Evolution / Creation Controversy

Laura M Bolt. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

The evolution/creation controversy is an acrimonious debate that has been ongoing since 1859, particularly in the United States of America. This debate contrasts the biological theory of evolution with a literal interpretation of the creation story in the Judeo-Christian Bible, asserting these views as incompatible. Although largely about the validity of the biological theory of evolution, this debate also encompasses subjects ranging from cosmology through geology to physics. The media has so sensationalized this debate that it is important to set aside common misconceptions about the nature of this controversy to view it from a broader perspective. The theory of evolution has long been widely adopted by the world’s scientific community. Evolution has been taught without dispute in most of the world’s developed nations. It has also been accepted by the majority of world religions. The Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations, for example, find no conflict between their theological beliefs and evolutionary theory. In the United States, many deeply religious people view the theory of evolution as a compelling scientific explanation for the diversity of life on this planet.

The evolution/creation controversy is not a debate of faith versus science. Rather, it is a political and legal war involving some fundamentalist Christians, mostly situated in the United States, who are opposed to the theory of evolution on the grounds that it contradicts their specific interpretation of the account of Creation found in the Judeo-Christian Bible.

This chapter will outline the evolution/creation controversy, providing summaries of the theories under debate, definitions of belief systems involved in the debate, an overview of debate history and important events in the United States, reasons why this controversy continues today, and ways that this controversy can be alleviated. This chapter closes with a list of the most relevant references and suggestions for further reading.

Theory of Evolution

The Development of the Theory of Evolution

The theory of evolution was first presented by British naturalist Charles Darwin in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Prior to Darwin, several scientific findings from the late 1700s set the stage for the theory of evolution. These included fossils and geological formations suggesting an ancient earth. The idea of species transmutation was discussed by philosopher Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles, and Charles was influenced by these ideas as he traveled around the world as a naturalist in the 1830s, regarding geographical variation in life-forms. Darwin began writing what became the earliest draft of On the Origin of Species in the 1830s and refined his arguments and observations through further experiments in the 20 years leading up to its publication.

The Theory of Evolution

Evolution is a process, which over many generations, results in heritable changes in the gene pool of a population. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin suggests the mechanisms by which life diversifies. These can be reduced to five basic ideas:

  1. The high rate of reproduction within a species makes it impossible for all individuals to survive, and therefore, it creates a struggle for resources both within and between populations.
  2. Within a species, there is great variation in the traits represented, and within each specific environment, certain traits will enhance the chances an individual has of surviving and reproducing.
  3. Variation in traits is heritable and can be passed down to offspring.
  4. Individuals and their offspring with traits best allowing them to obtain resources are more likely to survive and be able to reproduce.
  5. Over many generations, new species arise through the specific pressures in a certain environment acting on which traits are more advantageous for individuals to pass down.

Natural selection is the process by which advantageous traits become more represented in a population over generations, since individuals with these traits are better able to survive and reproduce.

Contemporaneous Reception of This Theory

Most scientists accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution readily because of the thoroughness of Darwin’s arguments. Darwin was aware of weaknesses in his ideas and active in seeking evidence opposed to his theory. Although scientists and the educated public became fast supporters of evolution, the reception in England’s religious communities was divided. Some conservative Anglicans, including Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, opposed evolution because it necessitated a change in the divine order. In contrast, many educated Christians, including more liberal Anglicans, embraced evolution as the blueprint of God’s work in the world.

Early Controversy and Darwin’s Response

The most famous manifestation of controversy immediately following the publication of On the Origin of Speciesinvolved Wilberforce arguing against evolution at a meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860. Botanist Joseph Hooker and physiologist Thomas Huxley debated as supporters for evolution. Following the debate, scholars noted that Darwinism was taken out of context by the public and articulations of dissenting views about this scientific theory were depicted as a war between science and religious faith. Although personally an agnostic, Darwin was sympathetic to those with devout religious beliefs and was distressed at the confusion and dissent his theory caused. To make his theory more blatantly compatible with God-directed evolution, Darwin inserted the words “by the Creator” in the last sentence in the second edition of the Origin of Species published in 1860. Thus, the final sentence read,

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (p. 490)

Although evolution was made more overtly palatable for those with religious beliefs with this inclusion, Darwin removed this reference to a creator in the third and subsequent editions. A small minority of conservative Christians in the 19th century and onward continued to oppose evolutionary theory (McCalla, 2007).

