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May 17, 2018

The Evolution-Creationism Controversy as a Test Case in Equal Time and Free Speech

A book chapter for the The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy (December 26, 2018), edited by David Boonin.

During the second week of March, 1837, barely a year and a half after circumnavigating the globe in the H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin met with the eminent ornithologist John Gould, who had been studying Darwin’s Galápagos bird specimens. With access to museum ornithological collections from areas of South America that Darwin had not visited, Gould corrected a number of taxonomic errors Darwin had made, such as labeling two finch species a “Wren” and “Icterus”, and pointed out to him that although the land birds in the Galápagos were endemic to the islands, they were notably South American in character.

According to the historian of science Frank J. Sulloway, who carefully reconstructed Darwin’s intellectual voyage to the discovery of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Darwin left the meeting with Gould convinced “beyond a doubt that transmutation must be responsible for the presence of similar but distinct species on the different islands of the Galápagos group. The supposedly immutable ‘species barrier’ had finally been broken, at least in Darwin’s own mind.”1 That July Darwin opened his first notebook on Transmutation of Species. By 1844 he was confident enough to write in a letter to his botanist friend and colleague Joseph Hooker: “I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c, & with the character of the American fossil mammifers &c &c, that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact which cd bear any way on what are species.” Five years at sea and nine years at home pouring through “heaps” of books led Darwin to admit: “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced, (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”2

Like confessing a murder. How could a solution to a technical problem in biology, namely the immutability of species, generate such angst in its discoverer? The answer is obvious: if new species are created naturally instead of supernaturally, there’s no place for a creator God. No wonder Darwin waited twenty years before publishing his theory, and he would have waited even longer had he not rushed into print for priority sake because the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had sent Darwin his own theory of evolution in 1858, the year before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.3 And no wonder it took some time for Darwin to convince others of the theory’s veracity. The geologist Charles Lyell, a close friend and colleague of Darwin who groomed him into the world of British science and whose geological works Darwin read on the Beagle, withheld his support for a full nine years, and even then pulled back from fully embracing naturalism, leaving room for providential design underlying the entire natural system. The astronomer John Herschel sniffed at natural selection, calling it the “law of higgledy-piggledy.” In a review in the popular Macmillan’s Magazine, the statesman and economist Henry Fawcett spoke of a great divide created by Darwin’s book: “No scientific work that has been published within this century has excited so much general curiosity as the treatise of Mr. Darwin. It has for a time divided the scientific world with two great contending sections. A Darwinite and an anti-Darwinite are now the badges of opposed scientific parties.”4

Darwinites and anti-Darwinites. After a century and a half there is now overwhelming consensus within the scientific community that evolution happened and that natural selection is the driving force behind it. Among scientists, there are only Darwinites. Publically, however, the picture is disturbingly divided, especially along political and religious lines, where the anti-Darwinites have captured a sizable portion of the populace. A 2005 Pew Research Center poll, for example, found 42 percent of Americans holding strict creationist views that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” The survey also found that 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution in public schools, while 38 percent said they think evolution should be completely replaced by creationism in biology classrooms. Most alarmingly, a sizable 41 percent believe that parents, rather than scientists (28 percent) or school boards (21 percent) should be responsible for teaching children about the origin and evolution of life.5 More recent polling data found similar percentages of belief in creationism and skepticism about evolution. In a 2014 Gallup poll 42 percent of Americans said that “God created humans in present form” while 31 percent said “Humans evolved, with God guiding.” There was a slight uptick to 19 percent of Americans who agreed that “Humans evolved, but God had no part in the process,” but that was at least a significant gain from the paltry 9 percent in 1982.

None of this polling data should matter. Truth in science is not determined vox populi. It shouldn’t matter how many people support one or another position. As Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory titled A Hundred Authors Against Einstein, “Why one hundred? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”6 A theory stands or falls on evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution. Arguably the most culturally jarring theory in the history of science, the Darwinian revolution changed both science and culture in at least five ways:

