Ulrich Kutschera, evolutionary biologist

Apr 29, 2015

Image Courtesy of Ulrich Kutschera

Interview by Nala Rogers

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould claimed in 2000 that creationism was largely a “local, indigenous, American bizarrity.” But recently, young-Earth creationist movements have gained power across Europe. A group of European scientists reviewed this progression last year in a book titled Creationism in Europe.

The book’s chapter on Germany came from Ulrich Kutschera, a professor of plant physiology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kassel, Germany. Kutschera, also a visiting scientist at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University, describes how a German group called the Studiengemeinschaft Wort und Wissen (W+W), or Word and Knowledge Society, is spreading its creationist message.

The Word and Knowledge Society teaches that the biblical God created a small number of “basic types of life” about 10,000 years ago, and these types evolved rapidly into all modern species. The society produces elegantly designed books, journals and websites, says Kutschera. It has translated its flagship publication, Evolution: A Critical Textbook, into Italian, Portuguese, and other languages, and pupils now study the text in more than 100 Christian German Bekenntnisschulen (commitment schools). Kutschera fears that number is rising.

Most Germans still accept evolution. But the Word and Knowledge Society’s glossy materials and academic-sounding language persuade more and more people, including teachers and policymakers, says Kutschera. He spoke about his concerns at the February 2015 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose with several of his Creationism in Europe co-authors. Afterward, he sat down with Nala Rogers, a graduate of the science communication program at the University of California Santa Cruz.

What can you tell me about the Word and Knowledge Society?

The society is part of the Evangelical movement in Germany. It was founded in 1979 by theologians and other academics, but not by professional biologists. [One of its most public figures,] Siegfried Scherer, is convinced that evolution is wrong and creation is true, and that God created all living beings 10,000 years ago. Scherer has a powerful government-sponsored position at an important college, the Technical University of Munich. He was awarded several prizes for academic teaching, and he distributed his version of Intelligent Design and young-Earth creationism under the label of his university. In my view, this is unacceptable.

What’s wrong with creationists like Scherer being biology professors?

Let me explain this point this way. Ten years ago, I did an interview with the Christian newspaper Chrismonin Germany, and the journalist was a theologian. I tried to convince him that it’s not okay when a professor, who gets government money for teaching biology, also distributes creationism via his institution. The journalist didn’t understand me. Then I asked him: “What would you do with a theologian who is paid by a church, who says there is no God?” He said, “We would fire him.” And I said, “Now you understand me.”

What do you mean when you use the word “creationism?”
I have a precise definition. Creationism is an attempt to interpret all forms of life that exist today based on the biblical account of creation. Just a few weeks ago, Reinhard Junker [one of the authors of Evolution: A Critical Textbook] explained to me that for him, the Bible, as the Word of God, is true and must be read like a biology textbook.

In Creationism in Europe, you and the other contributors say that Europe used to be relatively free of creationism. How does what you’re now seeing in Germany differ from what people used to believe before Darwin published hisOrigin of Species in 1859?

In contrast to 19th-century creationism, W+W does not distribute a primitive Bible-based sermon. The Word and Knowledge Society tries to convince the general public, notably schoolchildren, that macroevolution is not supported by evidence. They define themselves as a scientific organization, and W+W uses the language of science to promote a pseudoscientific worldview.

They even go so far as to argue that the biblical creator produced “polyvalent stem forms,” another phrase for the basic types. To a teacher or student, this sounds like science. It’s almost impossible for a non-specialist to see that it’s nonsense. That makes me angry.

You have a career as an international research scientist and biology professor, but you have published articles and books opposing creationism. You even have a YouTube channel. Why have you taken time to do these things?

For me, it’s kind of a hobby. It is part of my agenda devoted to public understanding of science. But I must admit that when I study the arguments of the Word and Knowledge Society, sometimes I get inspirations to teach and write about evolution even more precisely, because some of the arguments [behind creationism] are not silly. Their anti-evolution strategies are sometimes rather sophisticated. It sharpens your intellect, and you can better argue in favor of evolution, not as a theory, but as a fact of nature.

Other scientists say evolution is a scientific theory, but the word “theory” is used differently by scientists and the public. Among biologists, a “theory” is a set of testable hypotheses supported by a large body of evidence.

This is absolutely correct. But the average person will say, “OK, evolution is a scientific theory. Word and Knowledge argues that the basic types of life concept is also a viable scientific theory.” A layperson who has no scientific background is confused. Who is right? The pro-evo-atheists or the biblical theists?

