Arguing Against Darwinism: Religion, Science, and Public Morality

Excerpt: Religiously inspired creationists have been making epistemological claims and conflicting with scientists for many decades. Institutional pressures, such as the legal system in the United States, have further pushed these debates in an epistemological direction, with debates coming to concern what is “religious” and what is “scientific.” This has made many analysts miss the point that while there is an epistemological component to religiously inspired conflicts about Darwinism, the primary engine of grievance seems to be moral. These moral concerns on the part of the primarily conservative Protestants who oppose evolution are not due to an error on their part in thinking that Darwin has moral implications. Rather, Darwin has been used to promote the moral visions of many scientists. Therefore, the proper way to describe debates about Darwinism is that they are primarily moral, with one particularly effective weapon being the epistemology claim, typically used by scientists, to shut down discussion of creationism. If we want to resolve this dispute about Darwinism, we must do so through discussion and deliberation. If through “conversation-stoppers” like explicit religious and scientific claims we declare conversation to be over, then this debate will continue on in mutated forms for many more decades.

Authors: Michael S. Evans and John H. Evans

Notice: This is the authors’ version of this article, which has been published in final form as Chapter 13, pp. 286-308 in The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, DOI: 10.1002 / 9781444320787.ch13. This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for self-archiving.

1 Introduction

The sociology of religion has different understandings of how religion ought to be defined for purposes of analysis. Perhaps the most persistent divide is that between epistemological approaches to religion, which see religion as a defined area of knowledge (e.g. about the supernatural, or about the “irrational”), and meaning or cultural approaches to religion, which see religion as a way of making sense of social relations (Geertz, 1973; Buckser, 1996). However, in practice the methods of social science often obscure this distinction, since it is not practical to distinguish between what is in the minds of people and what they actually say in a survey, or what we analyze as a variable in quantitative analysis. In this chapter we explore a case where this difference matters. We analyze a longstanding debate in American public life over the origins, meaning, and significance of human life. Creationist challenges to evolution demonstrate the implications of defining religion in terms of cultural systems rather than epistemological content or status.

In contrast to the dominant academic narrative about religion and science (see Evans and Evans 2008), we claim that epistemological arguments are, and have always been, less important in motivating ordinary people to mount challenges to Darwinism. Far more important are concerns about public morality, more specifically the place of humans in the world and proper behavior towards fellow humans. Such concerns have mobilized a wide variety of challenges to Darwinism. And while such varied positions as Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, Day-Age Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Creation Science, and Intelligent Design can be more or less treated as epistemologically “creationist,” it is their qualities as moral criticisms of Darwinism that most tightly bind them together, both historically and sociologically speaking. Creationist challenges of all kinds are, and have always been, driven by moral claims.

At the same time, we argue that Darwinism has often been the grounds for making moral claims by scientists. It is not that religious challenges erroneously mix morality and science because challengers don’t understand science. Rather, challengers understand full well that scientists are also making moral claims, and are acting to counter these claims. This contrasts sharply with the idea of “value-free” science. But we are not making a claim about epistemological standpoint and what science “really is.” Rather, we use empirical historical and sociological data to demonstrate that such claims, whatever their epistemological status, are mobilized regularly in public discourse.

By ignoring the centrality of moral claims in these debates, scholars and policymakers have managed to miss the motivating factors behind debates and conflict over Darwinism. It is not surprising, then, that policies intended to redress this conflict have consistently failed to achieve traction. Of course, claiming higher epistemological status is one way to end debate. Hence the only partly successful strategy is for scientists to appeal to state enforcement of such status.

But if this debate is largely about values, state enforcement of a particular position is hardly a democratic way to go about it, and ignores the driving moral concerns that will continue to mobilize challengers to Darwinism. So challenges will persist, and perhaps even intensify. The good news is that liberal democracy has some useful ways of handling debates over public morality (rather than epistemology). We argue that acknowledgment of creationist challenges to Darwinism as battles over public morality opens up a new space for liberal democratic approaches to resolving the conflict. And we offer specific suggestions on how to go about it.

Finally, we use the case of creationist challenges to make two key points: one about religion in public life, and another about how to conduct research in the sociology of religion. First, we follow aspects of the arguments of Wolterstorff, Stout, and the later Rorty in arguing for liberal democracy as an ongoing debate and, in particular, in arguing that the only way such debate can reasonably continue is to address the moral concerns at the heart of such debate rather than resorting to “conversation-stoppers” like religious or scientific epistemological claims. Second, using creationist challenges as our evidence, we reiterate that there is a practical difference between sociological approaches to religion that are primarily epistemological and approaches that are primarily cultural. Epistemological approaches are largely blind to moral concerns, and therefore are less appropriate for understanding religion in public life.

2 Who are the Creationists?

As a preliminary step, we need to determine the social location of those persons who claim to not believe in evolution. Because of space constraints, and because of the historical prominence of creationism in American public debate, we generally focus on the American context. Of course there are examples of creationist activists with resources currently operating in various forms throughout the world. In Turkey, for example, Adnan Oktar’s Science Research Foundation produces and distributes books such as The Evolution Deceit (Yahya, 1999) and The Atlas of Creation (Yahya, 2006) to advocate an Islamic version of Old Earth Creationism. And recently in the United Kingdom, evangelical Christian activists have pushed to teach creationism alongside evolution in privately-funded colleges (for example Emmanuel College, see Allgaier, 2008), while the activist group Truth in Science has distributed Intelligent Design materials to UK schools (Zimmerman, 2008). But our focus here primarily is on the American context.

