Free debate is the way to defeat creationism 1

October 2, 2008

Michael Reiss, former education director at the Royal Society, is right ("Royal Society is considering casting out God", 25 September), creationism needs to be defeated by open debate. By ignoring it, we simply feed it.

I taught a class of 300 non-science majors in western Canada, where fundamentalism is strong. Persuasion always won and, to judge from the exams, there were few creationists left at the end of the year. Creationists were tackled directly using a line of attack they least expected - accusing them of heresy.

The blind evangelical Scottish theologian George Matheson, one of Darwin's strong early supporters, is very helpful here. Since Matheson, mainstream Christianity fully accepts evolution. Half a dozen appropriate biblical quotes and the problem is over. Creationists are logical. Once their basic axiom is knocked down, they accept Darwin as willingly as baby monkeys take milk. Much more difficult in a geology class are the New Age crystal worshippers: a sea of rancid mush.

But there is an accusation against Darwinism, too. Darwinian eugenicists, including Marie Stopes, a founder of palaeobotany, bred vicious 20th-century racism. As George Orwell pointed out, Rudyard Kipling damned the Kaiser's Germans and King Leopold's Belgians as "lesser breeds without the Law". Kipling's anger was because they justified the holocausts in Namibia and the Congo by the supposed eugenic law of science, rejecting biblical law.

Many of my students were First Nations people, from tribal bands and families victimised by eugenicists. Other students were descended from Adolf Hitler's victims. Compared with the hurt done by bad science, creationism is small, if very rotten, potatoes.

I will teach early Earth history next week. Discussion brings persuasion. Students do listen - they can be convinced. We cannot duck these debates. They are best faced head on. Reiss was right.

Euan Nisbet, Royal Holloway, University of London.

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