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Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Creationism in the US Education System

Updated on November 12, 2015

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Creationism in the Education System

Since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been a relatively continuous controversy between those who endorse evolution and those who favor more faith-based explanations on the origins of life.

Before my essay officially begins, it will be helpful to give an overview of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. In biology, evolution is the theory that all living things have descended with modification from a common ancestor or ancestors. Creationist’s, on the other hand, believe that the origin of life is described in the bible. There are many different types of creationists. Some accept the literal six day creation as described in genesis (young earth creationists), while others accept that the earth is old but believe god has been somehow involved (old earth creationists). There are many other branches of creationism, such as flat earther’s, geocentric’s, gap creationists, day-age creationists, and progressive creationists. Intelligent design is essentially a manifestation of creationism under a new name, which allows religious practitioners to challenge evolution from a “scientific” standpoint. Though Intelligent Designers make no mention of a “god”, they claim that life, or the world, could not have arisen by chance and was created by some intelligent entity. One article says actually names this ‘intelligent design creationism’ to emphasize the congruent relationship between the two.

This essay will focus on the dispute of which theory belongs in science classrooms. I will address the most popular creationist and intelligent design arguments against evolution, and show how they are unscientific and illogical. I will then briefly describe what I personally feel is the most significant evidence of why evolution is true. This paper will ultimately conclude that evolution belongs in every high school science class curriculum. However, creationism and intelligent design are still supported by many people, and they answer different but just as important questions. For this reason, perhaps creationism and intelligent design belong in a philosophy or religious studies curriculum instead of a science classroom.

I should now say a few things about “truth” and “theory”. It is important to recognize what truth means in science. It does not mean that something has no possibility of being false. Evolution is falsifiable, and there are gaps in the evidence (namely, that in order to completely verify evolution, one would have to firsthand witness billions of years of life). Evolution is true because of the immense amount of evidence in its favor, coming from an overwhelming number of sources, and because there is very little evidence against it. Chapter one, of the book Evolution vs Creationism, states that “The word ‘theory’ is perhaps the most misunderstood word in science”. The National Academy of Sciences defines theory as “...a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses”.

Until Darwin published his studies in 1859, creationism had never been successfully challenged. After Darwin’s theory of descent with modification (or evolution) emerged, creationists have become innovative and clever in their own defense. The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) is a leader in combatting the theory of evolution. The ‘about me’ section of their website says “For over four decades, the Institute for Creation Research has equipped believers with evidence of the Bible's accuracy and authority through scientific research, educational programs, and media presentations, all conducted within a thoroughly biblical framework”. This is interesting, because usually creationists follow the word of the bible, and do not use scientific evidence, but the ICR clearly states that they attempt to prove the bibles scientific accuracy. There are a number of ways in which creationists attempt to scientifically challenge the theory of evolution. The most widely acknowledged and often endorsed criticism is referred to as the “Missing Link”. John D. Morris is a leading creationist researcher who earned his doctorate in Geological Engineering from the University of Oklahoma. He is now the President of the ICR, and published an article titled “Whats a Missing Link?”. This article says “For instance, dogs and bears are thought to be evolutionary cousins, related to each other through a missing link...” and proceeds to say “If you still don't know what a missing link is, don't worry. No one knows what a missing link is, because they are missing!”. When creationists talk about a “missing link”, they are referring to the supposed gap between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. However, quite simple logic can prove that the entire “missing link” criticism is, for lack of a better word, stupid. This criticism just proves that creationists do not understand the basics of evolutionary biology.

