Thursday, February 19, 2009

Should being a creationist automatically disqualify applicants for admission to medical school?

Before answering this question I will explain what being a creationist means, and the different types of beliefs a creationist can hold. Then I shall go on to explore the reasons why you might want to disqualify a medical school applicant on the grounds of being a creationist, the reasons why being a creationist and medical student should not matter, and then reach a conclusion.

Creationism is the belief that each species was created separately, in its current form, by God. It has experienced a rise in popularity in the last century, especially in America. In a 2005 survey, it was found that 42% of Americans believe that ‘humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time’.1 Creationism encompasses many different beliefs – the main ones being Young-Earth and Old-earth creationism, which I will explain further.

Young earth creationism is the belief that the bible is literally true; that God created the world in 6 days, and that the world is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old as according to the bible, rather than 4.5 billion years according to most scientists. 2 Young-earth creationists generally view the bible as equal to textbooks in scientific accuracy. A 2009 survey by the Theos Think Tank showed that 11% of people in the UK believed that ‘God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years’, and 21% thought it was probably true. 1

Old earth creationism itself encompasses several categories such as gap creationism, day-age creationism and progressive creationism, although what defines it from young-earth creationism is the belief that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, rather than 10,000 years old as a literal belief in the bible would make it. Gap creationism is the belief that there was a long period of time between God creating the earth, and the rest of the creation story. Day-age creationists believe that each ‘day’ in the creation story refers to a non-specific period of time (perhaps millions of years) rather than 24 hours. Progressive creationists believe that creation was a progressive, gradual process involving evolution within species (microevolution), but new species were created by God’s intervention and not evolution.

Intelligent Design is a recently-developed belief which stemmed out of creationism. Believers in this theory do not agree with natural selection as the driving factor for evolution, as this is an ‘unguided, purposeless change.’ 3 They believe the best explanation for the complexity of life and the universe is the existence of an intelligent creator.

On one hand, there is an argument that being a creationist should disqualify you from medical school. If the medical student decides to go into research, they may be biased by their creationist views, which may then hinder scientific progress. ‘Creation Science’ is where creationists try to use scientific research to prove the Genesis account of creation, and has been consistently rejected by scientists as valid research. As Darwin himself said, ‘we can only say that…it has pleased the Creator to construct all the animals and plants…but this is not a scientific explanation’.4 It includes creation biology, which attempts to prove that different species did not originate from the same ancestor, and flood geology, which tries to show how a world flood as documented in the bible is compatible with geological evidence. Many of these theories for flood geology were published in the book ‘The Genesis Flood’ by Morris and Whitcomb in 1961. 5 The popular geology journals of the time completely ignored the book, and one review by the ‘ASA Journal’ called them ‘pseudo-scientific pretenders’. Yet despite all this, creation science was taught in many American schools. In 1921, the Butler Act in Tennessee disallowed publicly funded teachers ‘to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals’, and this was the law until 1967. This could not have progressed scientific education.

Furthermore, if a medical school applicant was a young-earth creationist, this may suggest that their personality is unsuited to that of a doctor. There is overwhelming scientific evidence for the earth being 4.5 billion years old. Examples of this are radiometric dating, which uses the half-lives of radioactive elements in rocks to determine their ages, observing ice cores, and dendro-chronology – analysis of annual tree rings. 2 An inability to accept this evidence might demonstrate an inflexible, irrational personality. This would be disadvantageous as a doctor, where the ability to work in a team and to consider many different viewpoints is crucial. They might hold their views on contentious issues such as abortion very strongly, perhaps influencing a patient on important decisions and not giving them a balanced view.

However, there are also many arguments why being a creationist should not disqualify an applicant from medical school. To begin with, being a creationist does not necessarily affect the quality of care that a doctor would give a patient, so it is an irrelevant criterion to judge a potential medical student by. Perhaps if they were a young-earth creationist this might indicate more radical views, but old-earth creationists agree with some scientific views such as the age of the earth. Thus they will be less likely to hold radical views on other topics, and other factors such as communication skills and academic ability should be considered more significant. Their belief might even be considered a positive attribute – it suggests they know where they stand on difficult issues, and as a result are wiser, more thought-out doctors.

