Evolutionary Challenge

As another term begins and we dutifully file into lecture theatres, classrooms, or downstairs to the living room because its raining out and theres lecture capture these days, we can remain confident our respective subjects havent been tampered with by the government. In Turkey though its another story, where following a crackdown President Erdogans government has effectively written evolution out of the schoolsscience books, claiming it is “above students level” of understanding.

Evolution has stood up to 200 years of scrutiny, testing and debate as the best way we have for explaining why life developed the way it has. Unlike gravity, evolutionary theory has faced challenges from groups and authorities. It is currently banned in Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Here are some of the memorable flash points for evolution down the years:

  • 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate: Bulldog Vs. Soapy SamTaking place seven months after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, with Darwin himself too unwell to attend, it is principally remembered for the caustic exchanges between Thomas Huxley (“Darwins bulldog”) and the bishop Samuel Wilberforce (AKA “Soapy Sam”). One of the highlights was reportedly when Wilberforce asked Huxley if he was related to an ape on his father or mothers side, to which Huxley responded that he would truly be ashamed of being related to someone who used their verbal skills to obscure the truth. Sick burn.
  • 1925 The Scopes “Monkey” Trial: The first of many trips to the USA, substitute teacher John Scopes fell afoul of the anti-evolution Tennessee Butler Act. The law was named after John Butler, the farmer who lobbied for it despite reportedly not knowing anything about the “immoral” theory. It became known as the “monkey trial” and Scopes was convicted and fined the equivalent of over £1000. The case became famous and kick-started the longstanding conflict between creationism and modern science education in the US. Dont worry, weve got more on that…
  • 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas: Biology school teacher Susan Epperson was put at risk of dismissal because her school elected to include a book on the curriculum which included a chapter on Darwin, in violation of Arkansass law. She challenged the state law banning teaching evolution successfully but the decision was reversed by the Arkansas supreme court. The case then went to Washington where the US Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional.
  • 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard: Having lost the right to prohibit evolution from being taught outright, American fundamentalists started lobbying for laws that made teaching of Christian creationism as a rival to evolution mandatory. Teacher Don Aguillard took Louisiana to court for a law which said when teaching evolutionary science “creation science” must also be taught. 72 Nobel-prize scientists backed Aguillard and the court ruled in their favour, on the grounds that “creation science” wasnt a thing.
  • 2005 “Dover Panda Trial”: Extremely determined opponents of evolution began promoting “intelligent design”, the idea there may be an intelligent force behind life on Earth, and a group of parents challenged their childrens school for introducing intelligent design into science classes. The name “Panda Trial” comes from one of the textbooks introduced, which had the, quite frankly, lovely title Of Pandas and People. The Supreme Court was a lot less cuddly in its verdict, calling the school board inane and that “the religious nature of ID [intelligent design] would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child”. Ouch.
  • 2005 Flying Spaghetti Monster Vs. Kansas State Board of Education: Physics grad Bobby Henderson created the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) and the resultant religion “Pastafarianism” as a criticism of the boards decision to include intelligent design. He wrote to the board that a theory of FSM being behind the creation of the world and its species was just as valid as intelligent design or “logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence”. Pastafarianism is now legally recognised as a religion in the Netherlands and New Zealand.
  • 2014 The Creation Museum, Nye Vs Ham: Probably the weirdest but most entertaining flash point was this debate between science TV personality Bill Nye and young Earth creationist Ken Ham. Held at the Creation Museum, which teaches the Earth is only a few thousand years old, Nye and Hams debate is testament to the logical extension of taking faith over evidence, but to an absurd degree. Hams arguments get weirder and weirder to the point of outright lunacy including: science cant teach anything about the past, and that all animals in the past were vegetarian, sabre-toothed tigers not-withstanding. The museum now has a replica of Noahs ark.


Leo Kindred

Science Editor


Image: Vivian Barron