The “missing link” theory is accepted as proof by many people of evolutions faults. Richard Dawkins is an eminent evolutionary biologist and professor at Oxford University who is particularly eager to debunk the “missing link” criticism. In his recent book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Dawkins devotes an entire chapter to the “missing link” controversy. Dawkins says that “History-deniers, to this day, are very fond of saying, in what they imagine is a taunting tone of voice: 'But you still haven't found the missing link'...”. He shows how creationists use the “missing link” as a last resort, and a desperate attempt to discredit evolution. Dawkins explains simply and comprehensibly why there could not possibly be a “missing link” ever discovered. His explanation is so perfect and important that a long quote is necessary:

“ animal gives birth to an instant new species, or at least not one as different from itself as a man is from a monkey, or even from a chimpanzee. That isn't what evolution is about. Evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual if it is to do any explanatory work. Huge leaps in a single generation - which is what a monkey giving birth to a human would be - are almost as unlikely as divine creation, and are ruled out for the same reason: too statistically improbable”

In this brilliant explanation, Dawkins shows why a “missing link” is completely impossible, and therefor is totally irrelevant. A species will evolve slowly over a long period of time, experiencing almost unnoticeable changes from parent to offspring. For example, imagine you have species 1 and species 2. The species 1 evolved into the species 2, but when did a species 1 actually become a species 2? One day, a member of species 1 gave birth, and the offspring finally looked different enough from the original member in the species, that it could be named species 2. This is why a “missing link” is an impossible idea. The most accepted of evolution is just wrong, illogical, and ignorant.

One of the main challenged to evolution proposed by intelligent design followers is the idea of irreducible complexity. This is essentially the idea that some structures are too intricate to have evolved naturally. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins simplifies the intelligent design argument, and shows how backwards the thinking is:

“The logic turns out to be no more convincing than this: ‘I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed’”

Just because a normal person cannot figure out the science behind the evolution of certain structure, does not mean that there is no explanation, and it definitely does not prove that there is a creator. Michael Behe coined the phrase ‘irreducibly complex’ in 1996, and he happens to be the leading thinker behind the intelligent design movement. Among many examples, his most widely known illustration of irreducible complexity is the bacterial flagellum motor. Dawkins describes the structure in his book The Ancestors Tale, saying “The bacterial flagellum is attached to a shaft that rotates freely and indefinitely in a hole that runs through the cell wall. This is a true axle, a freely rotating hub”. The key to showing how the irriducible complexity of a structure, according to Behe, is to show that none of the parts could be useful on their own, and therefore all the pieces had to be put in place at one time in order for the structure to function. Actually, Richard Dawkins points out, scientists have proven that “...crucial components of the flagellar motor were already in place and working before the flagellar motor evolved”. This is evidence that the bacterial flagellum is not irreducibly complex. Simply because Michael Behe, or anyone at that matter, thinks a structure is extremely complex, does not mean it has not evolved over time. Dawkins describes the main process of thinking behind intelligent design wonderfully and humorously: “Here is the message that an imaginary ‘intelligent design theorist’ might broadcast to scientists: ‘If you don’t understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it”.

There are several other ways that intelligent design theorists try to prove irreducible complexity. Sometimes they will examine the complexity of a wrist watch to show exactly what they mean by ‘intelligent design’. When looking at a wrist watch, it is clear that there was a creator who put many pieces together and formed something that he/she had in mind. There is no way a wrist watch could be formed by evolution. The intelligent design theorists apply this same principle to other complex structures in life, like the previous bacterial flagellum example. Richard Dawkins actually published a book addressing the ‘watchmaker’ idea called The Blind Watchmaker: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design. I will not go into detail about how Dawkins refutes the ‘watchmaker’ idea, but perhaps this brief quote can descrbe the overall message of his book:

“...the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind”

This shows how absurd it would be to use the complexity of a watch as proof that there is a creator. The only ‘watchmaker’ on earth is natural selection, and perhaps a better name would be ‘the blind watchmaker’. It appears that intelligent design has no scientific evidence backing it what-so-ever.

