Evolution: The Controversy with Creationism

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Perhaps no topic evokes a greater visceral reaction among both scientific and religious communities than that of the treatment of Darwinian evolution in Western society. On the one hand, scientists realize that this model of how the observed complexity of the living world likely arose seems, at this point in its history, almost self-evident. On the other hand, the media attention engendered by the vocal elements in opposition, whether motivated by creationism or intelligent design, pushes the churchgoing public to think that evolution (and by extension all of science) and religion are "at war." This caricature of the relationship is not only misleading but also mistaken. Ian Barbour, in his seminal work "Religion and Science" (1997) has shown convincingly that the warfare or conflict mode is one of four archetypes for the relationship between science and religion. In fact, the conflict mode represents the reaction of the extremes in both fields. In order to understand the true nature of this conversation as well as the specific positions taken by Darwinists and creationists, it is necessary to review both the science and the history of biological evolution.

Darwin and His Times

It is important to place Charles Darwin within the framework of both the English society of the nineteenth century and the scientific culture of western Europe and the United States during that time. Darwin was a product of the British intellectual class in every sense of the word. His father and his grandfather were both physicians. In addition, Erasmus Darwin, his paternal grandfather, was among those naturalists (now called biologists) who, at the end of the eighteenth century, challenged the notion that species were "fixed," that they existed in the same form in which they were originally created. Thus the concept of species changing over time was a part of Charles Darwin's personal history.

Darwin's voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 became the means by which the Cambridge-educated student cemented his interest in biology and severed his path toward the theological training to which he seemed destined. He returned to England with his notebooks full of observations but with the ideas that would become his major work still unformed. By 1838 his interaction with the London society of naturalists resulted in the first formulations of his model.

After the voyage, Darwin did not leave England again. His marriage to Emma Wedgewood in 1839 and their life together at Down House in Kent were the stage for the remainder of his life. From that place, in the setting of a country squire and consummate Victorian intellectual, Darwin published the works through which he is known.

At Down House, perhaps taking one of his famous meditative strolls along the Sandwalk, Darwin decided to publish his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. His work on this had been ongoing since his return to England on the Beagle. The final stimulus to publication was a paper by Alfred Wallace, a young naturalist working in the Far East. The similarity of their conclusions led Darwin to finally complete his book for release in November 1859. Origin of Species was released in a total of six editions, all overseen by Darwin. The sixth, published in 1872, was his last. Darwin died in 1882.

The Darwinian Model

Darwin's great contribution was to provide a physical explanation for the observed complexity of the living world. Rather than assume that all things were created in the form in which they now occur (preformationism), he posited that everything arose by descent with modification from a common ancestor. The driving force of this, he proposed, was natural selection. His choice of terms for this force was not accidental. In fact, he was referring by comparison to the commonly understood agricultural practices of his day, by which desired traits of plants or animals were selected artificially by breeding. He argued that, in a similar fashion, favorable traits are selected in the natural world and that this selection results in the complexity of species.

John Maynard Smith put forward a convenient statement of the Darwinian model in 1991:

  1. Population of entities (units of evolution) exist with three properties: (a) multiplication (one can give rise to two), (b) variation (not all entities are alike), and (c) heredity (like usually begets like during multiplication).
  2. Differences between entities influence the likelihood of surviving and reproducing. That is, the differences influence their fitness.
  3. The population changes over time (evolves) in the presence of selective forces.
  4. The entities come to possess traits that increase their fitness. (Smith, 1991, p. 27)

It is important to note the emphasis on reproductive fitness in this model. When Darwin used the term fitness in Origin of Species, he meant it in this sense. That is, those traits that increase the likelihood of the organism reproducing are defined as making the organism more fit. In trying to clarify his meaning about this in subsequent editions, Darwin eventually came to rely on a phrase penned by Herbert Spencer, his contemporary and one of the great figures of Victorian England. In chapter three of the sixth edition of Origin of Species, Darwin wrote: "I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient" (1872, p. 32).

