The New Creationists

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The year 1963 brought the death of George McCready Price, whom the science writer Martin Gardner described as “the last and greatest of the anti-evolutionists.” The greatest perhaps, but certainly not the last. That year also witnessed the birth of the Creation Research Society and—more generally—the age of scientific creationism. By the end of the decade battles were being waged over including creationism in public school curricula; the fight culminated in the 1981 court challenge to the Arkansas creationist law. If the proceedings lacked the carnival atmosphere of the 1925 Scopes trial, they compensated by attracting an impressive list of expert witnesses from the ranks of scientists, philosophers, and theologians. Unfavorable court decisions have settled for the moment the issue of equal-time state laws, but creation science as a movement has hardly slowed. Several creation research institutes continue seeking evidence to confute evolution, and the theory’s proponents have evolved new tactics for including special creation in public school curricula. The phenomenon of scientific creationism has evoked a cottage industry of analysts: journalists, sociologists, philosophers of science, theologians, and particularly scientists, who believe they have the most to lose from a theory that denies Darwin. The call to arms that went out among various scientific groups characterized creationists almost uniformly as dangerous quacks who were gulling the public with a specious science.
Only with the recent appearance of Ronald L. Numbers’s The Creationists: Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Knopf) have advocates of special creation found an empathetic, if critical, chronicler. Numbers tells the story of creationism from Darwin to the present in a prodigiously researched book that nonetheless wears its learning lightly while offering fascinating glimpses into a scientific counterculture.

For Numbers, the William Coleman Professor of History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the topic is not purely academic. He was raised a creationist, and his reputation as a fair-minded scholar led both plaintiff and defendant to seek his services as expert witness in the Louisiana creation-evolution trial. Personable and unpretentious, Numbers speaks with intensity about his subject. The interview took place on the campus of Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists near Chattanooga, Tennessee, Numbers’s alma mater.

Did the theory of evolution become a seriously troubling issue for mainstream American Christianity as soon as Darwin propounded it in 1859?

Most mainstream American Christians didn’t pay too much attention to Darwin in the years immediately following the publication of On the Origin of Species , probably because of the scientific community’s delay in accepting his views.

 

Until there was some type of consensus there, most religious leaders felt no compulsion to wrestle with this issue. After all, as recently as the mid-1840s a very controversial work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation , had advocated the developmental hypothesis. Scientists had dismissed it, and I think that there was some expectation that they’d dismiss Darwin’s new developmental view as well.

It’s also important to bear in mind that Darwin was trying to accomplish two related but very different tasks in the Origin . One was to replace the doctrine of supernatural creationism with a naturalistic account; the other was to propose a mechanism by which speciation took place—namely, his theory of natural selection. Although the bulk of the American scientific community rather rapidly adopted the first part of Darwin’s agenda, it was a very long time—well into the twentieth-century—before it accepted natural selection as the primary method of evolution.

Finally, some of Darwin’s earliest American defenders were giving his views a theological interpretation. The Harvard botanist Asa Gray, for example, suggested that God had been responsible for the variations upon which natural selection worked.

Who were the foremost creationists of the late nineteenth century?

For years the leading creationist by far was the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, but by our standards he was a very different sort of creationist. He had become notorious in American intellectual circles before 1859 for defending the notion of the plural origins of humans. According to him, there had not been one creation in the Garden of Eden; there had been multiple creations and subsequent catastrophes throughout the whole world. He was decidedly antibiblical and adopted creationism primarily for philosophical and scientific reasons. Nevertheless, Darwin’s opponents used him because he insisted on the special creation of species. By the time Agassiz died in 1873 most of his students and colleagues in the areas of what today we call biology and geology had adopted some form of evolution.