Darwiniana Essays And Reviews Pertaining To Darwinism Vs Creationism



The journal Science has documented the evolutionist–creationist controversy since it began publication in 1880. The annual number of references suggests the intensity of the public debate. Peaks occurred in response to the Scopes trial (1925) and trials in California (1979–1981), Arkansas (1981), and Louisiana (1982–1987). Although evolutionists won the last three outright, and public opinion largely supported science in the Scopes trial, dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court in the most recent case seem to have given impetus to new creationist activity—the intelligent design movement. Arguments have changed only slightly in the last century and a quarter. Fundamentalist opposition to teaching evolution remains strong. Scientists have consistently suggested better education as the solution to the dispute; however, to date, evidence does not support that position. Differences between science and fundamentalism appear irreconcilable, and no obvious end to the acrimonious debate is in sight.

Science has reported creationist opposition to Darwin's theory since its first publication in 1880. With a consistent, decidedly pro-evolution editorial perspective, Science noted creationist activity when attempts were made to sway public opinion. From the early days of publication through William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes trial, and continuing today, more than 250 articles—often from the news and comments sections of the journal—directly addressed the public and scientific debate on Darwin's theory, and the adamant fundamentalist religious opposition. Papers, essays, book reviews, and news reports from Science, and its sister publication The Scientific Monthly (1915–1957), demonstrate that creationist and evolutionist positions have changed little over time. Scientific developments continue to solidify the evolutionist position, but creationists remain unmoved.

Evolutionary theory has been discussed, perhaps more than any other scientific concept, throughout the publication runs of Science and The Scientific Monthly. Eminent scientists and philosophers defined the debate, writing with clarity and grace, representing the best in scientific reporting and commentary. Selections from these two journals reflect the creationist–evolutionist controversy in the United States. Occasionally, creationist letters were published, more as comic relief than as serious opposition to evolution. Nevertheless, creationist activity was viewed as a threat to good science; considerable space was allocated to its coverage. Only articles dealing directly with the controversy are cited in this review; technical papers describing details of the development of evolutionary theory were disregarded. Figure 1 shows the annual distribution of references.

Published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Science is the most widely distributed general science journal, with a weekly circulation of approximately 150,000. The journal was founded in July 1880 by a group that included Thomas Edison. The AAAS affiliation began in 1900, in part to provide a publication outlet for association activities. The journal attracts a wide readership within the scientific community, publishing both technical scientific advances—with details often accessible only to practitioners in the field—and precise commentary on important broader scientific and political issues. Archives of Science and The Scientific Monthly are available for online searches through JSTOR.

This abbreviated review of the creationist–evolutionist debate shows that, in spite of scientific developments, communications between the scientific community and the public are no better, and perhaps even worse, than at the turn of the previous century. Scientists have consistently suggested better education to resolve the controversy.

Early days of the controversy: 1880–1920

The second issue of Science, July 1880, included a report of T. H. Huxley's lecture to the Royal Institute, “The Coming of Age of the Origin of Species,” on the 21st anniversary of Darwin's publication (Anonymous 1880, Huxley 1880). Near the end of his lecture, Huxley stated, “Evolution is no longer a speculation, but a statement of historical fact.” Others would disagree—and have now for well over a century.

Several early articles discussed relationships between religion, atheism, and evolution. Science's first editor (John Michels) clearly did not believe that atheism was a requirement for evolutionists:

It is possible to believe strongly in the theory of evolution and accept every scientific fact that has ever been demonstrated, and yet receive no shock to a belief in a Divine Providence, while the accumulation of scientific facts in our opinion all tend to confirm such belief, and to demonstrate scientifically that an intelligent Creator has designed and pre-arranged the order of both matter and mind…. Lastly, we say emphatically, that there is no real conflict between Science and Religion at this present day. (Michels 1882, p. 2)

An overview of Alfred Russel Wallace's lectures on protective coloration was the first largely technical presentation of evolutionary theory to appear in Science (Wallace 1886). Wallace noted that species were recognized before Darwin, and that several others had questioned the fixity of species. Darwin was the first to propose a mechanism for change. Wallace briefly summarized the Darwinian theory, consisting of three principles and an inference. The principles are that (1) the high rate of multiplication makes it impossible to sustain all offspring and creates a struggle within and between populations, (2) significant variation occurs within a species, and (3) variation is heritable. The inference drawn from these principles is that the most fit organisms, and their offspring, survive to reproduce. Wallace exempted the human mind from the process and suggested that man's “soul springs from a higher source” (Wallace 1886).

That evolution had entered the mainstream of scientific thought was demonstrated by E. W. Morse's retiring AAAS presidential address, describing the contributions of US zoologists to evolutionary theory (Morse 1887). Darwin prompted the study of man as a mammal, “from the solid standpoint of observation and experiment, and not from the emotional and often incongruous attitude of the Church.” Information in scientific journals was “hidden from the public eye as much as if they had been published in Coptic.” Nevertheless, public interest in evolution was significant, partly because of religious opposition. Morse's summary was direct:

Judging by centuries of experience, as attested by unimpeachable historical records, it is safe enough for an intelligent man, even if he knows nothing about the facts, to promptly accept as truth any generalization of science which the Church declares to be false, and, conversely, to repudiate with equal promptness, as false, any interpretation of the behavior of the universe which the Church adjudges to be true. (Morse 1887, p. 75)

Addressing the American Society of Zoologists, W. C. Curtis discussed scientific progress and the utility of scientific discoveries (Curtis 1918). Beyond material progress, scientific theory provided an important perspective, changing the human view of nature from a thing of caprice to a system ruled by order. Curtis described the development of the theory of evolution and said, without reservation, that “evolution has won its fight.” The authority of science, he said, had replaced that of “book or pope.”

