Creationism, Evolution and Education

  • Harvey Siegel
  • Mitja SardočEmail author

Harvey Siegel is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami (USA). His specializations include epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of education. He is interested in philosophical questions concerning rationality, relativism, naturalism, and in the philosophy of education, particularly educational aims and critical thinking. He is the (co)-author of six books: Education’s Epistemology: Rationality, Diversity, and Critical Thinking (Siegel 2017), Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Laats and Siegel 2017), Teaching Thinking Skills (Johnson and Siegel 2010), Rationality Redeemed?: Further Dialogues on an Educational Ideal (Siegel 1997), Educating Reason: Rationality, Critical Thinking, and Education (Siegel 1988), and Relativism Refuted: A Critique of Contemporary Epistemological Relativism (Siegel 1987). Prof. Siegel has published about two hundred papers and has edited two books including The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Education (Siegel 2009).

About the Conversation

In September 2017 Prof. Harvey Siegel delivered a keynote lecture ‘Should Teachers Aim to Get Their Students to Believe Things? The Case of Evolution’ at the annual conference on educational research in Ljubljana, Slovenia, organized by the Educational Research Institute. Mitja Sardoč carried out a conversation with Prof. Siegel’s on his latest book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Laats and Siegel 2017), and the interview was finalized over e-mail in October 2017.

The Cultural Conflict Between Evolution and Creationism

Mitja Sardoč (MS): Among the public controversies over schooling, no discussion has been more enduring and more heated than the one between ‘evolution supporters’ and ‘evolution opponents’. Ever since the Scopes Monkey trial in the 1920s1, the cultural wars over the teaching of evolution continue to divide the American public. Why do you think this issue has been on the agenda for close to two centuries now?

Harvey Siegel (HS): The theory of evolution is often thought to conflict with the fundamental religious convictions of many people, especially Christians. Not only them, of course. So naturally, they resist evolution because they value their own religious beliefs.

MS: Why you think there is no sign of an end to this cultural conflict?

HS: It’s difficult to overcome cultural conflict, as cultures are very strong forces and they don’t just disappear. Ending all cultural conflict would end with everyone sharing the same culture. This would not only be undesirable, it’s not realistic. Instead, we need to find ways to live together with our cultural differences and this is one example of that.

MS: Does seeing this controversy exclusively or primarily as a cultural conflict impose any limitation on our understanding of it?

HS: There are certainly ways to live with this conflict. The way I proposed in my lecture at the conference in Ljubljana back in 2017, namely that we do not aim at student belief, is one such way. On the surface it appears to be a scientific conflict but it is mainly not a scientific conflict. The case for evolution is very strong. There is no serious scientific case for either creationism or intelligent design. These are not serious scientific theories. In fact, they are not scientific theories at all. They are just thinly veiled religious convictions. So it looks like a scientific controversy but it’s really not about science.

MS: Your research interests spin across a wide range of areas including philosophy of science, epistemology, and philosophy of education. What has triggered your interest in creationism?

HS: The creationist movement has been a very big cultural event so it’s not hard to be interested in it. I have been interested in science education since graduate school and have worked in philosophy of science as well as in philosophy of education. In my dissertation, ‘Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science and Science Education’ (Siegel 1977), I discussed some work on philosophy of science and its implications for science education. After graduate school, when I started working as an assistant professor, I was invited to participate in one of the early big evolution trials as an expert witness for the State of California.

MS: Can you tell us a little more about that?

HS: The trial, Creation Science Research Institute v. State of California, took place in 1981. And that, of course, got me very interested in the controversy. I was interested in philosophy of science anyway so it was easy to understand the scientific part of the controversy.

MS: How have the discussion and the related controversies over the period of the last 30 years ‘evolved’? Has there been any sign of finally ending this conflict?

