Evolution–Creationism Debate

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The evolution-creationism debate deals with attempts to explain the ultimate causes of order in the living world. Some people think that order arose from natural evolutionary causes. Others think it arose from divine creative intelligence. A third group thinks it arose from divine intelligence working through natural causes.

Nature of the Debate

This debate can be traced back as far as ancient Greece, where it appears in Plato's philosophical dialogues. More recently the debate has been between followers of the Bible and followers of the scientist Charles Darwin (1809–1882). The opening chapters of the Bible relate how God created the world in six days and created human beings in his image. In The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin discusses how all the forms of life could have evolved by natural law, in which the heritable traits that enhanced reproductive success were naturally selected over long periods. The evolution-creationism debate entails comparing these two scenarios of the origins of life. Some people believe that both histories are true and therefore can be compatible. Some believe that if one of the two is true, the other must be false.

This becomes a debate over the ethical implications of modern science because much of the disagreement turns on judgments about the ethical consequences of accepting one or both views as true. On one side many of those who defend creationism fear that Darwinian evolution promotes a materialistic view of the world that is ethically corrupting, because it denies the moral dignity of human beings as created in God's image. On the other side, some see creationism as promoting fundamentalist religion and attacks on science.

This has also become a legal and political debate, particularly in the United States, where people have argued about whether creationism should be taught to students in public schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. Some public opinion surveys have reported that about half the people in the United States believe that human beings were created by God approximately 10,000 years ago; that would deny the Darwinian belief that the human species evolved from an apelike ancestral species millions of years ago.

History of the Debate

In Plato's dialogue The Laws (Book 10) the Athenian character warns against natural philosophers who teach that the ultimate elements in the universe and the heavenly bodies were brought into being not by divine intelligence or art but by natural necessity and chance. These natural philosophers teach that the gods and the moral laws attributed to the gods are human inventions. That form of scientific naturalism appeared to subvert the religious order by teaching atheism, subvert the moral order by teaching moral relativism, and subvert the political order by depriving the laws of religious and moral sanction. Plato's Athenian character responds to that threat by arguing for divine intelligent design as the ultimate source of order.

In a later period those influenced by biblical religion adopted Plato's arguments to defend the claim that the divinely intelligent designer of the world was the God of the Bible. However, in the nineteenth century Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection seemed to explain the apparent design in the living world as arising from purely natural causes without the need for divine creation. This led to the modern debate between evolution and creationism.

In the United States that debate falls into three periods. The first period began in the 1920s when William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) launched a Christian fundamentalist attack on Darwinism. Bryan was a leading politician, having run three times for the presidency as the Democratic Party's candidate. In 1925 the state legislature in Tennessee made it illegal for any teacher in a public school "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" (Larson 1997, p. 50). When John Scopes, a public high school teacher in Dayton, was charged with violating this law, Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), a prominent lawyer who promoted scientific atheism, led the legal team defending Scopes, and Bryan joined the lawyers prosecuting Scopes.

The trial in July 1925 drew public attention around the world. Although Scopes was convicted, his conviction was overturned by a higher court on a technical issue. Bryan died shortly after the trial. Creationist opponents of Darwinian evolution continued to argue their case, although many of them, like Bryan, argued that the six days of Creation in the Bible were not literally six days but rather "ages," so that long periods of time could have elapsed. Some creationists followed Bryan in accepting Darwin's account of evolution by natural law as generally true but still insisted that the emergence of human beings required a miraculous intervention by God to endow them with a spiritual soul that made them superior to all animals.

The second period of the debate was initiated by the publication in 1961 of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris's The Genesis Flood. Those authors interpreted the biblical story of Creation as occurring during a literal six-day period that occurred no more than 10,000 years ago. They also argued that the geological record of fossils had been laid down during the worldwide flood reported in the Bible in the story of Noah's ark. Morris and others identified themselves as "scientific creationists," claiming that the Bible as literally interpreted was scientifically superior to Darwin's theory. They supported legislation in some states to require the teaching of "creation science" in public high schools. However, when this was done in Arkansas and Louisiana, federal courts struck down those laws as violating the constitutional separation of church and state because the biblical story of Creation seemed to be a religious doctrine rather than a scientific theory.

The third period of the debate began in 1991 with the publication of Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial. Johnson, a lawyer and law professor, argued that the scientific evidence is against Darwin's theory and that Darwinians believe the theory only because it supports their atheistic belief that the order in life can be explained by natural laws without the need for divine creation. Johnson also claimed that the complexity of the living world can only be explained as the work of an "intelligent designer" such as the God of the Bible.

Other writers joined this intellectual movement for "intelligent design" as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. In 1996 the biologist Michael Behe published Darwin's Black Box, in which he surveyed the evidence for "irreducibly complex" mechanisms in the living world that could not have evolved gradually by Darwinian evolution but could show the work of an "intelligent designer." Later the mathematician and philosopher William Dembski elaborated the formal criteria by which "design" could be detected in nature (Dembski and Kushiner 2001). Since the late 1990s proponents of "intelligent design" have tried to convince public school boards that "intelligent design theory" should be taught in high school biology classes as an alternative to Darwinian science or at least that the weaknesses in the Darwinian arguments should be discussed in schools.

Four Arguments

Beginning with Bryan, the creationist critics of Darwinian science have made four types of arguments: a scientific argument, a religious argument, an ethical argument, and a political argument. Similar kinds of arguments can be found in Plato's Laws.

