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History Forum Addresses Creation/Evolution Controversy

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
History Forum Addresses Creation/Evolution Controversy
John Schweinsberg
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Every year, the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) History Department presents a series of four programs on a topic of current interest such as turmoil in the middle east and the break-up of the Soviet bloc, Recently the creation/evolution controversy was considered to be sufficiently important and interesting to be the central topic. Dr Jack Ellis, professor of history and moderator of the forum, told me that Alabama's 1995 decision to require the insertion of a disclaimer about the validity of evolutionary theory into all high school biology books may well have been the decisive factor in the selection process. The purpose of the forum, which was officially titled "Creationism and Evolution: The History of a Controversy", was to look at the controversy from a historical and sociological, rather than a scientific, point of view. The Honors Program, the Humanities Center, the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, and The Student Life Fund joined with the History Department to cosponsor the forum.

The Evolution of Scientific Creationism

The lead-off speaker was Ronald L Numbers, William Coleman Professor of History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Creationists (University of California Press, 1992). Numbers defined the world-wide flood as the leading characteristic which distinguished "scientific creationism" from other forms of creationism and quoted Henry Morris (of the Institute for Creation Research) to that effect. A second characteristic is its claim to be scientific, rather than to use religious reasoning directly from the Bible. "Scientific creationism" is currently the basis of nearly all creationist activity. At the beginning of the century, however, "scientific creationism" had not yet been formulated. At that time all creationist belief was divided into two other camps.

One of the camps, "Day-age" creationism, was championed by G Frederick Wright. Wright was the author of the anti-evolution section in a very influential series of pamphlets, The Fundamentals, published from 1910-1915, from which the word "fundamentalism" was eventually derived. Day-age creationism held that the 7 "days" of creation in Genesis were figurative days, rather than literal 24-hour days, thus leaving open the possibility of an ancient earth. Another supporter of Day-age creation was William Jennings Bryan who was much more open-minded to scientific results than the image attributed to him from the play Inherit the Wind. His opposition to evolution was based on the perceived negative social consequences of evolutionary theory. Living in an age when "Social Darwinism" had great following, Bryan was concerned that evolutionary belief was causing loss of religious faith and destroying the foundations of public morality.

The second creationist camp accepted the Gap Theory, championed in the Scofield Reference Bible (1909). It also allowed for an ancient earth by maintaining that there was a "gap" between Genesis 1:1, the 7-day creation story, and Genesis 1:2, the Garden of Eden story; that is, the Bible provided no information about the potentially long time period between the initial creation of the earth and the creation of mankind, which was given the traditional date of approximately 4004 BC. Jimmy Swaggert is one of the few major evangelists who supported the Gap Theory in recent times.

The single most influential figure in scientific creationism is George McCready Price, a Seventh Day Adventist. In 1899, he was teaching at a remote village in Nova Scotia. A medical doctor, who wanted to dissuade Price from his creationist beliefs, loaned him geology books which influenced him greatly. Only his prayers and his faith in the visions of the Seventh Day Adventist prophet Ellen White were able to rescue Price from conversion to evolutionism. Price, however, was determined to reconcile his creationist beliefs with the geological record. Price's "rescue" came in the form of a "deceptive conformity".

A deceptive conformity is a geological structure in which relatively young rock is layered directly above much more ancient strata without a layer of intermediate age between them. Overthrusting results in the placement of more ancient rock on top of younger rock—an inversion of the "normal" order. Price interpreted both of these structures as refuting the standard geologic ages. His interpretation was combined with flood geology to explain fossils as the remains of victims of a single great catastrophe. By the end of the twenties, Price was considered a leading fundamentalist authority. Yet, in spite of the great impression which he had made, there was very little conversion of adherents from the other two anti-evolutionist camps. This may be due to the association of Price's flood geology with the Seventh Day Adventist Church which was considered an unpopular fringe denomination in fundamentalist circles.

