Wednesday’s Book Review: “Evolution vs. Creationism”


Evolution-vs-Creationism-9780520246508Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction. By Eugenie C. Scott. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

For many years the author of this book, Eugenie C. Scott, oversaw the activities of the National Center for Science Education. In that capacity she battled all manner of ridiculous ideas relating to science ranging from denial of global warming to the presumed dangers from genetically-modified foods to the belief that autism was caused by vaccines. None of those battles, however, was ever as wild, and as broad as the denial and denunciation of evolutionary biology.

Scott ranges broadly over the landscape of the evolution/creationism debate, filled as it is with polemics attacking evolution and advancing the cause of creationism/intelligent design, or vice versa. The manner in which scientists hesitantly accepted the theory over its first 50-75 years has been told and retold. The reaction to the evolutionary idea from the religious community has also been documented, whether it be rejection, accommodation, or otherwise.

Many people of faith observed that scientific findings in geology, biology, astronomy, and other disciplines seemed to assault the traditional ideas of Christianity. For centuries most people a part of Western Civilization had believed that the Earth had been created by God about four thousand years before Christ, often applying the dating system developed by Bishop Usher to record biblical generations. Aside from a few cataclysms, some of which were divinely induced such as the “Great Flood,” the Earth had remained pretty much the same from the time of that creation. Humanity, as well as all of the other creatures on the planet, had been specifically created by God and that humankind held a special place in this creation as being in the image of God.

Geological studies were the first to challenge these assumptions. James Hutton was an exceptional amateur geologist who was the first to put together a compelling explanation of the age of the Earth. He first raised the issue that the Earth must be far older than the 6,000 years usually thought in 1785 and elaborated on this in his two-volume Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations in 1795. Charles Darwin’s ideas did for biology what Hutton’s had done for geology. He argued several key premises based on incontrovertible observational and experimental evidence. But Darwin also demonstrated the nature of change over time in species and made clear the connection between The Origins of Species.

This book is an attempt to explore the history of this debate and, most importantly, to debunk all of the major arguments used by creationists against evolutionary theory. Scott does so with some humor, some biting wit, and some pointed rebuffs. As Scott lays out the case, she also calls attention to sources that may be used to parry the creationist thrust. It is very much a “battle book,” designed to arm those who debate creationists. Of course, it is fundamentally “young Earth creationists” who are at issue here. Most of the people of faith in the Christian world accommodated to Darwin’s ideas more than a century ago.

That accommodation was accomplished by using quite interesting, ingenious, and complex arguments to support a convergence of scientific evolution and religious creation. They tended to accept the ancient origins of the Earth as geologists laid out the timeline—as well as the record of cataclysm and change over the eons—by questioning time as stated in the Bible. How long was a day in God’s sense, an entity that stood outside time and space? They developed a “day-age” theory that allowed for eons to pass for a day in God’s time scale. They offered a series of possibilities in reconciling the Genesis account with scientific knowledge. Some also argued for a “gap” of “ruin and restoration” theory that included multiple cataclysms in the history of the Earth with matter and life created repeatedly. This allowed for fossils and extinctions. This might also have been followed by an Edenic restoration.

At sum, the religious response to Darwinian thought could be predicated on the higher criticism of the Bible then emerging from universities and theological schools of the latter nineteenth century. In such a climate, biblical literalism could be overturned and replaced with a perspective that viewed the book more as a work of revealed truth but not necessarily one containing absolute truth. They argued over the search for truth, whatever that meant and if it could ever be known. They found reinforcement everywhere and took comfort in the exchange recorded in the Bible between Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ two millennia ago. Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Those versions of “truth” not accepted are often called “myths,” as Pilate obviously thought about the truth espoused by Jesus, but they might have relevance nonetheless. They have given and continue to offer meaning and value to individual human lives and to create a focal point for explaining the sufferings and triumphs of humanity.

“Young Earth creationists” have never sought to accommodate their religious ideas to scientific knowledge and with this the stage is set for battle. It is far from over as Eugenie Scott makes clear.

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