November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
The foremost student of a belief held by nearly half of all Americans traces its history from Darwin’s bombshell through the storms of the Scopes trial to today’s “scientific creationists”—who find William Jennings Bryan too liberal
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.
Ten years later there were really only two scientists of repute in North America who didn’t subscribe to some form of organic evolution: John William Dawson of McGill University in Montreal and Arnold Guyot of Princeton. Here again it is necessary to emphasize what type of creationists they were. Guyot insisted on only three special creative acts: creation of matter, creation of life, and creation of the first humans. He saw himself as an opponent of evolution. Today one who accepted that view would probably be regarded as a theistic evolutionist or a progressive creationist, certainly not a strict creationist. Dawson also tried to limit the number of special creations. So the leading scientific defenders of creation in the late nineteenth century were both few in number and intellectually far distant from late-twentieth-century creationists.
Thirty miles north of where we’re sitting today there occurred the most famous event in the history of American evolution-creation battles: the Scopes trial. Why was evolution such a troubling issue to the generation of the 1920s?
I think for two very different reasons. One had to do with the perception of an ethical and moral decline in Western society. William Jennings Bryan was particularly concerned about this. How, he wondered, could Germany, the most civilized nation in the world, engage in such barbaric acts during World War I? And why were American young people like Leopold and Loeb committing such terrible crimes? His explanation was the influence of evolution, which taught that humans had descended from apes and that the basis of morality is “Might makes right.” Second, more American young people were being exposed to evolution. The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed the increasing popularity of high school education, where evolution had entered the science curriculum. The studies of a prominent psychologist at Bryn Mawr, James Leuba, showed a correlation between exposure to a higher education and a decline of orthodox religious beliefs. Bryan used that sort of information to argue that evolution was primarily responsible for increasing crime and decreasing morals. He liked to say, if you teach children they are related to apes, they will certainly behave like apes.
Conventional wisdom about the “Monkey Trial” holds that although he lost the case, Clarence Darrow exposed the foolishness of anti-evolution laws and dealt a near-fatal blow to fundamentalist creationism.
Right, and that is a very widespread historical myth that does not hold up under scrutiny. John Thomas Scopes had volunteered for the trial, and he never went to jail. And as you pointed out, Darrow did lose. The case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the decision on a technicality: that the jury rather than the judge should have assessed the hundred-dollar fine. But the court upheld the constitutionality of the law, which was the last thing the American Civil Liberties Union wanted. Its goal was to have a test case go all the way to the Supreme Court, and it needed Scopes to be found guilty for this to happen. To have the case over- turned in the Tennessee Supreme Court was very disappointing to the ACLU.
In fact, the crusade to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools did not reach its peak until about 1927, two years after the Scopes trial. Arkansas passed its law in 1928, and then a fairly rapid decline set in. Some historians have suggested that the 1928 presidential election involving the Catholic Al Smith diverted the attention of fundamentalists to another target. Others simply think that both sides were exhausted by the struggle. The fundamentalists had captured five states in the South, and they had come to realize that they weren’t going to win in the North. The issue had reached a temporary resolution.
But certainly the Scopes trial did not at the time appear to be the turning point that it has become in the minds of later historians—partly, of course, because of the play and movie Inherit the Wind . Like the Galileo affair, it has taken on mythical proportions.
In 1963 Richard Hofstadter wrote that “today the evolutionary controversy seems as remote as the Homeric era.” Yet unknown to him and most Americans, a new variety of scientific creationist was in the making, one that would become fully visible in the 1970s. How was this new group of creationists different?
It’s ironic that Hofstadter made this statement in 1963, because that was the very year the Creation Research Society was born. This society took the lead in promoting what has come to be known as young-earth creationism.
Previously, in the 1920s at the height of the anti-evolution controversy, most fundamentalists believed that the first chapter of Genesis allowed for geological ages, and virtually no one attributed any geological significance to Noah’s flood. Among the better-educated fundamentalists probably the most popular view was the day-age theory. This interpreted the days of Genesis not as twenty-four-hour periods but as vast geological ages—which meant that they could accommodate all of historical geology and quite a bit of organic development as well. William Jennings Bryan believed this, and so did George Frederick Wright, who contributed the article on evolution to The Fundamentals (the set of pamphlets that defined fundamentalism in the early twentieth century). It was a very orthodox view.
