GEOL 204 Dinosaurs, Early Humans, Ancestors & Evolution:
The Fossil Record of Vanished Worlds of the Prehistoric Past

Spring Semester 2016

Denying the Fossil Record: Evolution Denial and U.S. Science Education


American Exceptionalism is Not Always A Good Thing!

The above data is from the 2005 study by John Miller et al. As you can note, America ranks very far behind all other industrialized Western nations included, and just ahead of Turkey. Taking these data and plotting them against a measure of national wealth, we see that the US really is an outlier compared to other rich nations:

So why this discontinuity? And why would people reject evolution anyway, particular in nations with an excellent fossil record and easy access to information by almost everyone.

NOTE: This lecture primarily examines American, Christian denial of evolution. But there are people who reject of evolutionary science from other nations and other religions, such as:

Supernaturalistic vs. Naturalistic Views of the Origins of Earth, Life, and Humanity
All cultures of the world have had some idea about where the world, its life, and humans came from. For many the traditional idea is that some supernatural force of great power (a god or multiple gods) brought them into being. But they disagreed on details: which god; in what order; by what process; etc.

For instance, Judaic chronologies traditionally held that Earth, Life, and Humanity were created over the course of the six day "Creation Week" described in Genesis, and that this was roughly six thousand years ago. Their neighboring cultures (Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks) thought that the Earth was created many 10s of thousands of years ago. Some (the Maya, for instance) had even longer time scales, and Hindu cosmologies suggesting an infinitely old, repeating Universe (with a present incarnation many many billions of years old.)

But many of these thought that the world was basically unchanged since the Dawn of Time, and did not consider any lineal connections of descent and ancestry among the species of the world.

Some philosophers suggested that it was non-divine processes to the worlds origin, and the possibility of transmutation. Among these were Anaximander of Miletus (610-546 BCE) and Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99-c. 55 BCE).

During the early centuries of the Church, Christianity lived side-by-side with older pagan traditions of scholarship and research, exemplified by institutions such as the Library of Alexandria. Sometimes the relationship with non-Christian philosophers and thinkers was amicable, but sometimes less so. Among the philosophers of the early Christian Church was St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), who argued that God formed the Earth and Life from pre-existing matter, and suggested that the six-day Creation Week was metaphorical or allegorical rather than historical. (However, he was adamant about a 6000-year old Earth rather than the longer Greek or Babylonian chronology.) He argued in the De Genesi ad literal (1:20) that Christians should be willing to change their minds about the natural world in light of new evidence:

With the collapse of the Roman world scholarship in the West was preserved and developed mostly by the Catholic Church, and there mostly by the professionally-trained priesthood. These were among the few who had access to both the Scriptures and other religious writing and to the scholarship of the Greco-Roman thinkers. With the Protestant Reformation, however, the Bible was translated into the vernacular tongues of Europe, and now ordinary people (or at least ordinary literate people) with no particular training in philosophy, history, or other academic disciplines had access to Scripture. For many this might be the only book they ever read.

As a consequence, the Protestant Reformation saw a spread of literalist rather than allegorical interpretation of the Bible. Some of these literalist ideas made their way to the very highest levels of Protestant hierarchies (for instance, Anglican Bishop James Ussher's 1650 chronology of the world, dating Creation to the nightfall before October 23, 4004 BC.) That said, there were many thinkers who considered other possibilities.

During the Age of Enlightenment (18th and early 19th Centuries) there were many arguments for and against naturalistic views of how the Universe operates and came to be. For example, David Hume observed order arising from mindless mechanistic processes (snowflakes from water, crystals from solution, and so forth), and considered that an ordered world might likewise come out of similar type processes. In contrast, others argued that the apparent Design of the Universe implied a Designer. This was most famously (although not firstly) argued as the "Watchmaker Argument" of William Paley in his 1802 Natural Theology.

"Natural theology" was that branch of theology that attempted to understand the nature of the Divine not through revealed wisdom and scripture, but from study of the natural world. It had a long tradition in the West (e.g., medieval bestiaries, where the aspects of different animals were interpreted as moral lessons for Mankind.) Many of the early geologists and paleontologists were natural theologians: Linnaeus and Buckland and Agassiz and Lyell and others.

