Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Larson on the history of the Creation-Evolution debate

Edward Larson is the author of the 1998 Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods-- an excellent book and must-reading for those interested in the topic. He returns to the same arena with a short, helpful volume on "historical perspectives" in the longstanding debate, based on lectures given at Stetson University. Here, I'll share a few notes of interest and to tuck them away for future purposes (new observations or observations that reiterate but are worth noting).

Larson lays out the connections between evolution and race, including Darwin's approach to that facet of evolution. In Origin of Species, Darwin "avoided making comments about human evolution, fearing that they would prejudice readers against his general theory." But Larson notes that his notes and other writings indicate an early and avid interest in the topic-- as it should have (2). Darwin theorizes about the topic in Descent of Man and speculated on "the differences between the so-called races of man." (4-5) And Larson notes that Darwin looked to sexual selection (rather than natural selection) to tell stories about gender and external differences like race (6-7).

Larson is not clear on this, but it seems that Darwin was wary of extending his analysis/story too far, since evolution was more easily focused on bodies rather than minds and emotions (5). Following this tentativeness, as he wraps up chapter 1, Larson uses John Paul II's discussion of evolution from 1996: "Theories of evolution which...consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man." (13) Moreover, one might add, they rely far too heavily on narrative than on Science and science, given how little we know about these things in terms of explanation.

Larson use his last lecture/chapter to outline the history of the debates on science and religion-- in particular, the warfare vs. accommodation approaches. Larson notes that the Galileo episode was used by Protestants to mess with Catholics. Then, it was used by Enlightenment thinkers to mess with Christians in particular, and eventually, to religion in general (39). Larson notes the influence of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White (40) in promoting the warfare hypothesis in the 19th century. (I had not heard of these men until Lawrence Principe's discussion of them in his excellent "Great Courses" DVD's.) While influential, "the warfare thesis...did not go unchallenged. Historians did not uniformly preach it, and scientists did not uniformly confess it." (41)

Larson closes by including a summary of previous research on scientists' attitudes toward religion (in 1914 and 1933)-- and then an update on those results from the 1990s (47). In both cases, 40-50% of scientists believed in God (48). "Higher level" scientists were less likely to believe than lower-level scientists (49). NAS biologists were the most skeptical-- at 95% (49). In sum, "measured by religious belief, professional science is like a pyramid. At the top is acute disbelief. Scientists in the middle are significantly less believing...than citizens in general." (50) Notable results, but are they examples of selection bias, going into science and biology-- or coming out of one's studies?  


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