"CREATION SCIENCE," which takes the Biblical account of human origins as a basis for biology, is to that science what astrology is to astronomy and alchemy is to chemistry.
That, at least, is the view of well-instructed biologists, as it is of the writers of these three books.
But whereas there is no agitation to give alchemy and astrology "equal time" in the American classroom, bills are pending in about 20 states to render that legal favor for creationism. In ways too numerous and familiar to recount here, the creationist crusade rests on and exploits a misconception of the claims and procedures of science, in both their reach and limits: a misconception for which scientists themselves are not blameless.
But this does not wholly explain the creationist clamor. All three books under review here show, in different ways, that the creationist controversy is as much a social and pedagogical crisis as a crisis in science.
Consider, for instance, the evolutionary subtleties treated in Myths of Human Evolution. If creationists are confused about evolution -- and they usually are -- there is much to be confused by.
Niles Eldredge and Ian Tattersall claim that Darwinism, having come of age in the placid 19th century, is colored by its faith in a gradual and beneficent "progress."
Charles Darwin himself, as we know, had some interesting things to say about retrograde evolution -- for instance, about the atrophied wings of certain beetle and bird species and the blindness of burrowing and cave- dwelling animals.
But whether or not by a misconception of Darwin, classic Darwinism has embraced the "myth" (as Eldredge and Tattersall would have it) of slow, steady mutability. In truth, the stability of species is more usual through geological time than Darwin's famous mutability. Most life-forms develop little at all, once stabilized, while others, confronted by "sudden" isolation or challenge, have changed quite rapidly: "The late P.C. Sylvester-Bradley said it best when he likened evolution to the life of a soldier: long periods of boredom punctuated by brief periods of terror."
This may now be the consensus view of neo-Darwinism, if there is such a consensus. Somehow, it hasn't percolated down into popular understanding. The failure to grasp it continues to fuel the old and pointless debates about the fossil record, including the issue of "missing links" and increasing complexity of forms.
But as Philip Kitcher observes in Abusing Science, the failure may be in part willful: "That paleontologists disagree on how fossil hominids are related to one another and to fossil apes is used (by creationists) to . . . deny that fossil hominids are related to one another and to fossil apes."
Unfortunately, the acknowledgement of these and other technical points brings one only marginally closer to understanding why so many Americans -- perhaps even a majority -- support the creationist claim that their theories should enjoy equal classroom standing with evolution.
Dorothy Nelkin, in her judicious survey of the "creation controversy," does throw some light on this puzzle.
The claim of "equal time" for creationism, she argues, is related to the recent successful claims of cultural minorities to "fair" depiction in textbooks and courses (e.g., women's or black history). "Their demands formed a model for those who see bias in the science curriculum -- the struggle against cultural hegemony is paralleled by the struggle against scientific conformity."
Then, of course, there is the issue of moral and religious indoctrination. Scientists naturally view biology as a technical subject to be taught by experts. But "for those concerned with the values conveyed to their children . . . the persistence of textbook conflicts reflects the continuing tension between professional assumptions about uniformity . . . and the expectations of pluralism in an educational system that is directed to doing far more than simply providing factual knowledge."
Here, perhaps, lies the heart of the matter. The creationist crusade, as Eldredge and Tattersall say, is undoubtedly "an aspect of American populism," the cry for a revitalized participatory democracy in all areas. But the validity of a scientific proposition cannot be tested by majority opinion or vote. And you cannot assure the successful education of a child in an age of science by leaving it to the child to decide for himself whether man is a diminished angel or a risen ape, if either.
Kitcher's Abusing Science, a sort of debater's handbook for friends of evolutionary biology who wish to resist creationist incursions, provides an unwitting example of the innocent belief that strictly "educational" issues can be easily separated from community anxieties and settled on the basis of superior expertise.
And of course, the moral and religious neutrality of experimental science does not, alas, extend to the troublesome intrusion of scientism into the classroom.
The famous and controversial course "Mankind, A Course of Study" (MACOS), a curriculum developed with federal subsidies for elementary school students, uses an exotic Eskimo culture to propagate a shallow relativism about social organization and moral obligation. As Nelkin observes, "the course is not only built on evolutionary assumptions, but it denies the existence of absolute values, thus explicitly teaching just those controversial ideas that fundamentalists have long suspected were implicit in the teaching of evolution."
Good biologists know, and frequently say, that the efforts of pop anthropology (and so-called "sociobiology") to erect certain evolutionary principles into a prescriptive system of moral behavior are outrageously unscientific. Their largely unpublicized objections do not, alas, prevent ordinary laymen and parents from concluding that the advocates of the "naked ape" metaphysic speak for science.
Creationism is bad science; indeed, it is not science at all. The adulteration of science curricula and textbooks by it would be objectionable on that account even if creationism were not, in most cases, a sly attempt to bootleg religious indoctrination into learning.
But that is only the starting point, as these books show, of a more complex issue of public and educational policy.
To what degree, if any, should "democratic" values override the judgment of qualified experts in the design of public school curricula? In some quarters, in recent years, academic establishments have been too eager to accommodate dissident or revisionist claims pressed in the name of democracy or fairness. That, as Nelkin observes, is why the schools are vulnerable now to the claim that evolutionary biology is an elitist imposture, hostile to cultural pluralism.
Some restoration of genuine authority in learning, some drawing back from the shallow cultural relativism recently in academic vogue, would be prudent and helpful. Unfortunately, the cork is now out of the bottle.
That some of those who are most indignant about the creationist "threat" to learning have been eagerly receptive to other sorts of political revisionism in the classroom is one of the many ironies of the creationist dlemma. In a way they deserve the creationist challenge. Biology, properly understood, does not.