Assaults on Evolution Have Evolved As Well

Religious Opponents of Darwin's Discovery Open New Battles in Schools, Public Arena

By Glenn Branch and Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education
Feb. 15, 2004

Charles Darwin once wrote, only partly in jest, that "it is like confessing a murder" to admit to accepting evolution. So he would probably not have been surprised that even as we celebrated the 195th anniversary of his birth Thursday, his theory of evolution remains a matter of public -- though not scientific -- controversy.

The latest dust-up was in Georgia, where a proposed set of state science standards avoided mentioning evolution altogether. Kathy Cox, the state superintendent of schools, described evolution as "a buzzword that causes a lot of negative reactions." But the reaction to the proposed omission of the e-word was overwhelmingly negative. Former President Jimmy Carter wrote, "As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox's attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia's students." Cox hastily backpedaled, promising to restore evolution to the standards.

But Georgia is just one of several states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio and Texas, where the study of evolution has recently been challenged. California is not immune; in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, a parent recently lobbied, unsuccessfully, for the addition of what he described as evidence against evolution to the high school science curriculum.

Those challenges join a long history of attacks on evolution that started as soon as the British naturalist went public with his thoughts.

Darwin was so sure evolution would disturb society that he hesitated for 20 years to publish his ideas, until he discovered that Alfred Russel Wallace had independently formulated the crucial insight that natural selection is largely responsible for evolution. A paper by the two scientists was delivered to a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858, and Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was published the next year.

Darwin's fears were spot on. Although the scientific community saw "Origin of Species" as a ground-breaking contribution, he was derided in the press, by religious leaders and even by some scientists. But over time, biologists and other scientists made discoveries that bolstered much of his work. Competing scientific theories were proven wrong or, like Mendelian genetics, were discovered to be compatible with Darwin's ideas. These days, almost all scientists accept evolution.

Fight never over

In the American classroom, however, the battle over evolution has never been definitively won. Evolution education seems to follow the path of a sine curve: Every time evolution appears to become firmly implanted in the schools, some religious groups revitalize campaigns to remove evolution from curricula and textbooks. Many anti-evolutionists, called creationists, argue that God made people pretty much as they are today.

Following the scientific consensus, evolution was included in virtually every high school biology textbook by the beginning of the 20th century. But that didn't last long. With the rise of organized fundamentalism around World War I, some state legislatures banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. The most famous statute was Tennessee's Butler Act, under which high school teacher John Thomas Scopes was successfully prosecuted in 1925.

The Scopes trial was a public-relations disaster for creationism. Its champion, William Jennings Bryan, underwent a humiliating examination by Clarence Darrow about his adherence to a literal reading of the Bible. Still, the trial exerted a chilling influence on science education. Under the pressure of legislation, administrative decree and public opinion, evolution quickly disappeared from textbooks and curricula in many states.

The tide turned in the late 1950s, when evolution started to return to curricula as part of a reform in science education spurred by the space race with the Soviet Union. State laws banning the teaching of evolution were gradually repealed. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that laws banning the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional.

Biblical literalists reacted by pressuring teachers, school administrators and textbook publishers to provide "equal time" to creationism. In 1980, advocates of equal time got a boost from Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan, who endorsed teaching creationism when evolution was taught.

But a series of court decisions, culminating in the 1987 Supreme Court case Edwards vs. Aguillard, was fatal to any ambition to have creationism taught in the public schools. That case challenged Louisiana's "Creationism Act," which prohibited the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools except when it was accompanied by instruction in "creation science."

The court ruled that the law was "designed either to promote the theory of creation science that embodies a particular religious tenet or to prohibit the teaching of a scientific theory disfavored by certain religious sects" -- a violation of the First Amendment.

Given those setbacks, creationists have taken a new tack, working to eliminate or at least undermine evolution's place in textbooks and curricula -- as they have been trying to do in Georgia. And their cause has gained strength in recent years.

Recent resurgence

Part of the recent upsurge in anti-evolutionism is due to the continuing activity of traditional creationists. Regarding the creation story of Genesis as perfectly accurate, these "young Earth" creationists have a detailed, though scientifically discredited, model of the universe's history.

They hold that the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old. In contrast, mainstream scientists agree that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, basing their estimate on a variety of sources, including radioisotope dating of rocks. These creationists also hold that the Earth was inundated by Noah's flood (which they claim carved the Grand Canyon in the process), and that all living things were created by God to reproduce "after their kind" -- meaning that humans could not have evolved from other species.

But the main reason for the surge of activity in the anti-evolution movement is that the traditional creationists have been joined by a new breed of creationists, rallying under the flag of "intelligent design," sometimes called "stealth creationism" by its critics.

Advocates of intelligent design disavow any reliance on Genesis, claiming to be proceeding in a strictly scientific manner. Their central claim is that there are biological phenomena that are too complex to be explained by natural causes and therefore must be the products of an intelligent designer. Examples include the bacterial flagellum -- the whiplike structure used by some bacteria to propel themselves -- and the cascading sequence of chemical reactions that causes blood to clot. The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently described intelligent design as scientifically unwarranted.

Still, intelligent design is proving to be a popular way of repackaging anti-evolutionism, largely because it avoids presenting any detailed model of the history of the universe. It offers a "big tent" in which virtually all anti-evolutionists are welcome, regardless of their differing views about the age of the universe and the Earth, the historical nature of Noah's flood, and common descent. (Indeed, Islamic anti-evolutionists in Turkey have boarded the intelligent design bandwagon.)

Mindful of the Supreme Court's decision in Edwards, the advocates of intelligent design are careful to portray it as non-religious. Yet despite allusions to the possibility of extraterrestrial aliens or time travelers, it is clear that the intelligent designer is supposed to be God.

Theory's appeal

Like traditional young-Earth creationism, intelligent design appeals to those who worry about the religious implications of evolution. Yet many denominations -- including the Roman Catholic Church -- accommodate evolution, regarding it as the process through which God creates. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, recently declared, "There is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator."

For the moment, evolution receives reasonably good treatment in every secular high school biology textbook on the market. And as part of the national standards movement, most states have adopted science education standards that require the teaching of evolution. Yet, in the last few years, anti-evolution legislation was introduced in 15 states. Debates involving evolution's place in science standards or textbooks have surfaced in a comparable number of states, and any number of local school districts have experienced their own episodes of the controversy.

Such anti-evolutionist attempts to undermine evolution education have failed, by and large, thanks to the efforts of scientists, teachers, clergy, civil libertarians and parents concerned about the quality of science education. But with about 40 percent of Americans continuing to reject evolution for religious reasons, Darwin's legacy is anything but safe.

GLENN BRANCH and EUGENIE C. SCOTT are deputy director and executive director, respectively, of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, which supports the teaching of evolution. They wrote this article for Perspective.

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