Teaching controversy -the creation vs. evolution debate

David Tyler
David Tyler David Tyler is Professor Emeritus at Manchester Metropolitan University.
01 January, 2003 6 min read

In Britain we are used to living in a post-Christian culture. So it continues to surprise us how many US citizens believe in creation and the God of the Bible. We also tend to underestimate the importance of their strong tradition of Christian involvement in eductaion – where Christianity actually influences the curriculum. Recent events in the US have brought both these issues to the fore.

In July 2002, the editor of Scientific American chose to run a lengthy feature by himself with the title ’15 answers to creationist nonsense’. The piece had a very aggressive style and was effectively a ‘gloves off’ confrontation.

A full response would require an extended essay and that is not my aim here. A web search for ‘creationist nonsense’ should reveal several replies (of varying quality) from creationists to the Scientific American feature.

The more interesting question for me is: ‘Why did the editor see fit to publish this rebuttal of alleged “creationist” errors?’

Intelligent design

The situation in USA has moved on significantly from the days when court battles took place over ‘equal time’ in schools for creationist accounts of origins. A key phrase now is ‘intelligent design’.

The issue is whether living things are intelligently designed (creation) or whether they have the appearance of design but are the product of natural processes governed by law and chance (evolution).

In archaeology and forensic science, it is perfectly legitimate (and necessary) to ask whether the object being studied is natural, or whether there are evidences of intelligent design or human activity. ‘Is this a cutting blade, fashioned by someone with skill – or a fragment of stone that happens to look like a cutting blade?’

Can the same principles be applied to the discipline of biology? Christians have always believed that the living world is a testimony to the wisdom and power of God. Our own bodies are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ and the contemplation of God’s craftsmanship is an occasion for worship.

However, when we go into the classroom, we seem unable to think like this. Can we not explain rationally why we think we are designed?


Conflicts with evolution arise immediately. The theory of evolution claims to be a 100% adequate natural explanation of all aspects of living things. Intelligent design denies this. It says that to explain the origins of designed objects we must necessarily refer to the activity of the Designer.

This conflict cannot be consigned to the ‘religious studies’ compartment of education. It arises within the discipline of science, and that is where it must properly be addressed.

The most interesting developments to date in the USA are the most recent. In October 2002, the Ohio State Board of Education adopted a statement of intent to enact new science standards that are ideally suited to handle these different perspectives on origins.

Furthermore, this situation has come about by design, not by chance! Advocates of intelligent design have been active in influencing the new Ohio State education guidelines.

Defining science

The most influential change relates to the definition of science. There has been a very significant change within the scientific community since I was an undergraduate student of physics.

Generally, opinion-formers in science now use a definition of science that insists that all phenomena, past and present, must be explained in terms of natural causes. This view is endorsed by the editor of Scientific American at the end of his article.

According to Mr Rennie: ‘Creation science is a contradiction in terms’ and ‘a central tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism’. Rennie’s approach has the effect of sidelining intelligent design before there is any engagement with design issues!

The definition of scientific knowledge that was proposed to the Ohio State Board by a science-writing team incorporated the very strong statement that students must:

‘Recognise that scientific knowledge is limited to natural explanations for natural phenomena based on evidence from our senses or technological extensions’.

If science is deemed to include origins, then this definition reveals a commitment to materialist philosophy. It rules out intelligent design as having no role to play in science.

Historic approach

By a vote of 17-0 the Ohio Board rejected this notion of science by replacing it with a traditional definition, previously used by the Ohio Academy of Sciences. This definition reads: ‘Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, based on observation, hypothesis-testing, measurement, experimentation, and theory-building, which leads to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena’.

Note that science is a systematic process of studying natural phenomena – it does not restrict researchers by insisting that all phenomena originated by natural causes.

This ‘new’ definition is actually a return to the historic approach to science developed by the pioneers in the 16th and 17th centuries (most of whom were Christians, who felt no tension between their science and their belief in a Creator God).

Teach controversy

The second major contribution from the Ohio Department of Education relates to the way the controversy about origins should be handled. They advocate a ‘teach-the-controversy’ approach.

They want students to be exposed to the issues and to weigh the evidences. This sounds so simple and so obvious. However, most people will fail to realise how revolutionary it is!

For years, evolutionists have opposed such a strategy. For them, there is no ‘controversy’ to teach! There is only ‘creationist nonsense’, which has no place in science.

They regard the Theory of Evolution to be as well proven as Newton’s Laws – or as certain as the Earth is round. ‘Teaching the controversy’ is, to them, a perpetuation of crazy, unscientific ideas.

The Ohio Board has broken through this polarised and twisted polemic and stated soberly that there are legitimate issues here for scientists to explore. It is also legitimate for students to be exposed to evidences for and against different explanations.

Unknown forces

This brings us back to the Scientific American article and its uncompromising dismissal of all creationist ideas as nonsense.

The editor’s style of writing and his denial that there are any real issues to address is best understood by reference to the broader issues of how science and origins should be taught.

Significantly, the article espouses a materialist position when it comes to origins: ‘science welcomes the possibility of evolution resulting from forces beyond natural selection. Yet those forces must be natural; they cannot be attributed to the actions of mysterious creative intelligences whose existence, in scientific terms, is unproved’.

In other words, unknown (and thus scientifically unproved) forces can be used to explain origins, but only if they are ‘natural’.

Non-natural forces, such as input from an intelligent designer, are ruled out of consideration completely.

By contrast, advocates of intelligent design argue that we cannot presume that the origin of living things (and everything else) is explained by the operation of natural causes, but that science does have a role in discerning whether an intelligent agent has been at work.

Bold stand

Materialistic scientists have a vested interest in denying that any valid grounds exist for questioning evolutionary theory.

Just before the Ohio Board made its preliminary decision, two universities published the results of a poll involving 500 scientists. Some were said to come from fundamentalist Christian colleges.

Apparently, 93% said they were not aware of any evidence that challenged the principles of evolution. In other words, any talk of ‘teaching the controversy’ is unworthy of scientists. In their view there is no controversy.

So, the Ohio Department of Education may have to suffer the wrath of many influential people. The scientific establishment, wedded to materialism, dare not allow the revised definition of science to gain acceptance. It cannot acknowledge that there is a controversy worthy of the attention of educationalists and scientists.

On the other hand, some of us are profoundly grateful for the bold stand taken by the Board. They have adopted a defensible position about the handling of controversial issues in science and have not prescribed any outcome.

That is all anyone should seek – the right to present and evaluate evidence on the part of both educators and educated.

Theistic evolution no answer

The remaining question we have to consider is this: Can we not solve all these problems by believing that God created by using the process of evolution? The answer is ‘no’.

This approach makes it very difficult for Christians to say anything at all about design in living things. It divorces Bible teaching from reality and thus does the materialist’s work for him.

Theistic evolutionists allocate ‘design’ to the area of faith, which they regard as ‘complementary’ to science. Consequently, from their standpoint, the Bible can have no input to many important science-related questions.

Furthermore, these Christians have consistently underestimated the materialist threat to science itself. They think science is neutral territory, which is a big mistake. In fact, materialism is thriving in the scientific world, and we do science no service to accept the status quo.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Ohio State Board of Education. We must pray that their willingness to grasp the nettle will be productive and that they will stand firm on these changes when final decisions are made.

Discussion of the issues identified in their guidelines is long overdue – both within and outside the Christian community.

David Tyler
David Tyler is Professor Emeritus at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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