Modern Reception of This Theory

Since the 1860s, the theory of evolution has been almost universally accepted by academics and is now recognized as a unifying model for life on earth, from foundational to modern biology (Brooks & Wiley, 1988). Evolution is supported by overwhelming evidence from many diverse scientific disciplines (Bleckmann, 2006). It has become increasingly influential in all branches of scholarship, as details of its particulars have been refined through thousands of peer-reviewed publications, books, and complementary hypotheses and theories (Patterson, 1999). Evolution is supported by all known professional organizations of scientists, who perceive it as one of the most captivating theories of the modern day. A large group of fundamentalist Christians, primarily located in the United States, opposes evolutionary theory. They are called creationists.


The Judeo-Christian Creation

Although there are myriad creation stories in various world religions, the creation story from the Judeo-Christian Bible is the specific account on which the vast majority of evolution/creation debates center. For this reason, this will be the only creation account presented in this chapter. The Judeo-Christian Bible asserts in Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis that the world was created by God in 6 days and that God rested on the 7th day. According to this account, the Creation can be summarized as follows:

  • Day 1: Light, day, and night were created.
  • Day 2: Sky and water were created.
  • Day 3: Land, seas, and all types of plants were created.
  • Day 4: Stars, sun, and moon were created.
  • Day 5: All sea life and all birds were created.
  • Day 6: All terrestrial animals and humans were created.
  • Day 7: God rested from his work, since all was complete.

Contemporaneous and Modern Theological Interpretations of the Creation Story

Creationism must be carefully differentiated from a belief in the Judeo-Christian God as the creator of life and the universe because the majority of Judeo-Christians maintain a belief in a Creator God that is consistent with evolutionary theory. Nineteenth-century theological scholarship suggested that the Bible’s creation story should not be taken as scientific or historical truth but instead interpreted as a figurative, mythical account, which has religious but not literal meaning (McCalla, 2007). This type of biblical interpretation has been continued by most Christian groups today. Many Christian denominations, for example, may perceive the “days” of the creation myth as being much longer periods of time, such as ages of the world, or take nothing more literal from the story than the idea that God created the world. As numerous theologians note, Christian writers as far back as St. Augustine in the 5th century have approached the creation with great imagination at God’s creative powers and the methods by which he executed this Creation (Van Till, 1998). Evolution is, according to this line of belief and many modern theologians, a reasonable mechanism through which the Judeo-Christian God created and complexified life by setting this macroevolutionary process in motion. However, these mainstream Christian beliefs about the origins of life contrast with varied origination beliefs held by many Americans and a minority of other fundamentalists worldwide who are termed creationists.

Old Earth Creationism

Old Earth creationism was one belief widely held by fundamentalist Christians before the 1960s and is still held by some today. According to various types of Old Earth creationism, life was created by the Judeo-Christian God in literal 24-hour days, as described in Genesis, although life was created recently on an old Earth. Fundamentalists with this belief saw the theory of evolution as incorrect because it contradicted a literal reading of the Bible. However, Old Earth creationists accepted the scientific consensus by geology and cosmology that Earth was billions of years old. Old Earth creationism is represented to the present day by major creationist organizations including Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe (Pennock, 2003).

Young Earth Creationism

Young Earth creationism, a belief widely held by creationists since the 1960s (Pennock, 2003), can be summarized in the following beliefs:

  1. The world was created in six literal 24-hour days.
  2. The universe, matter, and life were created from nothing.
  3. Earth is only around 10,000 to 12,000 years old.
  4. A worldwide flood as described in Genesis happened around 6,000 to 12,000 years ago, creating modern geological features, such as mountains, canyons, and fossils.
  5. A single-celled organism is not the ancestor of all living things. Organisms are not capable of developing this level of complexity through natural selection and mutation.
  6. Plants and animals were created as types and can vary only within fixed limits.
  7. Humans do not share a common ancestry with apes.

The Young Earth creationist belief perceives all scientific findings, which contradict these assertions—including evolutionary biology and modern geology—to be false science, since true science should confirm a literal biblical interpretation of the creation story. Young Earth creationism also views Old Earth creationism as an incorrect belief.

The majority of creationist lobbying since the 1960s has been done by Young Earth creationists. Two of the most active organizations supporting Young Earth creationism are Answers in Genesis (Pennock, 2003), led by Ken Ham and the Institute for Creation Research (McCalla, 2007; Scott & Branch, 2006), founded by Henry Morris and led by John Morris. The strength of their faction is evidenced in the number of organizations, Web sites, magazines, summer camps, and radio and television programs supporting them (McCalla, 2007).

