"Creation Science" Versus the Historical Sciences: The Debate and the Law

From Chapter 12, "No Stone Unturned: Reasoning about Rocks and Fossils", E.K. Peters (1996)

The age of the earth, the origin of life, and the relationship of humans to other animals are topics that interest both geologists and others in our society, including the religiously devout. Much energy has been spent in the United States debating what children in public schools should be taught about these matters. The argument is often deeply emotional, and it always has political and legal dimensions. Perhaps it is not surprising that the debate tends to wander away from strictly scientific, or theological, considerations. Certainly, all too often, the main participants in the clash have descended to simple polemics. It is therefore highly difficult to achieve what our society needs; a carefully reasoned argument resting on clearly defined terms. Such a discussion should give all participants a legitimate place to stand - if only for the purpose of recognizing Americas long-standing pluralism, or diversity, and thereby enhancing potential intellectual arguments to be considered in the future.

We will consider our society's divisive debate about these matters because it brings us to the heart of what scientific work is and how it affects other areas of our lives. We must begin by identifying the participants, most of whom believe (often correctly) that the other groups have misrepresented them.

The different participants in the current clash might be roughly grouped together as follows:

1. Biblical literalists like the "creationists." "Creation scientists" believe, as a matter of religious conviction, that the earth was created by direct action from God in one week about 4000 B.C.E. Humans were created specially by God and with a spirit that all other animals lack. Sedimentary rocks and the fossil record were formed, according to this view, during the flood of Noah's day. Biblical literalists represent one expression of the catastrophist school of thought. They hold that insights from empirical work are necessarily secondary to the absolute knowledge given to us in the revelations of scripture, usually thought to be best represented by the authorized King James translation of the Bible.

2. The Vatican's spokesmen, and most Protestant and Jewish theological authorities. These people mesh a theistic view of creation with some form of the scientific theories about the age of the earth and the cause of the varieties of life. They usually accept the framework of gradualism whenever the scientific community uses it. But they often think that the fundamental origin of early life remains in the hands of a divine being, and they are often heartened by scientists' inability to create, in the Miller-Urey type of experiments, organic molecules more complex than amino acids. This group is divided on what special qualities Homo sapiens may possess compared with those of other animals. Increasingly they accept the notion that humans are on some kind of continuum with other intelligent mammals such as primates, dolphins, and elephants.

3. Secular, scientific critics of Darwinism. This is a varied group of critics, both professional scientists (mostly in physics) and wide-ranging intellectuals, who are impressed by some of the difficulties in the Darwinian tradition. They thrive on the shortcomings of neo-Darwinism and the problems of the punctuated equilibrium viewpoint. They do not criticize the geologically accepted age of the earth, and they can be agnostic about the origin of life. Some members of this group accept the possibility of final causes operating in the universe and the biosphere. They believe that human beings are more similar to other conscious animals than they are different. Like Group 2, these people are often misunderstood by other participants in the debate, and they are often incorrectly lumped with religious extremists, on the one hand, or with members of the scientific establishment, on the other.

4. Defenders of neo-Darwinism and punctuated equilibrium. This group includes almost all paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. The neo-Darwinists generally maintain a gradualist outlook, whereas the others allow for more rapid evolutionary change, but change that is still exclusively based on efficient causality. The most important vehicle for evolution is thought to be natural selection acting on variations within the population. Some members of this group view mass extinctions as catastrophic, but others still insist that most so-called mass extinctions are merely variations of background extinctions. All increasingly tend to think that extinctions are random, not directional.

A Brief History of the Controversy

At the beginning of this century, some American citizens organized themselves against the teaching of Darwin's theory of natural selection, a move reflecting our society's changing social and educational traditions.

