Evolution: Still Controversial (Teaching It Is Banned in Islamic Countries)

Roundup: Talking About History

Craig McDonald, inThisWeek(May 13, 2004):

In 1998, Mansfield native Edward J. Larson earned the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book, Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.

On May 20, Larson will come to Columbus to discuss Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (Modern Library Chronicles, 337 pages, $21.95).

"There were lots of books on the concept of evolution or little parts of it," Larson recently told ThisWeek, "but there simply wasn't a readable, comprehensive book that people could just take off the shelf and understand how the theory of evolution has developed over time and where it came from. When you see the whole story together, it's much easier to understand the controversies that continue to plague the teaching of the theory of evolution today."

Larson, who is currently Russell Professor of History and Talmadge Professor of Law at the University of Georgia, said that when he speaks on the Scopes trial or other evolutionary topics, he often finds there is little meaningful grasp of the theory of evolution on the part of supporters or detractors.

"It would quickly become apparent that here's a controversy that splashes out of nowhere, such as in the Scopes trial," Larson said, "or as is happening in Ohio right now, suddenly there is a front-page controversy over this intelligent design issue -- where do these come from? Well, I got interested in going behind the Scopes trial and that led to my book on the work in the Gal·pagos (Evolution's Workshop). I finished that, but then I was beginning to see this huge continuum of history of objections of the sort that are being raised in Ohio today -- and they aren't fundamentally different than the types that were raised in Tennessee in 1925.

"They actually aren't fundamentally different from what have been raised since the very beginning," he continued. "I think a lot of people don't understand what the theory of evolution is, but they also don't understand the objections to the theory of evolution."

While evolution entered the consciousness of the greater public in the 1800s, the concept of intelligent design was also being fostered by figures such as William Paley and Georges Cuvier.

"They would argue that there is 'a design' here, a complexity that can't be explained --those would be arguments against (Charles) Darwin made by (Louis) Agassiz, made by (Richard) Owen," Larson said. Intelligent design "has a long and noble pedigree. You can actually follow intelligent design all the way back to the debates in ancient Greece."

In addition to exploring the history of the gradual development of the theory, Larson also places its development in the context of the social forces that helped shape the theory and --in one particularly dark instance -- a social movement that was informed by one interpretation of the concept of evolution.

Charles Darwin actually saw British imperialism as a kind of metaphor for natural selection.

"Very much so," Larson said. "It's very clear in Descent of Man. There's a subtle interplay. Darwin was a capitalist, very proud of how he greatly increased his inherited wealth by prudent stock investments. He was very proud and involved with British expansion ... he saw the survival of the fittest worldwide. ... His writings were also very much used to defend what Britain was doing."

At the other end of the spectrum was Ernst Haeckel, whose studies of evolutionary theory -- and his eventual creation of a secular philosophy dubbed "monism" which advocated a strong, centralized state -- would become twisted into tools for the emerging National Socialist movement. Haeckel, Larson said, "was certainly a warm advocate of World War I and his Monist League was foundational to the Nazi Party."

Although evolution has been a polarizing topic for centuries -- and continues to be so -- Larson said his goal in Evolution was to report accurately and objectively on the theory and the criticisms lodged against it.

"I'm not a partisan on this issue," Larson said. "There are books out there that are viciously pro-evolution and viciously pro-intelligent design. I'm not a biologist myself, I'm a historian of science. I don't have an oar in this pond, as it were, in the sense that I'm not trying to convince anybody one way or another."

Current polls indicate that 90 percent of adult Americans do not subscribe to "the full Darwinian vision of Evolution." Interestingly, Larson said that similar polls conducted in Europe and elsewhere reveal much different results.

"For at least 40 years, the results have been pretty consistent," Larson said. The number of Americans expressing a belief in a "full Darwinian vision" rarely rises above 9 percent, he said.

"In western Europe, you just don't find a high percentage for the Biblical view," he said. "You go to countries like the Netherlands and Germany and Sweden and you won't find any, literally. If you go to England, France, Italy and Spain -- eastern Europe -- you'll find a big growth in support for what would broadly be called 'theistic evolution.'"

In Islamic countries, he noted, it is actually a capital offense to teach the concept of evolution.

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