[ Isaac Asimov, “The ‘Threat’ of Creationism,”
it was settled. The universe, they had decided, is about 20 billion years old, and
Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old. Simple forms of life came into being more
than three billion years ago, having formed spontaneously from nonliving matter.
They grew more complex through slow evolutionary processes and the first hominid
ancestors of humanity appeared more than four million years ago. Homo sapians
itselfthe present human species, people like you and mehas walked the
earth for at least 50,000 years.
But apparently it isn't settled. There are Americans who believe that the earth is
only about 6,000 years old; that human beings and all other species were brought into
existence by a divine Creator as eternally separate variations of beings; and that
there has been no evolutionary process.
They are creationiststhey call themselves "scientific"
creationistsand they are a growing power in the land, demanding that schools be
forced to teach their views. State legislatures, mindful of the votes, are beginning
to succumb to the pressure. In perhaps 15 states, bills have been introduced, putting
forth the creationist point of view, and in others, strong movements are gaining
momentum. In Arkansas, a law requiring that the teaching of creationism receive equal
time was passed this spring and is scheduled to go into effect in September 1982,
though the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of a group of
clergymen, teachers, and parents to overturn it. And a California father named Kelly
Segraves, the director of the Creation-Science Research Center, sued to have
public-school science classes taught that there are other theories of creation besides
evolution, and that one of them was the Biblical version. The suit came to trial in
March, and the judge ruled that educators must distribute a policy statement to schools
and textbook publishers explaining that the theory of evolution should not be seen as
"the ultimate cause of origins." Even in New York, the Board of Education has
delayed since January in making a final decision, expected this month [June 1981], on
whether schools will be required to include the teaching of creationism in their
The Rev. Jerry Fallwell, the head of the Moral Majority, who supports the
creationist view from his television pulpit, claims that he has 17 million to 25
million viewers (though Arbitron places the figure at a much more modest 1.6 million).
But there are 66 electronic ministries which have a total audience of about 20 million.
And in parts of the country where the Fundamentalists predominatethe so called
Bible Belt creationists are in the majority.
They make up a fervid and dedicated group, convinced beyond argument of both their
rightness and their righteousness. Faced with an apathetic and falsely secure
majority, smaller groups have used intense pressure and forceful campaigningas
the creationists doand have succeeded in disrupting and taking over whole
Yet, though creationists seem to accept the literal truth of the Biblical story
of creation, this does not mean that all religious people are creationists. There
are millions of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews who think of the Bible as a source
of spiritual truth and accept much of it as symbolically rather than literally true.
They do not consider the Bible to be a textbook of science, even in intent, and have
no problem teaching evolution in their secular institutions.
To those who are trained in science, creationism seems like a bad dream, a sudden
reliving of a nightmare, a renewed march of an army of the night risen to challenge
free thought and enlightenment.
The scientific evidence for the age of the earth and for the evolutionary
development of life seems overwhelming to scientists. How can anyone question it?
What are the arguments the creationists use? What is the "science" that
makes their views "scientific"? Here are some of them:
» The argument from analogy.
A watch implies a watchmaker, say the creationists. If you were to find a
beautifully intricate watch in the desert, far from habitation, you would be sure that
it had been fashioned by human hands and somehow left there. It would pass the
bounds of credibility that it had simply formed, spontaneously, from the sands of
By analogy, then, if you consider humanity, life, Earth, and the universe, all
infinitely more intricate than a watch, you can believe far less easily that it
"just happened." It, too, like the watch, must have been fashioned, but by
more-than-human handsin short by a divine Creator.
This argument seems unanswerable, and it has been used (even though not often
explicitly expressed) ever since the dawn of consciousness. To have explained to
prescientific human beings that the wind and the rain and the sun follow the laws
of nature and do so blindly and without a guiding would have been utterly
unconvincing to them. In fact, it might have well gotten you stoned to death as
There are many aspects of the universe that still cannot be explained
satisfactorily by science; but ignorance only implies ignorance that may someday
be conquered. To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature,
and it remains premature today.
