Published December 5, 2005
The Faith Angle Forum is a semi-annual conference which brings together a select group of 20 nationally respected journalists with 3-5 distinguished scholars on areas of religion, politics & public life.
“The Biology Wars: The Religion, Science & Education Controversy”
Key West, Florida
Dr. Edward J. Larson, Talmadge Chair of Law & Russell Professor of American History, University of Georgia
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: One of the most important issues in American life today that you are covering constantly is the whole debate about religion in public schools and religion and science. And it has come to our attention several times that we have not covered this topic yet. We decided we should, and one of the suggestions by our media advisors was that it probably would not be best if we had two eminent scientists sit here and debate back and forth physics, biochemistry and the origins of life. Wouldn’t it be better if we got somebody who could explain to us the religious/public, education/legal questions that form the ongoing debate about what should be taught in the classroom regarding science and religion?
And we could not have found a better person in the country — maybe even the world — than Ed Larson. Ed is not only a lawyer in the law school at the University of Georgia. But he is also a historian of science, with a Ph.D. in the history of science, and he has written several award winning books. One of his earlier books was Trial and Error: the American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution.
He’s also written Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in history. Ed has covered this both as a lawyer and as a historian. It is great to have him put all of this in context for us.
DR. EDWARD J. LARSON: You are terribly unfair having this event here because when I read the brochure, I think you’d already skewed the deck of where these people are. When I got the brochure of the Pier House, I noticed right here in the beginning it said, “Pier House Resort has experienced an elegant evolution.” I see nothing in here about it being an intelligently designed place.
There’s not a single, single comment in here. So I think you’ve already had a bias worked into your choice of location.
As you say, I’m both a historian and a lawyer. I did write a book on the Scopes trial, so I can’t really leave Scopes entirely behind. I know some of this will be very familiar to some of you and some not, but I’ll try to give us a perspective, with an overall framework that brings us up to today. Then I will look forward, and we can have a conversation about the variety of the issues of today. We’ll try to get to the present as well as the past.
The American controversy over creation and evolution is primarily fought out over what is taught in American public high-school classes. As far as I can tell — and I’ve followed the issue for years — virtually no one disputes teaching the theory of evolution in public colleges and universities or using public funds to support evolutionary research in agriculture and medicine. On that front, I’m regularly on panels for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It is just not an issue that comes up in those fields. And there is no serious debate over core evolutionary concepts of common descent among biologists.
It is the minds of American high-school students that are at stake. Opponents of evolutionary teaching typically ask for: 1) removing evolution from the classroom or, 2) balancing it with some form of creationist instruction, or 3) teaching it in some fashion as “just a theory.”
Actually, these three strategies, as I’ll try to explain, have always been present to some extent over the last 80 or 85 years of debate. But they also play out chronologically, at least to which is primary, so you can look at the history of this event as having three discernible, though not exclusive, phases. Allow me to deal with the first two of these phases — the history part — mostly as prologue. But I think it is a prologue necessary to understanding what’s happening now.
First comes the 1925 trial of John Scopes and the phase of anti-evolutionism characterized mainly by efforts to remove evolution from the high-school biology classroom altogether. Importantly, this effort coincided with the so-called “fundamentalist crisis” within American Protestantism, when many mainline Protestant denominations (the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the American Baptists, you name them) were deeply divided between so-called “modernists” (that was the word used back then) who adapted their traditional beliefs to current scientific thinking, and a new breed of fundamentalists who clung ever tighter to biblical literalism in the face of these new ideas.
No idea split modernists from fundamentalists more than the Darwinian theory of human evolution, and the rift was aggravated by the seeming rise of agnosticism within the cultural, scientific and media elite of America. From the first, the fundamentalist/modernist controversy — and we’re talking about the ‘20s now — raged over the interpretation of Genesis in the pulpit. And that would actually go back even as far as 1900, or even the late 1890s.
By the 1920s, both sides had carried this theological dispute into the classroom. Neither side wanted the other’s view taught as scientific fact in public school courses. In 1922, fundamentalists across the nation began lobbying for laws against teaching the Darwinian theory of human evolution in public schools. It was the first time they’d done that. But of course, much earlier than that you did not have compulsory secondary education, so it wasn’t a universal issue. By 1920, however, you basically had nationwide, compulsory secondary education.
The so-called “anti-evolution crusade” began just after World War I, during the return to normalcy, the Harding administration, the Red Scare, everything that was happening in those hyper-charged, emotional times. This was a national crusade, popping up all around the country from the West Coast to the East Coast. There were some marginal victories for anti-evolutionists. Some states passed certain limited restrictions, and textbooks had begun to change.Then came 1925, when Tennessee became the first state to pass a clean anti-evolution law, one that banned the teaching of the theory of human evolution in public schools.
From the outset — and this is probably why it created so much media attention — the anti-evolution crusade was seen as evidence of a new and profound cleavage between traditional values and modernity. I use the term “evidence” advisedly. The anti-evolution crusade did not cause the cleavage; it simply exemplified it, exposed it and became one of the most visible manifestations of it. There were others back at that time. Just like today there’s the Ten Commandments posting. Certain issues back then were hot in the same way.
You go back a generation or two before the 1920s and Americans tended to share common values — or at least those Americans of Protestant/European roots who set the cultural tone for America. Certainly there were atheists, agnostics and deists in mid-19th-century America, but they were marginal, and theological disputes among Christians rarely disrupted denominational harmony. Even the universities were conventionally religious places, as captured in books by such scholars as George Marsden, and they remained so until the late 1890s, when the rise of positivism, biblical higher criticism and Darwinism began disrupting that harmony.
By the early 20th century, surveys and studies began detecting a widening gap between the God-fearing American majority and the disbelieving cultural elite. It was not that the elite wanted to reject God or biblical revelation, commentator Walter Lippmann famously explained in a very influential essay at the time. It was that the ascendancy of rational, naturalistic modes of analysis made revelation, to the cultural elite, virtually unbelievable.
Indeed, it was the scientific method as applied to all facets of life, more than any particular scientific theory that lay at the heart of modernity. But Darwinism was criticized for applying that method to the key issue of biological origins and human morality. The morality part was important right from the start, just as it is now if you read any of the writings about intelligent design or creationism.
The anti-evolution statute thus struck a chord that resonated widely. The nationwide attention garnered by passage of the Tennessee law soon focused on tiny Dayton, Tennessee, when a local science teacher named John Scopes accepted the invitation of the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge that law in court. The media promptly proclaimed it, “the trial of the century” before it even began, as this young teacher, backed by the nation’s scientific, educational and cultural establishment, stood against the forces of fundamentalist religious lawmaking.
Of course, we are used to the Inherit the Wind version, where the poor fellow is in jail. In reality, after he was indicted, at the request of the local civic leaders who asked him ahead of time and informed him he was part of their scheme, he went on a nationwide speaking tour. He was filmed in the American Museum of Natural History, he was at the Supreme Court; he went around the country with a media tour during that intervening time between the indictment and the trial.
For many Americans at the time and ever after, the Scopes trial represented the inevitable conflict between newfangled scientific thought and old-fashioned supernatural belief. Like many archetypical American events, the trial itself began as a publicity stunt. Inspired by the ACLU’s offer to defend any Tennessee school teacher willing to challenge the new court, Dayton’s civic leaders saw a chance to gain attention for their struggling young community.
Journalist H.L. Mencken noted at the time, “The town boomers leaped to accept this one man. Here was an unexampled and almost miraculous chance to get Dayton upon the front pages, to make it talked about, to put it on the map.” While Scopes became their willing defendant at the invitation of school officials, the young teacher was neither jailed nor ostracized. And as I said, he spent much of the time between the indictment and the trial speaking to reporters and traveling around the country.
Of course, the ill-conceived publicity stunt quickly backfired on Dayton when the national media condemned the town for indicting one of its teachers. As Mencken observed on the eve of trial, “Two months ago the town was obscure and happy; today it is a universal joke.”
Yet another of the great journalists covering the trial for the northern press, Knoxville-born Joseph Wood Krutch defended Dayton from Mencken’s jabs. “The little town of Dayton behaved on the whole quite well,” he wrote. “The atmosphere was so far from being sinister as to suggest a circus day.”
Even if Dayton behaved well overall, as Krutch observed, Tennessee had barred its teachers from teaching their students about Darwinism. That was the real news story of the day, and it had long roots. Ever since Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, some conservative Christians objected to the atheistic implications of its naturalistic explanation for the origin of biological species, particularly of humans.
Further, some traditional scientists, most notably the great Harvard zoologist, Louis Agassiz, promptly challenged the very notion of organic evolution by arguing that highly complex individual organs, such as the eye, and ecologically dependent species, such as bees and flowers, could not evolve through the sort of minute, random steps envisioned by Darwinism. In short, as he said, species and organs were simply too irreducibly complex. They involve too many pieces and you cannot change one without changing the others.
But the scientific community largely converted to the new theory due to its ability to explain natural phenomena that appear utterly senseless under the explanation of design or creation, such as the fossil record, the geological distribution of similar species, the morphological similarities between different related species — all these different factors that seemed so easily and clearly explained through evolution. If you’ve read Origin of Species, you’ll know that is what Darwin does. Darwin goes through one long argument, as he calls it, and he shows how evolution can explain so many observations. But he always had trouble fully accounting for complex organs, such as the human eye. Darwin himself called it the antidote to atheism. He could never explain the design argument for irreducible complexity. What he did was take so many other things and give a logical explanation for them.
Those explanations brought the scientific community overwhelmingly over to Darwin’s side within a dozen years, and certainly by 1900 it was solid. Religious opposition remained, though, long after Agassiz, William Dawson and the other holdouts in science had died. These religious opponents often invoked the earlier scientific arguments against evolution that had been used by people like Agassiz, and before him Cuvier in France. These religious objections naturally intensified with the spread of fundamentalism, which I’ve already discussed, in the early 1900s in America.
The legendary American politician and orator, William Jennings Bryan, a political progressive who had decidedly orthodox religious beliefs, added his voice to the chorus during the 1920s as he came to see Darwinian struggle-for-survival thinking, known as social Darwinism when it’s applied to human society, behind World War I militarism and post-war materialism, both of which Bryan saw as great sins.
Of course, Bryan also held a religious objection to Darwinism, and he invoked Agassiz’ scientific arguments against it as well; but his fervor on the issue rose out of his social concerns. He was always talking about militarism, materialism and eugenics.
“Equate humans with other animals as product of purely natural processes,” Bryan proclaimed, “and they will act like apes.” With his progressive political instincts of seeking legislative solutions to social problems, Bryan campaigned for restrictions against teaching the Darwinian theory of human evolution in public schools, leading directly to passage of Tennessee’s anti-evolution statute in 1925. He then volunteered to assist the prosecution when his law was challenged in Dayton, using the trial to focus the nation’s attention on the issue. He described it as a show trial and planned to leverage off of the trial into a nationwide campaign to get similar laws passed in other states.
The prospect of Bryan using the trial to defend biblical religion and attack Darwinism drew in Clarence Darrow — who else would be more appropriate in 1925. By the ‘20s, Darrow unquestionably stood out as the most famous criminal defense attorney in America. His trials were sensational. We really do not have any lawyer of that visibility at this time in America. At those trials, all followed by the media, Darrow pioneered techniques of jury selection, cross-examination and the closing argument to defend his typically notorious clients in bitterly hostile courts.
Darrow used his celebrity status and oratorical skills to challenge traditional morality. At the time, most Americans clung to biblical notions of right and wrong. By those standards, Darrow’s defendants were usually quite wrong. However, with his modern mind, he saw nothing as really wrong or right. Everything was culturally or biologically determined. For him, dogmatic beliefs springing from revealed religion were usually the real culprit and he didn’t mind saying so in public. He thought that they imposed narrow standards and divided Americans into sects — made people judgmental.