But these naturalists also had to accept their discoveries of Earth vastly ancient beyond the chronologies of the Bible or the Classical World, with changing environmental conditions and inhabited by succession after succession of different life forms. Two major potential solutions were developed (or expanded from earlier concepts) to harmonize the observations of the natural world with Scripture:

Of course, much of this came to a head with Darwin and Wallace's discovery of Natural Selection. They had discovered a mechanism to produce design without any need for outside influence: simply variation, heredity, and superfecundity.

The following is a dramatic recreation of the result of the publication of The Origin in Victorian England, from the 1978 BBC costume drama The Voyages of Charles Darwin. (The first two characters to show up are Sir Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin; other characters whom we have encountered in this course are Thomas Huxley and Sir Richard Owen):

As this shows, the basic arguments were already set forth. However, one important thing to show: although Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley do represent the points of view of many of the religious and scientific thinkers (respectively) of that time, these camps were not entirely unified. Some religious thinkers were very much in support of Darwin and Wallace's new ideas, and some scientists rejected evolution (and more the specific model of Natural Selection) at that time.

This sets the stage for the 20th and 21st Century American situation, and the rise of organized evolution deniers.

The American Experience with Evolution Denialism
The word "fundamentalist" is thrown around by popular culture for a person exceedingly committed to religious ideas, but that is not really the true meaning of the word. It actually refers back to The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, a series of 90 essays in twelve volumes published from 1910 to 1915 by the evangelical Protestant Bible Institute of Los Angeles. A Fundamentalist is ultimately someone who holds the views expressed in these books. This was the foundational set of documents for a new literalist movement in North American religious thinking.

Among the peoples of this movement was Canadian George McCready Price, who published various books (such as The Fundamentals of Geology, arguing for Flood Geology (the idea that most geological strata and structures were laid down by Noah's Flood) and a Young (that is, 6000-year old) Earth. Price's book, and those like it, were used by the growing Fundamentalist movement to provide support for people who did not want the scientific understanding of an ancient Earth and evolving Life taught in schools.

In 1925 Tennessee passed the Butler Act, "AN ACT prohibiting the teachings of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof." Many other states followed suit, making the teaching of evolution illegal in the public schools. It was challenged later that year in the town of Dayton, where the ACLU financed a test case for this law (to which they objected). High school teacher John Thomas Scope was charged with teaching evolution, and the resultant Scopes monkey trial (technically State of Tennessess vs. John Thomas Scopes) made international news. It pitted two of the most famous lawyers of the early 20th Century (William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution, Clarence Darrow for the defense) against each other. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but it was overturned on a technicality (the jury, not the judge, should have set the fine!). The Butler Law remained on the books until 1967.

After embarrassment by the United States at the Soviet's early accomplishments in space travel (the Sputnik series; first manned space flight; etc.) in the 1950s, American educators sought to greatly increase the science component in its schools. But eventually the issue of Butler (and similar laws in other states) had to be dealt with. In many cases they were simply repealed. But in one situation, it went to the Supreme Court. This was the 1967 case Epperson vs. Arkansas, over a 1928 Butler-style law. Susan Epperson (high school biology teacher) filed suit over the constitutionality of this law. The Supreme Court found:


So prohibiting the teaching of evolution was out. In response, states began to propose "Equal Time" laws, which stated that schools had to teach Creationism (i.e., a purely supernatural view of the origin of Earth, Life & Humans) alongside scientific ones. This led to the case Daniel vs. Waters, where the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit argued Tennessee's "equal time" act, which had stated

but also

The Court ruled that creationism--as inherently religious--was not objectively part of a secular program of education.

In response, "Creationism" evolved into "Creation Science". The idea was that by putting "Science" in the name it could now be taught as science. However, there was no actual change in content or evidence, just a rebranding. Groups to promote Creation Science were organized: the Institute for Creation Research (1972); Center for Scientific Creation (1980); Reasons to Believe (an Old Earth Creation group) (1986); and Answers in Genesis (1994).