  1. The static creationist model of species as fixed types was replaced with a fluid evolutionary model of species as ever-changing entities.
  2. The theory of top-down intelligent design through a supernatural force was replaced with the theory of bottom-up natural design through natural forces.
  3. The anthropocentric view of humans as special creations above all others was replaced with the view of humans as just another animal species.
  4. The view of life and the cosmos as having design, direction, and purpose from above was replaced with the view of the world as the product of bottom-up design through necessitating laws of nature and contingent events of history.
  5. The view that human nature is infinitely malleable and primarily good, or born in original sin and inherently evil, was replaced with the view of a constraining human nature in which we are both good and evil.7

When he first heard Darwin’s theory, the man who would earn the moniker “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his fierce defense of evolution, Thomas Henry Huxley, called Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “the most potent instrument for the extension of the realm of knowledge which has come into man’s hands since Newton’s Principia.”8 A century later the Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr opined, “it would be difficult to refute the claim that the Darwinian revolution was the greatest of all intellectual revolutions in the history of mankind.”9 And in the memorable and oft-quoted observation by the evolutionary theorist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”10 If the theory of evolution is so proven and profound, why doesn’t everyone accept it as true?

Why People Do Not Accept Evolution

It is evident that there are a number of extra-scientific variables that factor into the beliefs people hold about scientific theories, and in this case additional polling data show who is more or less likely to accept evolution based on their religious and political attitudes. In the 2014 Gallup Poll mentioned above, 69 percent of Americans who attend religious services weekly embrace creationism over evolution, compared to only 23 percent of those who seldom or never attend religious services.11 A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that white evangelical Protestants are more likely to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time at 64 percent, compared to half of black Protestants and only 15 percent of white mainline Protestants.12 A 2017 Gallup Poll found that 57 percent of those with no religious preferences agreed with the statement “Humans evolved, God had no part in process” compared to only 6 percent of Protestants and 11 percent of Catholics, and only 1 percent of those who attend church weekly agreed with this statement, compared to 35 percent who rarely attend church.13

The underlying foundation behind this religious-based skepticism of evolution may be traced back to the early 20th century when anti-evolution legislation was sweeping southern states, most famously Tennessee. At the climax of the 1925 Scopes “monkey” Trial in Dayton, William Jennings Bryan, testifying on behalf of the prosecution against a young biology teacher name John T. Scopes, prepared a final statement summarizing what he understood to be what was really at stake in the trial. The judge determined that Bryan’s speech was irrelevant to the case—the same ruling he made against the defense when they called on evolutionary biologists as expert witnesses—so it was published posthumously (Bryan died two days after the trial ended) as Bryan’s Last Speech: The Most Powerful Argument Against Evolution Ever Made.14 The most telling summation of the anti-evolution position in Bryan’s view was as follows: “The real attack of evolution, it will be seen, is not upon orthodox Christianity or even upon Christianity, but upon religion—the most basic fact in man’s existence and the most practical thing in life. If taken seriously and made the basis of a philosophy of life, it would eliminate love and carry man back to a struggle of tooth and claw.” This is what troubles people about evolutionary theory and leads them to doubt its verisimilitude, not the technical details of the science. The syllogistic reasoning goes like this:

  1. The theory of evolution implies that there is no God.
  2. Without a belief in God there can be no morality or meaning.
  3. Without morality and meaning there is no basis for a civil society.
  4. Without a civil society we will be reduced to living like brute animals.

This sentiment was expressed by the Intelligent Design theory supporter Nancy Pearcey in a briefing before a House Judiciary Committee of the United States Congress, when she quoted from a popular song urging “you and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” She went on to claim that since the U.S. legal system is based on moral principles, the only way to generate ultimate moral grounding is for the law to have an “unjudged judge,” an “uncreated creator.”15 The neo-conservative social commentator Irving Kristol was even more bleak in a 1991 statement: “If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded—or even if it suspects—that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.”16

In an attempt to distance themselves from “scientific creationists,” Intelligent Design theorists have emphasized that they are only interested in doing science. According to the prominent ID proponent William Dembski, for example, “scientific creationism has prior religious commitments whereas intelligent design does not.”17 This is disingenuous. On February 6, 2000, Dembski told the National Religious Broadcasters at their annual conference in Anaheim, California: “Intelligent Design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God…. The job of apologetics is to clear the ground, to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to the knowledge of Christ. … And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.”18 In a feature article in the Christian magazine Touchstone, Dembski was even more succinct: “Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.”19

