Donate to IMPACT
Click below for info

Make payments with PayPal - it's fast, free and secure!

Search our Site:

sitemap | IMPACT home

Spring '05 Articles:
Terri Schiavo & Euthanasia
God & School
The Thought Police
The Muddlemarch: 1
The Muddlemarch: 2
Ward Churchill's Sins
TV Journalism
(music reviews)

E-Mail Comments
Subscribe to IMPACT
Where to Find IMPACT
Buy IMPACT T-Shirts
Ordering Back Issues

Over the phone, Frank J. Sherwin, III comes across as direct, straightforward, and sincere. The photo attached to his bio could fit an insurance agent, perhaps, or a management consultant or the guy that runs the local office supply store.

He just seems like a pretty nice, educated, and reasonable guy. So when Sherwin, a parasitologist with a Masters Degree in zoology, says all he and his colleagues want is a fair chance to be heard, it doesn't sound like an unreasonable request.

Sherwin, co-author of creationist books The Human Body: An Intelligent Design and The Ocean Book, works full time for the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), one of the larger, active anti-evolution organizations. Even when he argues his case against "Darwinism," Sherwin keeps an even keel.

"I don't believe I have bacterial ancestors," Sherwin says. "Teaching this philosophy to young people hits a nerve with me. And that matters when it comes to using tax dollars to tell impressionable young minds that they came from a fish."

The November elections installed more conservatives and religious-righters in national and state legislatures. Encouraged by this trend and supported by Sherwinąs colleagues at ICR, Intelligent Design Network, the Discovery Institute, and Answers in Genesis, religious literalists are renewing their efforts to put the Bible back on the bookshelf alongside The Origin of Species. With born-again politicians and increasingly powerful evangelical leaders on their side, they are making headway in their attempt to return God to science class.

Since the election, news media have given a lot of ink to issues of concern to evangelical Christians, and evolution is one of those issues, says Eric Meikle, Ph.D. "If you look at large, well-organized, religious right groups, often evolution is one of the topics they focus on," after abortion and same-sex marriage, he says.

A physical anthropologist with a special interest in the fossil record of human and primate evolution, Meikle is the outreach coordinator at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a nonprofit organization that serves as a clearinghouse for information and advice to keep evolution in the science classroom. Before coming to NCSE in 2000, Meikle spent 11 years on the staff of the Institute of Human Origins while teaching anthropology at universities in California and Arizona.

"There's [anti-evolution] legislation introduced every year," Meikle says. "But if you just look at the number of states and incidents like bills in legislatures and [proposals to revise] state science standards, activity is up."

"He said that the earth was once a hot molten mass too hot for plant or animal life to exist upon it; in the sea the earth cooled off; there was a little germ of one cell organism formed, and this organism kept evolving until it got to be a pretty good-sized animal, and then came on to be a land animal and it kept on evolving, and from this was man."–from the Scopes trial transcript: witness for the prosecution.

In recent years, school districts scattered around America have put stickers on science textbooks to warn readers of the "theories about creation" within. In Kansas, where anti-evolutionism rose to prominence several years ago, the state's science standards again went under the microscope after last year's elections installed an anti-evolutionist majority in the state board of education, who quickly offered to "meet with scientists who support evolution and scientists who support the competing concept of intelligent design."

Science standards and stickers on textbooks are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Since early last year, bills were introduced in several states including Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina and Georgia that could require science teachers to make room for God–or some euphemistic version of Him–in their lesson plans.

For example, a set of bills introduced in Alabama, according to sponsor Wendell Mitchell, would "level the playing field" by allowing teachers to "bring forward the Biblical creation story of humankind." In January, the Mississippi Senate considered a bill requiring "balanced treatment to the theory of scientific creationism and the theory of evolution."

Introduced by Senator Gary Jackson, the bill defines "scientific creationism" as "the belief, based on scientific principles, that there was a time in the past when all matter, energy and life, and their processes and relationships, were created ex nihilo and fixed by creative and intelligent design."

A House Bill introduced into the Georgia legislature this year would insist that whenever "any theory of the origin of human beings" is taught, scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution must be presented alongside scientific evidence "inconsistent with or not supporting the theory" of evolution.

On the surface, some of the proposed legislation seems fair enough: If two competing scientific theories are equally plausible, then it just makes good sense to teach both. But here's the rub: Where is the scientific evidence that might be "inconsistent with or not supporting the theory" of evolution?

"There's none," Meikle says. "In terms of the scientific community, evolution is the accepted explanation for why we have the wide range of organisms we have."

The NCSE has issued a statement of its position regarding evolution and competing theories:

"Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to 'intelligent design,' to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools."

"That's not to say someone won't eventually come up with a better explanation," Meikle says. But for another theory to equal the weight of evolution, he adds, "they will have to come up with a lot of evidence."

