Issues Magazine

The Struggle between Evolution and Creation: An American Problem

By Michael Ruse

Why does the evolution–creation debate persist, and why in America? This article looks at the reasons and finds them – where else? – in the past.

Survey after survey confirms that most Americans accept some form of scientific creationism – the claim that the early chapters of Genesis are good scientific guides to the origins of our world. Today, one often hears talk of so-called intelligent design theory – the claim that, on scientific grounds, much of life is irreducibly complex, inexplicable through blind law, and hence necessitates the invocation of a miraculous, intelligence-driven creation. However, for most people in the USA, this position is simply blocking for a biblical literalistic reading of origins where the Earth was created 6000 years ago, where organisms were formed miraculously in 6 days (with humans last), and where some time later nearly everything was destroyed by a universal flood.

Of course, none of this is genuine science – the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and organisms evolved slowly through the process of natural selection – but I believe the big mistake is to think that the real motivation of American literalists is ultimately scientific. It is not. It is much more a concern with moral issues.

Literalists do not see the battle as simply one between rival accounts of life’s origins (evolution or miracles). They see the scientific debate as merely the froth on a much larger issue – the moral soul of humankind. All varieties of creationists feel that the real enemy is atheism, often in the guise of materialistic humanism, something that promotes abortion, homo­sexuality, premarital sex, feminism and much more. It is something that pits itself against the family, and proper standards and honour and respect, and all of the other supposed Christian virtues.

In support of their case, the creationists complain that evolution – Darwinian evolution particularly – is not a value-neutral enterprise that simply reports on disinterested facts. It is part and parcel of the humanistic way of thinking and behaving. Hence, creationists argue that evolution is as much a religion as traditional Christianity, promoting its norms and way of thinking.

Evolutionists tend to dismiss this argument as merely another rhetorical debating trick, but history shows that the creationists might have a point. If you look at the history of evolutionary theorising – about 250 years from the middle of the 18th century to the present – you find that it has rarely been a matter of simple science. Almost always it has been associated with materialism and a philosophy of progress, and to that end we should promote science and just about every social policy the creationists find offensive. This was true before Charles Darwin expounded his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859. Until that time evolution was little more than a pseudoscience used as much by its practitioners to convey moral and social messages as to describe the physical world.

Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, for instance, wrote evolutionary poetry at the end of the 18th century, hymning the progress of life up from the monad to the man – or as he put it, from the monarch (the butterfly) to the monarch (the king) – which notion of progress he got from the successes of the industrial revolution around him, and which notion of biological progress he then used in a circular fashion to justify the cultural progress of the Britain of his day.

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!

Charles Darwin was a serious, full-time scientist. However he was a lifelong invalid and the fate of evolution in the marketplace lay in the hands of his supporters. This at once makes pertinent the talents and aims of Darwin’s greatest supporter, Thomas Henry Huxley. In many respects Huxley played to Darwin the role that Saint Paul played to Jesus, not the least in having once denied evolution and only later having had a Damascus experience that made him a near fanatic for the cause. But just as Saint Paul rather moulded Jesus’ legacy to his own ends, so also Huxley moulded Darwin’s legacy to his own ends. Britain, at the time that the Origin was published, was a country desperately in need of change and reform. The horrors of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny showed that. Huxley and others (like politician Benjamin Disraeli, nurse Florence Nightingale and botanist Joseph Hooker) worked hard to bring about change, reforming education, the civil service, the military and much else. They changed the 18th century view of the country to looking forward to the 20th century.

Huxley’s own work was in higher education, and he succeeded most successfully in the areas of physiology and morphology. If he was to improve and professionalise these, as areas of teaching and research, he saw that, as always in system-building, it is necessary to have clients. Huxley sold physiology to the medical profession, which was desperate to change from killing patients to curing them, and Huxley’s offer of a supply of students, ready for specialised medical training with a solid background of modern biology, was gratefully received. Huxley sold morphology to the teaching profession on the grounds that hands-on empirical study was much better training for modern life than the outmoded classics. Huxley himself sat on the new London School Board and started teacher’s training courses. His most famous student was the novelist H.G. Wells.

