everything. I do not see it that way. As I detailed above, the term Mother Nature encompasses everything we are and experience. We are a part of that. If God directs everything then He must also direct everything I do and everything I encounter. That makes my life rather meaningless since I am not a part of it, I just participate in a manner like watching a television show. That the clouds can form to produce rain or snow and that the birds and the bees can multiply by themselves is more 'awesome' to me than to believe each and every action that I see is guided or controlled by this unseen God.
Christian fundamentalists that are also creationists seem to want to have their contradictory beliefs presented as believable. On one hand God created our world (in six days). We live according to God's plan. Everything that happens is according to God's will. God knows everything and He is all-powerful. On the other hand, whether someone will go to Heaven or Hell upon one's death depends on the acts of one's life. The contradiction in the two views seems to missed by the believers. If everything happens according to God's will, then our destiny is already determined upon birth. In this scenario, everyone is really just an actor in a play, with the script written by God. When someone does good deeds, they are performed because God wanted them done, not because of the goodness that is present in that person. When someone commits acts of violence, they are performed because God wanted them done, not because of any evil intent in that person. There is no human accountability or responsibility in this scenario. This renders our human existence meaningless. Only if a person is held accountable for his behavior can human society succeed. The alternative makes justice impossible. Since our country's Constitution was established based on principles of human accountability and self-interest (with checks and balances to ensure democracy and justice, while addressing possible amendments so that future changes could be accommodated), it is readily apparent that such Christian fundamentalist views were not influential two hundred years ago. It is unfortunate that some people are trying to make these views seem important now, even though they are not logical.
In emails to me, I have been criticized for not seeing that God created the world, but that we also have free will in God's domain. If God can act to change anything (as He is all-powerful and all-knowing and etc. - He is supernatural and so He is not subject to anything that we humans can perceive), then everything is predestined. His decision not to act is still a decision. As is described elsewhere in this site, God is created as the last cause of every effect. For anything that we cannot explain at this moment, that was caused by God. Unfortunately, we understand much more of natural processes now than we did hundreds of years ago, when an 'act of God' really was something not understood (not earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.).
The vision of Santa watching over everyone and then checking his list to see who has been naughty or nice to decide on the proper presents is a story that is similar to this idea of God watching over everything. I think it unfortunate that some people believe that is all there is to their life. I dread the thought that those people would teach that philosophy to this generation (including my kids).
Our country has always protected free speech. It is difficult to decide how much freedom should be given to those that would influence our children. In Kansas, a small number of people are setting the educational standard for the schools. It is unfortunate that the standard they have chosen removes information that the rest of their generation will receive.
The teaching of evolution implies that humanity can come to understand both our ancestry and how our actions will affect our future. The teaching of creation implies that our existence is at the whim of a supernatural being and it is not important for our children to learn of how nature works and its origins. Without the necessary background on evolution (which must include the teaching of natural processes), the students will not be given the understanding of nature and how human actions affect nature and their environment.
There are probably aboriginal people that still believe their myths represent the actual sequence of historical events - as a literal story line rather than as a myth. In the 21st century, I hope that our Western civilization can break away from these ancient myths that still restrain some from forward thinking. We might not have a complete understanding about everything in our universe but at least many are trying to get there.
Other topics of discussion:
Matter of religion
Attitudes in Science and Religion
Jesus and Christianity
The Bible as the Word of God
Search for truth
Does life show an intelligent design?
Who is God?
Life After Death
Does God Bless America?
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last change - 04/06/2003