72 Nobel Winners Urge Rejection of Creationism Law

Times Staff Writer

Seventy-two Nobel Prize winners in science urged the Supreme Court on Monday to reject a Louisiana law calling for “balanced treatment” of evolution and creationism in public schools.

In its new term that begins this fall, the Supreme Court will rule directly on the issue for the first time in the 50-year-old legal clash between creation and evolution. The Nobel winners said the case is crucial for American science.

“Teaching religious ideas mislabeled as science is detrimental to science education,” the scientists said in a brief, which was signed by the largest group of Nobel winners to join in a single statement on any subject. “It misleads our youth about the nature of scientific inquiry . . . and strips our citizens of the power to distinguish between the phenomena of nature and the supernatural articles of faith.”


The Louisiana law, enacted in 1982, does not mention the Bible or religion but says it seeks to “protect academic freedom” by giving equal treatment to “creation science” and “evolution science.”

At a press conference Monday, leading scientists ridiculed the notion that the creationist view is a science.

Called ‘Whitewash’

“ ‘Creation science’ is a meaningless phrase, a whitewash” designed as a cover for injecting “a minority religious view--biblical literalism” into public schools, said Stephen J. Gould, a Harvard University professor of paleontology.

Gould said that creationism cannot be viewed as science because it accepts as true “hypotheses that are testable and have been proven false,” such as the biblical notion that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old.

The scientists conceded that creationists have not succeeded in getting their view taught in the schools of any state--the Louisiana law has been put on hold pending the outcome of the legal challenges--but they said pressure by fundamentalists has stifled the teaching of evolution.

“Biological evolution is a fact established beyond reasonable doubt . . . (and) is fundamental to an understanding of modern science,” said Francisco Ayala, professor of genetics at UC Davis.

Louisiana officials, in their appeal to the Supreme Court, say the law is not based on religious convictions. “Creation science is scientific and non-religious,” their brief asserts. “In fact, (it) is as scientific as evolution.”

Court Struck Down Law

Louisiana officials are hoping that the Supreme Court will at least allow full trial on the issue. In 1983, a federal district court decided that the law is unconstitutional, ruling that it brought religion into the schools. Two years later, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, but on a narrow 8-7 vote.

Encouraged by the strong dissent filed by the seven judges, Louisiana appealed the case, Edwards vs. Aguillard, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on it, now scheduled for December.

“Our side has scientists, too,” Rusty Jabour, a spokesman for the attorney general of Louisiana, said in response to the filing of the Nobel scientists’ brief. He noted that the state’s brief contains affidavits from five experts with backgrounds in biology, chemistry, theology or education.

One of the five, Dean H. Kenyon, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, wrote that any scientist who “takes adequate time to examine carefully . . . the observational and laboratory evidence . . . will conclude that there are substantial reasons for doubting the truth of the (evolutionary) doctrine.”

A second, Duane Gish of the private Institute for Creation Research near San Diego, said in a telephone interview that the key belief of creationism is that “the Earth and man came into existence through an outside agent, external to and independent of the natural universe.”

The fossil record, far from demonstrating a pattern of evolution, he said, “shows a sudden appearance of each basic type of plant and animal . . . with no intermediate step between vertebrates and invertebrates.”

Most of the earlier clashes on evolution and creation, including the famous Scopes trial of 1925, have been settled in lower courts. In 1968, the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that prohibited the teaching of evolution, but the justices have not ruled on whether a state law calling for the teaching of creationism violates the Constitution.

The 72 scientists who oppose the Louisiana law were organized by Murray Gell-Mann, a Caltech professor who won a Nobel Prize in physics for his classification of elementary particles. Other Nobel laureates who signed the brief include Linus Pauling, honored for his work on chemical bonds; Glenn T. Seaborg, for discovery of plutonium; Julius Axelrod, for discoveries in the chemical transmissions of nerve impulses; Allan Cormack, for invention of the CAT scan, and Paul Berg, for development of recombinant DNA.