The new Creation Science organizations helped promote a new series of "balanced treatment" laws, just like the old "equal time" Creation acts. One of these eventually resulted in the 1981 US Supreme Court case Edwards vs. Aguillard. The law in question was Louisiana's 1981 "Balanced Treatment of Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act". The US Supreme Court found that

So Creation Science was out. It was rebranded again, and now called "Intelligent Design" or "ID" for short. This was an attempt to remove references to God and the Bible from materials promoting essentially the same arguments as before, in the hopes that in so doing it would not seem religious. However, despite what people in some intellectual circles think, it was just exactly the same idea as before. For example, the standard ID textbook Of Pandas and People states that "Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, wings, etc." In fact, study shows the systematic replacement of "Creation" with "intelligent design" and "creationist" with "design proponent" over the earlier editions of the same book that became retitled Of Pandas and People:

Indeed, during the Dover trial (see below) the speciation event was captured in mid-transformation: a case where the editors of a draft of Of Pandas and Peoples accidentally inserted "design proponents" in the middle of the word "creationist" rather than just replacing it!

Upper edition is the earlier draft, lower one has the "transitional form".

The predominant organization promoting ID is The Discovery Institute (founded in 1990), which promotes their "Wedge strategy" to "to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies" and "to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God".

The ID proponents organized new sets of campaigns for laws around the country in the 1990s, such as "Teach the Controversy" and "Critical Analysis of Evolution" (basically new incarnations of "equal time" or "balanced treatment"). ID brought in new thinkers promoting particular new approaches, such as Michael Behe's Irreducible Complexity and William Dembski's Specified Complexity. We will examine these particular arguments next lecture.

With the backing of the Discovery Institute, then-Pensylvannia Senator Rick Santorum proposed the Santorum Amendment to the "No Child Left Behind" law. This was a law to promote the teaching of ID as an alternative to evolution, and to label evolution as a "theory in crisis". The amendment was not included in the federal law, but was modified to support similar measures within his home state.

This led to the adoption by the school board of Dover, PA of a statement to be read in all classes where evolution was taught:

A number of families brought suit against the School Board, leading to the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case in the US District Court. (Trivia time: my then-current phylogeny of theropods was used as part of the evidence by paleontologist Kevin Padian in the trial!) If you have two hours to kill, you can watch an excellent documentary about the trial.

After testimony that included leading figures on both sides, Judge Jones ruled that ID "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents" and is not Science. Additionally, it was made very clear in the testimony that although some ID thinkers might keep open the possibility that the Intelligent Designer was not divine, the supporters of the statement in the community and the School Board itself did not consider there to be any distinction between Creationism and ID, and were in fact promoting Young Earth Creationism.

The Dover ruling ground ID in its track, and the movement as such has stalled. But that doesn't mean that evolution deniers have given up. Over the last decade they continue to support "teach the controversy" laws, "strengths and weaknesses" laws, and "academic freedom" laws (which are all updates on the old "balanced treatment" or "equal time" laws). For instance Oklahoma's Senate Bill 320 (the "Science Education and Academic Freedom Act" of 2009, which thankfully died in committee) stated:


Numerous similar laws have been proposed (and occasionally are still on the books) in Louisiana, Tennessee, Colorado, Montana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Indiana.

With all this trouble, many teachers simply want to avoid the problem and don't teach evolution in the schools. Indeed, more teachers themselves believe in some form of ID or theistic evolution than in our scientific understanding. As a result, very few states require teaching about human evolution in the schools.

And so, the legal fights go on.

But what do evolution deniers really believe? And why do they believe it?

Who Denies Evolution?
Despite what some might want to to think, there is no simple dichotomy between "godless materialist evolutionists" and "Biblical-thumping fundamentalist Young Earth Creationists". In fact, there is a spectrum of beliefs (although not all of them are broadly represented in society at equal numbers by any means!):

Looking just at the YECs, how wrong is their chronology? The actual age of the Earth at about 4.557 Gyr, but they claim a mere 6000 yrs. This is exactly proportional to claiming that the distance from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, CA (3690 km, or 2293 mi) is really only 4.86 m (16 feet)!! And in order to do this, one has to reject physics (nuclear decay, the speed of light, and so forth), astronomy, geology, chemistry: indeed, the whole corpus of modern Science.

