Q: What can science say about the existence of God?
A: You can find scientists who will say that evolution,
any kind of science, means that God is irrelevant. There is no God.
Science has disproved God. To me that just really misunderstands the
nature of science, because if what we're trying to do is explain the
natural world using natural causes, and if, in explaining the natural
world, we have to test our explanations against the natural world,
that means that we are restricted to natural cause. We cannot introduce
the idea of supernatural cause, which also means we can't say God
didn't do it.
Evolution or science in general can't say anything about whether
God did or did not have anything to do with it. All evolution as a
science can tell us is what happened. It can't tell us "whodunnit."
And as to what happened, the evidence is extremely strong that the
galaxies evolved, the planets evolved, the sun evolved, and living
things on earth shared common ancestors.
Q: What areas does science address?
A: One of the things that I have to do at the National
Center for Science Education is try to get out the simple ideas. And
to me the basic, most simple idea of what science is is that it's a
way of testing explanations against the natural world. What do we mean
by test? To most people that means experiment. Well, experimentation
is one kind of test, but you wouldn't be correct to say that science
depends on experimentation, because there are a lot areas of science
where you cannot directly observe [or] directly manipulate a phenomena
of variables, but they still are very scientific. In particle physics
you're not directly observing the phenomena you're studying, but very
few people would say that particle physics is not science.
You can explain what science is, but non-science is a much wider
range of things. You can explain science as a way of testing explanations
against the natural world in an attempt to explain the natural world,
and that's pretty understandable. But there's a lot of other ways of
knowing as well. There's religion. There's aesthetics. There's poetry.
There's literature. All of these can offer insight in a variety of
things that human beings think [are] very important. But look at what
science is actually trying to do: Science is limited to explaining
the natural world. And frankly, if what you're trying to do is explain
the natural world, science is the best thing we've come up with to do
Q: Why does teaching evolution remain controversial?
A: I think this remains a controversy, especially in the
United States and Canada, because people actually don't understand the
issues. People are being told, first, you have to choose between faith
and science. You have to choose between especially Christianity and
evolution. They're being told it's only fair to give both points of
view. It's only fair to teach evolution and balance it with creation
science or intelligent design theory or something like that. They're
being told scientists are giving up on evolution, it's not as strongly
supported as it used to be. All three of these are just flat wrong.
Particularly the last one, that evolution is some sort of weak scientific
theory. That's real nonsense. But the idea of fairness and the idea of
an incompatibility with religion are themes that I hear all the time in
my job. I hear this from teachers, I hear it from parents, I hear it
from people at school boards. I talk to teachers at science teacher
conferences, and they tell me that their principal has told them just
to skip evolution this year because it's an election year. There is a
new school board coming on, and they don't want any problems. That is
crazy. I mean, that is just not the way to run a coherent curriculum.
Now, sometimes people say, well, how about other theories of origin?
And yeah, there are lots of theories of origin. Just about every human
society has one. Christianity has four or five alone. The Native American
tribal groups have one for almost every single [tribe] -- four or five
hundred different origin stories just in North America alone. And then
you have Africa and you've got a lot of other parts of the world, too.
So, yeah, we can talk about other origin theories, but what does this have
to do with science? In a science class we ought to be teaching science.
I am all for teaching comparative religion -- I'm an anthropologist by
training, and I think that would be just great. I think we need to know
more about religion as a cultural system, as a system that has inspired
people across the planet for thousands of years. But we don't teach it
in the science class. What we teach in science is science, which, of
course, is why creation science was invented: so that they could get into
the science class. They wanted to hide the religiosity of it so that they
could make the claim that they could be taught legitimately in science.
And this is also what intelligent design theory is doing, as well. They
are trying to claim they're scientific so that they can be taught in the
Q: What about "intelligent design" theory?
