Whenever a new theory overturns decades of scientific research there’s always some resistance. Usually this comes from other scientists, experts who’ve invested too much of their career in the old theory to abandon it without a struggle. Occasionally small, eccentric movements spring up in opposition to something that’s accepted by almost everyone. The Flat Earth Society is the best known, but there are also tiny groups who insist that Earth is the center of the solar system or deny the germ theory of disease.
There was certainly dissent among scientists when Darwin’s theory was first revealed, and it was a fairly long time before it faded away – alternatives to natural selection were being discussed as late as the 1930s, when Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics was integrated to create the modern synthesis. By closing the last significant gap in Darwin’s work that basically ended mainstream scientific opposition; the theory was simply so solid, and so thoroughly verified, that there was no room for doubt. By the time Watson, Crick and Franklin isolated DNA in 1953 it was obvious that if anything replaced Darwin’s theory of evolution it could only be another theory of evolution – and there isn’t one.
So opposition among scientists slowly faded away as the evidence stacked up, but then that was only to be expected. It might be slightly embarrassing to admit that Lamarck had been wrong about evolution and Darwin was right, but it wasn’t exactly a life-changing event. In any case modifying and adding to a new theory was a lot more interesting than vainly defending a discredited one. Scientists poked at the theory, tested it against the evidence where they could, saw that it held up and accepted it.
On the other hand, for some people it was a life-changing event. For anyone who believed that the Bible – especially the Book of Genesis – was literally true, Darwin’s theory threatened everything. If the huge variety of living things – including humans, covered in Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man – had evolved from a long-ago common ancestor, then the creation story told in Genesis wasn’t true. If the story wasn’t true there had been no Adam and Eve, and therefore no Original Sin. Without the guilt of Original Sin for us all to share there would be no need for a universal redemption, so the story of Jesus and his sacrifice – the very core of Christianity – made no sense.
Of course it had been obvious for decades that the Earth was much older than the 6,000 years or so suggested by the Biblical genealogies, and scientists had been speculating about evolution since at least the late 18th century, but the literalists had been able to dismiss it; it was just guesswork, with no unchangeable evidence to back it up.
Darwin’s theory was different. It was an intricate, well-developed model of life based on over twenty years of painstaking research and analysis. It explained everything it was supposed to explain. Worst of all, it was simple and obvious enough to be easily understood – and accepted – by the average person. Sophisticated theologians were already developing doctrines that explained how evolution was the tool God had used to carry out the creation but the fundamentalists quickly – and accurately – saw the threat it posed to their whole belief system.
It didn’t take long before the first religious attacks began. One of Darwin’s early ecclesiastical enemies was the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. The bishop’s father was William Wilberforce, an ardent and effective opponent of the slave trade. His finer qualities don’t seem to have been inherited by his third son, however, and the bishop had a faintly slippery manner that soon earned him the nickname Soapy Sam.
Wilberforce joined the evolution debate early, with a vicious (and anonymous) review of Origin of Species that rival biologist Richard Owen had helped him write. Then in June 1860 the bishop took part in a public discussion of Darwin’s theory, where he was opposed by Thomas Henry Huxley.
It ended in disaster for him; in a cheap shot he asked Huxley whether he claimed to be descended from a monkey on his father’s or his mother’s side. Legend holds that Huxley – an agnostic – rejoiced, “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands”, before standing up to deliver a devastating response. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor, Huxley declared, but he would be ashamed to be descended from a man like Wilberforce who used his natural gifts to attack the truth.
Through the 1870s and 80s opposition to evolution, even among devout Christians, gradually faded away. The evidence, already formidable, was mounting steadily, and while acceptance of the theory was far from universal there was no organized opposition to it either. In fact mainstream anti-Darwinism in the UK was essentially dead by the turn of the 20th century; it’s never really made a comeback except among Muslims and some small fundamentalist Christian sects.
In the United States, however, the situation was very different. Fundamentalist opposition to the theory actually grew in the 1920s, as the developing modern synthesis demolished the last traces of dissent among biologists. In 1925 Tennessee banned the teaching of evolution in schools, leading to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. Mississippi followed suit later that year and Arkansas in 1927. These laws were only struck down in 1968, but even that wasn’t the end of the matter.
Grass-roots creationism in the USA has remained strong since the 1920s and, even today, has a level of support not seen anywhere outside the Islamic world. The Catholic Church has tacitly accepted evolution for decades and now openly states that it’s “more than a theory”. Mainstream Protestants in every developed nation are comfortable accepting Darwin’s idea. In America, though, rejection of natural selection and common ancestry retains a stunning level of popular support.
Among those who attend church weekly 69% are creationists and most of the rest are theistic evolutionists, who believe the process was guided by God; only 1% believe in Darwinian evolution. Overall the US population is split about evenly between creationists, theistic evolutionists and those who accept Darwin’s theory. The good news is that the numbers are changing rapidly; as little as fifteen years ago public support for creationism was at 48%, and for evolution only 13%.
Creationism is scientifically indefensible, and has been since Origin of Species was published in November 1859. It’s still a core belief for Biblical literalists however, and as long as people believe that God really created all the species we see around us religious opposition to Darwin’s work will continue.