Creation Science

Creation science is a manifestation of Young Earth creationism and the field of creationist inquiry, which was active from the 1960s to the 1980s (McCalla, 2007). It asserts that the Young Earth creationist account of the origins of life is more consistent with scientific facts than the evolutionary model of origins. Creation science presents evolutionary theory and the creation story as equivalent scientific models through which to perceive life and the universe but claim Young Earth creationism as the superior scientific model. They adhere to all beliefs held by Young Earth creationism. In addition, creation scientists argue that the evolutionary model is filled with inconsistencies and use four main claims to do so:

  1. The second law of thermodynamics makes the theory of evolution impossible, since organisms cannot become increasingly complex.
  2. Statistical probability suggests that the evolution of life by chance is astronomically unlikely.
  3. Radiometric dating techniques giving an age of 13.5 to 14 billion years to the universe, around 4.5 billion years to Earth, and around 2.8 billion years to life are unreliable and no more than guesses.
  4. Evolutionists commonly disagree amongst themselves, which shows that the field of evolutionary biology is not rooted in fact but belief.

Intelligent Design

Intelligent design is a field of creationist inquiry, which has been active since the 1980s. Intelligent design is creation science without the biblical foundation (McCalla, 2007). It asserts that life and the universe are better explained by an intelligent designer working in a directed fashion rather than by random processes, such as natural selection. Intelligent design is promoted as a scientific theory, not a religious belief system. This field of inquiry does not insist on a literal 6-day creation interpretation of Genesis but maintains the involvement of a supernatural being in all scientific events, particularly those that science cannot yet explain. In addition to the arguments against evolution put forward by creation science, some principal claims of intelligent design are as follows:

  1. An intelligent designer exists who created life-forms.
  2. This intelligent designer can be detected by looking for specified complexity in organisms.
  3. Evolution cannot account for the great complexity of living cells. A cell’s protein arrangements are so intricate and codependent that any change would render the entire mechanism useless. This necessitates entire complex mechanisms in living organisms originating at one time, which would not be possible without an intelligent designer to bring these into being. Biochemist Michael Behe originated this opinion (McCalla, 2007).
  4. Certain mathematical theorems prove that evolutionary theory cannot account for the informational complexity of the DNA in living organisms. An intelligent designer must therefore have created DNA intact. Mathematician William Dembski originated this opinion (McCalla, 2007).
  5. Evolutionists oppose intelligent design theory due to their own ideological biases, not based on valid scientific reason.

Non-Creationist Beliefs in the Evolution/Creation Debate

Theistic Evolution

Theistic or God-directed evolution is a commonly held Christian belief, which accepts all evidence related to evolution that is also accepted by the world’s scientific community (Beverley, 2002). This belief is held by the Catholic Church, as well as most Protestant denominations. As well as supporting scientific findings, theistic evolutionists believe in the Judeo-Christian God as the sole creator of the universe and the initiator of the principles of nature such as scientific laws and evolution. In addition, they believe that humans are unique among all life-forms in having a spiritual nature, as well as a physical one, and are called to a special relationship with God. Theistic evolutionists are not creationists and generally oppose literal creationist beliefs and lobbying because they believe both are incongruous with science and reason and therefore show Christianity in a negative light.

Evolutionary Naturalism

Evolutionary naturalism, a worldview present for hundreds of years, has become more prevalent since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 (Van Till, 1998). Individuals with this perspective believe that nothing exists beyond the natural world and that there is no higher power. Seemingly inexplicable phenomena have a rational cause that will be discovered. In explaining a phenomenon, the principle of Occam’s razor suggests that the explanation involving the fewest assumptions is the most likely one. Since there is a scientific explanation for every process and action in the universe, the existence of a higher power is an unnecessary assumption. Reason does not suggest that belief in a higher being is warranted.

Manifestations of the Evolution/Creation Debate in the United States

From 1859 and onward, a small group of conservative Protestants objected to evolutionary theory on the grounds that it contradicted a literal interpretation of scripture. They became known as fundamentalists based, in part, on their insistence on the literal, verbal inerrancy of scripture (McCalla, 2007). These fundamentalists viewed the creation story as both historic and scientific truth, with each “day” of creation lasting a literal 24 hours. By the 1920s, this group had banded together in a vocal minority within Protestant denominations in the United States, with some creating the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) in 1918 to battle within the church against evolution and nonliteral theological interpretations.