According to Richard Dawkins, the argument over the existence of evolution has been long deceased, leaving us only to debate its scientific components. Dawkins mentions that “Nowadays, it is no longer possible to dispute the fact of evolution itself…but it could still (just) be doubted that natural selection is its major driving force”. Perhaps the simplest, and most convincing evidence that life has descended with modification from common ancestors is the fossil record, which shows a progression in appearance of higher ordered animals through time, beginning with bacteria three and a half billion years ago, continuing on to multicellular forms a little over two billion years ago, and complex animal life five or six hundred million years ago. Richard Dawkins would agree, saying “...if we had only fossils and no other evidence, the fact of evolution would again be overwhelmingly supported”. Fossils are found in different layers of earth, and the different layers date back to different times. In this sense, basing the archeological discoveries on what scientists know about evolution, scientists can predict what fossils they might find in certain layers of the earth. Dawkins says that

“...however small the proportion fossilized, there are certain things about the fossil record that any evolutionist should expect to be true. We should be very surprised, for example, to find fossil humans appearing in the record before mammals are supposed to have evolved! If a single, well-verified mammal skull were to turn up in 500 million year-old rocks, our whole modern theory of evolution would be utterly destroyed”.

All archeological findings to date act to confirm our understanding of the evolutionary timeline. The fossil record, on its own, is good evidence life descended from common ancestry.

Personally, what I find most convincing of evolution and the common ancestry of all living things is the existence of vestigial structures in certain organisms. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a vestige is defined as “the last small part that remains of something that existed before”. Keeping the general definition in mind, the biological definition is “A part or organ of an organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution”. It is helpful to have both the biological and the general definition of vestige in order to fully grasp the idea. Richard Dawkins, like myself, believes vestigial structures are great evidence of evolution. Dawkins describes the sensation of goose bumps in humans as a perfect example. Our hominid ancestors were much hairier than the modern humans, and the goose bumps would cause their hair to stand upright. This would act as extra insulation in cold weather, or make them seem larger when threatened by a predator. We can easily observe other animals using the same goose bump tactic in a similar way. When animals (such as a dog) get goose bumps, we see their hair standing up, most likely to seem larger when they are afraid, or to puff up their fur when they are cold. Humans still get goose bumps today when we are feeling cold or somehow emotional (like right after watching an inspirational video on YouTube), except we have no hair to puff up to scare off predators, and we have no need for extra puffy warmth since we wear clothes. It seems reasonable to assume this is a vestigial trait left over from when our ancestors had hair covering their bodies.

In the 2008 book Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin presents a compelling argument for why hiccups in humans are further evidence of our evolutionary history. This example goes much deeper into our ancestry than the previous goose bump example. He explains that a hiccup is almost exactly the same process that amphibians use to breathe underwater: a sudden intake of water, which passes through the gills, while rapidly closing the glottis so as to not allow water into the lungs. Neil Shubin looks at tadpoles, who use lungs and gills to breath, for evidence. He says that “The parallels between our hiccups and gill breathing in tadpoles are so extensive that many have proposed that the two phenomena are one in the same”. This would be a very strange trait for a species that cannot breathe underwater. The only plausible explanation for both its lack of usefulness to humans, and its striking similarity to an action undertaken by amphibians, is that we inherited the hiccups from a common ancestor. Other examples of vestiges abound: wings on flightless birds, eyes on sightless salamanders, the human appendix, and the list continues. In each case, it is hard to come up with another explanation besides evolution.

If science cannot rule out an omnipotent creator, it can at least go as far as to say that if there is a creator, it created things exactly according to the process of natural selection, and thus, scientists can go on functioning as if there is no creator. Evolution is true, or at least as true as could ever be reasonably expected.

The American biochemist and author Isaac Asimov wrote an article titled “The Relativity of Wrong”, in which he talks about truth in science. He states “Since refinements in theory grow smaller and smaller, even quite ancient theories must have been sufficiently right to allow advances to be made; advances that were not wiped out by subsequent refinements”. His point is that even though theories are adjusted over time, this does not mean they should be disregarded in their current state. He concludes by saying all theories are incomplete, and steadily gaining more accuracy. This is helpful in understanding why evolution needs to be taught in schools. Just because there are some questions that remain to be answered in evolution, it does not mean the theory is bunk- actually its quite the opposite. Evolution is a theory which has stood its ground against ample criticism, challenges, and testing. This is currently the best theory based immense amounts of evidence coming from the most legitimate sources all over the world. There will always be new questions, but that does not effect the legitimacy of the current theory.