For the first time, children were required to attend school well into their teens. Because many parents could not afford private schools for their children, they were thus forced to accept public education or break the law. Accordingly, this period marked the first time that virtually all teenagers in the country were exposed to at least some science class work. It was an adjustment for all concerned. When high school biology teachers taught the basic outlines of Darwin's theory, parents were sometimes shocked to hear from their children that God had little, if anything, to do with life on our planet. Furthermore, it distressed many parents that their children were being taught that humans evolved from the lower animals, as such views appeared to be atheistic. Concerned parents petitioned their school boards and state legislatures to eliminate the teaching of Darwin's theory but enforcing laws against teachers who continued to expose their students to a respected scientific theory was difficult.

In 1925 the famous Scopes "monkey trial" attempted to enforce a Tennessee statute against the teaching of evolution. (1) Although John T. Scopes, a public high school biology teacher, was convicted of breaking the law, the trial became an important victory for the proponents of Darwin's theory. The publicity surrounding the trial portrayed the defense sympathetically: Scopes and his defenders were presented as informed, enlightened, and unbiased, and opponents to Darwinism were made to look ignorant and hateful. After 1925, although anti-Darwinian statutes were not introduced to state legislatures, many biology textbooks, in order to avoid controversy, nevertheless eliminated all discussions of life's history from their pages.

For decades, Darwinism was seldom taught, even though it was not legally prohibited. But in response to the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik in the late 1950s, the United States Congress began pouring money into science education at all levels. Science curricula were drawn up as models of what the public schools should teach their students, and Darwinism was included as the foundation of high school biology. In a few years, textbooks reflected these government recommendations, and so evolutionary theory appeared, once again, in the public school classroom.

By this time, the scientific theory had become much more sophisticated than it was in Scopes's day. But opponents of the theory still objected to Darwinism in any form, believing it to be an atheistic and false view of the origin and evolution of life. Slowly, scientists and intellectuals began to understand that the noise was not going to die down, that there was an important social and political problem bound up with their work.

Many biblical literalists, who call themselves "creationists" or "creation scientists," (2) began to try to restrict what biology teachers could teach in the public schools. Once again, state legislatures passed statutes limiting the teaching of Darwinian theory or requiring that biology teachers give "creation science" equal time in their lectures and assignments.

By the 1970s, animosity on all sides of the debate was firmly cemented, and social and religious conservatives offered anti-Darwinist laws to many state legislatures. During this time, biblical literalists had become much more sophisticated and so began to argue that Darwinism in all its forms functioned as a religion because it tried to explain the origin and meaning of life. This "religious" view, they sometimes contended, should not be forced on their children. On the other hand and at the same time, biblical literalists began calling themselves "creation scientists" and maintained that all they wanted was to present the scientific shortcomings of Darwin's theory or to offer other scientific theories about the origin of life and the nature of the fossil record.


As the "creationists" take delight in noting, scientists have stated, on many occasions, that Darwinian evolution is the only possible explanation for our existence. Scientists have even asserted that Darwinism explains the fabric of morality and the "meaning" of life. Indeed, an authority on neo-Darwinism published a book entitled The Meaning of Evolution (3) that ends with an exploration of morality's biological foundations. Members of our society who are in no way part of the fundamentalist right wing can and do take offense at such discussions in a scientific work. Science, many casually assume, deals with facts and should not try to teach values. Therefore, scientific research cannot instruct us about the "meaning" or the "purpose" of life or about morality.

On the other hand, biblical literalists are not proposing scientific alternatives to Darwinian thought. Rather, they are motivated by what they take to be God's personal and spiritual call; they do not accept any empirical inquiries into the natural world except insofar as such work can confirm a literal reading of Judeo-Christian Scripture. What they propose is not "science," and their use of the term is merely a skillful rhetorical device to obscure the fundamental differences between biblical literalism and other approaches to knowledge.


The debate has become confusing in the public's mind because all sides employ abundant "us-versus-them" rhetoric. There are, however, more than two viewpoints at issue, an important facet of the problem that has been overlooked or obscured by politicians and the courts alike. Let us summarize the several different methodological and empirical issues.

Darwinian Evolution. Gradual and naturalistic, this classic theory rests on the efficient causality of natural selection. It points to change within a species (microevolution) and argues for change from one species to another. The theory accords poorly with the fossil record, and empirical evidence regarding speciation events is still regrettably sparse. But the theory is powerful and useful because it explains taxonomy and many other elements of biology.

