Chapter I

1.6 A Brief History of Creationism

The lead up to the 1920s antievolution crusade.

The fireworks of religion and politics aside, the primary reason why creationism gave up its ground in the scientific battle over the evolutionary origin of life is that it never rose to the challenge of presenting a genuinely competing theoretical structure, vying for scientific or even theological legitimacy on the merits of its explanatory power. However certain early Darwin doubters may have been, they never took the fateful step of actually doing substantive fieldwork or experimentation to back up their convictions. From the start, creationism has an entirely reactive tortucan enterprise, one devoted only to justifying their disbelief in whatever new evolutionary information working scientists kept uncovering.

The dearth of workable antievolutionary alternatives meant that over the next century after Origin of the Species what few Darwinian skeptics there were among active scientists suffered the “death of a thousand cuts” as their views were rendered increasingly irrelevant and obsolete, buried under a pile of discovery that persistently strengthened the evolutionary argument.

As we’ll see in the chapters to come, paleontology played its part, starting with the likes of Archaeopteryx, that oh-so-early bird from the Jurassic that still retained its reptilian teeth and tail. As seen in Downard (2003b) and Chapter 2 of Downard (2004), to this day antievolutionists can’t wrap their philosophy around what it means for one (then several, and now quite a flock) of not quite birds to have existed before the first conventionally modern birds show up.

Then there were those fossil “cave men” that kept turning up, tracked in Chapter 5 of Downard (2004), starting with Neanderthal in the 1850s, though in the rush of digging a few later ones would turn out to be hoaxes or misidentifications (like “Piltdown Man” and “Nebraska Man”), which creationists trot out to this day as a lever to topple over all the much larger body of legitimate fossils that served to trace the evolution of man from the primates: from the African Australopithecines to the busy genus of pre-sapiens Homo that spread across the globe before we appeared on the scene to become the big hominid on the block.

Considerably less known in the popular culture was the discovery of another branch of the ancient reptiles, this one leading off into the mammals—once again featuring exactly the sort of incrementally acquired mammalian features evolutionary theory expected. These include of course our trusty little Permian friends from my old dinosaur collection (Dimetrodon, Sphenacodon, and Moschops). Stars at last!

While paleontologists were inconsiderately digging up ever more examples of the intermediate forms of life that antievolutionists insisted never existed, other scientists were developing whole new disciplines to investigate things from the biological end. Mendelian genetics began to show how inheritable characteristics were preserved in little packets (we would call them genes today), and so wouldn’t mush up into an averaged blend the way earlier non-evolutionists had expected. With this former obstacle to evolutionary inheritance swept away, the renascent neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis of the 1930s coalesced the work of Julian Huxley (1887-1975), Sewall Wright (1889-1988), Ronald Fisher (1890-1962), J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ernst Mayr. After the genetic code was discovered in the 1950s, evolutionary biology moved on into the genomic phase of comparing the complete DNA maps of varied organisms to clarify what is related more closely to what, as well as examining (often experimentally) the physical mechanisms that have helped bring about all this diversity.

The subsequent evolution of evolutionary thinking is concisely described in Futuyma (1982, 23-43), Whitfield (1993, 10-17) with Gamlin & Vines (1986) illustrating the many applied examples for a general readership, and John Wilkins (2001) following how the concept of “evolution” has been expanded and refined over the years (beyond Darwin’s natural and sexual selection to later ideas about genetic drift, canalization, and stabilizing versus directional selection). Sarkar (2004) summarized the Modern Synthesis as establishing “that natural selection sufficed as a mechanism for evolution,” while Moran (2009a) reminded there was more to the process than that. Burian (1988) reflected some of the unresolved technical issues (notably whether there are levels of selection operating above the individual organism, and whether there are overarching principles to be coaxed from the patterns of evolutionary history) that would spur current research into the Evo-Devo era of Pigliucci & Müller (2010b) and Daniel Brooks (2011a-c) sketching out a still more comprehensive “Extended Synthesis” to integrate lessons from developmental biology that began to be uncovered in the 1990s.

If all this had just been a matter of physical evidence, the issue would have been settled long ago. But along with the 20th century came all the anxiety and uncertainty sufficient to ignite the first modern effort to back pedal evolutionary science. Waves of immigration had dramatically changed the demographic character of America, and threatened to marginalize the formerly dominant Protestant culture in a rush of Catholics and Jews. Then a surge in public school attendance began to expose the children of many devout families to the realities of modern scientific thinking for the first time, a science that had absorbed the evolutionary view decades before, as covered by Larson (1985, 15-27; 1997, 23-24) and Eve & Harrold (1991, 21).

