From Skeptic vol. 2, no. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 86-88.

The following article is copyright © 1993 by Jim Lippard. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice. Subscribe to Skeptic. For more information, contact Jim Lippard ([email protected]).


Scientific Malpractice: The Creation/Evolution Debate,
by Ivan L. Zabilka, 1992, Bristol Books, 160 pp.

By Jim Lippard

As Ronald L. Numbers' wonderful recent book, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992, Alfred A. Knopf), has shown, the "scientific creationism" at the center of the current public creation/evolution debate is relatively new; most of the best-known "creationists" of the early twentieth century held views which would jeopardize affiliation with organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research or the Bible-Science Association. The two weakest points of ICR-style creationism are (1) its commitment to a young (i.e., less than 10,000-year-old) earth and (2) its reliance on "flood geology," which attributes all fossils to a single catastrophe, the Noachian deluge.

These two weak points will, I believe, ultimately lead to the downfall of "scientific creationism" and its replacement in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian circles by old-earth creationism, progressive creationism, and, to some extent, theistic evolution. While this may occur indirectly as a result of the anti-creationist activities of organizations such as the National Center for Science Education and the Skeptics Society, the direct cause of the demise of young-earth/flood geology creationism is likely to be popular Christian works which expose its origins and its scientific and scriptural weaknesses. Several such works have already been published: Davis Young's Christianity and the Age of the Earth (1982, Zondervan), Alan Hayward's Creation and Evolution: The Facts and Fallacies (1985, Triangle), Howard Van Till, Davis Young, and Carl Menninga's Science Held Hostage (1988, InterVarsity Press), and Hugh Ross's The Fingerprint of God (2nd edition, 1991, Promise Press) are four examples (of which the first two are now out of print).

Ivan L. Zabilka's Scientific Malpractice: The Creation/Evolution Debate, a slim paperback from Methodist publisher Bristol House, appears at first glance to be a new contribution to the popular Christian literature criticizing the weaknesses of "scientific creationism." Despite the title, however, only a single cursory chapter (the fourth, "The Scientific Arguments of the Creationists") addresses the scientific aspects of creationism. The other chapters introduce and define the subject matter of creationism (chapters one and two) describe the social, political, and legal history of creationism (chapters three and six), criticize creationist Bible interpretation (chapter five), and argue that there is still a role for belief in God and Christianity to play for those who believe in evolution (chapters seven and eight).

The lack of emphasis on the scientific issues is no doubt at least a partial explanation of the book's failure to mention any of the above predecessor Christian works, except for a citation of Davis Young's book in a footnote (page 155) as an example of someone wrongly labeled a creationist by opponents of creationism. (Although Young's views are probably best described as old-earth creationism, Young himself concedes the name "creationist" to the young-earth flood geologists on page 10 of his book.) I was still surprised to see no mention of Langdon Gilkey's Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (1985, Winston Press) or to Roland Mushat Frye's Is God a Creationist? (1983, Scribner's), both of which would seem to me to be quite useful for a work such as Zabilka's.

Despite these omissions, Zabilka, who has advanced degrees in both the history of science and theology, has done a fairly good job of succinctly describing the issues for the layman with only a passing interest in the creation/evolution debate. It is not recommended for anyone with greater interest, for it relies heavily on secondary sources and there are much better books which address each of the specific topics Zabilka covers. The book is at its best in its historical chapters; at its weakest in its chapter on the scientific issues. The main problem is superficiality; one simply cannot adequately address the problem of "kinds," the fossil record, the origin of life, the geological column, radiometric dating, astronomical evidence for age, the second law of thermodynamics, probability arguments, the Paluxy River footprints, and creationist myths about Darwin's deathbed conversion and the "missing day" of Joshua in a mere twenty- two pages. A cursory treatment of these issues is bound to lead to the conclusion, as Zabilka is surely right to note, that "it is very unlikely that any Creationists can be persuaded to amend their thought patterns and processes by the arguments presented here" (p. 142). Unfortunately, it is also unlikely that this book will serve to prevent non-creationists from being persuaded by, or even enable them to successfully argue with, creationists with any degree of familiarity with the creationist literature. For one example, Zabilka's response to the now-infamous second law of thermodynamics argument is simply that "the Earth and the biological subsystems upon it are not closed systems since there is a constant influx of energy from the Sun. The second law simply does not apply to evolution." While this is correct, it is not sufficient to deal with creationist arguments involving the alleged necessity of a "program" or a "power converter" to generate order (e.g., Henry Morris, Scientific Creationism, 2nd edition, 1985, pp. 43-44).

