Creationism du Jour The ‘evidence against evolution’

Eugenie C. Scott, Glenn Branch

In the beginning . . . there was straight-up creationism. Six twenty-four-hour days of special creation by God of everything as we see it today& mdash;galaxies, solar systems, the Earth, plants and animals on Earth, and of course, human beings, created in God’s image. Advocates of creationism lobbied to ban evolution from the classroom and were pretty successful, more de facto than de jure, for over thirty years after the trial of John T. Scopes in 1925. Although Scopes’s conviction was overturned on appeal, teachers and publishers were intimidated; evolution disappeared from textbooks and, therefore, from the curriculum.

However, with the dawn of the Space Race, the federal government began to pour money into supporting science education—would that those days come again! As biology textbooks were improved, evolution once again began to creep back into the curriculum. By the late 1960s, evolution was commonplace in most American high-school biology textbooks, and it was correspondingly being taught once again. The increase in the teaching of evolution had two consequences. One was a 1968 legal decision, Epperson v. Arkansas, in which the Supreme Court struck down anti-evolution laws like the one under which Scopes was convicted.

But the striking down of anti-evolution laws was not the end of the anti-evolution movement; nor did it guarantee evolution a secure place in science education.

Shortly after the Epperson decision, the second consequence of the return of evolution to the classroom emerged. In the 1960s and 1970s arose “creation science”—an effort to claim scientific support for the literal Bible version of creation so beloved by fundamentalists and other conservative Christians. Creation science denies not only evolution, the fundamental principle of biology, but also the principles of geology, physics, and astronomy that undergird our knowledge of the age of the Earth (about 4.5 billion years) and of the universe (about 13.7 billion years).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were widespread efforts to pass laws in state legislatures mandating equal time for creation science and evolution. Eventually, these laws also came under legal scrutiny and were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard.

But the failure of laws requiring equal time for creation science was not the end of the anti-evolution movement; nor did it guarantee evolution a secure place in science education.

Emerging phoenixlike from the legal ashes of creation science in the 1980s and 1990s, intelligent design proposed a minimalist version of creationism, focusing on the supposed inability of evolution to explain structural complexity on the organismal level (such as the vertebrate eye) and on the molecular level (such as the molecular motor of the bacterial flagellum). Evolution by incremental natural selection, it was claimed, isn’t capable of producing multicomponent structures like the eye or the flagellum; hence, such structures must be due to an intelligent designer. Significantly, though, that is where intelligent design seems to stop: there is no visible effort to present a scientifically testable account of what the designer did, when the design occurred, how the designer implemented it, what the purpose of the design was, and so on.

Although intelligent-design advocates avoided naming the designer—except in literature aimed at the faithful—it was clear that no alternative to God as designer was seriously entertained. It didn’t take long before a judge figured out that the intelligent designer spelled its name with three letters, the first of which was a capital “G.” The 2005 federal district court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, held that intelligent design was in fact a religious view with scientific pretensions and that teaching it in public schools was unconstitutional.

But the defeat of intelligent design in the Kitzmiller case was not the end of the anti-evolution movement; nor did it guarantee evolution a secure place in science education.

Are you beginning to detect a pattern? Just as peppered moths—a staple example of biology textbooks—have evolved better camouflage under selective pressure from their predators, so creationists have evolved better subterfuge under selective pressure from the courts.

Of course, old creationist ideas never disappear. Four years after Kitzmiller, we at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) still receive calls from parents and teachers worried about attempts to introduce intelligent design into the schools. Indeed, we still receive calls from parents and teachers worried about attempts to introduce creation science into the schools, twenty-two years after Edwards was supposed to have driven it out.

But the creationism du jour calls for the teaching not of creation science or intelligent design, but of “evidence against evolution.” Needless to say, there is no credible scientific evidence against evolution. As the National Academy of Sciences recently explained, “Evolution itself has been so thoroughly tested that biologists are no longer examining whether evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur.” Calls to teach “evidence against evolution” are intelligible only in the context of the evolution of creationist rhetoric.

Back in the heyday of creation science, its proponents advanced what they called “the two-model approach,” based on the assumption that there are only two possibilities to explain how things came to be as they are today—special creation by God of the universe in its present form or godless evolution. Logically, then, disproving evolution proves the truth of special creation. Evidence against evolution is evidence for creationism. Evolution’s “failure” is creation science’s triumph.

