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An Interview with Edward J Larson

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
An Interview with Edward J Larson
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
1–2
Year: 
2008
Date: 
January–April
Page(s): 
56–63
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Karl W Giberson is Professor of Physics and Director of the General Science Program, and Donald A Yerxa is Professor of History and Director of the Pre-Law Program, both at Eastern Nazarene College.

[Edward J Larson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his book Summer for the Gods - a re-examination of the events surrounding the Scopes trial and of the people involved in it. During a visit to Eastern Nazarene College on October 21, 1999, Larson spoke with Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa. We have excerpted portions of that interview to present to readers of RNCSE. Larson did not receive, review, or revise the published text of the interview.]

Giberson: Can you give our readers some background about yourself, particularly mentioning your formative religious experiences?

Larson: I was raised in rural central-southern Ohio. My parents were members of the Congregational Church, which was probably the most liberal church in my hometown. We were not very active at all, though we did go to church occasionally. Evolution was just assumed in my high school. I took a lot of science classes and was very interested in the sciences. I believe that we used the BSCS texts, but we might have used a revised edition of Truman Moon's Modern Biology II.

Yerxa: Have there been any instances in your life when you struggled over issues related to science and religion?

Larson: Not really. I mostly come from a science background, and I have not noticed any particular conflict in my own mind. I have not studied it closely, but to the extent that I have, I think that Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" is a nice way to articulate it.

Yerxa: What prompted you - a recipient of multiple high school science awards - to pursue both a doctorate in history at Wisconsin and a law degree and Harvard?

Larson: In high school I took a lot of science and math, but I always loved history. As a kid I just thoroughly enjoyed reading history, and, even though I did not get much history instruction in high school, I taught myself history and went ahead and took the Advanced Placement exams in both European and American history at the end of my high school years. When I was an undergraduate at Williams College, I learned that there was a field called the history of science. Williams had a historian of science named Donald Beaver, and I took his class and suddenly it brought together two interests, my persistent love of nature and the understanding of how nature operates - which is why I like science - and my love of history. So suddenly I could study the history of science.

Yerxa: What was the topic of your doctoral dissertation?

Larson: Initially, my major professor Dave Lindberg encouraged me to cross disciplines and get a law degree. The law courses served as my minor for the PhD at Wisconsin, but beyond that, law enriched my scholarship. I thought that I was going to write in the area of eugenics, but the untimely death of Bill Coleman, a historian of biology at Wisconsin, presented me with the opportunity to have Ronald Numbers as my major professor and I ended up working with him. He pushed me in a direction that I would not otherwise have gone in, but have ever after found interesting. Since Numbers was working on the history of the creation/evolution controversy, and he knew I had this legal background, he encouraged me to work on the legal history of the creation/evolution controversy, so that is primarily what my dissertation dealt with. It was a little broader than that in the sense that it deals with how courts deal with legal questions, but it primarily deals with the creation/evolution controversy throughout history. The dissertation became my first book, Trial and Error.

Yerxa: How did you decide to write a book on the Scopes trial? Did you feel that there was some sort of misunderstanding of the trial in the historical literature?

Larson: It was a bit serendipitous how I ended up with the topic. Certainly in the background there was the fact that I knew the trial was not very well understood. During my dissertation research, I had looked a little bit into the Scopes trial, and in Trial and Error there is a very small passage, a couple of pages, on it. But in researching just that little snippet on the Scopes trial, I had discovered that there was a rich body of archival literature on the trial that no historian had ever used. The last serious book on the Scopes trial was from the 1950s, and that relied almost exclusively on a reading of newspapers in the period. And I knew the ACLU archives were available and open. Of course Bryan's archives had been open, but they had not been used very much. Clarence Darrow's papers were available, but I also knew that there were some additional sources of information. In particular, Judge Hicks, who had been one of the prosecutors, had saved all the correspondence among members of the prosecution team, and he had subsequently put it into the University of Tennessee archives. Up to that point those documents simply had not been used by any other historian.