This is why I argue the other way around. I would never tell a creationist that evolution is a theory; many will say Intelligent Design is also a theory. Evolution is a fact. Only those individuals within variable populations that leave offspring will be represented in the next generation. Hence, there is an endless line of descent with modification, back to the first organisms on Earth, that has continuously changed over the past 4,600 million years of geological history.

You describe your anti-creationist work as a hobby. Why does it really matter?

Let me tell you why creationism in Germany is a problem. A pupil, maybe 14 years old, is told by his teacher to please write something down on macroevolution, or rudimentary organs, or other topics in evolutionary biology. Then the average German pupil uses Google, and with his first click he discovers arguments against macroevolution. And he finds the wonderful webpages of Word and Knowledge, because W+W employs four full-time “preachers” who infiltrate the Internet with their biblical pseudo-biology. Even students in my evolutionary biology classes at the German University sometimes refer to material they found on the Internet based on the Word and Knowledge propaganda.

You can essentially say that the topic of evolution in Germany is in the hands of a small but powerful religious sect. They have the money and the manpower. W+W publishes several periodicals that look like true scientific journals. But they are full of creationist nonsense, such as the belief in a young Earth.

Shouldn’t students have access to all the arguments so they can make their own decisions?

There’s no question that the Word and Knowledge Society has the right to promote its propaganda. This is freedom of speech, freedom of expression. The problem is that in Germany, there are very few evolutionary biologists, and most of those are only narrow specialists. They ignore the Word and Knowledge Society or cowardly argue that this is not their business.

Essentially, you have two parallel worlds. On the one hand you have the W+W propagandists. On the other, you have the university biologists who publish on very specific topics. Essentially, nobody argues against the Word and Knowledge nonsense. But this is a hobby I like very much. It actually has promoted my career as an international scientist. I am grateful to them. [Laughs]

I understand that you object to creationism in science classes. What about people who believe in biblical creation, but who aren’t trying to change how children learn biology?

The Catholic and the Evangelical churches, the two big denominations in Germany, argue that “we accept all the facts that biologists have published in their journals, but we believe that our biblical God is acting in the background.” This is the concept of theistic evolution. “We accept evolution, but God is responsible for the outcome.” However, when you discuss theistic evolution with mainstream theologians, you rapidly find out that their Theos is very weak. It’s a diluted God. Creationist Evangelicals like Reinhard Junker says, “My God is the designer. He created us, and I see design in nature wherever I look.” That’s a clear statement, incompatible with the fact of macroevolution.

So, are you OK with the concept of a “background God?”

No, absolutely not. In my view, the concept of theistic evolution is even more schizophrenic than the honest interpretation of the Bible as it is carried out by the Word and Knowledge Society. The W+W ideologues simply say “the Bible is right and macroevolution is wrong.” Theistic evolution, as promoted by the Pope and the associated Catholic Church, is in my view a mixture of science and irrational belief. Why did the background God permit 99 percent of all animals and plants, that he allegedly created, to become extinct? Where are the created dinosaurs today, and why are humans the most destructive animals on Earth?

In my view, naturalistic evolution is the only reasonable worldview, and mankind can only survive when more scientists step out of their laboratories and convince the general public and the politicians. We can only reverse climate change and feed the world, via transgenic crops for instance, when science prevails. Religious belief should remain in the churches and out of scientific thinking.

How does the United States compare with Germany in terms of creationist movements?

In Germany we have ethics or religion classes. Here in the U.S., it’s not allowed to teach religion in public schools, due to your Constitution. When you do not allow the teaching of religion in schools, then this irrational belief remains an uncontrolled private business. Creationists in the U.S. try to introduce their religious dogma into biology classes because they are not allowed to teach religion in ethics classes. It would be better for the U.S. to allow the teaching of Christian religion in public schools, as is the case in Germany and other European countries.

What would you say to someone who argues that we should accept the Word and Knowledge Society’s ideas of “basic types of life” and rapid microevolution as a kind of compromise to unite science and religion?

The point is that this is not science. It’s biblical dogma. There is no empirical, fact-based evidence for the creation of basic types of life. And there’s likewise no evidence whatsoever for microevolution at this high speed. The spread of this anti-scientific “theo-biology” throughout Europe must be prevented, because science and religious dogma should not be mixed up. This is my final conclusion.