In short, the complexity of the universeand one's inability to explain it
in fullis not in itself an argument for a Creator.
» The argument from general consent.
Some creationists point out that belief in a Creator is general among all peoples
and all cultures. Surly this unanimous craving hints at a greater truth. There would
be no unanimous belief in a lie.
General belief, however, is not really surprising. Nearly every people on earth
that considers the existence of the world assumes it to have been created by a god
or gods. And each group invents full details for the story. No two creation tales
are alike. The Greeks, the Norsemen, the Japanese, the Hindus, the American Indians,
and so on and so on all have their own creation myths, and all of these are
recognized by Americans of Judeo-Christian heritage as "just myths."
The ancient Hebrews also had a creation taletwo of them, in fact. There is a
primitive Adam-and-Eve-in-Paradise story, with man created first, then animals, then
woman. There is also a poetic tale of God fashioning the universe in six days, with
animals preceding man, and man and woman created together.
These Hebrew myths are not inherently more credible than any of the others, but
they are our myths. General consent, of course, proves nothing: There can be a
unanimous belief in something that isn't so. The universal opinion over thousands of
years that the earth was flat never flattened its spherical shape by one inch.
» The argument of belittlement.
Creationists frequently stress the fact that evolution is "only a
theory," giving the impression that a theory is an idle guess. A scientist, one
gathers, arising one morning with nothing particular to do, decided that perhaps the
moon is made of Roquefort cheese and instantly advances the Roquefort-cheese theory.
A theory (as the word is used by scientists) is a detailed description of some
facet of the universe's workings that is based on long observation and, where
possible, experiment. It is the result of careful reasoning from these observations
and experiments that has survived the critical study of scientists generally.
For example, we have the description of the cellular nature of living organisms
(the "cell theory"); of objects attracting each other according to fixed
rule (the "theory of gravitation"); of energy behaving in discrete bits (the
"quantum theory"); of light traveling through a vacuum at a fixed measurable
velocity (the "theory of relativity"), and so on.
All are theories; all are firmly founded; all are accepted as valid descriptions of
this or that aspect of the universe. They are neither guesses nor speculations. And
no theory is better founded, more closely examined, more critically argued and more
thoroughly accepted, than the theory of evolution. If it is "only" a theory,
that is all it has to be.
Creationism, on the other hand, is not a theory. There is no evidence, in the
scientific sense, that supports it. Creationism, or at least the particular variety
accepted by many Americans, is an expression of early Middle Eastern legend. It is
fairly described as "only a myth."
» The argument of imperfection.
Creationists, in recent years, have stressed the "scientific"
background of their beliefs. They point out that there are scientists who base
their creationist beliefs on a careful study of geology, paleontology, and
biology and produce "textbooks" that embody those beliefs.
Virtually the whole scientific corpus of creationism, however, consists of the
pointing out of imperfections in the evolutionary view. The creationists insist,
for example, that evolutionists cannot show true transition states between species in
the fossil evidence; that age determinations through radioactive breakdown are
uncertain; that alternative interpretations of this or that piece of evidence are
possible and so on.
Because the evolutionary view is not perfect and is not agreed upon by all
scientists, creationists argue that evolution is false and that scientists, in
supporting evolution, are basing their views on blind faith and dogmatism.
To an extent, the creationists are right here: The details of evolution are
not perfectly known. Scientists have been adjusting and modifying Charles
Darwin's suggestions since he advanced his theory of the origin of species
through natural selection back in 1859. After all, much has been learned about
the fossil record and physiology, microbiology, biochemistry, ethology, and
various other branches of life science in the last 125 years, and it was to be
expected that we can improve on Darwin. In fact, we have improved on him. Nor
is the process finished. it can never be, as long as human beings continue to
question and to strive for better answers.
The details of evolutionary theory are in dispute precisely because scientists
are not devotees of blind faith and dogmatism. They do not accept even as great
a thinker as Darwin without question, nor do they accept any idea, new or old,
without thorough argument. Even after accepting an idea, they stand ready to
overrule it, if appropriate new evidence arrives. If, however, we grant that a
theory is imperfect and details remain in dispute, does that disprove the
theory as a whole?
