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Points of Origin

Two New Books Pick Up The Evolution Vs. Intelligent Design Debate

Autumn Whitehurst

Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial
By Marvin Olasky and John Perry
Broadman and Holman Publishers

The Evolution-Creation Struggle
By Michael Ruse
Harvard University Press

By Scott Carlson | Posted 8/10/2005

Believers in intelligent design—aka “creationism lite”—often claim that their theory has nothing to do with belief in a Christian god, even though devout Christians push this evolution alternative. Intelligent design is merely counterargument to inconsistencies in evolutionary theory, they say, although the argument is pretty thin. Intelligent-design theorists conveniently usher in a “designer,” a euphemism for God, wherever biology and paleontology get confounding.

The evolution vs. intelligent design debate isn’t about science. It is a struggle to maintain belief in a scientific age. Marvin Olasky and John Perry acknowledge such in their new book Monkey Business, ostensibly about the 1925 Scopes trial: “The creation debate is as intense as ever because it is as important as ever: what we believe about where we came from determines what we believe about everything else.”

It’s the everything else about which Olasky and Perry are most worried. Evolutionary theory knocks humanity off a pedestal and opens up an uncomfortable void. Man is no longer created in God’s image; rather, given different conditions and circumstances, a slime mold or cockroach might have ended up as the dominant species—and may still. To Olasky and Perry, this nihilism is to blame for the collapse of civil society, the dangerous moral liberations starting in the 1960s, and the moral relativism that poisons society today.

Monkey Business bills itself as the “true history of the Scopes trial,” yet ends up concluding on entirely different themes. Olasky, a journalism professor and former President George W. Bush adviser who coined the term “compassionate conservatism,” and Perry, a writer who focuses on Christian themes, set out showing that the general public has misperceived the Scopes trial over the years: William Jennings Bryan, who represented the creationists, did not lose his case. Although he died shortly after the trial, it was not from heartache. Journalist H.L. Mencken did treat Bryan and the creationists rather harshly. And Inherit the Wind, the 1955 play based on the Scopes trial, completely revised history to explore McCarthy-era themes.

Olasky and Perry’s energetic, even inspired account is hardly the hidden history the authors claim. Much of the same territory is covered in other books, such as Edward J. Larson’s Summer for the Gods, a 1998 Pulitzer Prize-History winner, and without the conspiratorial overtones. The authors blame “Darrow, the ACLU, and their media allies” for depicting Christians as lunatics and sheep, unreceptive to the advances of modern science—a stereotype that has persisted. They have a point here. Ann Wroe, a religion writer for The Economist, has criticized journalists for their inability to cover religion effectively. In a fall 1995 article for the Media Studies Journal, she pointed out that when reporters write about religion “they treat it as an anthropological exercise, an exposition into unknown territory among strange tribes who believe embarrassing and primitive things.”

That characterization has haunted Christians in the years since Scopes. Olasky and Perry write that Christians may have won the Scopes battle but scientists and secular liberals have won the creation-evolution war—mainly through spin.

As Monkey Business devolves from a Scopes trial history to a manifesto of the modern creationist’s struggle the authors engage in some spinning of their own. Olasky and Perry lay out stereotypes about Christians that the faithful need to fight—“Christians demand conformity,” “Christians don’t prize liberty,” and, despite what you might hear from James Dobson’s Focus on the Family camp, “Christians want to legislate morality from the top down.” They discuss the invention of intelligent-design theory and portray it mounting a serious science-based challenge to Darwinian evolution. They describe various states’ movements to get intelligent design in curricula; although votes don’t make for scientific fact, they infer that sympathy and support for these movements in conservative districts lend more credibility to intelligent design.

Serious challenges to intelligent design are never given equal time, even though they’re out there: H. Allen Orr, a professor of biology at the University of Rochester, wrote a concise argument against intelligent design in a May 30 New Yorker article. And Michael Ruse’s new book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, nicely sums up the most basic argument against intelligent design:

If you invoke miracles every time you run into something that you cannot readily explain, you will get nowhere. Scientists make the discoveries they do because they refuse to give up and put unexplained phenomena down to non-natural causes.

Ruse, a professor of philosophy at Florida State University, is one of the best-known academics arguing against creationism and intelligent design. Struggle, however, calls for cooperation and compromise between the two sides and proposes that adherents of evolution are sometimes just as fervent as their religious opponents.

Like Monkey Business, Struggle begins as a history—of evolution. Ruse shows that it was not always a cold theory of species survival through adaptation and chance. Thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and others advanced ideas of evolution that implied progress within the human species—ideas that gave rise to racism and eugenics, in some cases—and justified a view that man had been placed (and had not simply landed) on top of the hierarchy of living things. If you accept that species have survived through luck and random mutation, progress, or lack of it, is not a feature of evolution.

Ruse also points out that notable scientists are devoted to evolution as a sort of religion. Committed atheist Richard Dawkins speaks of evolution with almost devotional fervor, and uses its theories to bash Christianity. Biologist Edward O. Wilson proposes that religion is an aspect of evolution—an adaptation to chaotic environment, a way to provide order; his is an old-school view of evolution as hierarchical and progressive. “We have come out on top,” Ruse writes, summing up Wilson’s point of view. “Not to preserve humans would be to reduce value, and that is wrong.”

Ruse argues that evolutionists and creationists should find common ground, although this sounds like a difficult recommendation—after all, as Ruse acknowledges, evolution without question impinges on religion. Still, he pushes ahead with a plea to both sides: Christians should more closely examine evolution and Darwinian theory, which is expanding all the time, before they go looking for alternatives that don’t offend the faith. Simon Conway Morris, a University of Cambridge professor of paleobiology, manages to reconcile his faith with science. “It is simply not the case that people take up evolution in the morning,” Ruse writes, “and become atheists as an encore in the afternoon.”

At the same time, evolutionists should not dismiss religion outright. Ruse quotes Dawkins, saying that the human mind has a limited view of reality, evolved as it did among hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa. “This does not necessarily mean that God is on the other side of the divide, but it does mean that Darwinians should not sneer at those who think that possibly he is,” Ruse writes to his fellow evolutionists. “Perhaps there are things beyond—forever beyond—our ken. Perhaps therefore a little modesty or skepticism about our own nihilistic position is in order, along with a little more tolerance for those who might wish to make something more of the mystery of life.”

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