People For the American Way Foundation

Timeline: How Creationism Has “Evolved”

Pardon the irony, but creationism is evolving. To be sure, the goal of the movement, to force public schools to teach certain religious beliefs as science, has never wavered. But the movement’s strategies and methods have evolved over time in an effort to adapt to new conditions.

These strategies have changed for two reasons. First, the Supreme Court has made clear that it is unconstitutional for public schools to teach religious belief as science. Second, and just as important, Americans have come to understand the important role science education plays in our country’s security and international competitiveness.

Creationists have adapted to these developments by changing not their agenda, but the language they use to talk about it. The original argument, that schools should teach nothing that contradicted a literal reading of the Bible, has given way to the argument that creationism — now called “Intelligent Design” — is science, a claim that the vast majority of scientists dismiss as preposterous. Some have even tried to claim that evolution is itself a religion.

Students should learn about religion in History, Social Studies, Art and Literature courses, but anti-evolution activists have worked hard to insert religious instruction into science classrooms at the expense of quality education.

The Creationism Period

When Darwin proposed the modern theory of evolution, creationists instantly opposed it on religious grounds. For years the creationism movement was clear in its message: evolution is wrong because it contradicts the Bible. Creationists in this period did not pretend to be concerned with science: they opposed outright any attempt to teach evolution in the classroom.

1859 — The Origin of the Species is published

Darwin’s The Origin of Species sets forth the modern theory of evolution and its chief mechanism, natural selection. Many Christian fundamentalists of the day object immediately to what they see as the book’s contradiction of Biblical literalism.

1913 — Flood geology first proposed

As acceptance of evolution grows, a Seventh-day Adventist and amateur geologist named George McCready Price writes The Fundamentals of Geology. Using profoundly flawed logic, he argues that the vast majority of fossils must have been created during the Great Flood described in the book of Genesis, and that geological dating methods must be “corrected” to conform to that fact. He then uses the newly “corrected” rock dating to “prove” that assertion about the fossils was correct. Initially, flood geology has few proponents even within the creationist community.

1914 — Evolution Appears in Textbooks

George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology, the book that is later used in biology courses in Dayton, Tenn., is published. A Civic Biology describes evolution as “the belief that simple forms of life on the earth slowly and gradually gave rise to those more complex and that thus ultimately the most complex forms came into existence.”

1923 — The First Anti-Evolution Bills

Led by three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, a campaign to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools succeeds in convincing the legislatures of Oklahoma and Florida to pass anti-evolution legislation. Bryan is unapologetic about the religious basis of his crusade. “What shall it profit a man,” he writes, “if he shall gain all the learning of the schools and lose his faith in God?” In 1925, Tennessee passes similar legislation, resulting in the famous Scopes Trial, pitting Bryan against legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow.

1940s — Teaching of evolution hits low

Due to the political, commercial, and legal attacks of Biblical literalists, the number of schools teaching evolution hit a new low point.

1947 and 1948 — Supreme Court on Government Endorsement of Religion

In 1947 the Supreme Court makes clear that government may not aid religion generally, or prefer one religion over another. A 1948 ruling forbids religious instruction in public schools.

1950 — Pope Pius XII rejects Biblical literalism

Calling evolution an “open question,” Pope Pius XII rejects literal Biblical creationism as the sole explanation for biological origins, acknowledging the importance of scientific principles in conjunction with spiritual faith.

1957 — Sputnik

The perceived threat posed by Sputnik focuses America’s attention on the importance of a sound math and science education. Popular support for comprehensive science education spreads and leads even many ultra-conservative school districts to teach scientifically accepted evolution curriculum.

1961 — The Genesis Flood is published

John v. Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry Morris publish The Genesis Flood, which attempts to demonstrate that Biblical literalism is supported by science. The book, which reintroduces Price’s flood geology, is met with near-unanimous criticism from the scientific community.

1966 — Creationists Demand Equal Time

Religious activist Nell Segraves demands that the California State Board of Education grant equal time in California schools for creationism. She bases her request on a provision in the Civil Rights Act that allowed teachers to mention religion so long as they did not promote specific doctrines. The request is denied.