Consider. I drive a car, and you drive a car. I do not know exactly how an
engine works. Perhaps you do not either. And it may be that our hazy and
approximate ideas of the workings of an automobile are in conflict. Must we
then conclude from this disagreement that an automobile does not run, or that
it does not exist? Or, if our senses force us to conclude that an automobile
does exist and run, does that mean it is pulled by an invisible horse, since
our engine theory is imperfect?
However much scientists argue their differing beliefs in details of
evolutionary theory, or in the interpretation of the necessarily imperfect
fossil record, they firmly accept the evolutionary process itself.
» The argument from distorted science.
Creationists have learned enough scientific terminology to use it in their
attempts to disprove evolution. They do this in numerous ways, but the most
common example, at least in the mail I receive is the repeated assertion that
the second law of thermodynamics demonstrates the evolutionary process to be
In kindergarten terms, the second law of thermodynamics says that all
spontaneous change is in the direction of increasing disorderthat is,
in a "downhill" direction. There can be no spontaneous buildup of
the complex from the simple, therefore, because that would be moving
"uphill." According to the creationists argument, since, by the
evolutionary process, complex forms of life evolve from simple forms, that
process defies the second law, so creationism must be true.
Such an argument implies that this clearly visible fallacy is somehow
invisible to scientists, who must therefore be flying in the face of the second
law through sheer perversity. Scientists, however, do know about the second law
and they are not blind. It's just that an argument based on kindergarten terms
is suitable only for kindergartens.
To lift the argument a notch above the kindergarten level, the second law
of thermodynamics applies to a "closed system"that is, to a
system that does not gain energy from without, or lose energy to the outside.
The only truly closed system we know of is the universe as a whole.
Within a closed system, there are subsystems that can gain complexity
spontaneously, provided there is a greater loss of complexity in another
interlocking subsystem. The overall change then is a complexity loss in
line with the dictates of the second law.
Evolution can proceed and build up the complex from the simple, thus moving
uphill, without violating the second law, as long as another interlocking part
of the system the sun, which delivers energy to the earth continually
moves downhill (as it does) at a much faster rate than evolution moves
uphill. If the sun were to cease shining, evolution would stop and so,
eventually, would life.
Unfortunately, the second law is a subtle concept which most people are not
accustomed to dealing with, and it is not easy to see the fallacy in the
There are many other "scientific" arguments used by creationists,
some taking quite clever advantage of present areas of dispute in evolutionary
theory, but every one of then is as disingenuous as the second-law argument.
The "scientific" arguments are organized into special creationist
textbooks, which have all the surface appearance of the real thing, and which
school systems are being heavily pressured to accept. They are written by people
who have not made any mark as scientists, and, while they discuss geology,
paleontology and biology with correct scientific terminology, they are devoted
almost entirely to raising doubts over the legitimacy of the evidence and
reasoning underlying evolutionary thinking on the assumption that this leaves
creationism as the only possible alternative.
Evidence actually in favor of creationism is not presented, of course, because
none exists other than the word of the Bible, which it is current creationist
strategy not to use.
» The argument from irrelevance.
Some creationists putt all matters of scientific evidence to one side and
consider all such things irrelevant. The Creator, they say, brought life and the
earth and the entire universe into being 6,000 years ago or so, complete with
all the evidence for eons-long evolutionary development. The fossil record, the
decaying radio activity, the receding galaxies were all created as they are, and
the evidence they present is an illusion.
Of course, this argument is itself irrelevant, for it can be neither proved nor
disproved. It is not an argument, actually, but a statement. I can say that the
entire universe was created two minutes age, complete with all its history books
describing a nonexistent past in detail, and with every living person equipped
with a full memory; you, for instance, in the process of reading this article in
midstream with a memory of what you had read in the beginningwhich you had
not really read.
