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Is It Science or Theology? Panel Thrust Into Bitter Debate : Education: The state council has been given the power to evaluate graduate schools. It may decide finally whether one, the Institute for Creation Research, which teaches that evolution is a myth, may grant science degrees.

January 12, 1991|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTEE — Most graduate students are familiar with the pinch of deadlines, but biology major John Rajca says he is laboring under an unholy strain.

Rajca's thesis is all that stands between him and a master of science degree from the Institute for Creation Research, a tiny Christian graduate school here about 20 miles east of San Diego that teaches, among other things, that evolution is a myth. Rajca is just praying that he can finish his paper before a new state agency evaluates ICR--deciding, perhaps once and for all, whether the school may continue to grant science degrees.

Rajca and his professors say his paper, based in part on the belief that a "Great Flood" formed fossils by drowning all but the animals aboard Noah's Ark, is good science interpreted within a biblical framework. But he knows that many state officials would call it theology.

As of Jan. 1, a new 15-member state council was given the power to evaluate postsecondary schools such as ICR, taking over the reins from the state Department of Education. In doing so, it enters a bitter debate over ICR's definition of science and its right to religious freedoms--a complex theoretical battle that has occupied top state education officials for more than a year.

Based on a recommendation from a State Board of Education evaluation team, California Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig in March sought to revoke ICR's license to operate. The institute's physics, biology, geology and science education curriculum was not as rigorous as other comparable degree-granting institutions, he said.

In April, ICR filed suit in federal court, alleging that Honig and other state administrators had violated its constitutional right of free expression. Honig backed down in November, citing a technical flaw in the department's evaluation criteria. He promised that no further action would be taken until the new state body took control.

When the council re-evaluates the ICR graduate program--probably sometime during the next year or two--Honig's representative will be just one of 15 people to decide its fate.

ICR is still pushing its federal suit, preparing for a February hearing in which the state will seek to have the school's claim dismissed. But Kenneth B. Cumming, dean of ICR's graduate school, is angered by declining enrollment that he attributes to Honig's "witch hunt." He says the school is primed for a fight.

"Honig has made it a policy that creationism is not going to be taught in this state," said Cumming, who long ago rejected Honig's suggestion that ICR offer master's degrees in theology instead. "We're a Christian school that teaches science. There is more than one valid interpretation of events. Who gave him the right to define science? He's not a scientist."

But then, say ICR's critics, neither are the 14 members of the institute's faculty.

"These guys are debaters. They are not scientists," said Kevin Padian, an associate professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley who also sits on the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education, a group formed specifically to respond to the conundrums of creationist thought.

"They almost never submit to peer-review journals. Almost none of them go into the lab. What they do is look through the literature done by active scientists and try to find remarks they can take out of context," said Padian, who charges that, although ICR professors all have scientific degrees from mainstream, non-theological schools, their academic credentials are of "less than desirable currency."

Creationists start from the belief that evolution is as much a religion as Christianity. Since no one witnessed the Earth's first moments, they say, both theories about the universe's origins are unprovable and equally viable. Therefore, both evolutionists and creationists can be scientists, each analyzing data in accordance with their world view.

Under this reasoning, everything is up for debate--from the age of the Earth to the formation of the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River did not cut the 1-mile-deep gorge into the Arizona landscape slowly, they say. Instead, they believe the waters of the great global flood chiseled the canyon very quickly.

Most important, man did not evolve from animals over millions of years, they insist. Instead, less than 10,000 years ago, a Divine Creator spent six days forming all species exactly as they appear today.

"Many of (evolution's) precepts are not substantiated," said ICR geology professor John D. Morris. "Many of its leaders are outwardly stating they're in trouble. It looks like the time is right for other alternative viewpoints to have a go."

Ridiculous, said Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard professor and leading evolutionist who is often referred to in ICR publications as the arch "anti-creationist."

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