Monday, May 07, 2007

Book Review: The Creation-Evolution Debate

Author: Edward J. Larson
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
ISBN: 13-978-0-8203-2912-3; 10-0-8203-2912-6

In January 2006, Edward J. Larson presented a series of three lectures on the topic of this book at Stetson University. In this volume, Larson offers those lectures in print form. Each of the book’s chapters corresponds to a lecture, each of which was designed to stand independently of the others. Nevertheless, all of the lectures taken together provide a coherent overview of the ways in which this debate has developed over the past 150 years.

In the first chapter, Darwinism and the Victorian Soul, Larson discusses the British cultural environment into which Darwin unleashed his theory in The Origin of Species. This book generated tremendous responses, positive and negative, upon its publication in 1859. People from a wide range of philosophical and political persuasions eagerly accepted Darwin’s ideas. Others, however, objected strenuously to them. Perhaps unexpectedly, some Christian theologians accepted Darwin’s theory, with limitations. These limitations were articulated more forcefully upon Darwin’s publication, in 1871, of The Descent of Man. Larson concludes this chapter by noting that both philosophers and theologians contested this aspect of evolutionary theory, and continue to do so today.

The book’s second chapter, The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution, focuses on the American context of the debate. Larson divides this debate into three phases. He calls the first phase, epitomized the by famous Scopes trial in 1925, the antievolution crusade. At this point, American opponents of evolution fought to keep evolution out of American high school curricula. Since public school curricula reflected a Protestant worldview, no other action was deemed necessary at that time. The second phase of the debate opened subtly in 1947 when the United States Supreme Court began enforcing the establishment clause of the first amendment. It became more visible in 1961, upon the publication of Henry Morris’s book, The Genesis Flood. This book, which promoted an antievolution “young earth” creationist theory, became immensely popular among conservative Christians. This Creation Science movement lasted until the late 1980s, when the Supreme Court ruled against the inclusion of scientific creationism in school curricula. The third stage, which is still ongoing, began in 1997 when Phillip Johnson launched the Intelligent Design movement. Larson discusses several recent legal cases involving the inclusion of Intelligent Design theory in school curriculum and concludes by observing that, “If history is any guide, dark clouds remain on the horizon” (p. 36).

In the book’s final chapter, Scientists and Religion in America, Larson discusses three models that historians commonly use to explain the relationship between science and religion. The first model, which may be the most prominent, is the “conflict” model, which sees science and religion in a state of perpetual warfare. The second model views science and religion as “complementary” ways of knowing. Its proponents believe that scientific information can reinforce religious belief, and vice versa. The final model views science and religion as pursuits that “coexist” in separate realms. According to this model, science deals with natural phenomena and religion deals with the supernatural. Therefore, there need not be any conflict between these two distinct spheres of inquiry. Larson closes this chapter by detailing several surveys, conducted in 1914, 1933, 1996 and 1998, of the attitudes of American scientists toward religion. He concludes that, “in terms of its relationship to religion, American science did not change fundamentally during the twentieth century” (p. 50).

Larson’s slim little volume (66 pages) provides a nice introduction to the history of the evolution-create debate, particularly as it has unfolded in the United States. It should be especially helpful to readers who are just diving into the vast body of literature on this issue. Larson’s treatment is even-handed and respectful of all parties; he does not denigrate or disparage any points of view. Nevertheless, it would be much more helpful if Larson had included a bibliography. A reader whose book list begins with Larson’s account will have difficulty determining what to read next if he or she wants to read more about this topic. I sincerely hope this shortcoming will be rectified in the future.

The Creation-Evolution Debate is well written and easily digested. It is good for newcomers to the debate, and I readily recommend it to them. Readers who are already familiar with the issues and the players, however, will find little of interest in this volume.

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