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?

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 Copernican 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, but by 2004 a new conservative school board majority was proposing that intelligent design be discussed in science classes. (In 2006, the Kansas tug-of-war continued, with pro-evolution moderates again retaking control of the Board.)

In 2005, attention shifted to Dover, Pennsylvania, where the local school board voted to require teachers to read a statement about intelligent design prior to discussions of evolution in high school biology classes.  Eleven parents of Dover students challenged the school board decision, arguing that it violated the Establishment Clause.  After a six-week trial, U. S. District Judge John E. Jones issued a 139-page findings of fact and decision in which he ruled that the Dover mandate was unconstitutional.  Judge Jones's decision was surprisingly broad.  He concluded that "ID is not science," but rather is a religious theory that had no place in the science classroom.  Jones found three reasons for his conclusion that intelligent design was a religious, and not a scientific, theory.  First, he found ID violated  "the self-imposed convention" of the scientific method by relying upon a supernatural explanation for a natural phenomenon, rather that the approach favored in science: testability.  Second, ID is based on the same "contrived dualism" as creation science, namely its suggestion that every  piece of evidence tending to discredit evolution confirms intelligent design.  Jones found ID's "irreducible complexity" argument to be "a negative argument against evolution, not proof of design."  Finally, Jones concluded that the expert testimony offered by the defendants in support of ID (generally relating to "irreducible complexity") had been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers.
The decision of Judge Jones in Kitzmiller v Dover (2005) is available online:

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.

Prof's Prerogative

Facts are Stubborn Thing
by Douglas O. Linder

It is hardly surprising that Darwin’s theory of evolution should meet with so much resistance. We encounter an idea that comforts us, an account like Genesis 1 that establishes our specialness, and ask: “Can I believe it?” We consider a thing that troubles us, a process like evolution that seems chance-driven and dethrones us from our special place in the universe, and ask instead: “Must I believe it?”

Evolution suggests that our species, if not quite an accident, is an extreme improbability — and, most likely, one whose time is limited — on life’s continuing and circuitous journey to an undetermined destination. Must we believe it? Darwin knew that many people, raised to believe in miracles or magic, would find his theory hard to swallow. In his autobiography, he noted that, as a young man on the H.M.S. Beagle, he had written in his journal of “the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion” that would “fill and elevate” his mind. He lamented that now, older and wiser, believing in evolution and disbelieving in God, even “the grandest scenes” evoked no powerful feelings: “I am like a man that has become color-blind.” Publishing his theory, he said, felt “like confessing a murder.”

When William Jennings Bryan took on evolution in a courtroom in Tennessee in 1925, in the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial, he acknowledged that he did not fully understand the theory of evolution, but said that he fully understood the theory’s dangers and misuse: how it threatened to leave students feeling lost in an uncaring universe, how it could lead to sterilization of the abnormal and diminished concern for the survival of the “unfit.” Bryan cheerfully ignored the evidence for evolution, explaining, “I would rather begin with God and reason down than begin with a piece of dirt and reason up.”

I believe in the theory evolution not because I want to, but because I feel I must, and because, unlike Bryan, I find it hard to reason in one direction or another. Creationists have offered one objection after another — “The immune system is too complex to have evolved,” “Evolution could never produce an eye, because what use is half an eye?” — and each has been answered. As the confirming fossil and DNA evidence piles up, as the theory of evolution reveals itself to be a powerful tool for both explaining the imperfections of species and accounting for transitional species, it becomes ever more difficult to believe in the pleasing creation stories told in Genesis and elsewhere. Facts, as John Adams reminded us, are stubborn things. Whether 20 years or 200 years from now, the accumulating evidence will become so overwhelming that evolution will be as accepted as the Sun-centered solar system is today. (No gloating allowed, scientists.)

Our challenge is to accept evolution while maintaining a sense of wonder, concern for those whose survival is beyond their own means, and a vision of a colorful and surprise-filled world.

(This essay appeared in the New York Times, 8/15/2013)

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 best explanation for how that transformation occurs 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. Virtually no first-rate biologists* in the United States do 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.


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

Source: Gallup sample of 1,001 adults (Mar. 21-23, 2005)

Source: PFAW 2000 in Science & Spirit Sept-Oct. 2005

Selected E-mail Messages
A student's pro-Creationist critique of this page
Critique of this page by a Creationist theologian
Creationist critique #3
E-mail messages from an eyewitness to the Scopes trial
Why intelligent design is not science

Pro-Creationism Sites:
Center for Scientific Creation
Creation Science
Creation Research Society
Discovery Institute
Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia
Answers in Genesis
Conservapedia on Evolution
Creation Ministries

Sites Generally Supporting Evolutionary Theory:
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
Rolling Stone's View of ID and the Dover, PA Case
Scientific American
Evolution Entrance (UC_Berkeley)


Epperson vs. Arkansas (1968)
Edwards vs  Aguillard (1987)

"Justice Fortas and the Overturning of the Anti-Evolution Law"

"Justices Brennan and Scalia Debate "Creation-Science" in Edwards v Aguillard"

"Putting Evolution on the Defensive: John Nelson Darby, Dwight L. Moody,
William B. Riley and the Rise of Fundamentalism in America"

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

John Scopes, defendant in the celebrated 1925 trial concerning the teaching of evolution.

Other Materials
Tennessee vs. Scopes (1927)
Genesis, Chapter 1
Tennessee's Anti-Evolution Statute
Account of the Scopes Trial
Scopes Trial Transcript
Biology Book Used by Scopes
Images of the Scopes Trial Chat on Scopes Trial (7/12/2000)
Nation Article on the Kansas Controversy (1999)
N.Y. Times Article on Intelligent Design Theory (2001)
Creationism in 2001: State by State Report (People for American Way)
Notes on Intelligent Design in the Public Schools (2001)
Intelligent Design Challenged in Pennsylvania Court (2004)

Susan Epperson, the Arkansas teacher who successfully challenged her state's anti-evolution law in the 1968 Supreme Court case, Epperson v Arkansas

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 might or might not reject the theory of evolution.  At a minimum, the ID proponent rejects that evolution is randomly driven or, 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

Darwin's Origin of Species

 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

"The Darape"

The Onion's Take on the Intelligent Design Controversy
in Dover , Pennsylvania (10-5-2005)

ID in California Classroom
Jan. 11, 2006
Eleven parents at Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec, California filed suit in federal district court to force cancellation of a high school elective course called "Philosophy of Design."  Parents contend that the course, taught by the wife of a Assembly of God pastor, is essentially a religiously-motivated course advocating "Intelligent Design."  In their suit, parents note that the syllabus for the course listed 24 videos to be shown to the students, 23 of which took a "pro-creationist, anti-evolution stance."  (Interestingly, of the two evolution experts the syllabus listed as guest speakers for the course, one was Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, who died two years before the syllabus was drafted.)
Feb. 2006
Soon after suit was filed against the Philosophy of Design course, the school district decided to drop the class.

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