Contemporary creationists are a diverse bunch. Protestant Christian fundamentalists tend to be what are known as young earth creationists, who believe that the Genesis account is literally true (indeed, that only the King James Version of Genesis is literally true: all other translations, in their view, lack the divine inspiration of their preferred version) and that there was a single act of divine creation a little over six thousand years ago, during the course of which the entire universe was created in six days. Old earth creationists also believe that there was one single act of divine creation but that this occurred billions of years ago, as suggested by science, although they do not accept that species can evolve over time. Both these types of creationist are very keen on so-called out-of-place artefacts (supposedly anomalous archaeological discoveries) – though for different reasons. Young earth creationists like to use these artefacts (or pieces of evidence for modern humans in early geological strata) as proof that Adam was created on the sixth day and that humans have consequently been around since the earliest moments of earth’s history a mere six thousand years ago. To old earth creationists, they are evidence that people were created in a sixth age, millions of years ago, but shortly after all other land animals.

Day-Age creationists and Gap creationists also believe that the earth is billions of years old, but the former believe that the seven ‘days’ mentioned in Genesis were actually seven very long ages, while the latter believe that there were long gaps of millions of years between the days of creation, each of which lasted precisely twenty-four hours. These creationists also reject the evolution of living things. The former can be criticised for altering the interpretation of their religious texts to fit the evidence, the latter for failing to account for the gradual changes observable in fossil species.

Proponents of creationism often fall for the ‘either-or fallacy’: they believe that by discrediting Darwin and the theory of evolution, their alternative must therefore be true. The efficacy of evolution has no bearing on the efficacy of Christian accounts of creationism.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial

Creation vs Evolution in the US classroom: the 1925 Scopes Trial

In the USA, matters first came to a head in July 1925, when John Thomas Scopes (1900-1970), a young biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was prosecuted for contravening the state’s Butler’s Act. This Act forbade the teaching of “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”. Leading the debate on the side of the prosecution was William Jenings Bryan (1860-1925), a former Secretary of State and failed presidential candidate, while the defence was in the hands of a prominent intellectual lawyer, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938). During the trial, the biblical literalist position was shown to be absurd as Darrow questioned Bryan about the Book of Genesis, but this was no defence, as Scopes had undeniably taught evolution, in contravention of state law. He was inevitably found guilty and fined a token sum of $100; Bryan died just five days after the conclusion of the trial, although his death was obviously not connected with it.

John Thomas Scopes, 1900-1970

John Thomas Scopes, 1900-1970

The Scopes trial attracted professional and public attention. Intellectual heavyweights such as H L Mencken were dismayed by the actions and thoughts of their fellow Americans. Mencken’s report for the Baltimore Evening Sun on 19 June demonstrated a pessimistic and weary disdain for the creationists. He wrote: “The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life.”

Popular opposition to evolution remained high and as a result, most American textbooks made little or no mention of evolution until the early 1960s, a situation unthinkable in Europe. By then, though, it had become apparent that if American children were to have an understanding of biology that would enable some of them to develop into mature biological scientists, then they would need to be taught evolution as part of the school science curriculum. Even so, the early 1960s also saw the beginning of a revival of creationist beliefs as part of a resurgence of fundamentalist and evangelical sects. The Genesis Flood, by John Clement Whitcomb (1927-) and Henry Madison Morris (1918-2006), sparked renewed interest in creationism and remains today a very important text among creationists.

The Creation Research Society was founded in 1963 and publishes The Creation Research Society Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal that gives an outlet for the writings of creationists who are unable to publish their papers in mainstream scientific journals. The Institute for Creation Research was founded in 1970, also to promote creationism. Thanks to their activities, which include seminars across the US and Canada, tours of the Grand Canyon, numerous publications, broadcasting a weekly radio program, encouraging local pressure groups and providing expert witnesses for court cases, creationists were able to bring a number of cases to court in the early 1980s. They were designed to challenge the teaching of evolution in science classes, demanding that equal time be spent teaching the biblical account of creation.

Thus, Arkansas State Law 590 was passed in 1981 and it made the teaching of Christian creationism (in its Protestant fundamentalist form) obligatory as part of the science curriculum in publicly funded schools, with equal time to be given to evolution. An action was mounted by concerned parents and scientists to overturn the law, which was declared unconstitutional as it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which forbids the use of public money in promoting any particular religion or religious belief to the detriment or exclusion of others. A similar Creationism Act was passed in Louisiana, which required that either both or neither evolution and creationism be taught in schools. Again, a number of parents, teachers and religious leaders challenged the Act’s constitutionality and won an injunction that was confirmed by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

By the end of the 1980s, creationism therefore seemed to be a spent force. However, in the 1990s, it once again made considerable gains in the United States and Australia, thanks to promotion by fundamentalist sects, even though it made little impact elsewhere. The neo-conservative political climate of the George Bush senior administration in particular brought people with fundamentalist religious beliefs into positions of influence both in state legislatures and at a federal level. American creationists adopted a new strategy, attempting to persuade school boards to demand that equal time be given to scientific evidence against evolution rather than teaching a specifically religious account in science classes. In this way, they could claim that the motivation was not religious but scientific, encouraging critical thinking in students; it would not, therefore, violate the First Amendment. This approach worried many scientists, who were concerned that teachers and students might well be unable to recognise that many supposed pieces of evidence undermining the theory of evolution by natural selection are pseudoscience or even deliberate falsifications, and are easily refuted. Another technique has been to persuade teachers to describe what they see as inadequacies in the theory of evolution, such as the supposed lack of transitional species and the improbability of living matter evolving out of non-living matter. Needless to say, the former argument is false and there are numerous transitional forms in the fossil record, whilst the theory of abiogenesis (how life can develop from dead matter) is irrelevant to the truth or fallacy of evolution.

Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005

Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005

In 1996, the conservative Pope John Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła 1920-2005; Pope 1979-2005) sent a formal statement to the Pontifical Academy of Science stating that “fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis”. As a result, it is now official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that evolution has taken place and that it is part of the divine order of the universe. Developments in the Roman Catholic Church, of course, do not affect fundamentalists…

In 1999, Christian fundamentalist members of the Kansas state school board voted to change the state’s science education policy so that there would no longer be a requirement to test students on their knowledge of evolution. The purpose was to stop evolution being taught in that state, as teachers are disinclined to teach topics that their students will not be tested on. The state Governor criticised the decision, which was widely ridiculed by many in the media and sciences. The election of autumn 2000 saw most of the school board members who had supported the creationist agenda replaced and in 2001, the board overturned its 1999 decision. Nevertheless, creationists continue to lobby school boards and state legislatures, with well organised and well funded institutions to provide literature and expert testimony.

Intelligent Design and the Dover trial

During the 1990s, another attempt was made by creationists to ensure that their views would be taught in American science classes through a ruse called Intelligent Design. According to its proponents, this is a purely scientific hypothesis that uses information theory (among other things) to demonstrate that various aspects of the universe are so complex that they could not have arisen by accident. The only alternative, according to Intelligent Design theorists is that there is a Designer, operating outside the laws that govern either life on earth at the small scale or the operation of the cosmos on the large scale. At the time of a high profile Creationist case (Edwards v Aguillard) in 1987, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics was working on an early draft of Of Pandas and People and quickly appreciated that it could no longer be published as an overtly creationist textbook. A simple word-processor was used to replace all references in the text to ‘creationism’ with ‘intelligent design’ and shamelessly pretended that Intelligent Design was a completely new hypothesis, deriving from scientific work rather than religious authority.

The new movement focused around four individuals: the lawyer Philip Johnson, the mathematician William Dembski, the biochemist Michael Behe and the philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. It came into existence formally in 1993, following a conference at Pajaro Dunes (California, USA), which unusually required no profession of faith, unlike similar creationist conferences. It was at the conference that Michael Behe first presented his hypothesis of ‘irreducible complexity’, the idea that certain biological features could not have evolved in stages because each piece needs to be in place for the structure to function – the creationist’ tired argument about “what use is half an eye?”. Behe’s 1996 Darwin’s Black Box then launched the idea of Intelligent Design and around the same time, the ultra-conservative Discovery Institute, based in Seattle (Washington, USA), established a new division, known as The Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (it soon dropped ‘the Renewal of’ as it was too obviously religiously inspired) to promote Intelligent Design.

Although the work of the Center for Science and Culture is supposed to be non-religious, it is largely funded by religious organisations, its members are mostly fundamentalist protestant christians and in the leaked 1998 ‘Wedge Document’, its religious aims are made explicit. The stated aims in the field of evolution, though, are to present challenges to Darwin’s hypothesis of common descent with modification by natural selection for all living things. To do this, the Center began persuading activists to petition local school boards to (in its own phrase) “teach the controversy”; in other words, to bring evidence into the classroom that would undermine Darwinian natural selection and indicate special creation for certain biological features (and, indeed, life itself). In 2004, the Dover (Pennsylvania, USA) school board passed a motion that students “will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design”. In December, a group of concerned parents mounted a legal challenge to the board’s amendment to the curriculum.

The trial took place during the autumn of 2005 and the shambolic performance of the expert witnesses for Intelligent Design did much to discredit the movement. Worse for them, it was abundantly clear throughout the trial that their motivation was purely religious, that the school board had understood Intelligent Design to be a synonym for creationism and that by requiring science departments to teach Intelligent Design in biology lessons violated the constitutional amendment preventing the state from sponsoring a particular religious viewpoint.

One of the expert witnesses was Steve Fuller, a professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. His involvement in the Dover Trial presents something of a challenge to those denouncing Bad Archaeology. Fuller’s work predominantly examines social epistemology from an overtly post-modernist standpoint. Social epistemology may seem like a complicated piece of academic-speak but it really relates to how and why knowledge is created and ratified. Some scientific theories, methods and individuals are legitimised by the powerful establishment in academia and politics. Social epistemology seeks to understand how knowledge can be legitimised or marginalised. Fuller’s involvement as an expert witness for the creationists (here is a PDF of his submission) actually worked in favour of the scientists. This could be because the judge was incapable of comprehending the difficult philosophical principles at stake. Alternatively (and more plausibly), he could well have dismissed it as a load of rubbish!

As a result of the trial, Intelligent Design is now seen for what it is: a poorly disguised attempt to re-brand creationism. It has also made the movement appear ridiculous and it remains to be seen if it will ever recover from this deserved ignominy.