1968 — Epperson v. Arkansas

In Epperson v. Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court invalidates an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools and universities.

The Creationism “Science” Period

As Americans came to value the teaching of authentic science in the science classroom, creationists changed their argument. Instead of opposing the teaching of evolution and science per se, they claimed that science proves that the first chapters of Genesis are literally true. The scientific community has consistently criticized this as pseudo-science.

1970 — California Science Framework gives birth to creation science

Reacting to now widespread opinion and the Supreme Court’s finding in Epperson that science classes should teach scientific theories, the California State Board of education approves language couching “creationism” in scientific vocabulary. The board writes, “Creation in scientific terms is not a religious or philosophical belief.” This moves creationism from religion to pseudo-science.

1970 — Creation-Science Research Center is founded

Continuing her effort to dress up creationism in scientific clothes, Segraves heads the effort to form the Creation-Science Research Center, which is affiliated with Tim LaHaye’s Christian Heritage College in San Diego. Henry Morris is also part of the effort but disagreements over the organization’s political role lead to the Center’s ending its affiliation with Morris and LaHaye in 1972.

1972 — Institute for Creation Research is started

Henry Morris founds the Institute for Creation Research, affiliated with the Christian Heritage College, dedicated to refuting the theory of evolution and developing a scientific basis for the Biblical account of creation.

1974 — Scientific Creationism

Morris publishes his book Scientific Creationism, a bedrock text of the movement, in two editions: one for public schools that makes no explicit references to the Bible, and another that includes a chapter on “Creation according to Scripture.” Creationists now argue that science can confirm the account of creation as given literally in the Bible.

1978 — Wendell Bird

Yale law student Wendell Bird publishes a strategy for introducing creationism into public schools across the country. His article, “Freedom of Religion and Science Instruction in Public Schools” in the Yale Law Journal, claims that “scientific creationism” is not religion and that not teaching it would violate the free exercise rights of Biblical literalists.

1981 — Equal time bills

After graduating, Bird works at the Institute for Creation Science on equal time resolutions that the Institute hopes will be adopted by school boards. These resolutions are eventually adapted for state legislators to introduce. Both Arkansas and Louisiana approve versions of these model bills. The bill in Arkansas alludes to a worldwide flood, but does not use any explicitly Biblical language. The Louisiana bill makes no reference to flood geology even though it provides the underpinning for “scientific creationism.”

1987 — Edwards v. Aguillard

Dealing a crippling blow to creation science, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court declares Louisiana’s “Creationism Act” unconstitutional. The law prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools, unless “creation science” was also taught.

The Intelligent Design Period

After the failure of “creation science,” creationists change tactics again. This time the movement focuses less on teaching creationism, and more on attacking evolution. By claiming that evolution is not universally accepted in the scientific community, creationists seek to discredit Darwin’s theory simply by confusing the issue and muddying the waters.

1987 — A Good Point…

Paul MacKinney, chairman of the Midwest Creation Fellowship, predicts that in the wake of the Supreme Court decision barring “equal time” for creationism, the movement will need to change its public relations and legal strategy in order to portray itself as a victim of discrimination. Soon after the Edwards decision was issued, the Institute proposes that opponents of evolution develop an “arguments against evolution” strategy, which is intended to undermine evolution, if not promote creationism outright.

1989 — Of Pandas and People

Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins, by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon, is published. The biology “textbook” promotes the idea that life must have been created by an “intelligent designer.” The book is widely promoted by Christian Right leader James Dobson.

1991 — “Intelligent Design”

Darwin on Trial, by U.C. Berkeley law professor and born-again Christian Phillip E. Johnson is published. It becomes the handbook for the Intelligent Design movement and actually coins the term “Intelligent Design.”

1992 — The Wedge Strategy

At a Southern Methodist University conference called “Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference?” a new strategy is proposed. The idea grows into the so-called “wedge strategy” set forth in a 1999 memorandum by the Discovery Institute (see below). The wedge strategy aims to insert religion into public schools as the first step towards returning American culture to a pre-scientific state that accepts religious, not scientific, explanations for natural phenomena.

