The Magazine

Darwin's Synthesis

How much conflict between science and religion?

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons

Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design

by Peter J. Bowler

Harvard, 272 pp., $24.95

Scarcely a year can pass without a hubbub erupting over evolution. Frequently, these fights involve the public schools. In late 2007, it was reported that Texas's director of science education had been fired because she forwarded an email to colleagues about a gathering of evolution supporters. One month before, there was a stink in suburban Northport, New York, over a man teaching a night class on "creation science" at a local public school.

But these clashes are not just happening among the hoi polloi in the hinterlands. A few years back, the National Park Service was caught selling books that said the Grand Canyon was produced by the flood that lifted Noah's Ark. The books were urged to be removed. The year after that, President Bush provoked howls and hosannas when he said that schools should teach both evolution and intelligent design. Frequently, the media depictions of these flare-ups portray a battle between would-be theocrats and loudmouth atheistic advocates of science. It's Inherit the Wind's fanciful rendering of Clarence Darrow versus William Jennings Bryan all over again, a war of antipodean worldviews, and never the twain shall meet.

From his perch at Queen's University Belfast, Peter J. Bowler seems to look upon these battles with fascination and dismay. A historian of science, Bowler has written plenty about evolution, although here he brings no new revelations to the subject. Rather, Bowler repackages existing historical scholarship in the hope of defusing the purported clash between science and religion.

The image of confrontation between evolution and religion is so pervasive that to challenge it might seem quixotic. But the purpose of this book is to show that such a rigidly polarized model of the relationship benefits only those who want us to believe that no compromise is possible.

While Bowler is skeptical about the veracity of religion, he thinks that hard-line atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are not giving evolution the best defense. Rather than bash God as a "delusion," and pound one's fist for a purely materialistic explanation of existence, Bowler suggests opposing creationists and fundamentalists "by showing them that they have oversimplified the response of religion to the quest for a science of origin. .  .  . The best defense of evolutionism is to show the complexity of the religious approach to science."

To achieve this, Bowler first pulls back our collective oculus to reveal that there is no war between all of the religions and all of the sciences. All earth's people are not rent over the subject. One does not read of India's Hindus urging the house arrests of biochemists or Shintos in Japan rioting against astrophysicists. Science, as an approach to seeking knowledge, has been embraced nearly worldwide. Even within the United States, the clashes tend to involve only some fundamentalist Protestants. One certainly does not see Quakers or Episcopalians up in arms over the subject; and Roman Catholics, whose church still is bashed for bullying Galileo, long have accommodated evolution.

Bowler argues that the perception of a longstanding skirmish between fundamentalists and Darwinists is a fairly recent phenomenon. To demonstrate this, Bowler whisks the reader back to 19th-century England in order to take in the late 19th and early 20th-century religious and scientific debates that followed the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). This effort makes up a goodly chunk of Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons and, regrettably, Bowler's material is not well organized. Often the reader feels like he is in a freshman survey course: The names of the long dead and little remembered tumble forth, along with their often-outdated notions about the earth's origins and organization.