Showdown in the courts: 1921–1960

Antievolution bills were introduced in at least 15 states after 1920. The prominent role of William Jennings Bryan in many of the efforts, and the frustrations he aroused in scientists and intellectuals, were reflected in contemporary accounts.

A controversy erupted when William Bateson, the English zoologist and geneticist, speaking to the AAAS meeting in Toronto, described how evolution had driven scientific thought and influenced his early study of Balanoglossus 40 years earlier. According to Bateson, embryology had given way to genetics as the field most likely to define evolutionary processes; although questions of process remained, they did not change the acceptance of evolution among scientists. Enemies of science, obscurantists, used the disputes within the community of biologists to say science had no answers to the origin of species (Bateson 1922).

Creationists used selections from Bateson's address as evidence of the falsity of evolutionary theory and its rejection by men of science. Morning-after headlines in the Toronto Globe read, “Bateson Holds That Former Beliefs Must Be Abandoned—Theory of Darwin Still Remains Unproved and Missing Link Between Monkey and Man Has Not Yet Been Discovered by Science.” Henry Fairfield Osborn responded by describing the difficulties of presenting science, particularly controversial science, to the public (Osborn 1922). Huxley had told Osborn that for popular addresses, he would carefully write out the entire presentation to ensure that, in the heat of the moment, he would not say anything that could not be supported. Osborn believed that Bateson had presented his opinions of the state of evolutionary questions, and that some in the audience could not properly evaluate those opinions.

Bryan, quoted in the New York Times, contended that every effort to discover the origin of species had failed; all lines of investigation ended in disappointment (Anonymous 1922). In accepting evolution, he argued, scientists were falling back on faith; and faith in the creation of man by a separate act of God was a more rational position. Bryan objected to Darwinism, he said, not only because it was groundless but also because it was harmful, since it undermined faith in the Bible. Further, Christians did not object to freedom of speech; biblical truth could stand on its own. The Bible had been excluded from the classroom because the teaching of religion was prohibited in schools paid for by taxes. Why then should the enemies of religion be allowed to teach irreligion in the public schools? Christians who wished to teach doctrine funded their own schools. Why shouldn't the atheists be forced to do the same? Bryan concluded, “As religion is the only basis of morals, it is time for Christians to protect religion from its most insidious enemy” (Anonymous 1922, p. 243).

T. V. Smith, of the Philosophy Department of the University of Chicago, cutioned that the attention Bryan was receiving pointed to the large and widening gap between science and the public (Smith 1923). Research relied on public funding and approval; science would suffer without public support. Bryan was supported by a large, but perhaps declining, portion of the population, whose concerns he clearly reflected and understood. Smith's assessment of Bryan was harsh: “Bryan's aversion to change is motivated in…reluctance to endure the pain of thinking” (Smith 1923, p. 509). According to Bryan, science books changed constantly; only the word of God revealed in the Bible did not change. Smith ended with a charge to science to do a better job in education of the average man. Science could not meet its goals without popular support. Only through communication with the public, on the part of science, could that support be expected to develop (Smith 1923).

In a lengthy article in The Scientific Monthly entitled “Why I Teach Evolution,” Dartmouth professor William Patten countered arguments that teaching evolution produces disastrous moral and religious effects (Patten 1924). According to Patten, evolution provides a logical, unifying concept for all natural phenomena, accepted by virtually all who study nature. Teaching of evolution brings a living God into “fields of human thought and experience from which the teachings of ‘high-brow’ philosophy and ‘low-brow’ religion are excluding Him with extraordinary thoroughness and rapidity.” Finally, “methods of evolution exemplify the successful usage of the highest ethical and moral principles” [italics in the original]. The essence of evolution, Patten argued, is an infinite, democratic, and creative process. Studying evolution provides an appreciation for the significance of existence and should strengthen religious feelings. Students looking for meaning had experienced this as a result of their studies and described it to Patten. Scientists, he claimed, had brought the current state of affairs upon themselves by failing to communicate the true nature of evolution to the public. Patten vividly described the effects of evolutionary thought: “With a little insistent pressure the point of this subsoil plow will eventually penetrate the cold gumbo of the freshman's mind deep enough to break up its hardened crusts of prejudice and prepare a naturally fertile soil for further cultivation” (pp. 637–638).

Patten suggested that the biblical statement that “every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire” could be taken as an example of the process of natural selection. To Patten, the study of the whole of evolution helped minimize antagonism between religious and scientific viewpoints.

Edwin L. Rice's address to the AAAS meeting in December 1924, “Darwin and Bryan—a Study in Method,” was reprinted in full in Science (Rice 1925). As a scientist, teacher, and Christian, Rice was disturbed by Bryan's campaign to restrict or remove the teaching of evolution at both high school and college levels. Rice rejected Bryan's allegation that acceptance of evolution precluded an acceptance of religion. He argued that the loss to science of a few students who chose religion, when confronted with Bryan's alternative, was of little consequence; however, the loss to religion of students who chose science was a much greater and unnecessary loss. Movements that split religion rather than sought harmony were unworthy.

