“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.”
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
The evolution/creation teaching controversy is concerned with what, if anything, should be taught at the public school level about creationism and evolution. This controversy was set in motion by Darwin’s publication of “On The Origin of Species” in 1859, which proposed that all species alive today had evolved (and continue to evolve) from simpler, less-adapted organisms. Darwin’s more intrepid “The Descent of Man”, published in 1871, directly proposed that humans had evolved from primates. In these two books, Darwin did just what Copernicus, several centuries earlier, had done with the Earth-centered view of our universe. In essence, he overturned a completely accepted world view, that being the idea that all life had been created by a divine being (creationism), and replaced it with a scientific postulate, that all life had evolved from simple, more crude, and less adept organisms (evolution by natural selection, or naturalism).
Charles Darwin correctly predicted that his contemporaries would have trouble accepting his theory on the mutability of species when he wrote, “I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists….Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory.” Not only was Darwin correct about his contemporaries rejecting his theory of evolution, but even today, some 150 years later, scientists, fundamentalists, politicians and Supreme Court judges are still bickering about the validity of evolution versus special creation, and whether either view should be taught in school.
Perhaps the most famous example of the creation/evolution controversy emerged during the 1925 Scopes trial. The “Monkey Trial”, as the Scopes trial came to be called, was instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge a controversial Tennessee law banning the teaching of evolution in public high schools. John Scopes, at the request of the ACLU, agreed to challenge the statute by purposely teaching evolution in his classroom, resulting in prosecution. Scopes was eventually found guilty, but the judge imposed a minimum fine and the Tennessee Supreme Court managed to overturn the conviction without invalidating the law.
Back then, creationists contended with the evolutionists on the basis of moral and religious grounds, as evidenced in the arguments posed against Scopes during his trial. The creationists of today aren’t so extreme in their views…so, what exactly are their beliefs?
The creationist camp, composed of fundamentalists, Catholics, average Americans, and surprisingly, even scientists such as the biologist Michael Behe (who, incidentally, is Catholic), believes that living organisms are too complex to have evolved simply via chance mutation coupled with natural selection. The group also points to gaping “holes” in the fossil record, such as the sudden expansion of novel species during the Cambrian period, which would argue against the accepted evolutionary idea of gradual species modification over long periods of time. As Darwin himself predicted, these are the individuals who “attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts.”
Recently, certain members of the creationist camp have taken an interesting turn: creationism, the once prevalent belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis, complete with six days of creation, a factual Garden of Eden and even a cataclysmic flood, has itself evolved to become “Intelligent Design”. Intelligent Design, or I.D., is the proposal that some features of living things (and even living things themselves) are best explained as the work of a designer rather than the result of random processes such as mutation and natural selection. In this respect, Genesis need not be interpreted literally; however, life as we know it is the result of some divine Primordial Mover. Evolution is just the means, however imperfect, by which this Primordial Mover makes all creation possible. And when we say imperfect, we understand that evolution is merely a theory, not concrete fact, attempting to explain how the Primordial Mover may have chosen to create life. Thus, evolution may not have happened at all.
Is I.D. such a big threat to evolutionary theory? A large percentage of average Americans believe in some kind of divine creation anyway. Similarly, a good majority of these average Americans would be hard-pressed to say that humans are descended directly from non-human ancestors. Quite frankly, what’s wrong with assuming, and teaching, that evolution may not have been the sole impetus for life as we know it?
The problem begins with what is on the I.D. camp’s larger agenda: to have statements, such as this, read before all public high school classrooms about to undertake the study of evolutionary biology: “Darwin’s theory of evolution is theory, not fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence… As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind…Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view [paraphrased].” And likewise, as Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum stated, “We should be teaching…problems and holes in the theory of evolution.”
While it is a good idea to keep an open mind about all theories, when it comes to the teaching of science to tomorrow’s botanists, geneticists, anthropologists, etc., I.D. just won’t do. Darwin’s theory of evolution is more than just a theory: it is backed up by decades of experimental evidence (for example, antibiotic resistance is a direct result of bacterial evolution occurring via natural, albeit antibiotic, selection). Scientific theories start out as hypotheses, which need to be experimentally proven, again and again, and sufficient evidence accumulated before any hypothesis becomes generally accepted theory. Such is the case with the initial hypothesis, and now theory, of Darwinian evolution.
I.D., on the other hand, is a belief in the divine creation of life. This is not a hypothesis that can be tested experimentally; therefore, it can never become a scientific theory on the same standing as evolution. One might choose to teach I.D. in a sociology, religion or history class, but not in a science class. Science deals with facts, not conjectures or beliefs. In science, only the hypothesis that can be disproven is a valid hypothesis. And one certainly cannot disprove (or even prove) the existence of God.
Unfortunately, the newly-evolved I.D. camp is doing more than wishful thinking when it comes to pushing their creationist agenda forward. Arguing that teaching I.D. constitutes free speech, and furthermore that I.D. is, in itself, sound scientific theory, the creationists have been able to grab a foothold in state and local school boards, especially school boards of more conservative states like Kansas, Texas and Florida. Currently, four states- Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma- make no mention whatsoever of evolution in their curriculum standards. Thus, teachers are free to impose their views on whether their students will learn evolution- or not.
This is a far cry from the “critical inquiry” into alternate origin theories initially proposed by the I.D. side. One wonders what sort of intellectual debate can there be, when in some states evolutionary theory is thrown out altogether?
Another big push for I.D. in public high schools has resulted from the founding of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, an agency providing grants to scientists for the purpose of publishing I.D.-based books and other treatises. The Institute and its scientist members have also made themselves known in debates over evolution at school board meetings and state legislatures. State-level debates are extremely crucial to the Discovery Institute, since that is where statewide curriculum standards are formed. And, whereas in the past, blatant creationism teaching was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as a violation of church and state, I.D. seeks to pass itself off as a scientific theory, a theory whose entire premise is to “poke holes” at and discredit current evolutionary theory.
So what can conscientious evolutionary biologists, and other individuals who do not subscribe to the creationist camp, do? Thus far, the scientific world has been reluctant (and possibly apathetic) about I.D., based on I.D.’s lack of scientific merit. To actively engage in public debate about a belief in special creation, as opposed to the hard evidence of evolution, validates I.D. as an alternate scientific theory, which it definitely is not. However, to sit back and do nothing is to invite scientific ignorance into our public schools. While evolutionary teaching, like the heliocentric view of the universe, will eventually displace outdated theories, our best bet for the immediate future is to involve ourselves at the local, city, state and national levels of government. We must participate in our school boards, and we must research and vote for others aspiring to positions in these school boards. Our future scientists depend on it.
In conclusion, I draw hope from a line from Darwin: “I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.”