The sentiment was echoed by one of the fountainheads of the modern Intelligent Design movement, Phillip Johnson, at the same National Religious Broadcasters meeting at which Dembski spoke: “Christians in the twentieth century have been playing defense. They’ve been fighting a defensive war to defend what they have, to defend as much of it as they can. It never turns the tide. What we’re trying to do is something entirely different. We’re trying to go into enemy territory, their very center, and blow up the ammunition dump. What is their ammunition dump in this metaphor? It is their version of creation.”20 Johnson was even blunter in 1996: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science…. It’s about religion and philosophy.”21 In his book The Wedge of Truth, Johnson explained: “The Wedge of my title is an informal movement of like-minded thinkers in which I have taken a leading role. Our strategy is to drive the thin end of our Wedge into the cracks in the log of naturalism by bringing long-neglected questions to the surface and introducing them to public debate.” This is not just an attack on naturalism—it is a religious war against all of science. “It is time to set out more fully how the Wedge program fits into the specific Christian gospel (as distinguished from generic theism), and how and where questions of biblical authority enter the picture. As Christians develop a more thorough understanding of these questions, they will begin to see more clearly how ordinary people—specifically people who are not scientists or professional scholars—can more effectively engage the secular world on behalf of the gospel.”22 The new creationism may differ in the details from the old creationism, but their ultimate goals run parallel. The veneer of science in the guise of Intelligent Design theory is there to cover up the deeper religious agenda.

Equal Time and Free Speech

This volume relates to public policy. Engrained in the American public psyche is the sense of fair play for all ideas and free speech for everyone. What’s wrong with giving equal time to evolution and creationism and letting the people decide for themselves? This is, in fact, what has become known as the “equal time” argument proffered by proponents of “creation science” in the 1980s and “intelligent design” in the 1990s. It’s an argument that appeals to fair-minded people, but that cannot be put into practice in public schools, which is where the evolution-creation battles have been fought. The problem is that there are at least ten different positions one might take on the creation-evolution continuum, including:

Flat Earthers, who believe that the shape of the earth is flat and round like a coin, which some believers contend has a biblical basis.

Geocentrists, who believe that the earth is spherical but that the planets and sun revolve around it, also believed to be grounded in Genesis scriptures.

Young-Earth Creationists, who believe that the earth and all life on it was created within the last ten thousand years.

Old Earth Creationists, who believe that the earth is ancient and microevolution may alter organisms into different varieties of species, but that all life was created by God, and that species cannot evolve into new species.

Gap Creationists, who believe that there was a large temporal gap between Genesis I:1 and I:2, in which a pre-Adam creation was destroyed, after which God recreated the world in six days; the time gap between the two separate creations allows for an accommodation of an old Earth with the special creation.

Day-Age Creationists, who believe that each of the six days of creation represents a geological epoch, and that the Genesis sequence of creation roughly parallels the sequence of evolution.

Progressive Creationists, who accept most scientific findings about the age of the universe and that God created “kinds” of animals sequentially; the fossil record is an accurate representation of history because different animals and plants appeared at different times rather than having been created all at once.

Intelligent Design Creationists, who believe that the order, purpose, and design found in the world is proof of an intelligent designer.

Evolutionary Creationists, who believe that God used evolution to bring about life according to his foreordained plan from the beginning.

Theistic Evolutionists, who believe that God used evolution to bring about life, but intervenes at critical intervals during the history of life.23

If equal time were granted to all of these positions, along with the many other creation myths from diverse cultures around the world, when would students have time to learn science? Given limited time and resources, and the ever-expanding body of scientific knowledge that students in a 21st century society simply must learn for our nation to stay relevant economically, such ideas have no place in science classrooms where curricula are determined by the consensus science of the field, not polls on what the public believe. The place for introducing these ideas is in courses on history, cultural studies, comparative mythology, and world religions. In any case, as far as public policy is concerned, creationists have lost all major court cases of the past half-century—most notably Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education in 1982, Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987, and Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover in 2005—so legal precedent means that the chances of creationists or Intelligent Design proponents gaining access to public school science classrooms through legislation is nil.24 Consensus science cannot be legislated by fiat from the top down. In the 1920s when evolutionary theory was not widely accepted and politically connected religious groups were successful in passing anti-evolution legislation making it a crime to teach Darwin’s theory in public schools, the noted attorney and civil liberties defender Clarence Darrow made this case against the censorship of knowledge in the Scopes case:

