IT IS one of life's fundamental questions and has perplexed and fascinated mankind since the dawn of time. Where do we come from and who or what created the universe?
Do we owe our existence to some divine creator or are we, as Charles Darwin theorised, the result of evolution?
The issue was brought into sharp focus this week when the US president, George Bush, said his belief that God created the world was not incompatible with scientific proof of evolution.
Asked about creation and evolution, in an interview with ABC Television's Nightline programme on Monday, Mr Bush said: "I think you can have both. I'm just a simple president. But I think that God created the Earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution."
While it is easy to mock Mr Bush, experts in the field of divinity said yesterday that the president had touched upon an argument that continues to be hotly debated, especially in the US.
Dr Victoria Harrison, from the department of philosophy and religious education at Glasgow University, said Darwin's theory of evolution did not answer all the questions about how human beings came to find themselves on Earth.
"I think these questions have relevance today," she said. "One of the topics is the 'design argument' which is one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. We can trace these arguments right back beyond the medieval period.
"I think there are oversimplifications on both sides. But I don't think evolution can explain everything. It doesn't tell us why everything is here."
The thorny issue was revisited during the recent US presidential election. A sizeable right-wing section of the American electorate, from whom vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin drew much of her support, exhorts, among other things, the teaching in US schools of creationism. It is a doctrine that denounces Darwinism and all other arguments for human evolution developed in the past 150 years.
Creationists base their theories on a literal reading of Genesis, with the idea that God created the universe and everything in it.
They believe in a "young universe", which may be only a few thousand years old, and that all species were created by God. Crucially, they see human beings as being created separately from the animal kingdom.
But the arguments are not confined to the United States. A recent survey in Britain found that 31 per cent of teachers believe creationism should be given the same status as evolution in the classroom.
The poll of 1,200 teachers also found that 30 per cent already discuss creationism, or variations of it, during science lessons. And 88 per cent of those interviewed for the Teachers TV poll said they should be allowed to discuss the subject in science if pupils raised the issue.
The findings support the views of the Rev Professor Michael Reiss, who lost his job as director of education at the Royal Society, the scientific academy, after calling for creationism to be included in school science lessons.
Many scientists insist that creationism cannot be proved and therefore it should not be taught as science. Although it is regarded by many as an absurd theory, hundreds of thousands of people believe in it worldwide and some teachers believe that, by discussing each argument, young people will be best able to judge for themselves.
There is also the fear that, if topics such as creationism are not discussed in the mainstream, they will be taken over by religious fundamentalists.
In September, a controversial creationist who successfully campaigned for the official website of Richard Dawkins – the evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion – to be banned in Turkey offered a multi-trillion-pound challenge to scientists.
Adnan Oktar "issued a call to all evolutionists" that he would give "10 trillion Turkish lira (4.3 trillion] to anyone who produces a single intermediate-form fossil demonstrating evolution".
A fierce critic of what he calls "the Darwinist dictatorship," the Muslim writer is a popular figure in his home country, where, according to a 2006 survey, only a quarter of the population believes in Darwin's theory. The 52-year-old former architecture student, who has been heavily criticised in the West, claims there are no fossils to support Darwinist theories.
"Evolutionists are at a dead-end in the face of the fossil record," he was quoted as saying.
Mr Oktar came to prominence in 2006 when 10,000 copies of his book, The Atlas Of Creation, were distributed worldwide. The 800-page tome explained his theory that for millions of years life forms have not developed, supporting his Islamic creationist beliefs.
Mr Dawkins dismissed the book as "preposterous", speaking of "the breathtaking inanity of the content".
Mr Oktar called it "concrete evidence of the panic Darwinists are experiencing". And he successfully brought a case against Mr Dawkins to a Turkish court, claiming that his website contained blasphemous and defamatory content. Internet users in Turkey can no longer access the site.
While many believe evolution and creationism can happily co-exist, others are adamant there is no room in 21st century thinking for both theories.
David Fergusson, professor of divinity at Edinburgh University, describes creationism as an "anti-evolutionary" movement.
"I think creationism is fundamentally mistaken, both theologically and scientifically. There is no scientific basis for creationism," he said.
"I don't think there is a middle ground … I think my view is shared by many scientists."
And Prof Fergusson raised serious concerns about any prospect of creationism finding its way onto the curriculum in British schools.
"It ought not to be taught in schools … it is at odds with the natural sciences," he said.
"It's not such a big issue (in the UK] but we should be aware that much of Islam is opposed to evolutionary science. We have more Muslims coming into the UK in prominent positions in education, in society. I think it will be a growing issue over the years in Britain."
One world, three theories
An umbrella term for a wide range of different beliefs, creationism is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Creationists form their theories on a literal reading of Genesis, with the idea that God created the universe.
Insisting that the Earth is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old, they believe all life was created in six days, and the fall of Adam and Eve is responsible for disease, ageing and death. The teaching of creationism was removed from curriculums in the United States by a Supreme Court ruling in 1987, because of the constitutional issue of the separation of church and state.
A more modern version of creationism, intelligent design (ID) argues that life is so complex it cannot solely be explained by evolution.
It has been used to try to circumvent the US Supreme Court ruling, by avoiding speculation on who is the designer of the universe.
ID is also the subject of legal cases in America in an attempt to have it taught as science in schools as an alternative to evolution.
The term was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1860, based on the theories of Charles Robert Darwin, born on 12 February, 1809.
Darwin was a British scientist who laid the foundations of the theory of evolution and transformed the way we think about the natural world. At that time, most Europeans believed that the world was created by God, as described in the Bible.
Darwin challenged the status quo, proposing a theory of evolution occurring by the process of natural selection. Those animals best suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on the characteristics which helped them survive. Gradually, the species changes over time. Darwin's book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was controversial because the logical extension of his theory was that human beings were simply another form of animal. Darwin believed that people may have evolved – quite possibly from apes – and destroyed the prevailing views on how the world was created. Darwin was vehemently attacked, particularly by the Church. However, his ideas soon gained currency and were widely accepted.