Darwin, Creationism, and Intelligent Design

This is an excerpt from the on-line book The Evolution of Aging.  Back to Evolution Update.

After original publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, there was some popular confusion about the term “natural selection”. Some people were interpreting “selection” as meaning a function of God. Subsequently, the expression “survival of the fittest” was used by Darwin and others in an effort to clarify that organisms themselves were actually performing the “selection”.

Darwin’s main conclusion, that species are descended from other species, is supported by overwhelming and growing scientific evidence. As will be described, there remain legitimate scientific disagreements regarding some of the other details of Darwin’s theory.  

It should be noted that until the nineteenth century, there was little scientific evidence that conflicted greatly with the biblical notion of creation, that is, that the Earth and all the species on it had been created in the relatively recent past. It was widely thought that the Earth was not very old, possibly as little as 25,000 years old.

For example, mountains could not be extremely old. Every wind that blows and every rain that falls removes material from a mountain and deposits it in a valley.

The discovery of the occasional odd bone was often attributed to existing but undiscovered species or recently deceased species. There was little evidence that existing species had changed much or new species appeared during the time that people had been making observations, which was a significant fraction of the putative age of the Earth.

However, eventually it became clear that the Earth was very old, on the order of 4.5 billion years old. Mountains and other geological features were being replenished by geological processes such as plate tectonics that, even now, seem fantastic. Methods were developed (eventually including radioisotope dating) for estimating ages of rocks and fossils, which disclosed extreme ages for some fossils and allowed the determination of a time continuum for the appearance and disappearance of various life forms. All of these developments contributed support to Darwin’s theory.  

There was great and immediate objection to Darwin’s theories on religious grounds. This controversy greatly contributed to the popularity of and very wide distribution of Darwin’s books. The major objection was of course Darwin’s idea that species were descended from other species as opposed to being individually created by God. The idea that the human species was descended from “monkeys” as opposed to being individually created by God was particularly unattractive.

In 1925 Tennessee passed a law “…prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof”. 

Later in 1925, a high-school biology teacher, John Scopes, was charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution. The subsequent trial, State v. John Scopes, known popularly as “the monkey trial”, pitted three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as fundamentalist council for the prosecution against famed agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow  for the defense and created an international media circus in the little (pop. 1,800) town of Dayton Tennessee. The trial was eventually transferred into a tent so that 5,000 spectators could be accommodated. Bryan also acted as a prosecution witness and was cross-examined by Darrow in a famous exchange, which, by all accounts, Darrow won handily.

Scopes was obviously guilty. The trial was about the constitutionality and reasonableness of the law. Darrow actually requested the jury to find Scopes guilty so the case could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which eventually dismissed the case. The international derision resulting from this case inhibited many other states that had been considering anti-evolution laws. Eventually, in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court found laws prohibiting teaching of evolution in public schools unconstitutional by virtue of the First Amendment (separation of church and state).  

Fundamentalist anti-evolution efforts continue today. Creationists favor teaching a biblical version of the creation in public school science classes as an alternative to evolution theory. Creationist texts abound with scientific sounding arguments, footnotes, and references. However, unless a dramatic rightward shift in the U.S. Supreme Court occurs, teaching the Bible in U.S. public school science classes will remain unconstitutional.

Intelligent Design (ID) is a version of creationism that holds that individual species of living organisms, because of their complexity and for various other reasons, cannot have arisen from random chance and natural selection, and therefore must be the result of the operation of some intelligence. ID proponents avoid mention of God or the Bible. Readers are free to ascribe the intelligence driving the development of different species to little green men, Klingons, or whatever their favorite source of supernatural intelligence might be. Credentialed scientists approach rural local public school boards in religiously conservative states with arguments to the effect that ID represents a legitimate scientific disagreement with evolution theory and should therefore be taught as an alternative.

However, ID and creationism are actually fundamentally incompatible with science. The development of a scientific theory becomes trivial if the theorist is free to invoke God or other source of supernatural direction anytime he is having difficulty making his theory agree with observed facts. Once it was determined that God was responsible for a certain function or process, further inquiry would be inhibited or could even be prohibited. If, several hundred years ago it had been determined that God was responsible for lightning, would we ever have discovered and harnessed electricity?

Many people are not so opposed to the fact of evolution as to the teaching of evolution. They see teaching evolution, especially in lower grades, as anti-religion, essentially teaching atheism. While the “humans are descended from lesser species” aspect of Darwinism is obviously objectionable to fundamentalists, another aspect, the individual benefit requirement, is more generally objectionable. Most religions, societies, and civilization generally, are built on the concept of individual sacrifice for the greater good.  Horrible acts including pogroms and “ethnic cleansing” have been “justified” based on evolution theory.

Anti-evolution efforts in the United States are having a significant effect. A Harris poll in June 2005 found that 54 percent of Americans do not believe that humans developed from earlier species (up from 46 percent in March 1994).

The existence of creationism and ID contribute to a sort of scientific backlash, a “siege mentality”, an atmosphere of “us versus them” in the scientific community. Legitimate scientists feel comfortable in taking positions that attribute more certainty, scope, and comprehensiveness to Darwinian theory than is actually scientifically justified. See example in chapter 7.

Copyright  2005 T. C. Goldsmith - This page is http://www.azinet.com/evolution/intelligent_design.html