The most recent chapter in this sorry saga can probably be dated back to 1925 when the biology teacher John Scopes was entertainingly prosecuted in Tennessee in the United States for instructing his students in the theory of evolution. Since then, surveys have repeatedly demonstrated that parts of the US have sympathy with this view. In 1987, its Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to teach creationism as science because it was an expression of religious belief and could not be tested. You would have thought that would have been the end of the matter, at least in the US.
Unfortunately no. An offshoot has now developed, perversely called "intelligent design", or "ID" for short. Here it is believed that some forms of life are so complex they must show the work of a designer. Again this idea was challenged in court and ruled to be unconstitutional for exactly the same reason: it is not testable. The bad word continues to spread. Now we learn that a significant element of British society is sympathetic.
But is it an issue we should be concerned about? Well frankly, yes, particularly when its proponents argue it should be thrust into school science lessons. It is through science that we enjoy much of our quality of life today. No one should claim that science has the answer to life, the universe and everything. But because of the way theories are constructed, tested and validated, the whole system is self-correcting. Students need to learn these principles, to question, to help them understand the world and make it a better place to live in. With creationism and ID, however, there is no test. You have to trust the teacher.
Creationists use a plethora of misleading techniques to convince people of their case. Its supporters argue: why can't students be exposed to creationism and ID in a science class? The key point is belief. No matter how much science proves otherwise, creationists chose to believe that God created the world only 6,000 years ago. I might believe that the world is flat or that little green men live on Mars; should I teach my beliefs alongside electrostatics, plant pollination and gravity? I hope not.
Recent discoveries in human evolution give an entirely different perspective on race and show how blinkered creationism is. I experienced this first hand when the research group I was involved with, reported finding homo floresiensis, nicknamed the Hobbit, to the world's media in 2004. We announced the discovery of an ancient-looking, pygmy-sized human with a brain the size of a chimpanzee that had lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia. I had led the carbon dating of the find and found this species had survived until at least 13,000 years ago. Geologically speaking this was yesterday yet still beyond the age of the Earth according to creationists. I had returned to fieldwork in northern Queensland the same evening as the press conference and over beers had discussed the implications of the work in the campsite with my colleagues. Our discovery meant that 30,000 years ago there were up to four species of human on our planet. The fact that only one now exists shows we're extremely fortunate to be here. Denying the fossil finds and their age denies our very humanity and responsibility to the planet we have evolved on. The following morning we found a creationist pamphlet left outside our accommodation. Clearly one of the fellow campers was aggrieved by our discussion.
There are many challenges facing our world that need to be urgently sorted out. Massive global extinction and extreme climatic change are just some.
If educational policy is hijacked by religious teaching, we're not giving ourselves a chance to learn from calamities that happened more than 6,000 years ago and to face future challenges with confidence. Time gives us the framework to meet these challenges; to manage them; to mollify and perhaps even prevent them happening.
Let's keep creationism out of the science curriculum and classroom.
Chris Turney is a research fellow at Wollongong university, Australia