Just as Bryan hailed God as love and Christ as the prince of peace — and those are two of Bryan’s famous speech titles — Darrow damned religion as hateful and Christianity as the cause of war. Indeed, Darrow saw rational science, particularly the theory of organic evolution, as offering a more humane perspective than any irrational religion.
This offered no ground for compromise between the two. Both men were affable enough; they had long been friends, but their worldviews were at war.
It is hard to find somebody today quite like Darrow. His biographer once called him the national village atheist. Carl Sagan bordered on that during his lifetime. E.O. Wilson and some of E.O. Wilson’s writings mimic Darrow’s thoughts on religion. That might be the closest example. Richard Dawkins is a different example, but not as clean an example as you get with somebody like Ed Wilson.
At the time, Bryan and Darrow were perhaps the two most famous orators in America. They toured on the national Chautauqua speaking circuit. They were two of the three highest paid lecturers on the circuit; Bryan was number two and Darrow was number three. You’d probably never guess number one. That will be a puzzle: See who can get number one and I’ll check with you at half time. Clue: She was not really a speaker; she had somebody else speak for her.
Oh, you got her. Helen Keller. You’ve got her. Annie Sullivan was the speaker.
Thus the Scopes trial was a national event that attracted the media. Having these two people who were always speaking on these topics and writing popular, best-selling books, debating issues of naturalistic science versus revealed religion, and academic freedom versus popular control over public education turned the trial into a media sensation then and the stuff of legend thereafter.
Hundreds of reporters descended on Dayton, generating front-page stories around the world. Many American newspapers carried a complete transcript every day. The New York Times had a complete transcript. It was broadcast live over the radio — the first nationally broadcast trial in American history, a sort of a patched-together broadcast that was sometimes knocked out by storms. In time, it became the subject of Broadway plays, Hollywood movies and Nashville songs. Clearly, Scopes remains the best-known misdemeanor trial in American history.
Despite Darrow’s eloquent pleas for academic freedom and his humiliating cross-examination of Bryan, Scopes ultimately lost the case and Tennessee’s anti-evolution statute was upheld. In large part, this resulted from the simple fact that the United States Supreme Court had not yet extended the constitutional bar against government establishment of religion to public schools, so you could not invoke the First Amendment.
When it was all over, most neutral observers viewed the trial as a draw, so far as public opinion was concerned. When I was working on my books, I looked at hundreds of editorials from around the country written the day after the trial. There wasn’t a single editorial at the time that thought the trial was decisive. They all viewed it as some sort of a draw. It’s not like Inherit the Wind where it ends and it looks like a clean sweep for Spencer Tracy, and Fredric March has been routed. People came out thinking this was only going to get bigger, which of course it has.
As a lawyer you could sort of expect that to occur because America’s adversarial legal system tends by its very nature to drive parties apart, not to reconcile them. That certainly resulted in this case. Despite Bryan’s stumbling on the witness stand, which his supporters attributed to his notorious interrogator’s wiles, both sides effectively communicated their message from Dayton — maybe not well enough to win many converts, but at least sufficiently to energize those already predisposed toward their viewpoint, making it a fighting issue for both sides. If, as the defense claimed, more Americans came to be alert to the dangers of teaching evolution, others, particularly conservative Christians, came to be more concerned about the spiritual and social implications of Darwinian instruction. This became an issue for both sides. Stopping the restrictions on evolutionary teaching, including evolutionary teaching in the public schools, became a fighting issue for the secular side. This side did not only include non-Christians, however. For many mainline Christians, evolution was a part of their religious beliefs, and they took this as a religious assault.
Remember, the pro-evolution side was winning the dispute within the mainline denominations, which were very powerful at that time. Indeed, this side included, at the national level, both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. One was then president and the other was secretary of commerce. Both were prominent religious leaders within their denominations, thoroughly evolutionist and modernist. Of course, being able to attack William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats on this progressive issue was a great fun for them. They loved defending evolution and attacking Bryan at the same time. Politics makes strange bedfellows.
Bryan, of course, was thinking of running for public office again (as senator from Florida), and his brother had been the vice presidential candidate just one year before, running against Coolidge. His brother was governor of Nebraska.
Consequently, the pace of anti-evolutionism actually quickened following the trial; it didn’t die down. More states passed anti-evolution statutes, more local communities enacted anti-evolution statutes. Nationwide, the idea of evolution virtually drops out of American public school textbooks during the late ‘20s, the ’30s and the ‘40s. That was the immediate legacy of the Scopes trial.
Because Scopes’ conviction was overturned on appeal on a technicality, and because no one else ever challenged these early anti-evolution laws in court, this issue did not return to the courts until the 1960s. By the time it went back to the courts, the legal landscape had totally changed for a very simple reason. Beginning in 1947, the United States Supreme Court began applying the First Amendment against public schools. That first decision came in 1947, when the Supreme Court, by a ruling, grafted the First Amendment bar against religious establishment on to the individual liberties protected against state action by the 14th Amendment. Until you do that, it only applies against acts of Congress, acts of the federal government.
Suddenly, with this decision in ’47, the Establishment Clause took on new life. Congress had rarely made laws respecting an establishment of religion prior to 1947. There was little case law on that point; the Mormon statutes were about the only ones. States and their public schools had been doing so right along. They had been passing bills affecting religion in education and religion in public policy.
Therefore, once you make this transition in ’47, there is a torrent of Establishment-Clause litigation before the United States Supreme Court. Soon, Scopes-like legal battles over the place of religion in public education began erupting in communities across the land; the old trial had new relevance everywhere.
The first of these cases did not address restrictions on teaching evolution, but they surely implicated those restrictions. In successive decisions beginning in 1948, the United States Supreme Court struck down classroom religious instruction, school-sponsored prayers, mandatory Bible readings, and finally, in 1968, the anti-evolution laws.
Those old laws simply banned the teaching of human evolution. They did not authorize teaching an alternative theory. Indeed, in his day, Bryan never called for the inclusion of any form of creationist instruction in the science classroom because there literally was no scientific alternative to evolution. There was simply the Bible.
Even Bryan believed that the biblical days of creation symbolized vast ages of geologic time. (It was known as the Day-Age theory, for those of you who follow that sort of biblical trivia.) And he said as much when, unlike in Inherit the Wind, he was asked by Clarence Darrow on the witness stand: How old is the earth? He said, “I don’t know. It could be a million years old; it could be a hundred million years old. I don’t know. The days of creation in Genesis symbolized epochs of geologic time.”
The second phase begins with the publication in 1961 (that’s how recent it is) of the book The Genesis Flood, by Virginia Tech engineering professor, Henry Morris. He gave believers scientific-sounding arguments supporting the biblical account of a six-day — literally six-day — creation within the past 10,000 years. This book spawned a movement within American fundamentalism with Morris as its Moses, leading the faithful into a promised land where science proved religion.
He called it “creation science” or “scientific creationism.” Those two terms were used alternatively by its proponents; they mean the same thing. And this launched the second phase of the anti-evolution politics; the phase associated with seeking balanced treatment for creation science.
Creation science spread within the conservative Protestant church through the missionary work of Henry Morris’ Institute for Creation Research. This is an institute formed for him in San Diego about 1970 by a young preacher there named Tim LaHaye, who is now famous for writing the literalistic books on revelation. He had brought Henry Morris and a whole team of people who supported Morris out to San Diego on his campus. I guess when you think about it, between the two of them — between Morris and LaHaye — they covered the Bible from Genesis to Revelation
— the whole package covered with a very literal interpretation. Morris is as good as LaHaye, and he is as popular within the church as LaHaye.
LaHaye has been able to reach out with the Left Behind series, really making those accounts in Genesis and Revelation sing and become literally believable. If you read Morris’s work, the writings of Morris’s son, John Morris, and his writing with Ken Ham, they often team up and now it’s usually John Morris and Ham together. They just make these stories sing. They elaborate on them; they give life to what would just be a passage of the Bible.
First, it spread out within the conservative Protestant church. Then, with the emergence of the so-called religious right, it moved into politics during the 1970s. Within two decades after the publication of Genesis Flood, three states and dozens of local schools, in all parts of the country, mandated balanced treatment, as they called it, or equal time for creation science along with evolution in the public school science classroom.
It took another decade before the United States Supreme Court unraveled those balanced treatment mandates as unconstitutional. Creation science was nothing more than religion dressed up as science, the high court decreed in a 1987 decision called Edwards v. Aguillard, though I should note that was not a unanimous decision. Justice Scalia dissented. Therefore, if creation science was nothing other than religion dressed up as science, it was barred automatically by the Establishment Clause from public school classrooms, along with any other form of religious instruction.
By this time, however, conservative Christians were deeply entrenched in local and state politics from California to Maine, and deeply concerned about science education. Then along comes University of California law professor, Phillip Johnson, and ushers in the third phase of the creation/evolution controversy.
Johnson, is not (or at least he was not then) a young-earth creationist. But he is an evangelical Christian with an uncompromising faith in God.
His target became the philosophical belief and methodological practice within science that material entities subject to physical laws account for everything in nature. Whether you call it naturalism or materialism (Johnson will use both phrases, and so will any philosopher working in the field), such a philosophy or method excludes God from science laboratories and classrooms using methodological naturalism.
I am quoting Johnson here, “The important thing is not whether God created all at once (as scientific creationism holds), or in stages (as progressive creationism or theistic evolution maintains). Anyone who thinks that the biblical world is a product of pre-existing intelligence is a creationist in the most important sense of the word. By this definition, at least 80 percent of Americans, including me, are creationists.”
Darwinism may be the best naturalistic explanation for the origin of the species, Johnson likes to say, but it is still wrong. If public schools cannot teach creation science because it promotes the tenets of a particular religion, the scientific evidence of design in nature or at least scientific dissent from evolution should be permissible, he argues. After all, evolution is, “just a theory,” and, according to him, not a very good one.
Johnson’s books have sold (best I could tell from the last time I talked to his publisher) over a half million copies. And it is no wonder that his kind of argument now appears whenever objections are raised against teaching evolution in public schools. They were apparent in the United States Senate in 2001 when Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum introduced legislation encouraging teachers “to make distinctions between philosophical materialism and authentic science, and to include unanswered questions and unresolved problems in their presentations of the origin of life and living things.”
That language, which was penned by Phil Johnson for Rick Santorum, passed the Senate as an amendment to the No Child Left Behind education bill, and eventually became part of the conference report for that legislation. Similar proposals surfaced as stand-alone bills in over a dozen state legislatures over the past four years. None of these state bills has passed, but similar language has been incorporated into state and local school guidelines, which has proved to be an easier route of access for evolution critics. Those restrictions have opened the door to intelligent design, the most famous example of which is in Dover, Pennsylvania.
Another popular authority on this topic is Lehigh University biochemistry professor, Michael Behe, who is not a Protestant like almost everybody else we’ve talked about so far. He is a Catholic, and he wrote his own best-selling book, Darwin’s Black Box, challenging Darwinist explanations for complex organic processes. He most recently served as the most visible of the expert witnesses on behalf of the school guidelines in Dover, Pennsylvania.
If Johnson is the modern movement’s Bryan, then Behe is its Agassiz, reviving arguments for design based on evidence of nature’s irreducible complexity. Behe has never developed his arguments for intelligent design in peer-reviewed science articles. Indeed, he does not actually conduct research in the field. Indeed, along with other leaders in the intelligent design movement, he has conceded, (such as at the trial in Dover) that there is not yet much affirmative scientific content to their so-called “design revolution.” So far, intelligent design theorists remain mainly critics of the reigning paradigm in biology, doggedly poking holes and looking for gaps in evolution theory. They argue — and this is important — that those gaps are best filled with design. Indeed, they posit, the gaps would be filled with design if it wasn’t for the fact that science a priori ruled out supernatural explanations.
With this sort of thinking driving them, they now propose altering the rules of science to admit a broader range of valid explanations. Indeed, at the trial in Dover, Behe offered his explanation (and he has offered it before) of what scientific theory should be. He claimed that a scientific theory is a proposed explanation for natural events that draws on physical observable data and logical inferences. (Note the phrase: draws on physical observable data and logical inferences. It is a different definition of science from the one conventionally put forth by scientists and philosophers of science).
