December 2007

Jen Crispin


Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design by Peter J. Bowler

Reading the newspapers or watching the daily news on TV, it's easy to come to the conclusion that in regards to evolution, the people of America belong to two highly polarized camps. In one corner, you have the Godless scientists, supporters of evolution, genetic engineering, and cloning, determined to stomp out all last vestiges of religion from American culture, and make life over in their own images. In the other, evangelistic fundamentalists, proponents of a 6,000 year-old Earth, a 7 24-hour day creation, and Noah's flood as the cause of the Grand Canyon, determined to institute religious law and bring about the rapture. The only people in the middle seem to be apathetic and don't care one way or another. Each new headline ratchets up the tension and increases the stakes, until it seems that it must have always been this way, science and religion locked in conflict over the future of the human race ever since Darwin stepped off of the Beagle.

Thankfully, we have Peter J. Bowler, professor of the history of science from Queen's University in Belfast, to bring us some much needed perspective. His remarkable little book, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons, goes back to the first pre-Darwinian inklings that life on earth may not always have been as it appears today, and traces the conversation about the origins of man and their implications through the ages to the present day. Even the most familiar events along this journey are illuminated afresh by Bowler's use of current historical research. For example, the famous crushing of Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, by scientist Thomas Huxley at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, when Huxley declared that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a man who misused his intelligence to attack a theory he didn't understand. According to modern understanding, this event was invented by later followers of Darwin. In reality, there was no decisive victory on that day. Darwin's theory of evolution was accepted very gradually by the scientific community. In time, parts of his theory were even accepted by most religious thinkers, until the return to tradionalism in many Christian movements led to fresh attacks, particularly on the teaching of evolution, in the early twentieth century. Though it wasn't until well the 1950s and '60s that even the more unpopular materialist aspects of Darwinism were accepted by the majority of the scientific community, setting a far different stage for the current conflict.

The final section of the book is devoted to the modern debates. Bowler links the rise of intelligent design and young-Earth creationism with the rise of fundamentalism worldwide. A brief discussion on the social forces that are making fundamentalism so appealing to so many these days, and why any fundamentalist movement would necessarily be opposed to the scientific theory of evolution, is enough to make any liberal fall into despair. On the other side, a few modern evolutionary scientists have grown so hostile to any form of religion that one has even gone so far as to declare all of the world's religions a danger to humanity. But thankfully, that is not where the book ends. For much of the history of this debate, there were many movements in Christianity that tried to accept some version of evolution, but the final breaking point was always natural selection as the primary mechanism. There were those who could accept common ancestors, who could accept random variation, but when it came to natural selection, most of these Christians simply replaced this with God. It's not too surprising, for decades natural selection made even the most avowed Darwinists nervous. This partial acceptance made these theologies easy to criticize for both scientists and more conservative Christians. However, today there are a number of religious thinkers who are able to reconcile their visions of God and Christ with all of evolutionary theory. Indeed, a few have even suggested that a universe ruled by natural selection is the only possible universe in which intelligent creatures with free will could emerge. They have thus made the modern theory of evolution essential to their theology.

What is made most clear from this book is that our ideas about the nature of the human race and the universe in which we live are always changing. We will probably never come to some static interpretation of how the world is and why, but this book gives me faith that we have some good directions to move in.

Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design by Peter J. Bowler
Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0674026152
272 Pages