Monday, July 2, 2012

History No Simple Matter

Among the vast changes in our country occurring about 1960, few possess more impact than the events related to the origin of the intense creationism discussion which commenced about that time. Coincident with what has been termed the “seminal” publication of The Genesis Flood we referenced in our 6/29/12 post, there was renewed interest in origins topics which at first grew slowly within the church in the next few decades and then eventually into the national secular awareness. Eventually creationism became the whipping boy of evolutionists in our educational system in the intervening decades.

At the same time evolution became the whipping boy of creationists. This has become one of the battlegrounds of cultural war in our nation. It may be one of the initial war zones which escalated into other battle zones within our culture. Many people see the 1960s as an important turning point on many fronts. We choose to limit our discussion to science education which had seemingly slumbered in the dozen years since the end of World War II and even in the decades before. To this end my personal experience may lend some light on what happened.

The Russian satellite Sputnik, launched October 4, 1957, brought to light an embarrassing chapter in our nation’s public science education. Our country’s self image suffered a blow when Russia upstaged us in launching an earth-circling satellite. Our program was not really inferior to the Russian technology, but our national pride was wallowing in the embarrassment of being second in this space race as the world watched. Reforms in science education were underway shortly before Sputnik, but it is safe to speak of the 1957 launch as a triggering mechanism. President Eisenhower championed enormous funding to promote the National Science Foundation (NSF) Curriculum Improvement Plan, part of the National Defense Education Act funding in 1958, authorizing funding for broad science education initiatives in public schools. During 1963-65 I participated in three summer NSF institutes in physical sciences and earth sciences funded by the federal government. Our government invested hundreds of millions of dollars in these programs owing to the national perception that our country had fallen behind in crucial areas of public school science education.

One of the most serious deficiencies of our bio-science programs at that time was deemed to be evolution not being taught in our public schools. Accordingly, the NSF responded by providing generous government funding to the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) to provide completely new public school textbooks. The new textbooks replaced the writings of old-style, conventional authors who emphasized the organism. The new textbooks emphasized Neo-Darwinism, and were fueled by the new genetic discoveries of Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. In general, the new courses took an unabashed turn toward evolution. In previous decades most written resources of our bio-science curriculum had barely mentioned evolution. I recall counseling high school parents about what they could expect from the new emphasis on molecular biology. Public school life science was undergoing a sea change.

Not only was evolutionary biology not on the radar screens in our public schools, but our churches were not tuned in to the creationism time scale discussion except in a small segment of the Christian community before 1960. Specifically, the six literal days of recent creation, and the 6,000 year-old earth was not a basic tenet of faith. Most Christian scholars were far more concerned with evangelism and issues such as the 14-point creed Niagara Bible Conference focusing on sound theology and matters of biblical eschatology. Dozens of sound evangelical science scholars readily endorsed an old earth and accepted the plentiful evidence accumulating for a very old earth as the 19th century became the 20th and mainstream scientific evidence accumulated for a very old earth.

In general, the beliefs of many sincere, faithful evangelical Christians, sometimes estimated to be 40% of our current population and most of whom were born since 1960, anchor their Christian faith on a unique version of Bible interpretation. It is their adamant trust that the Bible allows no interpretation apart from The Genesis Flood, The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications of John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris. Such a belief has grounded itself in perceived theological orthodoxy and a large population of sincere evangelicals take comfort that their beliefs are correct and without error.

Who could have predicted this culture war would grow into a major battle ground of our modern time? Evolution now is a word firmly embedded in our modern cultural awareness. It surely is more widely used in the second decade of the 21st century than it was in the days of Sputnik. Our educational system has now become saturated with the term – a cultural icon of our time. In biology texts there are multiple references to the clear meaning of evolution on virtually every page: all earth life has a common ancestor. The implications of this statement are enormous.

What about the young earth creationists’ belief system? This is the other side of the cultural forces aligned that have warred against each other for dominance for over fifty years. If the confluence of these two factors had not occurred from the late 1950s to early 1961, we would have a very different world with respect to the evolution and creationism controversy. The turns of history would have been very different.