With this perspective, Rice compared the methods used by Bryan and Darwin. Bryan's exceptional skill as an orator, and his moral earnestness, gave him significant potential influence on public opinion. According to Bryan, a hypothesis equals a guess; therefore, Darwin's theory was “mere guessing.” Bryan had repeated the phrase often enough that it had taken on meaning beyond its merits. Bryan rejected any form of evolution applied to man, and, since evolution for other organisms rested on similar evidence, he also rejected general evolution. Darwin had presented several categories of evidence supporting evolution; Bryan offhandedly ignored or rejected them all. Bryan cited the statement from Genesis that “reproduction is according to kind” as evidence that change was impossible. Likewise, Bryan was impervious to evidence from geology. His literal interpretation of the Bible, and his perception of its text as infallible, precluded any consideration of alternate explanations (Rice 1925).

Darwin went to great lengths to find evidence opposed to his theory and did not ignore weaknesses in his ideas, an approach that made acceptance of his ideas so rapid among scientists. Bryan, in both his writing and his public speaking, simply rejected the possibility of evolution without considering the evidence. Bryan professed belief in biblical in-errancy, yet refused to consider inconsistencies, even in the two biblical accounts of creation in Genesis (Rice 1925).

He criticized Darwin for using limiting words or phrases such as “apparently,”“probably,” or “we may well suppose,” saying, “The eminent scientist is guessing.” Bryan missed the point that scientific theories and writing are by nature provisional, subject to revision with the accumulation of further evidence. Bryan believed that evolution had driven Darwin from religion. Rice suggested that the storm of criticism that formal religion heaped on the release of Origin of Species could easily have turned Darwin away (Rice 1925).

Rice ended with the suggestion that the controversy over evolution was not strictly the fault of theologians. Materialistic scientists were also contributing to the controversy, seeing an opportunity to criticize religion. Rice considered two benefits of the controversy: first, evolution was being discussed in public more intelligently than ever before, and second, prominent men of science were coming forth and professing their religious belief (Rice 1925).

Science covered the Scopes trial (10–21 July 1925), publishing Henry Fairfield Osborn's prepared testimony in support of John Scopes (Osborn 1925). Scopes studied geology at the University of Kentucky under Arthur M. Miller, who had received his doctorate under Osborn at Columbia. Letters of support for Scopes came from Miller and Osborn; from Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin's son; and from H. H. Lane, zoology department head at the University of Kansas. All of these letters were reprinted in Science (Osborn 1925).

After the trial, in September 1925, The Scientific Monthly published a series of statements prepared for Scopes's defense. In the first, “The Truth of Evolution,” Maynard Metcalf, of Johns Hopkins, stated that teaching biology without evolution was impossible and could be considered malpractice (Metcalf 1925).

“The Fact, the Course and the Causes of Organic Evolution” reviewed correspondence with William Bateson, whose 1921 address (described above) had been used by Bryan to suggest that there was scientific opposition to evolution (Curtis 1925). Bateson reviewed his own presentation and found “nothing which can be construed as expressing doubt as to the main fact of Evolution.” He went on to say, “The campaign against the teaching of evolution is a terrible example of the way in which truth can be perverted by the ignorant” (Curtis 1925, p. 296). Curtis described work prior to Darwin that helped set the stage for the rapid acceptance of evolution by the scientific community. The concept of evolution was accepted immediately; however, the mechanisms, including natural selection, were still being discussed. Evidence for human evolution also continued to accumulate, demonstrating kinship with other animals. Curtis closed with a quote from a letter from President Woodrow Wilson:“I do believe in Organic Evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.”

In a speech in New York City, the presiding judge at the Scopes trial, John T. Raulston, urged the prohibition of the teaching of evolution in schools to prevent the corruption of society and the downfall of civilization (Anonymous 1925). His duty, he said, had been to combat evolution to “uphold the integrity of the Bible.” Raulston was raised with daily Bible instruction; he believed that supporters of evolution robbed themselves of any hope of resurrection. If science was not consistent with Christ's religion, he concluded, the choice was obvious. Evolution was an incentive to larceny and murder. If people lost faith in Genesis, they were likely to lose faith in the rest of the Bible. Raulston argued that there was no justification for accusing Tennesseans of being yokels or ignoramuses, but that if learning would cause loss of faith, they would be better left in a state of ignorance.

The address of the retiring vice president of the AAAS zoology section, and self-proclaimed evolutionist and Christian, Edwin Linton, was reprinted in two parts (Linton 1926a, 1926b). Unlike dogmatic religionists, Linton argued, scientists do not suggest that their views are infallible, but rather that they are the best explanation available, to be changed if new evidence is presented. Modernist theologians show no hostility toward the theory of evolution; only the fundamentalists have objections. Linton described a wave of antiscience sentiment sweeping the country. Scientific developments were influencing pure food laws and regulations affecting quack medicines and “practicers of magic,” whose proponents did not welcome the changes. Linton characterized the leading opponents of science as antisocial eccentrics, citing as an example the antivaccinationists, who opposed smallpox vaccinations. In the face of clear evidence of a reduction in the illness, they remained unconvinced because they were in-convincible. A recent attempt to measure how the teaching of evolution damaged religious beliefs showed 66 respondents reporting that their faith was strengthened, 20 reporting no effect, and 2 reporting a weakening of faith. Linton closed by quoting the biblical Philip's suggested method of scientific inquiry to Nathanael: “Come and see” (Linton 1926b, p. 201).

In late 1926, the American Association of University Professors agreed to develop more efficient means of cooperation in opposing the spread of antievolution legislation (Anonymous 1927a). An antievolution bill had been defeated in Louisiana, and a new one was pending in Arkansas. One week later, the decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court was announced. A three-to-one vote upheld the antievolution law (Anonymous 1927b). The specific Scopes decision was sent back to the court for retrial on a technicality. The trial judge had assessed a fine of $100, although Tennessee law specifically stated that a jury must assess judgments over $50. The dissenting Supreme Court judge argued that the statute was invalid “for uncertainty of meaning,” not because he disagreed with its intent.

