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A Quintessential History of a Controversial Subject Written by a Skilled and Non-Partisan Historian,
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This review is from: The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Paperback)
Originally published in 1992, this superb history of the evolution of creationism, mostly in the United States, by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Ronald L. Numbers fills a major gap in the literature on the subject. The landscape of the evolution/creationism debate is filled with polemical works attacking evolution and advancing the cause of creationism/intelligent design, or vice versa, but there are few serious, sophisticated, and dispassionate histories of the debate. "The Creationists" is the gold standard if one is seeking to understand the history of the interplay between competing world views--evolutionary biology versus Judeo/Christian understandings of human origins--rather than learn arguments for the polemical battles currently taking place. While complete objectivity is beyond the capability of anyone, Numbers seeks to tell the story of this debate impartially as possible. To a very great degree he succeeds, and we all benefit.
In "The Creationists" Numbers pulls back the curtain beyond the high-profile Scopes Trial of 1925 and the recent textbook battles to focus on a less well-known but a remarkably interesting and complex story of how those firmly believing in the inerrancy of the Bible sought to deal with Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory. There is an extraordinary cast of characters in this effort ranging from George Frederick Wright, who published "Man and the Glacial Period" in 1892, to Wendell R. Bird who developed a political strategy to demand the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in the public schools in the 1970s. These divergent characters, the organizations they created, and the religious traditions they represented all competed amongst themselves on how best to counteract the effects of evolution. One of the virtues of this book is Numbers' commitment to unraveling the complex differences among those advocating creationism. He found a stormy history as creationists fought among themselves to define their ideas and make their arguments to others.
One of the revelations of "The Creationists" is that for the three-quarters of a century after the publication of Darwin's "On the Origins of Species" in 1859 most of those involved in the creationist debate sought to rationalize the two belief systems. As Numbers' concludes, "by the late nineteenth century even the most conservative Christian apologists readily conceded that the Bible allowed for an ancient earth and pre-Edenic life. With few exceptions, they accommodated the findings of historical geology either by interpreting the days of Genesis 1 to represent vast ages in the history of the earth (the so-called day-age theory) or by separating a creation `in the beginning' from a much later Edenic creation in six literal days (the gap theory)" (p. x). As an example, William Jennings Bryan, the creationist advocate in the Scopes trial, subscribed to the day-age theory.
This approach changed, slowly at first but then with accelerating support among evangelical Christians, as they sought to compress the age of the Earth into less than 10,000 years during the second quarter of the twentieth century. They did so by attributing the fossil record and geological disjuncture to the biblical flood and its aftermath. Thus was born the idea that humans and dinosaurs roamed the Earth together. By denying that the record of flora and fauna in the stratified rocks did not represent millions of years of the Earth's history, and that the flood explained everything found by scientists, the creationists found an argument for a young Earth convincing to many evangelicals. George McCready Price first developed the primacy of flood geology in creationism, publishing the "New Geology" in 1923 to lay out this position.
Price's argument, with modification and elaboration over time, became the dominant theory for most creationists. As the book "Scientific Creationism" argued in 1974, "The Genesis Flood is the real crux of the conflict between evolutionist and creationist cosmologies. If the system of flood geology can be established on a sound scientific basis, and be effectively promoted and publicized, then the entire evolutionary cosmology...will collapse" (p. xi). Numbers documents the manner in which Price's "new catastrophism" gained adherents among the creationists and became the dominant theory among those questioning evolution in the middle part of the twentieth century. As Numbers concluded, "By the 1980s the flood geologists had virtually co-opted the name creationism to describe the once marginal views of Price" (p. xi).
A recent update of this book allowed Numbers to add material on the recent intelligent design argument that emerged in the 1990s. Building on the concept of a young Earth and flood geology, this idea suggests that evolution cannot explain the ultimate complexity of many features of the universe and of living things, those are best explained by deliberate causation.
"The Creationists" goes far toward helping readers understand how creationism has come to its present status in the United States, as well as elsewhere. Ron Numbers is to be congratulated on a superb historical--as opposed to a polemical--study of this important subject in science and society. It is a model of historical scholarship and a testament to the enlightenment non-partisan analyses offer to the reading public.