The Social and Legal Dimensions of the Evolution Debate in the U.S.

  • February 04, 2009

As with many social and political controversies in the United States, the battle over evolution has been largely fought in courtrooms. This has been particularly true in the last 50 years, as courts have been repeatedly asked to rule on efforts to restrict or change the way public schools teach about life's origins.

Ironically, when Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory was first made public in the United States almost 150 years ago, it did not roil the country's religious and scientific establishments as it did in Britain at the time. Indeed, while the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection generated debate among American scientists and thinkers, it was largely ignored by the nation's wider society, due, at least in part, to the country's preoccupation with the Civil War, slavery and, later, Reconstruction.

Still, by the 1870s, American religious leaders and thinkers began considering the theological implications of Darwin's theory, and many started attacking evolutionary thinking. For example, Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge, in his book What Is Darwinism? (1874), argued that natural selection was unacceptable because it directly contradicted belief in a benevolent and all-powerful God. Other theologians, however, such as famed Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher, tried to forge a rapprochement between evolutionary thinking and Christianity, arguing that evolution was simply God's method of creation.

Read the full report The Social and Legal Dimensions of the Evolution Debate in the U.S. on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's Web site.