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it in the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After awhile, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.25

In America, the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to express their opinions on anything they like, no matter how crazy, conniving, evil, or extreme. You are free to doubt the single-bullet theory in the JFK assassination, the real cause of the death of Princess Diana, the Apollo moon landing, the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the authenticity of the Quran, the prophetic nature of Moses or Muhammad, al Qaeda’s role in 9/11, and even the President’s birthplace. No matter how much one may dislike someone else’s opinion—even if it is something as disturbing or potentially disruptive as denying that the Holocaust happened or that some people may not be as successful because of innate racial or gender differences—that opinion is protected by the First Amendment. Not everyone thinks such freedom is good for a safe civil society. In particular, and paradoxically given the fact that the free speech movement began at U.C. Berkeley in the 1960s, the past several years have seen campuses around the country erupt in flames over these charged issues, issuing lists of micro-aggressions that might offend people, trigger warnings about books that might upset readers, safe spaces to go to for protection from dangerous ideas, and the dis-invitation of speakers who might espouse ideas different from the majority of people in the audience.26 Shouldn’t we protect people from speech that might be hateful and thus harmful? No. Here are eight reasons why.

  1. Who decides which speech is acceptable and which is unacceptable? You? Me? The majority? The control of speech is how dictatorships and autocracies rule. We must resist the urge to control what other people say and think.
  2. What criteria are used to censor certain speech? Ideas that I disagree with? Thoughts that differ from your thoughts? Anything that the majority determines is unacceptable? That’s another form of tyranny, a tyranny of the majority.
  3. We might be completely right but still learn something new.
  4. We might be partially right and partially wrong, and by listening to other viewpoints we might stand corrected and refine and improve our beliefs.
  5. We might be completely wrong, so hearing criticism or counterpoint gives us the opportunity to change our minds and improve our thinking. No one is infallible. The only way to find out if you’ve gone off the rails is to get feedback on your beliefs, opinions, and even your facts.
  6. Whether right or wrong, by listening to the opinions of others we have the opportunity to develop stronger arguments and build better facts for our positions.
  7. My freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to your freedom to speak and dissent. If I censor you, why shouldn’t you censor me? If you silence me, why shouldn’t I silence you? Once customs and laws are in place to silence someone on one topic, what’s to stop people from silencing anyone on any topic that deviates from the accepted canon?

There are exceptions to the purely civil libertarian case for free speech, of course, most famously Justice Potter Stewart’s concerns about false fire warnings and crowded theaters, which was wrongly applied to the ill-conceived idea that “hate speech” might incite people to violence, applied as it was to a group of Yiddish-speaking pacifists who objected to America’s involvement in the First World War. And, of course, you are not free to spread lies about someone that damages their reputation, safety, or income. But never in history have a people been so free to speak their mind, and from that freedom emerges the truth, for the only way to know if your idea is wrong is to allow others to critique it.

Science and Society

That principle—the freedom to participate in the dialogue that the philosopher Karl Popper called “conjecture and refutation”—is at the heart of the scientific method.27 The reason we need critical feedback from others is that our brains come equipped with a set of cognitive heuristics—rules of thumb, or shortcuts—that help us navigate through the buzzing blurring confusion of information coming in through our senses. These heuristics are also known as cognitive biases because they often distort our percepts to fit preconceived concepts. These cognitive biases are part of a larger process called “motivated reasoning,” in which no matter what belief system is in place—religious, political, economic, or social—they shape how we interpret information that comes through our senses and motivate us to reason our way to finding the world to be precisely the way we wish it were. As I argue in The Believing Brain, our beliefs are formed for a variety of subjective, emotional, psychological, and social reasons, and then are reinforced through these belief confirmation heuristics and justified and explained with rational reasons.28 The confirmation bias, the hindsight bias, the self-justification bias, the status quo bias, the sunk-cost bias, the availability bias, the representative bias, the believability bias, the authority bias, and the consistency bias are just a few of the many ways we distort the world.

