Last night, my alma mater’s Assembly Series hosted a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson on the topic “From Dayton to Dover: A Brief History of the Evolution Teaching Controversy in the U.S.” I really enjoyed the talk as an overview of the evolution vs. creation debate over the past century or so.
The main structure was an analysis of the three strategies that anti-Evolution activists have used over the years:
- Removing evolution from the classroom
- Balancing evolution with some form of creationist instruction
- Teaching that evolution itself is “just a theory”
Removing evolution from the classroomThis part of the discussion was dominated by analysis of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, which Larson pointed out was not a resounding victory for the pro-evolution forces (in fact, Scopes was convicted) and was brought by the town of Dayton, TN as a publicity stunt that grew out of control. Both of those points contradict the impression of the trial given by Inherit the Wind.
More interesting for me was the revelation that the debate over teaching evolution in public schools was not initially a fight between Christians and atheists, as the debate is now generally depicted. Instead, it started out in the late 1800s as a theological debate within Christianity, between the Modernists, who adapted their traditional beliefs to scientific discovery, and the Fundamentalists, who insisted that Biblical literalism trumped any notion of discovered fact. So, before the 1947 Supreme Court decision that extended the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to the states, the debate in public schools was not whether to teach a religious viewpoint on our origins, but instead was focused on which religious viewpoint to teach. Since in the debate today you hear so much about the “evil atheists” who are trying to force evolution down everyone’s throat, I was surprised to hear that it started as a Christian argument.
Balancing evolution with some form of creationist instruction
After the Supreme Court clarified that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the First Amendment to the schools in the 1940s, the debate was quiet in the schools for a while; since evolution was the only game in town that claimed the mantle of science, it was the only option for schools (actually, there was the additional option of avoiding the topic and controversy completely, which Larson said was the primary choice).
That changed in 1961, with the publication of “The Genesis Flood” by Henry Morris, which created the concept of “Creation Science”. Of course, the ideas presented in the book were nonsense from a scientific perspective, but that didn’t really matter. The main effect was that Creationism now had a scientific veneer, no matter how fraudulent, and that veneer was enough to lead several states to require teaching creationism along side evolution as “balance”.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court again clarified the situation with the Edwards v. Aguillard decision, which prohibited teaching creationism as science because it’s really just religion and not at all science.
Teaching that evolution itself is “just a theory”
Since the Supreme Court had ruled that directly teaching religion was unacceptable and that only science should be taught in public school science curricula, the next effort was to change the definition of science itself.
Here, Larson discussed the Intelligent Design (ID) movement and its further attempt to make religion look like science. Larson pointed out that ID isn’t really science (it makes no predictions, it isn’t falsifiable, etc.) but is really a philosophical argument. The claim of ID is that science itself is wrong because it looks only for naturalistic or materialistic answers to the questions it asks. However, this isn’t a weakness of science, it’s a strength. As Michael Behe, one of the main leaders of the ID movement, himself admitted on the stand in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, a definition of science expansive enough to include ID would also include astrology. With naturalism, we have Chemistry; without it, we have alchemy.
Larson discussed the Dover case (in which a public school board used church funds to buy Creationist textbooks that had been rebranded as ID books) and similar modern cases. Fortunately, in all these cases, the courts have upheld that only science be taught in science classes.
Larson’s talk was a bit rushed, but the crowd really seemed to enjoy the history, laughing with surprise at some of the gambits that have been attempted over the years. I would suspect that the vast majority of the crowd agreed with the pro-evolution perspective, not only because this was at a top university (though Larson pointed out that a colleague at Cornell said a third of his biology class rejected evolution walking in the door), but also due to self-selection on the material.
Even if he was “preaching to the choir,” I think it was an important topic, because science and engineering students need to understand more than just the facts of science; they also need to understand the context and history of the debate in America today. Evolution isn’t controversial in college or in research, but it is controversial in the political arena. To be successful in that arena, information like what Dr. Larson presented is vital.
P.S. At the lecture, I bought a copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. I haven’t had a chance to dig into yet, but I flipped through it a bit and noticed that the 12-page Afterword was obviously the script that he used for the lecture, with many sections of his talk lifted directly from the text. So, if you want more on this topic, that book and its afterword are a good summary.