EVOLUTION AND CREATIONISM IN KANSAS

SEPTEMBER 26, 1999
R.M. FEWKES


In July 1925 a famous trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee. John T. Scopes, a biology teacher, was on trail for teaching the theory of evolution in public school, something expressly forbidden in the statutes of the State of Tennessee. The statute was known as "the monkey-law" because it outlawed the teaching that human beings descended from apes. What gave the trial such notoriety was the fact that the special prosecutor for the case was the famous orator and politician, William Jennings Bryan, while the lawyer for the defense was the renown trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Scopes was convicted although his conviction was later overturned in a higher court because of legal technicalities. The result of the trial as far as public education was concerned was that for year afterwards, as TIME magazine noted, "evolution became a missing link" in a number of state school curriculums. Tennessee’s so-called "monkey-law" remained on the books in Tennessee until 1967 when it was finally repealed by a wide margin.

I was a student at the University of Massachusetts a year after Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee published their play, Inherit The Wind, in 1955, which was modeled after the Scopes trial. The student drama group at the University had the courage to produce the play, which I eagerly attended. It was my first and to date only live production of the play which I have seen. It was a zinger. One of my favorite scenes is when the trial lawyer, Henry Drummond (alias Clarence Darrow) calls the special prosecutor, Harrison Brady (alias William Jennings Bryan), an expert on the Bible, to the witness stand. After some banter Drummond holds up a rock about the size of a tennis ball in his hand and asks Brady, "How old do you think this rock is?" Brady replies, "I am more interested in the Rock of Ages, than I am in the Age of Rocks."

Drummond then reveals that the rock contains the fossil remains of a pre-historic marine creature, which a biology professor estimates lived 10 million years ago when the mountain ranges in that very county were submerged in water. Brady says he knows all about the water from the Biblical account of the flood, but that Drummond’s rock could not be more than 6,000 years old since the Creation occurred in 4,004, B.C., on Oct. the 23rd, at 9 A.M. Drummond asks Brady if that was Eastern Standard Time or Rocky Mountain Time, since the Lord didn’t make the sun until the fourth day. Drummond then asks if the first day of Creation was a 24-hour day? Brady replies, "The Bible says it was a day." But Drummond pushes him and gets Brady to admit that since there was no way to measure the hours in a day without the sun that the first day could have been, say, twenty-five hours. "It is possible", says Brady, hesitantly. Then Drummond lets him have it: "Oh, you interpret that the first day could be of indeterminate length. It could have been thirty hours! Or a month! Or a year! Or a hundred years! Or ten million years!"

Brady protests to the judge that Drummond is trying "to destroy everybody’s belief in the Bible, and in God!" But Drummond shoots back, "You know that’s not true. I’m trying to stop you…ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States!"
There have been many attempts in the 74 years since the Scopes trial to either prevent the teaching of evolution in the nation’s public schools or to insist on "equal time" for what has been called the "creationist" or "scientific creationism" position. All of them have been declared unconstitutional in that "creationism" is not really a science, but is an attempt to impose a religious point of view in a science course. The latest attempt was in the state of Kansas this August when the Kansas Board of Education voted 6-4 not to require the teaching of evolution, or the Big Bang theory of creation, in the state’s science curriculum. The new standards do not forbid the teaching of evolution, but it will no longer be included in statewide tests for evaluating students. Stephen Jay Gould, professor of Geology at Harvard, compares this decision to teaching chemistry without the periodic table or history without Lincoln. He goes on to say that "the board transported its jurisdiction to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new millennium might exclaim, ‘They still call it Kansas, but I don’t think we’re in the real world anymore.’"

Creationists argue that evolution is only a theory and therefore should not be a required teaching, or at the least, if taught, to give equal time to the theory of scientific creationism. Evolution is more than "only a theory". It is a theory with an impressive array of facts and evidence and careful observations gathered over more than a hundred years by many scientists. The creationist viewpoint is an attempt to prove the inerrant authority of the Biblical Genesis account in a literal sense.

Moreover, Creationists also try to argue that the teaching of evolution leads to moral decline because it reduces human beings to no better than animals and provide no bases for ethical behavior. Back in 1981, a Georgia judge, Braswell Deen, declared, "This monkey mythology of Darwin is the cause of permissiveness, promiscuity, pills, prophylactics, perversions, pregnancies, abortions, pornotherapy, pollution, poisoning, and proliferation of crimes of all types." My God, folks, Darwin was a Unitarian! We should take personal umbrage at the defaming of the character of "one of our own" who was above reproach in the moral conduct of his own life and who was honored in death by the British people with burial in Westminster Abbey.

In terms of his own view of God, Darwin was torn between an intuitive belief and a painful agnosticism. He once wrote:
I cannot be content to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.

I was particularly pleased by a recent column by Science writer, Chet Ramo, in the GLOBE, who sought to counter a recent remark by House Rep. Majority Whip, Tom DeLay, who tried to blame the school massacre in Littleton, Colorado, on the fact that we teach our children "that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud." Here’s Ramo’s answer:
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard fundamentalist evangelists suggest that the reason scientists embrace evolution is so they can dismiss God from the equation and thereby lead dissolute lives without fear of divine retribution. The thought is both stupid and insulting…. I’m willing to wager Mr. DeLay $1,000 that the research—if it’s out there—will show that on average atheists, agnostics, evolutionist Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are no less moral in their daily lives than Christians who take literally the seven days of Genesis…. What I’m suggesting here is that a basic altruistic morality is part of the human condition, irrespective of the Ten Commandments or any other religious code of behavior, perhaps because we have evolved that way during our long journey from the primordial soup…. I’m an evolutionist because I judge the evidence for the unity of life by common descent over billions of years to be overwhelming, not so that I can cheat on my wife or kick the cat with impunity. I live in no hope of heaven or fear of hell, but like most of my fellow Americans of all religious persuasions, I try to live a decent life.