While the scientific evidence weighed ever more against creationism, the social fallout of evolutionary thinking was far less “scientific.” Then as now, political doctrines and social prejudices were not isolated from the process. Poorly understood ideas of “evolution” were pressed into service by a wide range of ideologies, from Herbert Spencer and John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) on the moneybag-coddling right, through middle class 19th century Social Gospel progressive reformism, to Karl Marx (1818-1883) and the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) on the anti-capitalist revolutionary left. Spencer’s Social Darwinism was extrapolated willy-nilly to justify everything from abysmal labor relations in the steel mills of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) to European colonial dominance over the supposedly inferior locals. Meanwhile, with Evolution and History (but no God) supposedly on their side, radical leftists lurched toward their own equally dangerous socialist utopias. See Cole (1983, 18-21) on Social Darwinism and its relationship to populist antievolutionism, Leonard (2012) on shifting role of evolution for Social Gospelers, and Gould (1991a, 325-339), Chernow (1998, 154), Ruse (2001, 170-185), Ryan (2002, 25-31, 35-36) and Milner (2009, 266, 293, 393-394, 396-397, 406) for varied perspectives on political ideologies that have tried to make hay of evolution.

Such misuses of evolution stem partly from “the fallacy of naturalism” (the belief that whatever exists is necessarily good or desirable), a secular faith traced by Futuyma (1982, 208-213) and Burke (1985, 268-273) back long before Darwin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) in the 18th century, and exemplified in the early 20th century by evolutionists like Julian Huxley, grandson of “Darwin’s Bulldog.” More currently, there is a strident cottage industry of creationist jeremiads decrying Communism and Nazism as the inevitable bitter fruits of accepting evolution, with only the latest installment being Ben Stein’s Expelled.

The proximate root of the serious creationist opposition to evolution was the 20th century. The disillusionment brought on by the exhausting apocalypse of the First World War was abruptly followed by such diverse threats as Bolshevism and a permissive Roaring Twenties morality that openly flaunted the Prohibition movement so many of the reformist creationists embraced. And if all that weren’t bad enough, the arts and physical sciences were in convulsion, from modernist art and music to quantum theory and Einstein’s relativity. The same progressive urges that had inspired many activist Christians to promote child labor laws and the income tax at the beginning of the new century, now saw in “modernity” much to save their children from.

Darwinism specifically became the focus for that conflict in 1921 when William Jennings Bryan unexpectedly launched an anti-evolution campaign. Bryan was deeply religious, conducting well attended Bible classes, such as the one pictured in Haught (2014, 2), but the impetus for the attack on evolution owed as much to politics as religion.

Having run unsuccessfully for president three times as a leading Democrat in the populist movement, Bryan had recently served as President Wilson’s secretary of state, only to resign in pacifist outrage over the administration’s increasingly bellicose response to Germany’s employment of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was during his later war relief work—spearheaded by Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) representing the trying to be scrupulously neutral United States—that Bryan came to share the belief that German militarism was not only the main cause of the war (oversimplifying the dangerous interlocking alliances and general national ambitions that had been on a collision course since 1890) but also the virulent outcome of an unyielding “survival of the fittest” evolutionary philosophy.

Darwinian biologist and peace advocate Vernon Kellogg (1867-1937) supplied direct evidence for this mindset via his wartime chats with the German military in Kellogg (1917), including his own experience with German academic scientists, Branch (2015b). As opposed to the “live-and-let-live” American democratic ethos as it was possible to get, the cheery overconfident German intellectuals and field officers massed in a united block of anti-individualist lemmings, comingling fervent Sunday chapel attendance with their own distillation of what Kellogg termed “the worst of Neo-Darwinism” assigning an Allmacht (“all powerful”) role for natural selection, devoid of mercy or compromise when applied to people. Oblivious to the idea that species could cooperate as well as compete in life’s struggle, the German militarists reduced everything to the zero sum game of conquest, transforming the trench war cataclysm into just nature’s noisy way of selecting the inevitable German winners when it came to ruling the world, Deutschland über alles.

