Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons

Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design
Peter J Bowler
Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2007. 256 pages.
Reviewed by
George E Webb

For nearly forty years, Peter J Bowler has been contributing significantly to our understanding of the development of evolutionary thought. His published works have included such studies as the elegant survey Evolution: The History of an Idea (originally published in 1983 and now in its third edition), Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence (1990), and the insightful The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900 (1983), the last of which fundamentally changed the way historians looked at the "Darwinian Revolution". His latest effort to provide a more complete understanding of the evolution controversy will not disappoint those who have come to expect well-written and thought-provoking books from this author.

As has been the case with Bowler's earlier contributions, the current volume is primarily concerned with correcting some of the mythological aspects of the evolution controversy. In this case, he attempts to break down the long-held view of two diametrically opposed perspectives on the evolution debate, one defined as "science" and the other defined as "religion". This polarity has been a commonly accepted one for decades, as currently witnessed by the anti-evolutionism practiced by evangelicals and the evolutionism preached by avowed atheists such as Richard Dawkins. Bowler's great contribution in the current volume is to show that this dichotomy is largely an artificial one and that, in fact, these two perspectives represent merely the two extremes of the long-standing discussion. There is a vast center in this debate, populated by figures who are neither evangelical nor atheist.

Bowler focuses on the "liberal" religious perspective of the late 19th and early 20th century, which in fact represented mainstream religious thought of the time. This perspective largely accepted evolutionary ideas because the concept of "progress" underlay their theological view. The acceptance of organic change paralleled the liberals' progressive mindset, but the Darwinian emphasis on random variation posed a significant problem. Without a directed goal, evolution could not be perceived as God's way of doing things. Fortunately for the liberal perspective, evolutionary concepts of the period increasingly emphasized non-Darwinian explanations, the most successful of which was the neo-Lamarckian explanation that stressed the inheritance of acquired characteristics and the innate tendency of an organism to change. It required little imagination to define the source of that innate tendency in divine terms, thus preventing a theological clash with evolutionary concepts.

Bowler also points out, however, that the liberals' focus on evolution as progress led to a significant change in their theological perspective as well. Religion was no longer defined in terms of the innate evil in humanity (the concept of "original sin") that required salvation through Christ's sacrifice. Now, human progress was the key to religion. Intriguingly, evangelical opponents of evolution (especially Darwinism) saw this new view of sin and redemption as a danger from the beginning. If the new system focusing on progress were accepted, they asked, where would the concept of original sin and the need for salvation fit?

By the early 1920s, mainstream churches had largely accepted a new perspective known as modernism. The modernists maintained the liberals' progressivist perspective and also wanted religion to be more in tune with modern science, continuing their predecessors' acceptance of evolutionary concepts and reinforcing the idea that certain theological concepts (for example, original sin) would have to be modified. The modernist perspective was dramatically shown by a series of sermons given in Westminster Abbey by future bishop Ernest William Barnes, soon described by the press as "gorilla sermons". Barnes argued that religionists must accept modern science, including the ape ancestry of humans and the idea that God operated through law, not miracles. He specifically noted that the concept of original sin must be rejected and that Christ was a great teacher who showed humanity what it could become. The rejection of modernism by American fundamentalists is well documented and is rightly viewed as central to the famous Scopes trial. Here, too, Bowler provides additional insight, stressing that William Jennings Bryan and his colleagues might well have railed against Darwinism, but they were actually reacting against the non-Darwinian evolutionary concepts based on innate progress.

The carefully crafted and largely successful liberal view of evolution and faith collapsed in the 1940s, however, as the evolutionary concepts known as the Modern Synthesis re-established Darwinian random variation as the foundation for organic change. Without a guarantee of progress, the liberal perspective could no longer argue that evolution was merely God's way of doing things. As a result, biblical literalism increased during the post-World War II years, with young-earth creationism becoming the focal point of anti-evolutionism. The rest of the story is well known. That much of the current debate is still couched in terms of science versus religion is a result of a polarization that Bowler's work clearly shows is neither intellectually nor historically legitimate. Rejecting the extremism of anti-evolutionists and atheists, Bowler argues that a middle position that recognizes both scientific knowledge and the cultural importance of religion might remain the most profitable course of action.

Bowler's study does suggest a possible escape mechanism from the current clash between two divergent world views, but many of us probably question his optimism. In a troubling coincidence, the mail that brought my review copy of Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons also contained the fall 2008 issue of National Forum, the quarterly journal of the interdisciplinary honor society Phi Kappa Phi. The editor published four letters from readers in response to an earlier essay supporting the teaching of evolution in public school science classes. All four readers objected to the exclusive teaching of evolution in these classes, insisting that "intelligent design" or creationism be taught alongside evolution to foster the free exchange of ideas that marks true education. If this is the attitude of supposedly well educated individuals, Bowler's solution may not have much chance of success.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.