Creationism: The Judge Decided the Case, Not the Debate
On Jan. 5, Judge William R. Overton of the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas overturned the state's law requiring "balanced'' classroom treatment for the theories of evolution and "creation-science," on the grounds that the latter was "simply and purely an effort to introduce the biblical version of creation into the public-school curricula." Mr. Luxenberg covered the trial. (The full 38-page text of the judge's decision and related stories appear in this issue, beginning on page 12.)
Little Rock--Imagine, for a moment, an elementary-school classroom in the state of Arkansas, where the state legislature passed a law last year requiring public-school teach-ers to give "balanced treatment" to creationism and evolution when discussing the origins of life.
This particular classroom is in Little Rock, the state's largest city. Inside that classroom, a teacher is using a piece of string to create a real-life model of how scientists believe the earth has developed over 4.5 billion years.
The teacher has stretched the string from one end of the classroom to the other, and has placed students at regular intervals along the way, each student representing a different event in the earth's geologic and biologic history.
At the beginning of the string, the teacher says, we see the formation of the earth; as we move along, there is the appearance of the first living cell; then, the formation of rock; followed by the appearance of highly complex plants and animals and the disappearance of some species, such as the dinosaur.
And at the rear of the classroom, one step from the wall, at the farthest extreme of this three-dimensional time line, stands a youngster who represents the appearance of the human race.
It is an effective exercise, but one that directly conflicts with the creationist model, which holds that the universe was created suddenly, "out of nothing," and that this creation took place between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.
As supervisor of the science curriculum for the Little Rock school district, Dennis R. Glasgow is well aware of that conflict.
Last month, while testifying during the federal court trial on the constitutionality of Arkansas's cretion-science law, Mr. Glasgow used the string exercise to support his contention that "balanced treatment'' would make a mockery of the educational system.
A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu), which challenged the law, asked him:
"And after using the string to show evolution, what would you do to provide balanced treatment?"
Mr. Glasgow replied: "You'd have to get another string, this one a fraction of an inch long."
For the present, Mr. Glasgow does not have to worry about implementing "balanced treatment" or about developing a creation-science curriculum. Last week, U.S. District Judge William R. Overton struck down the law, saying that it brought religion into the classroom and was, therefore, unconstitutional.
But the creationism-evolution debate is not over.
Judge Overton's decision will be appealed; Louisiana's creation-science law (enacted in May and immediately challenged by the aclu) will face a court trial within a few months; other state legislatures will consider the issue during sessions that begin this week.
All this activity has left some educators and scientists asking: How did this debate--thought by some to be a dead issue--begin again? How did the Arkansas law get passed? How influential are the supporters of creationism?
The answers to these questions have their roots in the late 1800's when evangelical and fundamentalist movements arose out of the social upheaval that occurred in the United States during that period.
George Marsden, a historian of fundamentalism and a fundamentalist himself, testified during the Arkansas trial that the growth of Darwin's evolutionary theory gave strength to the movement because it was seen as "an insipid attack" on the Bible.
Essentially, he said, fundamentalists believe that the Bible is true, that it is the "inspired" word of God, and that the book of Genesis is an accurate account of the creation of the universe.
In the early 1900's, a split occurred between "literal" fundamentalists and those who had adopted a "literal-when-possible" approach. Both factions agreed, however, about the evils of evolution.
The fundamentalist attack gained strength during World War I, said Mr. Marsden, when Germany was portrayed in American propaganda as a civilized country that turned to barbarism because of beliefs in radical social ideas such as those held by by the philosopher-poet Friedrich Nietzsche.
In the 1920's the fundamentalists took their campaign to the classroom and the legislatures. A number of states passed laws that prohibited teaching evolution (including Tennessee, where science teacher John Scopes became the focus of that era's test case).
Arkansas also passed an anti-evolution law, and it remained in effect until 1968 when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
Arkansas's law was, in fact, the last such state act on the books. Other courts had already struck down similar laws in other states, and as they did so, the creationists began to shy away from the political arena and instead set up their own institutes to conduct research on the issue.
They developed textbooks that espoused the creationist point of view. Most recently, they have published "public-school editions" that are designed, according to one creationist publisher, to "equip teachers with all the information needed to give a fair treatment or the creationist alternative...in order to help balance the evolutionist bias found in most textbooks in the natural and social sciences."
Last year, when the creationists renewed their campaign in the nation's legislatures and before local school boards, this concept of "fairness" became a crucial part of their argument.