There are some errors scattered throughout the book. One problem is with names: Zabilka refers several times to Joel "Craycraft" and "Nils" Eldredge in footnotes (pp. 150-151) and to creationists "Garry" Parker, "W.L." Wysong, Jimmy "Swaggert," and Wayne "Friar" (pp. 24, 79, 100) in the main body of the text. William Jennings Bryan is branded a biblical literalist firmly in the creationist camp (p. 46), despite the fact that Bryan was a day-ager and not a biblical literalist (Numbers, The Creationists, p. 99). Zabilka claims that the Creation Research Society "broke away" from the American Scientific Affiliation and that the Creation Science Research Center, in turn, split off from the CRS (pp. 24-25). While several of the CRS's founders were members of the ASA, it never had any affiliation with that group. The CSRC effectively split off from the ICR, not the CRS. (See Numbers, pp. 222-229 and 284-285.)

Perhaps the two most serious errors are the statement on page 74 that "it is basically inappropriate to apply probability to previous [i.e., past] events" and f.n. 27 on page 151 regarding Karl Popper. The statement about probability is simply false. While there is a sense in which past events all have probability 0 or 1 (depending upon whether or not they actually occurred), this is an uninteresting sense of the word. One can quite sensibly ask what the likelihood of particular past actual events was, in light of observed frequencies of events of certain types and known physical laws. (Chapter one of John Pollock, Nomic Probability and the Foundations of Induction, 1990, Oxford University Press, discusses various theories of probability.)

Zabilka's statement about Popper is this:

A favorite Creationist quotation is from Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, who once wrote that evolution was not falsifiable in the same manner as the other hard sciences. Creationists have quoted this as meaning that evolution is not falsifiable, and therefore is not science. They neglect the phrase "in the same manner." Popper stated in an interview that he did not mean that evolution was not falsifiable, only that the approach had to be different.
Zabilka cites no sources for this description, which is no surprise since it is quite inaccurate. Popper never wrote that evolution was not falsifiable; he stated that natural selection was not falsifiable. The phrase "in the same manner" is Zabilka's quote, not Popper's. Popper simply retracted his statement about natural selection completely. (The relevant quotations from Popper may be found in Frank J. Sonleitner, "What Did Karl Popper Really Say About Evolution?" Creation/Evolution XVIII(Summer 1986):9-14.)

In the last two chapters of the book (especially the penultimate chapter), Zabilka argues that scientists defending evolution have occasionally engaged in excesses: using fallacious or intemperate argument, engaging in metaphysical speculation while claiming to be doing science, and improperly interpreting history to draw conclusions about "warfare" between science and religion. While many of his comments do hit the mark, the example he selects for more criticisms than any other work is C. Leon Harris' Evolution: Genesis and Revelations (1981, SUNY Press), a critique of creationism I had previously been unaware of and which Zabilka himself admits "is seldom cited by other authors opposed to Creationism" (p. 154, footnote 3). Although Zabilka claims that "Some responses in journals such as The Skeptical Inquirer and Creation/Evolution are sarcastic, belittling, and unprofessional," he gives no examples of such failings from either of these publications. He argues in favor of the argument from design, stating that its opponents have "simply dismissed this issue as 'the old argument from design,' which does nothing to refute it" (p. 122). While he elsewhere expresses familiarity with Creation/Evolution, he here ignores the exchange between Norman Geisler and Fred Edwords on this very subject in that journal (issues 13 and 17), as well as the voluminous philosophical literature criticizing the argument from design, from David Hume to J.L. Mackie and Michael Martin. While I agree with Zabilka that science itself cannot refute the existence of God, it can certainly provide alternative explanations for many phenomena which have traditionally been attributed to God. This has the effect of weakening purported evidence for God's existence, while leaving a priori arguments untouched--allowing philosophers of religion to continue debating the issue.

I can recommend the book to readers of this journal only for its coverage of historical issues and perhaps for its discussion of biblical interpretation. The book as a whole can only be recommended for those whose interest in the creation/evolution debate is as superficial as the cursory coverage it offers of the central scientific issues.