Not all biologists accepted evolution. A letter to the journal Ecology was reprinted in Science (Moore 1929). Barrington Moore, the first editor of Ecology and a past president of the Ecological Society of America, discontinued his subscription because papers on evolution had been published in Ecology. He said, “I have no use for evolution and do not see how any intelligent person can have.” Moore, a founder of scientific forestry in the United States, is now honored by the Society of American Foresters with a research award named after him.

A posthumous publication from W. M. Davis, Harvard emeritus professor of physical geography, called science and religion the greatest products of the human mind (Davis 1934). Davis recognized that his definition would cause dissent, since many believed in the supernatural origin of modern religion. However, many of these same people could easily accept the human origin of primitive religions. When theology and science conflicted, theologians generally formed the attack. However, without exception, reconciliation of religious and scientific beliefs resulted from a modification of the theological perspective, not from a change in science. Acceptance of evolution was an example of the process. Davis credited theologians with a desire to improve the human condition, a direct goal of few professors. He called for cooperation between the priesthood and “professorhood” to better understand and to solve problems of human behavior.

Nearly two decades later, an article by K. F. Mather (1952) addressed the problem of antiscientific thinking. Although critics of science and scientific methods had been around for centuries, Mather argued, the conflict between evolution and religion in the 19th century gave rise to an antiscience attitude among much of the population that continued into the 1950s (Mather 1952). Mechanistic and materialistic methods of science appeared to reduce the status of man and could be blamed for a lapse in moral principles and ethical standards. Mather saw the solution as more, not less, science. The potential for nuclear war and the dangers of overpopulation were issues that engendered antiscience attitudes. Scientists needed the courage to publicly counter the antiscience arguments, although to do so could result in branding as anti-American by some of the active an-tiscience organizations. Like Smith (1923) and other scientists before him, Mather argued that education was essential for life in a free society.

In “Avenues of Service,” Bernard E. Schaar (1953) described some of the professional duties and responsibilities of chemists. Schaar quoted a 1925 editorial from the Chemical Bulletin in which wider distribution of knowledge was seen as a counter to an illiberal spirit including censorship, the Eighteenth Amendment, the Ku Klux Klan, and the antievolution movement (Schaar 1953). Schaar took encouragement from the waning of dispute between science and religion over evolution. He considered the controversy “largely abated” and saw progress on other social fronts as well. Science transcended international borders, and in nations that allowed science to progress, there was also social progress. Schaar concluded that scientists and engineers have a responsibility to share knowledge and to educate the public.

A review by C. I. Reed of Ray Ginger's Six Days or Forever? Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes suggested that, from the per-spective of a third of a century, everyone involved with the trial behaved badly (Reed 1958). The spectacle was a made-up affair that reflected the feelings of the time. Many states enacted restrictive laws, and in Tennessee, several legislators voted for the antievolution law, expecting a veto from the governor; however, the governor refused. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was looking for a test case, and Scopes's guilt was assured. The effect on those teaching biology was chilling. Reed urged scientists to read the book as a reminder not to let antievolutionism creep back into the classroom. Promising potential scientists had avoided a career in science because of the atmosphere created by the trial.

New legal challenges and the birth of intelligent design: 1961–2000

Science and The Scientific Monthly merged operations in 1958. Editorial policy changes produced more news articles and comments. Evolution and creation remained important issues. In the next four decades, 120 references to the controversy appeared, addressing three major legal challenges to the teaching of evolution, and the introduction of the concept of intelligent design.

Rather than attempting to prevent teaching of evolution, creationists started to demand equal time. At least 11 states had laws proposed with variations on that theme. Creationists urged the adoption of texts that included creationist materials, and requested that, if evolution was presented, creationism be given equal time (Wade 1972). The dispute began 10 years earlier when two housewives, concerned that their children would be confused by the evolutionary perspective at school and the biblical teaching at home, began a movement to have the California State Board of Education change the textbooks. The Creation Research Society, with members who included scientists with doubts about evolution, got involved, and a private citizen offered new science guidelines that included creationism as an alternative to the science guidelines used by the board. The board accepted the revisions, over the objection of scientific advisors. The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) supported the new guidelines.

The first high school text written by a practicing biologist was by Alfred C. Kinsey, of Indiana University, in 1926 (Grabiner and Miller 1974). The first edition had explicit definitions of evolution and Darwin; later editions removed or reduced such references. In the early 1930s, several texts included descriptions of evolution, but most of them included little direct coverage of evolutionary theory. Russian scientific advances of the late 1950s prompted a new look at teaching science. The development of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study texts, with explicit descriptions of evolution and its implications, brought the issue before the public. Significant resistance to teaching evolution remained, and Grabiner and Miller (1974) blamed the community of professional scientists for failing to pay attention to what was happening to high school science.

The California creationist suit was expected to be a replay of the Scopes trial, but the focus was drastically narrowed by the creationist lawyers (Broad 1981a). California Board of Education guidance to school boards was found to be unclear and did not communicate the “undogmatic” intent of the guidelines. The creationists felt this was enough of a victory and stopped the case.