The image of "nature red in tooth and claw," to use Alfred, Lord Tennyson's oft-quoted line (In Memoriam, 1850, verse LVI), comes from a misreading of this epithet from Spencer. Nonetheless, it is true that Darwin's model does propose that some individuals are less reproductively fit than others and that this will inevitably entail the die-off of species. It is from this consequence of his model that the theodicy problem arises. Darwin was keenly aware of the theological impact of his own physical interpretations. He wrote in an 1860 letter to the American naturalist Asa Gray that he had trouble reconciling a loving God with some of what he observed in nature. In particular, referencing a species of wasp who lays her eggs in the living body of a caterpillar, whose flesh is then used as nourishment for the wasp's offspring, Darwin wrote, "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice" (Darwin, 1860).

This theological challenge became a part of the catalyst that led to the reaction against the Darwinian model in a minority of Christian communities in the United States. The larger issue, as discussed below, is that of the completely materialistic interpretation of nature that scientific descendants of Darwin make, especially in the modern era.

The Modern Synthesis: Neo-Darwinism and Twentieth-Century Biology

The decade from 1859 to 1869 saw three scientific achievements that, nearly one hundred years later, were intimately related in the modern paradigms of biology. The first was the publication of Darwin's masterwork in November 1859. During this time Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk working in Brün (now Brno), Austria, developed a quantitative understanding of inheritance. He presented his work to the Brün Academy of Sciences in 1868 and published it in the academy's journal a year later. In 1869 Johann Fredriech Miescher, a Swiss chemist working at the time in Tübingen, isolated a substance from white blood cells found on used bandages. He named this material nuclein. It is now known as DNA.

In the nineteenth century, no one had any idea that these three events were related in any way. Certainly both Mendel and Miescher, as active scientists, were aware of Darwin's work and the implications of his model. However, virtually no scientist of the day even read Mendel's paper or appreciated the shift it signaled. In addition, no one could foresee that the genes whose behavior Mendel described and whose variants were the selectable traits Darwin's model relied upon would be found to be sequences of nitrogenous bases making up the structure of Miescher's nuclein.

In 1942 Julian Huxley, the grandson of Thomas Huxley, Darwin's champion, published Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. Huxley proposed that the Darwinian model, which had been relatively neglected by biologists (although popular with social scientists), could now be "rescued" by linking it with Mendelian genetics. Mendel of course had been rediscovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, when his experiments were repeated and shown to coincide with the behavior of cells as observed by more powerful microscopes than were available in the 1860s. The power of genetics was evident in the impressive data produced with model organisms such as the fruit fly. In addition, the field of biochemistry added to this new formulation with a search for what the chemical nature of the gene might be.

The search culminated in 1942 with the discovery by Oswald Avery and his colleagues that DNA was indeed the genetic material. Although it took another ten years for this idea to be accepted completely, the stage was now set for a full statement of what has come to be called the neo-Darwinian synthesis. This formulation includes the following features:

  • Genes: information in the form of the linear array of bases that make up the DNA molecules of chromosomes.
  • The traits of an organism (phenotype): direct expression of the information found in the genes (genotype).
  • Variations: result of subtle differences in this information (changes in base pairs).
  • Changes in genes: mutational events that occur in a "random" way. Random here means that it is not possible to predict which nitrogenous base changes within the DNA. However, the nature of the change is predictable, given the mutagenic stimulus.
  • A population of entities: will have variations in traits that are the result of mutational events (genetic drift).

In this new world of biology, the variant genes are acted upon by natural selection. Variants with a greater likelihood of allowing the organism to reproduce and pass these traits on to the next generation have a positive selective advantage and are said to be more fit.

