The Evolution Controversy in America

The Evolution Controversy in America

George E. Webb
Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: 1
Pages: 312
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hnh2
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Evolution Controversy in America
    Book Description:

    For well over a century, the United States has witnessed a prolonged debate over organic evolution and teaching of the theory in the nation's public schools. The controversy that began with the publication of Darwin'sOrigin of the Specieshad by the 1920s expanded to include theologians, politicians, and educators. The Scopes trial of 1925 provided the growing antievolution movement with significant publicity and led to a decline in the teaching of evolution in public schools.

    George E. Webb details how efforts to improve science education in the wake of Sputnik resurrected antievolution sentiment and led to the emergence of "creation science" as the most recent expression of that sentiment.

    Creationists continue to demand "balanced treatment" of theories of creation and evolution in public schools, even though their efforts have been declared unconstitutional in a series of federal court cases. Their battles have been much more successful at the grassroots level, garnering support from local politicians and educators. Webb attributes the success of creationists primarily to the lack of scientific literacy among the American public.

    Although a number of published studies have dealt with specific aspects of the debate,The Evolution Controversy in Americarepresents the first complete historical survey of the topic. In it Webb provides an analysis of one of the most intriguing debates in the history of American thought.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4848-9
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Education, History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-6)

    Few ideas in the development of modern thought have been more controversial than the theory of organic evolution through natural selection. From its development in the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the concept of biological change through natural processes has presented formidable challenges to deeply held intellectual, social, and religious views. The work of Charles Darwin and his followers provided explanations of nature with few of the comforting assurances of earlier accounts based on religious or social conventions. The increasing importance of science in the century following Darwin’s efforts failed to ease the discomfort many felt toward the new explanations;...

  5. 1 Origins
    (pp. 7-28)

    “This book is already exciting much attention,” wrote Harvard botanist Asa Gray to begin his review of Charles Darwin’sOrigin of Species.¹ Despite the increasingly bitter arguments plaguing American life in the months leading to the firing on Fort Sumter, the American scientific community expressed significant interest in Darwin’s discussion of evolutionary theory. Even in the midst of the carnage that followed the outbreak of war, scientists continued to examine and debate the theory in their efforts to come to terms with this new explanation of life’s origins and development. During the decades that followed, few topics excited as much...

  6. 2 Toward the New Century
    (pp. 29-52)

    Religious leaders of the Gilded Age generally gained their knowledge of evolution through the various popularizations that appeared throughout the period. The theistic evolution that underlay many of these discussions provided a developmental perspective that left room for divine intervention, if only as the ultimate cause of variation or the guiding force behind the cosmos. Protestant intellectuals who accepted this idea need not reject natural selection, because a sovereign God directed the process. Another group of Gilded Age theologians, however, remained unable to incorporate the underlying principle of Darwinian evolution into their explanation of the world. The “struggle for existence”...

  7. 3 Gathering at the River
    (pp. 53-80)

    As the twentieth century began, the assimilation of evolutionary concepts within the American intellectual community had been largely completed. Scientists, theologians, and philosophers had examined the new biological theory and its many implications, coming to terms with evolution in a variety of ways. During the first quarter of the century, however, the evolution controversy underwent a profound transformation, as debates and discussions involved a broader segment of the American public. Led by a number of religious and political figures, a recognizable movement emerged that attempted to spread the antievolution gospel across the nation. Symbolized by the passage of several laws...

  8. 4 The Scopes Trial and Beyond
    (pp. 81-108)

    The debate over the Poole bill illustrated many aspects of the early years of the antievolution movement. Most of the issues involved in the controversy had been examined during the North Carolina debates, and the potential role of institutions of higher education had been firmly established. The activity of outside antievolution organizations, with their nationally known spokesmen, also played an important role and reinforced the orthodox religious attitudes shared by much of the state’s population. Although unsuccessful in securing an antievolution statute, opponents of Darwinism frequently consolidated their position at the local level, where school boards and officials proved more...

