January 5, 1982 (a Tuesday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education was decided. An ACLU lawyer for the plaintiff dubbed it “Scopes II”, although the nickname didn’t quite fit this particular case. For one thing, Arkansas had already had its version of the Scopes trial in 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on teaching evolution (Epperson v. Arkansas). In the 1980s, instead of banning the teaching of evolution, anti-evolutionists were using a different tactic. They were trying to force the schools to teach creationism alongside evolution. Creationism, or creation-science as it was referred to in Arkansas’ “balanced treatment” law, is the belief that each species was independently created de novo a few thousand years ago in its modern form, and consequently living things do not evolve.

The Biblical creation had allegedly taken seven days, but its trial, which began on December 7, 1981, took nine.

Federal Judge William R. Overton found that Arkansas’ law (Act 590) mandating equal treatment of creation science with evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. In a decision that gave a detailed definition of the term “science”, the court declared that “creation science” is not in fact a science. Interestingly, to support his conclusion, Overton noted that the Arkansas law was a “model” bill drafted and promoted nationwide by Paul Ellwanger, a respiratory therapist from South Carolina. In explaining his model bill in a letter to Pastor Robert E. Hays, Ellwanger made it clear that he did not believe that creationism was a science:

While neither evolution nor creation can qualify as a scientific theory, and since it is virtually impossible at this point to educate the whole world that evolution is not a true scientific theory, we have freely used these terms – the evolution theory and the theory of scientific creationism – in the bill’s text.

Overton said that Ellwanger’s other correspondence on the subject showed “an awareness that Act 590 is a religious crusade, coupled with a desire to conceal this fact.” For example, in a letter to Senator Joseph Carlucci of Florida, Ellwanger wrote:

It would be very wise, if not actually essential, that all of us who are engaged in this legislative effort be careful not to present our position and our work in a religious framework. For example, in written communications that might somehow be shared with those other persons whom we may be trying to convince, it would be well to exclude our own personal testimony or witness for Christ….

Overton showed that creationism was not science by first listing the essential characteristics of science: (1) it is guided by natural law; (2) it has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) it is testable against the empirical world; (4) its conclusions are tentative, that is, are not necessarily the final word; and (5) it is falsifiable. He then argued that creation science failed to meet these characteristics because it required a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law and which “is not explanatory by reference to natural law, is not testable, and is not falsifiable.” In support of this he pointed out that creationist methods “do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data,” and then reach conclusions. Instead, creationists “take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it.” This argument made it clear that “since creation science is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion.”

The court also found that the statute did not have a secular purpose, noting that the statute used language peculiar to creationist literature in emphasizing origins of life as an aspect of the theory of evolution. While the subject of life’s origins is within the province of biology, the scientific community does not consider the subject as part of evolutionary theory, which assumes the existence of life and is directed to an explanation of how life evolved after it originated. The theory of evolution does not presuppose either the absence or the presence of a creator.

Judge Overton’s most devastating critique of creation science was probably the following observation:

The proof in support of creation science consisted almost entirely of efforts to discredit the theory of evolution through a rehash of data and theories which have been before the scientific community for decades. The arguments asserted by creationists are not based upon new scientific evidence or laboratory data which has been ignored by the scientific community.

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One response to “January 5, 1982 (a Tuesday)

  1. Thanks for the post. McLean is a decision that should be noted more than it is, and certainly shouldn’t be forgotten.

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