Encounters between Evolution and Theology

Immediately after the publication of Darwin's book there was a theological reaction within the Abrahamic religions, mainly the Protestant Christian denominations. At first glance it would seem that the problem was with the challenge to the Genesis account of creation. However, it must be understood that the fixity of species had also been assumed by science as well. After all, the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), whose taxonomic classification system is still used in the early twenty-first century, assumed that the species he was describing in his work had existed in their present forms since the beginning. Even in Darwin's day this was the predominant model for many biologists, although challenges had already been mounted before 1859. Therefore, while this issue was a problem for theology, it was also a problem for many scientists as well.

A larger theological issue concerned the explanation itself. Darwin consciously wrote his book with earlier models in mind, especially the natural theology of William Paley. In 1802 the Reverend Paley published his view of the origin of life's complexity in a volume called Natural Theology; or, Evidences for the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. In this book Paley presented his famous watch and watchmaker metaphor. This theistic use of nature ultimately led the modern evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to title his challenge to theism The Blind Watchmaker (1986).

Darwin, in response to Paley's model of an interventionist God creating all things at the beginning, offered instead a naturalistic and materialistic explanation: descent with modification from a common ancestor through the nonsupernatural force of natural selection. While this model does not assume the absence of a God, it certainly does not invoke God's action in any direct way in its presentation. Darwin was not unaware of the effect his model had among theologians and religious communities. In fact, in the second edition of Origin of Species he added the following statement, somewhat in his own defense:

I see no reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one. It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Leibnitz, "as subversive of natural, and inferentially of revealed, religion." (p. 239)

Darwin's view of the transience of the problem is certainly touching in light of the debate that still seems to rage in some circles over his "volume." Nonetheless, in this short and somewhat disingenuous statement he was attempting to make the case for two ideas: the need for science to be seen as not in contradistinction to religion, and the need for theology-religion to take into account the latest scientific advances.

In spite of Darwin's position that there was no threat to religion, the interpreters of his model had other ideas. Thomas Huxley, one of Darwin's chief defenders, saw the evolutionary model as something that went beyond the biology it described. He called for the development of a social philosophy, akin to and as a substitute for religion, based on the Darwinian principles. For Huxley, the highest goals and values of humanity could be seen as the continuing evolution of the human species. Herbert Spencer also used Darwinian principals to develop a philosophical and political framework but wanted to apply the survival of the fittest model to the evolution of social systems. Finally, Francis Galton, Darwin's first cousin, used the model to advocate for the purposeful direction of the evolution of humans, a process he called eugenics.

Among theologians of the time there were some who tried to cling to the strict interpretative view of creation as described in Genesis, which was not at odds with the model of many naturalists of the day. Others took the new model to heart and attempted to make theological sense out of this new view of the living world. Those theologians who embraced the new idea were already, in some sense, committed to a new kind of biblical criticism that was beginning to supplant literalism among some of the more liberal Christian thinkers. This movement, rather than Darwinian evolution per se, gave rise to the fundamentalists.

The Fundamentalists

It is commonly assumed that antievolutionism is synonymous with Christian fundamentalism. While many Christians who identify with fundamentalism are antievolutionist, the origins of this strain of Christian thought did not include this tenet. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church met in 1910 to approve those beliefs that would be considered fundamental to being a Christian, the following five were adopted:

  1. the inerrancy of the Scriptures in their original documents;
  2. the deity of Jesus Christ, including the virgin birth;
  3. substitutionary atonement;
  4. the physical resurrection of Christ;
  5. the miracle-working power of Jesus Christ.

Nowhere in this list is there any reference to Darwinian evolution. In fact some of the theologians involved in the formulation of these basic tenets accepted evolution although they were still believing Christians. Thus, at its very foundations, fundamentalism was not antievolution.

How is it then that the modern understanding of a fundamentalist includes this anti-Darwinian posture? Certainly over the years since the establishment of these basic tenets of belief as essential some things have changed. The first fundamental is the inerrancy of Scripture. As originally argued, this tenet was directed against the liberal Protestant theologians who were coming to rely more and more on historical methods of criticism in biblical hermeneutics. The reaction was not against the scientific enterprise itself. The first fundamental deals with the divine authority of Scripture, juxtaposed against the view that these writings were but the historical works of humans. The intent was to defend the purity of the teaching against internal disagreement within the Christian community, as opposed to direct challenges from science.