Evolution had no immediate pay-off. Learning phylogenies does not cure bellyache and it was still all a bit too daring for regular schoolroom instruction. But Huxley could see another place for evolution. The chief ideological support of those who were opposing the reformers – the support of the landowners and the squires and the generals and the others – was the church, particularly the Anglican Church. Hence, Huxley saw the need of his own church, and evolution was the ideal foundation. It offered a story of origins that (thanks to progress) put humans at the centre and top, and it was one that could even give moral messages.

Herbert Spencer was a great help here. This philosopher was ever ready to urge his fellow Victorians that the way to true virtue lies through progress, which comes from promoting a struggle in society as well as in biology. Hence, evolution had its commandments no less than did Christianity.

So Huxley, who was known in the popular press as “Pope” Huxley, preached evolution-as-Christianity-alternative non-stop at working men’s clubs, from the podia in presidential addresses, and in debates with clerics, notably Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. Huxley, who invented for himself the religious label of “agnostic”, even aided the founding of the new cathedrals of evolution, stuffed as they were with displays of dinosaurs newly discovered in the American west. Except that these halls of worship were better known as museums of natural history.

As with Christianity, not everyone claimed exactly the same thing under the banner of their religion. Just as some Christians argue for war in the name of Jesus whereas others are pacifists, so some evolutionists promoted free trade and others protectionism; some argued for socialism and others for anarchism; some for feminism and some against.

Yet moral norms were the game in town and things continued this way – evolution as a secular religion preaching moral messages – and have continued this way right down to the present. I do not deny that a genuine science of evolutionary studies has emerged. It has. But still evolution is used as a vehicle for social and moral claims.

Look, for instance, at one of the great best-sellers of 2007, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Dawkins is today the most popular writer on things evolutionary but this book is a rant against religion, blaming it for all of society’s ills. The moral prescriptions of conservative religion are labelled ridiculous and the teaching of them is labelled “child abuse”.

Hence, anyone today who says that evolution is morally neutral is just plain ignorant. It is rather presented as the apotheosis of the forward-looking person, who would cast off the shackles of ignorance and prejudice, especially ignorance and prejudice as represented and supported by religion.

So I am not surprised that there is an evolution–creation struggle or conflict (using the terms evolution and creation to represent the two sides). But why is it today especially an American conflict?

Here as always one must appeal to history. In the western world generally, as Tony Blair said when he was still Britain’s Prime Minister, anyone who takes religion seriously is considered “a bit of a nutter”. Grown-ups have simply gone beyond that.

But not in America! It was founded by people (the Puritans) who were determined to have their own religion, and right down to the present religion plays a major role in the lives of many (most) Americans. Church is where you go to find friends and to reconnect with the important social and moral issues that guide us all. This is more so today even than it was in the past. No one much cared about the religious beliefs of Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower, but no one today could be elected president without a firm statement of religious conviction. Religion matters and, while it is true that there are religious people who happily accept evolution, most Americans belong to denominations – fervently Evangelical denominations – that make biblical literalism nigh mandatory.

The American evolutionists are happy to fight back. Consider Edward O. Wilson, Harvard professor and rightfully considered one of the absolutely top, professional, evolutionary biologists of our time. In On Human Nature he calmly assures us that evolution is a myth that is now ready to take over Christianity. And, if this is so, “the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competition, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.”

As ardent in his progressionism as was Erasmus Darwin, Wilson sees moral norms emerging from our need to keep the evolutionary process moving forward. In his view, this translates out as a need to promote biodiversity, for Wilson believes that humans have evolved in symbiotic relationship with nature. A world of plastic would kill us humans, literally as well as metaphorically. For progress to continue, we must preserve the Brazilian rainforests and other areas of high organic density and diversity.

Evolution is a focal point for both modern secularists and traditional evangelical Christians as they hurl different moral prescriptions past each other. Although as one who is English-born and who finds this whole thing almost quaint and incredible, as one who now lives and works in America, I would be surprised if there were not this controversy.

Postscript

I have been writing about the western world. If I were to broaden my gaze to other parts of the globe, especially those parts occupied by Muslims, it is clear that I would have to change or extend my discussion. Literalism about origins is widespread in Islamic countries, and evolution is loathed and detested. However, my sense is that the underlying reasons for this are the same as in the West – namely that evolution is taken to be synonymous with lax moral and social standards. As always, although people talk about science, their real fears and worries are much more to do with morality and ways of living, and evolution is seen as the wedge in the door of disaster.