At the very least, they argue, design-based criticisms of evolutionary naturalism divorced from biblical creationism should be a fit subject for science public school classrooms. Using this approach, they have expanded the tent of people willing to challenge the alleged Darwinist domination of the science classroom beyond those persuaded by Morris’ evidence for a young earth.
When you look at public opinion surveys, including the recent Pew survey, they suggest that the bedrock for anti-evolutionism in the United States remains not the intelligent design movement, but the biblical literalism of the Protestant fundamentalist church where there is typically much greater concern about the earth age to which the Bible speaks than about such intellectual abstractions as scientific naturalism. In The Genesis Flood, for example, Henry Morris stresses the theological significance of utter fidelity to the entire biblical narrative. Thus, when Genesis says that God created the universe in six days, Morris maintains, it must mean six 24-hour days. And when it says God created humans and all animals on the sixth day, then dinosaurs must have lived alongside early man. And when it gives a genealogy of Noah’s descendants, believers can use it to date the flood between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago.
Despite judicial rulings against the incorporation of scientific creationism in the public school curriculum, vast numbers of Americans continue to accept biblical creationism of the sort espoused by Morris and his Institute for Creation Research. The recent Pew poll that came out this summer suggests that 42 percent of American people accept that view.
After its publication 53 years ago, The Genesis Flood, now in its 42nd printing, continues to sell well in Christian bookstores, but now it’s only one of a shelf full of such books. Last time I went over and checked, it was still there, still selling, but now there’s a whole section of origins books.
Christian radio and television blankets the nation with creationist broadcasts and cablecasts such as Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. I recommend to all of you to go on their web page and listen to their most recent broadcast, and you can get a tenor for what is being heard. Answers in Genesis is heard on over 700 radio stations across America, hundred around the world in Latin America, Africa and Asia. It is on in 49 states and 15 different countries. These broadcasts describe the tenets of creation science. There are also students who are going to Christian schools and being taught in home schools, often using the writings of Henry Morris.
So this is the issue that is driving the opposition to teaching evolution. If you have a solid majority of people in many places believing creation science, and another group everywhere accepting intelligent design, and in addition, more believing it is only fair to include a variety of ideas, the teaching of the theory of evolution inevitably becomes highly controversial in some places.
Five years ago in Kansas, the state school board deleted the big-bang theory in macro-evolution from the topics covered in the state science standards. Last year, Cobb County Public School Board decreed that biology textbooks should carry a disclaimer saying that evolution is only a theory. This year, the Dover, Pennsylvania School Board mandated not only an oral disclaimer akin to the Cobb County written one, but it also urged students to read the creationist text, Of Pandas and People, for an alternative explanation of origins.
The only one of these challenges that has reached a decision, albeit under appeal, is the Cobb County decision; and it is an interesting one. The Cobb County disclaimer written on a sticker inside the textbook, tells students: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origins of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”
The Georgia judge, Clarence Cooper, struck down that decision on two grounds. He ruled that any high school student reading it in the current climate would conclude that the school board was endorsing a particular religious viewpoint, one associated with, as he called them, fundamentalists and creationists. And by taking sides, it violated the second prong of the Lemon Test — the test for violating the separation of church and state — that the government must not promote a religious doctrine. He also ruled that it violated the third prong of the Lemon test because it is seen as taking sides within a religious dispute that divides Christians. The argument is between those Christians who accept the theory of evolution and those who oppose it, so you’re entangling the government with religion. On those two grounds he struck it down.
That, in brief, is where the creation/evolution teaching controversy stands today, still making front-page news 80 years after Dayton, Tennessee gained headlines by prosecuting John Scopes. It resurfaces periodically in countless Daytons throughout the United States over everyday episodes of science teachers either defying or deifying Darwin.
Such laws generate lawsuits and legislation precisely because religion continues to matter in America. Public opinion surveys invariably find that nine in ten Americans believe in God, just as every survey has found since the 1950s. A recent survey indicated that more than three-fourths of Americans believe in miracles, while another found that nearly half of those surveyed believe “that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years,” and that more than three-fourths of the rest believe that God actively guided the evolutionary process.
Three out of five Americans now say that religion is very important in their lives. It troubles many of us when science does not seem to affirm our faith and outrages others when their children’s biology courses seem to deny their biblical beliefs.
As a diverse people, Americans have learned to seek middle ground wherever possible. As a species, however, we instinctively respond to stirring oratory. Bryan and Darrow had mastered that craft and used it in Dayton to enlist their legions. They tapped into a cultural divide that deeply troubles this national house of ours, offering us no middle ground. And we all know either from the Bible or from a Broadway classic, “he who troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” That wind has been sporadically touching off maelstroms over the past 80 years, storms that surely test our national traditions of tolerance. If history is any guide, I’d say that dark clouds remain on the horizon. Thank you.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. News & World Report: I have real curiosity about this — about whether you know of any figures on the American scene in that crucial period, say, between 1890 and 1920 — modernists, Christian modernists who might have had a scientific orientation, who tried rather than to mock the opposite side, the fundamentalists, or the emerging fundamentalist position, to engage it seriously. Despite their own seemingly superior ability to engage in this kind of cognitive dissonance that the modernists have been able to enjoy, which is an ability to accept science, and quite aggressive scientism in many cases, they can still declare themselves to be believing Christians, often within mainline traditions.
What you usually got was really, just as you very eloquently said, the kind of Darrow-style humiliation of the other side. Mencken was brilliant at that — at just talking about the boobocracy; and it was a wonderful screaming match and high entertainment.
But I’m just curious to know if there were any figures who were actually trying to come to terms with that dissonance, and really trying to say that in some cases the overreach of the scientists, particularly the positivists, was to some degree responsible for this panicked reaction of the Biblical literalists (to call it fundamentalism almost confuses the issue; it is literalism.). The literalists were seeking an equivalent scientific authority of a redefinition of science because everybody recognized the authority of science even if they were rejecting it. And I just wonder if you came across any figures?
DR. LARSON: Yes, excellent question. There was a very vigorous middle ground. This was a tremendously wrenching event in American history because the Protestants had been so dominant in American society and the cultural elite. Universities were conventionally Protestant, and the politics were conventionally Protestant. This rise of modernism seemed to change everything, and not for the better in the eyes of fundamentalists. I agree with you; a better term would be literalism. Fundamentalism was a term they coined in 1919. There was a very active group seeking to reconcile Christianity with science, but for the most part it included modernists, such as [Harry Emerson] Fosdick in New York and Shailer Matthews at University of Chicago. They were very sincere religious believers, but hated by the biblical literalists.
There was a series of booklets that the fundamentalists put together in a book called The Fundamentals, which was funded by Union Oil money, by the Stewarts, the brothers who owned Union Oil. The booklets were sent out free of charge to all ministers. I think a couple million copies were published from 1912 through 1916.
There was a group that tried to respond with a series of pamphlets that tried to respond in a serious way to argue how religion and science could be reconciled. The most visible person associated with that was probably the famous American physicist, Robert Millikan, who I think was our first Nobel Prize winner, for his oil drop experiment.
Millikan was a great scientist and a sincere Christian. He wrote pamphlets and became very much involved in the effort to reconcile science and religion. From England, Arthur Eddington was also very much involved in this. He probably played a role like Polkinghorne does now, and he was even more prominent as a scientist than Polkinghorne. He was especially popular in America, and he would come over and speak frequently about his books. James Jeans was another British astronomer who was very active in this effort. At the national level, Herbert Hoover (who was a highly respected engineer as well as the President) joined this effort. He was a deeply believing Quaker. He became very involved in this activity, and he would write and speak to it from his point of view.
In short, there was a niche for people who were trying to argue that we can be sincere, meaningful Christians and still accept modern science. Because of his relief work in World War I, Hoover was viewed as a great public servant as well as a top engineer. These people had a national voice, and they tried to forge reconciliation, but of course you had other people pulling apart.
You had people like Bryan, Darrow and H.L Mencken who would tend to pull apart. Then there were these other people who tried to pull back together. We see that same scenario today with people like Richard Dawkins and Ed Wilson, who sell books, and I sincerely think they believe what they are saying, but they argue that science and religion are at war. They are at war to them.
Just last week I was reading something by Ed Wilson who was saying once again that you simply cannot reconcile Christianity with religion in a publication. Then you have the National Academy of Sciences with their publication trying to say we can have both: Science says nothing about religion; it only deals with the natural, and that does not implicate the supernatural.
Thus, you have people trying to bridge the divide today, but back then you had very visible people trying to reconcile that division. The splitters tend- to get the attention; it’s a better story.
CATHY LYNN GROSSMAN, USA Today: What about the incident of the rising role of Catholics in public life, because in the Catholic Church, as Father George Coyne was writing in The Tablet, there really is no clash with evolution. There is an acceptance of evolution. There is a way of saying that this is the way that God may be working in the world, that one does not bar the other. And in Catholic schools I don’t think they have an anti-evolutionary spirit in their teachings.
WILLIAM SALETAN, Slate: Ed, you referred to the Philip Johnson theory about the idea of a supernatural explanation, and I saw this in the Kansas school board debate too. When you talked to or read about what intelligent design proponents have to say, what is their explanation of what a supernatural explanation would be or what a research program based on intelligent design would look like, given that it doesn’t exist? How would they do it?
DR. LARSON: Those very questions were asked at the Dover trial. The last five years have really been wonderful for teasing out this debate and forcing both sides to think more clearly about what they were claiming. To an extent, I credit Phil Johnson with helping organized science in this country to pull back the more arrogant claims about the sufficiency of science to discover truth and of evolution explaining all of life.
At least to some extent, at an official level (such as in the claims of the National Academy of Sciences), scientists are pulling the philosophical naturalism out of their public presentations of evolution theory and saying that all evolution theory can really do is give natural explanations for how things operate. They will dig in their heels on that subject, insisting that all science can do is give naturalistic explanations because that is the limit of science. They are much more clearly saying that is all science can do.
That does not stop Richard Dawkins or Ed Wilson and other scientists from making much vaster claims, claims that were normal within the scientific community 10 years ago. But thanks in part to the criticisms of people like Phil Johnson; they have been forced to sharpen their thinking. The National Academies of Sciences and the groups that are trying to deal with this issue are refocusing on the limits of science. They are affirming science is a means to exploit nature, and all it can really do is look for naturalistic explanations. Therefore, those explanations are exploitable and usable because they are repeatable and testable, but science may not be able to explain some things.
The same thing is happening in the intelligent design movement. You go back to their early claims, such as in Mere Creation, a book that many ID leaders contributed articles to, and you see the claim that in five years they would have an NSF-funded research program up and running. Well, that was more than five years ago, and there is no such program. Now they are not making those claims. Over the summer, George Gilder, who is the philosophical guru of the ID movement, said there is no affirmative intellectual content to intelligent design.
MR. CROMARTIE: Was that on the record or off the record?
DR. LARSON: On the record. It was quoted on record in the media. Michael Behe said roughly the same thing at the Dover trial. He hypothesized one possible experiment that you could do to test design, but it really was a test of natural selection, not design (unless you assume there are only two alternatives: selection or design. At the trial he said there are a lot of things in nature best explained by natural selection; and he testified that natural selection does happen.
Of course, he is for common descent. He does not oppose evolution in this narrow sense; he simply thinks God intervened in the process. Mostly it’s down now to the flagellum, at least according to his Dover testimony. But he maintains that, if you can show there is anything that science cannot explain naturalistically, then God could have come in and done that.
Then he was asked, did God come in and make one flagellum or did God come back and make a whole bunch of flagella? How does this operate? He said he didn’t know. That is a telling from a scientific viewpoint, but not from a religious one. Behe’s point remains that you cannot rule out that God could have intervened. When you think about it, science cannot rule out that God does not come in and do certain things; there is always that possibility.