Louisiana passed a law requiring creation science be presented when Darwin's theory was described (Broad 1981b). Governor David C. Treen signed the bill, saying he had some reservations but felt that academic freedom could not be harmed by inclusion, only by exclusion, of different points of view. Governor Treen reported getting letters from both sides of the issue from the biology department of his own university, Tulane. Arkansas passed a new law in March, with little discussion. Louisiana's bill had been vigorously debated by scientists, creationists, and the press. The ACLU brought suit in Arkansas and was considering a similar suit in Louisiana. In California, evolution was attacked as a religion; in Louisiana, creationism was considered science (Broad 1981b). In each case, the creationists' effort was to put creation and evolution on the same footing.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) met separately to develop responses to the two state bills prohibiting the teaching of evolution without teaching creationism (Lewin 1981a). The NAS group agreed to put together a booklet explaining evolution in layman's terms. The NABT agreed on a booklet specifically responding to creationists' arguments. Both groups recognized that they were facing a political, not a scientific problem. Eugenie Scott, then of the University of Kentucky, described a local effort to change the policy of a school board near Lexington. Both the creationists and the evolutionists used a localaction approach to convince the school board. The evolutionists won by a vote of three to two. Such local actions would be required to counteract the creationist activities (Lewin 1981a).

The ACLU, supported by both the NAS and AAAS, charged that the Arkansas law violated the separation of church and state (Lewin 1981b). First, creationism was not science, but religion. Second, academic freedom was infringed by the law. Finally, the statute was unconstitutionally vague, not giving fair notice of what could and could not be taught. The ACLU filed a federal suit because of constitutional issues and the belief that a state judge would be likely to feel strong local pressure because of the emotions surrounding passage of the bill. The law was to be defended by the state attorney general, Steve Clark, who declined the offer of help from the ICR's lawyer Wendell Bird (Lewin 1981b).

In contrast to the Scopes trial, the nine-day event was formal and low-key (Lewin 1982a). Along with the ACLU, plaintiffs included bishops, preachers, and ministers—religious people who saw the act as threatening rather than enhancing religion. As the trial progressed, Attorney General Clark was criticized by the law's supporters, including television evangelist Pat Robertson, who accused Clark of collusion with the ACLU. Later, Jerry Falwell and the Creation Science Legal Defense Fund of Arkansas joined the criticism.

The ACLU brought several top scientists to present its case, including the evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala; Brent Dalrymple from the US Geological Survey; Harold Morowitz, a biophysicist; and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Each testified that evolutionary theory was scientific and that creation science was not. Local schoolteachers, brought in to describe efforts to draw up a creation science unit for instruction, testified that they could find no science to put in the unit.

The defense called six science witnesses. Their credibility was damaged when one declared UFOs to be agents of Satan and another discussed other satanic and demonic issues. A physicist associated with Oak Ridge National Laboratory ended testimony with “4 hours of excruciating detail” about an anomalous result in radiometric dating that Dalrymple described as “a tiny mystery” (Lewin 1982a).

A meeting of the AAAS featured all-day sessions on evolution, with much discussion of the creationist–evolutionist controversy (Walsh 1982). A resolution was passed against “forced teaching of creationist beliefs in public school science education” (Borras 1982). Judge William Overton's ruling, decisively against the creationists, had just been announced (Lewin 1982b); the AAAS executive officer, William D. Carey, issued a statement on behalf of the association welcoming the ruling. Judge Overton found that the law violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The law failed the three legal tests defined in the 1971 US Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman: It was closely identified with the fundamentalist viewpoint, its prime motivation was promotion of Christianity, and the sponsor of the bill was motivated by religious concerns.

During the trial, the defense argued that the act should be judged on content, not on the motives of its supporters (Lewin 1982a). The judge found that the act failed under this test also; the act was intended to advance a particular religion. Creation science did not meet the criteria to be considered science—it offered no power of explanation. Finally, the act would require the state to become involved in religious decisions in setting curriculum, clearly prohibited by the First Amendment.

A paper from The Yale Law Review by the creationist lawyer Wendell Bird, presented as evidence that evolution could be considered religion, was rejected. Judge Overton called it “a student note.” The defense claimed that the public school curriculum should reflect what the public wanted to be taught. Overton said that the First Amendment was not based on public opinion or majority vote. In an unprecedented response, Science published the entire text of Judge Overton's ruling, 10 journal pages (Overton 1982).

The ACLU challenged the creationist law in Louisiana (Lewin 1982a). The many suits and motions filed made the process more complicated than in the Arkansas case, but the ACLU hoped for a summary judgment without a trial. After a complex series of legal actions, the case reached the US Supreme Court (Norman 1986). In the one-hour hearing on 10 December 1986, Bird, the attorney for Louisiana, claimed that the law expanded students' academic freedom to hear additional evidence of origins, and that although some supporters were religious, that was not a primary purpose of the law. Jay Topkis, of the ACLU, said that the legislative history of the law demonstrated its religious motivation (Lewin 1987).

The Supreme Court, by a vote of seven to two, ruled that the law promoted religion and was therefore unconstitutional (Norman 1987). Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, contending that the case had not received a full hearing and should be sent back to the appeals court. The decision was expected to put an end to the six-year legal battle.

Creationists began new projects to take their case to state legislatures in several states, including Ohio, Tennessee, and Georgia (Schmidt 1996). Rather than asking for the teaching of the Genesis account, they asked for time to present the “scientific evidence against evolution.” The basis for the change in strategy was the dissent of Justice Scalia in the Louisiana case, Edwards v. Aguillard. Scalia had written that the fundamentalists were entitled to have evidence against evolution presented in their schools. Creationists developed new terminology including “abrupt appearance” and “intelligent design” to describe their positions. Scalia apparently believed there was serious debate within the scientific community concerning evolution. Francisco Ayala, of the University of California, Irvine, said that scientists were doing a “miserable job” in schools and in educating the public. Ayala and others planned to update the NAS booklet Science and Creationism (http://books.nap.edu/html/creationism/index.html). Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), cautioned individual scientists against debating creationists, and others who had tried to do so agreed (Schmidt 1996).

