Ever since Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species, the theory of evolution has been a battleground for competing scientific claims and religious ideologies. Evolution is not the first scientific theory to suffer this fate. Over a century earlier, Isaac Newton's laws of mechanics flowered into a metaphysics of clockwork Determinism. Darwin's scientific theory has been coopted to serve a variety of philosophical masters: social Darwinism, eugenics, moral relativism, a metaphysics of Chance, and perhaps most importantly, the claim that there is no longer any reason to believe in a Creator.
Modern understandings of quantum mechanics and chaos theory seriously undermine the extrapolation from Newton's mechanics to metaphysical Determinism. Evolution, though in flux like any scientific theory, is still the reigning paradigm in biology. People who dispute evolution's philosophical extrapolations therefore have two alternatives: criticize the metaphysical reasoning, or criticize the scientific credibility of the theory itself. This is the driving force behind, and the source of variability amongst, creationist perspectives on evolution.
What does "evolution" mean?
"Evolution" has taken on a variety of meanings. Confusion over these meanings often fuels the controversy. Microevolution, macroevolution, and evolutionism must be distinguished.
Microevolution is the study of how individual species change over time through mutations, environmental pressures, and natural selection. Microevolution is studied empirically in laboratories and observed in nature over decades and centuries. Within human history, many species have shown small but noticeable changes, and several have split into two or more separate species. Microevolution is not a source of controversy. It is accepted by both creationists and non-creationists, and Darwin is given credit for this scientific contribution.
Macroevolution is the theory that all plants and animals share a common ancestry, and that all living and extinct species --- with their complex and diverse biologies --- were produced by mutations and natural selection operating over millions of years. Before Darwin, it was widely believed that each lifeform must have been specially created, since after all, apple seeds only grow into apple trees (and not any other kind of plant), and cats give birth only to kittens. Before Darwin, the intricacy of biological organs such as wings, eyes, and ears was seen as clear evidence of special creation by an intelligent designer. Macroevolution challenges the idea of miraculous creation, and instead explains species development and biological complexity via natural mechanisms. Because macroevolution is a much broader theory than microevolution, it is harder to prove or disprove. Although it is generally accepted by the scientific community today, it has been criticized for both scientific and religious reasons ever since Darwin proposed it. We examine some of those criticisms later.
Evolutionism is an attempt to draw philosophical and theological conclusions from macroevolution. Some of evolutionism's tenets include: there is no absolute morality because human ethics is merely the result of heredity and environmental influences; humans were not designed but arose merely by chance; there is no higher purpose to human existence; there is no Creator who cares for the world.
A number of scientists have written books and articles agreeing with some or all of evolutionism's tenets. Here are some recent examples:
"No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature. . . . No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature."
"It is already evident that all the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic, or in the proper meaning of a much abused word, materialistic factors. . . . Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."
"Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere mechanical mechanisms --- but this seems to be the message of evolution."
We discuss later whether or not these metaphysical claims are warranted by the scientific data. Warranted or not, these claims are publicly advocated, by some scientists, in the name of a scientific theory. No wonder there is a controversy over teaching evolution in the public schools! People who may not understand the subtleties of evolutionary biology --- but who are certain they disagree with these anti-religious assertions --- immediately ask, "Have scientists really proven these things? Is that what they teach our children in public schools? Is that what our children's teachers are taught in the universities?"
The controversy is exacerbated when popular science books fail to differentiate between well-established facts, speculative scientific theories, and metaphysical extrapolations. Authors seldom explain whether they are expressing a commonly accepted theory or a personal opinion, and whether their metaphysical assertions are or are not typically included in public school textbooks.
When you combine the confusion of meanings over "evolution," the perception that evolution is an attack on religious beliefs, and the atmosphere created by strong church-state separation (as indicated by recent court cases concerning equal access of religious student organizations to school facilities), it is understandable that some creationists would write, "In the name of modern science and of church-state separation, the Bible and theistic religion have been effectively banned from curricula, and a nontheistic religion of secular evolutionary humanism has become, for all practical purposes, the official state religion promoted in the public schools."
Evolutionism presupposes that the physical world is all there is. To understand creationism, we must consider what motivates belief in a Creator.
