Edward J. Larson. The Creation-Evolution Debate: Historical Perspectives. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2007. xv pp., 66 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8203-2912-3. Reviewed by Christopher R. Versen, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

This handy and timely volume is based on lectures by Edward J. Larson, one of the leading writers on the creation-evolution debates of the twentieth century, for the George H. Shriver Lecture Series in Religion in American History at Stetson University in 2006. Thus the text, like the lectures, is designed for a broad audience rather than experts in the field and is a response to the ongoing litigation over the teaching of creationism, creation science, or intelligent design in high school biology classes. The writing is lucid and concise, and a general reader could easily finish it in a short afternoon in a comfy chair or long commute on an uncomfortable train. In that short span, though, the reader will find an introduction to the reception of Darwinian evolution in the 1800s, a pithy discussion of the antievolutionist crusade of the 1920s, a quick survey of the course of the creation-evolution debates since the 1940s, and a report on the current religious leanings of American scientists.

The book's three chapters, each designed to stand alone, present a roughly chronological and topical discussion of the controversies surrounding biological, particularly human, evolution since the mid-nineteenth century. The first chapter places Darwin and his theory of evolution at the center of Victorian controversies over the nature of science and religion, human morality, and human nature. The second offers a concise summary of Larson's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Summer for the Gods (1997) and an outline of the continuing controversy up to the recent court decisions against the school boards of Cobb County, Georgia in 2004 and Dover, Pennsylvania in 2006. The final chapter, "Scientists and Religion in America," is a discussion of scientists' religious beliefs based on a survey conducted by Larson and journalist Larry A. Witham in 1996 and 1998 that mirrored one conducted by sociologist James H. Leuba in 1914 and 1933.

"[Larson's] emphasis and greatest strength is in dealing with the legal history of the controversy, "  


Larson holds an endowed chair in law at Pepperdine University and a professorship in history at the University of Georgia, and his approach to the subject shows a blending of these fields. His emphasis and greatest strength is in dealing with the legal history of the controversy, which makes his second chapter by far the strongest and most useful. Despite the constrictions of the format, his description of the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee is engaging, compelling, and insightful. He easily brings the political and legal conflict among evolutionists and their creationist and intelligent-design opponents up through local and state legislation against the teaching of human evolution and US Supreme Court rulings to the present. Because "the adversarial legal system of the United States tends to drive parties apart rather than reconcile them," his decision to trace the legal battles brightens the lines between the contending parties and presents a compelling and engaging story of conflict (21).

Larson's concentration on the legal battles framed by the "adversarial legal system," however, tends to overwhelm the subtlety he mentions but does not fully develop in the other two chapters. In the third chapter he identifies three ways historians view the relationship between science and religion but finds that "among Americans, the so-called conflict or warfare model is perhaps the most common way to view the interaction" (38). He then highlights the role played by some important proponents of the model from the nineteenth century to the present. Larson ends the chapter by using his survey data to show that scientists' religious beliefs have changed little despite a century of scientific progress, and he suggests that though the warfare metaphor tenaciously holds on, it is overdrawn.

The first chapter, constrained by both the format and the need to set up the controversies of the second and third chapters, is the least satisfying. In it Larson perpetuates the mistaken conflation of nineteenth-century Darwinism, evolution, and evolutionism that is all too prevalent in histories of the idea of evolution. The chapter also focuses on Darwin's theories of natural selection to the exclusion of the wider field of evolutionist theories of the time, many of which were finding wide acceptance among American Christians. Larson highlights the lines of conflict between religion and science but mutes the potentially more important conflicts within religious communities over various non-Darwinian evolutionary theories.  These latter disputes have had as much to do with the rise of the fundamentalist reaction of the early twentieth century as the refinement of evolutionary biology as a science.

Despite the minor criticism, which really is only relevant for those more deeply interested in the subject, this is a dandy fifty-five-page sketch to the debates. The reader will not be overwhelmed with footnotes—there are none—or facts, but will find a neat introduction to the source and background of the current controversy over the teaching of evolution in public schools. It is an excellent choice for general readers interested in a brief overview of the subject.

Christopher R. Versen, James Madison University


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