The proponents of intelligent design are less committal than their creation-science brethren, preferring not to take a position on the age of the Earth, the historicity of Noah’s flood, and so forth. But they share a commitment to the two-model approach. Indeed, the content of intelligent design is mainly the assertion that because evolutionary biology (which they persist in calling “Darwinism”) fails as science, the intelligent-design side wins by default. Evidence against evolution is evidence for intelligent design. Evolution’s “failure” is intelligent design’s triumph.

For creationists, whether of the creation-science or the intelligent-design variety, the two-model approach thus means that even when it proves impossible to advance creationism directly, it is still possible to advance it indirectly by presenting evidence against evolution.

The connection is explicitly acknowledged by a number of creationists, including those at the flagship creation science organization, the Institute for Creation Research, in its response to the anti–creation-science decision, Edwards v. Aguillard. The ICR seized on a phrase used by Justice Scalia in his dissent to Edwards, in which he wrote: “. . . the people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools, just as Mr. Scopes was entitled to present whatever scientific evidence there was for it” (emphasis added).

The ICR took Scalia’s dissent as a cue to retreat to a fallback position relying on the two-model approach: “. . . school boards and teachers should be strongly encouraged at least to stress the scientific evidenc
es and arguments against evolution in their classes (not just arguments against some proposed evolutionary mechanism, but against evolution per se), even if they don’t wish to recognize these as evidences and arguments for creation (not necessarily as arguments for a particular date of creation, but for creation per se).”

Similarly, the Discovery Institute, the de facto institutional headquarters of intelligent design, used to propose that intelligent design be added to state science curricula. Glimpsing the legal vulnerabilities even before the Kitzmiller case, however, the Institute increasingly disclaimed any intention to mandate the teaching of intelligent design, calling instead for teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory. The two strategies were explicitly connected by the Institute’s Bruce Chapman and Stephen C. Meyer in a 2002 op-ed: “Indeed, students should not only know the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian theory, they should know about alternative theories. Most importantly, they should know that many scientists do not accept the Darwinian idea that life arose as the result of strictly mindless processes—that many scientists see powerful evidence of intelligent design.”

Subsequently, as the prospects that intelligent design would survive constitutional scrutiny dimmed, Discovery Institute rhetoric increasingly neglected “alternative theories” to concentrate on “strengths and weaknesses” and similar catchphrases for creationism du jour.

The “evidence against evolution” approach takes a variety of forms in disputes over the writing or revision of state science education standards, in state legislation, in textbook adoptions, and in policies proposed at local school boards. The phrase “evidence against evolution” is not always used; there are a number of variations, including proposals (as above) to teach the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution,” to “critically analyze evidence for evolution,” or to teach evolution as “theory not fact” (meaning as a guess or hunch). At NCSE, we frequently encounter the claim that students should learn the “full range of views” about evolution—as if there was a significant division among scientists over whether or not living things share common ancestors. Similarly, the Discovery Institute uses the slogan “Teach the Controversy.” Always lurking just below the surface of such language is the two-model approach and the expectation that deprecating evolution will promote creationism.

Indeed, when teachers or scientists request clarification as to what composes the content of the “evidence against evolution” or “weaknesses of evolution” what is offered in response is typically a list of familiar creationist complaints about the flaws of evolution. Intelligent-design advocate Jonathan Wells presented several in his 2000 book Icons of Evolution, and the Discovery Institute recently produced and is promoting a book entitled Explore Evolution that includes many of the same arguments. These books claim that the fossil evidence is inadequate to support the inference of common descent, that embryological and anatomical evidence used by evolutionary biologists actually does not support evolution, that natural selection acting on random genetic variation is inadequate to produce complex structures and body plans, and so on—all claims that are to be found, unsurprisingly, in the creation-science literature.

Explore Evolution is the next big thing of the creationism du jour. Intended to provide the classroom teacher the ammunition to disprove evolution—or, minimally, to cast serious doubt in the student mind that evolution is solid science—it follows in the ignominious tradition of Of Pandas and People, the intelligent-design textbook at the center of the Kitzmiller case. The authors of Explore Evolution—all of whom are associated with the Discovery Institute—hope that it will be used as a textbook supplement to counter the information about evolution presented in the usual mainstream biology textbooks. That, too, was the hope for Pandas. NCSE devotes a new section of its Web site to exposing and correcting the poor science of Explore Evolution, and readers can use this information to persuade school boards, teachers, and other decision makers that this book has no place in a science classroom.

