“Creationism is the doctrine that matter and all things were created, substantially as they now exist, by an omnipotent Creator, and not gradually evolved or developed.”
“Evolution is the continuous genetic adaptation of organisms or species to the environment by the integrating agencies of selection, hybridization, inbreeding, and mutation.”
Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, First Edition, 1989
In August 1925, John T. Scopes, a teacher from Dayton, Tennessee, was brought to trial for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to his high school biology students. The teaching of evolution violated a Tennessee state law which mandated that in Tennessee public schools only divine creation could be presented by teachers as an explanation for the origin and development of life on earth.
The John T. Scopes trial
When Scopes announced that the gifted and nationally famous criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow would be defending him, the prosecution secured the services of an equally prominent attorney, William Jennings Bryan. The prospect of two of America’s greatest legal minds facing off in court on so controversial an issue instantly turned the trial into a national media event. Journalists from throughout the United States and several foreign countries descended upon the little town of Dayton to witness this battle between Darrow and Bryan. Although Scopes was ultimately found guilty, throughout the trial a much larger issue overshadowed the defendant’s innocence or guilt, the question of Christian fundamentalism versus scientific modernism. Bryan, as the champion of fundamentalism, showed up in court each day with a King James bible in hand. For every argument by Clarence Darrow supporting the theory of evolution or, at very least, the right to teach evolution and similar scientific theories, Bryan would find an appropriate passage in his bible to refute the defense attorney’s claims. For his part, Darrow countered prosecution arguments with what he contended was credible scientific evidence directly challenging Bryan’s biblical literalism.
The courtroom battle between Darrow and Bryan was bitter and savage. It proved a watershed in what has been an ongoing battle between proponents and opponents of the concept of evolution. And although more than seventy-five years have passed since the Scopes trial, the issues debated in that Tennessee courtroom resonate today as the controversy continues to rage.
The struggle between supporters and critics of evolutionary theory appears irreconcilable. Science has found in Darwinian evolution a grand unifying principle that credibly explains how life in all its varied forms changed and adapted to its environment. Conversely, Christian fundamentalism has identified in Darwinian evolution a profane principle, which denies God a role in the creation and progression of life.
Genesis and creation
The controversy arises from the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, specifically Genesis, the first book of Scriptures. In Genesis, God is depicted as creating the heavens and the earth and all living things inhabiting the earth in a six-day time frame. Christian fundamentalists interpret this literally as six, twenty-four hour segments of time (one week less one day). What fundamentalists also extract from Genesis is that God was satisfied with his creation and created nothing new after those first six days. Therefore, accepting the Bible’s assumption that history began on the sixth day with the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, the only conclusion available is that the earth and all it contains are relatively young and unchanging. In fact in 1650, James Usher, an Irish archbishop and scholar, used information gleaned from the Bible to calculate that God created the earth in 4004 B.C.
Science on the other hand places the age of the earth at 41⁄2 to 5 billion years, with simple, unicellular life first appearing approximately 21⁄2 billion years ago. According to Darwinian theory, it was from these first unicellular life forms that ultimately all living things evolved, including humans.
The concept underlying Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism is quite simple: Over time, gradual changes continually occur in the physical makeup of plants and animals. Genetic mutations and other factors are responsible for these changes. If the changes are great enough and happen over a long enough period of time, a new species will eventually evolve provided that the plant or animal survives the changes. Finally, while the Bible attributes all of creation to God’s intelligent design, science sees blind chance as the only driving force behind evolutionary change.
Fundamentalist reaction to Darwin
The initial reaction of Christian fundamentalists to Darwin’s theory of evolution was understandable and predictable. (Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, was first published in 1859.) Since evolution totally contradicted the bedrock of Christianity, namely the belief in a creator God who chose to remain involved in His creation, it should not be taught in science classes to impressionable school children. Christian fundamentalists in the United States, therefore, responded to the teaching of evolution in public schools by lobbying state legislatures to create laws that would exclude evolution from school curricula. The Tennessee state law resulting in John Scopes’s trial and conviction for teaching evolution was a product of those lobbying efforts.
