One of the fiercest moral debates witnessed in Europe in the second half of the 19th century was raised by the theory of the evolution of species set out by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species. The theory challenged most established views on the place of humans in the cosmos, on three fundamental points:
- It suggested that Homo sapiens, in common with all extant species, arose not by special creation but by evolutionary development from simpler forms of life.
- It suggested that evolution was not guided by some divinity or purpose, but by rules which govern the inheritance of physical characteristics. These rules were not seen as having any moral content, and the theory of evolution did not therefore acknowledge a moral component to the pattern of life.
- The theory of evolution therefore questioned whether Homo sapiens holds a supreme place in nature.
In Western countries, the debate persisted longest in the United States of America where the theory of evolution clashed with widely held fundamentalist religious views, and in many centres within the US the value of the theory has never been acknowledged. The explanatory power of the theory of evolution has been recognised, however, by all biologists, and their work has expanded and developed it. In Australia, as in all Western countries, the theory of evolution has for many years been taught as the most powerful theory available of the origins of the diversity of biology.
Over the last 10-20 years, the fundamentalist rejection of the theory has gained momentum in the United States, and the same thrust has been evident in parts of Australia. The anti-evolution thrust argues two major points:
- that the theory of evolution is flawed; and
- that a sense of balance in the teaching of the scientific basis of life requires that equal consideration be given to the creationist view, that sees the origin of the diversity of life in the specific intention of the Deity.
The following points summarize the view of the Australian Academy of Science on this issue:
- All scientific ideas are theories, imperfect and subject to test. That the theory of evolution is imperfect, and still the subject of study and modification, affirms that the theory is part of science. Many attempts to modify and expand the theory have been successful, showing (since Darwin's day) the gene-basis of inheritance, the basis of gene-reproduction in the double helix structure of DNA, the "genetic drift" basis of the origin of breeds, and so on. Many challenges to the fundamentals of the theory have failed empirical test. The theory has attracted enormous empirical testing and remains one of the most powerful of scientific ideas.
- The creationist account of the origin of life has been and remains an important idea in human culture. However it is not a scientific idea. That is, it is not open to empirical test. It is an article of religious faith.
- The creationist account of the origin of life is not therefore appropriate to a course in the science of biology, and the claim that it is a viable scientific explanation of the diversity of life does not warrant support.
- The Academy sees no objection to the teaching of creationism in schools as part of a course in dogmatic or comparative religion, or in some other non-scientific context. There are no grounds, however, for requiring that creationism be taught as part of a science course.