Evolution, Creationism and the Nature of Science

The idea of this course is that a good way to understand the difference between science and pseudoscience, and to gain insights into the nature of science as a process of discovery, is to compare in-depth one example of science and one of pseudoscience. I have chosen the evolution – creation “controversy” simply because I am particularly familiar with it and because it is highly relevant to humanists and skeptics, but many other examples would have worked equally well.

What I intend to do for the student here is to explore the basic tenets, assumptions, modus operandi, and evidence pertaining to both evolution and creationism. A continuous comparison between the two areas will gradually make clear why evolution is a science (notwithstanding the possibility that the current theory may be partially wrong, or at least incomplete), while creationism is pseudoscience (and it would be such even if it turned out that a supernatural deity actually did create the universe ex nihilo!).

Throughout, the student should keep in mind that the goal here is not to achieve a systematic debunking of creationism, and even less to present an apology on behalf of evolution. Neither is really necessary, and both have been done before. What I intend to do is to stimulate critical thinking on the two subject matters as well as a more general appreciation for science as a process of inquiry and discovery.

The evolution – creation debate is marred by many misunderstandings and a lot of ideological posturing, often on both sides. One major thing that creationists seem recalcitrant to acknowledge, however, is the distinction between what evolutionary theory actually is and what they think it is. And the difference is both huge and crucial. In this module we will study some common misunderstandings underlying the perception of evolutionary biology common in the general public and among creationists. The goal is to gain a better feeling not only for what evolution in particular really is about, but also a more general appreciation for the nature of science.

There are five key concepts I want to get across in this module:

  1. Evolution is technically defined as a change in the frequencies of the genes found in natural populations.

  2. A major consequence of these changes is that evolution can also be seen as gradual descent with modification linking different life forms on earth.

  3. Contrary to creationists’ claims, evolution is not a theory of the origin of life.

  4. It is also not a theory of the origin of the universe.

  5. Finally, evolution – or, more in general, an understanding of the diversity of life on the planet – does not require any form of intelligent design.

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