The Evolution Controversy

The issue:  What restrictions does the First Amendment place on the ability of states and school boards to restrict the teaching of evolution or encourage the teaching of "creation science" in the public school classrooms?


Who's What?

A CREATIONIST: A creationist is a person who rejects the theory of evolution and believes instead that the each species on earth was put here by a Divine Being.  A Creationist might accept "micro-evolution" (changes in the form of a species over time based on natural selection), but rejects the notion that one species can-- over time-- become another species.

YOUNG EARTH CREATIONIST: A young earth creationist believes that the earth is nowhere near the 4.6 billion or so years old that most scientists estimate, but is instead closer to 6,000 or so years old, based on the assumption the Genesis contains a complete listing of the generations from Adam and Eve to historical times.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN PROPONENT: An ID proponent rejects the theory of evolution and, more generally, the notion that natural law and chance alone can explain the diversity of life on earth.  Instead, the ID proponent argues--often from statistics--that the diversity of life is the result of a purposeful scheme of some higher power (who may or may not be the God of the Bible).

EVOLUTIONIST: An evolutionist accepts the Darwinian argument that natural selection and environmental factors combine to explain the diversity of life we see on earth.  An evolutionist may or may not believe that evolution is the way in which a Divine Being has chosen to work in the world.  Evolutionists divide into various camps, including PUNCTUALISTS (who believe that evolution usually occurs sporadically, in relatively short bursts, as the result of major environmental change) and GRADUALISTS (who are more inclined to believe that evolution occurs more evenly, over longer periods of time).  The PUNCTUALISTS seem now to be winning the argument.



1. Is it consistent with the intentions of the framers to call every law that has the primary purpose of advancing religious beliefs a violation of the Establishment Clause? 

2. Is it a violation of the Establishment Clause for a biology teacher to discuss with her students the reasons that she believes in "intelligent design theory" (the theory that holds the universe was the product of the conscious design of a Creator)? 

3.  Is it a violation of the Establishment Clause for a biology teacher to tell his students "the story of creation in Genesis is hogwash and here's why"? 

4.  If a  State Education Board decides to drop evolution from the list of courses it requires to be taught in public schools, does that decision violate the Establishment Clause?

5.  May a biology teacher be fired, on competence grounds, either for teaching creation science or for not teaching evolution? 

6.  Is the desire of state or school board officials to avoid entanglement in a primarily religious controversy a "secular purpose"?

7.  May a school system allow Fundamentalists to opt out of classes in which evolution is discussed?  Would that be a good solution to the controversy?


The man who started it all: Charles Darwin

 Further Reading

The case for the theory of evolution is made most compellingly in Science and Creationism (Ashley Montagu, ed.)(1984 Oxford Press) which includes essays by scientists such as Asimov, Hardin, Gould, Marsden, Boulding, Stent, and others.

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould devoted considerable attention to the issue.  His works are voluminous.  Some of the better reads include Wonderful Life (1989), Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995), and Ever Since Darwin (1977).
The most important critique of evolution is presented by Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson in his Darwin on Trial (2nd ed., 1993).

Darwin's H. M.S. Beagle

Why does this debate go on and on?

The theory of evolution undermines the view that we as a a species have a special place in the universe.  It suggests that the universe is chance-filled.  Those are hard ideas for us to accept.  Genesis is much more comforting.  Believing, as many people do, that every word (or nearly every word) of the Bible is the literal word of God gives those believers a great deal of personal peace and joy. 

Perhaps the state should not force exposure to the theory of evolution to those students who view the theory as too threatening. Perhaps.  But at the same time, the majority of students who do not subscribe to a literalist interpretation of the Bible need to be prepared for advanced study in biology, should they choose to undertake it.  They need to know about evolution.  Teachers should follow the facts wherever they go.


