Book Review: Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons

The power of the evolution idea is that it directly affects every creature that has ever lived on this planet and ever will, for that matter. It does not apply only to mussels and marmosets, dinosaurs and date palms, or penguins and porgies; Homo sapiens is as much a product of evolution as the most basic of bacteria or most monstrous of whales. Not everyone readily accepts this basic fact, however, and even before Charles Darwin's landmark work On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection appeared in 1859 many people were threatened by the idea that life (and most of all human life) could be anything other than divinely created as told in the Bible. Given the current state of religious fervor that often leads to the rejection of science, then, it is important to know the history of the debate surrounding evolution, and Peter Bowler offers up an excellent summary in his new book Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons.

Perhaps one of the greatest continuing myths about evolution both as a science and an idea is that it appeared out of nowhere, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection appearing one day in the bookshop and introducing the idea of evolution to an unsuspecting public. Overturning this tall tale is Bowler's first order of business in his book, recounting (albeit briefly) the geological and paleontological discoveries that paved the way for Darwin, starting in the 1600's.* Traditionally, the development of evolution as an idea has been attributed to various naturalists and philosophers even further back in time, but as Bowler rightly notes many of the earlier notions of change bear little resemblance to the kind of evolution Darwin helped to clarify (i.e. the notion of the Ionic philosopher Anaximander that the world existed first in a fluid state and that men arose from fish-like creatures). Instead, much attention is given to the ideas of Buffon, Lamarck, St. Hilaire, Chambers, and Spencer, the debate about whether evolution occurred and how it happened being much more significant than is often given attention. The ideas of Lamarck, for instance, are often relegated to a blurb in biology textbooks about acquired characteristics (often using a giraffe, as Bowler does, as an example)** while Lamarck's hypotheses were definitely influential on Spencer and Chambers, both of these men further setting the stage for Darwin by popularizing evolution (even if they were not scientists and their ideas were eventually discarded). Likewise, Bowler notes the resurgence of Lamarckism following Darwin, another part of the story that is often ignored in many popular works


The book is not simply about tracing the evolution of evolution as an idea, however, for it is the interaction (and sometimes resistance) of theologians that makes this book especially relevant. Contrary to popular wisdom, there were a number of liberal theologians who welcomed evolution under religious Modernism, just so long as it could be said that man was an inevitable or more refined product of the process. Indeed, while Spencer might be most identified with "Social Darwinism" today (and hence reviled), liberal theologians of his time were supportive of his ideas as they seemed to be consonant with their ideas. By the 1920's, however, whatever truce existed between science and theology evaporated as religious fundamentalism swept through the United States, giving birth to the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. I was especially glad to read in Bowler's analysis of this event that it was essentially a loss for those who supported evolution (contra popularizations like Inherit the Wind), not because I would have rooted for William Jennings Bryan but because evolution was essentially ousted from public schools for a time as a result, the trial being more of a setback than the intellectual victory it is sometimes portrayed as.

Indeed, while the intellectual underpinnings of modern intelligent design and creationism are old (fundamentalist tracts of the 1920's closely resembling Chick Tracts and AiG-generated pamphlets of today, and "intelligent design" seemingly springing directly from the first pages of Paley's Natural Theology), the religious fervor that draws on the somewhat antiquated "refutations" of evolution is something new, perhaps born out of terrorist threats, incredibly quick technological innovation, and other problems that would drive people towards something of a constant in their daily lives. Bowler treads lightly here so it is difficult to directly refute or support this hypothesis, but it does seem to be consonant with the history of the issue discussed in the book. What are we to do, then, in a climate of argument in which we have fundamentalist groups like Answers in Genesis demanding a reading of Genesis as 100% historically true on one hand and a glut of atheist popular literature condemning religion as dangerous on the other? In the last section of the book, Bowler (while intellectually aligned with atheists and agnostics) looks at "the middle way," essentially reconciliations between science and religion undertaken by liberal theologians or religious scientists. While biologist Ken Miller is only briefly mentioned (and Francis Collins not at all), Bowler notes his preference for the more liberal religiously-based reconciliation of the physicist/Anglican cleric John Polkinghorne, although Bowler rightly notes that such theology will likely be rejected by most fundamentalists. The debate seems to increasingly be one of all or nothing, each side paying more and more attention to the theological implications and questions of evolution rather than the science itself, but it can at least be hoped that some occupying the middle ground will gain some influence to temper what can often become white-hot arguments between fundamentalists on either side. Such attempts to make sense of theology given the fact of evolution will likely be continued to be panned by many, but there is at least a historical precedent for a greater acceptance of evolution than is present in religious circles presently.

My only gripe about Bowler's book is that it was too short; occupying about 240 pages, it is a slim volume that could have easily been expanded. Those familiar with the current state of the evolution controversy may find some of the sections a little slow-going, but if you are generally unfamiliar with the history of the debate on this topic Bowler's book is an excellent summary. Even for those who know the names and have a better grasp on the history of evolution as an idea, Bowler's book is a good refresher that is concise and honest, the author eschewing unwavering assent to common myths about evolution (like Huxley's "victory" over Wilberforce) in favor of historical accuracy. If anything, Bowler's book leaves the reader with a picture of an ever-changing debate that it more more complex and historically rich than is often admitted, and it would be a useful review and resource to anyone concerned with the state of the evolution controversy as we begin the 21st century.

*Readers interested in the paleontological side of this issue are referred to Christopher McGowan's The Dragon Seekers (2002), and a general history is outlined in H.F. Osborn's From the Greeks to Darwin (1929).

**But see S.J. Gould's essay "The Tallest Tale" collected in Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1999).


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