What kind of Creator would produce a universe containing so intricate an
illusion? It would mean that the Creator formed a universe that contained human
beings whom He had endowed with the faculty of curiosity and the ability to
reason. He supplied those human beings with an enormous amount of subtle and
cleverly consistent evidence designed to mislead them and cause them to be
convinced that the universe was created 20 billion years ago and developed by
evolutionary processes that include the creation and the development of life on
Does the Creator take pleasure in fooling us? Does it amuse Him to watch us
go wrong? Is it part of a test to see if human beings will deny their senses and
their reason in order to cling to myth? Can it be that the Creator is a cruel
and malicious prankster, with a vicious and adolescent sense of humor?
» The argument from authority.
The Bible says that God created the world in six days, and the Bible is the
inspired word of God. To the average creationist this is all that counts. All
other arguments are merely a tedious way of countering the propaganda of all
those wicked humanists, agnostics, and atheists who are not satisfied with the
clear word of the Lord.
The creationist leaders do not actually use that argument because that would
make their argument a religious one, and they would not be able to use it in
fighting a secular school system. They have to borrow the clothing of science,
no matter how badly it fits, and call themselves "scientific" creationists.
They also speak only of the "Creator," and never mentioned that this Creator is
the God of the Bible.
We cannot, however, take this sheep's clothing seriously. However much the
creationist leaders might hammer away at in their "scientific" and
"philosophical" points, they would be helpless and a laughing-stock if that
were all they had.
It is religion that recruits their squadrons. Tens of millions of Americans,
who neither know nor understand the actual arguments for or even against evolution,
march in the army of the night with their Bibles held high. And they are a strong
and frightening force, impervious to, and immunized against, the feeble lance of
Even if I am right and the evolutionists' case is very strong, have not
creationists, whatever the emptiness of their case, a right to be heard? if their
case is empty, isn't it perfectly safe to discuss it since the emptiness would then
be apparent? Why, then are evolutionists so reluctant to have creationism taught in
the public schools on an equal basis with evolutionary theory? can it be that the
evolutionists are not as confident of their case as they pretend. Are they afraid
to allow youngsters a clear choice?
First, the creationists are somewhat less than honest in their demand for equal
time. It is not their views that are repressed: schools are by no means the only
place in which the dispute between creationism and evolutionary theory is played
out. There are churches, for instance, which are a much more serious influence on
most Americans than the schools are. To be sure, many churches are quite liberal,
have made their peace with science and find it easy to live with scientific
advanceeven with evolution. But many of the less modish and citified
churches are bastions of creationism.
The influence of the church is naturally felt in the home, in the newspapers,
and in all of surrounding society. It makes itself felt in the nation as a whole,
even in religiously liberal areas, in thousands of subtle ways: in the nature of
holiday observance, in expressions of patriotic fervor, even in total irrelevancies.
In 1968, for example, a team of astronomers circling the moon were instructed to
read the first few verses of Genesis as though NASA felt it had to placate the
public lest they rage against the violation of the firmament. At the present time,
even the current President of the United States has expressed his creationist
It is only in school that American youngsters in general are ever likely to
hear any reasoned exposition of the evolutionary viewpiont. They might find such
a viewpoint in books, magazines, newspapers, or even, on occasion, on television.
But church and family can easily censor printed matter or television. Only the
school is beyond their control.
But only just barely beyond. Even though schools are now allowed to teach
evolution, teachers are beginning to be apologetic about it, knowing full well
their jobs are at the mercy of school boards upon which creationists are a
stronger and stronger influence.
Then, too, in schools, students are not required to believe what they learn
about evolutionmerely to parrot it back on test. If they fail to do so,
their punishment is nothing more than the loss of a few points on a test or two.
In the creationist churches, however, the congregation is required to believe.
Impressionable youngsters, taught that they will go to hell if they listen to the
evolutionary doctrine, are not likely to listen in comfort or to believe if they do.
Therefore, creationists, who control the church and the society they live in and to
face the public-school as the only place where evolution is even briefly mentioned
in a possible favorable way, find they cannot stand even so minuscule a competition
and demand "equal time."
Do you suppose their devotion to "fairness" is such that they will give equal
time to evolution in their churches?
