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The origins debate, which is shorthand for the evolution versus creationism debate, is the controversy that arose when discoveries in palaeontology, geology and calculations in cosmology pointed to an age of the Earth in billions of years. This was in opposition to the mere thousands of years literal readings of the Bible that dominated pre-19th Century knowledge of ancient history, the most famous widely used of which is James Ussher's chronology that said the world began in 4004 BC.
Throughout the 20th Century and into the current one, the "debate" has raged, but hasn't really gone anywhere. The "old Earth" side, backed by science, gained new knowledge and information while the "young Earth" side, backed by fundamentalist dogma, merely repeated what they already had. Throughout the origins debate, arguments in favor of evolution and creationism are traded back and forth in public debates, in (school) board meetings and in the office. Most recently, the debate has become prolific online, where entire forums and newsgroups have enabled practically everyone to express an opinion on the subject.
A public debate would seem like a practical venue for determining which side of the evolution/creation controversy has the most convincing arguments. In debates creationists often claim victory, and evolution proponents concede that this is the case much of the time. However, this is not due to the scientific position being indefensible but rather to limitations in the debate format. "Debate" implies sides, and an eventual winner declared as such by providing the most widely convincing argument - often a politician is said to have "won" a debate. Science, however, takes a subtly different tack where there's only really one "side", namely what the available evidence points to, and it takes the route best suggested by reality. As a result of this, science tends to do poorly if presented in a debate format. That's not to say debates never happen in science, but rarely (if ever) in political debates does the losing side concede that they're wrong and change their views accordingly. It's important to understand that debates about evolution are political, not scientific, in nature.
Perhaps because of its great explanatory power, evolution is a broad and complex theory, and at times aspects of it are counterintuitive. In order to fully appreciate all that evolution explains it is necessary to have a reasonable level of science education as well as knowledge of how science works. Features of creationism on the other hand tend to appeal to emotions and are quickly grasped at any education level. While science takes this into account and seeks to better itself despite human failings, skilled debaters take advantage of this. Science with its cold, hard facts and frightening figures holds up poorly in a straight debate with salient anecdotes. This problem isn't exclusive to the origins debate, as many health scares (vaccines in particular) suffer the same thing: a doctor with a comprehensive meta-study showing a medicine to be statistically safe will "lose" to a parent who has an autistic child and a scare story. Similarly, science can show many things to demonstrate evolution but that isn't worth a damn if the people judging a debate will happily fall for something like how come there are still monkeys?
For these reasons a debate often consists of the evolution advocate spending his brief allotment of time hopelessly attempting to educate the audience to the misinformation and logical fallacies presented by the creationism advocate. It's often impossible to cover all of these points and get across the facts of evolution in a sensible amount of time; talk.origins is an entire archive dedicated to such things and would take days to read through. Often this is an intentional tactic, and creationist Duane Gish's habit of deliberately overloading his opponent with false statements that there isn't enough time to debunk has led to this being named the Gish Gallop.
The degree of public support for creationism can give decision-makers the erroneous impression that mainstream scientists (more specifically, experienced biologists) actually doubt evolution. In fact there is overwhelming support for evolution in the scientific community, and scientific organizations have issued position statements to this effect. The controversy over evolution exists solely in the sphere of politics. As discussed above, politics is the realm of debate where either side can "win" - whereas science is the realm of, well, science, where the winning side is determined by reality and the losers change their minds to agree or are sidelined by the community. So it's not entirely unexpected that the political field gives rise to mantras such as "Teach the Controversy" or "let the children decide for themselves" because such things are perfectly acceptable ideals when discussing what party policies to vote for. They're not acceptable, however, when there is an arbiter (reality) to say what is actually true; schools don't "teach the controversy" about Holocaust denial, for instance.
In the realm of science, theories are simply supplanted by better ones based on how successfully they explain observations and predict future observations. On the creation side there is no data, other than endless tables of who begat who, and there are no explanatory models, only critiques of those models which are proposed by the evolution side.
The debate becomes more than merely academic when school boards are asked to decide if creationism is as sound a theory of the origin of species as evolution. Fundamentalists, in an effort to advance their version of Christianity, have attempted to get Bible-based creationism taught in science classes in public school.
Scopes "Monkey" trial
The political power of the creation side reached a high point in 1925 when a Tennessee teacher was put on trial for teaching Darwinism. The ultimate finding was for the prosecution, and the teacher was fined $100, but during the proceedings the creation side was made to look ridiculous during a nationally covered trial which was the "OJ trial" of its day.
Fundamentalism beat a hasty retreat and did not make a serious impact again until the 1960s, when creation science was rolled out, with demands to teach it side-by-side with orthodox biology in the public schools. Creation "science" was taken straight from the bible, teaching a six-day creation and grouping animals into "kinds" which were created by God. In the 1980s in court decisions such as McLean v. Arkansas (1981) and Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) the creation science curriculum was thrown out of schools on the grounds that it taught the origin story from a specific religion, namely Christianity, and therefore violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Ironically, fundamentalism continued to evolve. In the 1990s, they rolled out their new model, called "intelligent design", which made two "advances" over creation science. One, it avoided mentioning the identity of the being (or beings) who are alleged to have made the blueprints for the universe. Two, it put forward a case that certain organs (such as the eye, or a bird's wing, or the rotating flagellum of bacteria) could not have evolved in gradual stages because the incomplete version of the organ would hinder the reproductive strategies of the creature in question. Current efforts to promote ID within society, termed the wedge strategy, are described in a 1996 Discovery Institute document. In 2005, in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision, intelligent design was also declared unconstitutional (i.e., religion imposing on the state) so, for the angry fundamentalists, it's back to the drawing board.
So what difference does it make?
Why does it matter who is right concerning the cause of the origin of species? It would not matter much if people merely used their religious views to make personal decisions on moral issues; however, fundamentalists have made it clear that they wish to change society to reflect their worldview and that this change includes having creationism taught in science class. The Wedge Document even laid out the specific goal of replacing materialistic explanations with religious claims, which would grind science to a halt by removing its ability to test hypotheses.
While evolution is good science, creationism is not, and teaching creationism as science does not demonstrate to students how to properly do science. Even if evolution were wrong, which it is not, it would still have value as it teaches the scientific method. Since learning proper science develops scientific literacy and scientific literacy is essential for creating and using the technology that benefits society, it should be everyone's concern that the origins debate be settled in favor of science.
- Dawkins, Richard. "Why I Won't Debate Creationists." The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Added Sunday, 14 May, 2006.
- Scott, Eugenie (1994-1997). "Debates and the Globetrotters." The Talk.origins Archive.
- Amazon.com book review by S. D. Weitzenhoffer on "Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction"
- Asimov, Isaac. "The 'Threat' of Creationism." Critical Thought and Religious Liberty. Published in "Science and Creationism" (1984).
- Scott, Eugenie C. (2004). "Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction." Greenwood.