Why believe in a creator?
Nearly 3000 years ago, a poet contemplated the world around him and wrote, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge." Over a hundred generations of worshipers have shared this profoundly religious experience. Belief that there is a Creator who loves and cares for creation is, for some people, strongly motivated by their examination of the world. These feelings are an intuitive response to the order and intricacy which can be studied scientifically. Thousands of scientists today --- fully trained researchers with sophisticated understandings of cosmology and evolutionary biology --- share this experience. Their belief in a Creator is increased, not diminished, by their scientific knowledge.
The sense that human existence has ultimate purpose, and that there really is a universal standard for moral behavior, motivates many to believe in a Creator. Our innate sense of Right and Wrong seems to go deeper than mere moral instinct or social convention. Something in our psyche makes us choose between conflicting moral instincts and adjudicate between conflicting social conventions. While a number of philosophers have labored mightily --- with some noteworthy achievements --- to find a "god-less" basis for human purpose and moral standards, their conclusions do not follow easily from their presuppositions. By contrast, belief in a Creator immediately secures human purpose (the Creator's purpose) and absolute moral standards (the Creator's standards).
While these feelings may predispose someone to believe in a Creator, the real power of belief, the real certainty, comes from experiencing the Creator's presence in daily life. Some believers have experienced dramatic, even miraculous, answers to prayers. For most others, God's presence is felt in acts of worship, prayer, and scripture study, in acts of love (and reproval) from friends and family, in the community of believers, in the voice of conscience open to guidance, and in the honest desire to put God's will ahead of selfish inclinations. These experiences do not "prove" that God exists, but for anyone who experiences divine love as real and as personal as the love of family and friends, it would be intellectually dishonest and deliberately self-deceptive not to believe in a Creator.
The Bible plays a central role in these beliefs.8 It records the words and historical events, including miraculous events, which claim to be direct revelations from the Creator. The daily experiences of believers, along with the findings of modern historical scholarship, confirms to them that the Bible is a true history of God's revelation. The Bible, in turn, confirms, interprets, and guides the religious experiences of believers. Most creationists believe that God not only inspired the scriptures, but also insured that they are fully reliable. In an important sense, they are revelation --- a source of true knowledge about the Creator and creation.
Therefore, everything we truly learn about ourselves (through philosophy, history, and the social sciences) and about the universe (through the natural sciences) must ultimately agree with scripture's truth. This does not mean that truth is always easily determined. Over time, schools of thought about human nature come and go, scientific theories are revised and replaced, and interpretations of scripture can succumb to limitations of knowledge and intellectual fashion. Many parts of scripture are straightforward, but others are not as simple to interpret.
Belief in a Creator is an intuitive response to nature, a rational response to examining scripture and history, and an emotional response to personal experience. While all creationists agree that scientific truth and Biblical truth, properly understood, cannot conflict, there is some disagreement over how this applies to macroevolution. Broadly speaking, there are three views: Young Earth Creationism, Progressive Creationism, and Evolutionary Creationism.
Young Earth Creationism
Young Earth Creationists, also known as Recent Creationists, believe that the universe was created, mature and fully functioning, during six days approximately ten thousand years ago. This belief comes partly from scientific skepticism towards macroevolution, but mostly from interpreting the entire book of Genesis as literal, historical truth. To interpret Genesis in any other way, they argue, calls into question the historical accuracy of other Biblical events central to Christianity, such as the crucifixion, resurrection, and post-death appearances of Jesus, and undermines the very idea of scripture as a true revelation from God. Essential Christian doctrines about the human soul, sin, and salvation are seen as inseparable from the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Because they believe this interpretation of scripture to be both essential and true, young earth creationists expect that objective scientific study will yield evidence that macroevolution is false and that the earth is relatively young.