Explore Evolution dovetails neatly with a program the Discovery Institute began a few years back to promote the passage of “Academic Freedom Act” legislation in states. If such bills are passed, it is likely that Explore Evolution will be hawked for purchase by districts seeking to implement them. The model bill offered on an Institute-associated Web site is couched in terms of the “academic freedom” of teachers to provide a “full range of views” on evolution—as if they currently are unjustly restrained from presenting good science. In fact, it is scientifically appropriate and pedagogically responsible for science teachers to present what is the consensus of the scientific community: it is hardly a scandalous constraint on teachers to insist that they teach evolution properly, unaccompanied by supposedly scientific alternatives such as creationism and undiluted by spurious “evidence against evolution.”

The cleverest aspect of the academic freedom approach is that it is permissive. Trying to ban the teaching of evolution or trying to require the teaching of creationism would make creationists appear to the public like heavy-handed censors and micromanagers. But trying to permit the teaching of “evidence against evolution” makes creationists appear, in contrast, like apostles of liberty. Moreover, it is comparatively easy for the defenders of evolution to challenge centrally imposed anti-evolution dictates, whereas, given the extreme decentralization of American education, it will be difficult even to learn about, let alone challenge, the individual creationist teachers who are taking advantage of such permissive policies to miseducate their students about evolution. Of course, as the old adage says, one has a right to one’s opinions but not to one’s facts.

The Academic Freedom Act boilerplate presents the teaching of disguised creationism (“evidence against evolution”) as a free-speech issue in the hope that it will resonate with a populace that is (quite rightly) supportive of the free expression of ideas. It is a hope that seems to be realized to a degree. In 2008, Florida almost passed a version of the bill that drew partly from the Discovery Institute model and partly from an older version in Alabama, and the bill is expected to make a return visit in a future legislative session. Louisiana actually passed and enacted such a bill in 2008, as Barbara Forrest explains in this issue, and those concerned about the integrity of science education in the Pelican State are bracing for its effects to be felt.

Concealing creationism behind popular and culturally attractive ideas such as academic freedom, freedom to learn, free speech, free expression, and the like makes it more difficult to reveal the ultimate creationist underpinnings of that approach. Prevailing in court against such policies will require making a convincing case that this approach originates in and is only intelligible as a product of the long history of anti-evolutionism in the United States, and that the appeals to academic freedom and fairness are merely shams intended to disguise the intent to promote a sectarian religious idea.

Making that case requires that concerned citizens keep their eyes open when creationists attempt to undermine the integrity of science education
! So watch out for the creationism du jour: the teaching of alleged evidence against evolution as a way of bringing creationism into the classroom without directly mentioning it. And if creationist proposals employing any of the buzzwords—evidence against evolution, strengths and weaknesses of evolution, critical analysis of evolution, evolution as theory not fact, teach the controversy—surface in your school district or state, call NCSE. We can put you in touch with local people who are concerned about this issue and provide ideas and information to help good science prevail against the intrusion of religion where it does not belong.

Remember, students deserve a good science education and have the right not to have sectarian religion presented as science.

Further Reading

  • Chapman, Bruce, and Stephen C. Meyer. “Darwin Would Love This Debate.” Seattle Times, June 10, 2002.
  • Institute for Creation Research. “The Supreme Court Decision and Its Meaning.” Impact 170: 1–4, 1987.
  • Meyer, Stephen C., Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker, Paul A. Nelson, and Ralph Seelke. Explore Evolution. Melbourne and London: Hill House Publishers, 2007.
  • National Academy of Sciences. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2008.
  • Scott, Eugenie C. Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, second edition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2009.
  • Wells, Jonathan. Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2000.

Eugenie C. Scott

Eugenie C. Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education, author of Evolution vs. Creationism (University of California Press, 2009), and coauthor (with Glenn Branch) of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2006).

Glenn Branch

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, Inc., in Oakland, California, online at www.ncseweb.org.


In the beginning . . . there was straight-up creationism. Six twenty-four-hour days of special creation by God of everything as we see it today& mdash;galaxies, solar systems, the Earth, plants and animals on Earth, and of course, human beings, created in God’s image. Advocates of creationism lobbied to ban evolution from the classroom and …

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