Which Creation Theory?

Last month, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the state’s required curriculum. The decision was a victory for those who favor at least equal treatment for creationism. But several Slate readers, responding to William Saletan’s Frame Game on the controversy, note that while there is basically only one theory of evolution, there are many different theories of creation. Here are a few:

Buddhism, unlike most religions, does not have a single creation story. There is, instead, an endless cycle of creation, destruction, and rebirth. At the beginning of each kalpa (or era), there is nothing but water and darkness. As time passes, land slowly forms on the water’s surface. The only living creatures are spiritual beings who were reborn at the end of the previous kalpa. Eventually, one of these being is tempted by the pleasures of earth, abandons his soul-life, and takes on the form of a man. As others follow, they begin to experience the jealousy, desire, and misery of a physical existence (this is the period in which we are living). In time, the world dissolves, returning all creatures to the soul-life and beginning the cycle once again.

African creation stories are varied. The Fans–a Bantu tribe–tell of an imperfect creation. The god, Nzame, created the earth and populated it with animals. Deciding that it needed a ruler, he made Fam, the first man. But Fam became insolent, abusing the animals and neglecting to worship Nzame. So, Nzame buried the earth in soil and tried again–this time, beginning with a tree. As its leaves fell, they became the animals and fish of the new world. Nzame then made a new, more humble man. Needing a family, the man created a woman from a tree. Together, they had many children.

Hindus also have multiple creation stories, though they are all seen as different reflections of Brahman–the uniting holy principle of Hinduism. The Rig Veda–a Hindu hymnal–describes creation through the gods’ sacrifice of Purusa, the primal man. Purusa was, at the time, the entire universe. When he was sacrificed, his upper three quarters became the immortal heavens, and the lower quarter became the earth. The human castes came from Purusa, too: His arms became the warrior, his legs the commoner, and his feet the serf. Another Hindu story describes the earth’s origins in primordial waters. The seas, which desired to reproduce, made a golden egg. After a year, Prajapati–one of the divine forms of Brahman–sprang from the egg. As he cried out, the sound of his voice resonating created the earth, the sky, and the seasons.

The Judeo-Christian Bible’s book of Genesis recounts a story of creation exnihilo, or out of nothing. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth–a formless and empty mass over which He hovered. Over the next five days, God improved His creation, adding day and night, the sun and moon, the land and seas, and the plants and animals. On the sixth day, God created man in His own image: Adam was produced from dust, and Eve from Adam’s rib. God told them to reproduce and rule over the world’s living things. Then, God rested.

The Navajo story is one of creation by emergence–that is, that people slowly evolved from primitive creatures as they journeyed upward from the world’s womb. There are six worlds in the Navajo story, four of which lie below our earth, and one–a land of perfection and harmony–which lies above. People began as insects who inhabited the dark, watery first world. The insect people did not recognize sexual taboos, which angered the gods and led to their expulsion from each of the first three worlds. In the fourth world, the insects became (or, according to some versions of the story, helped create) First Man and First Woman. The couple had five sets of twins whom the gods taught the skills they would need to survive in the fifth world. The family then climbed a reed that brought them to the present earth. They created the mountains, weather, plants and animals they had known below. And they brought the gods up to join them.

Next question?

Explainer thanks David Leeming and Margaret Leeming, authors ofA Dictionary of Creation Myths .