The other and perhaps more widely held interpretation of Genesis 1 was the so-called gap theory. This contends that between the original creation of the heavens and the earth described in Genesis 1:1 and the subsequent Edenic creation described in the rest of the chapter there elapsed a vast period of time during which the earth witnessed repeated creations and destructions revealed today in the fossil record. This approach could accommodate everything geologists were teaching. The gap theory was particularly popular among fundamentalists because it had been endorsed in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, the fundamentalists’ favorite version in the 1920s.
Only one prominent anti-evolutionist in the 1920s, a man named George McCready Price, argued for a special creation of life and for a universal flood at the time of Noah that explained the geological evidence. The notion of a geologically significant flood had disappeared not only from American science a hundred years earlier but also from Christian apologetics. Virtually no one outside of marginal religious circles endorsed this idea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The big shift in creationist thinking began to occur in the 1960s as a result of the influence of The Genesis Flood , a book by John Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry Morris that endorsed Price’s views, and the subsequent founding of the Creation Research Society. These creationists abandoned the day-age theory and the gap theory in favor of Price’s flood geology, which subsequently became known as creation science or scientific creationism. To illustrate the vast distance traversed by fundamentalists in the twentieth century, I need only point out that William Jennings Bryan would be far too liberal to be welcomed as a member of the Creation Research Society today.
Does the phrase scientific creationism actually reflect any real change over time in the scientific training of creationists?
One of the most notable changes has been the number of scientifically credentialed creationists in recent years. At the peak of the anti-evolution controversy in the 1920s, the creationist with the best scientific credentials, a biologist at Wheaton College named S. James Bole, had a master’s degree in elementary school penmanship from the University of Illinois and for a few years had studied fruit culture there. There was not a single spokesman in the creationist camp who possessed so much as a master’s degree in either biology or geology. When the Creation Research Society was organized in 1963, five of the ten founding members held Ph.D.’s in the biological sciences, another had a doctorate in science, and one had a Ph.D. in engineering.
Just how did flood geology become the dominant variety of creationism?
Oddly enough, at the very time that more and more fundamentalists were going on for higher education, they were growing increasingly intolerant of schemes that accommodated historical geology and instead turned to flood geology, a theory that restricts the history of life on earth (and in some accounts the history of the entire universe) to no more than ten thousand years.
No event was more important in promoting flood geology than the publication in 1961 of The Genesis Flood . Price’s views had been suspect because he had been a Seventh-day Adventist, but Whitcomb and Morris gave them a proper fundamentalist baptism, and after that flood geology was popularized not by people on the margins of Christianity but by prominent fundamentalists.
Moreover, for those who wanted to take the Bible literally, flood geology meant having to make no assumptions. After all, if you were an advocate of the day-age theory, you had to assume that when Moses wrote of days, he meant ages. Why didn’t he simply say ages? If you were an advocate of the gap theory, you had to assume that for some inscrutable reason Moses silently passed over this long and important gap in the earth’s history between the first verse in Genesis and the Edenic creation. If you accepted flood geology, you could take the Genesis story—as well as the story of Noah and the universal flood that destroyed most of life on earth—literally.
Why did the phrase scientific creationism come in to use when it did—in the early 1970s?
Up through the 1960s the advocates of Price’s flood geology were quite happy to stress its biblical roots. Price himself eagerly acknowledged that he never would have developed this model of earth’s history without the Scriptures. However, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1968 that overturned the 1928 Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution, it became increasingly clear to creationists that they would get into the public schools of America only by advocating an alternative scientific theory. So in the early 1970s creationists made a conscious and concerted effort to repackage Price’s flood geology—biblical creationism, if you will—as creation science or scientific creationism. This was simply biblical creationism stripped of all references to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s flood.
What sort of institutional bases do scientific creationists work from? Have they gotten much support from religious denominations?
