Creationist views reject scientific findings and methods.
Advocates of the ideas collectively known as "creationism" and, recently, "intelligent design creationism" hold a wide variety of views. Most broadly, a "creationist" is someone who rejects natural scientific explanations of the known universe in favor of special creation by a supernatural entity. Creationism in its various forms is not the same thing as belief in God because, as was discussed earlier, many believers as well as many mainstream religious groups accept the findings of science, including evolution. Nor is creationism necessarily tied to Christians who interpret the Bible literally. Some non-Christian religious believers also want to replace scientific explanations with their own religion's supernatural accounts of physical phenomena.
In the United States, various views of creationism typically have been promoted by small groups of politically active religious fundamentalists who believe that only a supernatural entity could account for the physical changes in the universe and for the biological diversity of life on Earth. But even these creationists hold very different views. Some, known as "young Earth" creationists, believe the biblical account that the universe and the Earth were created just a few thousand years ago. Proponents of this form of creationism also believe that all living things, including humans, were created in a very short period of time in essentially the forms in which they exist today. Other creationists, known as "old Earth" creationists, accept that the Earth may be very old but reject other scientific findings regarding the evolution of living things.
No scientific evidence supports these viewpoints. On the contrary, as discussed earlier, several independent lines of evidence indicate that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that the universe is about 14 billion years old. Rejecting the evidence for these age estimates would mean rejecting not just biological evolution but also fundamental discoveries of modern physics, chemistry, astrophysics, and geology.
Some creationists believe that Earth's present form and the distribution of fossils can be explained by a worldwide flood. But this claim also is at odds with observations and evidence understood scientifically. The belief that Earth's sediments, with their fossils, were deposited in a short period does not accord either with the known processes of sedimentation or with the estimated volume of water needed to deposit sediments on the top of some of Earth's highest mountains.
Creationists sometimes cite what they claim to be an incomplete fossil record as evidence that living things were created in their modern forms. But this argument ignores the rich and extremely detailed record of evolutionary history that paleontologists and other biologists have constructed over the past two centuries and are continuing to construct. Paleontological research has filled in many of the parts of the fossil record that were incomplete in Charles Darwin's time. The claim that the fossil record is "full of gaps" that undermine evolution is simply false. Indeed, paleontologists now know enough about the ages of sediments to predict where they will be able to find particularly significant transitional fossils, as happened with Tiktaalik and the ancestors of modern humans. Researchers also are using new techniques, such as computed axial tomography (CT), to learn even more about the internal structures and composition of delicate bones of fossils. Exciting new discoveries of fossils continue to be reported in both the scientific literature and popular media.
Another compelling feature of the fossil record is its consistency. Nowhere on Earth are fossils from dinosaurs, which went extinct 65 million years ago, found together with fossils from humans, who evolved in just the last few million years. Nowhere are the fossils of mammals found in sediments that are more than about 220 million years old. Whenever creationists point to sediments where these relationships appear to be altered or even reversed, scientists have clearly demonstrated that this reversal has resulted from the folding of geological strata over or under others. Sediments containing the fossils of only unicellular organisms appear earlier in the fossil record than do sediments containing the remains of both unicellular and multicellular organisms. The sequence of fossils across Earth's sediments points unambiguously toward the occurrence of evolution.
Creationists sometimes argue that the idea of evolution must remain hypothetical because "no one has ever seen evolution occur." This kind of statement also reveals that some creationists misunderstand an important characteristic of scientific reasoning. Scientific conclusions are not limited to direct observation but often depend on inferences that are made by applying reason to observations. Even with the launch of Earth-orbiting spacecraft, scientists could not directly see the Earth going around the Sun. But they inferred from a wealth of independent measurements that the Sun is at the center of the solar system. Until the recent development of extremely powerful microscopes, scientists could not observe atoms, but the behavior of physical objects left no doubt about the atomic nature of matter. Scientists hypothesized the existence of viruses for many years before microscopes became powerful enough to see them.
Thus, for many areas of science, scientists have not directly observed the objects (such as genes and atoms) or the phenomena (such as the Earth going around the Sun) that are now well-established facts. Instead, they have confirmed them indirectly by observational and experimental evidence. Evolution is no different. Indeed, for the reasons described in this booklet, evolutionary science provides one of the best examples of a deep understanding based on scientific reasoning.
This contention that nobody has seen evolution occurring further ignores the overwhelming evidence that evolution has taken place and is continuing to occur. The annual changes in influenza viruses and the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics are both products of evolutionary forces. Another example of ongoing evolution is the appearance of mosquitoes resistant to various insecticides, which has contributed to a resurgence of malaria in Africa and elsewhere. The transitional fossils that have been found in abundance since Darwin's time reveal how species continually give rise to successor species that, over time, produce radically changed body forms and functions. It also is possible to directly observe many of the specific processes by which evolution occurs. Scientists regularly do experiments using microbes and other model systems that directly test evolutionary hypotheses.
Creationists reject such scientific facts in part because they do not accept evidence drawn from natural processes that they consider to be at odds with the Bible. But science cannot test supernatural possibilities. To young Earth creationists, no amount of empirical evidence that the Earth is billions of years old is likely to refute their claim that the world is actually young but that God simply made it appear to be old. Because such appeals to the supernatural are not testable using the rules and processes of scientific inquiry, they cannot be a part of science.
From Science, Evolution, and Creationism, National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine. © 2008 National Academy of Sciences