On the Philosophical Fronts

Karl Popper and Creationism

History, it seems, caught up with Sir Karl. The creationist attorney Richard K. Turner, in his successful suit to influence science teaching in California's public schools, made good use of Popper's longtime positivist claim that evolutionary theory cannot be falsified and is therefore metaphysical rather than scientific (William J. Broad, Science 211: 1331f; 1981). The use of Popper's formulations to justify creationist arguments is nothing new: see the letter from creationist theoretician Robert E. Kofahl (Sci Amer July 1976 p. 6) and the paperback tract Darwin Retried by another creationist attorney Norman Macbeth (Dell 1971).

Another factor contributing to the legal defeat in California may have been the Popperian mode of thought in scientists testifying in court, as W. D. Russell‑Hunter indicates: "Credible and successful scientific defense in future creationist trials could require that scientists avoid making narrowly restrictive statements about their scientific methodology" (Science 212: 281; 1981). Popper's debilitating influence on the scientific community also shows in a Nature editorial (290: 75; 1981) which concedes evolutionary theory to be metaphysical according to definitions so "helpfully constructed" by Popper, but argues that "metaphysical theories are not necessarily bad theories." Though expressing justifiable concern over a trend to "agnosticism" among evolutionists, the editors seem unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge that Popper himself is a major source of agnosticism toward science. Commenting on the editorial, Arthur L. Caplan (Nature 290: 623f; 1981) says: "The real question that should concern scientists is whether they know enough about current thinking in the history and philosophy of science to know a sound theory when it stares them in the face" (cf. also R. W. Lewis, Nature 291: 448; 1981).

Popper sought to make a "recantation" of his damaging views (Dialectica 32: 344; 1978, cf. also Hans Zeisel, Science 212: 873; 1981). but it was only a narrow empiricist concession: "historical sciences have in my opinion scientific character, their hypotheses can in many cases be tested" (New Scientist 21 Aug 1980 p 611, emphasis in original). Kofahl was quick to point out tauntingly that Popper had neither changed nor denied his characterization of evolutionary theory as metaphysical (Science 212: 873; 1981).

Popper's criticism of evolutionary theory has always been closely linked with his rejection of Marxism. His well known hostility to revolutionary movements led him to reject the idea that any historical development could be governed by laws (cf. his Conjectures and Refutations, New York 1968, esp. p. 340). From an opposite viewpoint, Marx in 1861 also recognized the analogy between the then new evolutionary and revolutionary theories: "Darwin's book is very important and it suits me well that it supports class struggle in history from the point of view of natural science" (Marx‑Engels Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1975 p 115).

We are waiting to learn whether Popper includes political economy among the historical sciences on which he recanted. (Has Sir Karl yet caught up with history?) In the meanwhile, the sobering fact that Richard K. Turner was a legal aid to Ronald Reagan (when the latter was governor of California) makes it urgent that the scientific community get its philosophical act together in order to expose the slick sophistry of the new "scientific" creationists.

SOURCE: “Karl Popper and Creationism,” Science and Nature, no. 4, (1981), p. 2.

Letter to the Editor by Arthur L. Caplan

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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