An Education in Evolution

March 31, 2006
Awaiting verdict: Scopes, left, convicted and fined for teaching evolution in 1925, with Dudley Field Malone of his legal defense team

 Awaiting verdict: Scopes, left, convicted and fined for teaching evolution in 1925, with Dudley Field Malone of his legal defense team © Bettmann / CORBIS


Science, Religion, and Evolution" is a yearlong campus theme--the focus of the first annual lecture series sponsored by the Provost's Office. According to Provost Peter Lange, this year's lectures are meant to "illuminate questions such as: What are science and the scientific method, and how do these engage the subject of evolution? What is the historical relationship of religion and science? How has the theory of evolution itself evolved, and what are the pre-eminent scientific puzzles in the theory? What is the relationship of religious belief to the theory of and empirical support for evolution?"

Fresh from his win in the Dover, Pennsylvania, intelligent-design case, lawyer Eric Rothschild '89 visits on March 30. Among the other speakers in the series are Sean Carroll of the University of Wisconsin, on "Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The Expanding Science of Evolution and Why It Matters"; John F. Haught of Georgetown University, "God After Darwin: Evolution and the Question of Divine Providence"; Simon Conway Morris of the University of Cambridge, "Darwin's Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation"; and Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, "Darwin, Meaning and Truth."

The broadest cultural assessment in the series came from Edward J. Larson of the University of Georgia, who spoke on the controversy over teaching evolution--which, he noted, has focused always on "the minds of American high-school students." The Scopes trial in 1925, he said, pointed to "evidence of a cleavage between traditional values and modernity." The trial, the first to be broadcast in U.S. history, didn't create that cleavage. But it exposed a growing divide between a "God-fearing majority and a cultural elite," Larson said. "It was a media sensation then, the stuff of legend thereafter."

John Scopes, a high-school biology teacher, lost his case--a reflection of the fact that the Supreme Court hadn't yet ruled that the First Amendment, including its ban against the establishment of religion, applied to the states. But most cultural observers believed the trial was a draw. "Not a single editorial said the trial was decisive. They all thought this issue would only get bigger," Larson noted. Over time, he added, opponents of evolution have shifted their position that evolution should be removed from the curriculum altogether. They've insisted that creationism should be granted equal time, or, more recently, that evolution should be treated as "just a theory."