There is not really in that sense an affirmative scientific research paradigm for ID. It is more a negative critique, albeit a potentially significant one. ID offers an alternative explanation that could account for some things that come about. But Michael Behe has also been quoted in Time magazine, in the Evolution Wars cover article, that you cannot do an experiment to prove intelligent design. I think that is almost an exact quote.
I think there has been quite a bit of clearing the minds over the past five years. People on both sides have clarified their thinking on what science and religion can and cannot do.
MR. CROMARTIE: Does that answer your question?
MR. SALETAN: So if there isn’t a research program, is there at least a theory? In what sense is it an explanation?
MR. CROMARTIE: Does Pandas and People give you an explanation?
DR. LARSON: Pandas and People is being revised. And Michael Behe distanced himself quite a bit from Pandas and People on the witness stand. The problem with the book is that it truly is a creationist text. It argues that each of the different kinds of plants and animals were specially created. That is the mark of a creationist view. The Bible only speaks of the kinds of beings created in Genesis. So that means you could still have the evolution of various different types of finches or something like that. The basic kinds were created.
Pandas and People offers that viewpoint. That is why when you get something like scientific creationism, there is a research paradigm. It makes affirmative content-based scientific statements. Creation science is testable. It might fail the test or it might pass the test, but it is testable. Henry Morris is offering an alternative scientific paradigm.
All you have to do is not be able to give a Darwinist explanation for anything and design could have been the cause, but you really cannot disprove that.
DAVID SHRIBMAN, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Professor Larson, you touched on this a little bit with Bryan but I’m searching for a broader answer that includes Bryan and others. Did the rebellion against Darwinism have any cultural analog in a rebellion over skepticism of social Darwinism? We need to ask whether, as the culture became severe and more competitive, then Darwinism became more exposed and more vulnerable.
DR. LARSON: I think, yes. The social component has always been critical here. You can read the writings of Henry Morris, and I could give you various examples; you could read the writings of Phil Johnson. What gives life to the arguments of those three people are the social implications of Darwinian thinking.
MR. SHRIBMAN: So to ask a Darwinian kind of question, the social critique — was that the chicken or the egg?
DR. LARSON: I think the social critique is what came first.
But I don’t know whether it was the chicken or the egg. You tried to catch me there. You could have hypothetical problems with any scientific theory: continental drift, relativity or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. But the topic of human origins is something that everybody can wrap their head around and understand.
Henry Morris, Phil Johnson, William Jennings Bryan will all be up front about the root cause of the concern. What drew them to battle against evolution were not scientific objections to theory, but objections to the social implications of those theories. Then they go back and look at the theory with eyes informed by these concerns and see an evolutionary basis for that. Then they see they must reject the premise.
You could also criticize the conclusion. Do we have to even accept the premise? And all of them have come to the conclusion, no, you do not have to accept the premise.
MR. SHRIBMAN: Are the changes in the last 10 years, in part, a social critique?
DR. LARSON: Absolutely. I would say without a doubt. You can read Phil Johnson’s latest books and see it in all of them. Darwin on Trial was simply his first book; he is very prolific. Read all of the books since that book, especially the latest one. You read it in Henry Morris’s book too — he discusses homosexuality, the breakdown of the family, divorce, communism, socialism, you name it —
— it is all Darwin’s fault.
MR. SHRIBMAN: Then what is the cultural significance of Inherit the Wind and does anybody read it anymore?
DR. LARSON: Yes. I am often invited to speak at openings of Inherit the Wind around the country. In fact, I was just at St. Mary’s College in California, which is a Catholic school. It held a festival for the 50th anniversary of Inherit the Wind, and I was invited to be their main speaker. In a few weeks I’m going off to Rochester, New York, for an opening of the play. And this play and the movie are still very popular. They are widely used in high schools.
The reason it’s popular and it is still shown, and the reason it is increasingly revived in different communities is because the anti-evolution issue seems to have resonance. The play and the movie were not written about the creation-evolution controversy, but to fight McCarthyism. Jerry Lawrence and Bob Lee were very clear that — it was like The Crucible, which was designed to fight McCarthyism, and therefore is not at all like the real trial.
Bob Lee and Jerry Lawrence were the first to say it. In fact, if you read the opening of their script or if you buy the book (which still sells well) they state clearly on the front that this isn’t 1925; this could be yesterday, this could be today, this could be tomorrow, and this is the fight against McCarthyism and any sort of a witch-hunt.
William Jennings Bryan becomes virtually a stand-in for Joe McCarthy, and so many things are invented in that play to capture this event. But it still has cultural significance, because it is a very popular play with people who are trying to oppose the intelligent design or creation-science movements, to show where they will lead, to try to show how silly that side is.
There was a revival in Kansas when this situation came up there. The day after the Dover trial ended, York, Pennsylvania staged a revival of it. York is right next to Dover, so they did it right there. It is very common for the other side to do it to show how silly this is.
But it also is a powerful plea for tolerance. I view it as a three-act morality play where tolerance wins. It has become a cultural document, a powerful force. There is the Scopes Trial and there is Inherit the Wind, and they both have cultural significance in America to this day.
MATT LABASH, The Weekly Standard: I hate to inject theology into a religion debate —
— but the creationists and proponents of intelligent design seem to be comfortable working hand-in-glove to torpedo science as much as they can. I’m wondering what the pushback is from old-line creationists. What are the theological implications once you allow yourself to go into the intelligent design realm, with such aspects as the fall of Adam, unpleasant things to talk about, things that we don’t usually like to address in scientific debates, but which have real theological implications? Have you seen divisions between the two sides as they assess it?
DR. LARSON: Well, Henry Morris focuses right smack dab on it, and the creation science people also focus squarely on the Fall. That is what it’s all about to them. You have to accept Adam in the biblical account of the creation primarily because of the need for the Fall. The criticisms that theologians have levied about evolution theory from the very beginning is that it shows man progressing, which is not really an accurate read of the science because evolution technically is not progressive. But it is perceived as progressive because we use our own lenses, and we are better than amoebas, so we have progress. Amoebas probably don’t view it that way.
The theory of evolution gives a sense of progress where the Fall should have us going the other way. That has been an important issue theologically for some conservatives who have raised problems with the idea of evolution. But I should add, there are many conservative theologians over the past 150 years who have had no problems reconciling their viewpoint to a form of theistic evolution. That means God uses evolution as a means of creation. Then, at some point, in the evolutionary process God breathed in the human soul, and therefore created the first true humans with this human soul. Then you can play out the human drama after that stage. So there certainly are, both in the Protestant and the Catholic Church, theologians who can reconcile their works with evolution.
MR. LABASH: I was just curious about one other thing in relation to the Pew poll you cited. Could you illuminate for us how over the years, the numbers of creationists have bled away as intelligent design has picked up steam?
DR. LARSON: I have been trying to follow this as closely as I can, and I don’t think there is a criterion of intelligent design because it really doesn’t fill much of a role. There have always been three categories. There is a category of 40 to 50 percent that believes that God created human beings in their present form directly: specially created them within the last 10,000 years. Those percentages really have not changed since the ’70s when Henry Morris established his Institute for Creation Research.
MR. CROMARTIE: Is he still alive?
DR. LARSON: Oh, yes, he is still alive. Then you have the other 50 percent — about two-thirds to three-fourths of them who believe in a theistic evolution — humans were created by divinely guided evolution. The other quarter to a third that believes in a naturalistic process and the ideas someone like Richard Dawkins would present.
This theistic evolution group would include people on the science side, such as Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project (a very distinguished scientist who discovered the Cystic Fibrosis gene), and that category goes all the way back to the time of Darwin.
So you have got these three categories. Intelligent design does not neatly fit in any of them. Of course anybody who is in the creation science group believes there is an intelligent designer. But many people within the theistic evolution group believe there is an intelligent designer, at least in creating the original laws of creation and maybe intervening periodically throughout. You do not really get a discrete group because intelligent design itself is pretty thin. There is not too much there when you think about it; it’s simply that God is somehow involved in the process.
When you really think about science, it is not a method to find the truth; it is the method to exploit nature. Think about it. Why is science valuable? It is because we can make atom bombs with it, because we genetically engineer crops with it. We can do medicine with it. If it is not something that is repeatable, naturalistic and testable, well, you can’t exploit it. If you take science out of the realm of divining the truth and put it in the realm of doing the only thing it can do, which is develop uses, then intelligent design isn’t going to give the answer. If God intervened at one time to create the flagellum, it doesn’t have much practical value to know that, at least with respect to exploitable technological applications.
It doesn’t give you a research paradigm. Rather, the importance of it is that we keep science from trying to present itself as being the whole answer for everything, the whole shebang, as it were, and rather do what Phil Johnson has argued for in his second book. He suggests we put science in its place, and let people know that there might be other explanations, but that those do not actually give us a research paradigm that we can go out and actually use to create a new cure for cancer.
E.J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: First I want to commend you — the truest friend of the underdog to ever appear at these sessions, because no one has ever tried to view the world from the point of view of an amoeba as you just did.
I respect that.
I have a historical question that builds on David’s and a simple-minded question. The historical question: I want to press you on the social Darwinism part and the social implications, because social Darwinism was used to justify the privileges of the rich — the privilege that they were at the high end of the evolutionary process and the working class was at the low end. And you can understand why a progressive like Bryan would be so opposed to it.
And I guess what I wanted to press you on is, in the course of this debate, how important was that specific aspect at the time to the debate, because Mencken in many ways was a person of the right opposed to Bryan? And has that changed so much? I’m asking you about the evolution of this debate, because all of the social terribleness of Darwin, the social list of terribles you have described is now everything conservatives are talking about. I don’t think you have a critique of social Darwinism in there in the way that Bryan would have insisted upon 80 years ago.
Here’s the simple-minded question, and it is a little bit off Matt’s question. Noah Feldman spoke to a group organized by the Pew Forum, and he said an interesting thing. He said that intelligent design is an evasion of an evasion, by which he meant that really what these folks believe in is creationism, and then that developed into creation science, which now has developed into intelligent design.
I guess that what I don’t understand about this debate, and I must be missing something, is that it is clear that people who believe in creationism believe in it on the basis of faith and revelation, and whatever science proved would not in the end matter to them.
And I don’t get why there is the insistence on turning intelligent design into a form of science as opposed to the presentation of an argument that public schools might teach, that there are people who believe on other grounds that are not scientific that God intervened in this process.
DR. LARSON: Both excellent questions. They are different questions but they are wonderful questions. I will answer the second one first. I agree with you that this is first and foremost a religious concern. People don’t come to creation science and then go to religion; it is rather that they have a religious viewpoint and creation science reinforces that. Still, it is important to have some science involved. I think Phil Johnson’s Harvard degree is very important because it gives some cultural authority and credibility to the argument.
I ran into what I thought was a wonderful quote. I was reading one of the religious leaders who were pushing the original anti-evolution laws in Arkansas. William Bell Riley (one of the great preachers), the predecessor of Billy Graham, was down in Arkansas in a radio interview. In the middle of it they ask him, “Are there any scientists who back your viewpoint?” All scientists are on the other side.
All he could come up with as a name was Howard Kelly. Howard Kelly was then a surgeon, a cutting-edge, and well-known at Johns Hopkins University. He really wasn’t a scientist, but he was a surgeon. He also believed that humans, on biblical grounds, were separately created by God. He believed that everything else evolved, but William Bell Riley didn’t know that.
So he said, sure there are scientists who believe it: Howard Kelly. He was asked, can you name any others? He said: “I don’t need to. God and Howard Kelly make a majority.”
He had previously said that a majority of scientists believed this, and then he could only name one. So he said God and Howard Kelly make a majority.
Now what role Howard Kelly played in that calculation? You could argue that God alone would make a majority.
That is your point. But it was still important that they had Howard Kelly.
What I think you’re dealing with, to an extent, is that there is a deep concern and a belief, but that somebody with authority sharing the viewpoint gives it credibility.