And what if Germany should lose the war? Well then, they would have deserved to have been beaten, wouldn’t they—that’s what the Allmacht would mean if taken seriously. Except we know from the subsequent history that after the November 1918 armistice all too many Germans couldn’t accept that they had been bested. The superior Germans couldn’t really have lost, and so must have been cheated of their deserved victory, to the point where the traditional scapegoats of the Jews would be ratcheted up to horrific levels by that disgruntled war veteran Hitler.

With the benefit of that grim hindsight it was not an unreasonable fear that Bryan and others embraced—that, left unchecked, such a mentality would only bring on more conflict and labor exploitation, Larson (1985, 30-39; 1997, 33-39) and Gould (1991a, 416-430).

Further fueling the disquiet of postwar Biblical traditionalists was the fact that “higher criticism” of the Bible had begun among German scholars, thus allowing the conflation of pacifist xenophobia with fears about materialist assaults on the godly American way of life. Although the German element has understandably faded in importance in the decades since, conservative Christian analysts like R. L. Thomas & Farnell (1998) continue to relate the practice of Biblical criticism to a bevy of supposedly underlying evolutionary presumptions.

The popular perception of evolution as the willing tool of atheism understandably drew religious organizations into Bryan’s crusade, most notably the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association founded in 1919 by Minnesota Baptist minister William Bell Riley (1861-1947) that objected to “the new infidelity, modernism,” Hughes & Moore (2015), and sought to restore the doctrinal purity of an American Protestantism that in their view had got far too used to adapting their views to changing social conditions, such as accommodating the scientific proposition that humans had evolved along with everything else. This absolutist God-or-evolution split prompted Vernon Kellogg (1924) to take exception to where Bryan’s campaign was headed, but by then the antievolutionary train had left the station.

At the state level, the issue drew on the populist conviction that local communities had the right to decide what their students were taught, ensuring at the very least that their institutions never offered instruction that conflicted with their deeply held beliefs (especially so for Darwinian evolution, which was characterized as a minority position that ought not be forced onto the skeptical majority). In that spirit, fundamentalists in six state legislatures in the South tried to restrict the teaching of evolution in public schools (South Carolina in 1921, Kentucky and Texas in 1922, Florida and Oklahoma in 1923, North Carolina in 1924, and Tennessee in 1925). A Riley-sponsored effort up north in Minnesota failed post-Scopes in 1927, by which time Riley was fulminating about a “Jewish-Bolshevik-Darwinist conspiracy,” Hughes & Moore (2015).

William Jennings Bryan played a more direct role in the Florida efforts because he had taken up residence there (more on the irony of that later) and worked with likeminded legislators and academics to oppose evolution education along with promoting civil piety and alcohol prohibition, Haught (2014, 1-23). Bryan regarded the teaching of human evolution “from a beast” as “the greatest menace facing the church today,” and many fellow Christians agreed, from the Miami Christian Council to the Southern Baptist Convention (who held their 1922 meeting in Jacksonville). Bryan labored on the education committee of the Presbyterian Assembly to keep the topic alive, hoping for an actual law (several attempts to pass a bill with teeth failed in the following years) but in the end the most that could be mustered in the Florida legislature was a non-binding resolution that rejected the public teaching of “atheism, agnosticism, or to teach as true Darwinism, or any other hypothesis that links man in blood relation to any other form of life.”

The state’s educational establishment largely ignored the resolution, including the devout Prohibition friendly president of the University of Florida, Albert Murphree (1870-1927), who agreed with Bryan on many issues but couldn’t quite jump on the Great Commoner’s antievolution chariot. To avoid bumping into the state directive, a deal was worked out with their lead biologist C. Francis Byers (an entomologist for whom no biographical dates surface) to adopt the euphemism of “progressive development” instead of “evolution” and on Murphree’s urging agreed to not explicitly mention human progressive development. Teaching the Controversy, 1923 Florida style.

It was only in Tennessee in 1925 that biblical literalist and Bryan-admirer John Washington Butler (1875-1952) succeeded in getting a bill with penalties passed explicitly prohibiting the teaching of human evolution, Nardo (1997, 23-25). When the governor Austin Peay (1876-1927) signed it into law he didn’t really expect it to be enforced, but its very existence attracted the attention of the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union. Scouting around for potential venues to test the constitutionality of the nascent Butler Act, the ACLU found a willing crowd in the town boosters of Dayton, Tennessee, who expected a trial to gain national interest and bring in lots of tourist business. All they needed was a specific litigant, and that came in the person of local teacher John T. Scopes (1900-1970).