Outside the church in the public education system, a text titled Civic Biology by George Hunter was widely used in science classes from 1914 to 1925. This text explained the theory of evolution, including human evolution. However, since the mid-1920s, there has been considerable legal controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in public schools. Much of the evolution/creation controversy in the United States is centered around which origination “theories” are taught in the education system.

Legal Actions in the 1920s

In response to public demand by creationists, antievolution bills were introduced in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee in the 1920s. This bill was called the Butler Act in Tennessee (McCalla, 2007). Such bills were drafted and considered in at least 12 more states, including Louisiana. They made it illegal for human evolution to be taught in state-funded science classes at elementary and secondary schools and on university levels. It was not illegal to teach evolutionary theory in general but only illegal to teach that part of evolutionary theory that suggested humans were descended from Primates.

The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, Tennessee: 1925-1927

In 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with prosecutors from Dayton, Tennessee, wanted to test the constitutionality of Tennessee’s new Butler Act (Larson, 1997). Local substitute high school teacher John Thomas Scopes agreed to act as defendant after teaching human evolution to a biology class. Scopes’s supporters, with the exception of leading defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, were advocates of theistic evolution. The creationist prosecution, led by William Bryan, directed arguments not against unbelief but against other Christians who did not interpret the creation story literally. Despite favorable testimony from many distinguished scientists and widespread support from the public, Scopes was found guilty. The case was dismissed in 1927 on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme court.

This trial and its appeal, despite being the most publicized evolution trial of the 20th century, did not accomplish the outcome that the American Civil Liberties Union had hoped for. Laws banning the teaching of human evolution in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas would remain the same for the next 40 years.

Evolution in the U.S. Education System: 1926-1960

The biologist Alfred Kinsey published the first U.S. high school science textbook in 1926, and this included clear and detailed sections on Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory. In the aftermath of the Scopes trial, subsequent editions of Kinsey’s text reduced or eliminated these definitions, such that by the 1930s, this and other science texts used in U.S. schools presented little information on evolution (Bleckmann, 2006). Evolution was often not taught in school districts with a large proportion of creationists, although it continued to be taught in more liberal areas of the country. This persisted until the late 1950s, when Soviet scientific advances, such as the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, caused Americans to reexamine science education in the United States (Moore, 2001). New biological sciences curriculum textbooks were developed that outlined evolutionary theory explicitly. Use of this new textbook only prompted further resistance from creationists at the teaching of evolution (Moore, 2001).

The Advent of Young Earth Creationism and Creation Science: 1961-1968

In 1961, Young Earth creationism and creation science arose as the result of the publication of The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris. This work was founded partly on the flood geology theories of Seventh Day Adventist George McCready Price, who argued that Earth is young and the flood was a worldwide event. This belief was called creation science in the hope that it would be accepted by the scientific community.

However, The Genesis Flood has been heavily criticized by scientists since publication (Moore, 2007). Since the early 1960s, scientists have perceived creation science as a misleading field of pseudo-science in which creationists disregard all research findings that contradict a Young Earth creationist belief. Many assertions made by creation science, including those regarding thermodynamics, radio-metric dating, and statistical probability, have been exposed as either misinterpretations or unequivocal errors by scientists. Despite this widespread criticism from the scientific community, creation science gained a large public following.

Beginning in 1961 in California, Young Earth creationists, in conjunction with the Creation Research Society, took a new approach (Bleckmann, 2006). Instead of demanding that evolution be omitted from school curricula, creationists lobbied the state board of education to teach creation alongside evolution in science classes. They argued that equal time should be given to each origination model, that science texts be rewritten to include creationist “theories,” and that a new textbook be adopted in California. Despite objections from their scientific advisors, California’s state board of education implemented this change to the curriculum. Similar laws were proposed in 10 other states throughout the 1960s and passed in Louisiana and Arkansas while New Mexico passed a law requiring an evolutionary disclaimer sticker on textbooks. The most famous trial of this period was the Epperson trial in Arkansas.

Susan Epperson v. The State of Arkansas: 1968

At the urging of the Secretary of the Arkansas Education Association, high school biology teacher Susan Epperson challenged the Arkansas law making it illegal to teach human evolution in 1968. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law nationwide, ruling that the board of education must maintain religious neutrality and human evolution could be taught anywhere in the United States. This trial set an important precedent for future legal proceedings (Scott & Branch, 2006).