Pope John Paul II issued a statement supporting evolution (Holden 1996). As early as 1950, the Vatican had considered evolution a “serious hypothesis.” Catholic scientists welcomed the pope's announcement, although for some time, Catholic schools had taught that evolutionary theory need not conflict with church dogma. The church's position allowed human origin from living material, but the spiritual soul was seen as created by God.

Both the NAS and AAAS began projects promoting communications between science and religion (Easterbrook 1997). In a poll by Edward Larson of the University of Georgia, about 40 percent of working physicists and biologists claimed to have strong spiritual beliefs. Ayala, the leader of the AAAS project, said it was important to dispel the common perspective that science faculty would attempt to destroy students' religious beliefs. Many confrontations between science and spirituality could be traced to creationism, which had been rejected by many of the mainstream religions. Alan Dressler, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution in Pasadena, said that the antiscience mood in the country was the result of a perception that science had become inhuman and venerated meaninglessness. This report prompted more than 70 letters to the editor (Fletcher et al. 1997). Of the small number published, responses ranged from complete support of a dialogue between science and religion to dismay that the topic was even covered.

The Kansas Board of Education voted to eliminate references to evolution, hints at the great age of the earth, and some cosmological theories from statewide science teaching standards in August 1999. The governor called it an “embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist,” and college and university presidents warned that it would set back science teaching in the state (Holden 1999b). The creationists behind the move attempted to limit science to falsifiability—disproving one thing (evolution) proves the other (creation).

America’s Difficulty with Darwin

Thomas Dixon


Does anything still need to be said about Charles Darwin, two hundred years after his birth and a hundred and fifty years after the publication of his world-changing book, On the Origin of Species? There does not seem to be any danger of the world forgetting who Darwin was, or how his theory of evolution by natural selection permanently altered our understanding of the history of life and our place in it. Many of us even carry miniature reproductions of the great evolutionist around with us in our pockets: an iconic image of Darwin, looking like a cross between Socrates and Moses, is printed on the reverse of every ten pound note. Darwin has not been forgotten. But he has, in some respects, been misremembered. That has certainly been true when it comes to the relationship between his theory and religion.

Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of enthusiasm for the idea of a conflict between Darwin and God. Battle has been joined with equal vigour by scientific atheists and religious fundamentalists. To imagine, however, that skirmishes between Richard Dawkins and religious anti-Darwinists are just the latest phase of an age-old warfare between science and religion would be a mistake. Creationism, and its most recent variation, ‘Intelligent Design’, are not a throw-back to the Middle Ages, nor are they evidence of some general and timeless antagonism between faith and reason. Rather, they are the products of a particular place and a particular time: the United States of America since the end of the Second World War. But before we examine the peculiarly American religious response to Darwin in more detail, let us return briefly to 1859.

Charles Darwin himself hated religious controversy. Apart from anything else, it exacerbated his chronic bowel problems. At a more cerebral level, it shed little light on the scientific questions that most fascinated him. He was driven by a passion for understanding beetles and barnacles, not the Bible. His wife’s religious beliefs also had to be handled gently: the issue of her faith and his doubts was a sensitive one throughout their marriage. Religious controversy would also, Darwin knew, be inimical to the acceptance of his ideas within the scientific establishment. For all these reasons, he did his utmost, when he published On the Origin of Species, to present his theory of evolution as an idea that was compatible with belief in God.

We can, thanks to the labours of a group of Darwin scholars at Cambridge University who have made Darwin’s complete works available online, try to recreate the experience of Victorian readers as they opened On the Origin of Species for the first time. Having admired the gold lettering on the dark green cloth cover of the book, and turned passed the title page, the first words we read are two epigraphs about God. One is a statement by the Anglican clergyman and philosopher William Whewell, to the effect that God does not act by constant miracles but ‘by the establishment of general laws’. The second is an aphorism from the seventeenth-century philosopher and scientific pioneer, Francis Bacon, suggesting that true understanding must be sought both in the book of God’s word and in the book of God’s works: in both scripture and nature. At the foot of the page are the words: ‘Down, Bromley, Kent, October 1st, 1859.’ Down House was Darwin’s home, a rural retreat where he conducted experiments and constructed theories over a period of forty years. The message from Bromley was clear. This book, the work of a respectable gentleman naturalist, was not a manifesto for atheism. Darwin had read the book of nature and found God therein, acting through the laws of variation and natural selection.

Turning to the closing pages of the Origin of Species, we find the same message restated. Darwin wrote that ‘it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes… When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.’ In the famous final sentence of the book, Darwin concluded: ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ From the second edition of 1860 onwards, Darwin altered the phrase ‘breathed into a few forms or into one’ to ‘breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one’. God was there on the first page of the Origin, and also on the last.

But there were nonetheless those who were troubled by the theological implications of the Darwinian view of nature, including Darwin himself, who, in private, was prepared to be more open about his religious doubts. In a letter written late in his life (one of thousands that can now be read online thanks to the Darwin Correspondence Project), he wrote that on religious questions his judgment was subject to fluctuation: ‘I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older), but not always, – that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.’