In 1954 Bernard Ramm, an evangelical philosopher and theologian, published The Christian View of Science and Scripture which attacked Price's geology. The viciousness of the attack motivated a theology student,John Whitcomb Jr, to write his PhD dissertation in defense of flood geology. To obtain scientific advice, he later teamed with Henry Morris, who possessed a PhD in hydraulic engineering, to co-author The Genesis Flood, which appeared in 1961. It was effectively an updated version of Price's geology. Two years later, the Creation Research Society was founded by 10 evangelical scientists. Five of these scientists held PhDs in biology.A sixth, Duane Gish, held a PhD in biochemistry. The society was dedicated to "young-earth creationism" which eventually succeeded in totally co-opting the label "creationism".

Why did flood geology succeed in the second half of the century after its complete failure at the beginning of the century? Numbers believes that there are two major reasons:
1) The launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union led to a perceived crisis in American education. In turn, the federal government sponsored the writing of biology texts by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. These textbooks became widely used in the seventies and, for the first time, placed strong emphasis on evolution as the basis of modem biology. This created a fundamentalist backlash by the 80s.
2) Fundamentalists were apparently converted from the Day-age and Gap "theories" because the Bible could be interpreted more literally. It was no longer necessary to assume that "day" meant a long time or that the Bible had a major "gap" in its historical account. It was particularly attractive to pre-millenialists who took the entire book literally. Flood geology had now also lost its negative association with the Seventh Day Adventists. Instead, it appeared to give scientific respectability to fundamentalist beliefs about creation.

Ancient Texts Versus Sedimentary Rocks: Cosmologies in Conflict

The next speaker was Paul K Conklin, Distinguished Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and author of The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America. He explained that the first creation account in Genesis, which dates to a period immediately following the Babylonian captivity, is cosmological. A personal creative masculine God named Elohim created the universe in six days. The second creation account is more ancient. A more human-like God named Jehovah makes a garden and creates a man as caretaker. Animals and eventually a woman are created to satisfy the man's loneliness. It is a story about temptation, disloyalty, punishment, and self-consciousness. Due to sin, Adam and Eve's offspring were destroyed by a great flood. Afterwards the earth was less fertile and human longevity was greatly reduced.

These two stories have been extraordinarily influential, being accepted by the Christian,Jewish, and Moslem religions alike. The creation stories had the property of "causality", giving a purpose to existence. Christians specifically believe in creation ex nihilo. Mature theism does not require God to have an origin and considers God to be an eternal ground of being who simply created an extension of himself. The creation stories also posses a certain incoherence and "tension" which actually serve to make them more appealing.

Although Christians have always argued about the details of the Genesis accounts, their basic validity was not in doubt until the end of the 18th century when critical biblical scholarship, as well as the growing scientific field of geology, both began to establish questions. It was becoming clear that the earth was older by several orders of magnitude than previously believed. A consistent geologic column was found to exist word-wide, and there was no evidence for a global flood. Genesis was in conflict with the rocks.

In the 19th century these tensions had to be faced. Theologians re-interpreted Genesis to allow the creation of new species at the beginning of each geological period. In the 1830s the continuity of geological epochs was not yet obvious. The radiation of species at the beginning of each epoch was explained by re-creation — including the re-creation of species from the preceding epoch who would appear as survivors. This periodic intervention of God preserved agency and purpose in the concept of evolution.

Darwin was able to describe a mechanism for change, based on population theory, which explained the continuity of species without a need for divine intervention. Inherited variations which enhance the probability of survival can accumulate to produce new variations and even new species, resulting in all modern life forms. Its explanation defined general patterns, not the predictable clockwork mechanism of Newton. The greatest threat to Christianity, however, was not evolution per se, but the naturalization of the mind. Darwin's Descent of Man gave an evolutionary explanation for self-consciousness. "Mind" and "idea" were no longer necessary causative agents for creation. A naturalistic explanation was sufficient.

