Editor’s Note: The debate rages on while science’s “joy of discovery” and Creationism’s “Book” compete for attention in politics and education. Sarah Nordgren explores the current state of the controversy and ramifications for America’s educational system.

On February 4th, 2014, Australian creationist Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, took the stage with well-known science educator Bill Nye to begin a well-publicized debate. The question on the table —“Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”— drew a crowd of nearly 1,000, with 750,000 additional viewers watching online.

While Nye dominated the dialogue with his infectious enthusiasm and passion for his subject, Ken Ham largely stuck to PowerPoint slides outlining “Young Earth Creationism,” a literal interpretation of the Bible in which God is believed to have created the universe, the earth, and all life within six days, just 6000 years ago. This timeline for the age of the earth deviates dramatically from the 4.5 billion year age evidenced from radiometric dating.

In the weeks leading up to the event, some scientists and science advocates criticized Nye’s decision to participate in the debate with Ham, noting the futility of debating people who ignore scientific evidence, as well as the fact that proceeds from the event would go to benefit Answers in Genesis, which, in addition to running the Creation Museum, is undertaking a $73 million project to build a to-scale model of Noah’s Ark. Several critics cited prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 2006 article “Why I Won’t Debate Creationists” in which Dawkins states:

Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.

Dawkins’ point addresses an issue that Ham worked hard to distract from during the February event: The debate over the accuracy of evolution is largely unique to the political-religious climate of the United States and is not a debate in the mainstream scientific community.

While nearly all scientists accept evolution, recent studies have found that only about half of Americans believe that evolution is the process by which life forms, including humans, came to exist. An article published in Science in 2006 presented a study in which researchers compared surveys taken in the U.S. with similar data from Japan and 32 European countries, finding that only 14% of American adults believe that evolution is “definitely true,” compared with over 80% in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and France. The only country included in the study with lower numbers than the U.S. was Turkey.

The article also provided an analysis of the data in an attempt to explain why Americans are so loathe to accept evolution, citing America’s religious history, specifically the popularity of evangelical Protestantism, which supports literal interpretations of the Bible. The study showed that, in contrast to evangelicals, mainstream Catholics and Protestants were more likely to subscribe to “theistic evolution,” the belief that evolution is the means by which God brought about humans and other life. Party politics also play a role in the findings. The perceived conflict between science and religion has become a divisive issue in America in a manner unmatched in Europe and Japan, where holding politically conservative views shows little correlation with the acceptance of evolution.

The political conflict around evolution was further highlighted in a Pew Research poll released in December 2013, which found that the percentage of Republicans who believe in evolution plummeted from 54% in 2009 to 43% in 2013, while Democrats’ numbers rose slightly from 64% to 67% during that same period. The study also breaks the findings down demographically, confirming the Science article’s analysis by reporting the overwhelming popularity of creationism among white evangelical Protestants. Education level was an indicator as well, with college education making it more likely that a person will believe humans evolved over time.

This politicization of mainstream science has troubling and far-reaching consequences for American education and the ability of America’s youth to compete in the global economy. Both sides of the debate prioritize control over educational content as a means to influence the country’s future decision-makers and reshape the culture at large.

For example, in an attempt to institutionalize the teaching of creationism in science classrooms, several Southern and Western states such as Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, and South Dakota are currently finding ways to circumnavigate federal court rulings on the issue, including Judge John Jones III’s ruling in Kitzmiller v Dover, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Edward v Aguillard.

In response to this continuing controversy, the National Science Teachers Association released a strongly worded position statement in July 2013, affirming that “evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be emphasized in K-12 science education frameworks and curricula.” The statement goes on to note:

NSTA recognizes that a century of political controversy has prevented evolution from being emphasized in science curricula in a manner commensurate with its importance. This political controversy has been accompanied by anti-evolution policies, the intimidation of science teachers and textbook publishers, and the general public’s lack of understanding about evolutionary theory.

As America’s most visible and well-loved advocate for science education, Bill Nye returned to this theme several times during the debate with Ham. He expressed concern for the future of America’s scientific and technological innovation if the country fails to fully embrace this unifying concept, and emphasized the “joy of discovery” as the driving force behind scientific progress.

Toward the end of the program, Ham responded to Nye’s arguments with the phrase: “There is a book…” For example, when Nye challenged the young people in the audience to explore the “great mystery” that is the nature of consciousness, Ham replied with: “There is a book out there that does document where consciousness came from, and in that book, the one who created it said that he made man in his image.” The live audience reacted to the new catchphrase with knowing chuckles, and in the days following the debate, Answers in Genesis was encouraging supporters to tweet about their reactions using the hashtag #thereisabook.

But not only secular audiences were more convinced by Nye’s arguments. Six days after the debate, the results of ChristianToday.com’s online poll showed that 92% of people participating in the poll judged Nye to be the “winner”, with nearly 47,000 respondents.

In the end, even the largely creationist live audience seemed charmed by Bill Nye. Perhaps they were wooed by Nye’s statements like this:

As my old professor Carl Sagan said so often, ‘When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.’ And I base my beliefs on the information and the process that we call science. It fills me with joy to make discoveries every day of things I’ve never seen before. It fills me with joy to know that we can pursue these answers. It is an astonishing thing that we are — you and I — one of the ways the universe knows itself.

No wonder Greg Laden, a popular science blogger originally skeptical of Nye’s decision to participate in the debate, wrote the following day that he would “happily be dining on crow today at lunch.”

It may be too early to say what lasting impact, if any, the debate between Nye and Ham will have on the larger dialogue about evolution in the United States. The danger of arguments around issues of faith, such as biblical creationism, is the incompatibility of terms between the two sides. As long as creationists perceive mainstream science as a challenge to their religious views, it’s unlikely that they will be persuaded to accept scientific evidence that conflicts with those views.

Certainly, Ken Ham and his followers at Answers in Genesis have not been deterred from their mission. On February 27th, 2014, just three weeks after the debate, Ham announced he raised enough money through a bond offering to break ground on his Ark Encounter project in May, thanks in part to the debate with Nye. Likewise, there are no known reports of believers in evolution changing their minds to support literal interpretations of the bible after watching the event. Despite this, the media attention and dialogue inspired by the debate has raised awareness about this critical issue in American education and culture at large, as major news outlets such as The Guardian, ABC, The New Republic, and NPR have provided coverage of the topic in the weeks following the debate. Nye himself recently expressed his surprise over the widespread interest and attention the debate received. But if science has taught us anything, we’ll avoid jumping to conclusions, observing patiently over time to see what might evolve from this renewed discussion.

Further Reading, Viewing, and Listening:

– Watch the full debate while it’s still online. DVDs are also available for purchase.

– Stephen Dunn’s poem “At the Smithfield Methodist Church.”

– C.S. Lewis’ poem “Evolutionary Hymn.”

– On Being podcast episode about paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin and “spiritual evolution.”

Ken Ham Bingo game from the Science League of America to play with friends while watching the debate. The squares contain a collection of Ham’s go-to arguments.

Image credit: Jörg Lohrer via flickr


About The Author

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Poet and Professor of English at Miami University of Ohio

Sarah Rose Nordgren is a poet and educator. Her book, Best Bones, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press and her poems have appeared in AGNI, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Harvard Review, and the Best New Poets anthology. She teaches in the English Department at Miami University of Ohio in Middletown and lives in Cincinnati.