The Aftermath of the Epperson Trial: 1968-1981

Following the Epperson trial, creation science was the only creation model useful for further lobbying, since it was presented as a scientific model and not a religious belief. Many smaller lawsuits followed, which resulted in further ground gained for the teaching of evolution in the United States (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

(Evolutionists have not lost any trials since the Scopes trial [Moore & Miksch, 2003], although they have lost ground through legislation.)

William Willoughby v. H. Guyford Stever, District of Columbia: 1972

Creationist William Willoughby sued National Science Foundation director Guyford Stever in 1972 for using public funds to publish a textbook that included descriptions of evolution, which he deemed religious. This case ruled that the science textbooks were not religious material, and the textbooks were published. This verdict applied to the District of Columbia (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Wright v. Houston Independent School District, Texas: 1973

This case ruled in 1973 that teaching evolution is constitutional and does not promote a religious belief. This verdict applied to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Daniel v. Waters, Tennessee: 1975

This 1975 case overturned a Tennessee law requiring equal teaching time for creation and evolution in state public schools. The verdict (creation need not be taught alongside evolution) applied to Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Hendren et al. v. Campbell et al., Indiana: 1977

This 1977 case ruled that the Creation Research Society’s text Biology: A Search for Order in Complexity was religiously biased and therefore unconstitutional for use in public schools. The verdict applied to Marion County, Indiana (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Crowley v. Smithsonian Institute, District of Columbia: 1980

This 1980 case ruled that the government should give funds to promote evolutionary presentations in museum exhibits but should not give funds to promote creation science. The verdict applied to the District of Columbia (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Kelly Segraves v. The State of California: 1981

Creationist parent Kelly Seagraves charged the state of California in 1981 with violating her right to free exercise of religion due to the teaching of evolution to her children in public schools. The case was dismissed, and evolution continued to be taught in California (http://ncse.com/webfm_send/60).

Creation Science Lobbying: 1981

Bills sponsored by creationist organizations, which demanded the balanced treatment of creation science and evolution in public schools, were passed in Louisiana and Arkansas in 1981. Equal amounts of classroom time were required for the presentation of each “theory.” However, these bills were quickly challenged by scientists, human rights groups, and some members of the dissenting public. The challenge in Arkansas resulted in a well-publicized court case in 1981 (Nelkin, 1982).

Thus far, twenty years of litigation had provoked both camps, making the creation/evolution debate even more heated.

William McLean v. The Arkansas Board of Education: 1981-1982

Judge William Overton ruled in 1982 that requirements to teach creation science alongside evolution advanced the claims of a particular religion. Creation science was declared a religious belief and could no longer be taught in science classes. This verdict applied to Arkansas alone but set a precedent for future trials (Moore & Miksch, 2003; Overton, 1982).

Edwards v. Aguillard, Louisiana: 1987

This 1987 case overturned laws nationwide requiring equal teaching time for creation science and evolution. Creation science was deemed a type of religion and could no longer be taught in public schools. Two federal Supreme Court judges dissented from this verdict, including Justice Scalia. Justice Scalia ruled that although creation science could not be taught in science classes in the United States, teaching the scientific evidence against evolution was admissible and could be considered a secular matter (Moore & Miksch, 2003; Pennock, 2003).

The Advent of Intelligent Design: 1987

Following the Edwards v. Aguillard trial, creationists changed their lobbying approaches, seizing on Justice Scalia’s words and requesting the evidence against evolution rather than a literal 6-day creation be taught in science classes. The intelligent design (ID) movement emerged nationwide, continuing the creationist debate (Pennock, 2003). ID bypassed constitutional objections by eliminating all references to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian God from a creation science framework. ID creationism united Old Earth and Young Earth creationists, forcing them to suspend their differences in belief while opposing evolution as a unified force. Proponents have stated that through ID they wish to reestablish Western culture’s theistic basis and combat the materialist worldview promoted by evolution.

The ID movement was spearheaded by law professor Philip Johnson until the early 1990s, when members of Seattle’s Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute began acting as public spokespeople. Leaders are primarily politicians and philosophers such as Stephen Meyer, Bruce Chapman, and John West Jr., although some scientists, including biologists Dean Kenyon, Paul Chien, and Scott Minnich, molecular biologists Douglas Axe and Jonathan Wells, and biochemist Michael Behe are also involved.