This is where this group differs from the neo-orthodox. Think back to the fundamentalist-modern controversy. The fundamentalists broke off and left the churches. The reason this was front-page news in the ’20s was that the dominant Methodist, Presbyterian and American Baptist churches were being torn and shredded.
The fundamentalists left, the modernists gave up and the neo-orthodox took their place. But what did the neo-orthodox do? The neo-orthodox were not like Millikan and Eddington, trying to reconcile science and religion; they went off and did religion and ignored science. You can read these people like Karl Barth till you fall asleep (which is what I always do when I read people like Karl Barth, though I admire them greatly) and they just don’t talk about science.
They only talk about religion.
MR. CROMARTIE: Could I interrupt on this point, because I think E.J. is raising a very important point about Noah Feldman’s quote, that it is an evasion of an evasion. But isn’t it true that intelligent design was saying to its fellow creationists that our strategy is not to build a science but we also want to critique the flaws, and we want to point them out so vividly that people have to say there has got to be a designer.
DR. LARSON: Thank you for bringing it up because that was where I was going to get to point number two. No, I don’t think intelligent design is simply creationism dressed up in a tuxedo or whatever phrase you want to use. It is actually has a much older pedigree.
That is why I tried to suggest when I said Behe was following the legacy of Agassiz and of Cuvier. These are scientists of great importance.
Creation science is truly offering an alternative science. It may not be very good science but it is an alternative science. It may be a good science. But intelligent design, as I think they’re focusing on it, is more a critique of science. In that sense it is really separate from creation science. That does not mean somebody who believes in creation science would also say sure, intelligent design is true but there is not much to it compared to what we’re offering. We are offering an alternative science, and they are saying no, there is not enough to it; it’s distracting. But others can say, no, it’s reinforcing. So it depends on what you are doing, but I do think it has a much longer and separate intellectual pedigree. One of the discussions I had during the break — I never ended up getting over as far to reach the coffee or the tea — was just how dynamic evolution theory is now. And evolution theory really has always been very dynamic. All Darwin convinced scientists of with his book, Origin of the Species was common descent. That’s a funny thing about evolution theory. People tend to use the term “theory of evolution” without defining it, and it can mean simply common descent; the various different species descended from a common ancestor. The lead scientist for the intelligent design movement, Michael Behe, accepts common descent; so how can you say it’s a battle? If you use that definition, what are we talking about?
One is more critique of science. It’s not the initial claims in the 1990s, but now its more that we have a valid critique of science and why shouldn’t biology teachers be able to discuss this critique of science, and therefore help students better understand what science is and isn’t.
The other thing people can mean by evolution is the Darwinian theory of natural selection as the mechanism that drives evolution. The social issues are usually associated not with common descent. That’s a religious problem with the literal reading of Genesis. The deeper social and theological problems come with the idea of natural selection, because there you’ve got a struggle for existence. If you look at the Darwinian mechanism, random, minute changes in organisms are selected by a struggle for existence. That’s how the mechanism works. People have debated evolution ever since Greek times. Greek scientists knew there were two alternatives: either species were created or they evolved from other species. Those were the only two options and they knew that from the time of Aristotle.
It had been debated back and forth at a low level before. The reason why nobody bought evolution was they couldn’t see how it could work, and Darwinism offered a mechanism, but the theological problems with that mechanism was, now you have species — us — being created by random chance and a struggle for existence. This became a Protestant issue because after the Reformation the Protestants were left there with just the Bible. The Catholics always had papal authority and church authority. How much does the Bible really have? So there is this natural tendency to also look at the two books. There is this long tradition going back to the early days of the Protestant Reformation of using the two books. We have God’s book of nature; God’s creation; the heavens declare the glory of God. We can look to nature to tell us about God. We can also look to the Bible. Of course, the revealed word prevails if there is a direct conflict, but there shouldn’t be a direct conflict and therefore we can look to nature. So there is this scientific tradition, just looking at and studying nature tradition within Protestantism. It must be stronger than with Catholicism because Catholicism didn’t need it in that sense, looking for God in nature.
We should be able to look at nature and determine the character of God and proofs of God’s existence, because it’s a good nature, it’s a benevolent nature; we can learn about God. That’s what Paley was writing about in his book, Natural Theology, but it goes back long before that to John Calvin and others. Then along comes Darwinism, and the means of development and progress, as it seems, is random chance mutations and a struggle for existence — a hateful struggle for existence. Well, if that tells us what God’s like, if that tells us God’s character, who wants any part of that sort of a God? So that is a problem on another level from the common descent problem. The common descent just has the literalistic problem of not agreeing with Genesis. That’s what it says. So you’ve got two levels of conflict.
The Catholic Church doesn’t have a problem with either of those. First, it never relied on natural theology as evidence of how we find out about God. You’ve got the Bible and you’ve got the Catholic fathers. You’ve got the tradition of the church and you’ve got the pope still operating.
Also, if you look at the Catholic tradition, you do not have a reliance on a literalistic interpretation of the Old Testament. Indeed, if you go to somebody like St. Augustine — and I don’t know any higher authority within the Catholic Church than St. Augustine, the Old Testament is viewed typologically. The accounts in the Old Testament are truly inspired stories that foretell what’s really important, which is Jesus and salvation. Somebody like St. Augustine would say it doesn’t really matter whether Jonah was in the whale for three days; that was a symbol. It symbolized Jesus would be in the tomb for three days. These were stories, inspired stories in the Old Testament — very important but not necessarily literally true.
So the Catholic Church didn’t have that sort of problem. Very early in the Catholic Church, after evolution came out and Darwinism came out, they did not buy into natural selection, but they did not see any particular problem with it. You get statements from the very top hierarchy of the Catholic Church, including the Pope in the 1880s or 1890s in which he said, we can go along with the evolution — physical evolution. It’s not a big problem. The important thing is that the human soul was created by God, and whether that human soul was placed within an evolved ape or in a separately created human, it doesn’t really matter; the important thing is the human soul. That’s what was created in the image of God, not our bodies.
Therefore it can go along with some form of theistic evolution. Otherwise, the Catholic Church has been generally vague on the issue and allowed an openness for different Catholic schools at the college level, starting in the 1890s. You had Father Zahm at Notre Dame, who was an evolutionist. You have a long history in the Catholic Church of different viewpoints, but never rising to the level of a theological battle.
MS. GROSSMAN: I want to know, in recent years as Catholics have moved increasingly into public life, but the Catholics were an immigrant population and sort of sidelined from influence in the public sphere. That’s changed enormously in more recent times. We’re about to have possibly five Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court, so the Catholic perspective I think needs to be taken into consideration as to what’s going to happen with this tension in society between the fundamentalist neo-conservative approach and the ultra-modernist purely scientific approach. There’s also that influence of the growing Catholic voice.
And I have a secondary question, which, given how long it took to get to this one, I’m going to throw in now while I can —
Statistically speaking, the rising group in this country is those who have no religious identity, a proportion which doubled from 6 percent to 14 percent between 1990 and 2001. And I wonder where that’s going to take us as people who may say they believe in God, but don’t have any specific doctrinal approach to God. It’s a very amorphous God, sort of a computer boot-up God. He got us here but he doesn’t do anything once he’s there. How much is that also going to influence the future direction of this debate?
DR. LARSON: Well, both sides of the question are important issues as this develops. Some of these preface what we’re going to be hearing this afternoon in talking about the European scene where the question is, as we move to a more amorphous God, more of a New Age spirituality, that is, in some ways, from my limited knowledge a little bit where Europe is. And how will the issues play out then?
This amorphous God is very easily reconciled with evolution. It’s a vague form of theistic evolution. God is somehow involved in the process. This is a great unknown and is evidence of the power of God’s laws eminent in nature. It would almost read like something Emerson would have written nearly 200 years ago, or Thoreau, sort of transcendentalism. Those viewpoints (certainly to the extent that they draw on Buddhist and Hindu thought) tend to be very open and accepting of evolution being a process, an ongoing process that has divine significance and that will play into the debate.
I’ve spoken at Catholic universities in all parts of the country and so many Catholics that I meet are so happy that they’re out of this debate, that they’re not caught in the crosshairs of it. I was speaking at St. Mary’s College just last month but I spoke at Fordham, Notre Dame, San Diego, Gonzaga. They are watching it in an informed way, saying the Church says the human soul is special and is specially created. All the compromise is offered by science on this front, such as the National Academy of Science. In saying science can tell us nothing about God because it can’t tell us anything about the supernatural leaves open the possibility of the soul.
Certainly, it is true that there are scientists like Ed Wilson and Richard Dawkins who will not accept that compromise and do tell us directly that the way they read evolution and the way they read science excludes a belief in anything separate that is a soul. There is certainly a lot of work in neuroscience. You get neuroscientists and computer scientists who are trying to show that the human mind works just like a computer — that it’s all matter that you can explain. There’s no epiphenomenon happening up there that cannot be explained materialistically. This rise of neurosciences and computer science and with those two merging together and computer processed models of evolution and all this, that’s where challenge is coming to this possible compromise that there is a supernatural and there is a natural. It’s not necessarily coming directly out of evolution theory. It’s coming out of work in neurobiology and work on the brain. Focusing on the soul, where is it left but to lie somewhere in the brain. And that’s one part of the human body that has not been explained in the same way — the heart. The heart was a mystery 300 years ago. The heart’s a pump now. But the brain is still this area of debate.
So the real threat in many ways to this view of a soul, which is what would engage the Catholic Church, is not coming from evolution theory. It’s coming from other areas of science. There are, however, areas within the Catholic Church. You had the Archbishop of Vienna who worked with the Discovery Institute in writing the statement that he then published in the New York Times and fed it to him. But then that was fought back within the Catholic Church. The head of the Vatican Observatory, which is the main spokesperson for science within the Catholic Church, struck back very vigorously. The previous pope had made a very clear statement in ‘96 and it wasn’t just an off-the-cuff statement. This was a formal declaration to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences restating the traditional Catholic viewpoint that as long as you’ve got a human soul, as long as God creates the soul, as long as that is created in God’s image, then evolution and Darwinism is more than just a hypothesis. There’s a conciliation there that gives it vitality within the larger scientific community.
MR. CROMARTIE: There is a war right now, at least that we witnessed in Washington, in the Catholic Church over this question, a battle about what is meant by all of this.
MS. GROSSMAN: Well, there are some cardinals who have spoken out differently, but I think that with George Coyne and with that pontifical statement from the ‘90s the preponderance of the Church view is as Mr. Larson was saying.
DR. LARSON: And when I go around, so many Catholics in the communities are just so happy that they’re not fighting. They don’t want to be in this battle.
MR. CROMARTIE: But there’s an argument going on right now in the pages of First Things with an essay recently by Stephen Barr called The Design of Evolution, which a bunch of Discovery people who love First Things then began writing and expressing concern about. And now, on the web page of First Things, there’s a debate going back and forth in the Catholic community about intelligent design.
KATHLEEN PARKER, Tribune Media Services: I just wanted to know how it’s going to play out with the school board elections and the textbooks though. Because while Catholics are sort of out of it on the journals front possibly, when they come to vote for the school board, when they’re choosing textbooks in Texas and California, where does that Catholic point of view have any influence, if any?
DR. LARSON: I think those really play out on a local level. There is, as Michael is pointing out, among conservative Catholics, politically and theologically conservative Catholics, there is a serious and important debate going on. Basically, in the Catholic universities of America, they seem to be very happy with the Pope’s statement. You get down to the individual parishes, and Catholics are split. There are some parishes where you have a small group of very conservative activists, and they’ve gotten very interested in intelligent design and even to an extent in creationism. You’ve got some areas where the Catholic Church is very, very liberal. So you’ve got the cultural Catholics, you’ve got liberal Catholics, and you‘ve got some very conservative Catholics, and it breaks down differently in each of those areas.
Then you have the local relationship among the Catholics with the conservative Protestants. That varies in different places. In some places they work together. In some places there is a historic tension and conflict between the two. You can feel that when you’re in a community. The Catholic Church tends to be a cultural as well as a religious institution. It’s different in different communities. So you have to look at the way it plays out. There is no simple answer.