HS: Evolution opponents have certainly changed their legal strategy. The first trials were about creationism. The US courts consistently ruled that creationism was obviously not science, but rather religion. We don’t allow public schools to advocate for or against religion. So attempts to insert creationism into the public schools were struck down. That made creationists see that in order to accomplish their goals they had to present their theory as if it were a genuine scientific theory. So they ‘invented’ first ‘scientific’ creationism and then more interestingly they created what is now known as the theory of ‘intelligent design’ which basically says that the biological world is too complex to have arisen by chance. On their view, this is what Darwin is about. Advocates of ‘intelligent design’ argue that the complexity of living things suggests that there must have been a designer. And, of course, they don’t really want to talk much about the designer because that would bring religion back into it. So officially they don’t say anything about the designer except that just there must have been one. But of course, the designer they have in mind is God. So, their theory has ‘evolved’ so to speak. But it’s still not adequate to overcome the legal objections about teaching religious doctrine in public schools. And it’s striking that after all these years there is no serious alternative theory. Creationists don’t conduct experiments, they don’t seek grants for research. They just argue about the texts. Very often, they are quite honest about it. Not in a courtroom, of course, as then they lose. They’re very clear that what they want is to protect their religious traditions.

MS: Nevertheless, don’t you think that they are imposing their religious beliefs on other students?

HS: I don’t know whether they try to impose it on other students, although if they succeed the effect will be as you suggest. They seem mainly concerned to impose it on their own students, on their own children. And it’s always been the case that parents try to direct the values and beliefs of their children.

MS: Don’t you think that creationism and teaching about it might be biased against the children’s ‘right to an open future’ (Feinberg 1980)?

HS: I do think that. I think it’s important that children, as Joel Feinberg, a leading political and legal philosopher who famously coined the phrase ‘the child’s right to an open future’ said, have that right. The idea is that children have to be able to become autonomous. They have to be free to choose their own path in life. And their education is supposed to help them to become autonomous. So if the schools say ‘you must believe this’, then that is a threat to their autonomy.

MS: On the one hand, we have children’s right to an open future and on the other hand we have parents’ right to direct a child’s religious formation.

HS: I don’t think that the latter is a genuine right. But a lot of people think that parents do have such a right.

MS: So there is no conflict here as there is no right to impose on one’s own children religious beliefs?

HS: It’s not that there isn’t any right of the parents. But parental rights, whatever they are, have to be balanced against the right of the child to become autonomous. That’s fundamental. When parents have young children, they often introduce them to the rituals and practices of their religious tradition. I don’t think many would say that parents don’t have the right to do that. However, a lot of people – including me – would say they don’t have the right to enforce that on their children in such a way that when their children are older they have no alternative except to believe what their parents believe. That would be denying their autonomy.

MS: It therefore looks like this issue or conflict is not just about the teaching of a particular worldview but is also about a potential conflict between children’s rights and their parents’ rights, and also about the aims of education in general. What do you think?

HS: It is often said that parents have the right to direct their children’s upbringing. If this is any right at all, it is very limited because the children are on their way to becoming autonomous agents and they should be free to develop their lives as they see fit. For many people this is not such a big issue as they are quite content to believe what their parents believe. If that’s how they want to do it, that’s their right, but it’s up to them and not up to their parents. One important aim of education is autonomy. We want our students to come out of their education as autonomous agents, able to think for themselves and decide for themselves what they believe, what they value, and how they live. If you think that that’s important educationally, then you cannot run your educational institutions or conceive your educational efforts as attempts to determine what the children will end up believing.

Old Conflicts and New Strategies

MS: Back to the question of ‘evolution opponents’: Do you think that their strategies have changed? For example, at the beginning of the 20th century they were advocating the banning of books and now they emphasize that they’re being discriminated against. How you see this change?

HS: Well, I don’t think these strategies are perpetrated by only one group. In fact there has been a lot of book burning, and that is often more political than religious. Political powers try to preserve a particular political culture and religious powers try to preserve a particular religious culture. If you think they all amount to culture and/or culture wars then there have been different strategies but I don’t see that there has been any kind of conflict, it’s just different strategies. We often have different strategies for whatever we do.

MS: What are the main strategies now?

HS: If we are speaking about ‘evolution opponents’, one strategy is to work at the state and local level to get school boards to not teach evolution. Or if they can’t accomplish that, to teach creationism and/or intelligent design alongside evolution as an alternative scientific theory. However, that is a strategy that has not succeeded legally. It has been put to legal test and it has failed. But there is no question that a lot of local communities do this. There are a lot of places in the US where teachers cannot teach evolution. Or, if they do, they must alongside that also teach these alternative so-called theories of creationism and intelligent design.