The well-known ID textbook Of Pandas and People was written in 1989 by ID researchers Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon for use in public schools, and the influential Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells followed in 2000 (Pennock, 2003). Further textbooks and popular pseudo-scientific theological books advocating ID were published throughout the late 1980s to the early 2000s and widely read by creationists.

ID’s influence has been far-reaching in the U.S. school system (Pennock, 2003). In 1999, the Kansas state board of education voted to de-emphasize evolutionary teaching in all public schools, including universities. Several other states, including Ohio, have incorporated critical analysis of evolutionary theory into the biology curriculum. A model lesson plan, eventually challenged and deemed inappropriate by the Ohio Board of Education in 2004, presented material from textbooks on ID.

ID has been subject to great criticism and thoroughly dismissed by scientists and most other scholars, who note that it is impossible to test using the methods of science and therefore cannot be science (Pennock, 2003). The scientific community has refuted all ID propagated criticisms of evolution, countering the claims of ID researchers.

The ID research program, although in existence for 20 years, has failed to produce a single peer-reviewed research publication in support of this theory. Mainstream scientists suggest that empirical evidence does not support a supernatural origin of life over a naturalistic one and that arguments against evolution are not proofs of ID. The legal battle in America has largely involved ID from 1987 onward (Pennock, 2003).

Ray Webster v. New Lenox School District, Illinois: 1990

This 1990 case ruled that creationist teacher Ray Webster could not teach creation science to his classes. The verdict applied to Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Philip Bishop v. Aronov, Alabama: 1991

This 1991 case ruled that physiology professor Philip Bishop could not present ID material to his classes at the University of Alabama (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

John Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, California: 1994

This 1994 case ruled that requirements to teach evolution did not violate a creationist teacher’s right to free speech. The verdict applied to Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawai’i, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

This ruling encouraged ID advocates to present their arguments in a way that would avoid ID being regarded as a religious belief (DeWolf, Meyer, & DeForrest, 1999).

Hellend v. South Bend Community School Corporation: 1996

This 1996 case ruled that schools must prevent teachers from teaching creationism in the classroom, since this is an expression of religion. The verdict applied to Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania: 1998

This 1998 case ruled that Professor Edwards could not present his religious beliefs in the classroom and was required to follow the curriculum decisions of the California University of Pennsylvania (http://openjurist.org/156/f3d/488/edwards-v-california-university-of-pennsylvania).

ID, The Wedge Document: 1998

In light of their lack of legal success, spokespeople for the ID movement announced in 1998 that their approach to realizing the goals of their organization would be termed the “wedge strategy” (Pennock, 2003). They released a document that, in addition to affirming their movement’s fundamental ideological commitments, outlined their plan for the implementation of these in wider culture. This strategy can be summarized as follows:

  • Phase 1: Scientific research, writing, and publication
  • Phase 2: Publicity and opinion making
  • Phase 3: Cultural confrontation and renewal

Although no refereed research publications have been produced, observers note that the ID movement has proceeded to phases 2 and 3. The lack of scientific support for ID has not prevented the gain of public success for the movement. ID has been widely publicized through popular books, debates, seminars, conferences, editorials, and favorable reports by conservative papers, such as the Weekly Standard and the Washington Times. As a result of the wedge strategy, ID is perceived by many Americans as a viable alternative to evolutionary theory that should, in fairness, also be taught in public schools. A March 2007 poll found that 48% of the U.S. public agreed that “God created humans pretty much in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” (Kahle, 2008, p. 72), while a May 2007 poll found 60% of the respondents believed in a literal 6-day creation. In contrast, 95% of U.S. scientists polled in 1996 accepted human evolution (Bleckmann, 2006). Despite this strong scientific consensus, numerous members of the public have been influenced by ID marketing campaigns.

The notion behind the wedge strategy is to establish a minimal legal position, which can then be expanded through further court cases thus creating a wider wedge from a narrow crack. Some later court cases advanced the aims of ID, while most refuted it.

Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, Louisiana: 1999

This 1999 case ruled that when presenting evolution, teachers should not read a disclaimer saying that the school board did not specifically endorse evolution or oppose ID or biblical creation. The verdict applied to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Rodney LeVake v. Independent School District 656, Minnesota: 2000

This 2000 case ruled that creationist teacher Rodney LeVake could not present the evidence against evolution to classes against his school board’s instructions. The verdict applied to Minnesota (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Moeller v. Schrenko, Georgia: 2001

This 2001 case ruled that creationism is not science, and it is appropriate for public schools to use a biology textbook that states this. This verdict applied to Georgia (Moore & Miksch, 2003).