Second, the real danger is the manner in which creationists want threir "equal
time." In the scientific world, there is free and open competition of ideas, and
even a scientist whose suggestions are not accepted is nevertheless free to continue
to argue his case. In this free and open competition of ideas, creationism has
clearly lost. It has been losing, in fact, since the time of Copernicus four and a
half centuries ago. But creationists, placing myth above reason, refuse to accept
the decision and are now calling on the government to force their views on the
schools in lieu of the free expression of ideas. Teachers must be forced to
present creationism as though it had equal intellectual respectability with
What a precedent this sets.
If the government can mobilize its policemen and its prisons to make certain
that teachers give creationism equal time, they can next use force to make sure
that teachers declare creationism the victor so that evolution will be evicted
from the classroom altogether. We will have established the full ground work,
in other words, for legally enforced ignorance and for totalitarian thought control.
And what if the creationists win? They might, you know, for there are millions who,
faced with a choice between science and their interpretation of the Bible, will
choose the Bible and reject science, regardless of the evidence.
This is not entirely because of the traditional and unthinking reverence for
the literal words of the Bible; there is also a pervasive uneasinesseven
an actual fearof science that will drive even those who care little for
fundamentalism into the arms of the creationists. For one thing, science is
uncertain. Theories are subject to revision; observations are open to a variety
of interpretations, and scientists quarrel among themselves. This is
disillusioning for those untrained in the scientific method, who thus turn to
the rigid certainty of the Bible instead. There is something comfortable about
a view that allows for no deviation and that spares you the painful necessity of
having to think.
Second, science is complex and chilling. The mathematical language of science
is understood by very few. The vistas it presents are scaryan enormous
universe ruled by chance and impersonal rules, empty and uncaring, ungraspable
and vertiginous. How comfortable to turn instead to a small world, only a few
thousand years old, and under God's personal and immediate care; a world in which
you are His particular concern and where He will not consign you to hell if you
are careful to follow every word of the Bible as interpreted for you by your
Third, science is dangerous. There is no question but that poison gas, genetic
engineering, and nuclear weapons and power stations are terrifying. It may be
that civilization is falling apart and the world we know is coming to an end.
In that case, why not turn to religion and look forward to the Day of Judgment,
in which you and your fellow believers will be lifted into eternal bliss and have
the added joy of watching the scoffers and disbelievers writhe forever in
So why might they not win?
There are numerous cases of societies in which the armies of the night have
ridden triumphantly over minorities in order to establish a powerful orthodoxy
which dictates official thought. Invariably, the triumphant ride is toward
long-range disaster. Spain dominated Europe and the world in the 16th century,
but in Spain orthodoxy came first, and all divergence of opinion was ruthlessly
suppressed. The result was that Spain settled back into blankness and did not
share in the scientific, technological and commercial ferment that bubbled up
in other nations of Western Europe. Spain remained an intellectual backwater
for centuries. In the late 17th century, France in the name of orthodoxy
revoked the Edict of Nantes and drove out many thousands of Huguenots, who
added their intellectual vigor to lands of refuge such as Great Britain, the
Netherlands, and Prussia, while France was permanently weakened.
In more recent times, Germany hounded out the Jewish scientists of Europe.
They arrived in the United States and contributed immeasurably to scientific
advancement here, while Germany lost so heavily that there is no telling how
long it will take it to regain its former scientific eminence. The Soviet
Union, in its fascination with Lysenko, destroyed its geneticists, and set
back its biological sciences for decades. China, during the Cultural
Revolution, turned against Western science and is still laboring to overcome
the devastation that resulted.
Are we now, with all these examples before us, to ride backward into the
past under the same tattered banner of orthodoxy? With creationism in the
saddle, American science will wither. We will raise a generation of
ignoramuses ill-equipped to run the industry of tomorrow, much less to
generate the new advances of the days after tomorrow.
We will inevitably recede into the backwater of civilization, and those
nations that retain opened scientific thought will take over the leadership
of the world and the cutting edge of human advancement. I don't suppose that
the creationists really plan the decline of the United States, but their
loudly expressed patriotism is as simpleminded as their "science." If they
succeed, they will, in their folly, achieve the opposite of what they say