The answer varies from denomination to denomination. For years the most supportive denomination has been the Seventh-day Adventist Church—the home of George McCready Price—which in the late 1950s organized what became known as the Geoscience Research Institute. This has been one of the best-supported creationist institutes since that time. The Missouri Synod Lutherans have flirted at times with creating a similar organization but have never consummated that desire. In 1970 Tim LaHaye, pastor of Scott Memorial Baptist Church in the San Diego area, invited Henry Morris to come out to Southern California to help start Christian Heritage College and a creation-science research center. When the members of the center began quarreling, the Morris faction in 1972 regrouped as the Institute for Creation Research, supported by the Baptist congregation at Scott Memorial Church. More than any other institution, the Institute for Creation Research has successfully propagated what we now know as creation science.
You write: “To understand twentieth-century creationism, little knowledge of formal science and philosophy is necessary; familiarity with the Byzantine world of popular religion is essential.” Why?
Because the primary actors in the creationist story have been influenced very little by prevailing fashions in science or philosophy. A decade or so ago scholars began emphasizing the degree to which creationist fundamentalists subscribed to a Baconian philosophy of science, which had been much more influential in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth. To some extent that emphasis is accurate. A few early-twentieth-century creationists did invoke Bacon, just as some creationists in recent years have quoted the philosophers of science Karl Popper and Thomas K’fchn. But as far as I can tell, this is largely window dressing. The average creationist in discussing science has gone to the dictionary, not to philosophers of science, to determine what science is or should be. And of course, there he is likely to discover that science is “classified knowledge based on factual information.” Creationists like that definition because they can use it to delegitimize evolution.
What most influences creationists are the religious beliefs coming out of their own denominations, whether it be Seventh-day Adventist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Southern Baptist, or conservative Presbyterian. And if you want to know why creationists are creationists, it is much more important for you to understand their denominational and religious loyalties than to try to come up with some philosophy of science.
But is creation science really a science?
Despite what Judge William Overton decided in the Little Rock creation versus evolution trial in the early 1980s, I’m not sure that there is any sound way to demarcate science from nonscience. Science, according to one way of thinking, is what scientists do. If one accepts that definition, then perhaps scientists working on creation are doing science. I think for noncreationists there are two perspectives that might be adopted. One is that creationism is bad science and thus does not deserve to be taught in public schools. I personally think that is a persuasive position to take. Just as we would not want bad history taught, I hope that we would not want bad science taught. But because so much of the attention on creation science has come from the courts, the argument that creationism is bad science has rarely been used. Like it or not, it is not unconstitutional to teach bad science.
Second, one should note that the canons of scientific research have changed greatly. There was a time when mixing science and religion was perfectly acceptable. We occasionally even find Darwin referring to a Creator. Today one could scarcely claim to be doing science and at the same time invoke the supernatural. Naturalism has become a distinguishing characteristic of contemporary science. Thus one could argue that because present-day creation scientists are not strictly naturalistic, they operate beyond the boundaries of science. But I would stress that all lines of demarcation between science and nonscience—or pseudoscience—are historically contingent.
In the 1987 Supreme Court case regarding the Arkansas and Louisiana Balanced Treatment acts seventy-two Nobel laureates signed a brief arguing that “this case is crucial to the future of scientific education. Our capacity to cope with the problems of food production, health care and even national defense will be jeopardized if we deliberately strip our citizens of the power to distinguish between phenomena of nature and supernatural articles of faith.” Roughly a century earlier writers like Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper were publishing influential works purporting to show how religion had always been at war with scientific inquiry. Are we seeing in the current polemics against creationists an echo of the hyperboles of the last century?
To a certain extent we are. I think that the brief represents something of an overreaction to the threat posed by creation science. During times of controversy I think there is a tendency to stress the inevitable hostility between science and religion. But as I’ve argued, the conflicts involving science and religion have rarely been simple ones that have pitted scientist against religionist. Take the 1981 Arkansas trial. The plaintiffs who opposed creation science came overwhelmingly from the ranks of religious organizations, while virtually all the experts testifying in its support held graduate degrees in science. This is hardly what one would predict according to the common formula of science versus religion.
Have the creationists had any discernible impact on scientific notions about the earth’s beginnings?