The move from this position to one that espouses the literal meaning of Genesis as a description of how creation actually took place is a matter of only a few steps. In the face of the growing social movement of secular humanism, itself a spin-off of the scientific enterprise, it is not surprising that some elements of the fundamentalist community began to react against the Darwinian model itself. What developed from this reaction is the theological stance called biblical creationism, which rejects the scientific models completely and relies upon Scripture as the sole source for understanding how the natural world arose.

Scientific Creationism

A visit to the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in the foothills east of San Diego, California, is quite instructive. It is clear that this is a facility that celebrates rather than rejects science. The founding members, such as Duane Guish (biochemistry) and Henry Morris (geology) are trained in science, not theology. One is surrounded by evidence that scientific instruments and techniques are employed in their work. And yet their interpretation of their investigations is given one and only one direction: scientific support of the creation story as given in the Book of Genesis.

The ICR founder and president, John Morris, posted the following introduction to their mission on the institute's website:

Our world, our church, our schools, our society, need the truth of creation more than ever. We see the wrong thinking of evolution having produced devastating results in every realm. Our passion at the Institute for Creation Research is to see science return to its rightful God-glorifying position, and see creation recognized as a strength by the body of Christ; supporting Scripture, answering questions, satisfying doubts and removing road blocks to the Gospel. The Institute for Creation Research Graduate School exists to train students in scientific research and teaching skills, preparing effective warriors for the faith.

Morris and others see themselves as scientists whose duty is to correct the errors of the recent past and allow science to resume its "correct" relationship with religion as support for the truths revealed in Scripture. They are not theologians, nor do they pretend to any theological insights whatsoever. Their focus is on the instruments and methods of science and how these can be brought to bear on the questions related to the natural world as seen through the words of Genesis. They apply the term young earth creationism to their view of the world, and they support six principles:

  1. Creatio ex nihilo by divine action, without any subsequent development. Everything was created as it exists now.
  2. Mutation and natural selection cannot explain the subsequent development of all living things. This is a rejection of the idea that gradual change (variations) can confer selective advantages that lead to new species.
  3. Speciation does not occur. That is, changes happen within a species (within a "kind" in their usage), but new species do not develop from preexisting species.
  4. There is no descent from a common ancestor. With respect to human origins in particular, this rejects the notion that humans and other primates have an ancestral link.
  5. The geology of the earth is a result of catastrophism rather than evolution. In particular, much of what is seen can be explained by positing a great flood, as described in Genesis.
  6. The earth is less than ten thousand years old.

All of these principlesespecially the last one, with its rejection of all modern dating techniques as inherently flawedput the scientific creationists in complete disagreement with any natural scientists and with most mainstream theologians. This then raises one of the principle ironies of scientific creationism. Its proponents embrace the methodology of science but reject the standard interpretation of those results. To say that their science is influenced by their religious belief is perhaps self-evident from the conclusions they draw. However, a careful reading of their literature reveals that they take themselves to be scientists and that their argument is with what they view as the incorrect interpretations of the data. This of course leads them into dangerous waters, both scientifically and theologically. For instance, the young earth creationists cannot deny the geological data that leads to the 4.5-billion-year age of the earth. Rather, they argue that God created the earth to have the "appearance" of age, when in reality it is only ten thousand years old. In Finding Darwin's God (1999) Kenneth Miller, a Brown University cellular biologist, argues that this is incorrect from the standpoints of both science and theology. He writes that their rejection of evolution leads them to characterize God as a "schemer, trickster, even a charlatan" (Miller, 1999, p. 80).

In the end, the controversy is not really between science and faith but between one kind of science and another. True, creation science assumes that the Genesis story is the literal description of the origin of the natural world. However, it contends that science would also agree with this if only it sharpened its interpretive powers and admitted the errors of the Darwinian model.

