Pitting religious faith against scientific research has for been common for many years. But a scholar who has focused on the anti-evolution movement dispelled some popular myths last week during a lecture at Wheaton (Ill.) College.
It’s easy to frame the evolution debate as a battle between faith and science.
But one historian says rivalries within the various factions are more intriguing. Disagreements between anti-evolutionists are underplayed while among scientists they’re exaggerated.
Ronald Numbers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison specializing in the history of science and medicine, delivered the fall McIntyre Lecture last week at Wheaton College. Addressing the topic of "Anti-Evolutionism in America: From Creation Science to Intelligent Design," Numbers dispelled some popular myths.
Wheaton College did well in selecting Numbers to address this subject. He wrote "The Creationists," which many have called the definitive historical account of the anti-evolution movement.
His research has been considered so valuable, in fact, that he was asked to provide expert testimony — by both the plaintiffs and defendants — in a 1982 Louisiana court case involving a creationist law. This case eventually led to the landmark 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard, which held that teaching creationism in public schools was unconstitutional.
"I selected Ron for this fall's lecture because his work on recent history of evolution and anti-evolutionism is very good work and something that I think the Christian community needs to learn more about," said Robert Bishop, a Wheaton College professor and chairman of the school's McIntyre Lectureship in the Philosophy and History of Science.
Numbers was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist and wrote a paper about the teachings of Ellen G. White, a key Seventh-day Adventist figure. This launched his interest in creationism.
White claimed to have had visions of the universe’s origins. Her literal interpretation of the six-day creation narrative became a Seventh-day Adventist doctrine.
But most other Christians, including those involved in the Scopes Monkey Trial, accepted the antiquity of nature, Numbers said. They were primarily concerned with preserving the thought that humans underwent special creation — something challenged by evolution.
George McCready Price expanded on White’s teachings and called it flood geology. This is the belief that the worldwide flood described in Genesis accounted for the unique arrangement of fossils found in the Earth’s geologic column.
But this view did not come to be shared by most other anti-evolutionists until the early 1960s, Numbers said. Henry Morris and John Whitcomb co-authored “The Genesis Flood,” and this became the dominant viewpoint among fundamentalist Christians.
By the early 1990s, intelligent design had emerged as another argument against evolution. But most proponents do not accept young-earth creationism, which has caused deep divisions with other anti-evolutionists, Numbers said. The illusion of a unified front among evolution’s opponents is compounded by the myth that evolution is contentious among scientists, he said.
"My impressions of Ron's lecture were that he was both engaging and good-natured while covering some history that many people — Christian or otherwise — simply don't know," Bishop said. "He also provided some useful and important clarification on differences between creationism and intelligent design. His presentation was historically accurate and challenging to folks who are used to thinking there is only one way to relate a biblical or theological view to the science of evolution: creationism or bust! So, I think his lecture helped add some historical perspective that there are more ways to think seriously about both the Bible and the science than many in the Christian community realize."
Jerry Moore is the opinions editor for Suburban Life Publications in Chicago. Contact him at (630) 368-8930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.