Conflict between science and religion began well before Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species.  The most famous early controversy was the trial of Galileo in 1633 for publishing Dialogue, a book that supported the Copernicun theory that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than--as the Bible suggests-- the other way around. 
The so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925, concerning enforcement of a Tennessee statute that prohibited teaching the theory of evolution in public school classrooms, was a fascinating courtroom drama featuring Clarence Darrow dueling with three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.  However entertaining the trial in Dayton, Tennessee was, it did not resolve the  question of whether the First Amendment permitted states to ban teaching of a theory that contradicted religious beliefs.  Not until 1968 did the Supreme Court rule in Epperson vs. Arkansas that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious.  The Court used the same rationale in 1987 in Edwards vs Aguillard to strike down a Louisiana law that required biology teachers who taught the theory of evolution to also discuss evidence supporting the theory called "creation science." 
The controversy continues in new forms today.  In 1999, for example, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the list of subjects tested on state standardized tests, in effect encouraging local school boards to consider dropping or de-emphasizing evolution.  In 2000,  Kansas voters responded to the proposed change by throwing out enough anti-evolution Board members to restore the old science standards.  In 2002, attention shifted to Ohio, which is presently considering changes in its  science curriculum. 
Conflicts between science and religion will not end any time soon. In the future, legal conflicts between science and religion can be expected over theories such as "The Big Bang," which also undermines Fundamentalist beliefs about creation.


Biographies of Key Figures in the Controversy (2004)
Four Evolutionists Four Creationists
Charles Darwin
William B. Riley
Thomas Huxley
William Jennings Bryan
Stephen Jay Gould
Henry M. Morris
Steven Pinker
Phillip E. Johnson


Prof's Prerogative

1.  Evolution (the transformation over a long period of time from one species into another) is a fact--as well-established as any other fact in the world of science.  What theory of evolution is the explanation for how that transformation occurs, and that remains a matter of some dispute.

2.  Although fossil evidence sufficiently demonstrates the fact of evolution, even more compelling evidence today comes today from DNA testing of species.  In the future, most of our additional knowledge of evolution will come from what we can learn from DNA.

3. To call evolution a "theory" says nothing about its ability to accurately explain facts observed in the world.  The sun-centered solar system of Copernicus and Galileo is a theory.

4. Evolution is the central theory of biology.  It is a powerful tool for explaining the presence of millions of fossils and other evidence (such as the fact that over 98% of the DNA of chimpanzees and humans is identical)  about the origin of life forms.

5 Evolution is not considered to be inconsistent with the religious beliefs of most Christians or Jews.  Most mainline Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, and many other religious faiths accept the teaching of evolution.  (See, e.g., essay below  describing the Pope's accepting view of evolution.)

6. There is not a single first-rate biologist* in the United States who does not believe that life on earth has developed through the process of evolution, starting with single-cell organisms.
(*This seems to be a controversial assertion.  As one objective measure, consider the group of tenured members of the biology departments in the nation's fifty top-rated universities. I do not mean, of course, to suggest that all people who reject evolution are second-rate thinkers.) 

7.  There are disputes about evolution as there are about almost any theory.  For example, most--but not all--biologists believe that evolution has not worked evenly throughout history: they believe that there have been periods of rapid evolutionary change followed by long periods of relatively little evolutionary change.

8. It took over 200 years, but eventually the Catholic Church accepted the scientific evidence that the earth revolved around the sun.  Eventually, most Fundamentalists will come to accept the theory of evolution as well--whether in 20 years or in 200 is hard to say.  But it will happen. Facts are stubborn things.

Pro-Creationism Sites:

Center for Scientific Creation
Creation Science
Creation Research Society
Access Research Network
Discovery Institute
Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia
Answers in Genesis, Response to Sci Am's "15 Answers"

Sites Generally Supporting Evolutionary Theory:

BBC's Evolution Website
Scientific American, "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense" 
Evolution Entrance (UC_Berkeley)
Darwin's Evidence for Evolution
Origin of Life
Introduction to Evolutionary Biology
Creation/Evolution Bibliography Database
Creation "Science" Debunked
National Center for Science Education
Design Arguments Critiqued



What the Vatican Says About Evolution

The Rise of Fundamentalism in America and the Joining of the Battle Over Evolution

From Francis Galton to Scopes's Classroom: The Eugenics Movement

Cosmologist Steven Weinberg on the Science vs Religion Conflict


National Public Radio:  Tracking How Evolution Theory Came to Be

Listen to this story... 

Fresh Air from WHYY, October 4, 2005 Historian Edward Larson has written extensively on the intersection of science, politics and religion.

In 2004, Larson's Evolution: The Remarkable History of A Scientific Theory traced the contentious history of the theory of evolution -- from before Darwin to arguments now taking place over school curricula and other issues.


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