Even the Pope, notes Ramo, admits that evolution is more than just a theory. What the Kansas decision will do, if it stands, "is deprive high school kids of all religious persuasions from learning about one of the grand unifying ideas of science." Ramo concludes, "The alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all."
I think columnist, Ellen Goodman, hits the nail on the head when she says, "the anxiety about the origin of human life is really anxiety about the meaning of human life." Creationists are afraid that by admitting even the partial truth of the theory of evolution they will lose the certainty of their belief in God and thereby lose their moral and spiritual bearings. It has nothing to do with one scientific theory versus another.

What are the basic tenets of Scientific Creationism? They are quite simple and easy to grasp. The earth is about 10,000 years old (as calculated by the Genesis account). The current scientific view estimates the age of the earth to be approximately 4.6 billion years. One of those views is definitely more wrong than the other. Creationists believe that planets, stars and all living things were literally created in six days by a Supreme Being. They assert that different species of plants and animals were created fully intact, completely separate from one another, and did not evolve from other species. Finally, they contend that a great flood (the Noah story) was the chief force that "shaped the face of the earth…drowning the creatures now found as fossils." Which means that no fossil can be more than a few thousand years old.

What does the Book of Genesis actually teach about the creation of the universe, and is it in fact incompatible with the theory of evolution? Genesis, Chapter 1, was compiled about the 6th century, B.C.E., by priestly authors (not Moses), relating the story of creation to the Hebrew practice of the Sabbath on the 7th day of the week. The authors would appear to have had a kind of primitive intuitive grasp of progressive stages in the creation of life. In the Genesis account, life begins in vegetation, then springs forth in the waters from fish to birds, then emerges on the earth from creeping things and cattle to human beings made in the image of God.

Genesis could be made compatible with an evolutionary view were it not literalized chapter and verse, especially the limiting phrase, "each according to its kind", which the creationists take to mean a species static creation that does not and cannot evolve into new forms and species. The writer of Genesis 1 would not have the slightest notion what we were talking about nor would he care. His main purpose was to affirm a divine source and origin of the creation that was compatible with Hebrew religious thought and practices. "A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone." 7 days, 7 stages, 7 eons, what did he care as long as God was the source and the Sabbath was justified. Genesis 1 is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a blueprint of the what, the how and the when of the physical/material creation. It is not a scientific textbook. It is a religious proclamation about the divine source and purpose of everything that is. It is religious poetry, not scientific fact.

At the end of the play, Inherit The Wind, the defense lawyer, Henry Drummond, holds the Bible in one hand, and Darwin’s Origin Of Species in the other, balances the two, like so, and then brings them together, one on the other, and puts them in his brief case. There is a message in that symbolic action. It is possible to blend the religious and scientific views of creation into a theology and metaphysics that is both harmonious and compatible. There is a whole school of theology, called process theology, that tries to do just that. Margaret Isherwood, a British philosopher, gives us an inkling of an evolutionary theology:
The God who was said to have crated the world at one stroke, in one week, from outside, now yields place to a ‘God’ or ‘Soul of the Universe’ who creates not just a minor planet but a cosmos, not in a week but continuously and throughout all ages, not from outside but from within, and who creates creatures who can themselves become creators, cooperative with him.

In the early part of this century Unitarians used to naively affirm belief in "Salvation by Character and the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever." That was before two World Wars and countless genocidal acts of human beings against one another demonstrated that scientific and technological progress did not necessarily go hand in hand with moral and spiritual progress. Evolution was a fact, but progress was not inevitable without a great deal of human effort, planning, and foresight. Today both humanists and theists like Julian Huxley and the late Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, declare than in humanity "evolution has become conscious of itself," it no longer need remain the plaything of blind chance and fortuitous events. Huxley, with his late grandfather, admires, "nature’s great progression from the formless to the formed—from inorganic to the organic—from blind force to conscious intellect and will." While Teilhard sees the immanent purpose of evolution as an increasing "ascent towards consciousness" that in the human being is reaching inwards and upwards towards a higher spiritual dimension of reality—God, Spirit, Omega—the mystical union of the divine in the human, and the human in the divine. It may be in the ages yet to come that the purpose of human life will be to bring self-conscious sentient life to other worlds and other solar systems beyond our own, "to the end", as we say in one of our affirmations, "that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine."

This is not to say that evolution can prove theological faith statements, or that faith statements can prove that evolution has an inherent metaphysical purpose. Rather it is to say that they are not necessarily incompatible. It is possible to put Darwin and the Bible together in the same briefcase and make a case for an evolutionary theology. Why not teach both evolution and contemporary religious philosophy in our public schools and let our children know that science and religion each have their own legitimate sphere of concern and influence.

I close with these words of advice from an unknown philosopher: "Don’t knock yourself out over Adam and Eve and smooth or hairy monkeys. Enter into your own evolution if you think you’re man or woman enough." There is no greater job or challenge than to help ourselves evolve intellectually, morally and spiritually.