Creative tension

In Australia, a geologist has begun a court battle with a fundamentalis t creationist. The proposition being examined, improbable as it might seem in 1997, is that Noah set sail in the Ark 4,000 years ago.

Noah would need to have loaded 460 organisms per second into the Ark to get two of each species on board within the 24-hour period described in the Bible. He would also have had to cope with thousands of tons of urine and excreta every day.

Such are the calculations of Professor Ian Plimer, head of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne. And if they strike you as literalist to the point of absurdity, he will be pleased. Plimer is the man who this week began a law suit in the Federal Court of Australia against a fundamentalist Creationist who is charged with selling "misleading and deceptive" material to promote his search for Noah's Ark, which he claims he has detected in Turkey about 12 miles from the summit of Mount Ararat.

To many, it will seem faintly ludicrous that a supreme court in an industrialised nation should, in 1997, concern itself with an attempt to adjudicate on the proposition that the earth was created 6,000 to 10,000 years ago - and that a flood 4,000 years ago destroyed all life except that in Noah's charge aboard the Ark.

The Evolution versus Creationist battle is one which was fought and won decisively decades ago. There may have been controversy in 1863 when T H Huxley published his popularisation of Darwin, with its now-famous frontispiece of a skeletonised human loping ahead of a procession of ape ancestors. But today most educated people take for granted that evolution is the most plausible explanation of life and accept our descent from the apes with equanimity. Even the Pope last year accepted that Darwinian evolutionary theory is "more than a hypothesis".

So why this curious case, an inversion of the infamous Monkey trial in the United States in 1925, when a young Tennessee biology teacher, John Scopes, was tried for breaking the law by teaching the theory of evolution? (Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 but won on appeal and the public outcry forced a moderation in old-style education.) Now, in Sydney, we have Monkey Trial II in which a scientist is suing a fundamentalist for saying the opposite.

Plimer's action is motivated by a decade-long concern that Creationists - who are hiding behind the pluralist argument that children should be presented with a variety of theories - are using Australian schools as recruiting grounds for their fundamentalist beliefs. In Europe the notion may seem unlikely. But a survey of first-year Australian university biology students earlier this decade found one in eight believed the literal meaning of the Bible. And in the United States recent research suggests that almost half the public now believes that Genesis is more accurate than Darwin.

America, remember, is still a place where a majority of people go to church on Sunday. Almost all believe in God. Many millions of Americans believe in the literal truth of the Old and New Testaments. And many believe in notions considerably more strange - as the eerily clad corpses of the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult testified with their mortal conviction that lethal quantities of barbiturates constituted their "boarding pass" to an alien spaceship. It is thought that fundamentalist groups now control the boards of more than 2,000 US schools. In some parts of the world, evolution theory is fighting for survival.

It was with real alarm that a recent issue of Scientific American addressed the issue of what it calls "anti-science". It is not just that almost half the American public now believes that God created man within the past 10,000 years. Nearly 60 per cent of Americans think that Creationist theories should be taught in the country's avowedly secular schools. "Perhaps the most radical incarnation of anti-scientific thought," the respected magazine says, is the modern superstition of Creationism.

And modern it is. The Institute for Creationist Science in California may insist that God literally created the world in seven days and that there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark which, for the next 2,000 years, lived alongside man and the other animals, until they were hunted to extinction (small numbers may still survive - viz., the Loch Ness Monster). It may even believe that the animals survived on the Ark because before the Flood they were all vegetarians, even Tyrannosaurus Rex. But Scientific Creationism, as it is oxymoronically known, has come a long way from the Victorian days when the fossils were thought to have been placed in the earth by God as a test of faith. Today many of the new-wave Creationists are young and well educated, with first degrees from within the scientific mainstream. They produce theses which argue from accepted scientific premises with a recognisable scientific framework. Men like Professor John Whitmore, who teaches geology at Cedarville College, Ohio - where staff and students alike are required to accept the verbatim truth of Genesis as the "supreme and final authority in faith and life" - suggest that fossils were deposited in the Great Flood. Whitmore adds that carbon dating for fossils is therefore inappropriate because it is only useful on objects less than 2,000 years old.

Such Creationists are happy to try to tackle on their own ground modern Darwinian evangelists like the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and Climbing Mount Improbable, who insists that mankind has reached the summit of that evolutionary mountain by a series of small, random steps rather than in a single bound.

The argument, they riposte, that the Darwinian process is the only one we know that can produce apparent design without a designer is not just flawed because it leads us into a vision of men and women as self-replicating robots who inhabit a bleak universe without purpose. They accuse Dawkins of ignorance of molecular processes. Following the arcane scientific detail of Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, they insist that advances in modern biochemistry have revealed that complex molecular systems are the product of intelligent design and cannot have evolved by chance. It is a world of such scientific technicality that the average layman dare not venture in.

And the modern Creationist is an adaptive creature. In 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of "creation science" in schools constituted the promotion of religion and thus violated the First Amendment. To circumvent the ruling Creationists devised a new way to bring the supernatural into the curriculum. The Foundation for Thoughts and Ethics, in Richardson, Texas, has recently flooded the schools in 18 states with a science textbook Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origin which is viewed by opponents as a Trojan horse for Christian fundamentalism.

Hidden agendas lurk on all sides. To the fundamentalist, evolution cannot be countenanced because it represents a direct challenge to the verity of God's direct revealed word. To Christians who see the divine revealed in nature, reason and tradition there is no inevitable conflict between evolutionary theory and the belief that God created the universe - indeed it was a Belgian priest, Georges-Henri Lemaitre, who, basing his ideas on Einstein's theory of gravity, first proposed the theory of the Big Bang as the origin of the universe. They see something coercive in the fundamentalist agenda.

But the debate has wider resonances. It impacts even on political philosophy. To the socialist, the Darwinian notion of a struggle for life does not sit easily with the communal ideals of co-operation. While to the liberal the endless progress of evolution is a law written in nature which shows that no individual has the right to view himself as superior to another.

In any case, this is not a subject over which it is safe for us to sneer at the Americans and Aussies. An opinion poll by Gallup last year on public attitudes to science showed that most Britons do not strongly agree with the received wisdom that religion in the West has been superseded by science. Indeed, the large majority would like creation theory taught in schools alongside the orthodox scientific description of the creation of the universe.

None of which, of course, is ultimately convincing. "Just because a lot of people believe in something doesn't make it intellectually serious," as the Darwinian Stephen Jay Gould has put it. But clearly it still makes it a force to be reckoned withn

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