In the beginning, all was chaos, and the universe was like a big black egg, carrying Pan Gu inside. After 18 thousand years, Pan Gu woke from a long sleep, picked up a broadax and cracked open the egg. Part of the egg floated up to form the heavens, and part stayed below to form the earth. Pan Gu stood in the middle while the earth and sky grew for another 18,000 years. When he died, his breath became the wind, his eyes the sun and moon, and his blood formed the water. The fleas and lice on his body became the ancestors of mankind.–Chinese creation myth

In 1831, Professor John Stevens Henslow received a call from admiralty asking whom he could recommend as a naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle, which was bound to map the South American coastline. Henslow recommended his favorite student, Charles Darwin. The rest, as they say, is history. The observations Darwin made during that voyage as he studied the staggering range of creatures encountered en route to the Galapagos Islands eventually became the Origin of Species. The first printing of 1,250 copies sold out on the first day, and the Origin of Species has remained in print ever since.

The starting point for the religious-right anti-Darwinist movement probably falls in June, 1860, during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. While Darwin's former ship captain on the Beagle roamed the halls holding up a Bible and praising "The Book," Bishop Samuel Wilberforce publicly ridiculed Darwin-supporting naturalist Thomas H. Huxley:

"I beg to know,"the Bishop asked, "is it through his grandfather or grandmother that Huxley claims his descent from a monkey?"

He didn't know, Huxley fumed, but he vowed he "would rather be descended from simians than be a man possessed of the gift of reason and use as the Bishop had that day."

Huxley and the Bishop set the tone for a controversy that still persists, in roughly the same form, almost 150 years later. In the U.S., the clash between Darwin and Genesis first came to a head in 1925, when William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow argued the case during the famous Scopes "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tennessee.

Many of the arguments have persisted throughout the controversy." Some of the arguments that still go on can be traced back for decades," Meikle says. Articles chronicling the history of opposition to evolution found that "the arguments that went on in the 1920s in Tennessee were very similar to ones used last year in Cobb County, Georgia," where school boards had placed "just a theory" stickers on science textbooks until a court ruled them unconstitutional.

The use of the term "Darwinism," as it is used by contemporary anti-evolutionists, has itself evolved and is somewhat misleading. " 'Darwinism' has multiple meanings," Meikle says. "In the middle of the 19th century, it meant the ideas presented in Darwin's book, The Origin of Species."

Since our knowledge of genetics and evolution has since expanded, many of those ideas are largely outmoded now, Meikle adds, and have been replaced. "So now there's neo-Darwinism and modern Darwinism," he said. The term "Darwinism" is mainly used by anti-evolutionists, "just as a synonym for evolution, because Darwin is a well-known figure," he suggests. "And often they use 'Darwinism' as a synonym for 'atheism.'"

In other words, the term has been appropriated by religionists who need a straw dog to burn–a means to pigeonhole and dehumanize scientists and science teachers who don't fall into place behind the Biblical story of creation.

The universe existed in darkness, immersed in deep sleep, until the Divine Self appeared and dispelled the darkness. With one thought, he created the water and placed his seed in it. The seed became a golden egg, in which was born Brahma, the creator of the world. Brahma lived in the egg for a year, then divided it into two halves, from which he formed heaven, earth, and the world. He also drew forth the mind and the soul. And from particles of himself, he created all beings.–Hindu creation myth

Unlike their 1920s Tennessee counterparts, Sherwin's contemporaries are careful to point out they donąt have a religious agenda. "We are not advocating getting the Biblical account of creation into the public school classroom," Sherwin says. "We are all in favor of presenting a non-Biblical scientific alternative to macro-evolution."

"The word evolution means change," Sherwin explains. "There's a lot of wiggle room in that word, so I like to be specific." On the one hand, there's micro-evolution, which includes small changes or minor variations. "We can document that," Sherwin said, when looking at microbes that evolve resistance to antibiotics, for example. "So I have no problem with that."

On the other hand, there's macro-evolution. "That's the molecules-to-man philosophy, or fish-to-philosopher," he says. "There's a total lack of empirical, documented, observable evidence for macro-evolution. Try as they may to do it, whether out in the field or in the laboratory, there's no research that can be done that will validate that."

There are several non-Biblical alternatives to macro-evolution, Sherwin thinks. Intelligent Design (ID), for example, "never attempts to identify the designer and doesn't bring up Bible verses; it just gives an alternative to the straightjacket" imposed on the issue by mainstream science.

That straight jacket is the problem, Sherwin says. "There's such intolerance in the Darwinian camp to exposing children to a non-Darwinian alternative–if you want to criticize evolution, it's not allowed. A teacher can't stand up and say, 'Here's the list of problems [with evolutionary theory].'"

The "advance guard" in the anti-evolution movement is now Intelligent Design, rather than creation science. "A lot of the times, the people opposing evolution are creationists and young earthers," Meikle says. "But the arguments used come from the ID folks."