Common Evolution Denier Arguments, and Why They Fail
Let's take a look at a bunch of arguments, concepts, and rhetorical devices used by evolution deniers, and see how they hold up.

The Omphalos Argument: formulated by Henry Phillip Gosse in 1857, the idea that the Earth was created to LOOK ancient, but is really only 6000 years old. (It's name is from the Greek for "navel": the idea that Adam and Eve were created with navels, even if they were never gestated inside a woman and hence would not have umbilical cords!) This idea requires a trickster God (who wants to make things look ancient, up to and including light from stars and other objects more than 6000 light years away being created in transit.), which doesn't jive well with most standard modern theologies. Furthermore, if God is capable of doing this kind of fakery, what is to say He didn't create the Universe only last Thursday, and all the books, movies, photographs, even your memories, of the past were simply willed into being to appear as it there were a past. Intellectually this is EXACTLY the same argument. (This variation of Omphalos is called, not too creatively, "Last Thursdayism".) As such, you can see why it is really way outside the realm of Science.

Intelligent Design:

Two primary new arguments were suggested by the leading thinkers of the ID movement. These are
Both of these are cases of the old Argument from Design of Paley and the like. These are really just cases of Argument from Ignorance ("We don't know, therefore Creation") (or more precisely, Argument from Personal Incredulity ("We personally don't know, even if other people do, therefore Creation").

Here are a few good videos that explore ID arguments in greater details:

"It Can't Just Be Random Chance!" or "It Couldn't Just Happen!": This includes several problems. One is that evolution isn't "just chance". While randomness is a factor in the generation of mutations (that is, mutations appear without any particular direction relative to the situation the organism is in), selection itself is a non-random aspect. The other aspect is the "just" part. After all, one could say that a symphony is "just a bunch of notes in order" or a poem "just a bunch of worlds", and be technically correct. But "just" is a subjective qualifier that doesn't really have a place in Science.

"It's Just a Theory!": Ugh. As we saw earlier in this course, "theory" in Science is not a word for "guess" or "speculation" or "opinion". It is a model or set of rules with broad explanatory power about some particular phenomenon. So evolution is a theory, just like gravity, or the atomic theory of matter, or plate tectonics.

"Where are the Transitional Forms?": Ummm… Yeah. See the rest of this course...

Related to the above, Misunderstanding Sister Taxa and Ancestors: Similar to a lot of people, evolution deniers misunderstand when scientists are referring to sister taxa rather than ancestors. Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, but they aren't our ancestors.

"If Humans Evolved From Apes, Why Are There Still Apes?": This is like asking "If there are Norwegian-Americans, why are there still Norwegians?" Evolution doesn't convert all of the old taxon into a new form, just some subpopulation. This is part of the general misunderstanding that evolution is progression towards a particular goal (especially humans), rather than simply the divergence of the Tree of Life.

"There are Gaps in the Fossil Record!": Yes, we know. But as we saw earlier in the class, the vast majority of individuals, or even species, are unlikely to be preserved in the fossil record, much less discovered, described, and identified by paleontologists. Nevertheless, we get more information as time goes by. Indeed, ironically, you get more "gaps" the more information there is! As demonstrated by Futurama:

"Microevolution Happens, But Not Macroevolution!": At least some evolution deniers accept that natural selection can cause transformations from population to population over time by the differential survival and reproduction of variants in a population. But they think that this is somehow limited in scope, and cannot produce change from one "kind" of organism to another. But one of the big points of The Origin is the demonstration that seemingly distinct end members can actually be connected by small steps in between. "Macro-" and "microevolution" do not have different causes; they are simply different expressions at different scales of the same phenomenon. As critics of evolution deniers point out, accepting microevolution but rejecting macroevolution is like believing in inches but rejecting the reality of feet!