MS: Are creationists the only opponents of evolution? Are there any others beside those advocating creationism or intelligent design?

HS: This is a very good question. There are certainly great controversies within the theory of evolution itself, among evolutionary theorists. The way most people understand Darwin is that the main mechanism of evolution is natural selection. But within the biological community there is great controversy about whether natural selection is indeed the main driving mechanism of evolution. Many biologists think that a more important driver of evolutionary change is genetic drift, according to which changes happen that don’t confer a selective advantage but somehow become entrenched anyway. So, your skin color might be selected because it enables you to survive the rays of the sun in your environment, for example. But it may also be that your and your communities’ skin color changes even though it doesn’t confer any selective advantage. It just gets entrenched without conferring any advantage. That’s very roughly what drift is. And many biologists think that’s really an important factor or even the most important factor in evolutionary change. So, within the biological community there is plenty of controversy. And one could argue that some of these controversies are, in a way, anti-evolution. But it’s really not anti-evolution but anti-this particular understanding of the mechanisms of evolutionary change.

MS: Is creationism linked with any other problems in science education?

HS: Again, that’s a good question. One important long-standing criticism in science education has been that science education too often teaches what Joseph Schwab (former professor of Natural Sciences and Education at the University of Chicago) called a ‘rhetoric of conclusions’, in which students are expected to learn contemporary scientific theories without any understanding of what the evidence for them is and without any real understanding of the theories themselves (Schwab 1969). So, that’s an old criticism and is not particular to evolution. We should want students not be able just to repeat things or to memorize them but to actually have some understanding of them. So that’s a broader worry about science education.

MS: Are there any other philosophical questions that this conflict opens?

HS: Sure. For example, there are questions about scientific method. Why do we do science the way we do it, rather than some other way? How many ‘methods’ are there? Is there just one, the scientific method, or are there multiple methods? Do methods differ from techniques, and if so how? Are extant biological (or chemical or physical) methods of investigation acceptable? There is a big broad question in philosophy of science concerning the nature of scientific method. After all, the sciences are very different. Some use microscopes, some use telescopes, some use all kinds of machinery; some use sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques that others do not. It’s arguable that there isn’t such a thing as the scientific method the way that Dewey, for example, talked about it. This is a controversy in philosophy of science that has very important repercussions for science education.

MS: Why you think education is such a crucial battleground for different controversies including this one?

HS: Because, as you suggested earlier, education involves the formation of children. Everybody cares about their children. And they care that their children are brought up well, maybe even correctly and not incorrectly. So, if the school is doing things the parents don’t like, of course they are going to be unhappy and will fight to stop that. Or more positively, they are going to fight to make the school work the way they want it to work. Others may want the school to work differently and of course there is going to be controversy.

MS: Do you think this conflict applies uniquely to the US? Have there been any signs of the conflict being ‘exported’? Has this conflict any broader ‘geographical’ implications?

HS: Yes, sure. There are now creationist movements all over the world, even in Western Europe. In Turkey there has been just recently a great government step in the direction of creationism and against evolution. In Asia there was recently a controversy about a government official who was nominated for an important government post and then it became known that he was the leader of a local creationist group. And that forced the nominee to withdraw from consideration for the position because his association with creationism was thought by some to be intolerable. But the mere fact that it happened there is somewhat striking. We don’t usually think of that part of the world as a bastion of Christianity. And yet, there they are.

‘Does God Belong in Public Schools?’

MS: The University of Miami has recently established a Chair for the Study of Atheism where you have helped – as reported in an article published in The New York Times –‘to broker the arrangement’ with the supporter of this initiative, Mr. Louis Appignani (Goodstein 2016). How was this initiative received within the academic community?

