Culture

Reviews: The evolving door

Museums | Books on evolution show the debate over our origins didn't end with the famous Scopes trial

Issue: "Larry Woiwode: By the book," July 4, 1998

Eeeeeeeeewwwwww!
The carefully conditioned air of the St. Louis Zoo's Living World exhibit is punctuated regularly by such higher criticisms whenever a group of children is led through. They march under the hanging giant squid and shark, to the bright displays on the Earth and its inhabitants. And in one corner, they can even pet a frog. This morning, a group of about 40 elementary-age kids from an inner-city YMCA day program has engulfed the exhibit like a bacterium. Three boys are pulling two girls to a worm display, while a bored-looking Hispanic boy tries to make the state-of-the-art, interactive, instructional computer terminals do something interesting. As a horribly depressing film called Requiem ends, the hall rings with funeral bells, tolling the extinction of species and the death of the planet. A little girl looks over impatiently at the Painted Giraffe Cafe, with its plastic souvenir cups and its overpriced hotdogs on (I'm not making this up) disposable paper plates. They'll get lunch there, but not for another half-hour. And nobody-nobody-is paying attention to the animatronic Charles Darwin, who is telling all about biological diversity. That's precisely the problem a new slew of books about evolution is hoping to address. "Today many school students are shielded from one of the most important concepts in modern science: evolution," warns the National Academy of Sciences in its new guide for teachers, Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science. "People and groups opposed to the teaching of evolution in the public schools have pressed teachers and administrators to present ideas that conflict with evolution or to teach evolution as 'theory, not fact.'" What has been the awful outcome of this awful campaign? "Fewer than one-half of American adults say they believe that humans evolved from earlier species," the NAS laments. "More than one-half of Americans say that they would like to have creationism taught in public school classrooms-even though the Supreme Court has ruled that 'creation science' is a religious idea and that its teaching cannot be mandated in the public schools." With its graphics and glossaries and "artist's renderings," Teaching about Evolution looks, feels, and opines like a public-school science textbook. It makes broad generalizations, then leaves them hanging, like that giant squid in the Living World exhibit. "Those who oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools sometimes ask that teachers present 'the evidence against evolution.' However, there is no debate within the scientific community over whether evolution occurred, and there is no evidence that evolution has not occurred." That's nonsense, but it's well-presented nonsense. As if the Academy is writing for the attention-deficient, Teaching about Evolution imparts its most important information in "Dialogues," fictitious "vignettes" about three concerned, compassionate, and-above all-open-minded biology teachers. Karen, "the newest teacher on the faculty," wonders about how to teach evolution. Barbara, a bold, committed Darwinist, guides her. They clash with Doug, a dishrag who lets the issue slide out of a fear of confrontation with Stanley, the son of a fundamentalist school board member. The point the NAS makes is that evolution is the only viable explanation for, well, everything-and that unbelievers are hopelessly deluded, unenlightened zealots. It's the duty of teachers, armed with this book and the recently released National Science Education Standards, to save the children from ignorance and, presumably, from snake handling and inbreeding. But the book reveals something quite important about the nature of the evolution debate. Evolutionists know-better than their opponents seem to know-that the theory is an all-or-nothing proposition. It extends from the Big Bang to big brains like a dike holding back a flood. If any little hole appears in the dike, the whole thing goes. If, at any point, the supernatural is admitted, then the entire theory collapses. What that emphasizes for Christians is that the theory of evolution is like a domino convention, and we're little boys with itchy fingers. We just know it's going to be a glorious afternoon. Indeed, the National Academy book tends to elbow its own row of dominos when left on its own. "The triumph of the human mind says a great deal about the nature of science," the book reads. "First, science is not the same as common sense." Indeed. But the NAS isn't done yet. "Second, the statements of science should never be accepted as 'final truth.'" The analogy of evolution-as-a-dike holds in the next title. Ian Tattersall's Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness is an attempt to plug a hole. That hole is a question left unanswered by Darwin and all his followers: Why are we us? Specifically, how came there to be a language-using, thinking, self-aware species, and why the huge cognitive gap between this species and all the others? "We human beings are indeed mysterious animals," writes Mr. Tattersall, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History. His challenge is to provide an evolutionary model for how we came to be. He attempts this by looking at two "close relatives," the apes and the Neanderthals. The apes show some behavioral similarities, he says, and in some cases their actions and abilities can help explain ours. For example, chimpanzees hunt together in an organized manner. "The apparently well-rehearsed nature of this activity does not mean that chimpanzees wake up in the morning with the intention of hunting, as humans might do," he admits. Obviously not! Now, if they woke up in the morning in an unusually good mood, adorned themselves in plaid, stuck beer in a cooler, and let their best dog ride in the front of the truck, then perhaps we could equate their behavior with what we know of this mysterious animal, the human being. In the area of language, the gap is even wider. Mr. Tattersall acknowledges this, but then he lets slip a scary passage-as far as I can tell-in all seriousness: "Lest I be thought a chimpophobe, let me hasten to add that there is no reason why apes should have an ability to acquire language. The problem lies with us." Next he turns to the Neanderthals, about whom we know little, other than the fact that they were a lot like us. And here appears, like a bug rising newly formed from a primordial goo, the biggest problem in Becoming Human: Mr. Tattersall is a couple