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The Creationism Controversy

Updated on May 5, 2010

In the summer of 1925, dozens of reporters descended on the small town of Dayton, Tenn., to witness an epic clash between fundamentalist Christianity, represented by three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and modern science, defended by the celebrated agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow. The occasion for this Roaring Twenties "media event" was the trial of John T. Scopes, a young high school biology teacher who had deliberately violated a Tennessee law by teaching his students Charles Darwin's theory that humans have evolved from a lower order of animals. As the judge in the case prohibited the jury from considering the constitutionality of the law or the validity of evolutionary theory, Scopes was duly convicted and fined $100. In the long run, however, anti-evolution laws proved an ineffective barrier against the tides of modern intellectual and cultural history. Enforcement slackened, and in 1968 an Arkansas law similar to the one under which Scopes was convicted was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

More than a century after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, however, the controversy it began has reappeared to vex U.S. educators, legislators, and judges. In recent years evolution has once again come under attack from believers in special creation, the idea that existing forms of life were created by God and have remained essentially unchanged. "Creationists" today do not rely simply on the Bible to support their beliefs. Instead, they have mounted a sophisticated two-front assault on their opponents' camp by arguing that special creation is a scientific theory at least as plausible as evolution, a concept they charge is itself so speculative as to amount to a religious belief.

On these grounds creationists are asserting that their views deserve equal treatment in science classrooms, a claim that in a conservative political climate is commanding respect from the White House on down. In the last few years, legislatures in more than 20 states have considered bills to require equal time for "scientific creationism" in public schools, and on March 21, Arkansas Governor Frank White signed into law the first such bill to gain legislative approval; it was later to be challenged in court. (Louisiana enacted a similar law in )uly.) Creationists have also begun to wage vigorous campaigns to have their views reflected - or those of evolutionists weakened - in textbooks and in curriculum guidelines issued by state and local educational authorities.

The creationists' recent success has been due in no small part to a drastic change in strategy since the Scopes trial, where the intellectual naivete of the rural and small-town fundamentalists earned them the unmerciful ridicule of big-city journalists. After the courtroom triumph that ensured their control in the "Bible Belt," the fundamentalists retreated from political battles into their private religious concerns, while evolution gradually regained a foothold in science curricula. In recent years, however, creationists have reentered the political arena carrying the fight onto their opponents'.ground. Maintaining that they are the true proponents of free scientific inquiry, they have enlisted in their cause respected scientists at major universities, such as David Boyland, dean of the college of engineering at Iowa State University, and Harold Henry, chairman of the department of civil engineering at the University of Alabama. Evolutionists point out that few of these scientists are biologists and that the overwhelming majority of scientists in all fields remain firmly convinced o' the validity of evolutionary theory. The creationist response, as expressed by Henry in a telephone interview for the Year Book, is that scientists less "indoctrinated" in an evolutionary "mindset" are naturally more likely to challenge a theory entrenched in the scientific establishment.

The new profile of the creationists is reflected in organizations with impressive academic-sounding names and headquarters far from their traditional Southern and Midwestern strongholds. Such groups as the Creation-Science Research Center (CSRC) and the Institute for Creation Research, both in the San Diego area, produce and distribute a wide range of educational materials that present what they say is a scientific explanation of the creation story in the book of Genesis. Most creationist texts assert that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old—as opposed to estimates of 4.6 billion years by mainstream scientists—and that a supernatural "Designer" created the universe, including all living things essentially in their present forms, in six days. Early in the earth's history, according to the creationists, a worldwide flood drowned the species of plants and animals that are now found as fossils in layers of rock (all said to be formed from the flood's sediment). Fossils are found at different levels not because some are older, the creationists say, but because heavy objects such as seashells settled to the bottom of the floodwaters, while animals tried to escape by running to higher ground.

Scientific creationism is dismissed by evolutionists as a clever effort to confuse the public by cloaking religious doctrine in a spurious scientific guise. "They are literally developing a complete pseudoscience," said Wayne Moyer, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, in a telephone interview. Asserting that there is "not a shred of evidence" for the creationists' theories, he pointed out that most religious groups made their peace with evolution long ago by accepting an allegorical interpretation of Genesis.

In fact, the creationist research centers devote little if any time to original research. Rather, they look for evidence with which to undermine various elements of evolutionary theory. Among their most common criticisms are that radioactive dating of fossils and rock strata is unreliable, that no fossils have been found representing transitional forms between species or broader groups, that genetic mutations could not be a source of evolutionary change because most mutations are harmful, and that evolution is impossible because it violates the second law of thermodynamics, which states that a physical system moves constantly toward a state of greater disorder. These statements are simply untrue, respond the evolutionists. They point out that several radioactive dating methods have given consistent results in many tests and that fossils clearly record the evolution of many modern forms of life, such as the rhinoceros. Most mutations are harmful, they agree, but the few that are not are the driving force of evolution. As for the second law of thermodynamics, Professor llya Prigogine of the Free University of Brussels won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry for proving that it does not apply to living things, because they are "open" systems that can acquire new energy from outside sources.