"Where You There?": A common trope of YECs. Without eyewitnesses, they claim, we can't be certain any particular event happened. Leaving aside the fact that eyewitnesses are actually notoriously unreliable as recorders of fact, we use reconstruction of past events from the limited preserved evidence all the time in society: reconstructing accidents; forensic medicine; history and archaeology; etc. And while you and I weren't there, the rocks themselves and the fossils therein damn well were!

"The Cambrian Explosion Disproves Evolution!": Why a particularly evolutionary event is supposed disproves evolution isn't clear, and the evolution deniers don't make it any clearer. In reality, this trope comes from a list that the evolution deniers got from… Charles Darwin! See the lecture on the Cambrian Explosion for Darwin's puzzlement at this, and solutions to this. (It is worth noting that many other cases on this list are from Chapter 6 "Difficulties on Theory of The Origin. Darwin was honest enough to understand potential objections to his idea, and elucidated why these objections were invalid or fallacious.

"Evolutionists Get Things Wrong or Disagree!": Evolution deniers love to point out cases where paleontologists misinterpreted or reinterpreted data, and then changed their mind. This shows that they simply do not understand the basic aspects of Science: that it is not a single revealed body of wisdom, but rather a process of developing observations and models to explain phenomena. Through hypothesis falsification and reciprocal illumination we may replace older ideas with newer ones as new information comes to light. That is fine: that is how it is supposed to work. Furthermore, when the data are not clearly decisive one way or the other--or where some group (cough, the BAND, cough cough…) refuses to acknowledge the rejection of their claims for personal reasons--you will find that scientists will disagree. That is fine. (And it isn't like different religious people, even of the same denomination, agree on all matters of theology, but they don't recognize that as a reason to reject their own beliefs.)

Confusing Evolutionary Theory with any Particular Phylogenetic Scenario: A special case of the previous one, the claim that rejection of a particular phylogenetic model means that evolution is incorrect. For example, whales were once thought to derive from a group of primitive carnivorous land mammal, but new evidence placed their ancestry within (omnivorous) early members of the artiodactyls (cloven-hoofed mammals). But this change of idea was done entirely within the context of paleontology and evolutionary biology, not in spite of it!

"Darwin Said the Eye Cannot Evolve!": Yep, he sure did. It's right there in Chapter 6 (see link above), where he wrote:

Of course, the next sentence reads:

And the next several paragraphs document existing cases that demonstrate each intermediate form of eye still in use by some living animal.

(Additionally, great as a scientist as Darwin was, evolutionary biology is not the "Gospel According to Charles"! Ideas in Science are accepted by their evidentiary merit, not by who said it.)

Conflation of "Evolution" with "Abiogenesis" &: "Big Bang Cosmology: When asked to state their objections to evolution, many deniers will include aspects which actually have to do with the origin of Life as a whole or even of the Universe itself. But these topics are other fields of Science: they aren't evolution. (This does go back to an earlier point, though: Creationism requires a rejection of essentially all modern science, not just the particular fields of paleontology, evolutionary biology, and geology!)

Related to the above, "How Can Something Come From Nothing?": This is a misunderstanding of both abiogenesis at one level, and Big Bang cosmology at the other. In the case of abiogenesis, there was never a magic moment when something was non-living and became living; instead, it would have been a stepwise shift of chemical processes from something unquestionably non-living through various quasi-life stages to extraordinarily primitive life and so on to LUCA. And in the case of the Big Bang: this was not, as pretty much the whole culture thinks it does, an explosion of everything inside a void. In fact, it is quite the opposite: EVERYTHING (all matter, all energy, everything) started out there in a mind-bogglingly condensed state and inflated. It wasn't an explosion of something in the nothing; it was an expansion of everything away from itself. (And neither of these are about evolution, anyway!)

"Argumentum ad Hitlerum" & "Argumentum ad Stalinum": A common trope (and theme of the misinformation "documentary" Expelled is that Hitler was applying Darwinian principles to eliminate inferior gene lines to improve the human race. (Similarly, but less often, people argue that Stalin was organizing the Soviet Union on Darwinian lines). This fails on two main lines.

