Anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, 1881

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is recognised as a centrally important figure in the development of scientific and humanist ideas. In 1859 he published On the Origin of Species, a book detailing his theory of evolution. He developed his ideas in subsequent books and papers, and as additional fossil evidence was unearthed, evolution by natural selection was established as a linchpin of modern science.

Darwin’s ideas caused a massive controversy that continues to this day. At a meeting of the British Association on 30 June 1860 the biologist T H Huxley decisively defended the theory of evolution in a debate with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, thus undermining the clergy’s attempts to control the outcome and conclusions of scientific endeavour. But in spite of increased support from the scientific community, the theory was not met with universal acceptance. In 1925 the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law known as the Butler Act, which provided:

... that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

In response to the passing of the act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend anyone accused of teaching the theory of evolution. A substitute biology teacher, John Scopes, was encouraged by a Tennessee businessman to teach Darwin’s theory in defiance of the act, and Scopes’ subsequent arrest led to the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which the Christian Fundamentalist lawyer William Jennings Bryan was pitted against the agnostic Clarence Darrow. Scopes was eventually found guilty and fined $100, but not before Darrow had undermined Bryan’s position in a heated, much-publicised debate.

It was not until 1968 that the US Supreme Court ruled that bans such as the Butler Act (which had been repealed in Tennessee the previous year) contravened the constitutional separation of church and state. Yet the controversy continues with the “intelligent design movement”, a campaign that originated in the United States which calls for extensive social, academic and political changes—including the right to teach a form of creationism in schools.