Crossing Over in the Culture War

Washington Post

"Evolutionists Flock to Darwin-Shaped Wall Stain," ran a recent headline in the satirical newspaper the Onion. The picture showed breathless biologists worshiping a Shroud-of-Turin-like apparition of Charles Darwin's face on a concrete wall.

Darwinian fundamentalist mystics among us? Well . . . probably not. All the same, it's getting hard to tell the players without a scorecard in America's most peculiar culture war: the battle between evolution and its enemies.

Spectators often see this conflict as a straightforward affair. On one side, scientists pile up physical evidence; on the other, biblical literalists scorn that evidence as a snare of Satan. Adherents of " scientific creationism" and "intelligent design" blame evolution, with its explanation of how all living beings evolve through chance and natural selection, for everything from abortion to the Holocaust. Returning fire, the British biologist Richard Dawkins rides the bestseller list with his polemic The God Delusion, dismissing not just creationists but religious folk generally as dupes and creeps.

As if to annoy Dawkins, now comes a parade of books that jumble the sides and soften the tone of this conflict. One, by a self-proclaimed "evolutionary evangelist," declares evolution the harbinger of a new and more creative theology. In Thank God for Evolution, itinerant preacher Michael Dowd urges the faithful to forget their fears of evolution and embrace its ability to illuminate old doctrines: Original sin, for instance, should be understood as the persistence of now-inappropriate urges from our evolutionary "lizard legacy." Then there is The Faith of Scientists, a stout anthology of primary sources compiled by Dartmouth religion professor Nancy K. Frankenberry, which makes clear the rich variety of religious experience of scientists from Galileo and Darwin through Rachel Carson and Stephen Hawking.

Though Dowd's book is New Agey while Frankenberry's is scholarly, both project the same air of outreach: See, scientists are spiritual, not soulless! They meditate on things unseen! Neither author, though, goes very far into the territory of traditional religion. Dowd, for all his syncretism, dismisses non-evolved creeds as "night" thinking and "flat-earth faith," which doesn't really capture why people might, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, cling to them. Frankenberry notes that she chose the word "faith" rather than "religion" intentionally, to cast a wider net; it allows her to pull in everything from the chilling transcript of Galileo recanting before the Inquisition in 1633 to the musings of the pugnacious Dawkins. (The latter's tart comment on what he calls "agnostic conciliation" applies to several of the book's other voices, and most of all to Dowd: "You have redefined science as religion, so it's hardly surprising if they turn out to 'converge.' ")

Why do so many Americans (even a major party's vice presidential nominee) remain skeptical or even hostile toward a foundational idea of modern biology? Surveys have found as few as 40 percent of Americans agree that humans evolved from earlier species, and a 2004 CBS poll indicated that more than half of U.S. adults accept the Bible's account of creation as true. It takes a third new book, Karl W. Giberson's Saving Darwin, to cast some light.

Giberson, a physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College, a historically Christian school, attacks the conundrum with eloquence and clarity. Saving Darwin offers readers two gifts: a cultural history of the anti-Darwin movement that details how its tenets, far from being the traditional doctrine of any church, were developed by a few cranks and fueled by larger, populist fears of secular culture; and an empathetic, comprehensible account of how the world looks if you believe in scientific creationism, as he once did.

Brought up fundamentalist, the teenage Giberson dreamed of getting a PhD in physics, the better to fight against Darwinism and related ideas, such as the Big Bang theory and radiocarbon dating. He carried a dog-eared copy of John Whitcomb's and Henry Morris's 1961 volume The Genesis Flood, which argues that Noah's flood deposited all the "evidence" that the deluded see as the fossil record. But at college -- Bible college, yet -- he encountered actual science. By his sophomore year, he was "sliding uncontrollably" away from biblical literalism, wondering, as he abandoned doctrine after doctrine, whether he would lose his faith completely.

He didn't. He concluded, eventually, that the untenable beliefs of Morris and his ilk were not essential to Christianity -- unlike, say, the Resurrection. But his experience left him keenly aware of the emotional stakes of this ostensibly scientific topic. For its protagonists, Giberson argues, the war against evolution is "more like the war on drugs than a war of ideas." In the recent court cases over whether to teach "creation science" in public schools (all won by the evolution side), he sees not a sideshow of zealotry and superstition, but a "window into the fears and frustrations of ordinary people as they struggle with a science threatening their faith."

Many people, not only fundamentalists, assume that the 1859 publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species ushered in the secularist forces that all but undid religion in the next century. Giberson argues that the pressures on literal readings of scripture grew instead from forces within religion, notably the "higher criticism" of biblical texts pioneered by German theologians. David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, translated into English by George Eliot in 1846, pioneered the investigation of the "historical Jesus" and catalogued inconsistencies in the Gospels, undermining the notion of an inerrant text. It created such a furor that as ships carried the book across the Atlantic, "religious militias lined up along the coast from Maine to Florida" to prevent its coming ashore.

In the scramble that followed by churches to define and defend "the fundamentals" of Christian faith, doctrines incompatible with evolution (a literal Flood, a six-day Creation and an Earth just a few thousand years old) were hardly mentioned. It was much later, as evolution came to be associated in the popular mind with such nonscientific phenomena as social Darwinism, sterilization of the "feeble-minded" and Nazi race theory -- and by extension with everything toxic in modernity -- that disbelief in it became mandatory.

Evolution's popular defenders, Giberson says, shortchange their own argument by barely noticing these "dark companions." Sure, social Darwinism and eugenics were bad science, badly applied; racists and dictators looked at evolutionary theory and took what they wanted. But the power and flexibility of the basic evolutionary insight, its ability to be many things to many people, are part of what makes it unsettling. A touch of Giberson-inspired empathy might actually build a bridge between those whom evolution scares and those who find it glorious. ·

Reviewed by Amy E. Schwartz


How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World

By Michael Dowd | Viking. 417 pp. $24.95


In Their Own Words

Edited by Nancy K. Frankenberry | Princeton Univ. 523 pp. $29.95


How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution

By Karl W. Giberson | HarperOne. 248 pp. $24.95