JASON DePARLE, The New York Times: My question was similar to Dave Shribman’s question about the social context of the debate. If the critics of Darwinism gained extra energy in part by their concerns over social Darwinism and militarism, what social factors are increasing their passion now or intensifying the debate now? What are the modern equivalents?
DR. LARSON: In a way the issues are really the same then and now. If you go back to the 1920s, Bryan and the others would talk about phenomena like eugenics. Well, eugenics involved mass sterilization, trying to weed out the weaker, less fit individuals. It was widespread in America and, of course, grew even bigger in Germany. It was already happening in Germany in the ‘20s, but after Hitler got in, it happened even bigger in Germany and in a more focused manner.
So eugenics was a major issue back then. Eugenics is a big issue now because of genetic engineering, human gene therapy, stem cell research. It ties into sterilization. It ties in with abortion. Those were issues then and they’re issues today. In that sense, the same issues can be drawn.
If you go to a school board meeting on this issue or you go to some sort of a public rally, and I’ve been to been to both settings, you will see people marching outside. Outside the school, outside the courtroom, the anti-evolutionists will have signs saying things like: evolution leads to abortion or evolution caused eugenics. You’ll still see those signs. Evolution and Hitlerism. You’ll see the connection. There was a recent book by a person associated with the intelligent design movement, Richard Weikart who wrote a book that tries to equate Hitlerism, Hitler and evolution. And that connection still plays. You’ll also see connections with communism as well.
MR. DePARLE: Explain the communism link.
DR. LARSON: The intellectual link — if you read Henry Morris, you’ll see lots of links with communism; that an evolutionary naturalism leads to communism.
MR. CROMARTIE: Has he heard about the decline of communism?
DR. LARSON: Well, he thinks it might come back. You’ll still read it with Henry Morris. That Marx was an evolutionist, which he was. In fact, Marx sent a copy of Das Kapital to Darwin who was a capitalist, a very active capitalist. He was much inspired in his thinking by Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus and he was a capitalist himself, a very prudent investor. His family had made enormous amounts of money as investors and he increased that money during his lifetime, so he was a capitalist.
MR. DePARLE: But surely communism isn’t the main driver now. Is it more abortion? Stem cell research.
MR. CROMARTIE: Or bioethical questions?
DR. LARSON: Well, bioethical questions are connected, but now I think it’s just materialism. It’s the denial of a spiritual cause and of absolute values of right and wrong, because everything is relative to the environment and you fitting into the environment; and you’re not dealing with an absolute.
You can read Philip Johnson and you’ll see quite a social critique of the breakdown of the family and of the lack of morality and clear gender roles. There is considerable talk about that in Phil Johnson’s latest book. Somebody told me that three times in it he talks about the issue of cross-dressing. I try not to count such things, but I remember when others do.
MR. DePARLE: But how does that relate to common descent and natural selection?
DR. LARSON: You’ll have to read Phil Johnson’s book.
MR. DePARLE: Do you think some of the current intensity has to do with gay rights?
DR. LARSON: It always has. Henry Morris talks often about homosexuality. I think those are connected, but I think it’s mostly just social factors in these troubling times.
JANE LITTLE, BBC: It really also goes back to the beginning a little bit. In reading some of the transcripts from the Dover, Pennsylvania trial, there seems to be striking parallel to 1860s Britain, the Oxford debate, where you hear the famous Archbishop Wilberforce tackling Darwin’s bulldog, T.H. Huxley. From which father or grandfather were you descended, from an ape? And you’re hearing a lot of that language now. But as I understand it, that was a real point in Britain where there was a sort of mini-cultural war going on very briefly. But then it was resolved somehow. It never filtered into the popular culture. And we have these various well-known thinkers coming up with progressive creationism and theistic evolution and interventionist evolution and all these different theories. Why didn’t that happen here or did it and we just not hear about it? You mentioned a few names at the top. But basically why were those prominent thinkers not there trying to reconcile the two? And why did popular culture not worry too much about it in Britain as opposed to here?
DR. LARSON: There is still a debate in Britain, but Britain tends to be a more hierarchical society. I’m not a Britain expert. Europe tends to be in general a more hierarchical society, while America is less that, so there is less deference to the experts in America. There have always been Americans who have tried to work out a reconciliation. Perhaps the most notable one right from the very beginning was a person who had become a close friend of Charles Darwin, Asa Gray, who was America’s leading botanist at Harvard, a very visible public speaker at the time. He worked out a theory of theistic evolution. He gave the principal addresses at Yale Theology School that were widely reprinted. He was a popular writer for the Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals. He was very well known at the time. He went over and saw Darwin. There was a group of people like Asa Gray who were trying to work out a reconciliation . On the religious side, you had Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher who was a renowned minister in America at a congregational church in Brooklyn. He tried to work out ideas of theistic evolution. There were others, so we’re talking about people either from the science or from the theology side who tried to work reconciliation. That basic pattern held. You didn’t find a major controversy in America over evolution until the 1920s.
So we’re talking about a pretty large jump. Then you have William Jennings Bryan coming in who was a very popular speaker who could reach the people in America and the people responded to his movement. After he died, there was a period of quiet. Granted, evolution wasn’t taught widely, but there was this period of quiet until you get Henry Morris and the creationist movement of the ‘60s, which again reached out to this vibrant American subculture of churches.
That’s another area that the United States differs from England. England has an established church, and therefore churches aren’t competing for membership in the same way you have in America. You don’t have the number of people going to independent churches that you have in America. So in America, you’ve got the Southern Baptist Church that Henry Morris was part of, which was the one large denomination that went with the fundamentalist side or the literalist side. You’ve got independent churches, and then you have the independent growth of the Pentecostal movement in America that started at the turn of the last century in 1900, but grew enormously since then. You also have the Mormon Church, which has been creation-friendly historically.
MR. CROMARTIE: Mega-churches.
DR. LARSON: Mega-churches can be reached by this, where you don’t have a similar parallel in England. You’ve got a large Anglican church that is state-supported and then you’ve got some other churches. But you don’t have the same framework that someone who is starting a movement can reach out to and then, first with Bryan but later with Henry Morris and the intelligent design movement. There is a whole network of both churches and organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ, or Young Life, or Focus on the Family, which are nondenominational, but provide yet another vehicle for an independent creationist movement. You just don’t have a parallel structure where you can reach groups of people in Europe.
MR. CROMARTIE: Grace Davie.
DR. GRACE DAVIE, University of Exeter: I think you’re entirely right on that. I mean I think the real historical difference is that there is no constituency to play to in Britain or Europe, which we’ll develop this afternoon. But the related point I wanted to make, which has been intriguing me all morning is, do we or don’t we have this discussion in Britain about intelligent design and science and religion. Well, of course we do. Now, the sharpness of your debate is that it’s playing out in high schools and what high school children should learn. Well, in Britain and probably in all of Europe except France, you would deal with these discussions in religion classes in high school not in science classes. And I think the fact that you’ve proscribed religion classes in American schools means you’ve displaced your debate. And from my point of view, it’s taking place in the wrong place. What I think is happening is that it shouldn’t be in a science class, but the debate should happen. Young people should hear these different points of view but in a different forum. And in a modern British school, you would examine these in a class, which is now called religious studies, which is not confessional in any sense, but you would hear these different points of view. And then your science would be science. And that I think is what I perceive as the very real difference as to why the debate is so sharp here. It’s because you’re having it in a place that seems to me causing you unease.
MR. CROMARTIE: To say the least.
KEN HERMAN, Cox Newspapers: Yeah, first a quick comment on Henry Morris and cross-dressing. I would think he would want people wearing crosses, but maybe I’m misunderstanding something here.
MR. CROMARTIE: He’s a Protestant, not a Catholic.
MR. HERMAN: Back in August, several of us at the White House had a conversation with the President, and the topic of intelligent design came up briefly. His comments were “I feel like both sides ought to be properly taught. I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas and the answer is yes.” Current legal landscape, current case law — is what he is proposing legal?
DR. LARSON: I don’t think that there is enough specificity to what he said to judge it legally. You’d need a context. Personally, I don’t see why a science teacher — good science teacher cannot, for valid, scientific reasons, pedagogically sound reasons — introduce issues raised by the intelligent design movement into an individual science classroom and talk about these issues in a way that helps students better understand evolution theory and better understand how science operates. Now, one way you can read the requests of the intelligent design movement is for nothing more than that.
Now, then there is another way you can raise the issue, and you could raise the issue with a school board mandating that intelligent design be taught as some sort of a equal alternative scientifically — as a scientific theory in some way as an alternative to evolution theory. And there, you’re in a whole different setting. You’re not talking about an individual science teacher. You’re in a situation such as Dover, where all of the science teachers look at the school board and say, this is crazy. There’s nothing we can teach. We can’t do that. We won’t do that. We’ve been teaching for 40 years, some of those teachers could say. And this is not the way you do science. This is proselytizing, and we think that what the board is trying to do here, and you look at all of the facts behind what’s motivating the board, and you get this tremendous amount of evidence that these are religiously motivated people on the board trying to promote religion. And so suddenly you’ve got a whole different set of facts and you’ve got a situation, which I view as very problematic from the constitutional viewpoint.
I went through a school of education. I’ve been in the classroom. I think you can tell the difference when a teacher is trying to do science, and when a school board or even a teacher is trying to proselytize for religion. What the First Amendment bars is proselytizing or promoting a particular religious viewpoint. Doing that under the guise of science violates the First Amendment. From the statements that the President gave, it’s not fleshed out enough to know the facts that you could litigate. That could play out in a very appropriate way. It could also play out in a very inappropriate way. It depends on how it is picked up. So I don’t think you can tell just from what he said where it would end up.
MR. CROMARTIE: Ed, don’t you think that what the President was doing is, he’d been handed some talking points straight out of Phil Johnson’s concern that “we just want to teach the controversy.” And I think the talking points were handed to him that day so that Ken would hear them directly.
MR. HERMAN: I’m not sure he was aware this would come up in this setting, because it was a broad-ranging discussion.
DR. LARSON: I’m guessing you’re right. From what I’ve been told about the context there, it wasn’t a thought-out prepared statement. It came up in the discussion. I wasn’t being critical of the President when I said that you can’t tell from what he said how it would play out. I just don’t think we have a clear enough statement. Court legal cases turn on the facts of the case, and Dover or Cobb County constitutes a clear set of facts. You’d have a whole different set of facts if it involved an individual science teacher who was trying to help work his students through a better understanding of evolution theory and a better understanding of how science operates. And I don’t think the ACLU would challenge that.
MR. HERMAN: Very quickly, and it ties back into what Grace said. In this country, we have somehow evolved to any discussion of religion in the classroom is considered proselytizing or close to it. We have such a fear of it, it seems, that I’ve come to believe two kids have gone through school in different ways. It’s an unbelievable hole in American education, the cause of a lot of our problems of how ignorant we are of each of the religions that we’re afraid of teaching. Will some teachers do it poorly and try to preach it? Yes, some math teachers do math teaching poorly and maybe we should deal with it. In my community, I can tell you most people in my synagogue learned the Gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Weber; Simon could dance, Jesus can sing a little. It made a nice musical. The ignorance is dangerous and I don’t see why we can’t teach a comparative religion course and just say, here’s what these people believe. Here’s what these people believe, because the benefit would be we would find out shockingly that there’s not much difference. Some of you people go on the wrong day, but that’s your own choice. But it’s amazing how afraid of religion we are.
DR. LARSON: I think that in many cases, the school districts are simply using the court as a cover. The Supreme Court has always been clear that you can teach about religion in public schools. You can even have release time where you let the students go off and learn religion in their own churches. But inside the school, you can teach about religion. You can read the Bible as literature and therefore understand what the accounts are. You can deal with different religious views — Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Native American, whatever. These things can be done in the schools. I think what happens is a lot of times the schools don’t want to deal with it.
MR. CROMARTIE: They’re nervous.
