Report for Information


Teaching About Creationism and Evolution in Schools Item 7

Presented to:


Presented by:

The Director of Children's Services


24 February 2009

Distributed to:

SACRE Members


Hard Copy


10 February 2009

Contact name:

Clive Erricker


02392 441521



1) Purpose of Report: Teaching about Creationism and Evolution in schools

2) Contextual Issues:

3) The discussion paper

4) Recommendation: That SACRE recommends that the unit which exemplifies the conceptual enquiry approach of Living Difference is disseminated to secondary schools through the IT learning platform and the secondary mailing.

Section 100 D - Local Government Act 1972 - background documents


    The following documents discuss facts or matters on which this report, or an important part of it, is based and have been relied upon to a material extent in the preparation of this report. (NB: the list excludes published works and any documents which disclose exempt or confidential information as defined in the Act.)





Creation and Evolution: incompatible explanations?

1. Religion and science

The relationship between religion and science is a contested one and often fraught with emotional tension. My own experience includes going to an interdisciplinary research training seminar in education and sitting in a group in which we had to introduce ourselves, our discipline, and one observation about a problem we encountered in our work. My `problem' was that in religious education we often encountered student views that were negative about religion. A scientist in the group responded by saying that we deserved that and now science was getting its own back (on religion). I was taken aback because I hadn't expected such a hostile response, but it is evidence that animosity still exists between religion and science and that that is a legacy of ways in which religion treated some scientists as heretics previously when it had greater influence and power, the case of Galileo is perhaps the most famous example. The tensions between religion and science should not be denied but nor should we paint a black and white picture in this respect, it is more complex than that and, in the way we teach RE in Hampshire we are always looking for our students to explore complexity.

What has made things particularly high profile, in terms of tension, is the debate that is now prevalent and newsworthy regarding the teaching of creationism (or `intelligent design') and the arguments against religion made by Richard Dawkins, and others, firmly based on an evolutionary perspective. To ignore this debate would be wrong but it needs to be put in perspective. That is our job as teachers. We already have the pedagogical instrument to do this with our conceptual enquiry methodology which encourages students to enquire into issues and makes it possible to readily bring different arguments and perspectives into focus and analyse their claims and then ask students to make their own informed judgements, which they then have to defend. The creation-evolution debate then becomes a very worthwhile one to focus upon. Below I offer an example of how you could do that.

However, there are already a significant number of resources you can employ for examining science and religion. A recent one of value is `Religion and Science in the 21st Century Classroom' by Tonie Solberg and Geoff Teece. This is published by the University of Birmingham School of Education. Copies are available from Tonie Stolberg and he can be contacted at t.l.stolberg@bham.ac.uk. This 60 page booklet offers a pedagogical approach based on enquiry that can easily be adapted to our conceptual approach. It covers a number of aspects of fruitful engagement between science and religion providing ideas for lessons, informative background reading and suggestions for resources. If you want a fuller volume then buy Tonie L. Stolberg and Geoff Teece (2009) Teaching Religion and Science: pedagogy and practice, London: Routledge. The importance of Stolberg's and Teece's approach is that it is well informed, thorough and thoughtfully worked out in terms of teaching and learning, using the idea of `skillful means' borrowed from the Buddhist tradition as a basis for enquiry. Their Lesson 2 (pages 46-48) focuses on the evolution debate. I have adapted that below to suit our conceptual enquiry methodology and give a more detailed focus to the enquiry activities.

2. Creation-Evolution Debate

However, this debate is complex and, as you will see below, from the quotations presented, it is not an easy enquiry for students to follow. I suggest it can be simplified and many of you will have resources to hand or worked examples through which you do that. The main point of this guidance is to clear up any misunderstandings in the creation-evolution debate and for you to add anything I have presented to your present way of doing an enquiry into this issue.

Summary of Points

3. Cycle of learning

Key concept: evolution


Key question: What did Darwin mean by evolution and what issues does it raise?

Anti-Darwin cartoon 1800s


Activity 1: use the above cartoon to introduce students to the issue:

So far they have been hypothesising and relying on their prior knowledge and powers of observation. Use their responses to move on to an analysis of his evolutionist theory (below)

Darwin's theory of evolution is based on five key observations and inferences drawn from them. These observations and inferences have been summarized by the great biologist Ernst Mayr as follows:

1) Species have great fertility. They make more offspring than can grow to adulthood.

2) Populations remain roughly the same size, with modest fluctuations.

3) Food resources are limited, but are relatively constant most of the time.

From these three observations it may be inferred that in such an environment there will be a struggle for survival among individuals.