The 2004 General Social Survey asked a question of a random sample of Americans about the “truth” of evolution. We coded the 55 percent of the respondents who claimed that evolution was “probably not true” or “definitely not true” as not believing in evolution. That 55 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution is of course fodder for advocates of science. This lack of belief is more evenly distributed in the population than one might think. To map out the social location of lack of belief, we created a number of demographic variables. Fitting with the general stereotypes of critics of evolution, the first column in Table 1 shows that those who are older, female, with less education, and living in the South are less likely to believe in evolution. Furthermore, evangelicals and black Protestants are less likely to believe than are members of other religious traditions.

Table 1: Percentage of selected social groups who do not believe in evolution

Percent Who Do Not Believe in Evolution Logistic Regression Coefficient
High School Education or Less 64 .540***
Some College Education or More 50
Younger in Age 53
Older in Age 58 .179
Lives in South 66 .384**
Lives Outside of South 49
Woman 61 .473***
Man 49
Evangelical 83 1.93***
Mainline Protestant 46 .150
Black Protestant 69 .998***
Catholic 46 .232
Other Religious Tradition 37 -.114
Non-Religious 31

Note: * = p < .05, ***=p < .001

Of course, some of these demographic differences may appear to be significant because, for example, women are more likely to be religious than men. So, we conducted an ordered logistic regression model predicting lack of belief in evolution. The second column shows these coefficients, where the magnitude of the coefficients are directly comparable because all of the variables are dichotomous. (Dashes indicate the comparison group. For example, the effect being an evangelical is in relation to not having any religious affiliation.) This regression equation shows that while education, Southern residence and gender determine one’s view of evolution, these demographic characteristics pale in comparison to the effect of being either an evangelical or Black Protestant. The evangelical effect is nearly 4 times the size of the largest demographic effect – education. Catholics and mainline Protestants have the same level of skepticism about evolution as do the non-religious. These data show that claiming to not believe in evolution is, in the American context, solidly located within the conservative Protestant tradition.

Based on this statistical analysis, one would probably come to the conclusion, as many have, that organized opposition to Darwinism is the result of these conservative Protestants using a Biblical literalist epistemology and the scientists using a secular materialist epistemology. But a scientific epistemology would reject much of conservative Protestant belief, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, so why the persistent protest against this one claim about nature? The answer, we propose, is that the debate persists because all attempts to address the debate have missed its motivating feature: a concern over the link between Darwinism and morality.

3 The History of Creationist Challenges to Darwinism

We follow the conventional periodization of this history in terms of apparent changes in creationist tactics, though one of the points of this chapter is to indicate that the moral concerns at the heart of opposition to Darwinism remain consistent. There are three overarching points to consider as we review specific historical and contemporary evidence. First, while there have always been epistemological claims involved in debates over Darwinism, these do not explain how many epistemologically distinct positions coalesce into coherent challenges to, and defenses of, Darwinism. Second, there have always been moral claims by all parties involved, and these are more consistent across time and space than epistemological claims. The persistent thread from the days of Darwin to today’s Intelligent Design movement is not in the pro-creation argument, but the anti-evolution argument (Numbers, 1992; Scott, 1997). Third, it is moral claims, not epistemological conflicts, that drive people to mobilize challenges. The concern of creationists in each of their historic incarnations is that when you teach evolution, you are implicitly teaching a certain philosophy at the same time, and that this philosophy undermines some forms of morality. So while it has always been epistemology and values together, our point is that focusing on epistemology misses the most important component of creationism.

This is not the usual way of talking about creationist challenges to Darwinism. Attempts to reconcile religion and science (for example Haught, 2000) focus primarily on the problem of reconciling apparent epistemological conflict. Well-meaning defenses of ID’s intellectual history (for example Fuller, 2007) provide epistemological arguments for the inclusion of creationism in scientific debate. And even those scholars who acknowledge the moral concerns at the heart of creationism (for example Nelkin, 1982) tend to pass these over in favor of epistemological arguments.

3.1 Scopes

Upon publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, both supporters and detractors immediately recognized that Darwinism had moral implications, a concern that rose to even greater prominence following the publication of the Descent of Man in 1871. While philosophers might question the transition from “is” to “ought” on Humean grounds, it is clear that for many contemporaries, Darwinism implied some social challenges, especially when articulated in Herbert Spencer’s (1864:444) terms as “survival of the fittest.” For example, William Jay Youmans, editor of Popular Science Monthly, wrote about natural selection:

There is perhaps no greater or more serious problem confronting society today than this: how to pay just heed to the above law without injury to our own moral sensibilities and particularly to our sense of the sacredness of life (Youmans, 1893:122).

Concerns over moral implications of Darwinism led to legal restrictions on the teaching of evolution in public schools, the site of education for a rapidly increasing number of young Americans (Nelkin, 1982; Larson, 1997). Biology textbooks of the time, such as the popular A Civic Biology by George William Hunter (1914), often contained only a limited amount of material on evolution. But even that limited amount discussed moral problems. A Civic Biology, for example, suggested that “if the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the law of selection” (Hunter, 1914: 261).

In May 1925, in order to test the constitutionality of an anti-evolution law passed only two months earlier, the American Civil Liberties Union provoked the State of Tennessee into prosecuting high school science teacher John Scopes for teaching the evolution lessons from A Civic Biology in a public school classroom. Creationists saw an opportunity to demonstrate that Darwinism implied an unacceptable and dangerous moral position that should not be publicly considered at all, much less taught to schoolchildren (Larson, 1997). The defender of the creationist view was populist former Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. According to Ron Numbers’ canonical analysis of creationism, for Bryan:

World War I …. exposed the darkest side of human nature and shattered his illusions about the future of Christian society. Obviously something had gone awry, and Bryan soon traced the source of the trouble to the paralyzing influence of Darwinism on the conscience. By substituting the law of the jungle for the teachings of Christ, it threatened the principles he valued most: democracy and Christianity. Two books in particular confirmed his suspicion. The first …recounted first hand conversations with German officers that revealed the role of Darwin’s biology in the German decision to declare war. The Second …purported to demonstrate the historical and philosophical links between Darwinism and German militarism (Numbers, 1992: 538).

As a celebrity trial, the Scopes case drew immense attention, but not for its constitutional implications. As Dorothy Nelkin (1982:31) put it, “the constitutional question …was buried as William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow clashed over questions of religion and morality.” Though technically Bryan won the case, creationists failed to win public support for their concerns over Darwin and morality. In the popular account, creationists emerged from Scopes as ignorant bumpkins, while evolution supporters triumphed as proponents of reason and science, an impression reinforced in popular media most notably through the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, made into an 1960 Academy Award-nominated film starring Spencer Tracy as the fictionalized Darrow.

But while it seemed that Darwinism had triumphed in the popular imagination, the empirical fact is that the teaching of evolution in public high schools, and the inclusion of Darwin in biology textbooks, actually declined after Scopes (Grabiner and Miller, 1974). In this sense Bryan was successful, as textbook publishers voluntarily self-censored their materials in order to avoid offending dominant sentiments. Notably, this was not just production of “special expurgated southern editions” of textbooks, but widespread “self-censorship by the New York-based publishing industry,” implying that this was not simply a regional expression of religious sentiment (Grabiner and Miller, 1974:835). For all of the flash of the Scopes trial, there was little interest in, and much public resistance to, expanding the teaching of evolution in public schools.

To be clear, we are not claiming that religious activists forced the systematic removal of evolution from biology textbooks, a claim that remains in dispute over the details of particular terms, motives, and intent by publishers and authors (Ladouceur, 2008). What is not in dispute, however, is that Darwinism in public schools did not expand after Scopes, and in several cases, for whatever reason, actually declined, giving activists less reason to press their objections. Without Darwinism moving into the sphere of public morality through the education system, creationists kept to themselves and their own organizations after Scopes. Creationists still worried about the moral claims of Darwinism, but by and large kept their arguments within the creationist community rather than public debate, founding organizations such as the Religion and Science Association in 1935 and the American Scientific Affiliation in 1941 (Nelkin, 1982; Numbers, 1992; Lienesch, 2007).

3.2 Creation Science

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the American government turned to funding science education in a concerted and systematic way through the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) brought together, perhaps for the first time, practicing scientists and practicing teachers to create a biology curriculum to be used in the nation’s public schools (Lienesch, 2007). The BSCS program made Darwinism, and evolution more generally, the cornerstone of biology education in America (see, for example, BSCS, 1963). BSCS curricula also promoted the relationship between science and progress, and thus appeared to make Darwinism central to America’s future development, not just in training scientists, but in educating all citizens to participate in American public life (Nelkin, 1982). As one participant in the process put it, “one hundred years without Darwin are enough” (Muller, 1959).

In response to the increase in teaching of Darwinism in public schools through the BSCS program and its curriculum products, creationists mounted challenges to BSCS textbooks on many different grounds, including indecency of images depicting reproductive organs, violation of remaining state anti-evolution laws, and violation of the First Amendment (Nelkin, 1982). The tactics varied in their approaches, but the common concern remained that Darwinism had dangerous moral implications and should not be taught in schools.

One of the strongest challenges came from “creation science,” where creationists dismissed Darwinism based on scientific claims stemming from the Bible. Creation science proponents agreed that students should learn science, but not that they should learn Darwinism. In 1961, Whitcomb and Morris published The Genesis Flood, an account of geology and human origins based on Biblical explanations of the world-girdling Noachic flood, drawing heavily on previous “flood geology” theories offered by George McCready Price in his 1923 creationist textbook The New Geology.

For Whitcomb and Morris, the claim to scientificity was as much about the need to replace Darwinian morality with a God and human-centered morality as it was about floods and geology. In The Genesis Flood, they wrote:

[T]he morality of evolution, which assumes that progress and achievement and ‘good’ come about through such action as benefits the individual himself or the group of which he is a part, to the detriment of others, is most obviously anti-Christian. The very essence of Christianity is unselfish sacrifice on behalf of others, motivated by the great sacrifice of Christ himself, dying in atonement for the sins of the whole world! (Whitcomb and Morris, 1961:447)

These sentiments were echoed by R.G. Elmendorf and the Pittsburgh Creation Society, who distributed a flyer with a pictorial diagram of the “evolution tree” of “evil fruits” growing from the root of Darwinism. These “evil fruits” include (but are not limited to) communism, racism, terrorism, abortion, socialism, crime, and inflation. The accompanying text concludes:

What is the best way to counteract the evil fruit of evolution? Opposing these things one-by-one is good, but it does not deal with the underlying cause. The tree will produce fruit faster than it can be spotted and removed. A more effective approach is to chop the tree off at its base by scientifically discrediting evolution. When the tree falls, the fruit will go down with it, and unbelieving man will be left ‘without excuse’ (Romans 1:21). That is the real reason why scientific creationism represents such a serious threat to the evolutionary establishment! (reproduced in Toumey, 1994:96)

Whitcomb and Morris founded the Creation Research Society in 1963 to promote creation science through the publication of a creationist journal and the development of a creationist biology textbook. In 1968, however, the decision in Epperson v. Arkansas{1} rendered anti-evolution laws unconstitutional, making it difficult to promote a text solely on the basis of its anti-evolution position. The CRS shifted its emphasis to promoting creation science as a legitimate scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution. In 1974 Morris produced Scientific Creationism, a guide to teaching creation science without explicit reference to Biblical authority or even religious language (Morris, 1974). Without the advantage of anti-evolution laws, creationists promoted the idea of “equal time” and “balanced treatment” for creation science and Darwinian science, and even obtained legal protection for such treatment in Arkansas and Louisiana (Gilkey, 1985; Numbers, 1992).

