February 12, 2009
Fans of Charles Darwin are celebrating throughout the world today, on the naturalist's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of his revolutionary "Origin of Species." Thousands will attend the 666 "Darwin Day" events in 44 countries, including a conference hosted by the Vatican in March. Each event is dedicated to the man who put scientific evidence behind the theory of natural selection and made it famous.
But despite the global hoopla celebrating his theory, Darwin's legacy - and full acceptance of his theory - is far from settled.
Only half of Americans accept evolution as the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth, according to a new report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The numbers drop even more when Americans are asked to leave God out the equation. Only 26 percent believe that life evolved solely through the processes of natural selection.
"Nearly as many Americans (21 percent) who accept evolution, believe in theistic or God-directed evolution," said Pew senior research fellow David Masci, who authored the report.
Masci isn't surprised by the figures. Although the theory of evolution has been widely presented in American schools since the late 1950s, many still reject the theory as contrary to Judeo-Christian teaching on the book Genesis.
"Americans are a very religious people. In addition, groups or denominations that are most likely to have trouble accepting evolution make up a substantial part of the population," he said. "[A]s our findings show, when science runs up against a religious teaching, religion tends to win, at least in the minds of people who are religious."
Among evangelical Protestants - who make up 26 percent of Americans - support for evolution through natural selection drops all the way to 21 percent. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and mainline Protestants, however, have fewer problems integrating their faith with the theory. A total of 58 percent of Catholics, 54 percent Orthodox, and 51 percent mainline Protestants accept evolution as the best explanation for human life and origins.
But the battle isn't just faith vs. science. More than a third of those surveyed (38 percent) do not believe the scientific community is in agreement about evolution, leaving the theory open to criticism.
Even Americans who back the theory think the controversy should at least be acknowledged. A similar Pew Research Poll in 2005 found that 63 percent of Americans would like to see other origins theories, such as creationism, taught alongside evolution in the classroom.
Battleground: The Classroom
The lines between natural selection proponents and opponents are often drawn in the public schools. The famous Scopes "monkey" trial in 1925 challenged schools' ability to keep the theory out of their classrooms, and half a dozen cases since then have further solidified the theory's primary place in science classrooms.
The theory's real triumph came in 1968, with the case of Epperson v. Arkansas. For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Arkansas law which criminalized the teaching of evolution in public schools and state universities was unconstitutional. The court agreed that the law violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, as the law had a religious purpose in barring Darwinian thought from the public schools.
Since then, efforts to include "creation science" and "intelligent design" theories into science curricula have had an uphill struggle against the Epperson precedent.
"In the case of the courts, evolution opponents tend to lose because judges have, at least so far, seen their efforts as promoting religion, rather than trying to add to the scientific debate," Masci said.
Still, that hasn't stopped parents and teachers in recent years. The Pew report chronicles challenges in 14 states to win back equal time for other theories besides evolution, or even the ability to present criticism of it.
Those wishing for more than a one-sided debate in schools have reason to hope, says Dr. John West with the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think tank.
A recent study commissioned by the Institute found that 80 percent of respondents agree that teachers and students should have the academic freedom to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a scientific theory. Support to evolution-only teaching has also fallen from 21 percent in 2006 to 14 percent in 2009.
"Clearly, the Darwin-only crowd is losing public support," West told the Christian Post. "There seems to be a backlash against the strong-arm tactics that have been used in recent years to censor and intimidate scientists, teachers, and students who raise criticisms of Darwin."
Creation Science Rises Again
Although the public battle lines still place religious believers on one side and scientists on the other, some groups are working to blend the two. Groups such as Answers in Genesis, which dedicates itself to "creation science," have found a welcome reception among evangelicals and parts of the American public.
Efforts by Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute find their roots in 1961, when engineer Henry Morris and theologian John Whitcomb published the best-selling "The Genesis Flood." The book argued and presented evidence for a literal interpretation of the biblical creation story, sparking the larger creation science movement.
Since then, Answers in Genesis has taken their work to the public on a massive scale, spending $27 million on a state-of-the-art museum. The 70,000 square foot Creation Museum near Cincinnati has drawn close to 600,000 visitors and tourists since it opened in May 2007, growing in popularity with Christian families looking for science to back up their beliefs. All 160 of the museum's exhibits expound a literal view of the creation story and how it fits in with science.
"So many Christians have been convinced by the academic elite that there is some validity to Darwin's beliefs regarding evolution, and they try to find ways to compromise, and fit creation and evolution together," said Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum near Cincinnati.
"We want to help them understand that Darwinian evolution is wrong, and that it has undermined the Christian faith and has fueled social ills like racism and abortion. Christians need to look to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority on science and everything else."
The Debate Continues
With both sides claiming science for their side and continuing the fight in the public arena, Masci gives the controversy a high place in future culture wars.
"Indeed, the teaching of evolution has become a part of the nation's culture wars," he writes in the report, "And while evolution may not attain the same importance as such culture war issues as abortion or same-sex marriage, the topic is likely to have a place in national debates on values for many years to come."