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Brief History of Creationism

Brief History of Creationism -- From the Middle Ages to "Creation Science"

by William Thwaites

Early History

At the end of the Middle Ages, European tradition held that all of the Earth´s inhabitants had been created by God in one place, the Garden of Eden, soon after the formation of the earth. But as the scientific revolution began to unfold some 400 years ago, naturalists started to catalog fossils according to the layers in which they were found. Soon a very unexpected and troubling pattern emerged.

The deepest (and oldest) layers showed mostly unfamiliar species, but higher (younger) layers contained fossilized remains that resembled living organisms. If what naturalists found had been consistent with traditional beliefs, fossils found in every layer should not have looked different from those that living species would leave if fossilized. Elephants, tigers, palm trees, and people should have left a record of their presences even in the most deeply buried layers, but they didn´t. Clearly, tradition al belief had to be modified to explain the succession of fossil types seen in the fossil record.

Progressive Creation

Such a change of belief was neither rapid nor easy for European naturalists, and many valiantly attempted to show how the observations they made did not really require changing traditional belief. But the fossil record undeniably showed that older forms were going extinct while newer forms appeared.

Extinction was itself disturbing to many traditionalists. "Why would an organism be created only to go extinct?" they asked. However, the evidence of extinction of ancient forms was indisputable. Extinction of ancient varieties had indeed occurred, and modern forms were explained as being the result of more recent creations.

This view is now referred to as "progressive creation." The new explanation marked a major modification of the traditional religious understanding of creation. It had become the dominant view of natural historians even before Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle in 1831.

Centers of Creation

As description and analysis of the fossil record progressed, the successive modernization of fossil types was not the only pattern that emerged. There was also a pattern of geographic clustering of species. For example, all kangaroo-like fossils and all living kangaroos are native to Australia and a few neighboring islands. This pattern of geographic isolation is repeated around the world over and over again for other species. The fossils that most closely resemble living forms are found in the same geographic area where older types that resemble them are found.

Traditional belief could not explain this clustering of more recent forms with earlier forms that looked like them. Having already given up the idea of a single creation week, natural historians were also forced to give up the traditional belief that all forms had been created in one geographical location, the Garden of Eden.

The geographic clustering of look-alike fossil forms eventually forced a reluctant change that supposed at least six centers of creation. This second compromise with traditional belief had been as difficult to make as the first, but it was the only view that seemed consistent with the facts of natural history, even in 1831.

So, by the time Darwin boarded the Beagle, traditional belief already had been significantly modified. Gone were both the single creation week and the Garden of Eden as the sole locus of creation. The study of natural history had forced a new understanding. In this new view, God had periodically created species at one center of creation or another. And at each new center, he would create new organisms according to his pattern for that particular place. Such a view had little in common with the traditional account of creation given in the Book of Genesis.

The New Explanations Raised Questions of Their Own

Although the new modifications of traditional belief seemed to be compatible with the fossil record, they raised other questions that distressed early naturalists: Why would a Creator of organisms always make relatively small changes? And why would a Creator always go back to Australia, for example, to make the next kind of kangaroo? Kangaroos could certainly live on other continents with similar climatic conditions. Could it be that the newer kind was actually just a modified descendent of the preexisting version? Were these changes actually explainable by natural causes?

Such was the state of European thought in 1831. Darwin certainly was not the first to propose that the formation of new species could be explained in terms of natural processes. Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, a French naturalist, had made just such a proposal in the early 1800s, but the mechanism he proposed to explain the change from one species to another had little, if any, support from empirical observation.

Finally, both Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace proposed that the change could be explained in terms of differential reproduction that was based on heritable variations (i.e., natural selection). A fully natural explanation for nature´s diversity was now available for consideration.

This final break with traditional belief was psychologically the most difficult of all. To some, this meant that God was no longer required to explain the formation of new species. Most disturbing of all, God was not even required to explain the formation of humankind. Some reflective theologians realized that the strictly literal view of the Creation had to be abandoned as knowledge about nature and natural processes grew more detailed. The Church of England, in fact, accepted evolution by natural selection within a few decades of the writing of The Origin of Species .

Modern Creationists

Twentieth-century creationists follow many paths. The "young earth" creationists believe in a single, special creation that occurred only several thousand years ago. They are the defenders of the most strictly literal Biblical view. "Old earth" creationists believe, as do the young-earthers, in a single, special creation, but believe it took place billions of years ago. These creationists at least accept the position of modern science on the age of the earth, though they do not believe that one species can give rise to another.

"Day-Age" and "Gap" creationists believe that the earth is old, but in other ways they are the direct descendants of the old progressive creationists of the late 18th century. They believe that the present universe came about through stages of creation, such as would have occurred if the seven "days" of Genesis were actually seven very long ages ("day-age"), or if there were long gaps between the days of creation ("gap" creationists). In either case, these creationists, like the others, deny the possibility that one kind of organism can evolve into another.

None of these forms of creationism can be reconciled with scientific evidence from biology, geology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, embryology, or many other relevant fields. All appear to be attempts to retain a theology that has been abandoned by mainline Christianity.

Theistic Evolution

What, then, is the position of the majority of religious Americans about "creation"? Anglicans, Catholics, most Protestant Christians, and Conservative and Reformed Jews believe that God is the Creator, but that he works through the process of evolution, as revealed through modern science. This position is known as theistic evolutionism, and is widespread among modern theologians. It is a little-known fact that Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, the United Church of Christ and many other denominations do not believe that Creation occurred literally as described in Genesis. In fact, the majority of Christian seminaries do not teach a Biblical literalist creation. In the United States and Canada, one tends to find Biblical literalist beliefs being promoted most strongly in small, independent denominations, where it is not uncommon for the leader to have little or no formal theological training.

Americans need to know that there is no necessary conflict between religion and acceptance of evolution as a scientific idea. Although there is of necessity a conflict between Biblical literalist views of creation and modern science, these views are not held by the majority of Christians.

From this brief history, it is clear that there has been a struggle within theology to accommodate the discoveries of science regarding creation and evolution. This history also shows that accommodation of evolution, rather than rejection, has been more the norm. Religious people who struggle with the creation/evolution controversy need to understand that accepting evolution as science is not antithetical to a religious view.


References for Further Reading

The following are some useful references that are available through NCSE or your local library.

McCollister, Betty, ed Voices for Evolution, Berkeley, CA: NCSE. A collection of statements in favor of evolution, as adopted by numerous scientific, religious and educational organizations. Extremely helpful for school boards, teachers and others who make curriculum decisions.

Eve, R.A., and F.B. Harrold The Creationist Movement in Modern America. Boston: Twayne Publishers. Carefully defines creationism, explores its historical, psychological, and social background, and profiles its various factions.

Numbers, Ronald The Creationists. NY: Knopf. The definitive history of the anti-evolution movement in America.