Evolution Supporters Develop Strategy to Counter Creationism

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Boston--If scientists allow themselves to become embroiled in a "holier-than-thou" spat with creationists on academic credentials and continue to write off the Darwin versus Genesis equal-time controversy as a difference of opinion between rational and irrational forces, they are likely to end up losers.

That is the view of Dorothy Nelkin, Cornell University professor of sociology and author of Science Textbook Controversies and the Politics of Equal Time.

Speaking at a conference on the humanities at the John F. Kennedy Library under the aegis of Northeastern University and the National Endowment for the Humanities, she said that supporters of evolution are helping their opponents by trying to argue their case at Moral Majority-sponsored debates in which scientific validity is determined by audience applause--"the wrong arena," she cautioned.

"Creationists enjoy vast social reinforcement, and opposition only augments this," she warned. Scientists, she said, have taken an unrealistic posture in the controversy, asserting scholarly neutrality, framing the debate as the rational versus the irrational, and ignoring the political clout of the "New Right."

By engaging in rhetorical thrust-and-parry, she said, scientists are providing creationists with the media attention that they need to bolster popular support.

Creationism Constituency

"There is no doubt that creationism has a constituency that is receptive to its goals," she said, citing a Gallup poll indicating that 38 percent of the country believes that the Bible is the absolute word of God. It is a mistake for scientists to think that technical evidence will change "deep-rooted beliefs," she said.

Creationists are also using "arguments from the Left," she noted, ''that science is ideological and imperialistic." What is happening in this country, she believes, is only a small part of a "world-wide trend, a reaction to the secularization brought about by science. Look at what is happening in the Moslem countries," she suggested.

While the discussion here included no proclaimed creationists on the panel of theologians, scientists, and philosophers, support was voiced for equal time in the schools.

Warren R. Hutchinson, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, said he was "in favor of equal time, but not in the biology books." And Stephen Nathanson, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern, argued that equal time for creationism "is both permissible and in some cases more desirable." Mr. Nathanson suggested that allowing for both schools of thought would breed "problem-solving skills" and "inquiry-oriented instruction."

Avoiding Creationism Conflict

John Riordan, a former vice president of the schools division of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing company, predicted victory for the creationists on an entirely different front.

"One way to avoid conflict is not to have it there at all," he said. "I think that most publishers today find themselves in a great deal of difficulty trying to meet the demands and requirements of so many states and coming up with an interesting book--interesting to the kids, interesting to the teachers. I think you're more likely to see the exclusion of evolution topics rather than the inclusion of creationism."

Nineteen states have textbook selection commissions. Texas, Ms. Nelkin cited as an example, dispenses some $45 million annually for uniform textbook acquisitions statewide.

The most vocal opponent of equal time for the creationist viewpoint was Stephen Jay Gould, the author and Harvard University zoologist whose own theory of punctuated equilibrium (that evolution may have occurred in rapid bursts of change) has been used by creationists to support their beliefs.

"A teacher can't be a disc jockey, spinning all the sides," he charged. "If education is not the making of distinction, I don't know what it is. But there's a thin line between distinction and dogma," he admitted.

The creationist movement, he said, "is only a small part of a larger issue, more serious, more frightening." Creationists cast everything in a fog of rhetoric, with a strategy of "out-and-out distortion and semantic confusion." He explained that during the 1970's fundamentalists lost most of their bids for equal time in the schools to advocate their religious convictions. "Now they have another line," he added. "Now they say that creationism is an alternative science."

Mr. Hutchinson, however, said the situation is not as alarming as it may appear. In comparing notes on a variety of fundamentalist movements, he concluded that "these things shall pass. But they won't go away by themselves."

Vol. 01, Issue 10

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