Furthermore, as creationists believe each species was created separately by God, they may have a high regard for human life, of value as a doctor. The concept of evolution is that the fittest survive and breed, the weaker die out. At the time this led to the belief of eugenics – ‘good genes’. Darwin’s cousin, Dalton, recommended that the fitter, more intelligent, are encouraged to breed, and the less fit are discouraged. Later, this belief was taken up by Hitler, who wanted to rid the world of ‘inferior races’ and populate it with a pure, arian race – a line of thinking totally and utterly opposed to medicine. Perhaps the compassion and desire to help others needed as a doctor is found more in creationist views than in evolutionary principles.

In Conclusion, I believe that it depends on the type of creationist that you are. There is an argument to disqualify Young-Earth Creationists from medical school, as they are disagreeing with a large amount of scientific research on the topic. They might make more irrational doctors and, if they were to go into research, may hinder scientific progress. In terms of other creationist views, as long as these beliefs do not adversely affect your treatment of a patient, it should not disqualify you. It may even suggest the student is more thought-out, and holds human life in high regard – a valuable characteristic for a doctor. Finally, in a letter, Darwin once wrote: ‘There is no reason why the disciples of [religion and science] should attack each other with bitterness, though each upholding strictly their beliefs.’6

1.‘Rescuing Darwin: God and evolution in Britain today’ Nick
Spencer and Denis Alexander, 2009:
Chapter 2: God after Darwin: The twentieth century and the
rise of creationism. Page 26.
Chapter 3: Darwin today. Pages 29-33.
2.‘The Rough Guide to Evolution’ Mark Pallen, 2009.
Creationism: A House Divided, page 284.
How we know the earth is old, pages 12-13.
Can a Christian believe in evolution, pages 280-281.
3. ‘Testing Darwinism’ Philip E Johnson, 1997.
 Chapter 1: Emilio’s Letter. Page 16.
4.‘The Origin of Species’ Charles Darwin, 1859.
Chapter XIV: Morphology. Page 383.
5. ‘The Genesis Flood’ Morris and Whitcomb, 1961.
6.A Letter from Darwin to his friend and local vicar, John Brodie
Innes, on November 27th, 1878.


  1. A rather provocative title.
    I don't think that anyone actually tries to or wants to exclude creationists from studying medicine.
    Still, it is an intereesting question whether holding an irrational belief has an impact on your qualification to become a doctor.
    IMO you state one of the reasons that being a creationist indeed could impact their qualification, although I think that you could've stated it more explicitly:
    - for creationists if science conflicts with their beliefs, the science must be wrong

    If you're able to dismiss all the evidence for an old earth because of your faith it is likely that you do the same thing with other evidence that runs contrary to what you belief. Examples where that could lead to difficulties are:
    - treatment of homosexual patients ("it's a choice being homosexual, homosexuals decide to live in sin" - or worse)
    - informing patients about protection against STDs ("be abstinent"), contraception ("be abstinent"), abortion ("burn in hell" or making unvalid claims like "abortion leads to breast cancer", which is a blatant misrepresentation of scientific data), and related topics
    - treatment of comatose patients (when to stop intensive care, organ donation) (e. g. see here)

    You hint at these problems but don't really spell them out.

    Your discussion of what speaks against disqualifying creationists IMO misses the point. What does speak against it?
    - beliefs can change
    - people seems to be able to compartmentalize contradicting beliefs (it does not need to impact their professional behaviour)
    - it would be discrimination
    - you don't need to be a creationist to hold irrational beliefs (look at the doctors who have fallen for the whole "vaccination is evil" myth)

    I think, the reason you give is a pure strawman argument. The theory of evolution proposes an explanation for what we see in nature. That doesn't mean that that is how it should be. If I see a documentary about lions killing an elephant I don't go out and start killing elephants because that's how nature is. Why should I believe that less adapted organims should be killed because that's what happens in nature? This kind of thinking is called is/ought fallacy.
    I don't doubt for a minute that creationists can be very passionate about saving lifes - but I don't think that's something that distinguishes them from the rest.