Intelligent Design

The controversy between creationism and evolution has spilled over into society, mainly in the form of debates about what should or should not be included in the educational curriculum taught in elementary and secondary schools. The classic case of the so-called Scopes monkey trial in 1925 was just the beginning of these questions. Even into the twenty-first century, school boards are constantly beset with requests to include "both sides" of the story in any curriculum discussing the origins and subsequent development of the natural world. As such, even the word evolution becomes suspect as soon as such deliberations are opened. The antiscientific and, perhaps, anti-intellectual position of biblical literalism can usually be set aside as not appropriate to be taught in the same course of study as the methods of science. Even scientific creationism, with its appeal to those very methods, cannot make the cut as "science" in most school board meetings or courtrooms. However, the new contender for attention is neither of these, but rather the intelligent design movement. Intelligent design is best understood as the contention that the living world has features that can only be explained by the action of an intelligent designer. For instance, Michael Behe, in Darwin's Black Box (1996), argues that there are examples of cellular function that could not have arisen as the result of gradual mutational change under the pressure of natural selection. He calls such features "irreducibly complex" and gives a list of six examples from his understanding of the biochemistry of living systems. Of course, his position eventually devolves into a "god of the gaps" argument. In this sense, as soon as an explanation for what appears to be irreducibly complex is presented with a naturalistic basis, his designer disappears from the scene. However, this is not the only issue at stake in this discussion. William Dembski, in Intelligent Design (1999) and No Free Lunch (2002), takes aim at the philosophical underpinnings of the modern scientific method. He proposes the concept of "specified complexity" to describe features of living systems that infer design. At issue for Dembski is not so much the god of the gaps problem, but rather what he believes to be an insufficiency within the scientific enterprise itself. He argues that science by definition is opaque to the idea of purpose or design. This goes back to the original Aristotelian-Thomistic uses of teleology as the fourth or final cause of a thing. The problem here is that the philosophical assumptions of modern science derive from those post-Cartesian thinkers who rejected teleological explanations as a part of their methodology. On the one hand, this allowed for a more objective approach to understanding nature, opening the way for the experimentalists. On the other hand, the philosophical analogy imbedded in Aquinas's fifth way of understanding God, the so-called argument from design, seemed no longer valid. Dembski and the intelligent design movement push for a fundamental shift in the philosophy of science. In this way they are distinct from the scientific creationists. They are modern scientists in every sense of the word. However, they would argue that a model of origin and complexification for the living world must include a recognition of purpose, and through this a sense that some features require the action of a designer. Therefore these features would be characterized as specified or irreducible complexity. There is no challenge to current science from the notion of irreducible complexity in itself, in the sense that the properties of complex systems are not explainable as the sum of the parts. This is, in fact, the hallmark of the move to networks and complexity analysis in biology. However, when this complexity is seen to be "specified" by a designer with intent, the issue is joined. The need for a designer then leads to the question of who this designer might be and necessarily becomes a theological problem, not a scientific one. Most commentators prefer to see intelligent design as just another form of scientific creationism. However, a closer reading of advocates such as Behe and Dembski reveals some distinct differences. Those most closely associated with the scientific arguments for intelligent design are not in any sense rejecting evidence for the age of the earth or other features of the geological record. The scientific creationists accept the methodology of science as given, with its reductionism in place, but have a different interpretation of the data based of course on their view of the Genesis description. Nonetheless, both movements fall within the same anti-Darwinian camp. As such, the conversations that concern curriculum focus on the inclusion of intelligent design rather than scientific creationism in the science classroom.

Theistic Evolution

Given the fireworks surrounding the media reporting of creationism-evolution discussions, it is no wonder that the general public, and indeed a fair portion of the scientific community, believe it is one or the other; one is either a Darwinian or a Christian. However, for the majority of both theologians and scientists, the truth lies in between these two artificial extremes.

