It's not all roses in the Garden of Eden

March 22, 2002

In light of recent debate over the place of creationism on the curriculum, Jonathan Ree argues that it is important not to confuse faith, truth and science.

The fundamentalist teachers at Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead are part of a tradition stretching back to the beginnings of Protestant militancy. But their desire to teach the Genesis story of the creation of the world as if it were scientific truth has a curiously convoluted pedigree.

The biblical literalism of the 17th-century Protestants was driven by fear and loathing: fear of the atheistic materialism that was possibly implied by the new natural sciences, and loathing for the priest-ridden Catholic tradition with its elaborate non-literal readings of Holy Scripture.

The "Puritans", as they were often known, were puritanical not only in their way of life, but also in their attitude to truth. They ascribed the evils of their times to "scepticism", in other words the doctrine, first proposed by Pagan philosophers in ancient Greece, that nothing is intrinsically more probable than anything else.

Both the papists and the atheists, according to the Calvinist preacher John Edwards, were sceptics at heart: they held that there was "no such thing as Truth in the world", and therefore had no anchors to secure themselves against the currents of custom, convention and fashion. Some 300 years later, the self-declared friends of Jesus and the self-declared friends of natural science are still plodding round the same old treadmills, and self-righteous soldiers of truth are still making a valiant stand against self-doubting sceptics and relativists.

But there seems to have been a mix-up: the two sides have swapped their scripts and are now incongruously speaking each other's lines. The leaders of Emmanuel CTC willingly accept that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory should be taught in their school. But like born-again sceptics they regard Darwinism as "a theory and faith position" comparable to creationism as expounded in Genesis. "Both creation and evolution are faith positions," they say, and each has an equal right to be regarded as a legitimate scientific theory. "It's up to children to make their own minds up," according to the college's principal benefactor.

If the biblical fundamentalists have turned into relativists or neo-sceptics, the sceptical scientists and atheists have been converted into fervent true believers. Despite their high-and-mighty status - we keep being reminded that they hold endowed positions in the great universities, which their opponents do not - they are neo-Puritans rather than Catholics when it comes to the question of truth: fervent absolutists in the 17th-century mould and fanatical foes of scepticism.

To them it seems self-evident that science is truth, and truth, science; and to teach anything else but truth, they assume, would be to pollute the precious purity of our schools. Creationism is scientifically false, as far as the bullish neo-Darwinists are concerned, and that is the end of the matter. But their posturing in the name of truth and science is not unmarked by a fair few falsehoods and lapses of its own.

The new puritans forget, in the first place, that truth and falsehood have a peculiarly intimate relationship with each other. Knowledge involves appreciating the falsity of plausible falsehoods as well as the truth of surprising truths, and a mind that was fed on nothing but truth - if such a thing were possible - would die of inanition rather than flourish into absolute knowledge. It takes first-hand experience of the conflict of interpretations to develop a talent for sound intellectual judgement, and no one will appreciate the strength of Darwinism, for instance, unless they know what its rivals were and how they deserved to be defeated.

The second thing the new absolutists forget is that the propositions of science are not always true. Historically, in fact, the vast majority of scientific theories have turned out to be false. Lamarckianism, for example, has been disproved by Darwinism but, to the extent that it was open to systematic criticism and progressive alteration over time, it was a scientific theory all the same. The first chapter of Genesis, in contrast, is neither testable nor adaptable: it is a complete non-starter in the science stakes and would remain so even if it turned out to be true.

Last but not least, the new fanatics forget that there are plenty of other objective truths apart from the truths of science: the truths of history, for instance, including the fact that the natural sciences themselves have long pasts that comprise their fair share of error.

Students need to learn about the evolution of science as well as the science of evolution. And the friends of science ought to stop equating science with truth, and start paying respect to historical methods as well as scientific ones.

Jonathan Rée is a member of the Philosophers' Group of the British Humanist Association. He was signatory to a petition to the government to prevent teachers from presenting creationist theories as the scientific equivalent of evolution. He is about to be made redundant as part of a rebalancing exercise at Middlesex University.

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