The first is that even if these were true statements, it would not invalidate the reality of evolution. This is an Argument from Adverse Consequences: assuming an idea is false because bad consequences would result if the idea were true. But Hitler and Stalin's military made use of chemistry, physics, and so on to kill millions: that doesn't mean chemistry and ballistics and the like are untrue.

And furthermore, neither of these dictators actually supported Darwinian ideas of evolution, anyway! Stalin himself doesn't seem to have written much about it, but he promoted the work of the anti-Darwinian neo-Lamarckian Trofim Lysenko, who wrote:

and indeed Lysenkoists (with the support of Stalin's regime) had pro-Darwin workers banished to the Gulags along with other intellectuals who held ideas contrary to those supported by the State.

In the case of Hitler, we have his own writings to demonstrate that he rejected the transformation of species or the origins of humans from other types of animals:


Hardly the words of a man committed to an evolutionary worldview, trying to implement a Darwinist view on society!

"If We Teach Children We Are Just (or Come From) Animals, They Will Act Like Animals!": This is just another Argument from (in this case False) Adverse Consequences. Consider that in many nations (as we saw last time) there is far more belief in evolution than in the US, but their youths are not particularly prone to delinquency, rowdiness, or otherwise "animal"-like behaviors.

The "Gish Gallop": A common debating technique, named after YEC Duane Gish, and defined as "drowning the opponent in such a torrent of half-truths, lies, and straw-man arguments that the opponent cannot possibly answer every falsehood in real time." Sadly, this is by no means limited to evolution deniers, but is sort of a general rhetorical device. For proof, see the Internet...

Who Does and Doesn't Accept Evolution?
Rejection of evolution is higher in the US than other English-speaking nations (Angus Reid):

Within the US, the general public versus Science (Pew Forum):

And by various subcategories of society (Pew Center):

By religion (US):

By state, with the most and least religious states noted:

Overall, the ratio of supporters in material evolution, theistic evolution, and creationism, have been largely constant over decades of polling (Gallup):

By education (Gallup):

and by politics:

and by church attendance:

Correlation between acceptance of evolution and belief in God:

So one of the strongest indicators of rejection of evolution is indeed religion (and in particular, evangelical Protestant Christianity, at least in the US). In fact, Protestant preachers are far more likely than the public to hold evolution denier views (LifeWay Research):

But why should (at least some) religious people feel motivated to reject evolution (as opposed to rejecting other aspects of science, like cellular biology, the germ theory of disease, the atomic theory of matter, galactic astronomy, or any other myriad fields outside the scope of Scripture)?

In the report cited at the quote at the top of the notes, it was noticed by the reporter that the real reason for rejecting this aspect of science wasn't the science itself: it was the perceived implications of a material origin for humanity on the source of morality. They felt that if humans were not divinely created there could be no absolute morality dictated (literally) from On High, and that lacking such any sort of behavior might be condoned. (Of course this ignores millennia of work by ethical philosophers to find reasons for moral behavior outside of divine command, but that's outside the scope of this class!)

Additionally, this is part of what Carl Sagan called "The Great Demotions": the perception by some that as Science discovers the size and age of the Universe, Earth, and Life, that we seem more insignificant:

So why should we matter that some people fail to accept real things for personal reasons? What is the harm? In and of itself, that's all well and good. But part of the problem is that failure to think critically on one issue is generally linked with failure to think critically in most issues. In other words, pseudosciences tend to travel in packs. So those who reject evolution also tend to reject the reality of climate change, a phenomenon which effects all of us and which requires voting citizens to act:

Basically, once you accept that an ideology trumps evidence in one sphere, it becomes difficult to use your critical faculties in others. So the harm in rejecting well-supported discoveries like the antiquity of the Earth and the evolution of Life makes one susceptible to accepting untrue ideas, which will result in faulty decision making.

To Lecture Schedule
Back to previous lecture
Forward to next lecture

Last modified: 25 April 2016