So I now knew that there was quite a bit of archival material. Moreover, the main treatments of the trial were written in the shadow of McCarthyism and the threat to popular and individual liberty based on mob action and emotionalism. Inherit the Wind and Six Days or Forever?: Tennessee v John Thomas Scopes (Ray Ginger's scholarly book of the same period) were consciously and explicitly written with McCarthy-era witch hunts of communists and socialists in mind and were looking back at the Scopes trial as an earlier episode of all this. Then in the 1990s we have a new perspective on fundamentalism and anti-evolutionism. They are still alive in the US; they were not slain in Dayton. And that was always part of the premise of Inherit the Wind and Six Days or Forever? - that exposing Bryan killed these movements. But it did not. So now in a sense we have better historical perspective for looking at those documents. And that is the foundation for doing constructive history - new archival material and a new perspective that previous historians haven't been able to bring to bear on the topic.

The actual precipitant that made Summer for the Gods happen was much more pedestrian, however. During the middle of the OJ Simpson trial, one of my colleagues suggested, out of the blue, that I write a book on the Scopes trial. Not knowing any of what I knew about the archival material or the added perspective, he knew that I wrote legal history and was trained in the history of science. While he was watching the OJ Simpson trial, he concluded that I was one of the few people he knew with expertise in both of those fields. He kept hearing during the Simpson trial coverage about the other trials of the century, and in particular about the Scopes trial. Here was one event in history that seemed to involve law and science together. And when he said that, it just clicked immediately. It made sense, and I immediately thought that it was a great topic.

Yerxa: What would you like the reader to take away from Summer for the Gods?

Larson: I usually do not try to put myself in the reader's mind. I am trying just to tell a story that I enjoy telling, and whatever readers draw from it is their business. I appreciate the richness of a historical event and how nothing important in history is ever simple. There are many currents and crosscurrents and factors involved. I don't see these individual characters as sort of simple, 2-dimensional figures, but 3-dimensional figures with a richness and dignity. And I would hope that people would draw out the richness of the historical event and the many factors that play into it.

I did not go into the Scopes trial doing the research for Summer for the Gods with a particularly high opinion of either Clarence Darrow or William Jennings Bryan. What has impressed me throughout my life is that whenever you treat people honestly at their own level, when you get to understand them more, you get to appreciate them more. I read much of what Bryan and Darrow wrote and tried really to immerse myself in them, so I could understand them as people. And I ended my research with a much higher opinion of those 2 great Americans than when I started. I am not asking that my readers also end with a higher opinion of Bryan and Darrow. But since I came out that way, I would hope that they would as well. I would hope that they would treat them on their own terms and grow to respect what Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were doing. And when we understand what they were doing, and we understand what was at stake, I think that it makes the situation today more understandable.

Yerxa: Has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed your life significantly?

Larson: With the prize come more distractions - invitations to speak, invitations to write on topics that don't have any relevance to what I am doing. It is far more difficult to control my own schedule. But there are also wonderful opportunities that come, for example, chances to go out and meet Jerome Lawrence, the co-writer of Inherit the Wind, and opportunities to speak at interesting occasions and to meet other people and to try to help students and help the cause of history. I am in this respect first and foremost a historian, and I am interested in the discipline of history. Now people ask me about historical questions and about becoming a historian and the value of doing history, and I can be an evangelist for history and the role of history. I enjoy that. So it is a mixed blessing, and the challenge is to maximize the good out of it while not being sucked into the bad and not losing my own control over what I think my career should be.

Yerxa: What are your current projects?

Larson: I am working on a book on the history of scientific research on the Galapagos Islands, which has the same advantage as a book on the Scopes trial in the sense that I think that it is an absolutely fabulous topic. Everybody has heard of the Galapagos Islands just as everybody has heard of the Scopes trial, but nobody has ever written a history of the scientific research on the Galapagos Islands. There is a wonderful recent book on the Grants' work called The Beak of the Finch, but it is just about the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant. It is not a history of scientific research. It certainly does not deal with the past. I hope that I will be able, as with the Scopes book, to reach an audience beyond historians of science but that will include historians of science.