However, Meikle says, much of the contemporary creationist/ID rationale is just much smoke and mirrors. Anti-evolutionists make the distinction between macro-evolution and micro-evolution as if they're distinctly different things. "But that distinction is not made by scientists," he says.

"They're really objecting to the idea that one species can descend from other species," he says. But the fossil record and the study of genetics suggests otherwise. "The only alternative is that [the species] looks the way they do simply because they were created that way. And that just doesn't get you anywhere."

While ID proponents would argue otherwise, Meikle thinks the reason for the push for Intelligent Design, rather than creationism, has more to do with the constitution and courts than with science.

"They're saying [non-Biblical] because they've lost a lot of court cases," Meikle says. "So they've changed their tactics. They've been promoting the idea for a long time, the rationale for creation science, that it was not religiously based–that it was a real science, justified and supported. But these laws [that supported teaching creationism] were found unconstitutional because they were clearly based on religion."

Many of the intelligent design arguments are more than 100 years old. Despite scientific-sounding framing, the arguments are neither more valid today nor less religious than they were a century ago. "The ID argument is that if something looks designed, it must have been designed," Meikle says. "And if it was designed, there had to be a designer. They won't say who that is, but the most likely answer is God."

In the beginning, the earth was a bare plain. All was dark: there was no life nor death, and the sun, moon, and eternal ancestors slept beneath the earth. Finally, they woke themselves up and broke through to the surface to wander the earth in the Dreamtime, until they found half-made human beings, fashioned from animals and plants, but still shapeless bundles without limbs or features. With enormous stone knives, the beings carved heads, bodies, limbs, and faces into the bundles, until at last the human beings were complete.–Australian Aborigine creation myth

Project Steve began in early 2003, after 52 ID proponents signed a statement and presented it in Ohio during a review of the state's science education standards. The statement offered to promote "creation science" and intelligent design" in the school's science curriculum.

In response, the NCSE issued the statement quoted earlier, which firmly supports evolution education and tersely debunks the claim made by creationists that evolution is "a theory in crisis." Two hundred and twenty scientists signed the manifesto–all of them named Steve.

The list of signers (which includes Steves, Stevens, Stephens, Stefans and Stephanies) is part tribute to the late Stephen Jay Gould. The NCSE explained that creationists are fond of circulating statements denouncing evolution, signed by as many scientists as they can find, so Project Steve was formulated as a parody. However, it also summarizes the scientific community's near universal acceptance of evolutionary theory. So far, 513 Steves, including two that have won the Nobel prize, have signed onto the "Project Steve" list.

Despite claims from creationists and ID proponents, scientists have firmly established evolution as an important natural process. Calling evolution "only a theory" is, scientifically speaking, true. However, the idea that statement conveys is wrong, and that misunderstanding is used by creationists to deliberately mislead.

The argument relies on the listener's confusion between what "theory" means in common conversation versus what it means to a scientist. "The common use of 'theory' means just 'a guess or hunch,'" Meikle says. "But in science, 'theory' is overarching. It explains a lot of observations and observed facts."

To a scientist, "theory" means something very specific. A scientist formulates a hypothesis, which may explain a phenomenon. He or she then tests the hypothesis through some means of experimentation or seeking supporting evidence. If the hypothesis passes the test, then it is tested again and again by other scientists to see if it passes it consistently. If the testing supports the hypothesis over and over, it becomes a theory. If it doesn't consistently pass the test, another hypothesis is sought. Sometimes, a better hypothesis comes along; in that case, the old theory is discarded and the new adopted.

A theory should not only explain what has happened, but predict what will happen. Theories about the Earth's movement in the heavens, for example, accurately predict when the sun will rise. In science, a theory must be tested using empirical means. In other words, at some point, the scientist must be able to perceive evidence for the theory with normal human senses. Even then, the theory is not considered "fact" unless it becomes somehow empirically observed. For instance, the theory that the earth is round can be "proved" either by traveling all the way around it or by flying into space to look. Only then does it become fact. In science, there are relatively few "facts."

An idea "doesn't get to be a theory until you've shown it has a lot of usefulness," Meikle says. "The strength of evolutionary theory is the reason scientists continue to accept it." The theory has been used to make many, many predictions over the years.

Creationism and Intelligent Design fail to become theory mainly because they make few or no specific claims about what we could expect to find; thus they aren't useful. However, the inability to prove through direct observation that man descended from a common ancestor is one of the main arguments relied upon by creationists and ID proponents.

"Now we get where the rubber meets the road," Sherwin says. "It takes faith to believe that in the beginning God created the earth. The secularist would have to agree they weren't there in the beginning," he argues, so the evolution is a matter of faith, too.