The religious concept of cosmology shapes our language. The terminology "big bang" is itself a creationist concept. By personifying nature, the term "natural selection" is also a misnomer. Darwin writes that natural selection "selects for the good" of each individual and that nature rejects "bad" variations. This is the language of the natural theology which he studied in school. Even today, biologists and physicists talk in terms of causative agents, even though evolution does not "cause" an observed result. The language of evolutionists often resembles that of theists.

Many Christians assimilated evolution by transforming Genesis into a suggestive myth. God is the "ultimate cause" who intervened only at the beginning of creation, and possibly a second time to create human self-consciousness. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, persisted with the Day-age and Gap "theories" through the 1930s, in spite of their mythological aspects. Today, they have returned to a literal interpretation of flood geology in which people coexisted with dinosaurs. They argue that they simply have a different set of suppositions and paradigms than those used by the humanistic scientists. On this basis, they consider their own approach as equally valid scientifically.

Today, we live in a tragic age in which all old gods are dying. The Genesis story has become mythological for most people. Feminists cheer the demise of the highly masculine Jehovah. Liberal theologians commit deicide by making a new thunderless god every year. Why did the Lord of Eden warn against eating from the tree of knowledge? Was it really to protect Adam and Eve from knowledge? Knowledge is addictive and will eventually kill all gods. Perhaps God proclaimed the prohibition for reasons of self-preservation.

The Scopes Trial: A Reappraisal of Science, Religion, and Law in the South

The third speaker was Edward J Larson, Professor of History and Law at the University of Georgia. He is author of the book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and the Evolving Concept of Freedom. Larson maintained that the popular images of the Scopes trial, formed from sources such as Inherit the Wind, are extremely inaccurate. William Jennings Bryan had been a strong hero to common people for a long time. He had been a leading crusader for labor and tax reforms and for women's suffrage. He had been a major candidate for president three times. He had resigned as Secretary of State in opposition to the expected entry of the US into World War I.

Bryan's opposition to evolution was based on sociological considerations. He opposed "social Darwinism" which was popular at the time. He also believed that evolutionism would lead to atheism and a breakdown in public morality. He opposed both religious instruction in schools and teaching that evolution was a fact. When Tennessee passed its law forbidding the teaching of evolution, Bryan was supportive but disagreed with the provision for a $100 fine.

The Tennessee law was supported by the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) which had been founded three years earlier to promote similar laws. It was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which considered the law to be an attack against academic freedom. The ACLU published an ad in a Chattanooga newspaper asking for a volunteer teacher who would be willing to initiate a test case. The offer was taken up by the civic leaders of Dayton, who wanted publicity for their small town. They convinced a local teacher, John Scopes, to cooperate. The WCFA recruited Bryan to represent them. Recognizing the promotional opportunity, Dayton appointed Bryan assistant prosecutor. Arthur Garfield Hayes put together a publicity-conscious defense team which included Dudley Field Malone, a strong supporter of the rights of women, blacks, and reformers, and Clarence Darrow, a non-Christian who doubted the existence of God. Both lawyers were new to the ACLU. Each side was interested in the publicity value for its own program. The trial was covered by hundreds of reporters and was the first to be carried live by radio.

The prosecution attempted to limit the trial to the narrow grounds that the legislatune had the authority to control education in the public schools. This was a legally sound argument which would, in practice, suffice to uphold the validity of anti-evolution laws. Expert witnesses to debate the scientific merits of evolution were not desired, since this could only serve to tilt the trial in favor of evolution. In fact, evolution was well accepted by the scientific community, and no expert of adequate scientific credentials could even be found to support the creationist view. The defense was successful in having expert testimony excluded.

The defense argued that the law infringed upon individual freedom. The defense also argued that it was unreasonable and compared it to a law forbidding the Copernican theory. Since the judge had the authority to decide legal issues, these arguments were not heard in the presence of the jury. After the judge upheld the state's control of public education, Darrow argued about interpretation of the statute. He maintained that evolution did not conflict with the Bible and that the Bible could be interpreted to support evolution. He invited Bryan to become an expert witness regarding the Bible. In spite of the legal dangers, Bryan, as a noted religious columnist, felt obligated to accept.

Bryan initially gave evasive answers when asked whether he had ever interpreted the Bible. When asked about Old Testament miracles, such as the sun's standing still, Bryan left the door open to interpretation by admitting that the earth may not have stood still but that the Bible was written in language which common people could understand at the time. Questioning continued about Noah's flood and finally the six days of creation. Bryan admitted that these may not refer to literal 24-hour days. All attempts by the prosecutor to halt the interrogation failed. Darrow maintained that the purpose of the interrogation was to demonstrate that bigotry and ignorance shouldn't control education. Bryan maintained: "I am trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist in the US."

Scopes was found guilty. The ACLU appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, making the case an issue of individual freedom vs. state authority over education. The court upheld the law, claiming that Scopes had to obey his employer, the state. However, it overturned the conviction on the technical ground that the judge, rather than the jury, had set the fine. This prevented the ACLU from appealing the case.

The Scopes trial had important but mixed effects on our culture. Newspapers ridiculed the anti-evolutionist position. The ACLU had successfully exposed the ignorance, intolerance, and arrogance of the anti-evolutionists. On the other hand, the anti-evolutionists had won the legal battle. There was little change in the South, and other southern states adopted similar laws. A generation of textbooks was affected.

Today we think of the trial in terms of its media image. The play Inherit the Wind was written in 1955 to reflect on McCarthyism. The play intended to show a parallel from history. Initial reviews criticized the depiction of heroic evolutionists vs. ignorant creationists. The play has now reopened at a time when fundamentalists are taken seriously but McCarthyism no longer applies. Northern papers give it good reviews. Secularists see the issue as individual liberty vs. majoritarian democracy.

Creationism and Evolution: Perspectives for the 1990s

The 4th event in the program was a panel discussion. The panelists were as follows:

Stephen Waring of the UAH history department opened the session by summarizing the development of religion and science. Pre-modern people explained the past through legends and myths. Religion became the basis of knowledge. In the West, where Christianity became the dominant religion, the Bible was understood to be complex but was still accepted as factual history. Genesis was accepted as accurate revealed truth. In the Middle Ages, the investigation of the natural world was considered a means toward better understanding of God. Modern ideas began with the discovery of new information not mentioned in the Bible, such as the heliocentric astronomy and the existence of America. Early scientists rejected the use of supernatural hypotheses since these could not be tested, falsified, or observed. Science and religion were consequently separated into different realms. There remains no easy harmony between science and religion.

Donald Armentrout of the theology department of the University of the South was the second panelist and identified himself as a Christian evolutionist. Armentrout believed that the dispute was about biblical interpretation, since a large portion of Protestantism has mistakenly made the Bible absolute and infallible. The Genesis account should be considered poetry, showing the Creator's transcendence. Literal interpretation of Genesis has caused much mischief. Scientific discoveries simply describe things without affirming or denying God. There is no inherent principle in evolution which requires a non-theistic world view. There is nothing in evolution which precludes divine intervention. There is no need to protect the Bible from science.

John R Christy, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at UAH, was the third speaker. He identified himself as an evangelical Christian who was formerly a minister and missionary. He remarked that scientific observations show that the earth is very old. He cited the example of ice cores from Greenland which date back 1.2 million years. The cores contain separate layers which can be counted like tree rings and at least 150,000 individual years have been counted. Rocks in Greenland containing fossilized alligators and ferns show evidence of a former tropical climate. Evolution is the best explanation for hundreds of thousands of observations world wide. Christy strongly opposedthe anti-science movement and considers science to be an ally of Christianity.

William Gartska of the UAH biology department explained that evolution is a major principle of science. "Creation science" is a strictly American belief which assaults skepticism. The "Equal Time" decision in the Arkansas case (McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education [1982] 529 F Supp. 1255, 50 US Law Week 2412) defined science and disqualified creationism for its dependence on the supernatural. Creationists would turn science into a belief system by allowing miracles and revelations. To demonstrate that science is not a belief system, Gartska cited the example of Francis Crick's suggestion that life on earth was seeded from space. Even though Crick was a Nobel Prize winner of great authority, his proposal was met with great skepticism and not accepted by the scientific community.