Yerxa: You have been involved in some sociology of science lately with your colleague Larry Witham. You have revisited James Leuba's 1914 and 1933 surveys of scientists to get a sense of how both rank and file scientists as well as the scientific elite view belief in God. What are your findings in a nutshell?

Larson: Well, it is a curious survey to have to repeat Leuba's question, because he had a very particular definition of God that may exclude many people. He was asking about belief in sort of a traditional theistic God that would resonate with traditional Jews, Muslims, or Christians. Indeed you might want to call them orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Christians. There was a lot of talk back at the turn of the century that positivism and science were routing belief in God, and so he did a survey of both the rank and file scientists and the elite scientists - surveys that we were able to reproduce. Leuba found about 40% belief in this sort of God among the rank and file and much lower levels of belief among elites, and that is exactly what we found.

He received many objections that "this God does not capture my God". He would get people who would write back and say that "I do not believe in any God, but I am deeply religious." He would also get people who said, "Well, I believe in a God that is immanent in nature, and I do not believe that this is a God that you can talk to or who can answer questions. Your question does not capture what I am talking about." We received the same sort of reactions, and I sympathize with them because I think they are right, but the only way you can do a longitudinal survey is to ask the same questions. As a historian, I was interested in Leuba's survey because it had been so important in the Scopes trial and Bryan's anti-evolution crusade. He had made it a centerpiece. His prime evidence against evolution was this disbelief among scientists, so I was interested in the precise question. And we found that it was basically constant over time.

Yerxa: What is it about the US that makes it so receptive to anti-Darwinian notions?

Larson: Partly because we're democratic. We have a democratic, anti-elitist tradition. There is a rooting for the underdog, and there is a suspicion of elites in the US that just is not as present in, say, France, Germany, or in Scandinavia where they have a traditional hierarchical society and where the people are more willing to defer automatically to elites in any particular area of expertise. We have more of a tradition in the US where citizens get to make up their own minds on everything, everyone is an expert and everyone is an authority, and no one should automatically follow other peoples' decisions - people should think for themselves. So that makes the US open to questioning the pronouncements of the scientific elite and to want to think through these questions for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

Yerxa: How do you explain the Phillip Johnson phenomenon and the emergence of "intelligent design" in the origins discussion?

Larson: I think that Johnson is a very articulate speaker and advocate. He is obviously a skilled lawyer, and he's raising popular concerns and questions in the sense that if you believe in a traditional Christian God - and it doesn't have to be a fundamentalist God - do you not believe that God could interfere in nature? And if you believe that God could interfere in nature, do you not believe that God did interfere in nature? And if God did interfere in nature, then how can you understand natural phenomena without at least considering God as the author of those? So his argument against philosophical naturalism in science, as he likes to put it, has an instinctive appeal to many Americans who believe in that sort of God.

Yerxa: Does this line of reasoning appeal to you?

Larson: Johnson has got to bring scientists into the debate, and there has to be a controversy within the scientific community. There have to be scientists who start doing "intelligent design" as science. And I have not yet seen that happen. But in the end, if he is going to change science, it is going to have to be through scientists and not through the general public.

Yerxa: You used the phrase "'intelligent design' as science". What would that look like?

Larson: That is for the scientists to decide. I can say that I am neither a scientist nor a philosopher. I am sort of a philosopher of science, and I take a mundane definition of science. I know you can come up with wonderful definitions about what science is: it is a falsifiable enterprise and a set of shifting paradigms, and so on, but I take the journeyman's view that science is what scientists do and that scientists define their profession just as other people define their profession. So I think the key test for "intelligent design" will come if and when scientists start doing "intelligent design" research. And only if and when they start doing it will we know what an "intelligent design" science looks like. And, as a historian, I am not a very good person to answer that question.

Giberson: Part of the reason for the success of Phillip Johnson is the perception that there are people like Richard Dawkins out there who are missionaries for naturalism with an agenda that goes far beyond just trying to help people understand evolution. Can you comment on the way people like Dawkins, Peter Atkins, even EO Wilson, are their own worst enemies in that they make science unpopular in American culture by attaching it to an aggressively anti-religious stance.

