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Chapter 5
Scientific Realism on Historical Science and Creationism
Abraham Graber
The goal of this chapter is first to consider how a scientific realist might view the debate over
the veracity of evolutionary theory, and second how that scientific realist would deal with the
claim that creationism is or is not “science.” Before proceeding it is, however, important to
note that the views that fall under the realist umbrella are many and varied. There is no single
realist position. One cannot speak with the Voice of Realism. Be that as it may, I expect that
the vast majority of realists would be willing to endorse most of what follows.
The realist is committed to thinking that our best scientific theories are approximately
true. There is, however, nothing about realism that requires commitment to the approximate
truth of any particular scientific theory. A scientific realist might think, for example, that
quantum mechanics is false while thinking that special relativity is true. Consequently, there
is nothing about realism that commits one to the acceptance of evolutionary theory. While
Kopplin is surely correct that a neo-Darwinian theory of evolution has no plausible
competitors, it is less clear that evolutionary theory is as unproblematic as Kopplin suggests
(Nelson & Wells, 2003; de Queiroz, 2005; Pullen, 2005; Wells, 2006; Behe, 2006; Fuller,
2007; Taylor & Ferran, 2010; McGhee, 2011; Meyer, 2013). Denial of the neo-Darwinian
theory of evolution remains open to the realist.
That said, in many ways neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is one of contemporary
science’s great successes. The theory appears to explain a wide array of phenomena, from the
location of fossils in geographic strata to the existence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If any
theory is to be counted among contemporary science’s best, neo-Darwinian theory is a
Nevertheless, Kopplin overstates his point. For him, “creationism is not science”;
rather, it is “a supernatural explanation … [that] doesn’t fit into the explanation for the
natural world.” Kopplin may be right that creationism proffers a supernatural explanation;
however, he is wrong to suggest that supernatural explanations are inherently unscientific. In
the process of theory construction, no (logically consistent) hypotheses are, in principle, off
the table. Theories are not ruled out because their content is, in some pre-determined way,
unscientific. Rather, theories are ruled out because they fail to comport with the evidence.
There is, in principle, nothing unscientific about metaphysical or supernatural explanations.
We can easily imagine a world in which all of the best evidence points to the existence of a
designer. The scientific question is: Is this such a world?
For many hundreds of years creationism was among our best scientific theories. Prior
to Darwin’s theory of evolution humans faced an amazing array of flora and fauna, each
perfectly suited for its ecological niche. Evidence of design was ubiquitous. In light of such
evidence, creationism was a well-confirmed theory. Prior to Darwin, there was no way to
account for the evidence of design without positing the existence of a designer.