Biologic Evolution vs. Intelligent Design/Creationism:
Distinctions Between Science and Religion
Donald B. McCormick January 2005
Biologic evolution, grounded in the principle of natural selection, was thoughtfully promulgated by Charles Robert Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in the mid-19th century. Darwin, a physician's son educated at Edinburgh and Cambridge, was an astute observer of nature during his five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle which carried him to the east and west coasts of South America, the Galapagos, and on into the Pacific. Russell, a schoolteacher in the collegiate school at Leicester, first went to the Amazon and Rio Negro in South America and then to the Malay Archipelago where he noted the demarcation of flora and fauna throughout the islands of Indonesia. It was Wallace who first wrote on "the survival of the fittest" in February 1855, and sent his letter to Darwin, who received it in June of that year and recognized it as the precursor of his "On the Origin of Species" published in November 1859. It was the massive and meticulous accrual of specimens and evidence that has led many to attaching foremost the name of Darwin to biologic evolution.
Evidence included the disciplines that were and still are bases for supporting the Theory of Evolution. Some of these are summarized with the usual accompaniment of select pictures given in the November 2004 issue of National Geographic.These include paleontology, the study of fossils in age-structured strata of rocks and clays; anatomy and morphology, observing the progressive changes in forms and functions of organisms and their body parts; embryology, the similarity of post-gestational forms of the developing fetus of different animals including the human. To such ongoing disciplines must now be added evidence derived from genetics and molecular sciences that extend from biochemistry and molecular biology. Phylogenetic tracking of the relative age and lineage of species is becoming an exact science. Today in our neo-Darwinian period, biologic evolution is defined as a change in the gene pool of a population from generation to generation by such processes as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift. All of these are now understood at the molecular level as reflected by changes in the basic physical unit of heredity called a gene; a linear sequence of nucleotides along a segment of DNA that provides the coded instructions for synthesis of RNA, which, when translated into protein, leads to the expression of hereditary character.
Creationism is the doctrine that matter and all things were created, substantially as they now exist, by an omnipotent Creator, and not gradually evolved or developed. So-called "creation science" is a form of creationism advocated as an alternative to the scientific theory of evolution, and holding that the creation of the universe and everything in it was supernatural and relatively recent. Intelligent Design is a form of creationism that holds that only a supernatural and omnipotent Creator was responsible for the complex nature of organisms. The earlier example of the intricacy of design evident in a discovered watch, suggested in early 1800's by the English evangelist William Paley, or the more recently suggested complexity of such an organ as the eye are often used as arguments for the Creator. Nowadays those who espouse Intelligent Design/Creationism parrot the words of science to argue that their religious beliefs should be taught as a scientific theory along with the scientific theory of evolution.
It is instructive, therefore, to examine the meaning of theory. A 1999 Webster's Dictionary definition is that a scientific theory "implies considerable evidence in support of a formulated general principle explaining the operation of certain phenomena, e.g. the theory of evolution." Other very securely established theories are of a heliocentric planetary system, first propounded by Copernicus. The mathematical and telescopic evidences of Galileo secured this fact of the earth and other planets orbiting the sun as we now see from our space ships, rather than the sun and planets going around the earth as was then Catholic church dogma. For writing of his scientific work, Galileo was put under house arrest for the rest of his life by Pope Urban VIII, in spite of the fact that Galileo was a devout Catholic with two daughters serving as devoted sisters of the church. This story has been told recently by Dava Sobel in her book "Galileo's Daughter". Other scientifically certain clusters of our present knowledge are the theory of relativity, quantum theory, the atomic theory, etc. As pointed out by the editor of National Geographic, "When scientists say "theory", they mean a statement based on observation or experimentation that explains facets of the observable world so well that it becomes fact. They do not mean an idea created out of thin air, nor do they mean an unsubstantiated belief." The use of "theory" by creationists of any stripe who claim their beliefs are science should be understood as religious faith, which again as dictionary defined is belief not based on proof or evidence.