Selman v. Cobb County School District, Georgia: 2005

This 2005 case ruled that stickers informing students that evolution is only a theory, not a fact, should be removed from all biology textbooks. The verdict applied to Cobb County School District, Georgia (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/cobb/citizensforscience.html).

Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Pennsylvania: 2005

This 2005 case ruled that ID should be removed from public school science curricula. The verdict applied to the Dover Area School District, Pennsylvania (McCalla, 2007).

The Continuing ID Controversy

The trials mentioned here are only a few of many trials on the evolution/creation controversy, the majority of which go unreported by the media. The National Center for Science Education reports that in a recent 2-year period, there were 143 different trials from 34 different states (Pennock, 2003).

In many of these recent court cases, ID advocates have used a number of arguments to implement the wedge strategy in public life (Pennock, 2003). They argue that students should be taught the controversy about evolution and presented with evidence against evolutionary theory to develop critical thinking. However, scientists feel that this would be an inaccurate presentation of current scholarship to students (Beverley, 2002). Accepted scientific theories, such as the theory of gravity, do not typically have evidence presented against them in classrooms. In addition evolution is not controversial within the scientific community; it is only politically and religiously controversial. Either ID-advocated inclusion would have implications for students about the validity of evolution. Despite continuous criticism from the scientific community and numerous legal verdicts against ID, the ID movement continues to be active and well supported by creationists to the present day.

Why Does the Evolution/Creation Controversy Continue?

A number of factors perpetuate the evolution/creation controversy in the United States. Some researchers suggest that although hierarchies based on power, money, and celebrity are supported in U.S. society, intellectual hierarchies based on specialist knowledge are not readily accepted (Pigliucci, 2003). In contrast with places such as Europe, the U.S. education system is, to some extent, seen as a democratic process in which different opinions should be taught for the sake of variety (Pigliucci, 2003). Scholars note that this mind-set has had disastrous consequences for science teaching. The best-accepted scientific theories about life have, for generations, not been presented clearly to students, and as a result, a number of common misconceptions persist about the theory of evolution (Pigliucci, 2003). These perpetuate the evolution/ creation controversy.

Misconception #1: Argument That “Evolution Is Only a Theory”

One common misunderstanding is that the use of the term evolution as a theory means that it is no more than a guess or wild speculation. In science, a theory is a complex and well-conceived working hypothesis for how a given system functions. Many theories are accepted as well-established scientific principles. Science constructs working hypotheses to ask and answer queries on a subject, which are tested in specifically designed experiments to yield clear results. These experiments and their results can be repeated and verified by other scientists. Evidence for or against a hypothesis is thus gathered through measurement, calculation, deduction, observation, and experimentation. This evidence can be presented to an international scientific community and can be assessed by all, and when a new discovery is made, theoretical explanations change. Scientific theory can thus be seen as the best explanation at a given time in history to account for the evidence available.

Misconception #2: Science “Contradicts” Religion

While science is based on testable, replicable methods, religion is a belief system through which the world is perceived, which comes from a different source of human experience. Many scholars note that science, in itself, does not support or refute religion. Rather, it is the worldview of the individual interpreting the science (Pennock, 2003; Van Till, 1998) that can make science seem for or against a particular religious belief. A scientist who does not believe in a higher power may reduce reality to the material, sensory world and may feel that understanding the mechanisms by which something works eliminates the need for any other types of explanations. In contrast, a scientist with theistic belief may see each new discovery as a testament to a higher being, with the mechanisms of this discovery revealing information about the way this power has worked in the universe. In this way, science and religion are capable of adding meaning to one another. A poll in the 1990s by the University of Georgia revealed that 40% of working physicists and biologists in the United States claim to have strong spiritual beliefs. This suggests that faith and science are, for many experts, not mutually exclusive.

Although religion and science are not intrinsically incompatible, this is one of the common misconceptions perpetuated by the evolution/creation controversy. Many scholars note that the notion that one must choose between believing in science or religion, evolution or creation, is false and even contradicts Darwin’s own writings (Bleckmann, 2006; Pennock, 2003; Szebenyi, 2005; Van Till, 1998).