Neo-Darwinian Evolution. Also gradual and naturalistic, this variation of the classic theory also rests on the efficient causality of natural selection. But selection, proponents argue, can occur at the level of the kinship group or the gene as well as the individual. This view argues for change within a species (microevolution) and from one species to another. The theory accords poorly with the fossil record for the same reasons as Darwinian evolution does. Again, the empirical evidence regarding speciation events is frustratingly sparse. But the theory is powerful because it explains taxonomy and many other elements of biology.

Evolution via Punctuated Equilibrium. This approach is less gradualistic but still entirely naturalistic. It rests completely on the efficient causality of natural selection. It, too, argues for change within a species (microevolution) and from one species to another. This theory fits the basic characteristics of the fossil record better, just as it was designed to do. Once again, the empirical evidence regarding speciation events is regrettably sparse, and yet this theory relies heavily on speciation. But the theory is powerful because it explains taxonomy and many other elements of biology.

Other Forms of Evolutionary Theory. These theories are even less gradualistic, and they may or may not be naturalistic.

View 1. Evolutionary nihilism. This position is similar to that of neo-Darwinism and punctuated equilibrium but emphasizes the importance of the random processes of mass extinction. No kind of natural selection or overriding drive is as important to a species as "evolutionary luck" is. This theory probably fits the fossil record best, but some mass extinction evidence is still highly debatable.

View 2. Secular final causes. This is actually a group of theories positing a drive toward increasing complexity self-consciousness, self-organization, or the occupation of all biological niches. These theories rest on final causality until and unless we can discern efficient causes for what we see. All such theories allow change within a species (microevolution) as Darwin sketched it. But Darwinian selection is not the cause of change from one species to another. Such theories can fit the fossil record well, but so far they do not empirically explain evolutionary mechanisms or the nature of the "drives" proposed for the natural world.

View 3. Theistic evolution. This approach proposes a framework for recurring episodes of divinely guided creation of the increasingly complex life-forms we see in the fossil record. It rests on final causality and is not naturalistic. It allows change within a species (microevolution) as Darwin described. But the Change of one species to another is caused by divine, not natural, action. The theory fits the fossil record well but, by definition, is not within the realm of empirical testability. The enormous depth of geologic time and the abundant evidence of extinction in earth history appear to make the Creator less than highly efficient. This theory offers no explanation, except divine will, for the regularities of taxonomy. Biological theory before Darwin was generally similar to what theistic evolutionists defend today.

Biblical Literalism. This view states that instantaneous and non-naturalistic creation occurred about 6000 years ago in the span of one week. The theory allows change only within a species (microevolution). Any change from one species to another, the theory insists, is illusory. This viewpoint fits the fossil record very poorly and it is not within the realm of empirical testability. It offers no explanation, except divine will, of the regularities of taxonomy. It also does not explain why other religions have a different understanding of the world's creation.

There are many interrelated questions that the "creation scientists" have brought before our society. Unfortunately, the questions require careful thinking and reasoned answers, qualities that public debates often lack. These questions include


The most recent legal case about these matters was decided by the United States Supreme Court in response to a 1981 Louisiana law requiring a balanced treatment of "evolutionary science" and "creation science." On the one hand, the biblical literalists argued before the court, they wanted only a chance to present scientific evidence against Darwinian evolution. On the other hand, they asserted that there was no real difference between the creationist and evolutionist positions, since both functioned as a religion.

In 1987 the Supreme Court voted seven to two to strike down the Louisiana law as a violation of the First Amendment's establishment of religion clause. The court maintained that science and religion were meaningfully different and that Darwinian theory was science, whereas biblical literalism was a religious tenet, one segment of Protestant fundamentalism. In our diverse society, the Constitution prohibits the teaching of one religion in the public schools. Since biblical literalism is only one religion among many teachers cannot present it by itself to public school children. And since biblical literalism is not science, it cannot be taught by biology teachers in the public schools. Scientists, most religious leaders, and theologians throughout the country were pleased by the decision.