19 comments on “Ulrich Kutschera, evolutionary biologist

  • The natural reaction in controversy is to teach both. However, there is no scientific controversy. There is no evidence for creationism, there is a ton against. The ONLY reason anyone ever considers it is that it is the view popular 4000 years ago by the people who founded the Judaic and Christian Churches.

    Every religion has its creation myth.

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  • @OP – What would you say to someone who argues that we should accept the Word and Knowledge Society’s ideas of “basic types of life” and rapid microevolution as a kind of compromise to unite science and religion?

    Science does not do compromises of fact and fantasy fudge!

    Children are not taught that the Earth is shaped like a discus, as a compromise between global astronomy and the flat-Earthists!

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  • Going past the despair of seeing (yet more) stupidity on the rise in the EU, I find the professor’s second to last answer most interesting.

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  • Agreed. Wholeheartedly. And whenever I’ve heard this argument about teaching creationism along with the fact some people believe it my answers have always been that there is no controversy. There is currently no valid alternative to evolution etc. If one appeared it would be taught. And in the unlikely event that evolution was disproved and overturned we default to don’t know not god did it. They need to provide proof of their theory not disproof of someone else’s.

    To which they often answer with the pseudo science nonsense, the great scientists in the past that were creationists (strictly speaking operating from very limited knowledge) and that the whole of science was based on Christians doing science blah blah.

    But I’ve always found the perfect answer to all those arguments are in astrology. Another pseudo science. Like creationism it has it’s own pseudo scientific journals. It’s just as ‘valid’ in an invalid way as creationism.

    Then they will come out with the ‘lots of people believe in creationism therefore it is fair that you have it taught’ argument. But you have the fact that, in the UK at least, far more people have some belief in astrology.

    Then they resort of course to using the Christian and so called creationist beliefs of early scientists. But this can easily be matched by the contributions of early astrologers and alchemists. So Newton believed in a divine creator? He also believed in astrology and magic. So desire to understand Gods world drove Faradays science? Well desire to understand and predict the future using astrology drove earlier scientists to map the stars.

    Somehow they get really upset when you match everything they say with equal claims for astrology.

    So next time a creationist gives their “fairness’ reasons for teaching say only if astrological nonsense is taught alongside physics. Cos if you’re gonna allow garbage in the classrooms it has to be everyone’s garbage.

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  • In the UK we have RE as a separate subject. It is invaluable as all religions tend to a get a look in. Nothing helps you lies belief quicker than realising they can’t all be right.

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  • Alice
    Apr 30, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    But you have the fact that, in the UK at least, far more people have some belief in astrology.

    The English guidance and statutory requirements state that the scientific theory of evolution is taught as the National Curriculum in the vast majority of schools, from 10 -11 year-olds onward.

    Evolution and inheritance

    Pupils should be taught to:

    recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago

    recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents

    identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

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  • @OP – Scherer has a powerful government-sponsored position at an important college, the Technical University of Munich. He was awarded several prizes for academic teaching, and he distributed his version of Intelligent Design and young-Earth creationism under the label of his university.

    The concept of politically sponsored pseudo-science practitioners is not new. Both Stalin and Hitler had their own “politically correct science”, with state promoted practitioners.

    In my view, this is unacceptable.

    It is unacceptable to reputable scientists and teachers, but there are plenty of politicians whose mentality provides them with this biblical “Word and Noddy-age” thinking!

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  • Funny how the creationists change their ground all the time. They used to teach and argue that evolution was impossible, because there was insufficient time for species to develop, even accepting for argument’s sake the time scale proposed by the evolutionists. Now they’re saying that it could all have happened in 10 000 years!

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  • Thankfully you are right. But creationists did try and have their day when the science curriculum changed in 2006.

    And they tried using the arguments above. And via Tory education policies around free schools. But when I pointed out astrologists could make identical arguments but don’t they got very upset. Seem to think pseudo science to support biblical lunacy has more credence than other forms of pseudoscience.

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  • Alice
    May 1, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    And they tried using the arguments above. And via Tory education policies around free schools. But when I pointed out astrologists could make identical arguments but don’t they got very upset.

    If you look at some of the scientifically illiterate idiots the Tories manage to get elected as MPs, it is no surprise!


