Royal Society statement on evolution, creationism and intelligent design

| 14 Comments

Some good news from our British friends.

A statement opposing the misrepresentation of evolution in schools to promote particular religious beliefs was published today (11 April 2006) by the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science.

The statement points out that evolution is “recognised as the best explanation for the development of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species” and that it is “rightly taught as an essential part of biology and science courses in schools, colleges and universities across the world”.

Royal Society Press Release

Full statement

A statement by the Royal Society on evolution, creationism and intelligent design

April 2006

The Royal Society was founded in 1660 by a group of scholars whose desire was to promote an understanding of ourselves and the universe through experiment and observation. This approach to the acquisition of knowledge forms the basis of the scientific method, which involves the testing of theories against observational evidence. It has led to major advances of understanding over more than 300 years. Although there is still much left to be discovered, we now have a broad knowledge of how the universe developed after the ‘Big Bang’ and of how humans and other species appeared on Earth.

One of the most important advances in our knowledge has been the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Since being proposed by Charles Darwin nearly 150 years ago, the theory of evolution has been supported by a mounting body of scientific evidence. Today it is recognised as the best explanation for the development of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species. Evolution is rightly taught as an essential part of biology and science courses in schools, colleges and universities across the world.

The process of evolution can be seen in action today, for example in the development of resistance to antibiotics in disease-causing bacteria, of resistance to pesticides by insect pests, and the rapid evolution of viruses that are responsible for influenza and AIDS. Darwin’s theory of evolution helps us to understand these problems and to find solutions to them.

Many other explanations, some of them based on religious belief, have been offered for the development of life on Earth, and the existence of a ‘creator’ is fundamental to many religions. Many people both believe in a creator and accept the scientific evidence for how the universe, and life on Earth, developed. Creationism is a belief that may be taught as part of religious education in schools, colleges and universities. Creationism may also be taught in some science classes to demonstrate the difference between theories, such as evolution, that are based on scientific evidence, and beliefs, such as creationism, that are based on faith.

However, some versions of creationism are incompatible with the scientific evidence. For instance, a belief that all species on Earth have always existed in their present form is not consistent with the wealth of evidence for evolution, such as the fossil record. Similarly, a belief that the Earth was formed in 4004 BC is not consistent with the evidence from geology, astronomy and physics that the solar system, including Earth, formed about 4600 million years ago.

Some proponents of an alternative explanation for the diversity of life on Earth now claim that their theories are based on scientific evidence. One such view is presented as the theory of intelligent design. This proposes that some species are too complex to have evolved through natural selection and that therefore life on Earth must be the product of a ‘designer’. Its supporters make only selective reference to the overwhelming scientific evidence that supports evolution, and treat gaps in current knowledge which, as in all areas of science, certainly exist - as if they were evidence for a ‘designer’. In this respect, intelligent design has far more in common with a religious belief in creationism than it has with science, which is based on evidence acquired through experiment and observation. The theory of evolution is supported by the weight of scientific evidence; the theory of intelligent design is not.

Science has proved enormously successful in advancing our understanding of the world, and young people are entitled to learn about scientific knowledge, including evolution. They also have a right to learn how science advances, and that there are, of course, many things that science cannot yet explain. Some may wish to explore the compatibility, or otherwise, of science with various religious beliefs, and they should be encouraged to do so. However, young people are poorly served by deliberate attempts to withhold, distort or misrepresent scientific knowledge and understanding in order to promote particular religious beliefs.

14 Comments

Compare this statement from the Royal Society with the recent statement from the AAAS.

The final paragraph of the AAAS statement reads:

The sponsors of many… state and local proposals seem to believe that evolution and religion are in conflict. This is unfortunate. They need not be incompatible. Science and religion ask fundamentally different questions about the world. Many religious leaders have affirmed that they see no conflict between evolution and religion. We and the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view.

I much prefer the final paragraph of the Royal Society statement to that of the AAAS.

It is true that science and religion ask fundamentally different kinds of questions much of the time, but there are times when they overlap in their subjects of interest. It is true that many religious leaders see no conflict between science and religion; but then again many do.

I would be interested to know what the evidence is for saying that the great majority of scientists see no conflict between evolution and religion. I have asked the AAAS for this evidence without yet receiving a reply.

Supposing that there is good evidence to show that this is true, then what is supposed to follow? The question is a matter of personal opinion. It is reasonable to encourage young people to explore these questions for themselves, but is it wise for a body as prestigious as the AAAS to be thought to be endorsing one side of this very contentious religious/philosophical debate?