Justice Anthony Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion in the Louisiana case, resting his argument on the idea that scientists use an evolutionary frame-work of thought to explain not only changes in species but also the origin of life itself, a subject that Scalia regards as religious. Indeed, as we have seen, the chemical or prebiological evolution of organic molecules is often discussed by scientists in their research work on life's origins. Scalia reasoned that creationism also addresses the origin of life and so could be taught as an alternative to the Darwinian framework.

Professor Stephen Jay Gould, responding to Scalia's opinion in Natural History magazine, denied that evolutionary theory applies to the origin of life. Gould stated that in Darwin's words, evolution addresses only "descent with modification" from prior living things. Although Gould believes that the origin of life is a proper problem for science to address, he insists that evolutionary science does not include a theory of life's origins.

But within the framework of Darwinian selection, many evolutionary biologists do speculate about the origin of life in the early earth's oceans. Evolutionary biologists have not always limited their thinking to "descent with modification" from previously living organisms. At least when doing this kind of work, they are speculating about matters that used to be left to myth or theology, not science. Although it is not surprising that some parents are offended by such speculation, it could serve as a useful starting point of a discussion of where the edge of science lies and what constitutes the spirit of empirical inquiry.

In addition, just as the "creation scientists" contend, prestigious supporters of Darwinian theory have written about morality and the meaning of life in evolutionary terms. No less an authority than George Gaylord Simpson, for example, concludes his book, entitled The Meaning of Evolution, with a section on evolutionary ethics. More recently, Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson and his followers established a whole new subdiscipline within evolutionary theory. Their writings discuss morality in terms of sociobiology, a fully materialistic framework of thought resting on Darwinian natural selection. Again, evolutionary scientists are encroaching on what we, as a society have traditionally recognized as religious turf. We might note, of course, that since Galileo's time, science has been pushing back the edges of the religious realm. Perhaps this case is no different, and we might argue that it would be detrimental to science to step back at this critical juncture.

Nevertheless, many members of our society who have no sympathy for "creation science" might still ask, If evolutionary theory leads, over and over again, to pronouncements about the origin of life and theories about morality shouldn't traditional religions be given equal time somewhere in the school curriculum? Perhaps in response to this view, scientists could set aside their thinking about the origin of life and its meaning and about the moral or ethical implications of evolutionary theory. Surely at present, our diverse and pluralistic society has no consensus about what science can or should teach us about such matters. We all could embrace the view that the world is much richer and deeper than anything yet defined by empirical and nonempirical disciplines of thought. Therefore, understanding conflicting scientific theories actually magnifies the glory of what we Homo sapiens sapiens have accomplished in the realm of abstract thought.

In this regard, scientists should not be hesitant to say that their work is based on theory. (4) Recall that unlike the "theories" put forward in colloquial speech, scientific theories are a synthesis of measurement, calculation, experiment, and critical thinking. In scientific work, even though theories rigorously organize a great deal of empirical evidence regarding the natural world, they are not static and complete truths. For example, plate tectonics is still a theory and geologists are able to discuss its shortcomings without the defensive fear or self-righteousness marking some of the legal testimony defending Darwinian evolution. Geologists adopted the plate tectonic framework because it explains so much about the world and draws on so many different types of data. It is, indeed, a good story! But the Columbia Plateau flood basalts in Washington State have not been well explained by tectonic theory, nor do we understand the mechanism that drives the plates' movement. Should geologists therefore view these difficulties as simply "unexplained at present" or as a fundamental threat to the whole tectonic framework?


