The Evolution of Creationism

Victor J. Stenger

Published on Darwin Day (February 12, 2006)

The species of religious thought called creationism continues to evolve by a process of natural selection. While, as National Center for Science Education executive director Eugenie Scott has pointed out, there has always been a continuum of creationist views from extreme to moderate, we can still identify a few dominant strains. Let us look at the recent history.

According to Ronald Numbers, author of the definitive early history, The Creationists (Knopf 1992), the term creationism did not originally apply to all forms of anti-evolution. Opponents of evolution were not always committed to any unified view of creation. However, by the 1920s, the Biblical creation myth became the standard alternative to evolution and the creationists its champion.

In that decade, fundamentalists in the U.S. took over the front line of the battle. Under their influence, three states-Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas-made teaching evolution a crime. Oklahoma prohibited textbooks promoting evolution, and Florida condemned the teaching of Darwinism as "subversive."

In 1925, biology teacher John Scopes was arrested in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching evolution. This led to the sensational "Monkey Trial," with Clarence Darrow pitted against three-time losing Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Although Scopes was convicted (later overturned on appeal), the trial is still widely regarded as a public-relations triumph for the Darwinians, as depicted in the play and film Inherit the Wind.

A new strain of creationism appeared in 1961 with the publication of The Genesis Flood by John C. Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry M. Morris, strongly influenced by an earlier book by George McCready Price. The authors argued that science was compatible with Genesis, and although their scientific claims were not credible, conservative Christians sat up and took notice, recognizing a new strategy for combating hated Darwinism. Around 1970, Morris founded the Institute for Creation Science, which then led a movement to have the new creationism presented in public-school science classrooms. Duane Gish traveled the country giving talks and ambushing naíve scientists in debates before huge, receptive audiences of churchgoers. Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws mandating the teaching of creation science alongside evolution. In 1982, a federal judge in Arkansas tossed out the law in that state, declaring creation science to be religion and not science. The Supreme Court ruled the Louisiana law unconstitutional in 1987. Still, polls in the 1990s indicated that about half of Americans continue to believe that humans are the result of special creation within the last 10,000 years.

About this time creation science speciated into two main branches, one holding to the more literal Biblical picture of a young Earth and another that attempts to use sophisticated arguments that appear, at least to the untutored eye, more consistent with established science. The second group has developed a new, stealth creationism called Intelligent Design.

Learning from the mistakes of the creation scientists, proponents of Intelligent Design hide their sectarian motives. They have avoided the more egregious scientific errors of the creation scientists, such as the young Earth, and presented this new form of creationism as "pure science." They claim that design in nature can be scientifically demonstrated and that the complexity of nature can be proved not to have arisen by natural processes alone.

The story of how this strain of creationism is fed and watered by a well-funded conservative Christian organization called the Discovery Institute is fully documented in the excellent recent book by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross, Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford, 2004). The clearly stated goal of the Wedge is to "renew" science and culture along evangelical-Christian lines. Intelligent Design has been a wholesale failure, as both science and strategy. None of its scientific claims, especially the work of the main theorists William Dembski and Michael Behe, have stood up under scientific scrutiny. None of their claims is published in scientific journals. Numerous books and articles refute their positions in great detail. Not only have their arguments been shown to be flawed, but in several instances, the factual claims on which they rest have been proven false.

Furthermore, so far Intelligent Design has also failed in the political arena, which is really its primary focus. Numerous attempts to have Intelligent Design taught in science classrooms as an "alternative" to evolution have been successfully fought off by the heroic efforts of scientists and citizens' groups in a number of states. The argument that Intelligent Design should be taught "out of fairness" has been successfully countered by pointing out that only legitimate science belongs in the science classroom. Intelligent Design has been shown to not be science at all but pseudoscience dressed up as science for the purpose of promoting a religious agenda.

Still, creationism is not yet extinct. Recent indications are that another change in its genetic structure has taken place. The new buzzphrase being promoted at school boards and textbook hearings these days is "critical thinking." Creationists have achieved success in at least one state by writing into lesson plans and core standards the requirement that students have their critical thinking skills developed by studying the arguments against as well as for evolution. Like the "fairness" argument mentioned above, this strikes many members of boards and legislatures as perfectly reasonable. Who can deny the value of teaching critical thinking? And, who can deny the reasonableness of discussing the evidence against a theory as well as for it? The trouble is, what is being written into the new lesson plans and standards are phony examples of evidence against evolution. For example, the Ohio Board of Education has adopted a lesson plan requiring a "critical analysis of evolution." Here is an example of the type of "brief challenging simple answers" for a grade-ten lesson: "Transitional fossils are rare in the fossil record." While disagreement exists over precise ancestral groups, empirical evidence for many transitional forms is common and well documented in the scientific literature.

Science is also grossly misrepresented in the Ohio lesson plans. Anomalies are presented as "ideas" rather than observations that disagree with theoretical predictions. Theories are called "suppositions" rather than well-established systems of explanations for large numbers of observations. Science education in the U.S. will be severely damaged if this type of bogus "critical thinking" becomes widespread.


Victor Stenger is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.