Publications by Darwin and his espousal of evolution were seen to strike at the heart of the evangelical beliefs of many of his contemporary countrymen. Fortunately Darwin had not only the support of such eminent scientists as the geologist Charles Lowell and the botanist Joseph Hooker, but also the excellent biologist/communicator Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley had also traveled to see nature; he was an assistant surgeon on H.M.S. Rattlesnake. When Samuel Wilberforce, a bishop in the Anglican church, decided that the meeting in 1860 at Oxford of the British Association for the Advancement of Science would provide him an opportunity to squash the dangerous evolutionary theory, he found more than his intellectual match. In the crowded assembly, Wilberforce spoke with inimitable spirit, emptiness and unfairness; he then made the serious mistake of voicing an offensive remark about Huxley's simian ancestry. Specifically Wilberforce asked Huxley whether it was through his father or mother that he was descended from an ape. Huxley murmured to his neighbor, "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands." When then asked by those assembled to give his reply, Huxley stated "If ---the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great influence, and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion - I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." This not only sequestered a religious bigot but, as pointed out by the Encyclopedia Britannica, the significance of this occasion was not merely that it secured a somewhat fair hearing for Darwin's theory but that science had made its declaration of independence from theology. Interestingly Huxley's later speculations on philosophy and religion and continued support of Darwinism led to an advocacy of agnosticism, a term Huxley coined in 1870 to advance the argument that one cannot prove the existence of a God. Huxley's broad span of knowledge and excellent ability to communicate can be appreciated by anyone who reads his "On a Piece of Chalk", which is an essay based on his talk given to a group of cold miners.
When addressing "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy", John Dewey whose theories of knowledge and learning had such a large impact on educational practice in the U.S., stated in his 1909 lecture at Columbia University that "Intellectually, religious emotions are not creative but conservative. They attach themselves readily to the current view of the world and consecrate it." Further, "There is not, I think, any large idea about the world being independently generated by religion." Dewey discusses the problem of design versus chance, mind versus matter, as the causal explanation, first or final, of things. He emphasizes the fact that Darwin's theories undercut once and for all the philosophies (religions) insistent in the belief of fixed first and final causes for all phenomena of life, and in so doing, "freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life."
The Scopes trial, also known as the monkey trial, is a well known reflection of the imposition of religion on the teaching of science in the U.S. A snippet of a film showing "The Commoner", Williams Jennings Bryan, declaring his fundamentalist views before the court are to be seen in the videos of Joseph Campbell's series on "The Transformation of Myth through Time". The Encarta Encyclopedia, 2001, under evolution/Scopes trial in Dayton Tenn., July 21, 1925 describes some highpoints and the Associated Press report of written questions by William Jennings Bryan and answers by Clarence Darrow:
Forbidden by Judge Raulston to examine Darrow on the witness stand concerning Darrow's religious views, Bryan administered the examination through the medium of a statement. Nine questions were propounded by Bryan and these were answered shortly afterward by Darrow serving as defense attorney for Scopes, the school teacher who had mentioned evolution in his biology class:
Bryan: Do you believe in the existence of God as described in the Bible?
Darrow: I do not know of any description of God in the Bible. We are informed in the first part of the Bible, however, that God is a spirit. If Mr. Bryan will describe what he means by God, I probably could tell better whether or not I believe in his God. Mr. Bryan said, in effect, that God is like a man and is fashioned in the image of man. I do not believe in this kind of God. As to the origin of the universe, and who or what is back of it, I do not pretend to know. (As an aside to this statement, I will remind you of the statement of our most heralded past professor of philosophy at Harvard, George Santayana, who said when describing his religion, that it "is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their image to be servants of their human interests.")
Bryan: Do you believe that the bible is the revealed will of God, inspired and trustworthy?
Darrow: I think that there is much that is of value in the Bible. I do not believe that it was written or inspired by God. I believe that it should be taken like every other kind of book, and that the portions that are sublime are like such portions of other great books---as much inspired as, say, "In His Image".
Bryan: Do you believe in the supernatural Christ, foretold in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament?
Darrow: I do not believe that any supernatural Christ was foretold in the Old Testament or revealed in the New Testament. I believe that the Christ prophesied in the Old Testament was a great Jew who should deliver his people from their physical bondage and nothing else.
Bryan: Do you believe in the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testaments? If you believe in some but not all of them, please name a few of those which you accept and those you reject with the reasons for the same. Do you believe that Christ was conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, as recorded in Matthew and Luke? Do you believe that Christ rose from the dead as described in the Four Gospels?
Darrow: I do not believe in miracles. I believe the universe acts and always acted in accordance with an immutable law, and that whatever may be back of the universe has never violated these laws.
Bryan: Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?