It is not so much that scientists are trained to avoid these cognitive biases as it is that science itself is designed to force you to ferret out your errors and prejudices because if you don’t someone else will, often with great glee in a public forum, from peer-review commentary to social media (where all pretensions to civil discourse are stripped away). Science is a competitive enterprise that is not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart. Most ideas that people come up with are wrong. That is why science is so cautious about tossing aside old ideas that have already survived the competitive marketplace, and why scientists tend to dismiss out of hand new ideas that threaten a tried-and-true research paradigm, especially before the revolutionary theory has been properly vetted by professionals in the field. That process of generating new ideas and introducing them to your peers and the public where they can be skeptically scrutinized in the bright light of other minds is the only way to find out if you’ve come up with something true and important or if you’ve been immersed in self-deception. Evolutionary scientists have gone through this rigorous process for over a century and a half and the theory has emerged all the stronger for it. Creationists, by contrasts, have actively avoided this scientific scrutiny and as a result have been marginalized to the point of irrelevance.

Such is the fate of most ideas—many are called, few are chosen. Science works because it is premised on debate and disputation, conjecture and refutation, and especially free and open inquiry, which together override our many cognitive biases that blind us individually to our errors, but collectively allow us to progress to an ever deeper and broader understanding of nature. As the physicist and former scientific director of the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bombs, J. Robert Oppenheimer, reflected on the limits of science: “There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.” Reflecting on the history of science and extrapolating to wider spheres, Oppenheimer added: “Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.”29


  1. Frank Sulloway, “The Legend of Darwin’s Finches,” Nature, 303 (1983): 372.
  2. Letter to Joseph Hooker dated January 14, 1844, quoted in Janet Browne, Voyaging: Charles Darwin. A Biography. (New York: Knopf. 1995), 452.
  3. For a detailed account of the “priority dispute” between Darwin and Wallace, see: Michael Shermer, In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  4. All quotes on the reaction to Darwin’s theory in: Kenneth Korey, The Essential Darwin: Selections and Commentary. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984).
  5. Pew Research Center. “Religion a Strength and Weakness for Both Parties. Public Divided on Origins of Life.” (2005):
  6. Hans Israel, Erich Huckhaber, Rudolf Weinmann (Eds.) Hundert Autoren gegen Einstein. (Leipzig: Voigtländer, 1931).
  7. Adopted and paraphrased from: Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 501.
  8. Thomas H. Huxley, “The Origin of Species” (review). West. Rev. (1860): 17: 541–570.
  9. Ernst Mayr, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1988), 161.
  10. Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology M 10 akes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” American Biology Teacher, 35 (1973): 125–129.
  11. Pew, 2005.
  12. Pew Research Center. “Public’s Views on Human Evolution.” (2013):
  13. Gallup Poll. “In U.S., Belief in Creationist View of Humans at New Low.” (2017):
  14. William Jennings Bryan, Bryan’s Last Speech: The Most Powerful Argument Against Evolution Ever Made. (Sunlight Publishing Society, 1925).
  15. The three-hour briefing was held on May 10, 2000. Quoted in D. Wald, “Intelligent Design Meets Congressional Designers.” Skeptic. Vol. 8, No. 2 (2000), 16–17.
  16. Quoted in Ron Bailey, “Origin of the Specious.” Reason. July (1997).
  17. William Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 41.
  18. Quoted in: Steve Benen. “Science Test.” Church & State, July/August, (2000):
  19. William Dembski. “Signs of Intelligence: A Primer on the discernment of Intelligent Design.” (Touchstone, 1999), 84.
  20. Benen, 2000.
  21. Quoted in Jay Grelen, “Witnesses for the Prosecution.” World, November 30, (1996):
  22. Phillip Johnson, The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
  23. These and other variations on creationism are discussed on the web site of the National Center for Science Education:
  24. Molleen Matsumura and Louise Mead. “Ten Major Court Cases about Evolution and Creationism.” (National Center for Science Education):
  25. Quoted in: The World’s Most Famous Court Trial. Tennessee Evolution Case: A Complete Stenographic Report of the Famous Court Test of the Tennessee Anti-Evolution Act, at Dayton, July 10–21, 1925, Including Speeches and Arguments of Attorneys. (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. Google eBook), 87:
  26. Greg Lukianoff, Freedom From Speech. (New York: Encounter Books, 2014).
  27. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The 27 Growth of Scientific Knowledge. (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
  28. Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain. (New York: Henry Holt, 2011).
  29. J. Robert Oppenheimer, in “J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Lincoln Barnett (Life, Vol. 7, No. 9, 58): 1949.
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