    Tredinnick was widely mocked last month after he gave an interview to the Astrological Journal, suggesting that prophecy could be used to treat patients in the NHS. Within the interview, the MP named the prominent physicist, saying, “People such as Professor Brian Cox, who called astrology ‘rubbish’ have simply not studied the subject.”

    In his interview, Tredinnick said that astrology -– as in the belief that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world — could have a “role to play in healthcare” and that employing astrology in 21st century medicine could relieve “pressure” on doctors.”

    On scientists such as Cox dismissing astrology, Tredinnick said: “It tends to be based on superstition, with scientists reacting emotionally, which is always a great irony. They are also ignorant, because they never study the subject and just say that it is all to do with what appears in the newspapers, which it is not, and they are deeply prejudiced, and racially prejudiced, which is troubling.”

    Unsurprisingly this clown also speaks for the homoeopathy lobby!

    Speaking to HuffPost Live, Cox responded, saying: “I don’t really mind what his views are except that he’s on the science and technology select committee… which deals with funding. He should be arguing for science and STEM subjects in parliament, so that is problematic.

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  • The problem created by government political ideologists opening up “faith” and political opportunities for opportunists has not gone away.

    Heads warn Trojan Horse ‘not gone away’http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32573643

    Head teachers have warned that intimidation is still continuing after the investigations into the so-called Trojan Horse scandal.

    A head teachers’ conference has heard claims of threats such as dead animals being left in school playgrounds.

    “Trojan Horse has not gone away,” said Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, head of Anderton Park School in Birmingham.

    Responding to the claims, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: “There is no place for extremism in our schools.”

    The claim by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is cynical and laughable, considering it is her party that is leading the stampede to undermine the the state school structure which provides local accountability, and safeguards against such abuses!

    The National Association of Head Teachers’ annual conference in Liverpool heard warnings that problems over extremism remained unresolved and schools could still face pressure on issues such as tackling homophobia.

    There were particular concerns about the lack of scrutiny over the role of governors, highlighted by the Trojan Horse inquiries.

    Tim Gallagher told delegates the lack of regulation meant it was “blindingly obvious” that there would be problems with governing bodies.

    “Many, many of our members have suffered greatly from rogue governors,” he said.

    The so-called Trojan Horse inquiries followed allegations that there were organised attempts by hardline Muslim groups to undermine head teachers and take over schools in Birmingham.

    Head teachers at the conference complained that no governors had been barred as a result of the inquiries and they called for a database which would identify individuals removed from governing bodies.

    “We still have dead animals hung on the gates of schools, dismembered cats on playgrounds. We have petitions outside schools, objecting to teachers teaching against homophobia.”

    There were threats on social media, she said, such as “Any head teacher who teaches my children it’s alright to be gay will be at the end of my shotgun.”

    Ms Hewitt-Clarkson said she knew of a school which had found a dismembered cat in the playground, while another had a dog hanging from the railings.

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  • 12
    laurence says:

    Why does no-one ever seem to point out the obvious. Sources of revelation are all human artefacts. They reflect the creation myths of those who first wrote them and were then translated between languages and copied between different media. All of course with no believable audit trail to original sources that no longer exist and by thoroughly objective scholars

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  • It never amazes me how arrogant people can be. My 1st question would be to ask what is the difference between Law and Theory. This German chap should not be allowed to argue matters of philosophy until he has studied some. He mentions that the arguments of creationists are nonsense and that gets up his nose (nothing to do with science so they should not be allowed in science classes). Then he goes on to say that he is inspired by some of these arguments because they are well argued. “salad leaves shopped perfect ridicule”. This is nonsense.

    Yes in Philosophy we do not have numbers to do our equations – we use words instead.

    A religion is what binds people together – yes that is the true meaning of the word. A religion does not need a god. in the Bible you can serve God or Mammon. Another thing that annoys me is the constant criticism of the Bible. There is more in the bible about bad stuff and also atheism, false gods etc than there is about the so called true god and Jesus. if you do not believe me – just read it.