Whatever Darwin’s own doubts, by 1882 most believers seemed to have got over the initial shock of his theories. Although there were plenty of religious worries about evolution, and a famous spat between Darwin’s friend Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford in 1860, by the time Darwin died, his theory had been accepted by the scientific establishment and was well on the way to being accepted by the Church too. Darwin was granted the honour of a funeral in Westminster Abbey, and the sermon by the reverend Frederick Farrar assured the assembled dignitaries that Darwin’s theory posed no threat to belief in God. Farrar took as his text a passage from the Bible describing the wisdom of Solomon, which he applied to Darwin: ‘He spake of trees, from the cedar-tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.’ The work of this great man of science, Farrar said, had enabled people to read ‘many hitherto undeciphered lines in God’s great epic of the universe’.

Religious believers seemed to have come to terms with Darwinism by the end of the nineteenth century. Why, then, do opinion polls in modern America routinely find that about half of the population deny the truth of Darwin’s theory and believe, instead, that human beings were created supernaturally by God at some point within the last few thousand years? The answer to that question lies in the unique political and constitutional history of the United States. Creationism became a popular movement there thanks to a particular historic religious culture, in combination with changing interpretations of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Many of the European settlers who arrived in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were fleeing religious persecution. Prominent among these were non-conformist Protestants, whose Christian faith, unlike that of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, gave primacy to the relationship of the individual believer with God, and to the reading of the Bible. The intense faith of these Puritans, Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists gave the British colonies in America, which after 1776 became the United States of America, a distinctive religious culture.

The most significant political doctrine that arose from this culture was the need for a strict separation between Church and state. In a country with so many various and passionately committed religious groupings, it was imperative that the state was not seen to support one over the others. The idea of a national or established Church was anathema to the Founding Fathers. It was for this reason that the First Amendment to the US Constitution forbade Congress from passing any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion.’ The First Amendment, which Thomas Jefferson hoped would build a ‘wall of separation between Church and state’, was not intended to create a secular country – far from it – but rather to prevent the state from favouring any one religion over another.

Although some individual states initially had their own established churches, the last of these (the Congregationalist Church of Massachusetts) was disestablished in 1833. By the beginning of the twentieth century the doctrine of the separation of Church and state had also led to religious instruction being banned from publicly funded schools in many states. Again, the motivation was to prevent one denomination imposing its version of Christianity on others, not to produce religiously ignorant children. It was believed that religious instruction would take place at home and at Sunday school.

It was this distinctively American attempt to solve the problem of inter-denominational religious strife that led directly to the confrontation between Darwinism and creationism in the later twentieth century.

The first sign of trouble came in 1925 in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. Tennessee was one of several states to pass a law banning the teaching of evolution in their public schools in the 1920s. A local schoolteacher, John Scopes, volunteered to take part in a test case that the American Civil Liberties Union hoped would result in anti-evolution laws being declared unconstitutional. But that was not quite what happened. What did take place was an internationally reported bonanza of evolutionary and religious debate in Dayton during the summer of 1925. The sensational ‘Monkey Trial’, the first to be broadcast on national radio, also provided a platform for one of the most famous politicians of the day, William Jennings Bryan, who came to Dayton to lead the prosecution case against Scopes.

Bryan had run three times for President as the Democratic Party candidate. On each occasion he was unsuccessful, but he became known as ‘the Great Commoner’ as a result of his determination to speak for the normal working people of America. In the case of the Scopes trial, Bryan spoke as the leader of the Christian ‘fundamentalist’ movement, which had come into existence in the wake of the First World War, to protect America’s Christian culture from erosion by the forces of modernism. What Bryan and his supporters objected to was not the fact that science was taught in the public schools, but that a view widely perceived as materialistic and anti-religious could be taught in the very same classrooms from which all religious instruction had been banned. American parents in the 1920s objected to their children returning from school talking like ‘little atheists’ about the animal ancestry of humanity, but without any knowledge of the fundamentals of Christianity.

The fundamentalists won at Dayton in 1925. Scopes was duly convicted and, although the conviction was later overturned on a technicality, the anti-evolution law remained on the statute book. Evolution was quietly dropped from most American science curricula, and the debate about Darwinism receded into the background for a time. But when it re-emerged it did so with renewed vigour and acrimony.

By the 1960s, the situation had become more polarised. The representatives of traditional biblical faith felt under attack. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1947 that the First Amendment separation of church and state applied to individual state governments as well as to Congress. This meant that wherever biblical instruction had persisted in public schools, it now had to be removed. It also led to the banning of such things as public prayers in schools, or the posting of the Ten Commandments on classroom walls. At the same time, the surprise success of the Russian space programme, with the first Sputnik mission being launched in 1957, led to a national panic over American scientific standards from school level upwards. The post-Scopes settlement could no longer be tolerated.

The American courts started to look again at anti-evolution laws that had been put on state statute books in the Scopes era. In 1968 a case brought by a young Arkansas biology teacher, Susan Epperson, finally made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favour of Epperson and against the Arkansas law, declaring that it was in violation of the First Amendment because ‘fundamentalist sectarian conviction was and is the law’s reason for existence’.

The decision of the Supreme Court to adopt a much more strictly separatist, as opposed to non-denominational, interpretation of the First Amendment, and to apply this at the state as well as the federal level, led to a deep cultural divide. The Court was acting in direct opposition to the wishes of that large swathe of the American electorate who continued to follow William Jennings Bryan in wanting children’s religious beliefs to be protected by the state. Like Bryan half a century earlier, these American parents saw the theory of evolution as both cause and symbol of a wide range of modern, secular social ills. One creationist image of the 1970s entitled ‘The Evolution Tree’ graphically represented this view. It showed a tree, whose roots were fed by unbelief and sin, with a trunk representing the theory of evolution, and bearing many and various fruits including abortion, drugs, alcohol, relativism, ‘dirty books’, ‘hard rock’, and even terrorism. The axe trying to cut down the tree was called ‘Scientific Creationism.’