To be thought to be doing so for political reasons would be extremely damaging to the perceived integrity of the AAAS, and for what other reasons could the AAAS be doing it?

If the AAAS is doing it for political reasons then it is undermining the integrity of science and they should retract this paragraph.

Sorry, try this link to the AAAS statement.

I don’t see the last paragraph of the AAAS statement being in conflict with the Royal Society statement. I do think the Royal Society statement is superior because it is more precise. The parallel passage is actually an interior paragraph than the one quoted by Leigh:

the Royal Society Wrote:

Many other explanations, some of them based on religious belief, have been offered for the development of life on Earth, and the existence of a ‘creator’ is fundamental to many religions. Many people both believe in a creator and accept the scientific evidence for how the universe, and life on Earth, developed.

The only real difference between the two is “many people” and “most scientists”. If you want that to be a substantive difference you are quibbling over details IMHO. From my personal experience, the many people who both believe in a creator and evolution either are working scientists or are scientifically literate. So people and scientists can be the same object. It is debatable whether this groups constitutes a true majority of scientists and thus the AAAS statement may be a little sloppy here.

This is what commends the Royal Society statement. Not only is it more precise as to the beliefs of theistic evolutionists it also does the same for creationists and ID proponents. What confuses some ID proponents is the accusation that they are young earth creationists. Many ID proponents deny the two pillars of creationism cited by the Royal Society: a young earth and no intermediate forms and thus are confused by the criticism. The real criticism that both their viewpoints are fundamentally religiously derived is missed because of the sloppiness of the critique. Again, the Royal Society statement deftly gets around this.

The other thing this statement does is to get around the false dichotomy concerning the relationship between science and religion. The Discovery Institute would have you believe that there is an irresolute conflict between the two and the AAAS would have you believe that we are all holding hands and singing “We are the World”. The truth of the matter is in middle where some forms of religious expression are compatible with our scientific understanding of the Universe and others are not. In my opinion, the Royal Society correctly identifies what forms do or do not conflict and why.

Rich IMHO, our experiences seem to be different. I am highly sceptical of the claim that the overwhelming majority of scientists see no conflict between theistic religion and evolution. Both the AAAS and the Royal Society say that creationism (ID is essentially creationism) is incompatible with science. As well as many Christian groups, Islam takes a creationist position as does Orthodox Judaism.

I am certain that many scientists see theistic evolution as I do - an absurdity. I fail to see how the position of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, with respect to God’s miraculous intervention in the natural order so as to unite the human “soul” with the human body and so complete the creation/evolution of homo sapiens, has the slightest scientific credibility. Indeed, from the scientific point of view it is preposterous. The notion is “compatible” with science only in the utterly facile sense that it cannot be absolutely disproved.

The RCC is adding an unnecessary layer of assumptions for which there is not the slightest evidence and which can never be tested for. The evolution of the human mind as the human brain evolved is a simple assumption which fits the evidence. The notion of the “soul” is therefore incompatible with the norms of science, it is a redundant pre-scientific fossil-concept.

The question of the compatibility of science and religion in general is a highly contentious one. Unlike the question of the scientific respectability of ID this a genuine controversy. There is also a genuine controversy over the specific question of the compatibility of evolution and theistic religion.

The AAAS should acknowledge this fact - not embroil themselves within it. They ought to state the facts about ID - why it is not a respectable scientific theory, and why evolution is - and stay out of the real controversy about the compatibility of evolution and religion. Each person may make up their own mind about that. It is not for the AAAS to speak ex cathedra on this question.

I do not think that the AAAS is just being sloppy, although that would be bad enough. I think that they have taken their eye off the ball, in an attempt to outmanouevre ID, by suggesting that there is no disagreement amongst scientists, that they are in general hunky-dory about religion and evolution. The “sloppiness” arises from this rather blatant and disingenuous politicking.

I suspect that most working scientists ignore religion, except perhaps for a hour on Sunday…

It may be that what you say is true Dave. We are in another one of those guessing games of opinion.

I will say this though. If you are right and the AAAS statement is a reflection of what you say, then in this statement American science identifies itself publicly to be a religious constituency through and through.

I do not believe that the AAAS would have made such a pronouncement were it not for the profound fear of the political threat from ID. If what you say is true, then the statement is not merely a political mistake, as I have suggested, it represents a far more fundamental seismic shift.