4) In sexually reproducing species, generally no two individuals are identical. Variation is rampant.

5) Much of this variation is heritable.

From this it may be inferred: In a world of stable populations where each individual must struggle to survive, those with the "best" characteristics will be more likely to survive, and those desirable traits will be passed to their offspring. These advantageous characteristics are inherited by following generations, becoming dominant among the population through time. This is natural selection. It may be further inferred that natural selection, if carried far enough, makes changes in a population, eventually leading to new species. These observations have been amply demonstrated in biology, and even fossils demonstrate the veracity of these observations.

To summarise Darwin's Theory of Evolution:

1. Variation: There is Variation in Every Population.
2. Competition: Organisms Compete for limited resources.
3. Offspring: Organisms produce more Offspring than can survive.
4. Genetics: Organisms pass Genetic traits on to their offspring.
5. Natural Selection: Those organisms with the Most Beneficial Traits
are more likely to Survive and Reproduce.

Darwin imagined it might be possible that all life is descended from an original species from ancient times. DNA evidence supports this idea.
Probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial life form. There is grandeur in this view of life that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. (Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species)


Activity 2: students can work in pairs or groups and:

In using this text students need to:

To answer the key question students need to consider:


Key question: In what ways are these different responses to `evolution' compatible or incompatible and why?

Distribute the texts below amongst groups of students. Given that some of these texts are harder than others you can differentiate which group gets what text.

Ask the students in each group to discuss what significant point(s) the text is making and whether it is well made. Where more than one group has the same text, then ask them to confer on their observations and judgements. For example, you could use the `ambassador' technique here of one member of a group conferring with another group and feeding back, or put the groups together with appointed scribes.

Coming back together as a class get feedback from the groups on the text they read, the observations it was making and the issue (s) that raises and agree the issues and rank them. Discuss any areas of the debate that students feel require more information as a result.

`Unless and until Darwinians could produce an explanation of how organisms of one species could eventually evolve into those of another, it was a fair criticism to say that Darwin had not offered a causal theory but only, at best, a hypothesis.' (criticism by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce)32

The Catholic Church distinguishes between the evolution of the body and the special creation of the soul. Jones summarises the Catholic position by reference to Humani Generis, the encyclical of Pius XII, arguing that the Catholic Church does not forbid the theory of evolution as an explanation of the origin of the human body, but rejects the notion that the soul was not created directly by God.This kind of language, however, poses problems in the debate with science because it smacks of vitalism, the incorporation of an ingredient in our natures which is not subject to scientific test.



It is important to an understanding of the development of the `special relationship' between evolutionary theory and theology to understand what it was about Darwin's scheme which challenged 19th Century theological descriptions:

These three conclusions now form the accepted background from which most theology reflects on the biosphere.

If it is simply asserted that God has used the processes of evolution to further divine purposes of creating a world in which there could be creatures like ourselves, then a further problem arises which was already known to Darwin, namely that evolution seems to contain such cruelty, waste and ugliness as to make it hard to defend as the means to a divine end. One of the strengths of Darwin's theory was that it explained, without the need for any ad hoc hypotheses, both aesthetically appealing adaptations, such as the beak of the woodpecker, and the `ugliness' of species like the ichneumonidae - wasps whose larvae are implanted within the body of a caterpillar and eat it alive from the inside.



Key evaluative question: Is it possible to believe in both evolution and a creator God?

The texts below consolidate and extend students' understanding and provide different perspectives on whether evolution and theological positions can be reconciled. You can select and amend as appropriate and use in a similar way to the activities provided in Contextualise. The main thing is to draw out the way in which the issues in the debate over creation-evolution have been responded to.

Creationism is focused on defending a literal reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text. Instead, intelligent design theory is an effort to empirically detect whether the "apparent design" in nature observed by biologists is genuine design (the product of an organizing intelligence) or is simply the product of chance and mechanical natural laws. This effort to detect design in nature is being adopted by a growing number of biologists, biochemists, physicists, mathematicians, and philosophers of science at American colleges and universities. Scholars who adopt a design approach include biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University, microbiologist Scott Minnich at the University of Idaho, and mathematician William Dembski at Baylor University. (3)


Creationism, creation science, and intelligent design theory are three religious theories of creation offered to explain the origins of the universe.