The Institute for Creation Research, in its book Scientific Creationism, argues that creation and evolution are two fundamentally opposed models. Evolution is entirely naturalistic, self-contained, purposeless, and on-going; the creation model includes processes which are supernatural, externally directed, purposeful, and completed. The evolution model posits that life can evolve from non-life, that geological strata should show many different kinds of rock formations deposited over billions of years, that the fossil record should show many transitional organisms between species, that beneficial mutations and natural selection can produce new organisms of increasing complexity, and that there are ape-human transition fossils. The recent creation model, on the other hand, predicts that life cannot evolve from non-life, that geological strata show evidence of recent formation and a global flood, that the fossil record should lack transitions between species, that evolution is limited to microevolution, that mutations cannot produce increased biological complexity, and that there are no ape-human transition fossils. Historically, both models have shown themselves to be adaptable enough to assimilate facts which initially seemed to contradict their predictions. Young earth creationists want scientists to consider and compare both models as to their respective capacities for correlating scientific data.
Young earth creationists also urge public schools to teach both models as equally as possible, since there are children of taxpayers representing both viewpoints in the classes. They suggest, "Whenever a particular subject is encountered which involves origins (e.g., the origin of the solar system, the beginning of the 'cave-men,' etc.) or the pre-history of the earth and its inhabitants (e.g., the meaning of the dinosaurs, the formation of coal beds, the discovery of the first metals, etc.), the teacher should present the creationist interpretation (as well as the textbook evolutionary interpretation) and, in so far as practicable for the age level involved, the evidence favoring both models." Critics contend that creationism should be excluded from public schools because it is inherently religious. YECs agree that monotheistic religions are inherently creationist, but point out that polytheistic, pantheistic, and humanistic religions are based on some form of evolution. Both creation and evolution can potentially be taught as scientific models, separated from religious claims. "Creationists believe that both scientific creationism and scientific evolutionism should be taught in public schools, but not religious creationism or the humanistic and pantheistic implications of evolutionism. There is no more reason for excluding creation science on the ground that it may lead students to become religious than there is for excluding evolution science on the ground that it leads students to become atheists."
Critics of young earth creationism have generally been most successful when addressing the actual scientific evidence. YEC models --- which seek to explain the astronomical data, fossil record, and geological strata by means of recent creation and a global flood --- are considered by most scientists to be seriously flawed. So-called "scientific proofs" of a young earth have been shown to be unjustified extrapolations or misinterpretations of isolated and questionable data. Several recent books have exposed both internal inconsistencies and inconsistencies with well-established scientific principles in the YEC models. YEC scientists have replied to some of these critiques, in some cases by modifying their models. They also point out that they need time to refine their models because there are relatively few of them compared to the large number of scientists who use an evolutionary model. Nevertheless, YECs are willing to have the shortcomings of their models presented in public school classes, so long as the weaknesses of the evolutionary model are also presented in a fair manner.
Progressive Creationists agree with the great majority of scientists that the astronomical and geological data convincingly shows the earth to be several billion years old. While they agree with YECs that the biblical creation story records several supernatural creative acts by God, most progressive creationists believe the "day/age interpretation" to be the best. The Hebrew word "y(tm)m," usually translated as "day" in Genesis 1, is sometimes used elsewhere in scripture to mean "age" or "epoch" --- a long and undetermined amount of time. Therefore, the creative acts of God could have happened over a long period of time.
Progressive creationists are skeptical that life on earth could have arisen without intelligent intervention, and they are skeptical that macroevolution can account for the increasing complexity and relatively abrupt appearance of new lifeforms in the fossil record. They propose that the scientific evidence is more compatible with the hypothesis that God acted miraculously several times throughout biological history. Progressive creationism allows flexibility about the details of these miracles. God may have created each new lifeform through a single creative act, or through a guided sequence of mutational steps. God may have created novel biological features by transforming existing lifeforms, or by "simply" introducing new genetic information. God may have created the first true humans de novo, or by physically transforming and spiritually awakening some existing hominids.
Progressive creationists (along with YECs) question the scientific validity of four lines of evidence commonly used to support macroevolution: artificial selection, the efficacy of sequential adaptive mutations, the fossil record, and the genetic similarities between species.