    So our German friend need ask himself first”what is a theory” and second “what is a good theory – or what makes one theory better than another. It seems to me that he believes that a good theory has more science based evidence that has failed to disprove it, rather than one that ultimately could be closer to the truth. He could be right – it is not the purpose of a theory to be true, but to try and explain something we do not know. This is the science bit – and in philosophical terms we fall into paradox: if we do not know something and go out to seek it, if it came up to us in the street and slapped us, how would we know it is the thing we were seeking?

    when we come to evolution theory and creationist theory and consider how stupid people might be for believing in one side or another, let us consider big bang theory. I am certain that 99.99% of you will look at it as a 20th century supposition. Would it surprise you to know that the theory is more than 2500 years old? No scientific instruments and I bet his colleagues thought he was absolutely bonkers. we would think him bonkers today because in his model the universe was headed for a big crunch. I bring this up for two reasons. How did he come up with such an idea? Is there a fountain of knowledge called god out there? Having come up with a theory that you could not test with science at the time, does that make his theory a bad one or a good one?

    Finally, to answer one of your questions: There really is a God. The problem is you ask the wrong question: “did God create man, or did Man create god?”

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  • It is not clear if Andy is quoting somebody or it his own ideas, but whoever said it, I disagree.

    “…when we come to evolution theory and creationist theory and consider
    how stupid people might be for believing in one side or another…”

    This is an excellent example of the ambiguity of words. “Believe” is a term that has two very distinct meanings: (1) whatever is being considered is to be considered correct without any evidence, just faith, and (2) whatever is being considered is considered correct because it it is supported by considerable evidence in the natural world. How can one distinguish between these two VERY different definitions when “belief” is used casually in a sentence?

    The next is the idea that “evolution” is a “fact” or a “theory.” It seems that we will never hear the end of this nonsense. There are many theories in evolutionary biology, some of which has been rejected by the evidence and some has been solidly supported by observations in the natural universe and it seems that they will never be rejected (for example Darwin’s theories of natural selection and variation within a species).

    I do not “believe” in creationism because creationism lacks any repeatable observations in the natural universe, but I do accept some the theories in evolutionary biology, and those are the theories that have been supported by the evidence. Given sufficient evidence to the contrary, I can always change my mind.

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  • Andy
    May 6, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    It never amazes me how arrogant people can be. My 1st question would be to ask what is the difference between Law and Theory.

    These have standard scientific definitions.

    A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of a phenomenon.

    A law generalizes a body of observations. At the time it is made, no exceptions have been found to a law. Scientific laws explain things, but they do not describe them. One way to tell a law and a theory apart is to ask if the description gives you a means to explain ‘why’.

    Example: Consider Newton’s Law of Gravity. Newton could use this law to predict the behavior of a dropped object, but he couldn’t explain why it happened.

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  • Andy
    May 6, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    when we come to evolution theory and creationist theory and consider how stupid people might be for believing in one side or another,

    People need to be scientifically illiterate and stupid, to believe there is such a thing as a “creationist scientific theory”, or that decisions on the validity of scientific theories are determined by choosing what they want to believe!

    let us consider big bang theory. I am certain that 99.99% of you will look at it as a 20th century supposition.

    It is not a supposition. It is a scientific theory.
    The Big Bang theory describes how the Universe began in a rapid expansion about 13.7 billion years ago and has evolved since that time.

    Would it surprise you to know that the theory is more than 2500 years old?

    It would surprise me a great deal more, that none of the world’s historians have produced any evidence of this claim, if it has any substance!


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  • Alan4discussion
    May 1, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    Tredinnick was widely mocked last month after he gave an interview to the Astrological Journal, suggesting that prophecy could be used to treat patients in the NHS.

    . . . . . and “the brains of Bosworth”, have just re-elected him yet again!!!!!

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  • By RE, I assume you mean religious education. In Quebec, in high school, I had to take a morals class. You learn about various religions. However, in my case, I already knew at a young age that my ancestors had their own religion and so did every other culture. It was logical to assume that each culture developed their own religion. Christianity is basically judaism with various bit from greek religion, roman religion, egyptian and mythraism.

    I had doubts about christianity at age 11 and at age 12, I dumped it.

    It is quite obvious that all religions are man made and that all gods are equally silent. I think believers realize it. They just stick to their religion for psychological reasons of being “saved”.

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  • If you think about it, religion is part of evolution.
    Once a species hits a certain level of intelligence, it will ask some of those BIG questions such as where do I come from, who am , why do I exist, what was I before being born, what happens when you die. There must have been a first man or woman who asked those questions first, but history does not record it. It took time for people to develop a language(s) and time to develop writing methods. History does not record those properly either.
    It is normal for primitive “man” to make up answers and to desire an eternal soul that will live in some happy land. We are emotional machines. It is not easy for someone to accept he is just going to die and disapear, no matter what century he lives in.

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