Consider what might be the situation if our society had a somewhat different social structure. What if the biblical literalists had ignored Darwin and instead taken deep offense at plate tectonics? The scenario is not so far fetched: "Creation scientists." in fact, do not accept plate tectonics or the geological evidence for the earth's amazingly great age. (But so far, biblical literalists have gone to court about the teaching of Darwinian evolution rather than about the tectonic theory of the earth.) If fundamentalist clergy were preaching against the basic finding of tectonics, geophysicists and geochemists might well be defensive enough to lose sight of the nature of scientific work, just as paleontologists and biologists in the existing public debate sometimes do. But in the peace given to some geologists by the diversion of "creationist" energy toward combating Darwin, scientists can feel comfortable saying that plate tectonics is a theory. It is not immutable. Indeed, it has changed significantly since it was introduced, for example, by the inclusion of ideas about "suspect terrains" and their importance in the western United States and Canada. Tectonics delights scientists because it explains so much, but they could - and should - abandon the whole framework of tectonics if a better empirical theory surfaced. This is not a criticism of the theory; it is, in fact, a credit to the amazingly successful methodology at the core of all science.

Similarly religious-minded members of our society could hold in respectful attention the idea that all empirical research and theological debates magnify the glory of any creator or first cause. In fact, that is the viewpoint of most church members in this society. The biblical literalists are only a very small minority of the Jewish/Christian/Islamic tradition. "Creation scientists" are out of step with the Vatican, with widely recognized Protestant and Jewish theologians, and with all non-Western religions. Perhaps we can look forward to the day in which members of the mainline churches and non-Western religions take an active stand against "creation science" rhetoric and legal actions


Unfortunately the "creation scientists" have adapted to their defeat in the courts by changing tactics. They now are focusing on altering the content of high school textbooks and have been remarkably effective in this task. Rather than run the risk of controversy many biology texts now shy away from presenting Darwin's theory or discussing its merits and shortcomings. Information about the cell, about heredity, and about ecosystems is presented without any overall theory uniting them and without a discussion of the changes in the history of life that we see in the fossil record.

Taking basic scientific theory out of the biology classroom is not, in my opinion, fair to the students. High school biology students assume they are being taught the most current biological science. Although scientists won the legal battle in the courts, we all are now losing the struggle to teach the next generation the outlines of one of science's most intriguing debates. The point is not just academic. Our society is becoming increasingly affected by a whole host of issues related to evolution, for example, in the rapid adaptive changes in strains of pathogens to our antibiotic drugs and the similar changes of insects in response to insecticides for our crops.


All variations on Darwinist theory conflict with a literal reading of the book of Genesis. Although the same could be said about plate tectonics, some biblical literalists have focused on eliminating any theory of evolution from biology classes in public schools, in general, the courts and the general public have not been sympathetic to the biblical literalists. However, the debate continues because it rests on fundamental concepts such as what constitutes science and what constitutes religion. Regrettably rather than engaging citizens in a discussion of these important issues, both scientists and biblical literalists often descend into polemics.

"Creation scientists" have turned to another tactic: They are now concentrating on becoming members of school boards and members of panels that select textbooks for public schools. As a result, many high school biology textbooks omit serious discussions of Darwinism in order to avoid confrontations with the well-organized "creationists." We can only hope that mainstream Christian and non-Western members of our society will join the fray and help balance the views of zealots in the "creation science" movement, on the one hand, and of defensive scientists, on the other.

1 A delightful and highly readable account of the trial is given by Ray Ginger in Six Days or Forever? (New York: Signet Books, 1960). Back
2 The terminology here is confusing because the Vatican, mainline Protestant authorities, and Jewish and Muslim theologians also are creationists, that is, believers in a created world. Biblical literalists like to claim they are Christianity's only "creationists," but this is simply not the case. To make matters more confusing, must scientists object to the term science as biblical literalists apply it to themselves. Back
3 George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949). Back
4 Popular representations of research in evolutional science today all too often claim far too much for the scientific work on which they report. See, for example, Jonathan Weiner, The beak of the Finch (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), which maintains that two Princeton biologists have seen Darwinian natural selection change the finches on one of the Galapagos islands. Actually, the research has shown that the average size of the birds beaks increased in drought years and decreased in wet years. No net change, however, has been documented, and the results would be regarded more accurately as variation within a population, not direct evidence of a new species coming into existence. Back