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The struggle between evolution and creation: an American problem

By Michael Ruse - posted Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Survey after survey confirms that most Americans accept some form of scientific creationism - the claim that the early chapters of Genesis are good scientific guides to the origins of our world. Today, one often hears talk of so called intelligent design theory - the claim that, on scientific grounds, much of life is irreducibly complex, inexplicable through blind law, and hence necessitates the invocation of a miraculous, intelligence-driven creation. However, for most people in the USA, this position is simply blocking for a biblical literalistic reading of origins where the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, where organisms were formed miraculously in six days (with humans last), and where some time later nearly everything was destroyed by a universal flood.

Of course, none of this is genuine science - the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and organisms evolved slowly through the process of natural selection - but I believe the big mistake is to think that the real motivation of American literalists is ultimately scientific. It is not. It is much more a concern with moral issues.

Literalists do not see the battle as simply one between rival accounts of life’s origins (evolution or miracles). They see the scientific debate as merely the froth on a much larger issue - the moral soul of humankind. All varieties of creationists feel that the real enemy is atheism, often in the guise of materialistic humanism, something that promotes abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, feminism and much more. It is something that pits itself against the family, and proper standards and honour and respect, and all of the other supposed Christian virtues.


In support of their case, the creationists complain that evolution - Darwinian evolution particularly - is not a value-neutral enterprise that simply reports on disinterested facts. It is part and parcel of the humanistic way of thinking and behaving. Hence, creationists argue that evolution is as much a religion as traditional Christianity, promoting its norms and way of thinking.

Evolutionists tend to dismiss this argument as merely another rhetorical debating trick, but history shows that the creationists might have a point. If you look at the history of evolutionary theorising - about 250 years from the middle of the 18th century to the present - you find that it has rarely been a matter of simple science.

Almost always it has been associated with materialism and a philosophy of progress, and to that end we should promote science and just about every social policy the creationists find offensive.

This was true before Charles Darwin expounded his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859. Until that time evolution was little more than a pseudoscience used as much by its practitioners to convey moral and social messages as to describe the physical world.

Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, for instance, wrote evolutionary poetry at the end of the 18th century, hymning the progress of life up from the monad to the man - or as he put it, from the monarch (the butterfly) to the monarch (the king) - which notion of progress he got from the successes of the industrial revolution around him, and which notion of biological progress he then used in a circular fashion to justify the cultural progress of the Britain of his day.

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense, An embryon point, or microscopic ens!


Charles Darwin was a serious, full-time scientist. However he was a lifelong invalid and the fate of evolution in the marketplace lay in the hands of his supporters. This at once makes pertinent the talents and aims of Darwin’s greatest supporter, Thomas Henry Huxley. In many respects Huxley played to Darwin the role that Saint Paul played to Jesus, not the least in having once denied evolution and only later having had a Damascus experience that made him a near fanatic for the cause. But just as Saint Paul rather moulded Jesus’ legacy to his own ends, so also Huxley moulded Darwin’s legacy to his own ends.

Britain, at the time that the Origin was published, was a country desperately in need of change and reform. The horrors of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny showed that. Huxley and others (like politician Benjamin Disraeli, nurse Florence Nightingale and botanist Joseph Hooker) worked hard to bring about change, reforming education, the civil service, the military and much else.

They changed the 18th century view of the country to looking forward to the 20th century. Huxley’s own work was in higher education, and he succeeded most successfully in the areas of physiology and morphology. If he was to improve and professionalise these, as areas of teaching and research, he saw that, as always in system-building, it is necessary to have clients. Huxley sold physiology to the medical profession, which was desperate to change from killing patients to curing them, and Huxley’s offer of a supply of students, ready for specialised medical training with a solid background of modern biology, was gratefully received.

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First published in the May 2008 edition of Issues.

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About the Author

Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University, Florida, USA.

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