Artificial selection is sometimes used as a model for evolution. By selecting for certain traits over generations, animal breeders have produced dogs as different as Great Danes and Chihuahuas. Plant breeders have produced new species which cannot cross-breed with their parent species. Progressive creationists argue that artificial selection fails as evidence for macroevolution for several reasons. First, breeders are selecting for pre-existing variability within the species; genes for certain characteristics (size, coloration, hair length, etc.) which originally were spread through the whole species have been concentrated in small groups, but no genuinely novel characteristics have been produced. Second, artificial selection seems to encounter limits; dogs cannot become as large as elephants because they lack the genetic capacity. Finally, artificial selection is actually a better model for progressive creation than for macroevolution, because artificial selection is intelligently guided.
Popular literature on evolution often argues that highly complex organs, such as the eye, the ear, and the wing, can evolve through a sequence of minor, adaptive mutations. (For example: a few light-sensitive cells form an eyespot, the eyespot becomes recessed to increase the light-gathering area and to allow directional sense, the opening narrows to create a "pin-hole camera" eye, fluid fills the space for protection, the fluid becomes a lens.) Critics of these stories point out that they are just that: stories --- almost entirely speculative and unempirical. The actual sequence of genetic mutations is not even hypothesized. Additional factors, such as the complex signal-processing circuitry required to make an eye useful, are typically ignored. Possible maladaptive factors in the sequence of mutations are not considered. In addition, many biological structures are not just complex, they are "irreducibly complex." (That is, several independently coded proteins must function together; if any one of them is removed or significantly altered, the structure does not function at all. The bacteria flagellum is one example.) Progressive creationists argue that it is very unlikely for a sequence of unguided mutations to produce irreducibly complex systems.
The fossil record is often cited in favor of macroevolution, but the fossil record is not what Darwin expected. Darwin expected the fossil record to contain many "transitional" fossils showing gradual change from one species into another. The fossil record actually shows something different: relatively abrupt appearances of new species, followed by long periods (millions or even hundreds of millions of years) of relative stasis, with few or no transitional fossils between major types. The mostˆ startling example of this pattern is the so-called "Cambrian explosion" of around 600 million years ago, during which nearly every animal phyla appeared in a very short time (some studies suggest less than 5 million years). Modern versions of macroevolution are more sophisticated than Darwin's original proposal, and offer several possible explanations for why the fossil record is like this: most mutations cause no visible change in body structure, while a single mutation sometimes causes dramatic changes; under stable conditions, natural selection tends to stabilize a species' gene pool, but under environmental stress, a small, isolated group can evolve rapidly; therefore, the relative number of "transition" fossils between species should be very small. To progressive creationists, these modifications to macroevolution sound like ad hoc, face-saving explanations, offered with very little empirical support. The progressive creation model actually predicts the sudden appearances and long periods of stasis in the fossil record.
Genetic data is also cited as strong evidence for macroevolution. Species which are closely related in external characteristics and in the fossil record also have very similar DNA. This is even true of the "non-functional" regions of DNA which do not control the manufacture of proteins. Progressive creationists respond that these genetic similarities are not proof of macroevolution, because the genetic data also fits their model. It is reasonable for the Creator to use genetic sequences from existing lifeforms when designing new ones.
Critics of progressive creation argue that the fundamental nature of science is to look for naturalistic explanations. By invoking supernatural explanations when natural ones fail, they charge, progressive creation would lead to a stifling of scientific progress. Phillip Johnson, one of the most widely read advocates of progressive creation, replies that this is a caricature. "Theists do not throw up their hands and refer everything to God's great plan, but they do recognize that attempts to explain all of reality in totally naturalistic terms may leave out something of importance."13 While supernatural, creative acts cannot be scientifically observed in a laboratory, neither can macroevolution. It would be premature to equate natural science (the study of the history and functioning of the natural world) with metaphysical Naturalism (which presupposes that every event has a purely naturalistic explanation). If the possibility exists that our origins included supernatural, purposeful events, they should not be excluded a priori from our explanatory models.
The origin of first life, the relatively rapid appearance of many lifeforms, and the origin of increasing biological complexity provide challenges to macroevolutionary theory. It is still uncertain that natural mechanisms will be found to bridge these gaps. Belief in macroevolution may be necessary for anyone who is philosophically committed to finding only naturalistic/materialistic explanations. But if the possibility of a Creator is not ruled out, progressive creationists argue, the evidence actually suggests intelligent intervention.