of weeks behind the times. Even as he's painting (on a cave wall in France) a portrait of a language-devoid, primitive, and ugly Neanderthal, Duke University is releasing a report that the Neanderthals did have language and did think symbolically. As for ugly, well, Duke has been silent on that. In the end, Mr. Tattersall fails to plug the hole, even according to evolutionists. His answer to the question of consciousness is, essentially, that it's a non-question. Consciousness, symbolic thinking, and the ability to use language just happened, as happy (?) side effects of evolution. "This scenario will not please many evolutionists," responded the University of Chicago's Robert J. Richards in The New York Times. "A lot of hominid history will remain mysterious. For the apparent intent of this history-to find out how and why we became human-seems to dissolve in mist two-thirds of the way through the book." What the book does show is that the debate hasn't changed much-it has not, in fact, evolved. That's why one of the strongest arguments against the new Tattersall book is an old G.K. Chesterton book, The Everlasting Man. Language and art show that there is something, he wrote in 1925, "that belongs to man and to nothing else except man; that is a difference of kind and not a difference of degree. A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all. He does not begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin." The same year Mr. Chesterton wrote those words, a battle was shaping up in America over the same ideas. And that brings us to the next title. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion won the Pulitzer Prize last spring for its portrayal of the 1925 Scopes trial. Edward J. Larson, a science historian and law professor at the University of Georgia, lays out the facts about the Scopes trial and casts aside the distortions of Inherit the Wind, the 1950s play and movie. Clarence Darrow, the lawyer called in by the ACLU to attack the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, might have been the hero of the play, but in reality he loved playing the role of anti-hero. "In the courtroom, on the Chautauqua circuit, in public debates and lectures, and through dozens of popular books and articles, Darrow spent a lifetime ridiculing traditional Christian beliefs," Mr. Larson writes. "Good intentions underlay Darrow's efforts to undermine popular religious faith. He sincerely believed that the biblical concept of original sin for all and salvation for some through divine grace was, as he described it, 'a very dangerous doctrine'-'silly, impossible and wicked.'" He was in Dayton, Tenn., for one reason only: "Neither Scopes in particular nor free speech in general mattered much to Darrow, and this troubled many within the ACLU leadership.... Darrow volunteered his service for the defense-the only time he ever offered free legal aid-seeing a chance to grab the limelight and debunk Christianity." William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted substitute science teacher John Scopes for the state of Tennessee, was no ideal hero either. He was a failed presidential candidate (beaten by Theodore Roosevelt), and he was old and in ill health (he died just five days after the trial). His poor judgment led him to accept Mr. Darrow's challenge to take the stand himself; though Mr. Bryan was a legendary speaker, he was no match for Mr. Darrow in a one-on-one debate. Mr. Bryan was shaken by World War I, Mr. Larson writes. His reaction to evolution was, in part, a reaction to the bloodshed of the Great War: He believed (rightly) that German intellectuals looked to Darwinism for justification for the war. The Great Commoner, as he was known, began a new crusade; but journalists such as H.L. Mencken were lying in wait (or waiting to lie). Mr. Mencken's bigotry was astounding. Here's how he ended his coverage of the trial: "Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience. There are other states that had better look to their arsenals before the Hun is at their gates." In the end, though, the trial didn't accomplish much. "The nation's press initially saw little of lasting significance in the trial beyond its having exposed Bryan's empty head and Darrow's mean spirit." Still, the evangelical church was jarred; it began an intellectual and cultural retreat, Mr. Larson contends, that is still occurring. Darwin's Leap of Faith: Exposing the False Religion of Evolution is an indication that the retreat is at least slowing down, if not reversing. The reliable John Ankerberg and his co-author, John Weldon, provide a concise, helpful reference work for refuting the worst of the evolutionists' claims. "Whether or not evolution is true makes all the difference in the world," they write. "The issue of evolution is crucial today because, whether right or wrong, it tells us who we are. And no one can ignore their own portrait." The book is extremely well-researched. There's little new information in it, but that's not its purpose. Its goal is systematically and logically to define the terms of the debate, identify the claims of the other side, and either refute them or show them to be faulty. Chapter 9, in fact, includes a short course in identifying logical fallacies. So when evolutionists point out that fossils are dated by the geological strata, and the geological strata are dated by the fossils they contain, you'll know that's petitio principii, or a circular argument. Or when they quote the American Association for the Advancement of Science as saying "the evidences in favor of the evolution of man are sufficient to convince every scientist of note in the world," you'll know that's not only misuse of authority (every scientist?) but also poisoning the well (if a scientist isn't convinced, he's not "of note"). They summarize the work of non-Darwinian scientists such as Henry Morris and Michael Behe, but also the work of evolutionists such as Stephen J. Gould and Nils Eldredge. Those are the men, by the way, who developed the theory of "punctuated equilibrium" to try to fill another of those holes in the dike. Their theory says that evolution happened in spurts, with long periods of nothing in between-and that's why the fossil record contains so many gaps. If there's anything unsatisfying about Darwin's Leap of Faith, it's that Mr. Ankerberg and Mr. Weldon continue to fight on two fronts. They combine refuting Darwinism with proving creationism. That's an unwise and needless effort. It's enough for now to show that evolution is wrong; the rightness of creationism is a subject for a later debate.

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