The route from these developments in the 1960s and 1970s to recent debates about ‘Intelligent Design’ is a very direct one. If the allegedly anti-Christian theory of Darwinian evolution was going to be taught in public schools, then the fundamentalists were determined they would find a way to get religious instruction into the classroom too. This was a difficult challenge. The whole basis of the problem was the fact that such instruction was no longer allowed. And it was to this problem that ‘Scientific Creationism’ and ‘Intelligent Design’ were the answers. These were both attempts to dress God up in scientific clothing.

Initially, state legislators sympathetic to creationism mandated that there should be equal time devoted in science classes to ‘evolution science’ on the one hand and the alternative theory of ‘creation science’ on the other. The latter did not mention the Bible, but asserted a separate ancestry for man and apes, a ‘relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds’, and an explanation of geology by ‘catastrophism, including a worldwide flood’. Laws such as these were passed by various states in the 1970s and 1980s. But they did not survive long. The Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that the purpose of such laws was to ‘advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind’ and that they therefore contravened the First Amendment.

The idea of ‘Intelligent Design’, dreamed up by a lawyer, Phillip E. Johnson, and a biochemist, Michael Behe, in the 1990s, was the latest answer to the problem of how to get God back into the American classroom. The theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ states that some complex biochemical structures must have been intelligently designed because they could not have evolved by variation and natural selection alone. Like ‘Scientific Creationism’, this has been presented as an alternative theory to Darwinism which should be taught alongside evolution in science classes in a ‘balanced’ way. But it did not take the courts long to see through this. In a landmark case in Pennsylvania in 2005, Judge John E. Jones ruled that the Dover Area School Board’s policy of requiring biology teachers to read out a statement about ‘Intelligent Design’ in a science class was religiously motivated, and thus in breach of the First Amendment. The original decision of the board to adopt this policy, Jones commented, showed ‘breathtaking inanity’.

In the school board elections in Dover, Pennsylvania that took place in the wake of Jones’s ruling, all eight members of the board who had adopted the controversial policy were defeated. This provides an interesting echo of a comment made eighty years earlier by the tub-thumping fundamentalist Democrat, William Jennings Bryan. He had seen that the central question at issue in the Scopes trial was not the relationship between science and religion but rather, ‘Who shall control our public schools?’ Bryan’s answer was that it should not be an unaccountable intellectual elite, but rather the taxpayers themselves. If people wished their children to be taught the Bible in school, Bryan argued, then that is what they should be taught. He went on to predict that ‘school board elections may become the most important elections held, for parents are much more interested in their children and in their children’s religion than they are in any political policies.’ Judging from the Dover case (and from the distinct lack of interest in creationism displayed either by the new President of the United States, Barack Obama, or by his defeated rival, John McCain), the democratic process, with the support of the Supreme Court, will continue to keep religiously motivated anti-Darwinism out of American science classes.

In 1925, the British press reported the Scopes trial in a tone of amused detachment and superiority. The general view was that such a thing could only happen in America. What British journalists in the 1920s had in mind was the supposed cultural backwardness of some American rural communities (the evolution question had, after all, been answered in the affirmative many decades earlier in England) and also the showmanship and consumerism associated with the carnival surrounding the trial. Although this explanation might have served to reassure British readers of their intellectual superiority, the real reasons why such things only happened in America were deeper-lying historical differences.

Britain possessed none of the necessary ingredients for an American-style clash between Darwinism and creationism. The problem of inter-denominational rivalry had never arisen in the same way, thanks to the supremacy of the Church of England, which ruled over religious matters through Parliament and the press with a mixture of condescension and toleration. The Anglican religion had also always been characterised by a certain rationalism and doctrinal latitude that was less prevalent among the non-conformists of America. Fundamentalist Christianity, which took off in America in the wake of the First World War, never became a popular movement in Britain. Here religion was practised by a smaller proportion of the population, and then with less fire, less intensity, and with a less literalist approach to the Bible. But the most important difference came in the sphere of education. This whole debate, after all, has always been about what should be taught in American schools. Religious instruction, far from being banned from the British classroom, was always a mandatory part of the curriculum in publicly funded schools in this country, from the establishment of the first state schools by the 1870 Education Act onwards. There was never any danger that parents here would feel that their children were not being taught about religion. In fact, the only concessions the state had to make to British parents during the twentieth century were the replacement of exclusively Christian instruction and worship in schools by a more multi-faith approach, and allowing parents the option of withdrawing their children from the religious instruction that schools are required to provide.

The moral of the story of the American conflict between Darwinism and creationism is twofold. First, it alerts us to the fact that conflicts of ideas are rarely merely intellectual. If there were some essential incompatibility between religion and science, it would be felt in the same way in all times and in all places. But it is not. The Constitution and culture of the United States in the twentieth century provided a unique context within which ‘Scientific Creationism’ and ‘Intelligent Design’ could be manufactured, and from which they could subsequently be exported. The second moral is that if the United States wants finally to come to terms with the scientific discoveries of the great Englishman whose anniversaries are being celebrated this year, the best thing they could do is follow the English example and introduce mandatory religious education into their schools.


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