Evolutionary creationists agree that God might have used supernatural miracles throughout biological history, but they believe that this hypothesis is neither theologically necessary nor scientifically helpful. They propose that God created the biological world, including all past and present lifeforms, by using evolutionary mechanisms.
Evolutionary creationists argue that accepting macroevolutionary as a scientific theory does not endanger essential religious beliefs. Some evolutionary creationists interpret the biblical creation story as "days of proclamation" at the beginning of time, when God planned and proclaimed creative intent --- intentions carried out via the very natural mechanisms God designed. Most evolutionary creationists see Genesis 1 as an example of God communicating universal, eternal truths through the limited knowledge and cultural images of the human author. In this case, the creation story would function as an allegory or like the parables which Jesus used, teaching --- in sharp contrast to the pagan creation myths of the time --- truths about God's sovereignty and transcendence over nature, the goodness of creation, and the Creator's special intentions for humans. Thus, the essential religious beliefs communicated by Genesis 1 are not threatened, although the scientific content is assumed to be allegorical.
Evolutionary creationists do not scientifically dispute macroevolution. Instead, their dispute is entirely with the supposed connections between macroevolution and evolutionism.
Evolutionism assumes that if something happens by natural mechanisms, in accordance to the laws of nature, it could not have any supernatural significance. But creationists do not agree that natural laws operate independently of God. Rather, every event, whether "natural" or "miraculous," is equally under the governance of the Creator. The laws of nature are simply descriptions of how God usually acts.
To claim that evolution is "nothing but" mutation and natural selection is as an absurd a reduction as to claim that a Shakespeare sonnet is nothing but a collection of letters on a piece of paper. Things which can be described scientifically also require several complementary levels of description to explain their total significance. At one level of description, a Shakespeare sonnet is a collection of letters on a piece of paper, and can be studied as such; but it is much more than that. Evolution is mutation and natural selection, but it might be much more than that. The very fact that "dead matter" not only exists, but also can organize to produce living cells, singing birds, and intelligent humans, suggests a delicate fine-tuning of the laws of nature and the possibility of significance beyond the merely material.
Evolutionary creationists argue that evolutionism draws exaggerated metaphysical conclusions about Chance. In the physical sciences, the word "chance" is used describe events whose final outcomes are not completely specifiable in terms of their initial conditions, either in principle (e.g. quantum events) or in practice (e.g. rolling dice). In evolutionary biology, "chance" refers to events which are not caused by the organism in question, but which affect its reproductive success (e.g. natural disasters) or genetic information (e.g. mutations). Metaphysical "chance," by contrast, implies that something has no determining cause whatsoever. The former meanings of "chance" do not necessarily imply the latter. Certain events may look like "chance" from our human perspective, but need not look that way from a transcendent Creator's perspective. Several scriptures teach that God can and does work through apparently random events. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the Creator designed a degree of open flexibility into creation, in part, because it allows another way to meaningfully interact with it.
Proponents of evolutionism frequently argue that biological life could not have been intelligently designed because it shows many examples of "flawed design," such as the blind spot in the human eye. But surely this is just a divine example of the straw-man argument. It ignores the option that the Creator might design an entire evolutionary system, and choose to work through natural processes and "chance" events, to produce the desired results --- even if certain details appear as minor "flaws."
Evolutionary creationists point out that other scientific theories historically have been simultaneously greeted by suspicion from theists and embraced by atheists to advance anti-religious agendas. Before Isaac Newton, the motion of the planets was generally considered the realm of the divine, or a part of creation operating on principles far different than our own. Newton proposed that planetary motion is controlled by the familiar gravity which we continually experience on earth. His theory was so successful at explaining the known behavior of planets that it quickly gained acceptance. However, when Newton first calculated the orbits of the planets, he thought they were unstable over time. He theorized that God occasionally sent comets through the solar system to keep planetary orbits stable. Later, Pierre de Laplace showed that planetary orbits are stable without the need for divine intervention. While some people claimed that the discovery of this natural mechanism did away with any need for God in planetary motion, creationists soon came to see this, instead, as an example of the wisdom and economy of the Creator.