The final and most controversial panelist was Kurt P Wise, Associate Professor of Science and Director of Origins Research at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. Wise gave a different history of creationism than previously heard in the forum. He explained that creationism died in academia at the end of the last century because it had accepted Aristotelian fixity and was unable to adapt to evidence of change. Creationism was unable to resurrect itself because of "scientism" in academia, specifically the rejection of the supernatural as an explanation of events. Wise questioned this doctrine with the rhetorical question: "What if supernaturalism is really true?" In the 20th century, creationism stayed alive in the laity who have now rebelled against scientism. The separation of supernaturalism from science successfully provided new ways of looking at the world but subsequently shackled investigation. Wise strongly criticized the "scientific creationism" movement, particularly its political orientation and its "evolution bashing". He remarked that its "science" was of poor quality, much of it from non-scientific engineers. However, the controversy did cause necessary re-evaluation in academia.

Wise suggested that creationism has been reborn at an academic level. He claimed that the number of trained creationist PhDs is doubling every 10 years. It is also growing in Germany where it is more research oriented. Creationists are now concentrating on a positive creation model, rather than "evolution bashing" . The creation models are undergoing continuous revision due to a process of peer review which was implemented 15 years ago . There are now three peer-reviewed creationist journals. However, Wise believes that standards must be further increased. The new creationism has developed theories which are predictive and explanatory.

Furthermore, mainline science is beginning to move in a creationist direction. In geology, catastrophism is becoming more popular. In biology, the hyper-gradualism of Darwin is being revised. More attention is being given to evidence of discontinuity in the origin of different major groups. Creationists have developed a new method of classification which allows discontinuity. They have also developed a model of plate tectonics which predicts the movement of continents at a more rapid time scale than generally accepted. Wise emphasized that creationism does not represent a monolithic camp. He denied any political agenda and opposed attempts to force the teaching of creation in schools. This must wait until an adequate creation model has been developed. Wise has great respect for science and scientists. Science helps him to know and serve God.

Question Period

After each panel member made a prepared opening statement, the panel took questions from the audience. Most questions were directed to Wise and Armentrout. When asked about Greenland's ice cores, Wise denied detailed knowledge, but suggested that most layers were fused and couldn't be distinguished. When Christy stated that they could be counted distinctly for hundreds of thousands of years, Wise readily accepted this and admitted that he had no explanation. Questioned whether he accepted any restrictions to supernaturalistic explanations,Wise said that the nature of God is the limit. Supernatural explanations should be viewed very skeptically and be invoked rarely. Personally, he would use supernaturalism only to explain the great flood and creation itself. Asked to explain stars separated by millions of light years, Wise likewise admitted he had no explanation because the creationists do not have any experts in cosmology. When asked whether new evidence would change his conclusions, Wise stated that all scientific theories must be consistent with data, but that the current evolutionary theories are blind to discontinuities.

When asked about the moral implications of evolution, Armentrout stated that evolution has no relevance to the question of morals. When questioned about the interpretation of Genesis as poetry, he insisted that he does indeed take Genesis seriously and believes that Genesis is enhanced by a poetic interpretation. When asked why Protestantism has a problem with evolution, Armentrout stated that Protestantism has a strong tendency to violate the First Commandment by placing the Bible ahead of God.


The lecture series was very well attended, although I think that the university setting and sponsorship may have resulted in a small turnout of active proponents of creationism from the general public. Nevertheless, I believe that it was greatly informative to those who did attend. Personally, I was impressed by the honesty of Kurt Wise. Although he is unscientific in the sense that he uses a preconceived notion and accepts supernatural explanations, he openly admits that he does this. Instead, he questions scientific philosophy on these points, which is his right. This is a refreshing change from politically oriented creationists who talk about the Bible to church audiences but tell school boards that creationism has nothing to do with religion.

About the Author(s): 
John Schweinsberg
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