DR. LARSON: They’re nervous because they don’t want to get the local taxpayers who pay for their bond issues or the local parents mad. People do a reading in Genesis or they do a reading in Matthew or Revelations or Psalms, which is more likely, or Job, and then give an interpretation that differs from the interpretation their particular church gives it, and so the Methodists or the Baptists or the Pentecostals might get upset. I think mostly these school districts are just afraid of getting into the issue, and therefore it’s not a legal, constitutional issue, it’s a practical political decision. I also agree that as a result there is a woeful lack of understanding and the only religious education ends up coming from one’s individual family and one’s individual church maybe until one gets to high school and joins a Young Life club and then gets it from Young Life or Youth for Christ, or then moves onto college and then gets in the Newman Club or some other para-church organization, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and then gets it through that way. But we not getting it at the high school level the way we are, which differs from England.
JOSHUA GREEN, The Atlantic Monthly: I wanted to play back a little to something you said in response to Ken’s question, and I think also a response you gave to the idea that intelligent design is sharpened biology. I was going to ask later when I’m really up to ask a question if you could speculate a little bit on where the future of the intelligent design movement was headed, because if there really isn’t an affirmative scientific argument, and if all the publicity at the Dover trial of the last couple years has caused them, as you said, to sort of pull back on some of their more exotic claims, what exactly is the ambition? Is it simply to sow doubts about Darwinism? The idea that they’re trying to sort of improve the teaching of biology doesn’t quite ring true to me.
DR. LARSON: Science is not a homogenous group with one message. You’ll get one message from the National Academy of Science on evolution, another message from Ed Wilson, another message from Francis Collins. You used to get a different message from Ernst Meyer or Francis Crick. Jim Watson would be different. You get these different messages the same way with the intelligent design movement. It’s not a homogenous group and you’ll get another message from Bill Dembski. You’ll get a message from Steve Meyer. You’ll get a message from Phil Johnson. Phil Johnson’s own thinking seems to have evolved over time, changed over time on some of these issues, moving more towards a young earth creationism himself. Michael Behe has seemed to have moved out so that at the Dover trial, he said that there is much scientific evidence that he accepts for natural selection. If there’s a lot of natural selection, how could he argue that we shouldn’t teach Darwin’s elegant idea? Of course, he’s said we should teach it. Now, we know what he means. He believes that a lot of things have evolved through natural selection. But you won’t hear that same thing, say, from Steve Meyer. You’ll get differences of opinions. And those differences lead to uncertainty of how it will actually play out, and about whether there will there be a consensus message.
Certainly, some people in the intelligent design movement firmly believe that evolution itself in the narrow sense of the term, evolution that is common descent, is a flawed idea that will be on the dust heap of history in 20 years just as Freudian psychology and Marxism are on the dust heap of history. Evolution will follow that route. There are other people who would say it’s not common descent; it’s just natural selection. But now we know that Behe thinks that even natural selection is an important process much of the time, just not a totally exclusive explanation and that if there is any one thing that can’t be explained by natural selection — that one thing being the flagellum — then you still have intelligent design because you’ve got God doing one thing, and therefore maybe more.
So you end up with these different sorts of viewpoints, and how it will play out, I think you’ll see it played out one way in the home schooling situation and the Christian schooling situation, where you’ll see — where you generally see Morris’ books and Institute for Creation Research books being widely used. You’ll see it playing out another way in the public school movement. But I would think that there will always be room for a broadening critique of both science and the limits of science. And I think that is one thing that resonates in Europe as much as in America. In Europe, it might be genetically engineered food that is the problem. In America, it might be stem cell research. But the critique of the limits of science is something that resonates not only among conservative Christians, but also resonates with the New Age groups that Kathy was talking about and lots of other people throughout the world.
LIBBY COPELAND, The Washington Post: I’ll ask a question that requires no answer. You were talking about the space that might be permitted for honest, intellectual conversation in schools about what actually seems to fit within that. So I guess what I wonder is, is the context of, say, the school board, when a judge looks at this he says or she says we’re not actually looking at the text of the objection. We’re looking at the background of the people who are pushing the objection.
DR. LARSON: I don’t think that the mandated sticker in the front of the school book raises the issue in the way that I am describing. I’m talking about science teachers working into the classroom a discussion to better sharpen the understanding of evolution. When you’re talking about a sticker on the front of the school book; it doesn’t talk about the limits of science generally. It doesn’t talk about theories. It simply says that evolution and evolution alone is just a theory. Approach this with an open mind. And that instead, you’re sending a message that the fear is that the school board is saying that if you want to be part of our community here, you’re not going to accept this particular theory. Why did they pick out that one theory? I don’t think a sticker in that way, limited to one topic, focusing on one, does addresses how a science teacher could work in these ideas in general and help people better understand science and the limits of science.
MR. DIONNE: The biologist who had the textbook stickered was quoted as saying that his objection to the sticker is that it didn’t go far enough and that everything in his textbook should be approached both critically and with an open mind, which I think goes to that. The second thing is on the question of teaching religion in schools, it does seem to me that part of the solution to this problem is to open up space, and that teachers are afraid. And in 1997, the Education Department convened a whole group of people from the National Association of Evangelicals to the ACLU to say you can talk about religion in the schools. You can’t proselytize. And Clinton said famously at the time, religion doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. And it just strikes me that may be a better solution to this dilemma than sort of mixing these two realms.
MS. LITTLE: As I understand it, the Supreme Court has ruled that creationism shouldn’t be allowed in the classroom, but it has never said that its mandate is to teach evolution. Because certainly last year in Dayton, I was interviewing 18-year-olds who had been through the public school system and knew nothing about evolution or Darwin.
DR. LARSON: The Supreme Court has ruled that you can’t teach scientific creationism or creation science as science. You can still teach creationism in religion class or social studies. But the doctrines of Henry Morris, the teachings of the Institute for Creation Research, because that, it determined, was nothing other than a religious view dressed up as science, presented as science and therefore trying to latch off the credibility of science, and therefore it was being included in a means to promote, proselytize, advance that particular religious viewpoint, which, it should be stressed, is different from a lot of other religious viewpoints, so it divides religious viewpoints. It’s picking one religious viewpoint. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has struck down the Arkansas law that banned the teaching of evolution, but it has never ruled that schools have to teach evolution. Schools are free to either teach evolution or not teach evolution and there have been various surveys and studies showing before the mandatory state guidelines that were pushed as goals 2000 by the first President Bush, and then picked up by Clinton, and then also further picked up by George Bush in the No Child Left Behind. Before those, there were no mandatory state guidelines, and surveys showed that before that you couldn’t tell if most school districts in the United States did not teach evolution at all. But that was at a local decision and they’re free to make that local decision. The problem comes when they are affirmatively teaching a religious view, not when they are simply dropping evolution or dropping Shakespeare. They can choose what they want to drop.
NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY, The Wall Street Journal: A couple of years ago, I visited Bob Jones University and they teach evolution there. That sort of surprised me. The dean was explaining the rationale to me. He said, we teach evolution, but we teach that it’s wrong. And he felt that the students who were graduating from the school needed to know this because it was sort of a common thing to know in the United States today. They wanted to be able to send students on to medical school, as they do, and have them well-versed in what science today says. I wonder if you could address, first of all, how widespread a belief this is, that pragmatic approach to teaching evolution. The idea that, we have to accept it because it’s a pretty common scientific theory out there, and when it was that certain fundamentalists decided it was okay to let this into a classroom at some level. And I don’t know whether this is just college-level, or whether this is primary and secondary education as well. But I’m very curious about that.
MR. CROMARTIE: They’re probably reading Henry Morris along with that, don’t you think?
DR. LARSON: It’s tough to know exactly what was being taught everywhere, but there were disputes going all the way back to the 1880s where teaching evolution in a church-related college would become an issue, and they stopped teaching evolution, because the parishioners in that state. It might be Wake Forest. It might be Vanderbilt. It might be Baylor. Different place where it would come up at the state within the local denomination, and there would be objections to teaching evolution. But really since the 1950s, evolution has become such a core concept in biology that the general norm, so far as I understand it in virtually all colleges, religious or otherwise that try to have science programs. There are some bible institutes that really don’t have any science per se. But if you’re trying to teach biology, you will include evolution.
How it’s taught varies. I’m from Seattle and they have a very conservative Free Methodist School called Seattle Pacific there; and they teach a very doctrinaire theory of evolution. Ken Moore is the leading biology teacher there and he takes a strong pro-evolutionary stance. There are lots of schools like that. Then, there are other schools that will teach it along with a lot of qualifications to that idea. And then, moving over toward the other extreme, we have what would be characterized by Bob Jones. But there are not many colleges that run away and stick their head in the sand. I just don’t know of many that stick their head in the sand and say this doesn’t exist.
MS. RILEY: My question is then, why doesn’t that idea ever trickle down into primary and secondary education? I mean presumably these people graduating from these colleges and they’re the parents of these young kids, and they can say on the school board elections or wherever else they have a role in deciding— great, teach evolution. And when the kid comes home, we’ll explain to them that it’s wrong.
DR. LARSON: Ever since Henry Morris and the Institute for Creation Research came up with an alternative theory, the rallying cry of even the strongest creationist has not been to exclude evolution. The rallying cry has been equal treatment, balanced treatment, and equal time for creation science. That was characterized by the second phase. And this was sincere. I do not believe that this was a cover — well, we can’t exclude evolution anymore, so let’s try to — if we’re going to teach evolution, let’s also teach the other.
No, I think it was a sincere response. We’re offering a valid alternative. Let’s get our idea in. The equal time movement started in 1964 in Arizona, which predates the striking down of Arkansas’ anti-evolution law by four years. So you can’t just simply see that oh, the anti-evolution law was struck down. Now, let’s come with another strategy. The next strategy will be equal time. Oh, the equal time strategy was struck down in ’86 with Edwards v. Aguilar in ’87, and let’s go now to just teach intelligent design. They do line up that way, but they’re not simply motivated by the decisions. There is a sincere group of people who think we should teach both ideas. There’s also a sincere group of people in the group who really didn’t want to teach young earth creationism. I don’t think Phil Johnson wanted to teach Henry Morris’ young earth creationism. He was not a young earth creationist.
What he wanted was exactly what he said that the controversy should be taught and that the decisions simply opened doors sort of like Stephen J. Gould said about the spandrels and how when evolutionary change opens options to another one and therefore it leads to a punctuated equilibrium theory of development. Certain doors are open or closed by the Supreme Court decisions, but I don’t think people are simply posturing to fit in under those decisions. I think they reflect sincerely held positions. We can’t forget that evolution theory itself is a very dynamic field, and the ideas of the dominant theories in evolution are on a yearly basis evolving, morphing, changing, and some of these are drawn on.
DELIA RIOS, Newhouse News Service: I have an observation and then a question. The observation is that the reluctance to engage conflicting belief systems reminds me somewhat of the reluctance to talk at the Civil War battlefields about the causes of the Civil War that held for about a century until the mid-1990s. And the reluctance there was that you had to talk about slavery obviously. And there still is a very entrenched belief in this country that slavery was not a cause of the war. And you have to engage that, and I wonder if there’s a larger failing in American society to address conflicting belief systems and to be able to discuss them.
But here’s my question. I’d read that the Natural History Museum exhibit on Darwin in New York includes his bible, which he took with him on his travels. And I wondered if you know how Darwin himself reconciled his own religious beliefs with his theories and what it was he was discovering.
DR. LARSON: Yes, good question. I was just up speaking at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday. I was the speaker on Thursday night and I saw the exhibit. The exhibit, despite the Bible, really downplays the role religion played in Darwin’s life. I don’t think you ever see enough of that in it. Darwin was religious, sort of conventional Anglican early in life. His mother died when he was young. But his mother was religious. His father was not, nor was his grandfather. They were openly not. His father was liberal. His father was a classic Whig. But the role of religion in his own life declined. He was religious when he went on the voyage of the Beagle. He gradually would say he’d lose his religion. He would publicly describe himself and privately described himself usually as an agnostic.