In 1982, however, McLean v. Arkansas{2} marked the beginning of the end for creation science in science classes. The McLean decision, written by Judge William Overton, struck down the Arkansas Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act on the basis that creation science violated the American Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition on the establishment of religion. Overton acknowledged that creation science was in part a reaction to the introduction of the BSCS curriculum, even citing the moral concerns driving the challenge in the official opinion:

Creationists view evolution as a source of society’s ills, and the writings of Morris and Clark are typical expressions of that view.

‘Evolution is thus not only anti-Biblical and anti-Christian, but it is utterly unscientific and impossible as well. But it has served effectively as the pseudo-scientific basis of atheism, agnosticism, socialism, fascism, and numerous other false and dangerous philosophies over the past century.’ [Morris and Clark, The Bible Has The Answer, (Px 31 and Pretrial Px 89)]

Yet Overton focused his legal decision on epistemological issues, itemizing the ways in which creation science did not accord with scientific method or practice, and emphasizing that creation science was not, in his opinion, science at all. While this was not strictly necessary for rendering an opinion on the religious grounds for creation science, it nonetheless set an important cultural precedent for evaluating creationist challenges as epistemological, not moral, in nature. From McLean forward, the success of creationist challenges would be measured based on whether or not creationist theories were included in “science” as defined by judges in landmark legal cases, rather than the extent to which moral concerns resonated with a broader public. In 1987, Edwards v. Aguillard{3} came before the US Supreme Court, and largely based on Overton’s reasoning about religious establishment in McLean, the court rendered a decision to strike down Louisiana’s Creationism Act, the last remaining “equal time” law in the nation.

For creationists, discrediting evolution on scientific grounds was the most effective strategy for eliminating a dangerous source of moral justification for many of the ills of society. Many scholars studying creationists generally dismiss creation science as an instrumental strategy for navigating legal restrictions (for example Spuhler, 1985; Scott, 1997). The McLean decision certainly seems to support this analysis. But it is clear that in the period following Scopes, the motivations for creationist challenges came from concerns over the increasing influence of Darwinism in public education, a point that even Judge Overton acknowledged in striking them down.

3.3 Intelligent Design

McLean and Edwards instituted a legal regime where any hint of religious motivations could invalidate an attempt to promote an alternative to Darwinism. In response, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics reworked an existing creation science text to remove all references to creationism and replace them with the term “intelligent design.” They published the resulting text in 1989 as Of Pandas and People (Davis and Kenyon, 1989; Biever, 2005). The term “intelligent design” (hereafter ID) refers to the idea that the world as we observe it could not have happened without intelligent guidance, an idea that traces back to such luminaries as Newton and Paley (Fuller, 2007). Notably, however, ID does not necessarily require specific claims about God or a particular religious belief system (Discovery Institute, 2007).

The most visible and active proponents of ID are fellows of the Discovery Institute, a “nonpartisan public policy think tank conducting research on technology, science and culture, economics and foreign affairs” (Discovery Institute, 2007). The Discovery Institute’s strategy for promoting ID is called the “Wedge Document,” and while it was originally intended for internal use, it has been copied and widely circulated by opponents seeking to discredit ID (for example Forrest and Gross, 2004). The Wedge Document cites as motivation the serious moral concerns implied by the materialist conception of reality promoted by Darwinism, which:

eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.” …“materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences.” …“Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment …In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

As with creation science, ID proponents seek equal time for their position in public school science classes. Unlike creation science, ID proponents take special care to minimize the possibility that ID will be seen as religious. So far this strategy has met with limited success. In 2004, a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania voted to require a statement about ID as part of the public school curriculum. Shortly thereafter, a group of parents filed suit against the district, and the resulting decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover{4} once again struck down a creationist challenge based on the First Amendment establishment clause.

Recently ID proponents have once again taken up the idea of “equal time” and “teaching the controversy,” but in the public rather than the legal arena. Popular author and TV host Ben Stein helped produce and promote the documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Expelled claims that alternatives to Darwinism have been suppressed, and that Darwinism is of grave moral concern:

In a Darwinian framework, human beings are no better than any other animal and ultimately may be treated as animals by those who consider themselves to be greater, more human, enlightened or evolved …Hitler and the Nazis followed Darwinian eugenics to an extreme, carrying ‘survival of the fittest’ to the radical conclusion of exterminating ‘unfit’ and ‘inferior’ races like the Jews and Gypsies, and ‘weak’ members of society like the handicapped (Motive, 2008:14).

Unsurprisingly, reaction to ID from “defenders of science” in popular and academic venues has focused on ID’s religious origins, as this is now the most effective legal way to prevent ID from inclusion in public school curricula (Pennock, 2001; Forrest and Gross, 2004). The central claim at the heart of Intelligent Design remains consistent with Bryan, Whitcomb, Elmendorf, and many other creationists since Darwin. For creationist challengers past and present, Darwinism implies a morality that devalues human life, causes unneeded conflict and competition, and pushes society in an actively harmful direction.

4 Darwinism as a Moral Project

It is clear that many creationists claim that Darwinism provides moral grounds for all sorts of evil in the world. But creationist challenges to Darwinism based on issues of public morality do not necessarily emerge from ignorance, misunderstanding, or a confusion of science with morality, as many defenders of Darwinism have claimed. Rather, they can be seen as a reaction to some prominent scientists, past and present, who have also mobilized Darwinism to support moral positions on human life, personhood, and social organization. Of course, Darwinism is very flexible. As historian Robert Proctor (1988:16) has put it, “People generally found in Darwin what they wanted to find,” and in Loewenberg’s (1941:363) terms, “Charles Darwin was all things to all men.” But the point is that this is as true for scientists as it is for creationists. It is a mistake to portray creationists as people who don’t understand science and are confusing it with morality. Rather, creationists are contributing to a multi-sided debate about the moral implications of Darwinism in which scientists are often willing participants.

4.1 Darwinism and Social Order

From its inception, Darwinism introduced new justifications for old practices and prejudices. Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Darwin, drew heavily on Darwin’s theories to promote eugenics, the systematic intervention into human reproduction for purposes of improving “racial hygiene” (Galton, 1883). Of concern to many proponents of eugenics was the idea society could succumb to degeneration, making it less fit for survival and therefore doomed to extinction. Yet many were confident that Darwinism provided the answer. As John Haycraft said in his lectures to the Royal College of Physicians (collected as Darwinism and Race Progress):

[W]e can improve our race by adopting the one and only adequate expedient, that of carrying on the race through our best and most worthy strains. We can be as certain of our result as the gardener who hoes away the weeds and plants good seed, and who knows that he can produce the plants he wants by his care in the selection of the seed (Haycraft, 1895:155)

Early American eugenics drew on Spencer, Darwin, and Galton to justify programs of forced sterilization for “mental defectives,” “moral degenerates,” and other “undesirables” to prevent the inheritance of their bad traits to later generations. The Eugenics Record Office, founded in 1910 at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, promoted forced sterilization as good public policy and created standardized questionnaires to help with evaluation (Eugenics Archive, 2008). By 1930, half of the states in the US had some sort of eugenic sterilization law on the books. In Arizona, inmates of the State Hospital for the Insane could be sterilized if they were the “probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring,” and in Kansas any inmate of the state, including prisoners, could be sterilized if “procreation by him would be likely to result in defective or feeble-minded children with criminal tendencies” (Brown, 1930:23,25).

Often, however, “degenerate” meant non-white or immigrant. Even the Scopes text A Civic Biology included a ranking of races from “the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa” to “the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America” (Hunter, 1914:196). By 1924, based largely on data presented by Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office, the US Congress passed the Immigration Reform Act, setting quotas for immigrants according to their seeming fitness and levels of “social inadequacy.” Immigration levels did not recover until the late 1980s (Eugenics Archive, 2008).

Of course the most severe example of eugenics application is the systematic sterilization and extermination of those deemed degenerate by the Nazi regime, particularly embodied by the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. The Nazis “regularly quoted American geneticists who expressed support for their sterilization policies …[and] frequently invoked the large-scale California experience with sterilization” (Paul, 1995:86). It is clear that Nazi policies drew on ideas about racial hygiene and degeneracy (Proctor, 1988), and it is clear that American scientists admired such firm policies. Of course, the use of Darwin’s ideas to legitimate prejudices reached their apotheosis in the Holocaust where, in Kevles’ words, “a river of blood would eventually run from the [German] sterilization law of 1933 to Auschwitz and Buchenwald” (Kevles, 1985:118). (Again, to be clear, unlike ID advocates who say Darwinism necessarily led to the Holocaust, we are simply claiming that Germans of this era used Darwinism to legitimate the Holocaust.)

By 1944, Hofstadter could speak of “Social Darwinism” as one of the most influential trends in American public life, in which Darwinism “impelled men to try to exploit its findings and methods for the understanding of society through schemes of evolutionary development and organic analogies” (Hofstadter, 1944:4). Of course the concept of Social Darwinism is flexible, and historically the term has been employed by both advocates and opponents of particular social policies. And it is arguable whether Darwinism per se acted as the conceptual source for these actions (Hofstadter, 1944), as a catalyst for many existing tendencies in American intellectual life (Bannister, 1979), or as a sort of guiding worldview partly disconnected from its scientific origins (Hawkins, 1997). But to reiterate, we are not saying that Darwin really said these things, and we are not saying that Darwinism inevitably leads to genocide. We are saying that some scientists also use Darwinism to make moral claims about social order, and that religious opponents of Darwinism were aware of their uses. Historically, this awareness would have been due to the ubiquity of the eugenics movement in America, which claimed to be “scientifically” solving social problems (Kevles, 1985; Rosen, 1997). Contemporary evidence of this awareness is in the constant reference to the Holocaust by ID advocates (for example Motive, 2008).

4.2 The Moral Status of Humans

Darwinism has also been used to justify many different kinds of claims about the place of humans in the world. Immediately after Darwin, John Fiske described humans as the pinnacle and purpose of evolution:

The creature thus evolved long since became dominant over the earth in a sense in which none of his predecessors ever became dominant; and henceforth the work of evolution, so far as our planet is concerned, is chiefly devoted to the perfecting of this last and most wonderful product of creative energy (Fiske, 1884).

Some of Darwinism’s proponents have also sought to replace existing moral systems with a system based on evolution. Following the horrors of World War II, there was a broader community of scientists attempting to find the meaning and purpose of human existence in evolution and biology, to create a secular ‘‘‘scientific’ foundation upon which to reestablish our system of ethics and to rest ‘our most cherished hopes’’’ (Kaye, 1997:42). If we could no longer look outside nature for purpose and direction – as most theologies had done – the foundation for ethics was to be found in the “objective” facts of evolution such as “greater complexity, biological efficiency and adaptive flexibility” (Kaye, 1997:41).

For example, Sir Julian Huxley, a British born biologist, grandson of famous defender of Darwin T.H. Huxley and brother of novelist Aldous Huxley was, according to one of his biographers, seeking “to create a religion of evolutionary humanism based on biology, and to bring these efforts to fruition through popularization and liberal political action” (Waters, 1992:2). A large part of what he called “evolutionary humanism” was the rejection of traditional religion, and its replacement with science and rationalism. As he wrote in 1961:

Evolutionary man can no longer take refuge from this loneliness by creeping for shelter into the arms of a divinized father-figure whom he has himself created, nor escape from the responsibility of making decisions by sheltering under the umbrella of Divine Authority … . More immediately important, thanks to Darwin, he now knows that he is not an isolated phenomenon, cut off from the rest of nature by his uniqueness … he is linked by genetic continuity with all the other living inhabitants on his planet (Huxley, 1961:19).

More recently, best-selling author and ethologist Richard Dawkins has condemned distinctions that reinforce the “speciesist imperative” and which give special place to humans:

I have argued that the discontinuous gap between humans and ‘apes’ that we erect in our minds is regrettable. I have also argued that, in any case, the present position of the hallowed gap is arbitrary, the result of evolutionary accident. If the contingencies of survival and extinction had been different, the gap would be in a different place. Ethical principles that are based upon accidental caprice should not be respected as if cast in stone (Dawkins, 2003: 26).

Such claims are inescapably moral, and the authors directly and unapologetically use Darwinist thought about the origins of humans and the descent of man to legitimate these claims.

4.3 Evolutionary Psychology

A particularly active branch of science is evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain the moral behavior of contemporary humans as the result of evolutionary pressures in the era of evolutionary adaptation millions of years ago. Most famously and tendentiously, these evolutionary psychologists are particularly concerned with gender differences (Angier, 1999). For example, the incredibly influential The Moral Animal by Robert Wright uses neo-Darwinian theory to explain differential monogamy by men and women (Wright, 1994). Or, to take one of the more controversial claims, Steven Pinker claimed in the New York Times Magazine that contemporary high-school aged women sometimes engage in infanticide because their genes lead them to this act, with this genetic design being adaptive during the era of evolutionary adaptation, if no longer (Pinker, 1997).

Since the vast majority of women do not kill their babies, at best we are left with a very slight genetic tendency toward this action. What would be left is what is commonly called “morality.” But, scientists take this tiny sliver of genetic effect and then portray it as an explanation of “morality.” If our genes 100% determined our behavior, then perhaps we could say that scientists are justified in using Darwin to promote a “true” morality. But, if genes are responsible for a small fraction of our behavior, then it probably appears to ordinary people that scientists are using Darwinism to promote their own morality. Since there is no direct evidence for the scientific claims, this seems an area ripe for social influences. As scholars have pointed out, it is interesting how all of these theories tend to legitimate morally condemned male behaviors (McCaughey, 2008).

In sum, creationists are not alone in connecting Darwinism to morality. Many scientists also draw on Darwinism to make moral claims about the status of humans, our place in the world, and what ought to be done. Because scientists also link Darwinism and morality, we cannot say that creationists are entirely mistaken, ignorant, or confused when they challenge Darwinism on moral grounds. Rather, they are engaging in the same practices as those scientists who use Darwin to make moral claims, and are reacting to those claims.

We also note that the morally offensive policies that have been legitimated by reference to Darwinian truth, such as forced sterilization and the Holocaust, have been rejected when their bases as moral rather than scientific projects are revealed. This is instructive for our understanding of creationist challenges to Darwinism. In the remainder of this chapter, we apply this insight to creationist challenges in American public life, first by explaining how and why this debate has persisted for over a century in approximately the same form, then by demonstrating how treating creationist challenges as debates over public morality can restore the liberal democratic process to this particular dispute.

5 Why this Debate Persists

In this section we explain why this debate has persisted for over a century in approximately the same form. We focus specifically on three major epistemological approaches to resolving creationist challenges: science education, definitional enforcement, and movement suppression. Each of these approaches has failed to stop creationist challenges, and in fact may have increased support for creationist perspectives.

5.1 Knowledge Deficit

The first influential epistemological approach to creationist challenges is the “knowledge deficit” model of science education. The knowledge deficit model assumes that people should agree with science because it is true, and that therefore lower levels of agreement (sometimes called resistance or opposition) are due to a deficit of knowledge about science. In this model, if people are better educated about science, then they will agree with it. Applying the model to this case means that if creationists do not think evolution is a true description of human origins, then it is because they do not understand it (probably because their religious beliefs interfere) and they need to be better educated.

There are two implications of this approach for creationist challenges. First, schools should not permit the interfering beliefs into the science classroom. Second, science classes should focus on teaching evolution as clearly and completely as possible. The BSCS, starting in 1960 and continuing into the present, has focused on the second strategy. The first strategy has been pursued at the local level through school board meetings and curriculum review (Binder, 2002), and at higher levels through legal intervention, as in McLean, Edwards, and Kitzmiller.

The problem is that there is little evidence to suggest that the knowledge deficit model underlying these strategies is correct. One of the biggest shifts in the academic field of “public understanding of science” happened when several studies showed that disbelief, resistance, and opposition to science had very little to do with level of knowledge (Sturgis and Allum, 2004; Bauer, Allum and Miller, 2007). In many cases, people who support creationism test as well as those who fully agree with evolution (for example Woodrum and Hoban, 1992). Given the empirical limitations of the knowledge deficit approach, the “public understanding of science” literature has shifted from discussion of knowledge deficits to discussion of public exclusion, suggesting that participation, deliberation, and inclusion are far more important in developing “scientific citizenship” (Irwin, 2001).

Empirically, however, it is clear that opponents of creationism in schools often hold to the knowledge deficit model even when there is evidence to the contrary. A recent case in the UK case illustrates this point (Allgaier, 2008). In 2002 a media furor arose over the involvement of the Vardy Foundation, a Christian organization, in supporting a creationist conference at Emmanuel College (Gateshead). This coverage included accusations of teaching creationism in science classes, a particular concern given Emmanuel’s origins as a City Technology College. Yet several public figures lined up in support of Emmanuel, not based on agreement with creationism, but on the basis that Emmanuel continued to earn top marks from the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). When asked about the controversy, Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the school for its achievements and OFSTED assessment results. But another set of public figures, including not only scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins, but also Michael Turnbull, the Bishop of Durham, pressed for OFSTED to reevaluate the school, and in the end, even for OFSTED to be reevaluated, because it could not be working if it positively assessed a school that allowed creationism in the classroom (Allgaier, 2008:184-5).

The Emmanuel case is interesting because it demonstrates how the knowledge deficit model fails in practice. Student outcomes were not only acceptable, but outstanding. Yet opponents of teaching creationism continued to argue that creationism in the classroom was threatening and dangerous to scientific education, and attempted to remove creationism anyway. Such unconditional opposition to creationism, based on assumptions about knowledge deficit rather than evidence, leaves no room for discussion of creationists’ motivating concerns.

5.2 Defining Science

The second epistemological approach to creationist challenges is to engage in active boundary work in defining what counts, and what does not count, as science. This is a defensive strategy, but it is particularly suited for the legal arena, where decisions are often made with reference to standard definitions. So, for example, even though the issue at stake in McLean and Kitzmiller was whether or not creationist challenges violated the Establishment clause, both Judge Overton and Judge Jones expended significant time and resources in defining what science is, so that they could say that creationism is not science. Such use of the courts is somewhat risky for science, as science is not particularly protected under law, and allowing courts to define science arguably devalues scientific expertise by conceding authority to law (Evans MS, 2008). But it has been largely successful in American courts thus far.

The tactic of opposing creationism by defining it as “not science” is also very common in academia. Some of the most significant works on creationism and Intelligent Design (for example Scott, 1997; Forrest and Gross, 2004) are basically extensive justifications of why creationism is not science. More recently, scholars have defended the exclusion of creationism by drawing out an intellectual history of scientific thought, and demonstrating that this intellectual history necessarily eliminates claims such as Intelligent Design from inclusion in the boundaries of science (for example Clark, Foster and York 2007).

There are many problems with this approach. The most significant philosophical problem is that, as science and technology studies scholars have thoroughly established, the boundaries of science are fluid, contingent, and negotiable. There is no essential or universal set of rules for demarcating “science” from “not science.” So while the epistemological exclusion of creationism may be supported today, it is because of the boundary work being done to maintain it as such, not because it is essentially “not science” (Gieryn, Bevins and Zehr, 1985). Based on historical evidence, it is entirely possible (though uncommon) to construct a justification for Intelligent Design, for example, as the legitimate claimant to the label “science” (for example Fuller, 2008).

The most practical problem with this approach, however, is that it does not address the concerns that motivate creationist challenges. Challenges from creationists, while often shaped to the institutional context in which they operate (Binder, 2002), are motivated by concerns over the link between Darwinism and morality, however construed. Those who spend their efforts defining science are fundamentally missing the point. We argue that this is a primary reason why creationist challenges persist. The epistemological approach of defining science is blind to the moral concerns at the heart of creationist challenges, and it is at best a temporary institutional remedy for a deeper cultural problem.

5.3 Suppressing Challenges

The third epistemological approach is to suppress challenges using all available resources at every possible instance. This is an epistemological approach because it does not work without the conviction that what one is suppressing is false, and that what one is defending is true. Sometimes this takes the form of humiliation and name-calling. For example, coverage of the Scopes trial included cartoon images of William Jennings Bryan as Don Quixote charging a windmill labeled “evolution,” while other cartoons portrayed a jury composed of talking monkeys. And more recently, Richard Dawkins (1989) has written “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”

More common, however, is to leverage all existing arguments to suppress challenges in court, in school boards, and in public debate. Examples of such “countermovement frames” include the claims that challengers are “not science” and should be dismissed from the classroom, that creationist challenges are political and therefore should be disallowed from participation in educational institutions, and that creationism as a religious movement has no place in secular civic life (Binder, 2007:558-9). There are significant organizational and financial resources behind these efforts as well, including the National Center for Science Education (NSCE), whose stated goal is to defend science education from creationist and other challenges. Drawing on extensive resources, this total approach to suppressing creationism on multiple fronts, for multiple reasons, using any available resources, has been largely successful in eliminating creationism from science classes in public schools.

However, there are two practical problems with this approach. The first is that suppressing movements actually strengthens challengers. As Binder (2007) points out, creationists simply retool for the new institutional context. Historically this is certainly the case, with Scopes, creation science, and Intelligent Design mounting very different kinds of institutional challenges and tactics. Consistent with our argument, however, these suppressed movements often return in greater force and with stronger resolve. We suggest that this is because these movements are not merely seeking proximate success in getting a book into classrooms, or a friendly face on a school board, but because they seek to challenge what they see as the moral implications of Darwinism for society.

The second practical problem with this approach is that it is profoundly anti-democratic. From an epistemological distinction, this criticism seems misplaced. If something is true, such as evolution, then it should not be subject to democratic debate. So when creationists call for “equal time,” an epistemological approach would reject it out of hand as incompatible with a notion of science as truth, and stop the conversation based on an appeal to the epistemological status of scientific knowledge. But democracy is, among many other things, a process for debating what ought to be done. Creationists are motivated by their concerns over moral implications of Darwinism for society. So it is not misguided to suggest that suppression of creationist challenges is anti-democratic in that it suppresses discussion of what ought to be done. We recognize, however, that from an epistemological standpoint, such claims do not make sense, or are invisible.

The policy consequences of epistemological approaches play out in ways that perpetuate challenges. Continuing to argue and act as though epistemology is the main concern aggravates challengers, who are actually mounting a challenge based on morality, escalates the challenges and makes all sides feel aggrieved. It is a recipe for continued dispute, but not for democratic debate.

6 Religion in Public Life

Epistemological approaches to creationist challenges seem not to work. While defenders of science continue to engage in tactics based on epistemological approaches, creationists continue to mount challenges that are seemingly about epistemology. But what really seems to drive them is what they see as the moral implications of Darwinism. We argue that the only way to address this conflict over public morality is to also treat it as a problem of public morality. That is, while debate about the epistemological issues can continue, the moral debate can only be resolved through liberal democratic debate, not through appeals to (or state enforcement of) special epistemological status for what are essentially moral issues.

Treating debates about Darwinism as debates about public morality implicates broader philosophical concerns about the place of religion and moral language in American public life. Historically, much of the debate about religion in public life is about whether religious reasons are sufficient on their own in a liberal democracy, or whether debate must occur with reasons that are accessible to everyone (Audi and Wolterstorff, 1997). More recently, Wolterstorff (2003), Rorty (2003), and Stout (2004) have explored the idea that there are no such reasons accessible to everyone. Science can be as much of a “conversation-stopper” as religion, so we must focus on the validity of reasons and claims on their own terms. Despite their diverse philosophical commitments, these scholars agree that it is the reason-giving that is important to the process, not necessarily the epistemological status of these reasons.

So how do we keep the conversation about morality going? Here are some possibilities for how to take a liberal democratic approach to resolving these concerns, and what they might mean for our understanding of religion in public life.

6.1 Allow Creationism in Schools

The first possibility is to allow creationism into public schools, either as ID or in some other form (Binder, 2007). The objection would be that this may damage the scientific knowledge of youths, but studies show that not believing in evolution does not lead to a lack of faith in other areas of science (Woodrum and Hoban, 1992; Evans JH, 2008). While an argument can be made that scientific education overall is lacking in effectiveness, it is difficult to claim creationism as the culprit (see also Binder, 2007:569-570).

Studies of creationism in the classroom indicate that introducing creationism into a classroom does not significantly interfere with the learning of evolution (Lawson and Worsnop, 1992; Verhey, 2005). There is some evidence that allowing creationism in the classroom may increase acceptance of evolution, as creationist students are more likely to accept evolution if they think their views have been discussed with respect in the classroom (Dagher and BouJaoude, 1997; Verhey, 2005). Recently a prominent educational leader in the UK suggested that “when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion” (Reiss, 2008). Discussion of creationism would then possibly lead to a discussion of the moral concerns of children with religiously-inspired creationist views, without excluding these discussions with conversation-stopping appeals to the epistemic authority of science or the epistemic authority of religion. The moral conversation could continue. As long as there is no teaching of creationism as true or authoritative, this should not violate constitutional restrictions (Greenawalt, 2005). People would have to decide which is more important, the potential damage to the scientific literacy of the country or potentially resolving a moral conflict.

6.2 Moral Disclaimer

The second possibility is to take a Humean approach and explicitly decouple Darwinism-the-“is” from Darwinism-the-“ought,” which would allow the moral conversation to continue without conversation-stoppers. Teachers would have a discussion with students about the moral implications of Darwinism, hopefully engaging in the inevitable moral education that schools provide for students. They could say, for example, that the survival of the fittest organism should not be taken as a model for how humans should treat each other – which was a concern of William Jennings Bryan. They could note that even if mutations in organisms are random, it does not follow that human morality is random. The supposed moral lessons of Darwinism can all be explicitly counteracted in the classroom without any concern about the separation of church and state.

Some scientists already do this in their public lectures and commentaries. For example, in his response to the movie Expelled, Richard Dawkins wrote:

[N]atural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ’ought’ from an ’is’ (Dawkins, 2008).

But as demonstrated in the previous suggestion, it is not enough simply to say “don’t derive an ought from an is.” Students learn moral positions through participation in cultural systems, not through knowledge acquisition. So if the is/ought fallacy is where the moral concerns of creationists are detached from knowledge of evolution, this fallacy must be identified and explicitly engaged in the classroom throughout the process of learning.

7 Conclusion

Religiously inspired creationists have been making epistemological claims and conflicting with scientists for many decades. Institutional pressures, such as the legal system in the United States, have further pushed these debates in an epistemological direction, with debates coming to concern what is “religious” and what is “scientific.” This has made many analysts miss the point that while there is an epistemological component to religiously inspired conflicts about Darwinism, the primary engine of grievance seems to be moral. These moral concerns on the part of the primarily conservative Protestants who oppose evolution are not due to an error on their part in thinking that Darwin has moral implications. Rather, Darwin has been used to promote the moral visions of many scientists. Therefore, the proper way to describe debates about Darwinism is that they are primarily moral, with one particularly effective weapon being the epistemology claim, typically used by scientists, to shut down discussion of creationism.

If we want to resolve this dispute about Darwinism, we must do so through discussion and deliberation. If through “conversation-stoppers” like explicit religious and scientific claims we declare conversation to be over, then this debate will continue on in mutated forms for many more decades. We discuss a few possibilities for allowing a conversation about Darwinism to proceed in the public schools (the only place where the topic would ever arise for ordinary citizens.) While opponents of creationism have the clear advantage legally, politically and socially, they should consider whether annihilation of their opponents is the wisest course. Not resolving these moral issues results in conservative Protestants feeling aggrieved at the hands of a “cultural elite” (for example H.L. Mencken) for no particular reason. It is these grievances that contributed to the formation of the religious right in the US in the late 1970s, and these grievances were still on display in the Republican Party during the 2008 American Presidential elections. Liberals should consider why they are feeding their opponents for arguably no good reason.


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{1}393 U.S. 97 (1968)

{2}529 F. Supp. 1255, 1258-1264 (ED Ark. 1982)

{3}482 U.S. 578 (1987)

{4}400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005)

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