Teach the Controversy? Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design in America

A few days ago, I was standing in line at a local bookstore waiting to buy a copy of Matthew Chapman’s 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Dover.[1]  It was a long line, so I soon found myself engaged in conversation with some of the other people waiting to buy books.  One woman saw the book I was carrying, and once she realized it discussed evolution at least partially, proceeded to instruct me that “evolution is just a theory; it isn’t proven yet.”  She seemed to be a well-meaning, intelligent person, but by implying that evolutionary theory is somehow weak since it is “just a theory”, it was clear that she had been misled.

She is not alone.  As evidenced by recent events, many Americans feel the same way about evolutionary theory.  In 2005, in Cobb County GA, for example, the local school board moved to place warning stickers in biology textbooks that read:

“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

Clearly the Cobb County school board also misunderstood the meaning of the term “theory” in a scientific sense.  But what is a scientific theory? Unlike the everday usage of the word “theory”, which generally refers to a guess or hunch, the scientific usage of the term “theory” means something along the lines of “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence,” according to an article by the National Academy of Sciences.  Luckily for science, the Cobb County stickers were eventually declared unconstitutional and removed from textbooks as a result of Selman v. Cobb County.  While the situation in Georgia has ended, the anti-evolution movement has kept going.

For example, Senate Bill 2396, which attempted to require a critical presentation of evolution in Florida schools, recently died in committee.  This bill sought to teach “the other side” as well, as stated by Stephen Wise, the senator who authored the bill.  Judging from NCSE and other sources, Wise also supports teaching intelligent design in schools, a practice strongly condemned in Kitzmiller v. Dover.  Bills such as Wise’s imply that there is some level of controversy in the scientific arena when evolution is considered.  However, as Stephen Jay Gould has argued, the only controversy surrounding evolutionary theory is a perceived controversy, fueled by rehashed Creationist arguments. 

While evolutionary theory is a vibrant theory, some groups still argue against evolution.  These arguments are often political or ideological (rather than scientific) in nature.  For example, many Young Earth Creationists argue that if we teach our kids that they came from monkeys, they will act like monkeys (to use an oft-repeated refrain). Answers in Genesis, a leading Young Earth Creationist website, alleges that “By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.” in their Statement of Faith.  The Discovery Institute, major backers of Intelligent Design, have stated in a fundraising memo that they seek “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” (pdf p. 2). The author of the Wedge Strategy, the strategic plan laid out in the Wedge Document, is Philip Johnson.  Johnson seeks to attack the “naturalistic” philosophical underpinnings of evolutionary theory in an attempt to replace them with a framework that allows supernatural causation to become a key part of scientific investigations. Jonathan Wells, prominent Intelligent Design proponent, has implied that he is on a religious mission to “destroy Darwinism“.

Groups such as the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis provide the basic foundation for a percieved “controversy” within science over the validity of evolution.  While the scientific credibility of these groups is virtually nonexistent, they have touched a nerve within the American public.  They argue that science is “naturalistic” at its core, and therefore atheistic.  However, while science cannot use God as an explanation in its current form (God is supernatural, and therefore not scientifically testable.  Science can only test natural cause explanations), it also cannot refute the possibility of God existing.  Certain scientific facts may fly in the face of certain religious beliefs (such as the geologic timescale contradicting a specific interpretation of Genesis that proclaims a 6000 year old Earth), but this is not by design.  However, groups such as Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute have latched onto the idea that science is out to exclude God from the picture. In a relatively religious nation, it is easy to create an imagined controversy using this approach.  It is far easier for many people to accept a “scientific” idea that confirms their religious beliefs than one that refutes them.  While authors such as Stephen Jay Gould have argued that science and religion can coexist because they occupy “separate realms,” in some cases, this coexistence is impossible.  If a person believes that the Bible says that the Earth is 6000 years old, they are likely to accept ideas such as Flood Geology which, while being scientifically flawed, seem to confirm their belief system. This is why Answers in Genesis survives.  Not because they are a reputable scientific organization, but because they seem to provide people with confirmation for their beliefs.

So if anti-evolution arguments tend to operate on a political or religious playing field, why do they bother scientists?  According to Kevin Padian, the attempt to single out evolution in classrooms in Dover for special treatment (“evolution is only a theory”) has the effect of making kids stupid by confusing them about science (PDF p. 41). In the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  Evolutionary theory is the keystone of biology in general, and is supported by mountains of evidence.  Teaching religious challenges to evolution not only will confuse students about the nature of science, but also violates the first ammendment establishment cause in the US Constitution.  Therefore, it is necessary to refrain from teaching “Creation Science” or “Intelligent Design” (which has been shown to have Creationist roots) in science classrooms, not only for religious reasons, but also for educational ones. People tend to accept the presence of a “controversy” surrounding evolution especially if evolution is perceived as a threat to their own religious beliefs.  However, the science classroom is not the place to provide religious guidance.  We need to embrace evolution, both in the science classroom and in the lab, if we hope to remain competitive as a nation in the scientific realm.  This is why anti-evolution movements are dangerous. Not because they somehow threaten evolution, but rather because they confuse the public about science, and also threaten the American scientific standing on an increasingly globalized playing field.


[1] An entertaining, irreverent, and all-around enjoyable text dealing with the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, which struck down an attempt by a Dover, PA school board to have a paragraph read before science classes calling evolution a theory with major gaps, and referring students to copies of Of Pandas and People for another perspective (the intelligent design perspective).

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5 Comments on “Teach the Controversy? Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design in America”


  1. I have only just found your site, and will be back. Incidentally, I found a recommendation of this site at Chris Close’s Climate Change site.

    I am an Australian, and find the US an endlessly fascinating country. On the one hand Americans have made a huge number of fantastic discoveries in Science, and yet the US has many millions of people who reject basic science because they have a silly interpretation of Genesis chapter 1.

    Creationism is not just bad science it is also bad theology.

    • darwinaia Says:

      Chris’s Climate Change site (here for anyone who hasn’t had a chance to see it http://www.chriscolose.wordpress.com/) is great; he really knows his stuff.

      The Creation-Evolution struggle, a term borrowed from historian of science Michael Ruse, is interesting to follow, especially in an American nation that takes pride in its scientific standing on a global playing field. Honestly, I’m partially amazed that Creationist movements are still vibrant in America, but given the demographics with regards to religion, I guess it makes sense. Good point on it being both bad science and bad theology; by forcing acceptance of a specific, extremely narrow interpretation of the Bible, one forces a fight between the religious belief system in question and science.

      By the way, not sure if you’ve followed it at all, but apparently Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International (a group that Answers in Genesis was initially closely linked to, but now consisting mainly of branches in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a few other nations) just recently settled a few weeks ago in a legal fight. Wikipedia’s writeup on the battle between the 2 groups is pretty decent: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_controversy_between_Answers_in_Genesis_and_Creation_Ministries_International

  2. darwinsbulldog Says:

    Your blog has been mentioned also on the blog Darwiniana:
    http://darwiniana.com/2009/05/09/darwiniana-clone/

  3. Moebius Says:

    Great first post and welcome to the world of history of biology blogging! I’ll be doing my PhD in the history of evolutionary theory and the politics that encouraged (and discouraged) certain ideas over others. Glad to have your voice out there on the interwebs!


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