Now, what caused the decline in religion in his life? It may have been, as Phil Johnson would suggest, his entire immersion in methodological naturalism in doing science and looking for naturalistic answers. And maybe that leads to a philosophical materialism. But certainly an important event was when his beloved daughter Annie died. Annie’s death in 1852 was a tremendous shock. That was the daughter he loved most. She was such a wonderful little girl, and that was profoundly life changing. He didn’t really want to believe in a God who could cause Annie’s death. That was a profoundly important experience in his life. His wife was an Evangelical Christian who gradually moderated to, I think by the end of her life, to a middle-of-the- road Christian. He remained close. He stopped going to church, but he regularly played backgammon with a local minister, the local Anglican minister in Down on a regular basis. They were good friends. He would help subscribe to some of the church functions that he thought had a social purpose, but he became a really convinced agnostic, in all that meant. He never described himself as an atheist. He would vary though between effectively being a deist at times and effectively being near an atheist at times, but always somewhere within the two parameters of being an agnostic.
CARL CANNON, National Journal: Professor, despite your sophisticated and reassuring view of Inherit the Wind, a lot of Christian Evangelicals consider it, as you know, propaganda at their expense. But they also felt that way about the coverage of the Scopes trial, and H.L. Mencken, who appears in both the play and in the trial, what was the universal joke. A lot of fundamentalists thought that’s what Mencken made them out to be, a universal joke and ignorant hillbillies and Bible-thumpers. And the words he used, the language he used, no columnist today would write like that. But this helped throw fundamentalists into a funk they didn’t come out of until the ‘70s when they were roused first for and then against Jimmy Carter. But my question to you is, the Evangelicals have fully engaged with the political system, but I’m not sure they’ve ever fully engaged with us again. My question to you is, do they think they’re not getting a fair shake on intelligent design? Is that why there are these radio shows? Is that their attempt to bypass the mainstream media? That’s my question.
DR. LARSON: The Scopes trial was a traumatic experience. I believe this is just my conclusion as a historian. It was a traumatic experience for conservative Christians. It was traumatic in the sense that before that time, the media seemed to be treating both sides of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy with a certain dignity. And after that time, they weren’t. After that time, the media said, well, this settled Darrows’ humiliation of Bryan. If you ever get the chance to pull up the editorial written the day after the Scopes trial — the lead editorial in the New York Times, H.L. Mencken couldn’t have touched it. They said something to the effect of, we all knew Bryan was sort of weak on the brainpower, but we never knew just how empty that sanatorium was until he was forced to make an inventory at the Scopes trial. The Times had been otherwise presenting the trial in a fairly balanced way. And it was not just the New York Times. I just picked that. It was throughout the country. And there was this pullback, this visible disengagement from the larger media and the larger culture. You suddenly see a surge of building a separate counterculture.
Now, it had been happening before. The seeds were laid with the fundamentalist/modernist split, because it seemed that all the institutions that all these denominations had so carefully built, be they be Yale or Princeton or Duke or Vanderbilt or Wake Forest — they were all going off on the modernist side. But now, it just became — “we’ve got to build our own. We can’t try to save Wake Forest.” So President Hatch, if you’re listening, you’ve got your work cut out for you. But the thought becomes, we can’t stay at Wake Forest. What we’ll do is we’ll build our own institutions. So you see Bryan College, of course, the clearest example, right in Dayton. But you see Seattle Pacific in Seattle reviving. You see a whole bunch of different schools all around the country being formed — a separate counterculture. Their own radio stations, their own bible camps, the whole new structure being built of fundamentalist subculture.
The distrust of the media began then, but it was mutual. The media stopped covering religious news. You can go before that in every newspaper — the New York Times, any newspaper put summaries of many local church sermons in Monday’s paper. That disappears. The media disengages. It’s a tremendous change when the New York Times puts on the front page, as I did last week, a creationist rafting trip down the Colorado. On the front page, people can’t —
MR. CROMARTIE: What was that again?
DR. LARSON: The creationists have a regular raft trip down the Colorado where they explain the Colorado River as the immediate action of hydraulic action. That’s Henry Morris’s whole point with his flood geology — he was a hydraulics engineer — how all the Earth’s features could have been created with one gigantic flood. That’s why his book was called The Genesis Flood.
MR. CROMARTIE: The Times covered the raft trip?
DR. LARSON: They had a front-page story about it on a Sunday — picture and everything. Then also there are the news stories in the Times and elsewhere about Ken Ham’s museum in Cincinnati with the dinosaurs and the people frolicking together before the Fall. Outside the evangelical church, the American people don’t see that viewpoint because it dropped out of their media. So I think it was mutual. There was one side the fundamentalists disengaged and didn’t trust them. They stopped buying them. But you stopped trying to reach them. Now I see for the first time, and I think it’s very healthy, this engagement that the media is at a serious level trying to engage what is being taught, just like the old sermons when you’d summarize the sermons and you could read them on Monday and find out what the Methodists and Presbyterian and everybody were saying. Now, we can actually see. We can see the things I had studied as a historian and was following, like the raft trips and like Ken Ham’s museum. Now you can read it in the New York Times.
So I think it’s a tremendous change, but I think there was disengagement on both parts. So I agree with your comment, but I think the media was also abandoning that constituency.
DAN GILGOFF, U.S. News & World Report: To what extent has it been almost exclusively a cause pushed by Evangelical Christians? In terms of everything from the national radio broadcasts you were talking about to the school board members in Dover to the mega-churches that are advocating it. Also, if 50 percent of the country, as you said, believes that mankind was created within the last 10,000 years, that seems to suggest some resonance beyond the Evangelical movement, and I’m wondering who else? What other religious traditions is this finding traction in? And is there any correspondence/correlation to other sort of demographic factors like levels of education? Or, is it largely or completely explained by levels of religious commitment?
DR. LARSON: The Pew survey that came out in the summer (on the Pew web page) is an excellent breakdown. And it tracks what Gallup and the other organizations have been finding. It’s not actually 50, it’s more like 40. It tends to be about 40-45 percent. Pew had it at 42 percent. So it is less than 50. Those numbers tend to be pretty solid. Gallup has been asking this question for years too, so you can look at all of them. It does resonate beyond the conservative Protestantism, which has been the driving force, the people most involved, but simply because they’re probably the largest group. But neither creation science nor intelligent design has ever been just limited to Evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. Pentecostals have resonated with this issue to a large extent. You look at the intelligent design movement; you’ve got people like Jonathan Wells who wrote one of their main books. He’s a member of the Unification Church and was chosen to go into this area by the leader of the Unification Church.
MR. CROMARTIE: So highly credentialed?
DR. LARSON: Highly credentialed? No, he was chosen to go in and get his biology degree by the leader of the Unification Church and that’s why he went on and got his Ph.D. Chosen. Picked. So there is an example of somebody outside the Protestants. Michael Behe, of course, is a Catholic.
MR. CROMARTIE: Explain. Just tell them who David Berlinski is.
DR. LARSON: He is mathematician who is a very prominent leading philosopher and thinker in mathematical thought, one of the premier people thinking about the philosophy of math.
MR. CROMARTIE: And a nonbeliever?
DR. LARSON: A nonbeliever of any kind, but not out of a Protestant tradition as a non-believer. Michael Denton who is a non-believer from Australia is involved in this movement. The Mormons historically have been very strong on creationism always. This issue resonates among some Jewish groups. This has become a big issue in Israel. There have been riots in Israel in front of the education ministry over the issue of teaching evolution or intelligent design. This is an issue in Israel. This is an issue among theologically conservative Jews. This is certainly a major issue in Islam. In any country with conservative Islamic law, it’s a capital offense to teach evolution in Islamic countries. So this has resonated among Islamic groups in America. It’s not just White Protestants. It is also a cause among African-American Protestants as well.
PETER BOYER, The New Yorker: I was just wondering, outside of movements, outside of these faith-oriented movements within the scientific community, what’s the nature of community? Your biology teachers, for example, ideally would say what?
MR. CROMARTIE: Is it biology teaching?
MR. BOYER: Because you’ve mentioned a couple of times, the appropriate place to address these questions about evolution is in sciences.
DR. LARSON: A biology teacher could talk about the critique of evolution offered by intelligent design and talk about that there are alternative possible explanations for the origin of life. But when they move to talk about what scientists do, what scientists do is evolution. When you look at biologists who are working in fields that relate to issues that need a theory of origins? There are many areas. There’s agricultural research. There’s medical research, bird flu — these sorts of things. This is all being researched within an evolutionary framework. There is much debate; there’s always been debate, just not over the issue of common descent. Because if you’re trying to look for naturalistic explanations, which is the only thing repeatable and testable and therefore exploitable with disease treatments or whatever or in agriculture, it has to be naturalistic, so it has to be coming not directly from God, but from other species, so you’re going to be working in an evolutionary framework.
Where there has been continual debate is how evolution operates. Historically, from the very beginning, there was debate among scientists about how evolution worked. There was a debate in Darwin’s day. There is a debate today. They’re constantly debating the punctuated equilibrium as an example, but assisted facilitated variation is a recent theory. There is a tremendous new discussion of the importance of gene flows and hybridization in evolving new species. Well, the neo-Darwinian synthesis doesn’t emphasize any of that. So there is considerable dynamism in how evolution operates, and that’s what biology teachers can talk about.
The questions of these differences seem to run into the time problem. The two issues that have constantly bedeviled the Darwinian explanation for evolution are the irreducible complexity issue that Michael Behe revised, but which has always been there and this issue of time. Is there enough time for Darwinian sorts of mechanisms — tiny, minute changes selected by a struggle for survival? Is there enough time to have produced the current diversity of life? Well, that’s always been an issue, and scientists deal with that issue — punctuated equilibrium, assisted variation, hybridization, all these are a way to speed up the clock because a lot of scientists don’t think there is enough time.
ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE, The Economist: First, on the suspicion of the Mencken worry about Evangelicals — I find dealing with them incredibly easy. I mean they’re incredibly welcoming. I went to see Patrick Henry College, for example, and wrote about it. They spent a lot of time with me. And then they invited me back to give a speech. So they’re very easy to deal with right across the board — Richard Land, the rest of them. Secondly, I absolutely agree with the British pragmatism. Why not teach religion in schools? And I can’t understand why liberal fundamentalists are against it, because having been taught religion in British schools, you know, it turns you into either an atheist or an agnostic pretty quickly, so they ought to lend their support to it. But I just wanted to ask one question about the difference between Britain in the 1920s and ‘30s and the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s. Dean Inge, a very prominent member of the Church of England, Dean of St. Paul’s, very prolific writer and popular writer of religion. He’s also a very prominent member of the Eugenics Society and popularizer of eugenics. Could there have been an American version of Dean Inge or were these two completely different cultures?
DR. LARSON: Oh, there were direct parallels. There were some American theologians, who were strong supporters of the eugenics movement, and they would fall in line very much with Dean Inge. They knew Dean Inges writings over here very well. There was a movement within the Episcopal Church over here to require eugenics certification before you could get a marriage within the Church, and I think that was applied in the main church in New York City. There was a minister’s section of the American Eugenics Society, so you did see that movement very much tied with theologians and ministers in America who would be very, very much like Dean Inge.
Also borrowing on the English example, where Dean Inge would be often used by the religious supporters of eugenics in America, the religious opponents also appealed to an English person, G.K. Chesterton, and would use Chesterton’s writings, and they were widely distributed, and those were the clashing voices we borrowed very much from the mother country in that debate. Of course, eugenics was born in England with Francis Galton. The battle was fought in England and it was fought over here. In many ways, our debate borrowed on the British, which was in some ways very religious. You could get strong religious supporters of eugenics and strong religious opponents.
MR. CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Larson has done a terrific job and we should thank him by clapping.
Thank you, Ed.
DR. LARSON: I want to applaud your questions, too. This has been a tremendous session. Thank you very much.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, accuracy, spelling, and grammar.