  9. 5 Decline and Revival
    (pp. 109-134)

    As the decade of the 1920s closed with the crash of the stock market and the beginning of the Great Depression, Americans continued their drift away from the topic of evolution in the public schools. Although the legal impact of the various antievolution statutes was more dramatic than meaningful, the Scopes trial and the publicity that surrounded antievolution laws had a profound effect on the teaching of biology for more than three decades. Publishers and authors of high school biology textbooks retreated from the presentation of evolution in an attempt to avoid controversy and maintain sales. Faced with inadequate source...

  10. 6 The Passing of the Old Order
    (pp. 135-154)

    The optimism that characterized many biology teachers in the early 1960s was a result of the great improvement in education symbolized by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. After decades of mediocrity, biology education had been revitalized to include the significant contributions of recent research. Central to this improved curriculum was the topic of evolution, which had long represented the fundamental concept in the biological sciences. The integration of this concept into high school biology courses promised to raise the scientific literacy of American students, providing them with the knowledge necessary to function in the increasingly technical world of the late...

  11. 7 New Directions
    (pp. 155-179)

    Observers of American science could gaze backward from 1970 with some degree of enthusiasm. Not only had the anachronistic antievolution laws been disposed of, but positive achievements of science and technology appeared evident. Symbolized by the successfulApolloprogram, American technical accomplishments had once again claimed global preeminence. Science education had improved considerably since the 1950s, with innovative programs in biology, physics, and chemistry firmly established in the public schools. Despite a growing challenge to the importance of science and technology from those who identified with the so-called counterculture of the 1960s, the United States appeared to have regained its...

  12. 8 A Remedy to a Bad Act
    (pp. 180-200)

    Russell Artist, professor of biology at David Lipscomb College in Nashville, had been among the leaders of the creation science movement for more than a decade. He had served as one of the expert witnesses during the antievolutionists’ Texas campaign in the mid-1960s and had taught the errors of evolution and the scientific accuracy of Genesis in his biology classes for years. Displeased with the 1967 repeal of the Butler Act, Artist encouraged his students at the Church of Christ-affiliated school to write to the Tennessee Department of Education in an effort to restore “balance” in public education. This activity...

  13. 9 The Creationist Challenge
    (pp. 201-227)

    Because they believed that the teaching of evolution underlay the humanistic trends visible throughout American society, creationists emerged as an important element of the increasingly conservative evangelical population. Committed to an activist agenda designed to rescue the nation from the secularist drift they perceived, these opponents of humanism soon became involved in virtually every arena of American public life. Political, legal, constitutional, and religious concerns merged together into a far-reaching campaign to restore traditional values to society. The creationist crusade was now part of a much larger movement.

    Secular humanism had become a convenient symbol of the dangers perceived by...

  14. 10 Somewhere in Heaven, John Scopes Is Smiling
    (pp. 228-252)

    The creationist “victory” in Judge Perluss’s courtroom gained significant national publicity for the antievolution crusade. Although the ultimate impact of the trial remained ambiguous, widespread media attention provided the movement with well-prepared soil in which to plant the seeds of creation science. In few areas of the nation was the soil more fecund than in the state of Arkansas. The decade following theEpperson v. Arkansasdecision had witnessed little change in the status of evolution among the state’s residents, many of whom viewed the theory as responsible for the problems facing contemporary society. Few observers of the creationist movement...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 253-263)

    Educational reform efforts would have been well served had theAguillarddecision eliminated the controversy over evolutionary teaching in American public schools. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, however, the place of evolution in the biology curriculum was only slightly more secure than it had been at the apex of the creationist crusade. Evangelists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Swaggart continued to preach a gospel to their electronic flocks that defined evolution as the foundation of many of the world’s problems. Their declining political power—as shown by Robertson’s abortive effort to secure the 1988 Republican presidential nomination...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 264-289)
  17. Index
    (pp. 290-299)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 300-300)