Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How Creationism has changed over time

In order to understand what creationism is we need to understand its history. It is also useful because some of the dates and names come up in other parts of this book.

Creationism is based on the Bible. Before about the 16th century, no one really gave much thought about the source for the diversity of life. They simply assumed that Genesis was correct. All living things were created in the Garden of Eden. End of story.

Then, beginning in about the 16th century, scientists (called “naturalists”) began to find fossils that perplexed them. Fossils had been found for a very long time. Aristotle spoke of fossils. Some of these new fossils appeared to be from organisms that didn’t look anything like things that were alive at the time. That implied, at a minimum, that God’s creation wasn’t perfect. Apparently animals became extinct. How could such a thing happen in a perfect creation?

A French naturalist named Georges Cuvier was the first person to write about this at the end of the 18th century.

An English canal engineer named William Smith, in the early 19th century noticed that rocks of different ages and different levels of strata contained different types of fossils. He was even able to predict what sorts of fossils he would find in different places based on the depth where the fossil was found.

He made predictions about fossils that would be found in the locks that we worked on that were found to be true. Those predictions seemed to support the idea of a gradual progression of living things over time.

People were starting to see things that made them question how accurate the Biblical account really was.

Then, of course, in 1859, Charles Darwin published his book with the very long title: “The origin of species by means of natural selection; or, The preservation of favored races in the struggle for life”[1]. The book provided an argument for evolution – the change in the diversity of life over time – and even proposed a mechanism that he called “natural selection”.

Darwin included humans in those life forms that he felt had evolved. To emphasize that belief, in 1871 he published a book titled “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex”. (They liked long titles for books back in the middle of the 19th century.)

By the early 20th century, evolution was widely accepted by the majority of scientists. Some had disputed Darwin’s natural selection as the valid mechanism for it. But by then the work on genetics done by Gregor Mendel had been rediscovered and natural selection was confirmed as the likely mechanism for evolution. That strongly implied that the Bible was not correct and resistance to evolution began to….evolve.

In the 1920’s a number of states passed laws outlawing the teaching of evolution in schools. (See the chapter in this book titled “Evolution isn’t Good Science because it has to go to Court to be taught in Schools” that describes the history of the legal battles over evolution.) That court case ended indecisively but intimidated the schools so that evolution was not taught very often anywhere.

Then, in 1957 – almost a century after Darwin published his first book on evolution – the Russians launched the satellite named Sputnik. The United States felt that it was being left behind in terms of science education. In response, the government passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958. That act emphasized science education in public schools. That included all science, even evolution.

So evolution began to really and truly be taught in schools.

In order to fight against the teaching of evolution, in1961 Henry Morris and John Whitcomb published a book titled “The Genesis Flood”. That book made the case that science supported the Biblical account. According to the book, fossils were caused by the Flood of Noah and the Earth was somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. “Scientific-creationism” was born.

In 1963 the Creation Research Society was formed to continue to find “evidence” supporting the Biblical account.

The “scientists” in that society and in the other groups, including “Answers in Genesis” and the “Institute for Creation Research”, really just read the mainstream scientific literature and object to it. They spend the rest of their time giving speeches to church groups. The objections these “scientists” promote are able to convince their intended audience – non-scientific creationists. Other scientists are not impressed.

Since the mid-60’s, creationism has been focused primarily on the legal battles to get their ideas taught in science classes in schools. In a typical scenario, creationists influence the more actively religious members of the local school board in a school district to allow creationism to be talked about or to have a disclaimer added to the biology text books trying to imply that evolution is not valid science in some sense. Then some parent sues, a law suit takes place and the creationists lose in court.

Creationists always lose in court. At least they have lost every legal battle held so far.

Most recently, creationists have tried to promote a more generic “Intelligent Design” where the designer is not identified. But everyone knows who the designer is intended to be and the ID movement has also lost legal battles. (I discuss Intelligent Design in its own chapter.)

Creationists are quite smart as well as quite persistent. Surely they haven’t given up. But there seems to be no reason to believe that they will be allowed to teach their views in schools.

[1] The word “races” in the title of Darwin’s book did not mean human races. “Race” was the term used at the time for variations within a species, something that we would call a “sub-species” now.

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