Recently, the Anthropology club celebrated Charles Darwin’s 199th birthday on campus with a panel discussion on evolution and a screening of the film Flock of Dodos. As a six-day creationist, I was intrigued by the theme of the event “Can Scientific Inquiry and Religion Co-exist?”. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. James Vanderveen, professor of anthropology here at IUSB, about the creation/evolution debate.
JB: Thank you for agreeing to an interview on this subject. Giv-en the theme of your event, do you think that there is room in the educational arena for both intelligent design and evolution and at what age could they be taught?
JV: Schools and colleges succeed when they are open to the free exchange of ideas. Even if the ideas are not popular, they need to be expressed in order to be challenged. There is no single right way of thinking. Some ways are more correct than others, however. Although scientists do not know everything, we are continually testing ideas and refining the ways we seek knowledge.
The process of the scientific method should be taught as early as possible. My five-year old son is making predictions about what may happen when he slides down a hill or puts a seed in the ground, and then testing whether those predictions are right. That is science at its most basic level. If he continually tested these events and the same result always happened, and he compared his results with those of students in his day care and they all turned out the same, he could develop a theory of sledding down hills.
But intelligent design is not in any way, shape, or form, a theory. It can’t be as it is not based on testing. A theory is an explanation that is based on facts. It has been tested over and over again until all other explanations have failed. Intelligent design is not comparable to evolution as a theory (to use the term as we do in science).
I have no problem with talking about intelligent design in my anthropology courses, because we discuss all kinds of creation myths from many varied cultures. ID should be discussed in political science courses because it has an influence on what people are saying and how they are voting even now. It can be part of philosophy, sociology, or religion courses. Yet ID is not part of the science curriculum. Science is dynamic – it is always seeking the truth from what is not known. ID is part of one particular branch of religion (although it can be dressed up to appear otherwise). It is static and based purely on trying to support claims that are already thought to be known. This is a fundamental difference between evolution and creation ideas.
JB: Given the way you diagramed the scientific method with your son, how does one test evolution without the ability to watch it happen and record results and without the ability to compare it with non-terrestrial life forms?
JV: We can, and do, watch organisms change. Viruses mutate and bacteria alter their structure, which is why doctors tell you to take all the antibiotics. Scientists have recorded evolution in the wings of crickets in Hawaii (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/10/061003-silent-crickets.html). We see change all around us, happening today as it has happened in the past.
As for finding out what happened in the past without directly observing it, that is what I do as an archaeologist. I study a people known as the Taino, but I am not able to ask them questions about how they made their pottery or what food they ate. Instead I observe the existing pottery in the archaeological record, I form a hypothesis about how they were constructed, and then I test that hypothesis by looking at thin sections of the ceramic or trying to make it myself. I am able to determine what they ate not because of the food that is left — there is none — but the organic residue absorbed within the walls of the pot. This residue, once extracted, suggests the particular species of plants and animals that were utilized. I didn’t see them eat the fish, but I can find out the fish type due to previous experiments and the recovery of associated data.
Astronomers may not be able to “see” the distant galaxies, but they can collect radiation of specific sorts that indicates the presence of those galaxies. Researchers in countless fields are regularly able to learn about subjects too small, too distant, too fast, or too extreme to directly measure. Their results are infrequently challenged, why is it that evolutionary science is not rigorous because the research does not directly observe the processes discussed?
JB: Evolution and Creation are two very polarizing theories. What I mean is that there is not a whole lot of room for middle ground. Not many people can both believe in the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth and believe in the Evolution of the species. What steps need to be taken in order bring these two groups closer together to become more tolerant of each other?
JV: Actually, many people believe in both. Gallup has often polled the American public and has regularly found that about 40% of people believe that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” This is how my wife reconciles the two ideas in her head as well, by picking something along the lines of a compromise. It is the two most extreme ends of the debate that are intolerant. These two camps, the “no God” evolutionists and the “young Earth” creationists will never convert the members of the other side. They need to stop trying, as it only makes for ugliness that attracts the press. Everyone likes a good fight, and that is what people like Dawkins and Ham provide.
The two groups can be brought to a table to discuss their differences, though, and that is what I have been trying to do with the Darwin Day events presented here on campus.
JB: How would you address the issue of the Creation vs. Intelligent Design debate? Creationism and Intelligent Design are not the same thing. If religion and scientific inquiry are to co-exist; is there room at the table for Biblical Creation as well?
JV: From what I have heard, read, and understand, creationism is exactly the same as ID. ID doesn’t have a specific deity directly associated with it, but it is proposed by Christians and not Buddhists, so one can easily see between the lines. Judge Jones, who ruled on the recent Dover case, calls ID the “prog-eny of creationism” and is nothing more than creation science in disguise. I would have to agree.