To see this middle position clearly, it is necessary to understand the nature of the scientific enterprise and its self-imposed limits. Science restricts its investigations to the collection of data and the building of physical models of explanation for natural phenomena. It is never the function of science to say that certain data prove or disprove the existence of God. However, it is natural for a scientist, once having derived a model such as Darwin's, to speculate on its meaning beyond the data itself. While this is normal, the scientist is at that point engaging in philosophy or even theology. The confusion arises when a particular scientist or scientific commentator attempts to make the data apply directly to the philosophical point. Thus Daniel Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), argued that Darwinian evolution "proves" that God does not exist.

The result of this confusion has been the polarized view that many have of these issues. A more reasonable understanding of the possible positions is in John Haught's God after Darwin (2000) and Michael Ruse's Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? (2001). Theistic evolution is not one position but rather a group of related positions. Theistic evolution accepts the facts leading up to and supporting the Darwinian model and concludes that this model is the most likely explanation for those facts. However, theistic evolution also accepts the idea of divine action in all of creation and sees the Darwinian model as one way in which divine action might have operated.

For the theistic evolutionist there is no inconsistency in this stance. It is a combination of scientific understanding and faith. Haught, as a theologian, argues that theology must respond to the facts of evolution with introspection. The theodicy issue that Darwin saw as a part of his model must be encountered, Haught proposes, with a full acceptance of the evolutionary history of the world.


Modern biology relies upon the neo-Darwinian model as a central paradigm of the discipline. While modifications are proposed to the structure of the model, nothing appears in the early twenty-first century to be a rejection of the model in the sense that the scientific creationists wish to see. As a result, the so-called controversy between science and theology that this represents must be thought of as a conversation waiting to be explored.


Behe, Michael J. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York, 1996. Behe is a biochemist who takes the position that certain features of living systems are "irreducibly complex" and require the intervention of an intelligent designer.

Darwin, Charles. Letter to Asa Gray, 1860. Quoted by Stephen Jay Gould in "Nonmoral Nature," available from http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_nonmoral.html.

Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. 1859 (first edition). References here are to the Encyclopedia Britannica re-publication of the sixth and final edition.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York, 1986.

Dawkins, Richard. Climbing Mount Improbable. New York, 1996. Written for lay audiences by an evolutionary biologist and champion of the Darwinian model.

Dembski, William A. Intelligent Design. Downer's Grove, Ill., 1999.

Dembski, William A. No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. Lanham, Md., 2002. Dembski is a mathematician and philosopher. Some of the material in these two books is not easily approachable, but the overviews presented represent the gist of the intelligent design movement.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York, 1995.

Haught, John F. God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, Colo., 2000. Haught is a Georgetown University theologian who defends the theistic evolution stance.

Huxley, Julian. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. London, 1942.

Institute for Creation Science. "Introduction to ICR." Available from http://www.icr.org/abouticr/intro.htm.

Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution. New York, 1999. An explanation of the evolutionary model and a critique of various antievolutionist views. Written by a scientist for a lay audience.

Morris, Henry M. A History of Modern Creationism. San Diego, Calif., 1984. A discussion of scientific creationism by the founder and president of the Institution for Creation Research.

Paley, William. Natural Theology; or, Evidences for the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. London, 1802.

Peters, Ted, and Martinez Hewlett. Evolution from Creation to New Creation. Nashville, Tenn., 2003. A survey and critique of all of the positions by a theologian and a biological scientist, this work in the end supports theistic evolution.

Ruse, Michael. Taking Darwin Seriously. Amherst, N.Y., 1998.

Ruse, Michael. Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion. Cambridge, U.K., 2001. Two important books by one of the most important commentators on evolution and the debate with theology. Accessible to the lay person.

Smith, John Maynard. In Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation: Speciation and Morphogenesis, edited by L. Margulis and R. Fester. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Martinez Hewlett (2005)

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Evolution: The Controversy with Creationism

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