Macroevolution today could be in a situation similar to Newton's understanding of planetary motion before Laplace. We understand the basic mechanisms which govern biological evolution most of the time; however, there are still significant gaps in our understanding. Evolutionary creationists caution against hypothesizing the evolutionary equivalent of Newton's comets. Planetary motion is just one example of how the Creator could use natural processes to govern creation. If God could use the natural mechanisms of stellar evolution over billions of years to create solar systems, and if God can bring children into the world through the natural mechanisms of developmental biology, then God might also have created all past and present lifeforms, including humans, through evolutionary mechanisms.
Creationists see chance and natural law, mutation and natural selection, not as evidence of the Creator's absence, but rather as vehicles for God's creativity and providence.
Creation, evolution, and the public schools
There are no sharp demarcations between science, philosophy, and religion. They are different ways of searching for and responding to the truth; truth cannot easily be compartmentalized. There is no simple way to prevent some people from feeling that teaching evolution impinges upon religious beliefs, or other people from feeling that creationist beliefs improperly impinge on science.
"Creation" is a religious idea with scientific implications, though not all creationists agree what these implications are. "Evolution" is a scientific theory with some philosophical and religious implications, though there is great disagreement between theists and atheists (and even amongst atheists) about what these implications are. What, then, should be taught in public schools?
Macroevolution, as a scientific theory about the origin of the species, must certainly be taught in public schools. It is widely accepted by the scientific community and it functions extremely well as a paradigm for tying together data from paleontology, developmental biology, ecology, and genetics, helping generate new ideas to guide future research. But science teachers should be careful to explain which parts of the theory are well-established and which are merely speculative. It is important for students to learn where scientific theories are strong, and where they are weaker. Microevolution, the fossil record, and the genetic similarities between species provide well-established arguments for macroevolution. Other elements of macroevolution (the development of the first life, the development of complex organs, and universal common ancestry) are weaker; in these areas we have many hypotheses and comparatively less empirical data. If sound scientific objections are raised to certain elements of macroevolution, then they also belong in the science curriculum. It is simply a matter of scientific honesty to admit this.
What do "creationists" want taught about macroevolution? There is no simple answer, because not all creationists agree. Evolutionary creationists see the "weaker" areas as potentially fruitful areas of scientific research. Progressive creationists see them as evidence for the likelihood of divine intervention in biological history. YECs see them as evidence that an entirely different scientific model, based upon a young earth and a global flood, needs to be considered.
There are some things about which creationists, and probably most non-creationists, do agree. The metaphysical extrapolation from macroevolution to evolutionism has no place in the science curriculum. Science teachers and school boards should be able to assure parents that they are not teaching, in the name of science, that the Bible has been "disproved;" that there is no Creator; that there is no human dignity, no purpose for life, and no moral standards. If these ideas are discussed in school at all, they properly belong in a philosophy or comparative religions class, where all views may be considered equally.
Scientists can never rule out the possibility that miracles occurred in the past. The most that scientists can say is that it appears as though the same natural mechanisms at work today, operating over millions or billions of years, can adequately explain the scientific data. In the case of acroevolution, scientific intuition and philosophical expectations must still fill in some large empirical gaps. If science teachers adequately differentiate the well-established areas from the speculative, then it may be possible --- even in today's atmosphere of strong church/state separation --- to carefully mention the fact that some people, including some scientists, are progressive creationists who believe that a Creator might have intervened in these areas.
Young earth creationists form a very small minority of professional scientists, but their views represent a sizable fraction of the population. Their scientific models of astronomy, geology, and biology do not seem to warrant "equal billing" with evolutionary models. Yet they are willing to present those models separated from religious content, and to have them evaluated purely on scientific merit. Perhaps some school districts, where there is sufficient interest, can offer a short, optional unit which makes available to students the literature of both YECs and their critics. Surely it is not a waste of time to let students learn how to evaluate competing scientific models.
Science is an excellent tool for learning about the physical properties, physical behavior, and formative history of the world; however, it is a poor --- and often abused --- tool for learning about philosophical and religious significance. Science textbooks and science teachers should make every effort to distinguish between scientific facts, scientific theories, philosophical claims, and religious dogma. When these areas overlap, as they do in creation and evolution, it is especially important to be informed about the different points of view, and to avoid letting one philosophy dictate the educational content.