on July 10, 2007
Numbers' fascinating and extremely well-researched book is the story of an ongoing religious tragedy, in which a small group of radical biblical literalists have managed, as one writer put it, to take a beautiful creation myth and ruin it. Their idea is that the Bible should be considered a book of scientific fact, a position that makes scripture forever hostage to the latest scientific findings. It's a move that is sheerly breathtaking in its foolishness. By pursuing this misbegotten agenda, all the literalists can accomplish is to inflict enormous harm on the credibility of religion in its proper sphere. Well, that plus getting lots of attention for themselves, selling lots of books, and doing very nicely on the lecture circuit. With friends like these, religion needs no enemies. Their counterparts on the opposite side (e.g, Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.) are doing equally well preaching to their own choir. It's a very profitable arrangement, if you think about it, and for that very reason the lamentable charade seems destined to go on ad nauseum. Science will hardly notice, leaving religion itself and the important personal and societal functions that it serves as the only losers.
The great truths of religion do not depend on the particular facts of history or science, and it is a disastrous mistake to trivialize them in that way. To put shallow scriptural literalism in the place of the deep and timeless expressions of poetry, parable, and metaphor is about the most self-undermining move that any religion can make. John Dominic Crossen had it right when he wrote that "those ancient people told smart, metaphorical stories that we were now dumb enough to take literally." Or cynical enough. There is no excuse for this squabble otherwise.
This is a brief (only 135 pages of text) and fast-moving account of the history of this confrontation, and how it has waxed and waned, based on an enormous volume of source materials. We find that a great many common assumptions about the nature and origins of the dispute do not hold up to the evidence. For example, it is surprising how, after having pretty well died away in the late 1920s, this dispute re-emerged to take on really significant proportions in the 1970s, due largely to a key change in strategy by ultra-literalist anti-evolutionists: a demand for creationism to get equal time in the schools, rather than for the teaching of evolution to be eliminated. Some school districts discouraged lawsuits for equal time, though, because they were already teaching straight creationism -- equal time would only force them to add the teaching of evolution! The huge role of the Seventh Day Adventists in the rise of the most radical form of young earth, flood geology creationism ("creation science") that emerged in the 1970s, was news to me. The chapter on the Scopes Trial and the way it was interpreted in various quarters is very good. I had forgotten that Scopes had never actually taught Darwinism, or even biology, and I did not know that Darrow was so arrogant and overbearing that the ACLU tried to dump him from the defense team. There are interesting facts like these throughout the book, and a whole raft of larger-than-life personalities. Overall, the entire landscape is more complicated and various than I had imagined, with many more twists and turns than typical media accounts and even the work of respected historians has suggested. Numbers does a terrific job of describing the views that distinguish naturalistic evolutionists, theistic evolutionists, intelligent-design theorists, old-Earth creationists, and scientific (young-Earth) creationists, views that span a very great distance, indeed. The book is a page-turner and well worth reading.
on July 30, 2000
University of Wisconsin historian of science Ronald L. Numbers has written with grace, clarity and empathy an easy-to-read, interesting, informative, fascinating book. Readers who desire to be well-versed on one of the most controversial issues of the day should both enjoy reading it and find that it dispels "myths and misconceptions that still cling" to popular, journalisitic, and scholarly knowledge about the reaction of Christians and non-believers to Darwinian evolution. Beginning in 1860 with Asa Gray, the first American Christian Darwinian, Professor Numbers charts the reaction of scholarly believers from such leading scientists as Louis Agassiz (who opposed Darwinism) to James D. Dana (who first opposed, then accepted a theistic form of evolution) to the American statesman William Jennings Bryan ( who opposed Darwinism not so much for its biological conclusions but because the survival-of-the fittest doctrine bolstered anti-democratic elitist, racist and race-exterminationist movements like German militarism and Naziism) to the theistic evolutionists and the aniti-evolutionist flood geologists of the twentieth century. Among the myths and misconceptions the author exposes is the belief that the 1960 motion picture INHERIT THE WIND is a true account of what really happened at the Monkey (Scopes) "trial of the century" in 1925. Despite the fact that most Americans only know what they know about the trial because of the film, in fact, INHERIT THE WIND is a terribly distorted, biased portrait of the trial and the issues; anyone who relies on it for historical knowledge is foolish. Another myth exposed is that creationism is no longer believed by most Americans because Darwin's views totally triumphed after the Scopes trial. In fact, Darwin's original thesis was largely questioned by scientists by 1900. Then emerged the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which is in various forms is the prevailing theory today, but even now evolutionists themselves are widely divided on the details of evolution, and some reputable scholars, albeit a minority of the scientific establishment, question the validity of neo-Darwinian theory. Furthermore, despite the "nearly unanimous endorsement of naturalisitic evolution by leading biologists," belief that the universe and humans were created by God runs deep in the United States and Canada. In 1993, for instance, 47 percent of Americans believed that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years," an additional 35 percent thought that the process of evolution had been "divinely guided," and "58 percent of the public favored teaching creationism in the schools." Professor Numbers demonstrates conclusively that the current evolution-creation debate is not simply between anti-scientific religious zealots who believe in an earth no older than 10,000 years and atheistic evolutionists. Instead, a wide spectrum of views exists. At one end are rabid scientists like the famous biologist who announced that he believes in evolution despite its many unanswered questions because of a rather unscientific quasi-religious commitment to atheistic materialism. At the other end are the self-styled scientific creationists who, notwithstanding powerful evidence to the contrary, believe the earth was created 10,000 years ago and that fossils showing the earth is billiions of years old were deposited by a universal flood four to six thousand years ago. In between are religiously committed, mostly Christian, reputable scientists who hold either theisitc evolution (God used evolutionary processes to create), progressive creationism (God used evolution to create but punctuated it with perioidic special creations of new species including the special creation of human beings), to the new Intelligent Design theory (whether or not there has been evolution, the universe provides indispuitable evidence that there is a great designer--God--who is responsible for it all). And so the debate goes on, and is not likely any time soon, if ever, to end with victory for any of the parties. DARWINISM COMES TO AMERICA is an exceptionally valuable book containing, in addition to the observations heretofore described, many other insights and delights to titillate inquiring minds. No one should say another word about evolution and creation until they have read this book.