Darrow: I have been searching for proof of this all my life, with the same desire to find it that is incident to every living thing, and I have never found any evidence on the subject.
Bryan: If you believe in evolution, at what point in man's decent from the brute is he endowed with hope and promise of a life beyond the grave?
Darrow: I have no knowledge on the question of when man first believed in life beyond the grave. I am not at all sure whether many other animals have not the same hope of future life that man has. The origin of this belief may have arisen in vivid dreams concerning the return of the dead, or for all I know, from actual evidence of the return of the dead. I have never tried to impose my views on religion on any human being. I have a right to my own views, and I try as hard to protect the right of every other man to his views as I do to protect my own.
Extant federal law
Encarta Encyclopedia, 2001, under "evolution": In a 1968 decision in the case of Epperson vs. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against the teaching of evolution were an unconstitutional violation of the legally required separation of church and state. Over the next few years, Fundamentalists responded by de-emphasizing the religious content in their doctrine and instead casting their arguments as a scientific alternative to evolution called creation science, now also called intelligent design theory. In response to Fundamentalist pressure, 26 states debated laws that would require teachers to spend equal amounts of time teaching creation science and evolution. Only two states, Arkansas and Louisiana, passed such laws. The Arkansas law was struck down in federal district court, while proponents of the Louisiana law appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. In its 1987 decision, in Edwards vs. Aquillard, the Court struck down such equal-time laws, ruling that creation science is a religious idea and thus an illegal violation of the church-state separation.
Richard Dawkins, an internationally recognized English evolutionary biologist and the guest editor of The best American Science and Nature Writing, 2003, has this to say about the current situation:
"Evolution is one of the most securely established facts in all science. The knowledge that we are cousins to apes, kangaroos, and bacteria is beyond all educated doubt: as certain as our (once doubted) knowledge that the planets orbit the sun, and that South America was once joined to Africa, and India distant from Asia. Particularly secure is the fact that life's evolution began a matter of billions of years ago. And yet, if polls are to be believed, approximately 45 percent of the population of the United States firmly believes, to the contrary, an elementary falsehood: all species separately owe their existence to "intelligent design" less than ten-thousand years ago. Worse, the nature of American democratic institutions is such that this perversely ignorant half of the population (which does not, I hasten to add, include leading churchmen or leading scholars in any discipline) is in many districts strongly placed to influence local educational policy. I have met biology teachers in various states who feel physically intimidated from teaching the central theorem of their subject. Even reputable publishers have felt sufficiently threatened to censor school textbooks of biology.
That 45 percent figure is something of a national educational disgrace. You'd have to travel right past Europe to the theocratic societies around the Middle East before you hit a comparable level of antiscientific miseducation. It is bafflingly paradoxical that the United States is by far the world's leading scientific nation while simultaneously housing the most scientifically illiterate population outside the Third World."
Again the recent National Geographic article is helpful in summarizing the problem as to why there are still so many people who find the theory of evolution unsatisfactory for them. The bottom line is that scriptual literalists have difficulty in accepting anything that seems to them to unsettle their earlier inculcated beliefs. This is in spite of all the scientific evidence for evolution and even the accumulating evidence by Hebraic scholars for the earlier incorrect translation of parts of the Hebrew scripts that were taken into such books as the King James version of the Bible, including the story of genesis. For those interested, you may want to read Daniel Lazare's "False Testament" published first in Harper's Magazine and then included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2003.
To see the still-present problem, one has to look no further than the ongoing attempt to add disclaimers in textbooks of biology that necessarily discuss evolution. A recent letter to the editor written by Frank Hamilton published in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution is titled "Medieval minds mustn't win out":
"It's disingenuous of Cobb County schools to say that putting disclaimers about evolution in textbooks isn't about religion.
"Intelligent design" is just another substitution for "creationism". It has no intellectual validity.
This is a resurfacing of the "Flat Earth Society" in which medieval minds attempt to cram their antiscientific, unsubstantiated and biased religious views on helpless children. Let's not support this assault on science by the radical religious right-wing."
My final words are that all of us should keep up the good fight. Continue to help our children to study sufficient real science as includes biologic evolution so as to become properly educated citizens of the future. This necessitates supporting more informed and caring teachers, education administrators, and politicians. This does not exclude the separate exposure of anyone to religious and other philosophic thought, but these are not the same as experimentally based science.