A: The question is sometimes raised, well, what about intelligent
design theory? Can we teach that in the high school? And of course,
the answer is sure, if it becomes part of mainline science. But it's
definitely premature to make that conclusion at this point, because
they haven't won their spurs, so to speak, within the scientific
community itself, [within] the scholarly community. I personally think
that they won't, because I think that it's basically a religious idea
that they're trying to gussy up with science and other philosophical
scholarship, a little hand-waving about information theory and so forth,
and I don't think it's going to make it. Now, I have attended conferences
of intelligent design folks, where I have spoken to scientists who have
attended other conferences. And what happens is that they throw these
conferences and they invite a bunch of scientists in. The scientists
listen to what they say and say, "What? No. Here's where you're wrong.
Okay." And then they go home. Then the ID folks have another conference,
and they invite a whole bunch of new, virgin scientists, so to speak,
and they hear the message and they say, "What? No. Here's where you're
wrong." And then they go home. And then the intelligent design people
have yet another conference and invite a bunch of new scientists in.
They keep getting told the same thing: They kept getting told that
irreducible complexity does not disprove natural selection. They keep
being told by theologians and religious scientists that God can be the
creator and still work through evolution. You don't have to have some
sort of a notion of intelligent design in order to retain the idea of
faith. They keep being told that science has to restrict itself to
natural cause; it cannot bring in supernatural cause.… They keep being
told the same things. They keep, in some cases, even being told the
same scientific examples -- blood clotting and so forth and so on,
and bacteria flagellum gets trotted out at every single one of these
ID conferences. People are sick to death of it. But what's not happening
is that the intelligent design people are not going to conferences within
their own professional specialties. The geologists don't go to the
geology meetings. The anthropologists don't go to the anthropology...
I don't know if there are any anthropologists. The biologists don't go
to the cell biology meetings. They don't go to their own scientific
specialties and do the arm wrestling with their scientific colleagues.
Instead they have these public conferences where they invite in laymen
and some scientists who generally treat them very politely but don't
take them very seriously.
Q: How would you describe the process of science?
A: It's the nature of scientific research and discovery to
butt heads, to be contentious, to argue strongly, to marshal the
evidence for your point of view, criticize the other person's
evidence and interpretations. That's the way science grows, and
that's the way our understanding gradually improves. Sometimes
it's a couple lurches sidewards before you go forward, and more
frequently it's a few lurches back. But eventually, the whole process
lurches forward and we do understand more about the natural world.
So the fact that you can get scientists arguing with each other,
listen carefully, because what you'll most frequently find is that
they're arguing over how evolution takes place. They're arguing over
whether the pace of evolution is gradual or whether it's jumpy and
broken up and punctuated. They're arguing over how important is
natural selection versus other mechanisms of evolution. Is natural
selection the most important, virtually the only one, as some of the
hyper-Darwinists would say, or are there a whole series of other
factors that also contribute? And if you really listen carefully,
you're finding they're arguing over how it occurred, not whether.
But you go to the creationists' literature and you go to these school
boards around the country where they are holding up these creationist
books and what you hear is "Scientists disagree with each other,
therefore evolution didn't happen."
One of the things I think people need to understand about science
is that you can think of the ideas of science as being a series of
concentric circles, and there is a core set of ideas that we really
don't challenge anymore. We really feel comfortable about these, and
we're not constantly testing them. There's a frontier, where ideas
are being tested and some of them are going to make it into the core,
and some of them are going to be spun off. And then the third concentric
ring is the fringe, ideas that may work into the frontier, but most of
them are generally pretty nutty, and they're not going to get any place.
Something like continental drift started out as a fringe idea, moved to
a frontier idea, and is now a core idea. The idea that living things
shared common ancestors was once a fringe idea. Through Darwin and the
work of other people of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
it became definitely a frontier idea, and now unquestionably a core
idea of science.
Now, it's possible that maybe someday someone will discover, oh
my gosh, planets don't go around the sun. We're wrong about heliocentrism,
because after all, that's just an inference, right? Nobody has sat out
in space for a whole year and watched the earth go around the sun. This
is not an observation. It's an inference from a lot of measurements.
But I don't think that's real likely to happen. And similarly, maybe
someday someone will find a set of observations that disprove that
living things shared common ancestors. And that will be really cool;
that person's going to get a Nobel Prize. So if there is any possible
evidence out there, believe me, there are going to be people who would
be delighted to find it.