1996 — The Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute establishes the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture to promote Intelligent Design using the Wedge Strategy.

1997 — Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Bd of Ed

In Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana rules unconstitutional a public school board policy requiring teachers to read aloud a disclaimer of endorsement of the scientific theory of evolution whenever they teach about evolution, ostensibly to promote “critical thinking.” Besides striking down the disclaimer policy, the decision is noteworthy for recognizing that “Intelligent Design” is an alternate description of “creation science.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upholds the ruling and the Supreme Court declines to hear an appeal of the decision.

1999 — Bleeding Kansas

The Kansas State Board of Education votes 6-4 to accept diminished science standards that removed virtually all reference to evolution.

2000 — LeVake v. Independent School District

A state judge in Minnesota dismisses the case of Rodney LeVake v Independent School District No. 656, et al. High school biology teacher LeVake had claimed a constitutional right to teach “evidence both for and against the theory” of evolution, contrary to the school district’s science curriculum. The decision is upheld Minnesota Court of Appeals and further review is denied by the Minnesota and U.S. Supreme Courts.

2001 — The Santorum Amendment

Phillip Johnson, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, helps draft the Santorum Amendment to what later becomes the No Child Left Behind Act, promoting the teaching of Intelligent Design. The amendment — which encourages science teachers to teach criticisms of evolution — is ultimately stripped from the bill, although Intelligent Design proponents consider the effort a victory.

2003 — Johnson Comes Clean (Finally)

Johnson states on a Christian radio talk show that “Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit, so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.”

2004 — Intelligent Design Comes to Dover

Lawyers for the Thomas More Center, a right-wing Catholic legal group, persuade the Dover, Penn., school board to teach Intelligent Design in science classes and promise to defend the school board from the inevitable lawsuit.

2005 — Bush Sides Against Science

In August, President Bush states that schoolchildren should be taught about Intelligent Design along with evolution as competing theories. “Teach the controversy” becomes the latest mantra of Creationists.

2005 — Court Rejects Intelligent Design

From October to December, in Kitzmiller v. Dover, a team of lawyers, on behalf of eleven parents of Dover students, argues that Intelligent Design undermines basic definitions of science and is nothing more than religious belief under a new name. The court rules that Intelligent Design is not science and, as with creationism, that teaching Intelligent Design as science violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Even before the ruling is made, all six pro-Intelligent Design Dover School Board members are voted off the school board and replaced by a pro-evolution slate.

2006 — Kansas Tug-of-War

In 2002, an election had turned the board back over to pro-science members, who returned the state curriculum to scientifically accepted standards. A 2004 election changed the board’s make-up again. In November 2005, the board changes the state’s science standards to add substantial criticism of evolution. In 2006 primary elections, moderate candidates are again victorious, guaranteeing a pro-science majority after the November general election.

2006 — Evolutionary Biology Disappears from Federal Grant List

In a list of majors eligible for federal Smart Grants — named for the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent program — the Department of Education leaves off Evolutionary Biology. Majors are listed by Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes, but the DOE leaves a blank line for number 26.1303, the CIP code for Evolutionary Biology.


Despite defeat after defeat, creationists have continued to attack science and refused to accept the constitutional mandate that prohibits government from endorsing any particular religious viewpoint. Over the course of the fight to ensure science’s critical place in the classroom, anti-Darwin activists have reshaped and renamed their tactics, but it’s clear that their goal — to discredit science and promote a specific religious worldview in public schools — has remained the same. No doubt creationists will continue their efforts as the country continues to stave off attacks on quality science as an accepted standard for schools and textbooks.

Learning about religion is an important part of a high school education, but religious instruction shouldn’t shortchange science. Religion is, and should be, discussed, in classes on World Religions, the History of Religion, and art and literature classes that draw on religion’s legacy.

People For the American Way Foundation is committed to protecting quality science education and will continue to inform Americans about the dangers of teaching religious beliefs in public school science classrooms.