The scientific argument of the creationists is that Darwin's theory is not truly scientific because it is based not on empirical evidence but on a dogmatic commitment to materialistic naturalism. They also claim that creationism is a more scientific view because the complex functional order of the living world provides evidence for an intentional design by a divinely intelligent agent. The irreducible complexity of life cannot be explained through the unintelligent causes of random contingency and natural necessity.

The common mousetrap is Behe's primary example of an irreducibly complex mechanism. It requires at least five parts—a platform, a spring, a hammer, a catch, and a holding bar—and those parts must be arranged in a specific way. If one part is missing or if the arrangement is wrong, the mechanism will not achieve its functional purpose of catching mice. It is known that such a device did not arise by chance or natural necessity; human intelligent agents designed it to catch rodents. Behe claims that many biological mechanisms show the same purposeful arrangement of parts found in human devices such as the mousetrap. This, he thinks, points to an intelligent designer outside nature.

Darwinians would agree with Behe that from an apparently well-designed mousetrap one plausibly can infer the existence of a human intelligent designer as its cause because people have common experience of how mousetraps and other artifacts are designed. However, Darwinians would insist that from an apparently well-designed organic process or entity one cannot infer the existence of a divinely intelligent designer as its cause, because people have no common experience of how a divine intelligence designs things for divine purposes. Religious belief depends on faith in a supernatural reality beyond the world, whereas scientific knowledge depends on reasoning about humankind's sense experience of the natural world. Furthermore, Darwinians would note that creationists or intelligent design theorists never explain the observable causal pathways by which the divine intelligence creates irreducibly complex mechanisms.

The religious argument of the creationists is that Darwinism promotes dogmatic atheism and therefore must be rejected by religious believers. This argument seems to be confirmed by the bold declarations of Darwinian scientists such as Richard Dawkins (1986) that Darwinian science proves the truth of atheism. But it is hard to see how explaining the world through natural causes denies the possibility that God is the ultimate ground of those natural causes. Some Darwinians present evolution as a substitute for religion. Even such a strong defender of evolution as Michael Ruse (2003) has admitted that museums of science that promote evolutionary theory often function as secular temples.

Creationists assume that God was unable or unwilling to execute his design through the laws of nature as studied by Darwinian biologists. However, Christian evolutionists such as Howard Van Till (1999) and others have argued that the Bible presents the divine designer as having given his Creation from the beginning all the formational powers necessary for evolving into the world as it is today. Catholic theologian John Haught (2001) has defended a "theology of evolution" based on ideas from the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) and the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). In Haught's theology, evolution suggests that the universe is always in the process of being created as God allows a self-creating world to evolve towards him through time. If this is so, Darwinian science and religious belief are compatible.

The ethical argument of the creationists is that the reductionistic materialism of Darwinian science is ethically degrading. If Darwinians persuade people that they are nothing but animals and therefore are not elevated above other animals by having been created in God's image, people will not respect God's moral law or see the unique moral dignity of human beings. Instead they will become selfish hedonists in the pursuit of their animal desires.

Darwinians respond to this argument by noting that Darwin thought his account of human evolution supported a biological theory of morality rooted in a natural moral sense. As naturally social and rational animals human beings have social instincts that incline them to care for others and have a rational capacity to deliberate about the moral rules that would satisfy their social needs. For example, the human species could not survive if children were not cared for by their parents or by people assuming parental roles. Therefore, one can understand how natural selection has endowed human beings with a natural desire for parental care that supports the moral bond between parent and child. Consequently, Darwinian science sustains morality by showing that it is rooted in human nature.

The political argument of the creationists is that teaching Darwinism in public schools without teaching the creationist criticisms of Darwinism denies the freedom of thought required in a democratic society. Surely, creationists claim, promoting an open discussion in the public schools of the scientific, religious, and ethical debates surrounding Darwinian evolution would help students think for themselves about those important issues.

Some Darwinians reject this argument by claiming that creationism is not science but religion and that the teaching of science should be kept separate from the teaching of religion. However, other Darwinians welcome an open debate. If high school students were free to read writers who defend Darwin's theory along with writers who criticize it, the students could make up their own minds. In the process students might learn how to think through scientific debates and weigh the evidence and arguments for themselves rather than memorizing the conclusions given to them by textbooks and teachers.


SEE ALSO Christian Perspectives; Darwin, Charles; Evolutionary Ethics.


Beckwith, Francis J. (2003). Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. An argument for the constituionality of teaching intelligent design theory in public schools.

Behe, Michael. (1996). Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free Press.

Dawkins, Richard. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton.

Dembski, William A., and James M. Kushiner, eds. (2001). Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. A collection of essays by proponents of intelligent design theory.

Forrest, Barbara, and Paul R. Gross. (2004). Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge Of Intelligent Design. New York: Oxford University Press. A history of the intelligent design movement by two opponents.

Haught, John F. (2001). Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution. New York: Paulist Press.

Johnson, Phillip. (1991). Darwin on Trial. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Larson, Edward J. (1997). Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

Miller, Kenneth R. (1999). Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution. New York: HarperCollins. A Christian and a biologist, Miller defends Darwinism as compatible with religious belief.

Numbers, Ronald L. (1992). The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. New York: Knopf. A comprehensive history of scientific creationism in the United States up to 1990.

Pennock, Robert T., ed. (2001). Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. A collection of statements by both proponents and opponents of intelligent design theory.

Ruse, Michael. (2003). "Is Evolution A Secular Religion?" Science 299: 1523–1524.

Van Till, Howard. (1999). "The Fully Gifted Creation." In Three Views on Creation and Evolution, ed. J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Whitcomb, John C., and Henry Morris. (1961). The Genesis Flood. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.