Evolutionists charge, moreover, that their opponents have deliberately misrepresented disagreements about the mechanisms of evolution to give the false impression that the entire theory is widely doubted by scientists. Researchers in the field readily admit that aspects of
evolution remain unclear; they maintain, however, that it is the only convincing explanation of the origin of fossils and present-day forms of life.

For many creationists, however, the disagreements among evolutionists and the emotionalism of some of them under criticism are evidence that evolution is really not an objective scientific theory but a dogma of a "religion of secular humanism." In a telephone interview, CSRC science coordinator Robert Kofahl charged that secular humanists use their control of public schools to promote antireligious concepts such as evolution and to exclude opposing views: "They protect it from criticism, and they use the state police power to preserve it in that protection." For many creationists, as Kofahl said, "The evolution-creation controversy is just a part of a much wider confrontation between humanism and biblical theism." The CSRC, in particular, cooperates with other conservative critics of public schools in evaluating textbooks in all subjects for evidence of "humanistic" encouragement of moral relativism, disrespect for traditional authority, sexual permissiveness, and left-wing political views.

Most creationists now say publicly that they are seeking not to banish evolution from the curriculum but to secure equal treatment for differing religious and cultural views such as their own. (Ironically, this position is based on passages in the Supreme Court rulings that outlawed school prayers and Bible readings.) Their efforts toward this goal have met with mixed success. In 1975 a Tennessee law requiring that textbooks give "equal time" to creationism was ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. Court of Appeals on the grounds that it clearly favored religious dogma over scientific research, and many legal observers predicted that this year's Arkansas and Louisiana legislation would meet a similar fate. Both new laws, however, are based on a model bill specifically designed to withstand constitutional challenges. Drafted by a South Carolina group called Citizens for Fairness in Education, it includes no reference to Cod or religion- only references to creation.

In California, the state Board of Education angered creationists in 1978 by issuing new science teaching guidelines that made no mention of special creation, which had been endorsed in the 1969 guidelines as an alternative to evolution. In 1979, CSRC Director Kelly Segraves sued the state and the Board of Education, charging that the new guidelines violated the religious freedom of three of his children who attended California public schools. When it finally came to trial this year in state superior court, the Segraves case proved considerably less significant than expected. On the second day of testimony, the plaintiffs asked that the suit be limited to the issue of whether the guidelines (which are noncompulsory) are so "dogmatic" in their endorsement of evolution that they offended the religious beliefs of the Segraves children. After testimony from several prominent scientists, Judge Irving Perluss ruled against Segraves on this point. However, he did order the state to distribute to teachers and textbook publishers a statement of policy for textbooks that was adopted by the board in 1973, mandating that discussions of the origins of life avoid dogmatism and questions of ultimate causes.

While both sides were thus able to claim a qualified legal victory, the creationists also gained extensive national publicity for their cause and donations for future legal battles. In the meantime, their current activism is already achieving what their opponents say is its real goal—adding to the large number of science teachers who avoid evolution altogether in their biology classes. Another group with whom creationists have made their influence felt are publishers of science textbooks. Over the last few years many publishers have drastically reduced or revised text material on Darwin, evolutionary theory, fossils, and geologic eras; one new text published this year, Laidlaw Brothers' Experiences in Biology, includes no mention of evolution whatever (except in the teacher's edition). This trend, which was also noticeable after the Scopes trial, was characterized by an editor in an interview as an "adulteration of the material." Evolution is such a central principle of modern biology, he said, that a biology course without it is "just a mass of unrelated facts."

Moyer, the head of the biology teachers association, suggested that scientists themselves must accept much of what he considers the blame for the creationists' current success in influencing public opinion. To strengthen what he feels is often a halfhearted scientific defense against highly organized attack, he has helped to establish groups of scientists, teachers, and other citizens, called Committees of Correspondence, to act as lobbyists for evolution at the state and local levels.

The evolutionists are also suffering from a general public loss of faith in science itself, according to a leading historian of American religion and culture. Martin Marty, professor of religious history at the University of Chicago divinity school, noted in a telephone interview that at the time of the Scopes trial, technology enjoyed great prestige in the United States. "Today, I think there's a widespread sense that nothing works," he said. Like Moyer, Marty suggested that current cultural, political, and economic turmoil has led many people to seek traditional certainties like those of fundamentalist religion. Furthermore, he said, creationists are experiencing a "revolution of rising expectations" as they see the success of religious conservatives in helping to elect Ronald Reagan and other candidates who sympathize with their cause.

The creationists can draw on a broad base of support for at least some of their ideas; a 1979 Gallup poll, for example, found that 50 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "Cod created Adam and Eve, which was the start of human life." Thus far, however, the evolutionists remain undiscouraged. "I think good sense will prevail in the long run," said Moyer, who admitted that "it's going to be tough for a while." The creationists, for their part, take confidence from what they see as the righteousness of their cause.   

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