Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Creation-Evolution Debate: Historical Perspectives

The Creation-Evolution Debate:, Historical Perspectives
Edward J Larson
Athens (GA): The University of, Georgia Press, 2007. 66 pages
Reviewed by
Mark Largent

This shortLarson: The Creation-Evolution Debate volume resulted from the 2006 George L Shriver Lectures on Religion in American History, which Larson presented at Stetson University. It consists of three chapters — one on 19th-century British reactions to evolution as it applied to humans, one on the American controversy over creation and evolution, and one providing a general view of the religions of American scientists. The book offers only a brief survey of material examined much more thoroughly elsewhere. It concludes with a short appendix that describes a survey that Larson and Larry A Witham conducted regarding US scientists’ religious beliefs.

Larson’s first chapter, “Darwinism and the Victorian soul,” turns quickly from Darwin's and other natural scientists’ concerns about the theological significance of his 1859 On the Origin of Species and the widespread acceptance of his theory of evolution by natural selection to the scientific community’s reaction to his 1871 Descent of Man. Larson asserts that the “triumph of evolutionism within the Victorian scientific community during the 1860s did not translate into widespread popular acceptance of the theory, at lease with respect to human origin” (p 8). In general, Larson argues, most people rejected the notion that humans’ highly developed brains, morality, and emotions evolved via selection from lower animals.

In the book’s second chapter, Larson moves the discussion about Darwin's theories to the United States, explaining, “The American controversy over creation and evolution is primarily fought over what is taught in US public school biology classes” (p 14). It occurred, Larson asserts, in three phases: 1) the Scopes Trial in 1925; 2) the creation science movement in the mid-20th century; and 3) the “intelligent design” movement that emerged at the end of the century. He concludes the chapter by predicting little progress in the stalemate between evolution and creation, given that “dark clouds remain on the horizon” (p 36).

The third and final chapter of the book examines the interplay between science and religion in 20th-century America. Larson pays special attention to the warfare terminology employed in discussions about science and religion in the United States by showing how firmly rooted it is in both the proevolution and anti-evolution narratives. He finishes the chapter by introducing some of the work of the Bryn Mawr psychologist James H Leuba, who conducted a series of surveys of American scientists in 1914 and again in 1933. Leuba reported that about 40% of average American scientists believed in God, but when he surveyed the American scientific elite (as defined by being starred in the American Men and Women of Science) he discovered much lower rates of belief.

In the later portion of the third chapter and in the book's appendix, Larson describes the results of his survey of American scientists' religious beliefs. Following Leuba's model, Larson and Witham found similar rates of belief and disbelief among American scientists. They also found, as had Leuba, substantially higher rates of disbelief among the scientific elites in the United States. Larson asks, “Are the deepest contemporary scientific minds drawn to atheism, or does elite scientific society itself select for the trait of disbelief?” (p 50). He concludes — rather unsatisfyingly — that “the answer seems to be a bit of both” (p 50).

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.