In response to the fundamentalist initiative, state and national orga- nizations of scientists and teachers of science started lobbying themselves, their efforts intensifying in the late 1940s and 1950s. As these scientists began meeting with success and evolution became a universal part of science curricula in schools throughout the country, fundamentalists were compelled to rethink their tactics. The result was the formal and informal organization of groups of Christian scientists throughout the country, each dedicated to supporting and perpetuating the belief in divine creation. Referred to as scientific creationists, their strategy was to demand equal time in the classroom for their fundamentalist views. Their rationale was unpretentious and disarming. Claiming that since both evolution and divine creation cannot be proven in the laboratory, neither should take precedence over the other in the classroom. Rather, both should be part of the science curriculum.
Creation science uses science
However, the real thrust of creation science was (and remains) to rely upon science itself to compromise and disprove evolution. Scientific creationists, many of whom hold advanced degrees in various sciences from major universities throughout the United States and the world, no longer enter classrooms or other public forums armed only with their bibles. Capitalizing upon the results of their own scientific research, creationists argue that they have breached all of the evolutionists’ principle arguments.
For example, traditional science has relied upon various chronometrical (time measurement) techniques to date prehistoric fossils. One popular method is carbon 14 (C14). C14 is a radioactive isotope, which enters the earth’s atmosphere in steady amounts and is absorbed and measurable in all living things. However, when a plant or animal dies, C14 is no longer absorbed. Instead, the remains of the plant or animal loses half of its C14 every 5,730 years. After about 50,000 years, the amounts of C14 remaining in a fossilized specimen are too small to measure. Archaeologists have used the C14 dating method to accurately date fossils up to nearly 50,000 years old. Because of its accuracy, C14 is paraded before the public as undeniable proof of the existence of prehistoric life. Creation science has countered that the validity of C14 depends upon measuring the intensity of cosmic radiation presently in the atmosphere. If that intensity was different in the distant past, then the C14 methodology will be incorrect in its measurements. Since it is impossible to measure the intensity of cosmic radiation in the past, scientific creationists contend that C14 dating is an invalid technique.
Scientific creationists also have homed in on what they claim is the mathematical impossibility of complicated organs such as the eye evolving in gradual increments. Since a myriad of variable and complex factors account for a functioning eye, it is impossible, they say, for the eye to have evolved by pure chance. Scientists, however, refute this claim by arguing that given the enormous amount of time available (the evolutionary time scale encompasses hundreds of millions of years), the possibility of organs such as the eye forming by the process of gradual evolution is high. In fact, scientists maintain that computer models, which condense millions of years of geologic time into a relatively short computer program, have demonstrated this likelihood.
There are numerous other areas where scientific creationists have relied upon their own research to refute the claims of evolutionists. But mainstream science always seems poised and eager to respond to each challenge.
Fairly recently, however, another school of thought has entered the fray. Referred to as theistic evolution, this alternative combines elements essential to both evolutionary theory and creation science. Theistic evolution accepts the basic axiom of evolution while contending that God is the directing force behind it. Although the concept of theistic evolution is as old as the evolution/creationism controversy, in the last ten years it has grown in credibility and attracted many more adherents among scientists, theologians, and laypersons. In fact in October 1996, Pope John Paul II, speaking for the world’s nearly 1 billion Roman Catholics, sent a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in which he wrote: “New knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.” The pope went on to say that as long as God is recognized as the instigator and guiding force behind evolution, then evolution can be accepted as consistent with Christian belief. Religious leaders representing other large segments of the Judeo-Christian world have been echoing John Paul’s sentiments for many years.
Ironically, on the issue of creationism versus evolution, most Americans appear to fall into one of the three categories outlined above. An article appearing in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times cites polls showing that scientific creationism and theistic evolution have equal numbers of adherents among the American public (approximately 45 percent each). The remaining 10 percent believe that all life is the product of evolutionary chance, not cosmic design. At Issue: Creationism vs. Evolution presents arguments by proponents representing all sides in this ongoing controversy.