Though it appears evolution is the theory which belongs in science classrooms, I must give proper consideration to other viewpoints on the dilemma. Creationist’s and intelligent design supporters present some reasons why their ideas should be offered in science classrooms as well. First off, the demand for intelligent design and creation education is high, especially in the United States. Since they lack any scientific evidence,perhaps their best argument is that they have a large public support basis. Gallup, a research organization, published the results of a survey in 2012 which revealed the beliefs of Americans in regards to evolution versus creationism. The survey indicated that 46% of americans believe god created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. 32% of people believed humans evolved, but with gods guidance. Shockingly only 15% accept that humans evolved and god had no part in the process. These results should be an indication that although evolution seems undeniable to those who endorse it, many people still support either creationism or some manifestation of intelligent design.

A different survey done by CBS News in 2004 indicated that 65% of Americans wanted both evolution and creationism taught in school, and a stunning 37% wanted evolution completely replaced by creationism. Although evolution is accepted as truth buy almost all scientists, is it wrong to totally disregard the vast amount of people who believe in creationism or intelligent design? Should people be forced to learn something they are not willing to accept?

The argument presented above is convincing, but simply because a large amount of people believe in something, doesn't make it right. We should also remember that the wording of questions effects the answer. An article titled “Polls Apart on Human Origins” looks at how the wording of survey questions can yield different results. The article recognizes that most surveys “...seem to indicate that the American public long ago made its mind up about the fundamental question of human origins, and that it was not likely to change that mind any time soon”, meaning that most Americans seem to be stuck in deeply rooted beliefs of some sort of creationism. The author concludes by stating that actually:

“...depending on the wording of the question the percentage of apparent biblical creationists can vary from as little as 42 percent to as high as 64 percent; the percentage of theistic evolutionists or believers in ‘intelligent design’ form as much as 41 percent to as little as 10-18 percent...”

So perhaps the claim that creationism and intelligent design have a lot of supporters is not quite as truthful as we would originally believe. Since not all surveys contain the same exact questions, how can we trust any single set of results? With that much variation in findings, the surveys do not really help the creationist argument. They can be easily dismissed as inconsistent.

Creationism is an idea which has been popular the past few thousand years, and it appears many people still support it. However, neither creationism or intelligent design should be considered a scientific theory, and they should be kept out of science classrooms. The United States Supreme Court seems to agree. In the 1968 case Epperson v. Arkansas “...the United States Supreme Court invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution”. State politicians are consistently created new bills in attempt to balance the teaching of evolution and intelligent design (“teach the controversy”), but all bills and hearings since 1968 have ended in favor of evolution. This is because science is supposed to be based on evidence not faith. Instead, the topics of creationism and intelligent design are much better suited for a philosophy or history of religion curriculum. I admit that are really interesting ideas that force students to use their imaginations, think critically, and be creative, but students should not be taught to accept them as anything close to scientific truth. Evolution is true because of the immense amount of evidence in its favor, coming from an overwhelming number of sources, and because there is very little evidence against it. Students should learn the truth.

Eugenie C. Scott, The Creation/Evolution Continuum (National Center for Science Education : 2000)

Daniel Engber, Creationism vs Intelligent Design: Is there a difference? ( : 2005)

Science and Creationism: A View From the National Academy of Sciences (National Academy of Sciences : 1999)

Institute for Creation Research, About Us section. (

John Morris, What’s a Missing Link? (Institute for Creation Research : 2006)

Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Free Press : 2010)

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (First Mariner Books : 2008)

Richard Dawkins, The Ancestors Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (First Mariner Books : 2004)

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc : 1987)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online

Oxford Dictionaries Online

Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish: A journey into the 3.5-billion-year history of the human body (First Vintage Books : 2009)

Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong (The Skeptical Inquirer : 1989)

"Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent Design."

"Poll: Creationism Trumps Evolution." CBSNews.

George Bishop, Polls apart on Human Origins ( : 2006)

Ten Significant Court Decisions Regarding Evolution/Creationism (National Center for Science Education : 2007)

Eugenie C. Scott, What’s Wrong with the “Teach the Controversy” Slogan? (National Center for Science Education : 2007)


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