    One last point: I think it is important to think about the negative consequences it could have if topics that contradict fundamentalist's beliefs aren't addressed properly in school or college. There might be people who don't care whether the earth is 6000 or 4.6 billion years old. But they might be interested whether they can buy contraception in their local pharmacy.

    I hope I didn't critizise to much. I liked the topic that you picked and I think you included some important points - and I liked your range of sources. Pallen, Darwin, Johnson, and Morris - that is some eclectic combination ;)

    All the best,
    Sabine aka JLT

    P.S.: English is my second language, so plaese icnore al mistaces.

  2. Good essay, well structured. Sabine has already raised most of the points I might have. I do wonder, though, why you spend so much time outlining the varieties of creationism and so little exploring the consequences for the practice of medicine. So much of modern medicine is founded absolutely on the relatedness of different species, by descent, that it takes a very peculiar mindset to accept, for example, that genetic models of diseases can offer insights into therapy while denying the very basis of the reasons why that is true.

    Your discussion of eugenics is interesting, but mistaken, in that fittest is by no means equivalent to strongest. Physically weaker animals and plants may well be fitter in the technical sense. People who were doctors did of course take part in eugenic practices, and not just in Germany it should be remembered. And people who were doctors opposed such practices. I am not sure what you are concluding here. You seem to be hinting that creationists have more compassion than non-creationists. Do you really believe that?

  3. A parallel might be whether you'd accept someone into engineering school who rejected Newton's theories on ethical grounds. I'd suggest you would, no matter how good they were with a spanner, nor how good they were with the clients. However since creationist medics usually aspire to be GP's and do little more than to push pills and issue a few comforting words then I suppose they are not much of a problem there. I wouldn't want to let them near any medical research however...

  4. Actually I meant to say you wouldn't accept someone as an engineer who objected to Newton.

  5. My niece is eight years old and has always wanted to be a veterinarian. She has never wavered from this "When I grow up..." scenario. I don't know if she'll become a vet or not but I can be sure that she'll want to work with animals. Her parents are committed to young earth creationism and have chosen to home school primarily due to their beliefs. They have informed me that they can educate her at home even with University level studies through online resources. Whoa! I sincerely hope that they can't do that through veterinary medical school. So I wonder, if she is never exposed to the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation, development of scientific theory, scientific laws of nature, evolution, and the accepted scientific techniques for exploring our natural world then what chance does she have of ever becoming a vet? Even her out-of-the home zoology class is based in young earth creationism.

    It's amazing to me that some 42-44% of the American population subscribes to these ideas. I am searching for information on how many of them are medical doctors from accredited North American institutions. I would be surprised to find even one. My guess is that if there are any they've chosen to keep it to themselves.

    I personally would not want to be treated by anyone who cannot accept proven scientific fact. Nor would I want to be treated by anyone who would accept manipulated scientific experiments as fact because it makes them feel more comfortable about there interpretation of scripture. Did you know that a group of young earth creationists sent rocks from lava formations in the 1980 Mt. St. Helens to a lab and asked them to perform a specific radiographic dating test that is known in the scientific community not to work on rocks younger than 30 years old? It also does not work on certain igneous rocks of which these matched. Not surprisingly the results showed that the rocks were very old. The YEC group uses this result to claim that all radiographic tests are flawed and therefore unreliable. This was a rigged experiment. They didn't ask the scientists to determine how old the rocks were. They asked them to perform a specific test. If asked to determine the date of the rocks they would have performed several radiographic tests and possibly other techniques to determine age. They would not have used the particular test that was requested. Do you want someone operating on you that can't see the error in this experiment? Not me! No way, no how! Not even my Cat!