The continuing disagreement between Creationists and evolutionary science is fundamentally a debate about whether people believe in a life of "self-directed progress" or one where nothing can be accomplished without God's help, according to US philosopher, Michael Ruse, who will address the Australasian Evolution Society Conference at UNSW on Friday.
Ruse, a philosophy professor and director of the history and philosophy of science program at Florida State University, has edited or written nearly 30 books on the creation-evolution dispute, including his most recent, "Darwinism and its Discontents".
Ruse's plenary address at the University of New South Wales, titled "The evolution-creation struggle: an American problem (although spreading)", is timely in view of the current legal battles between Australian Creationists Ken Ham and Dr Carl Wieland, over control of the Answers in Genesis ministry.
A former Queensland science teacher turned US evangelist, Mr Ham last week opened the world's first Creation Museum - a $32 million, theme park-style museum in Petersburg, Kentucky - and is being sued in Queensland's Supreme Court by the Brisbane-based Creation Ministries International.
Professor Ruse argues that the continuing disagreement among creationists and evolutionists is not simply a result of conflict between the theory of evolution and Bible, or atheists and Bible literalists.
"I do not see the 'big battle' as being Genesis versus evolution," Professor Ruse said in a recent interview. "This debate is much more one of providence versus progress. It is less about whether a person believes in God, and more about whether they believe in a life of self-directed progress or a life directed by divine providence, in which nothing can be accomplished without God's help."
Ruse, who has traced the creation-evolution debate to before Charles Darwin's writings on adaptation and evolution, points out that Darwin's ideas were originally put forward in support of religion.
"When Darwin was pushing adaptation, he was not denying that the world was 'design-like' - in fact, he was emphasizing it," Ruse says. "By and large Darwinian theory ought to be pretty acceptable to Christians, and the truth is, it was."
According to Ruse, the theory of evolution was not an issue of contention until scientists and evolutionists stirred debate for the purposes of increasing public scientific education.
As a result of this early push for evolutionary theory, tensions over how it applied to Christianity heightened and society began to split over the question of a literal interpretation of the Bible or a more subjective one that accommodated both evolution and religion.
"Nowadays, people aren't battling over a scientific theory in itself. What they are battling over is what they think evolution stands for. Evolution has become a symbol for an entire system of progressive values rather than a mere scientific theory, which is why it often comes into conflict with religion," Ruse says.
Opening of UNSW Evolution and Ecology Research Centre
UNSW is establishing the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre, which combines the university's existing strengths in evolutionary biology and ecology across four schools within the Science and Medical Faculties.
"UNSW's attempt to build research leadership both nationally and internationally at the interface of Evolution and Ecology is an acknowledgement of the importance of research at this interface," says A/Prof Rob Brooks (proposed Director of the Centre and president of the Australasian Evolution Society).
Evolution is the most potent biological force known, responsible for the all of the biological diversity in the natural world and the fossil record. Evolution always occurs within the context of ecological interactions between organism and its environment.
There is, therefore, a very natural fit between the study of how organisms interact with their biological and physical environment (Ecology) and the way in which these interactions effect adaptive change across generations (Evolutionary Biology).
This crossroads between Evolution and Ecology is where the most dynamic and important research in whole organism biology is currently taking place. This research is currently generating crucial and original insights and applications in the genomic and phenomic revolutions, medical sciences, psychology and psychiatry, crop and livestock production, environmental and global change science, the study of biological invasions, and biodiversity.
Evolution and Ecology also inform questions of broader social impact, such as the meaning of life, our position in relation to the natural world and the intrinsic value of biological diversity.
Rob Brooks or Michael Ruse, 0402 446 847; Dan Gaffney, 0411 156 015