International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design

by Ronald L. Numbers

Introductory Essay by Frederick Gregory

In this expanded edition of his 1992 classic, Ronald Numbers continues his role as the world's leading historian of creationism. The difference between the two editions is the addition of two chapters, one dealing with the Intelligent Design movement, which in 1992 was in its early years, and a concluding chapter that updates his 1992 account of creationism's spread across the world and makes clear that attempts since then to stop it from going global have failed miserably.       

There is simply nothing comparable to Numbers' achievement. He has thoroughly examined the myriad of historical sources of creationism, especially in the United States, and has identified the phases through which creationism has gone. A major service of his meticulous research is his clarification of the meaning of creationism from the time of Darwin to our own day. Darwin opposed the idea of "special creation," according to which God had created each species to fit into the environment in which it was found. As more and more people, above all in scientific and educated circles, came to acknowledge that modern living things had evolved from more primitive life forms, God's creative activity was moved back into the recesses of deep time.

Numbers relates how theologians of the early twentieth century, including evangelical leaders and even some of those who embraced the label ‘fundamentalist’, incorporated an expanded timescale and the evolution of species (although usually not natural selection) into their creationist outlook. He then examines the rise of the major exception to this trend of theistic evolution - the New Catastrophism of the Seventh Day Adventist writer George McCready Price who insisted that life was recently created.  There is no more authoritative account of Price's impact on the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s, especially during the years following the Scopes Trial of 1925. Numbers details the internal struggles of the American evangelical community from the 1930s to the 1950s to hold on to its theistic evolutionary roots in the face of a fundamentalist movement that had not been defeated by events in Dayton, Tennessee. 

The main focus of Numbers's study is the remarkable shift, beginning with the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961, away from the traditional evangelical position of theistic evolution towards a revival of Price’s ideas. Numbers offers no easy explanation why so-called Flood Geology, which argues that observable geological and fossil phenomena resulted from the action of the flood, was able by the 1980s to co-opt theistic evolution and claim "creationism" for itself.  But he does chronicle the emergence of the "scientific creationism" of the 1970s, with its new tactic of equal time (lobbying for media exposure on the basis that ‘both sides’ of the ‘controversy’ should be heard), and he carefully takes the reader through the events that gave birth to the complex Intelligent Design movement, culminating in the Dover Trial of 2005. Numbers' narration of the particulars of these remarkable developments is must reading for anyone who wishes to acquire an accurate understanding of the heritage of our modern-day debates.