HS: This happened when I was chair of the philosophy department. I have been interacting with Mr. Appignani for many years. When I first became department chair, there was an article in the local paper about him establishing a foundation for the support of atheism. We began to talk. Nothing really happened because he wanted the university to be pro-atheist, to advocate for atheism. However, the university can’t do that. So for many years nothing happened. And, of course, the university was right not to. We couldn’t proselytize for atheism (or anything else). Universities have lots of chairs and centers for various religious studies. There can be a centre for Catholic studies, a centre for Islamic studies, a centre for Judaic studies. The University of Miami has several of these. But they are not proselytizing agents; they are for the study of the various subjects. You don’t have to be a practicing member of a given faith tradition in order to become a student or scholar of that tradition. So it took a long time for the university and Mr. Appignani to come to an arrangement about what he was willing to fund. The university is about the study of ideas, not about their advocacy. After many years an agreement was reached, so now there is the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism and Secular Ethics currently held by prof Anjan Chakravartty.2 This is the first chair for the study of atheism as far as we know in the world (certainly in the US).

MS: Can you say more about your recent book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Laats and Siegel 2017)? It is written by two scholars, one historian (Laats) and the other philosopher (you)? How did this idea come about?

HS: This book is part of series of books3 all of which are coauthored in this way, i.e. by a historian of education and a philosopher of education. All are intended to study controversial policy questions and issue policy recommendations. You have to work interdisciplinarily. That’s hard and sometimes it’s difficult for the scholars to reach agreement but not always. And we learn from each other. I hope that our treatment is both philosophically and historically informed. In Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Laats and Siegel 2017) we both review the history of the evolution/creation conflict and address the main philosophical questions concerning it: what is science, what is religion, and how are they related? Are evolutionary theory, creationism, and ‘intelligent design’ genuine scientific theories or rather religious imposters to genuine science? Given the scientific case for evolution, why is the battle still being fought? We argue that the conflict is best understood as a conflict of culture rather than a conflict of science, and that the best way to handle it in the public schools is to recast the aim of evolution education as understanding of the theory rather than belief in it. If a creationist student understands the theory and the evidence that renders evolution the best scientific account of the biological phenomena, the science teacher has done her job well, even if that student does not believe it.

MS: You have just mentioned interdisciplinarity. What you think is the advantage of taking up a particular issue which has important implications for education (like the one we are discussing right now) in an interdisciplinary way?

HS: The short answer is that each discipline can yield insights that the other discipline cannot. One important thing I learned from my historian colleague is that the situation with respect to creationism has really changed in the last 150 years in the US. It used to be that creationism was simply taken for granted. In 1880s and 1890s, even in really good research universities, evolutionary theory wasn’t taught and it was thought to be beyond the pale. However, over the decades that has changed and certainly within research universities everybody is an evolutionist now in the world of biology. So over the course of quite a few decades the situation has been reversed. It used to be that the evolutionary theorist had to fight to get inside the school door. Now it is just the opposite as creationists have to fight to get in. Over the long history, evolution has gained and continues to gain ground. But it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re involved in day to day battles about particular interventions. Taking the long view, we should be optimistic about this.

MS: Finally, borrowing from the title of Kent Greenawalt’s (2007) book, ‘does God belong in public schools’?

HS: The answer, I think, is: it depends. Certainly, religion is an enormously important force in the world, both for good and bad. It therefore doesn’t make sense for schools to pretend it doesn’t exist. In that sense, it’s as worth studying as any other important social force is worth studying. God belongs in the public schools in that sense. But that doesn’t mean that the public schools should advocate for God or should try to establish religious culture of any particular sort. I would therefore say that God belongs in public schools but only as an object of study and not as an object of worship or advocacy. This is really a very standard view for all these controversies. It’s important for students to understand multiple religious perspectives. So we teach courses in comparative religion, we teach courses in the history of Christianity, the history of Judaism, the history of Islam, and the history of religious conflict. We have lots of courses that involve religion and that’s absolutely legitimate scholarship and perfectly OK for not just universities but also for public schools. However, that’s different from going to a school where you are expected to pray and you are expected to hold to the tenets of some particular religious faith. That’s not for the public schools.


  1. 1.

    The Scopes Monkey Trial, formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925), was a legal case including a high school science teacher John Thomas Scopes who was being accused of violating a Tennessee state law (the Butler Act) by teaching human evolution.

  2. 2.
  3. 3.

    The book is a part of the History and Philosophy of Education Series at the University of Chicago Press. See


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Copyright information

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MiamiMiamiUSA
  2. 2.Educational Research InstituteLjubljanaSlovenia

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