The Judge Jones verdict has thwarted the threat from ID, but they have their legacy, if what you say is correct, in the proclamation that American science is fundamentally religious in character. ID may not have changed the American constitution, but they have changed the face that American science presents to itself and to the world.

If you are right then in this statement American scientists kneel before religious America and swear that they too are religious.

I just hope that you are wrong.

Leigh, I am sure that if the question “Do you use your religion in the conduct of your scientific investigations?”, all but a few crackpots would answer, “WHAT! Of course not! What a stupid question! Go away and let me get back to work!”

And even the local YEC fundamentalists who work in science, typically biochemistry or a related area in agriculture, would answer much the same way, only possibly more politely. So I don’t view the matter as you seem to…

I have no quibbles about what you say in your second comment Dave. I interpret your first comment to say that you think that most scientists not only think that evolution and religion are compatible but that they are positively religious.

If this is true and the AAAS statement is a reflection of this fact, then the question arises why now does it make this statement and for what purpose?

I think that it is a poorly thought out political tactic. But if most American scientists really are religious and wish the fact to be known publicly, that puts a whole new face on the statement which I had never considered.

If it is true I find it stunning. ID has altered the public image of American science if this is what the AAAS statement is saying. To me it looks like science paying homage to religion.

Leigh, I said that I thought most scientists don’t think much at all about religion, except possibly for an hour on Sunday. I don’t know that most scientists have thought much about evolution at all — after all, they have never been exposed to it at any level of education. Those that have are unlikely to do anything but accept some ‘theory of biological evolution’ account. Surely that will hold for biologists and geologists, based on my limited sampling.

I know some biologists and geologists who regularly attend Friend’s (Quaker) Meeting and astronomers who attend a Methodist church. The thought of a conflict between their religious views and the conduct of their science just never comes up…

That was my only point. It seems roughly in accord with what I read here on PT reading the stance of the Catholic Church and Church of England. That is, somehow religion has largely given up any role regarding the story of the evolution of the cosmos and everything within it, largely concentrating on matters of ethical and moral human behavior. Reread that final paragraph of the AAAS statement once more. I have offered the opinion that the overwhelming majority of scientists see no conflict because they just have not considered the matter.

I agree that the Royal Society statement is in many ways superior, but we are just ex-colonial country bumpkins on this side of the pond…

I hold American science in the highest regard. When the AAAS speak I want to listen. The Royal Society is a noble and distinguished institution, but the reality is that as in so many other ways, it is the American voice in science which the world most looks to for instruction.

I would hate for zealots of any description to take over education here in the UK, and there is some creationist/ID activity over here. I have been observing the American experience - the culture wars - for several years, and see this experience as a warning to us all. I applaud all those who have devoted so much hard time and effort to defending the achievements and values of science from the barbarians.

That is why I care about this statement from the AAAS so much. I look for the highest standards from them.

You and I may see different things in the same words. I stand outside America looking in and maybe what I read in those words is not what the generality of American culture would read into them. But I look to the AAAS for words which can speak the universal values of science to the whole world. I am not an American citizen, but as a citizen of science I look to the AAAS to speak for me also.

I respectfully ask the AAAS to look again at this statement.

It seems that I have not understood you Dave. But it also seems that there are many ways of trying to understand what the AAAS statement is trying to say.

If the reason most scientists do not think that evolution is in conflict with religion is because they have not thought seriously about it, then what they think is of no relevance to the question.

Those who have thought seriously about this have different opinions. It is, as I have said, a very contentious question. The AAAS statement misleadingly suggests a degree of consensus which I do not believe exists amongst those who have thought carefully about the question.

AAAS: … see no conflict between evolution and religion. … overwhelming majority of scientists share this view.

Nowhere does this statement imply that the majority of scientists have thought about the matter in any depth. I opine that most have not. I hold that what the AAAS has said is literally, on the face of it, correct.

Leigh, you are simply trying to read more into this statement than is there…

A defense on legalistic grounds is sufficiently damning. I expect much more from the world’s foremost scientific mouthpiece. The last paragraph hangs from the statement like a lead weight.

i am happy mostly - though terribly sick at times - the medicine is not a perfect fix - i think some weed would help but caant find any - Kant find any…

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PvM published on April 29, 2006 7:12 PM.

Follow the Bi… er, the evidence wherever it leads was the previous entry in this blog.

Steve Jones: Why creationism is wrong and evolution is right is the next entry in this blog.

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