Certainly in the public arena they have. In the early 1980s two states, Arkansas and Louisiana, passed laws mandating the teaching of “creation science” whenever “evolution science” was taught. A recent Gallup opinion poll told us that 47 percent of Americans now believe in a recent special creation of the first human beings no more than ten thousand years ago. To what extent we can attribute this to the activities of the creation scientists is impossible to say, but there is certainly a striking correlation between their activities and the growing popular beliefs. If you look at the influence of the creationists on the scientific community, though, I think you’ll find very little of it, except in terms of reaction.
Since the 1987 Supreme Court decision invalidated the Arkansas and Louisiana laws, what have creationists been doing to further their cause?
They’re alive and well and very active in local school districts and with individual instructors. The majority opinion in the 1987 case, written by Justice William Brennan, left the door open for creationists to teach their views in science courses if done so voluntarily with a “clear secular intent.” Now we see some creationist high school teachers beginning to take advantage of that loophole. And I suspect that in the near future we will have some attention-grabbing court cases. The dilemma, I think, even for those who oppose the teaching of creationism in public schools, stems from pitting a defense of academic freedom against the belief that teaching creationism breaks down the wall separating church and state.
In the 1920s fundamentalists were fighting to keep evolution out of public education. In the 1980s evangelicals were fighting to get creationism included in the curriculum. What does that change say about the respective fortunes of creationism then and now?
I think it may tell us something about the reduced cultural authority of evangelicals in American society. The evangelicals of the 1920s saw themselves slipping somewhat but still felt powerful enough to prevent what they regarded as an antireligious notion creeping into the public schools. In recent years there have been no illusions among evangelicals that they could monopolize the curriculum. And so now they would be happy to settle for equal time in the public schools. I think this also reflects a phenomenon that we’ve seen occasionally in American history. When a group loses the moral authority to convince the public to behave or think a certain way, there is a tendency to go to the courts. We saw that with Prohibition earlier in the century, and we see that now. If you can’t convince Americans that they should take creationism seriously, then you go to the state legislatures and mandate that high school students should learn creationism whenever they learn evolutionism.
If you were going to make your best case to the contemporary academic world as to why they should take modern creationism seriously, what would that be?
I think that the primary lessons may be historical—that our assumptions about the progressive nature of secularization in Western society need to be re-examined. How else do we explain the resurgence in popularity of creationism in the late twentieth century? I think that it might prompt a reappraisal of the importance of religious values in the lives of Americans. Commitment to religious belief might in many cases be stronger than the authority of the scientific community at a given time.
Besides the religious factors you invoke, what social considerations help explain the efflorescence of creationism?
Certainly the publication of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Studies (BSCS) textbooks, which brought evolution back into the public schools in the 1960s, influenced the timing of the creationist counteroffensive. But unfortunately we know very little about the social characteristics of American creationists. The Gallup poll I mentioned earlier showed that creationism attracted more women than men, more blacks than whites, more persons with incomes under twenty thousand dollars than persons with incomes over fifty thousand dollars, and more persons with no high school diplomas than persons with college degrees. Yet I’m convinced that socioeconomic considerations tell us little about why some creationists, especially fundamentalists, have opted for young-earth creationism, while others, such as the Pentecostals, seem to remain comfortable with old-earth creationism. The socioeconomic differences between fundamentalists and Pentecostal are slight; and the religious differences, great.
Does there appear to be any resolution, easy or otherwise, to the ongoing conflict between creationists and evolutionists in terms of public education?
One puts down your book sensing an affection on your part for your subject. Is that an accurate reading, and how have you avoided the antipathy and judgmentalism that pervade so much scholarship on the creationists?
If you define my subject as creationism, then I have little sympathy for it. If you define my subject as the title does, as The Creationists , then you’re right to see some sympathy. I have sympathy for the people but not for the message. And that stems from very personal reasons. My family, many of my former teachers, and many of my friends remain creationists. They’re decent people. I love them. I know that they are not creationists because they’re stupid. Many of them are brighter than I am. They’re creationists because of deeply felt religious values. And that’s one of the points I try to get across in my book.
As a historian I also happen to think that my primary goal is not to judge the validity of their purportedly scientific beliefs but to try to understand why this community of individuals views the history of the world in a way so fundamentally different from that of the dominant scientific community.