"So this isn't an issue of science versus faith," he says. "It's an issue of faith versus faith. It's 'In the beginning, God...' versus 'In the beginning, hydrogen...'"

But pressed to prove the existence of God, intelligent design, or any other supernatural creator, none of the anti-evolutionists can come up with much, if anything. This dearth of data is perhaps best summed up in a statement from the Intelligent Design Network Web site, which says Intelligent Design is controversial "because of the implications of its evidence, rather than the significant weight of its evidence."

The web site does not elaborate on that comment, and a spokesperson couldn't be reached to explain what is meant by "the implications... rather than the significant weight" of evidence. One might make a fair assumption, however, that ID Network concedes that whatever evidence exists, if any, is pretty light.

In the beginning there was only darkness, water, and the god Bumba. One day Bumba had a stomach ache, and vomited up the sun, which dried up some of the water, leaving land. Bumba's stomach still hurt, so he vomited up the moon, the stars, and the animals. Finally, Bumba vomited up the humans.–Boshongo tribe (Central Africa) creation myth

A CBS poll conducted last year found that most Americans believe in some form of creationism: Fifty-five percent believe God created humans in their present form and another 27 percent think humans evolved, but God guided the process. Almost two-thirds support teaching creationism alongside evolution.

Thus it is not surprising to find school boards and legislators trying to make room for creationism in the curriculum–the fact is, we just plain don't want to think we descended from fish or monkeys.

It is unlikely, then, that the controversy will disappear any time soon. "And it's a complex, interrelated set of issues," Meikle says. "One reason it continues to keep coming up is that it's not about science. It's a disagreement about religion. In some ways, the argument is a religious argument about what God is like. And that kind of argument isn't amenable to proof or disproof."

On that point, Meikle and Sherwin come close to agreeing. "I'm a Christian," Sherwin says. "But I'm against [evolution] primarily as a scientist. It's the philosophy of naturalism disguised as science." However, he adds, while he opposes "the macro-evolution model" for scientific reasons, he also opposes it "for Biblical and philosophical reasons."

"The question will always be a front-burner issue," he says. "It will never go away as long as macro-evolution is talked about in schools. And it will always be very emotional on a variety of levels."

Consequently, he agrees with some Christian evangelicals who refer to a "war" against Darwinism. "We aren't advocating any kind of physical violence or acts of quasi-terrorism," he says. "We are going back to the Pauline Epistles and the kind of language Paul used to show this discussion of origins is a spiritual war."

The war won't be won with compromise, he thinks. Unlike some, who believe in theistic evolution, which suggests that God wound up the mechanism of evolution, then let it go, Sherwin and his colleagues "would just as well stick with what the scriptures say," that God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh.

"We have the written record of someone who was there," he adds. "We call it the Bible."

A mist rose from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul... And out of the ground God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air... And God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept, he took one of his ribs and made a woman. And they were both naked, and were not ashamed.–Judeo-Christian creation myth.

Some people might wonder if, on a practical level, it makes any difference if God created the earth a few thousand years ago, or if God set the evolutionary wheels in motion a few hundred million years ago, or if God had anything to do with it at all.

It is possible to "do good science" without ever considering the problem of human origin, Sherwin thinks. "As a parasitologist, I shot tree swallows, dissected them, and [catalogued the parasites] I found. I found one that hadn't been named and published that finding. And I did that as a creation scientist."

But most scientists, regardless of their religious views, "are going to have to use the scientific method for the work they are doing," Meikle says. "So they'll limit themselves to natural processes. If you're going to allow for supernatural explanations, then that's the end of science."

"Do we want to teach the best, most current information that leads to the greatest understanding?" Meikle asks. If that's important to us, he points out, then kids not exposed to evolution "are being cheated."

To cheat America's schoolchildren by withholding the best knowledge available or deliberately muddying their education with pseudoscience would be tragic. But perhaps the biggest tragedy perpetuated by anti-evolutionists is the damage they inflict on their own faith. Creation myths are an important element of our cultural consciousness.

Consider the opening verses of Genesis: "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."

It would be hard for someone from our culture to read those verses and not be moved. They contain a truth–a spiritual, cultural, poetic truth–that resonates independent of literal accuracy or inaccuracy. There is no need for those verses to be literally, scientifically accurate, except in the minds of those whose worldview relies on too fragile a faith.

As the trial of John Scopes proceeded, Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin's son, sent a note of encouragement to the Tennessee science teacher, congratulating him on his courageous effort to maintain the right to teach well established scientific theories.

In his letter, Darwin reassured Scopes with a remark that legislators and school boards would do well to heed: "To state that which is true can not be irreligious."

Contributing Editor Morris Sullivan is a freelance writer living in DeLand, Fla., and has been a frequent contributor to IMPACT since 1997. Sullivan previously covered this topic for IMPACT in December 1999.

Other articles by Morris Sullivan: