Evolution and Creationism in American Public Schools

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Evolution and Creationism in American Public Schools


The history of the teaching of evolution in America cannot be addressed without analyzing the origins of contemporary creationism. The Scopes Trial of 1925 is often regarded as a landmark in the battle to teach evolution in American public schools, but the U.S. Supreme Court did not overturn state laws that banned the teaching of evolution until 1968. In response, creationists adopted a new strategy, calling for "balanced treatment" in the teaching of evolution and the Creation. That is, they demanded that "Special Creation" be taught as science and that evolution should be described as "merely" a theory. "Creation Science" has traditionally embraced religious tenets, most notably that of divine creation "from nothing," distinct "kinds" of plants and animals, a worldwide flood, and a relatively recent origin of the universe. In 1987 the Supreme Court ruled that state laws requiring equal time for creationism were unconstitutional. In the 1990s some states removed evolution from their curricular mandates and gave local school boards the right to decide whether or not to teach evolution. Even though the National Academy of Science and the National Science Foundation have identified evolution as the unifying concept of modern biology, not all states require the inclusion of evolution in high school biology courses.


Scientists and philosophers were interested in the concept of evolution long before Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published The Origin of Species in 1859, but the theory of evolution remained incomplete because no convincing mechanism for it had been proposed. Darwin's theory of evolution states that species have evolved from ancestral forms over the course of millions of years and that the mechanism of evolution is natural selection. The Origin of Species was both a popular and controversial book. Theologians as well as scientists were divided about Darwin's work, especially his ideas about human origins. Some supporters of evolutionary theory attempted to retain a role for divine intervention, at least in the case of the intellectual and spiritual faculties of human beings.

The most revolutionary aspect of the Darwinian revolution was its rejection of the comforting belief that the world had been designed and created especially for human life. Nevertheless, many theologians were able to abandon the idea of the fixity of species in order to explore new concepts regarding the relationship between God and the natural world. Others, however, held to a literal interpretation of the Bible and rejected any alternatives. When The Origin of Species was published, various theories of the Creation co-existed within the Christian community. Some theories managed to achieve a measure of harmony between theology and science. For example, advocates of the "day-age theory" taught that the "days" in scripture referred to ages rather than 24-hour days. The "gap theory," in turn, suggested that the time period described by the book of Genesis could encompass a gap of millions of years between the creation of the earth and that of mankind. During the 1960s literal beliefs about the account of the Creation in Genesis became dominant among American anti-evolutionists.

In America, Darwinism was often used to justify business and political practices. Many states, however, excluded evolution from biology courses. The Scopes Trial is the best known example of the conflict surrounding the teaching of evolution. Even in the 1920s, most scientists were sure that teaching biology without references to evolution was impossible, but Christian Fundamentalists saw evolution as a threat to religious belief. Anti-evolutionary literature equated Darwinism with agnosticism and atheism. Fundamentalists tried to legislate the theory of evolution out of the classroom. In Kentucky in 1922 attempts to pass a law prohibiting the teaching of "Darwinism, Atheism, Agnosticism, or the theory of Evolution as it pertains to man" were narrowly defeated. In 1925, however, a Tennessee law made it illegal to teach "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." John Thomas Scopes was tried in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching "the theory of the simian descent of man, in violation of a lately passed state law." As recorded on a marker established by the Tennessee Historical Society on the courthouse grounds, Scopes was convicted. In 1927 a Tennessee court reversed the decision on a technicality. The Scopes Trial became the focus of a play called Inherit the Wind, which became a popular film in 1960.


While the Scopes Trial created a national sensation, the outcome was far from clear. The publicity may have stopped some states from enacting similar laws, but anti-evolutionary laws were passed in many other states. Teachers in Tennessee in the 1960s were still required to sign a pledge that they would not teach evolution. The teaching of evolutionary science at the high school level actually declined after the Scopes trial. Many states passed laws similar to the Tennessee anti-evolutionary law and most biology textbooks omitted any mention of Darwin or evolution. Evolution did not regain a significant place in biology textbooks until the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a new interest in science education in the United States.

In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned the laws that had banned the teaching of evolution. The Court ruled that banning the teaching of evolution "for the sole reason that it is deemed in conflict with a particular religious doctrine" was unconstitutional. Scientists assumed that the issue had been settled, but the rise of Protestant Fundamentalism and "televangelists" (television preachers) led to a vigorous new campaign against the teaching of evolution. Opponents of evolution launched a campaign to require "equal time" for the teaching of Special Creationism whenever Darwinian evolution was discussed, demanding that teachers refer to Special Creationism as science and describe evolution as a theory. The success of this approach was clear when Texas rejected biology textbooks that included evolution. Publishers rushed to eliminate or water down references to evolution.

Challenging state "Equal Time" laws, scientists and philosophers of science have tried to explain what science is and how one can distinguish science from religion. Science has the following characteristics: 1) science works upon a foundation of natural law—it cannot explain away anomalies as "miracles"; 2) science makes predictions by inference about what might occur; and 3) scientists acknowledge the fact that their predictions could be wrong. After considering such arguments in a case brought to a U.S. district court in Arkansas, Judge William Overton on January 5, 1982, ruled against the Arkansas Equal Time Creation Science law on the following grounds: 1) Creation Science is religion; 2) to teach religion in the public schools is illegal; and 3) Creation Science is not science.

The Louisiana Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act was examined by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1986. Again, the court ruled against Creation Science. Scientists testified that the case was crucial to the future of basic science education in the United States. They argued that science education should accurately portray the premises and processes of science and the current state of scientific knowledge. Science education, scientists maintained, was damaged where the curriculum called for teaching religious ideas as science. Teaching creationism, in turn, established a false conflict between science and religion and created confusion about the nature of scientific inquiry. Future progress in science, medicine, and technology, they continued, would suffer if Americans were not encouraged to discriminate between natural phenomena and supernatural articles of faith. Moreover, the Louisiana act created confusion about the way in which scientists used the terms "fact" and "theory." A "fact" to scientists is a property of a natural phenomenon and a "theory" is a system of knowledge that explains a body of facts. These definitions permeate all fields of scientific endeavor and are no less relevant to discussions of the origin of the universe and life than to any other area of research. A review of the process and vocabulary of science will confirm that the essence of a scientific "theory" does not vary from discipline to discipline. The Louisiana act's "fact-theory" distinction reflected the belief system of certain Fundamentalist sects.

The Court held that the terms "creation" and "creation-science" embody the principles of a particular religious sect or group of sects. It concluded that the legislature intended Louisiana's public school teachers to offer students evidence that mankind and the universe were brought into existence by a divine Creator. In other words, the statute called for teachers to balance evolution against a particular religious belief. The biology textbooks recommended by advocates of Creation-Science included statements such as "the age of the earth can be measured in thousands rather than millions or billions of years" and "the dinosaurs were directly created at the same time as men, so that the humans and dinosaurs did live together for many years. However...the dinosaurs died in the great Flood."

The Court concluded that Creation Science as presented in the Louisiana case was religion, but it suggested that the teaching of any scientific views on origins would be acceptable. Therefore, Special Creationists saw the decision as opening up the possibility of getting creationism into the biology classroom as a "science" if creationist texts were carefully rewritten to provide scientific evidence. For example, the creationist claim for a young earth leads to the conclusion that dinosaurs and humans must have co-existed. In support of this assertion, creationists often claim to have found footprints of man and dinosaurs together.

Most polls say that the majority of Americans support the position that schools should "teach both sides." Scientists object to this and in reply ask whether we should also teach Aristotle's physics, in which the earth is located at the center of the universe. Community pressure generally favors Creation Science and "balanced treatment," but some of the major opponents of creationism are actually theologians from mainstream religious denominations. They say that because Special Creation is religion and not science it should be taught in comparative religion courses and not in biology classes. For example, Catholic schools have accepted the teaching of evolution since the 1950s. Moreover, in 1996, after many years of deliberation, Pope John Paul II declared that evolution did not conflict with Catholic doctrine.

Anti-evolutionary activism has grown in the United States since 1980. Theological and social factors contributed to the phenomenal popularity of scientific creationism in the late twentieth century as Americans became increasingly suspicious of science. The battles between evolutionism and creationism have raised many questions about the separation of church and state, the teaching of controversial subjects in public schools, and the ability of scientists to communicate with the public. Many scientists find believing that the theory of evolution still needs defending to be impossible, but public opinions polls show that the majority of Americans do not accept the science of evolution, especially with respect to human origins. Many people do not like to believe that they are the product of a long series of natural events rather than the products of wise design.

While details regarding the theory of evolution have been refined in light of new scientific discoveries, evolution's general principles have remained unaltered. Evolution, moreover, remains unsurpassed in its ability to provide a detailed explanation for both the diversity and the history of life on Earth.

The controversy over evolution proves more clearly than virtually any other episode in the history of science that science has had a profound impact on society and human thought. In no other case have the offshoots of a science created more social challenges than evolution. At the end of the twentieth century, many science educators are convinced that the debate over the teaching of evolution will likely take many forms in the future.


Further Reading

Awbrey, Frank and William Thwaites, eds. Evolutionists Confront Creationists. San Francisco, CA: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984.

Kitcher, P. Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1983.

Morris, Henry M., Duane T. Gish, and George M. Hillestad, eds. Creation: Acts, Facts, Impacts. San Diego, CA: Creation-Life Publishers, 1974.

Morris, Henry M., and Gary E. Parker. What Is Creation Science? El Cajon, CA: Master Books, 1987.

Nelkin, Dorothy. The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Numbers, Ronald L., ed. Creation-Evolution Debates. New York: Garland Pub., 1995.

Ruse, Michael, ed. But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996.

Webb, George E. The Evolution Controversy in America. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky,1994.

Wilder-Smith, A. E. Man's Origin, Man's Destiny: A Critical Survey of the Principles of Evolution and Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1975.


The Creation Research Society was founded in 1963 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The society is "a professional organization of trained scientists and interested laypersons who are firmly committed to scientific special creation." The primary functions of the society are: (1) Publication of a quarterly peer-reviewed journal; (2) Conducting research to develop and test creation models; (3) Providing research grants and facilities to creation scientists. Voting members of the organization must have a postgraduate degree in science; all members must agree with the following statement of principle: (1) The Bible is the written Word of God...all of its assertions are historically and scientifically true in all of the original autographs...the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truth. (2) All basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative acts of God during Creation Week as described in Genesis. Whatever biological changes have occurred since Creation have accomplished only changes within the original created kinds. (3) The great Flood in Genesis, commonly referred to as the Noachian Deluge, was an historical event, worldwide in its extent and effect. (4) Finally, we are an organization of Christian men of science, who accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The account of the special creation of Adam and Eve as one man and one woman, and their subsequence Fall into sin, is the basis for our belief in the necessity of a Savior for all mankind. Therefore, salvation can come only through accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.

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