Larson: I do not think that they are their own worst enemies. I think that they are reaching a broad and powerful audience. Their works are inspirational to many people. And I think for all the people they turn off, they inspire a whole other group. Wilson's teaching at Harvard is inspirational; his writings are inspirational. Certainly he makes the feminists furious, but he also inspires a lot of critical thought. Dawkins makes many religious people furious, but he inspires them to think harder and debate the issue harder. I think that he wants that. I think that he wants to raise those questions, and I have met many students who have been profoundly inspired to go into science and make a career in science because of books like Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker. So these writers are doing missionary work for science that is inspirational because of their tremendous skill as writers. And so I think that if you had to weigh the pluses and minuses against each other - and I do not think that I could do the final reckoning - that they would be quite pleased with what they have accomplished.

Giberson: If you look at the premier popularizers of science, the ones who are capable of inspiring young people to go into science - people like Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, EO Wilson, and Stephen Weinberg - none of these people is religious in any conventional sense. Do the people who read them get a distorted perception of what the scientific community is like because these public spokespersons happen to have atheistic worldviews? And does it then become generalized in the popular mind that science itself is an atheistic enterprise, so that what Phillip Johnson says about the naturalism of science rings true?

Larson: When you put it that way, I do think that Phillip Johnson, by his own terms, was enraged and energized by reading The Blind Watchmaker. And I think that he uses them as examples of atheism in science. Yet even Johnson is probably raising up people to go into science, at first to refute them, but later they get involved with science and end up becoming good scientists participating in the scientific enterprise. I have great respect for the people you named. Every one of those people that I know personally, I have tremendous respect for as scholars and as honorable people. And I think that they welcome this debate and discussion, and they would rather have these issues out in the open and discussed and debated in the US so people can think about these issues.

But certainly I do think that they are lightning rods, and they raise controversy. As a result of the controversy they raise, there is a perception in the US that there is a warfare between science and religion. One of the reasons that our initial survey of science and religious beliefs got so much attention was that it found that 40% of scientists in the US believe in something like the traditional God of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. And that was newsworthy. It is not newsworthy when a dog bites a person; it is newsworthy when a person bites a dog, and this was a person-bites-dog story. It was just the reverse, by the way, when Leuba first published his survey. It was also front-page news, but then it was only 40% believe in God. Now it is newsworthy for the opposite reason; 40% is a higher percentage than people today would have thought. Something must have given the impression at least to the US news media that it is surprising that 40% of US scientists believe in God. And that partly comes out with the public voice of science.

Giberson: In thinking about the creation/evolution controversy, what I find attractive about scientific creationism is the simplicity of its model. It is a tidy system based upon the priority of the Bible. What is attractive about Dawkins and that group is the same sort of simplicity. It is metaphysically consistent; it all fits together. In the middle are the people trying to carve out the theistic evolution models that somehow bring these 2 together, and they end up being ambiguous and fraught with difficulty and so on. What do you think of the attempts to create theistic evolutionary models?

Larson: It is nice to have simplistic answers to your views on origins or your worldview, but when people are thinking about their view of origins, they think about it with more richness than they are often given credit for. If they focus on this, they think about the options of, well, could God create the evolutionary process? Could that be the means of creation, or is it a purely naturalistic process? Or does God work in successive creations as Cuvier once thought? Or is the human soul separate as the Pope would say: the body evolved with the human soul separate? And they can come up with different reconciliations of those different views. I think that you do an injustice to the issue to think that people just have to put it simplistically into one category. To the extent that they focus on the issue, people can come up with some personal reconciliation of the 2 and then go ahead with their lives. I think that it does them an injustice to think that they are going to read an account by a scientist or by a religious person, and just say, that is it.

[This feature is adapted from a longer article appearing in Books and Culture: A Christian Review 1999 Nov/Dec; 5 [6]: 30; reprinted and adapted with permission.]

About the Author(s): 
Karl W Giberson
Department of Physics and Engineering
Eastern Nazarene College 23 East Elm Avenue
Quincy MA 02170
gibersok@enc.edu

Donald A Yerxa
Department of History
Eastern Nazarene College
23 East Elm Avenue
Quincy MA 02170