It is difficult to distinguish among these theories. However, this is a starting point:

Intelligent design is the assertion that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."[1][2] It is a modern form of the traditional teleological argument for the existence of God, modified to avoid specifying the nature or identity of the designer.[3] The idea was developed by a group of American creationists who reformulated their argument in the creation-evolution controversy to circumvent court rulings that prohibit the teaching of creationism as science.[4][5][6] Intelligent design's leading proponents, all of whom are associated with the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank,[7][8] believe the designer to be the God of Christianity.[9][10] Advocates of intelligent design argue that it is a scientific theory,[11] and seek to fundamentally redefine science to accept supernatural explanations.[12]

One of the argument's more famous variations involves an analogy with a watch. William Paley (1743-1805), the Archdeacon of Carlisle, writes in his Natural Theology (1802):

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that for anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew the watch might have always been there.

The reason, he says, that he couldn't conceive of the watch having been there forever is because it is evident that the parts of the watch were put together for a purpose. It is inevitable that "the watch must have had a maker," whereas the stone apparently has no purpose revealed by the complex arrangement of its parts.


"If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals."
     --John Stuart Mill


Genesis 1.26 describes humans as made in the image and likeness of God, the only creatures to which this direct connection with the divine is attributed. Theologically, then, the Christian tradition has asserted a radical discontinuity between humans and other creatures. Scientifically, the differences between humans and other animals are ones of degree, rather than a radical discontinuity of nature. (see the paradox of the development of modern humans).

A Darwinian account of humanity can find no place for the notion that the species suddenly acquired a property called `the image and likeness of God'. Human distinctiveness evolved gradually (see the evolution of hominids). Can theology frame its understanding of the imago Dei in such a way as to take account of this perception? There are three main possibilities for grounding this concept:

In fact, evolution is an absolutely essential ingredient in our thinking about God today. As the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng puts it, evolutionary theory now makes possible: 1) a deeper understanding of God--not above or outside the world but in the midst of evolution; 2) a deeper understanding of creation--not as contrary to but as making evolution possible; and 3) a deeper understanding of humans as organically related to the entire cosmos.(9)

Skeptics, of course, will immediately ask how theology can reconcile the idea of God with the role of chance in life's evolution. This is a crucial question, and the contrast position's casual conjecture that chance may not really exist is unsatisfactory. In fact, chance is quite real. It is a concrete fact in evolution, but it is not one that contradicts the idea of God. On the contrary, an aspect of indeterminacy is just what we should expect if, as religion maintains, God is love. For love never coerces. It allows the beloved--in this case the entire created cosmos--to be or to become itself. If, as theistic religious tradition has always insisted, God really cares for the well-being of the world, then the world has to be something other than God. It has to have a certain amount of "freedom" or autonomy. If it did not somehow exist on its own it would be nothing more than an extension of God's own being, and hence it would not be a world unto itself. So there has to be room for indeterminacy in the universe, and the randomness in evolution is one instance of it.


`Darwinian evolution, specifically natural selection...shatters the illusion of design...and teaches us to be suspicious of any design hypothesis...I think the physicist Leonard Susskind had this in mind when he wrote, "...modern cosmology really began with Darwin and Wallace. Unlike anyone before them they provided explanations of our existence that completely rejected supernatural agents"' (Richard Dawkins, 2006, The God Delusion, London: Bantam Press, p.118)


Key Question: What is your response to the idea of `evolution'?

Stimulus: Google earth images can be evocative for stimulating debate. Try the accompanying question: Can the universe be both majestic and meaningless?

Here students are being asked to make and justify a personal response. This is different to the Evaluate part of the cycle but continuous with it. They need to decide what they can bring to the argument between evolution and the issue it raises for belief in God. Where do they stand?

This might begin by summarising the class conclusions on the Evaluate question and the differing standpoints people have taken. You want the main interaction to be students responding to the views of other students and reconsidering and justifying their own position in the light of that.



Key question: What are the implications of your response to the idea of evolution?

Here Apply can focus on the consequences of the debate in communicate. This can mirror the debate they have scrutinized in their enquiry. Thus, students need to consider how disagreement should be managed: by respecting each other's views or by seeking to focus on their illogicality, lack of sensitivity to human feeling (in the case of science) or lack of evidential reasoning (in the case of religion). Here is the point where you want them to confront whether we can tolerate different ideas and processes whereby we gain knowledge or not; whether it is the case that science and religion have two different functions (science telling us how and religion telling us why; science dealing in facts and religion in meaning) or not.

You may wish to organise a class debate at this point to finalise the enquiry.

For further reading on this I would particularly recommend Mary Midgley (2002) Evolution as a Religion, London and New York: Routledge.

Ideally, this is an enquiry that can be done involving both RE and Science departments in a school which acknowledges the importance of the QCA's guidance to create more interdisciplinary work in the secondary curriculum and produce `compelling lessons'.