Religion and science can easily coexist. They are not usually looking at the same things. Science can also be used to study religion. There are faculty in the community that scientifically study the sociology and psychology of religion and its influence on people. There are many ways in which the two ideas can be combined. Student in my archaeology courses often research the ways in which the Maya practiced religion, for example.
In anthropology, we are open minded to all ways of thinking. There is the room for Biblical Creation at that particular table, but sitting there with it is the idea that all humans were created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The Taínos thought humans were produced through a wad of phlegm blown on to the back of a culture hero, and the resulting lump turned into a turtle. Who is to say they can’t believe that? There are many creation myths, why should one be given precedent over the others as the true story? There is only one successfully tested theory, though, and that is evolution.
JB: What made you decide to show a documentary video known more for its light-hearted, comedic approach to the Evolution/ ID debate as opposed to showing serious programs putting forth the evidence both sides present such as PBS’ 2001 Nova program Evolution and a pro-creation film such as Incredible Creatures that Defy Evolution by Dr. Jobe Martin?
JV: Your question also provides the answer. I wanted to show the film last year because we had the rare opportunity to provide its Michiana premiere, and I continue to screen it for Darwin Day this year because of its light-hearted, comedic approach to a typically dry subject. We want to attract an audience and not make going to the event seem like homework. After the film, I was happy to see students continue to discuss its issues and themes. One of the roles of the Anthropology Club is to facilitate conversations between different people on this campus and in the community. The film helps to do that.
JB: Flock of Dodos seems to have the main thesis that proponents of ID are dodos because they place faith before science, but that scientists are also dodos because they have been unable to put their findings into a message that the layperson can understand. Do you agree with this?
JB: Next year would be Darwin’s 200th birthday. Do you have anything special planned for the bicentennial?
JV: The campus theme next year is “Revolutions in Thought”. I hope there will be many events planned to commemorate evolutionary theory and other great changes (political, artistic, and otherwise) in our world and our history.
JB: It is a common argument that Creationism does not belong in a science class; it belongs in a philosophy class. How would you respond to a creationist who says that both creation and evolution are matters of faith: faith in God and faith in randomness? If the creation/ evolution debate really comes down to one faith (Biblical Christianity) vs. another faith (Secular Humanism), does evolution belong in a science class?
JV: Faith is a belief that is not based on evidence or proof. Science is the opposite, it is grounded on discovering data and testing predictions based on those data. Creation science and ID do not put forth new positive evidence. No hypotheses have been proposed to test the idea that creation is guided by a supernatural intelligence. It is for that reason that ID shouldn’t be in science classes.
JB: Recently, the Cobb County School District in Georgia lost a court battle over a science textbook sticker that read, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered”. Do you agree or disagree with the decision to remove the sticker?
JV: If the sticker existed in a social vacuum, without the context of religion and politics, I would have no problems with it being placed on a textbook that discusses evolution. Every statement on the sticker is true, in the strictest sense. Evolution is a theory, and it may even yet be proven wrong, but that appears less likely as time passes and evidence mounts. All subjects, regardless of the discipline, should be studied carefully and critically considered. This is what I am trying to teach my classes. The social context of the sticker, however, is what made it such a problem.
JB: In a 1995 Time Magazine article The Evolution Wars, Dr. Richard Dawkins, a biologist teaching at Oxford University stated, “If there was a single hippo or rabbit in the Precambrian [Period], that would completely blow evolution out of the water.” What evidence would you need to see in order to leave evolution and become a creationist?
JV: If only we could test for the presence of a supernatural creator. We could then just ask him/her/them. I would like to know why, if the creation took place in a specific manner, do we have so many myths that differ? Why, as Edward Wilson has written, “would God have been so deceptive as to salt the earth with so much misleading evidence”? Until we ask those questions directly, I will continue to follow the research done by scientists that are now providing details about subjects previously unknown.
JB: Other than “we cannot see him”, how does one scientifically eliminate the possibility of a supernatural Creator?
JV: Scientific inquiry doesn’t entirely eliminate the presence of a supernatural force or amazing phenomenon. There are some researchers looking for Bigfoot and a Yeti. We haven’t found them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Discoveries and the testing of discoveries are the bread and butter of science. Shifts in current thinking based on new evidence is the way scientific fields work. Do you think that a scientist wouldn’t jump up and shout from the rooftops if he or she found evidence of a supernatural intelligent force that guided the evolution of life? That would be the greatest discovery of all time and would change all of our ideas and even our history. But creation science and ID don’t have the qualities of science. They can’t be tested. They may be right, but how are we to know?