A bill, which was drafted in South Carolina by a group calling itself the Committee for Fairness in Education, was sent to people in 42 states. The legislation was written with the help of lawyers from the creation institutes.
In Arkansas, the bill was introduced by a "born again" state senator who was able to get a public commitment from the state's newly elected Republican governor (also a fundamentalist) that he would sign the legislation if it passed the legislature by a wide margin.
The Arkansas legislature adopted the bill without amendment, after a 15-minute hearing in a House committee and no hearing in the Senate.
And although the bill cites seven "legislative findings of fact" about what is taught in the Arkansas public schools, the bill's sponsor said he did not talk to state education officials to determine if those findings--as stated by the drafters from South Carolina--were accurate.
The aclu--representing a group of 23 church leaders, parents, and educational associations--contended at the trial that the push for the Arkansas law came directly out of the fundamentalist movement.
The Arkansas attorney general, who defended the law and rejected any help from the creationist movement, said the motivation that led to the law's enactment was irrelevant because the law itself specifically prohibited religious instruction.
Steve Clark, the attorney general, tried to limit the case to educational issues. The law, he argued, was "a valid exercise of the state's power to prescribe curriculum. In its exercise of this power, the state has actually furthered the cause of academic freedom..."
But in his decision last week, Judge Overton made clear that he strongly supported the aclu's contention.
"It [the law] was simply and purely an effort to introduce the biblical version of creation into the public-school curricula," the judge said.
Where the law defines creation-science as including separate ancestry for man and apes, the law makes "a bald assertion," the judge said. "It explains nothing and refers to no scientific fact or theory."
The wording of the law is crucial to understanding the fundamentalist view. The legislation did not require that creationism be taught. It required only that "creation-science be presented whenever evolution-science is discussed, and vice versa."
The law defines creation-science as "the sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing...Explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism including the occurrence of a world-wide flood....Separate ancestry for man and apes."
And although the law referred to creation, it made no reference to a creator. During the trial, Judge Overton asked Mr. Glasgow, "How are you going to explain to students a sudden creation without a creator? Do you have a way?"
Mr. Glasgow replied, "I don't know of any way, Your Honor."
In his ruling, Judge Overton stated that he did not know of any way, either.
"The argument that creation from nothing does not involve a supernatural deity has no evidentiary or rational support," he ruled. "Indeed, creation of the world 'out of nothing' is the ultimate religious statement because God is the only actor."
The Arkansas law extended to textbooks as well, saying that they must reflect "balanced treatment" so that both models could be taught in any class that discussed the origins of life--including biology, anthropology, sociology, world history, philosophy, and social studies.
It was this far-reaching language that concerned Arkansas educators, who said they could find no classroom materials that did not contain religious references while discussing the creationist model.
Ronald W. Coward, a biology teacher, testified that he would have trouble teaching his psychology students about behavioral tests on animals because he would have to explain that such tests are meaningless under the creation model, which holds that animals have a separate ancestry from humans.
William Wood, a history teacher, said he would have trouble discussing prehistoric man and prehistoric culture because he would have to point out that the creation model says that man did not evolve from a less-developed creature.
But creationists describe the teachers' fears as groundless. They contend that educators and scientists form a closed community, unwilling to accept new ideas, and are believers in their own brand of religion--"secular humanism."
The creationists believe there is substantial public support for their cause. But it is difficult to gauge the depth of that support. On the simplest level, it does not exist--that is, neither a majority of Arkansans nor a majority of Americans support a fundamentalist view of creationism.
But interviews with Arkansans from all sections of that diverse state also show that the creationist issue seems to trigger the American sense of fair play. Over and over their response is the same: "It seems only fair to present both sides."
These people do not talk about the nature of scientific inquiry; they do not think of science as a discipline, a way of looking at the world that does not take sides and is neither religious nor irreligious.
That is a problem that Niles Eldredge, a scientist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, discussed recently in The New Republic.
He wrote that creationism has flourished because of a "prior failure to educate our children about science--how it is done, by whom, and how its results are to be implemented."
A different view was expressed by Terry Eddings, an evangelist preacher in the Arkansas delta town of Biscoe. Speaking of the law's effect, he said, "It's more of a concern in Little Rock. I have a lot of teachers in my congregation, and they say they pretty much teach what they want, and I know they don't believe wholeheartedly in evolution."