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.

Despite this, Bowler makes his point: Darwin's ideas were not universally condemned by Christians, or lauded by scientists, of the day. Neither could agree amongst themselves what to make of the claim that all existent life forms descended from a single original species. Some scientists clung to ideas about evolution that preceded Darwin, such as Lamarckianism, which postulated that life forms could inherit the attributes that their forebears acquired in their lifetimes. (This notion, of course, has been discredited: Just because Arnold Schwarzennegger developed muscle mass through weightlifting does not mean that his children will be beefcakes.) Others, such as the anatomists Richard Owen and St. George Jackson Mivart, argued that man's evolution occurred but was guided by a higher power. Still other scientists were bluntly dismissive of Darwin. The astronomer Sir John -Herschel mocked natural selection as the "law of higgledy-piggledy."

Among the clergy, too, responses were mixed. Some churchmen rejected Darwin's arguments as atheistic and contrary to Christianity in toto. Others, such as the Scotsman Henry Drummond and the Englishmen Reginald Campbell and Ernest William Barnes, were receptive to the theory of natural selection--and to science, more generally. In this discussion, Bowler plays at making a comparative case between the United States and Great Britain. In 1925, Americans witnessed the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, which featured the State of Tennessee prosecuting a high school biology teacher named John Scopes for violating its anti-evolution statute. Across the pond Bishop Barnes was preaching his "Gorilla Sermons," which argued that Christians needed to accept apes as their ancestors.

Bowler suggests that the two nations' divergent responses to Darwin, and evolution more generally, had two causes. First, Britain (and Europe more broadly) was sliding toward secularism; in America, the opposite was happening. While churches in big, industrialized cities accommodated the new science of man's origins, the hinterland's houses of worship turned hostile to evolution and, eventually, to the notions of archaeologists, paleontologists, and physicists when they did not comport with the Genesis story of creation. This backwoods backlash, Bowler seems to think, was part of a more general recoil from economic modernization and the erosion of "family values." Bowler might be on to something, but the reader will never know: He drops the topic--perhaps wisely, since he seems to know little about American religious history.

Despite highlighting Barnes's Gorilla Sermons, Bowler does not quote them at length. That's a pity, because Barnes was a good writer and a bit of an imp: The dedication of his chrestomathy, Should Such a Faith Offend? (1928), reads, "TO THAT BEST AND MOST SEVERE OF CRITICS MY WIFE." Though his head was stuffed full of deep learning in mathematics, physics, and theology, Barnes wrote with gusto. In his sermon, "Christian Revelation and Scientific Progress," Barnes declares that

Evolution was, and still is, not an observed fact, but a theory so probable that no alternative to it can be entertained. .  .  . In our own time the leaders of Christian thought have, with substantial unanimity, accepted the conclusion that biological evolution is a fact: man is descended from the lower animals. .  .  . The time has now come when we must not try to evade any implications of the theory of natural selection.

The implications are huge. As Bowler notes, "Evolution raises general issues about how God might govern the universe, and specific issues about the status of humanity within the universe and the wider scheme of creation." If Darwin is right, what to do with Genesis's description of God fashioning an orderly, hierarchical creation, populating it with individual species and placing man above them? If man is the product of a "higgledy-piggledy" process, what to do with the doctrine of original sin as the source of suffering and death? And if man is not fallen, who needs a Christ to be savior?

Barnes, despite the obvious challenges, was undaunted: "Can we accept the idea that man and the gorilla have sprung from a common stock and yet hold that man has an immortal soul?" he asked. "I answer emphatically that we can." Avoiding a false debate over how the earth came to be, Barnes urged Christians to focus on the teachings of Christ: "Christianity is belief in Christ as Way, Truth, and Life: belief that He was the Light of the World, the Guide of the spiritual evolution of humanity."

Today, Barnes's intellectual descendents continue their work at reconciling the Christian faith and the findings of evolutionary biology and the allied sciences. Lamentably, Bowler gives their work little attention until his last 20 pages. Michael Ruse, Arthur Peacocke, and others receive brief mention, and their efforts at reconciliation are little explained. The reader is left wondering: Is synthesis, or at least rapprochement, possible?

One obvious approach to the conundrum is philosophy, which teaches the ways of knowing and their limits. Four centuries ago, Hobbes picked up where Descartes left off, and taught his readers that man's limited faculties kept him from knowing much of reality. After Hobbes, Berkeley and Hume further developed skepticism's assault on mankind's ability to know. Critically, Hume emphasized that knowledge is inevitably contingent: What past experience has taught, future experience can disprove. Hence, the scientific method, which relies on the testing of hypotheses about how things work, never can establish anything once and for all. So it was that Kant, the colossus of Königsberg, who devoted much of his life to studying the workings of reason, made room for faith in life by establishing the limits of knowledge through reason. Barnes himself advocated something like this in the Gorilla Sermons:

Between the religious revelation of Jesus and modern science there is no opposition. The two dovetail into one another with singular exactness. Evolution describes facts; the ultimate meaning of those facts Christ's teaching discloses. We need faith to accept the Lord's message; we cannot prove its truth by the methods of inquiry useful in the physical and biological sciences, for the spiritual world is a type of reality which the organs of sense will not reveal.

Yet, neither philosophy nor Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons will put an end to the eye-gouging fights between fundamentalists and Darwinists in America. If Plato taught us anything, it is the folly of trying to make all men wise. If atheists wish to abuse science by saying that it proves there is no God, they will. If fundamentalists want to read the Bible--in translation, no less--and assert that every word of it is purely factual, then they shall. Man's a quarrelsome creature. Happily, however, most bystanders do not seem eager to enter the fray. This is likely due to their mixed-mindedness about the matter: Polls have shown that most Americans believe that evolution is probably true, but most of them also believe in God.

Kevin R. Kosar is a writer in Washington.