Remember high school biology? Somewhere between the Punnet squares and frog dissection, you should have had a few lessons on the theory of evolution. According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the widely accepted theory that explains how species arise and change over time has been part of the science curriculum in many schools across America for at least a decade.
But did your teacher talk to you about an ‘alternative’ to evolution? If you went to school in the United States, chances are, about one in four of your teachers did. How is it that 25% of biology teachers are telling their students that evolution—the cornerstone of biology—is not the only scientific explanation for the origins of life? In this three-part series, we’ll explore the origins of this debate in our nation’s earliest days. We’ll dig deep into the many legal battles that have forced the central tenets of Creationism itself to ‘evolve’ in order to hold on to its place in our schools. Finally, we’ll examine the current status of the Creationist movement: how will it adapt next, and what will those adaptations mean for the future of American education?
Part 1: Sticking to the Fundamentals
A recent nationwide poll of American high school biology teachers found that 25% said they did discuss alternatives to evolution as part of their curriculum. When teachers raise them, these alternatives usually take the form of a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. Some merely espouse weaknesses in evolution. Others highlight the possibility of intelligent design to explain the most complex life forms. And a few come right out and discuss Biblical Creationism itself.
When American schoolchildren grow up, those views grow up with them. We don’t see the same statistics in Canada, Great Britain, or France. The debate between evolution and Creationism is uniquely American.
The history of the United States is vastly different than the history of European nations. But what most of us don’t realize is that the events in our country’s history—everything from who the settlers were to how they survived the western frontier—set the stage for the birth of the Creationist movement.
In the 1800s, Americans left their homes along the east coast began to head west. They traversed the Appalachian Mountains of modern day West Virginia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee. Communities and villages exploded within just a few years.
But when people arrived at these frontier outposts, there wasn’t much in the way of infrastructure. There were no police, no roads, and no schools. If these communities wanted basic services, they had to do it themselves. They set up police forces, constructed roads, and built schools. They did it without assistance from the federal or state governments, and they did it without consulting with nearby settlements. This strong local control over matters that were important to the life of the community persists today in various forms—including the power of school boards and districts. And it has proven key to the success of Creationism.
A second key to Creationism’s success is our country’s unique religious history. This nation was largely settled by religious dissenters. Arriving from England, Ireland, France, and Germany (among others), they came looking for religious freedom and headed west. Just as these frontier towns needed schools and roads, they needed churches. With no one back east in Washington (or Europe) to lend a hand, these frontiersman and women did what any God-fearing self-respecting, fiercely independent American would do: they started their own. In many cases, these regional churches were derivatives of the mainstream Catholic or Protestant churches from their homelands. But in some cases, these churches were so different that they were considered wholly independent sects. These included Seventh-Day Adventists, who believed the second coming of Jesus Christ could happen any minute, and Christian Scientists, who shunned modern medicine in favor of prayer. Yes, these churches were the epitome of ‘old school.’
Against this backdrop came a series of religious and cultural movements, birthed in Europe during the late 1800s, that played down the literal truth of the Bible. This broad intellectual drive, known as Modernism, seemed to threaten the validity Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, and even the virgin birth of Jesus. Modernists found inconsistencies in the Bible itself, things that didn’t quite make sense in the the context of the natural world. They asked questions that many curious children in Sunday School have asked for decades. Did Noah bring fish with him on his ark? Where did Cain’s wife come from? Why don’t miracles happen anymore?
Well this didn’t sit too well with the American settlers. As their new churches grew, their religious leaders touted the fundamental truth of the Bible as a work of history written by God himself. There was no wiggle-room here. Even today, religious sects with American origins are more focused on the Bible as a historical account than almost any others in Western society.
As Europe was busily exploring the idea of religious Modernism, and rural America was busy doing the opposite, another idea was making headlines. And to many Americans, it was even more dangerous than Modernism: the theory of evolution.
Darwin had published his seminal volume, On the Origin of Species, in 1859; by the turn of the 20th century, the vast majority of scientists accepted Darwin’s theory. Yes, there were scientific debates on the details—the field of genetics was just beginning to take off—but the debate among scientists on whether evolution occurred was dying down. According to Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and author of the book, Evolution vs. Creationism, “the concept of a dynamic rather than static world, already accepted in astronomy and growing in geology, would...wash over biology as well.”
As a result, evolution was quietly making appearances in high school biology textbooks. Considering evolution to be a close relative of the Modernist movement, American religious leaders began to take notice.
In 1910, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), financed a series of booklets called “The Fundamentals.” These booklets promoted the literal truths of the Bible, and they were written as a direct rebuttal to evolution. Throughout the writings are dark, threatening undertones: Evolution, they hinted, was the source of amoral behavior and harmful social trends.
The Reverend Henry Beach of Grand Junction, Colorado wrote in the chapter entitled “The Decadence of Darwinism:” “The teaching of Darwinism, as an approved science, to the children and youth of the schools of the world is the most deplorable feature of the whole wretched propaganda.”
One of the biggest supporters of The Fundamentals was lifelong politician and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. In an essay entitled, “The Menace of Evolution,” he writes: “The tendency of Darwinianism, although unsupported by any substantial fact in nature, since no species has been shown to come from any other species, is to destroy faith in a personal God, faith in the Bible as an inspired Book, and faith in Christ as Son and Saviour.”
Was this evolution thing really an idea American children ought to be studying?
The authors of The Fundamentals, as well as Bryan, did not stop at writing fiery treatises. They called for states to outlaw the teaching of evolution. In 1925, Tennessee became the first state to do so when it passed the Butler Act. But the passage of this and other acts in neighboring states did not squash the debate.
In fact, the fight was just beginning.