Misconception #3: Creationism Is as Scientifically Valid as Evolution

Although versions of creationism such as ID are still taught in U.S. schools, this does not mean they are valid scientific alternatives on par with evolutionary theory. There are many areas of active research in evolutionary biology and many disagreements among scientists on the specifics of the evolutionary mechanism; however, evolution has remained unchallenged in its main particulars for well over a century. There is no ongoing scientific debate about the validity of evolutionary theory. Rather, the scientific community and numerous court hearings worldwide have declared that the theory of evolution is scientifically sound, while creationism is not.

Misconception #4: Scientists Think Evolutionary Theory Explains How Life Originated

A further misconception about evolution is that evolutionary theory has shown how life on Earth originated. Scholars note that this misconception inflames many creationists, who may otherwise be more open to evolutionary ideas. Although biological evolution is supported by the results of thousands of experiments, life’s origins have not yet been determined. Darwin suggested in 1871 that life may have originated in some ancient pond, and biochemist Stanley Miller conducted famous “primordial soup” experiments in the 1950s. Miller found that in specific environmental conditions meant to mimic Earth’s atmosphere billions of years ago, amino acids could be produced using a mixture of chemicals and adding electricity. Since proteins found in living organisms are made from amino acids, they were seen as a precursor to life. However, more recent researchers think that Earth’s early atmosphere was unlike that simulated by Miller. New theories suggest that life may have originated on solid substrates and not in an aqueous environment at all. How life originated is currently an open area of scientific investigation.

The American public continues to see creationists pitted against modern evolutionary theory.

Manifestations of the Evolution/Creation Controversy in Other Countries Worldwide

Although the evolution/creation debate has had the most far-reaching influence in the United States, many other countries have been influenced by creationist teachings, and some smaller movements have emerged worldwide.


Australia has a growing fundamentalist Christian and creationist population. In 1980, the Queensland state government allowed creation science to be taught in schools. Since this time, the teaching of creationism alongside evolution has been a widespread problem in Australian schools, and some lawsuits have resulted (Beverley, 2002).


In Europe, there have been a few unsuccessful efforts by creationists to have forms of creationism, such as ID, taught in various European schools. Presentation of any form of creationism in schools was strongly opposed in 2007 by the European council, who deem it a type of religion and not science (Feedback, November 2007).

Middle Eastern Countries

In some Islamic Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, it is illegal to teach evolution in schools. Other countries such as Turkey and Egypt have much public support for creation science (Pitock, 2007).

Future Directions: Ways to Alleviate the Controversy

Experts suggest that the primary way to lessen the evolution/creation controversy worldwide is through improved science education (Beverley, 2002; Moore, 2007; Pennock, 2003).

Teach Evolution Clearly

The theory of evolution is considered the most plausible explanation for the diversification of life presently known to science; therefore, it has been suggested that evolutionary theory alone be taught in classrooms. It has also been suggested that teachers not present the controversy surrounding evolution or the evidence against evolution because these approaches mislead students about evolution’s validity. Activities to educate students about the nature of science and to develop their scientific inquiry skills could be presented instead (Beverley, 2002; Moore, 2007; Pennock, 2003; Pigliucci, 2003; Moore, 2007).

Do Not Mix Science and Religion in the Classroom

Experts also suggest that science be taught in a religiously neutral way to avoid either misrepresenting the facts of science or offending individuals who are religious believers. Teachers might consider avoiding reference to their personal beliefs while in the classroom, since this may bias students and perpetuate the controversy (Beverley, 2002; Moore, 2007; Pennock, 2003).

Improve Teacher Education

Teacher training and continuing education could include training on how to teach evolutionary theory.

Scientists suggest that through these types of improved science education, the evolution/creation controversy can be alleviated (Moore, 2007; Pennock, 2003).


Despite the acceptance of evolutionary theory by the worldwide scientific community, the topic continues to be controversial. Murray and Buffaloe noted that “the vast mainstream of theistic interpretation has long ago assimilated the concept of evolution into its faith perspective, along with modern astronomy, the atomic theory, and other scientific findings” (1983, p. 464). However, creationists from fundamentalist groups worldwide assert that no compromise is possible between evolution and religious faith. This extreme stance has also led some scientists to believe that evolution and spiritual belief are incompatible. The evolution/creation controversy has endured since 1859 and shows no sign of abating in the near future. Experts predict that this acrimonious debate will persist for some time to come.