06.26.2017

William Pepperell Montague (1937; painted by Winifred Smith Rieber)

A few years ago, in the introduction to a special issue of the philosophy journal Synthese focusing on creationism, I wrote:

In the first wave of antievolution activity—the attempts during the 1920s to remove evolution from the classroom—philosophers were all but uninvolved in the debate. Although the impresario of the Scopes trial, George Rappelyea, hoped to get John Dewey to testify for the defense (de Camp 1968, p. 80), only experts in science and religion were selected, and in the event they were not permitted to testify (Larson 1997, pp. 170–193). Only [Alfred North] Whitehead, of the leading American philosophers of the day, reacted to the trial, according to a study of American intellectuals and Darwinism (Conkin 1998, p. 145). And his muted reaction took the form of a piece in the Atlantic Monthly, published after the trial, which mentioned evolution just once and Scopes, the law under which he was prosecuted, and the trial itself not at all (Whitehead 1925).

Well, I accurately reported what Paul K. Conkin said in When All the Gods Trembled, but both he and I seem to have overlooked someone!

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06.19.2017

John Augustine Zahm, via Wikimedia Commons

There are memorable lines aplenty in the beloved film The Princess Bride (1987), thanks to the screenwriter William Goldman, on whose 1973 novel it was based. Among them is the following, addressed to the villainous Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) by the fencer Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin): “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The word in question is “inconceivable,” which Vizzini uses so freely that his henchman is eventually forced to protest, and I was reminded of it when browsing through John Augustine Zahm’s The Catholic Church and Modern Science: A Lecture (1886). Zahm (right; 1851–1921) was a priest as well as a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Notre Dame.

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05.26.2017

Erasmus Darwin, portrait by Joseph Wright, 1770. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1974 film Young Frankenstein, directed by Mel Brooks, there is, as I recently realized, a surprisingly erudite joke. In a scene early in the film, Dr. Frankenstein—who, in order to distance himself from a notorious grandfather, pronounces his surname “Fronkenshteen”—is talking with a student. “Isn’t it true,” he is asked, “that Darwin preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case until, by some extraordinary means, it actually began to move with voluntary motion?” Frankenstein (played by the late Gene Wilder) replies, “Are you speaking of the worm or the spaghetti?” and then adds, “Yes, I did read something of that incident when I was a student, but you have to remember that a worm … with very few exceptions … is not a human being.” No argument there, although it would be interesting to hear about the exceptions!

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Warren Overton

When it comes to modern young-earth creationist literature, there is, to coin a phrase, no new thing under the sun. The same old long-ago-debunked claims appear and reappear. I couldn’t be more jaded if I were a greenish metamorphic silicate. So when a colleague in North Carolina offered to send a copy of Kent Hovind’s booklet Help! I’m Being Taught Evolution in My Earth Science Class! (2008), I was willing to take a look, but I wasn’t expecting to find anything interesting. How wrong I was! The foreword to the book is by a Warren Overton (above)—who identifies himself as a son of the judge, William R. Overton (1939–1987), who presided over the trial in McLean v. Arkansas, the 1982 case in which Arkansas’s Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act was found to be unconstitutional.

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Image of Darwin from The Book of Knowledge

The Butler Act, outlawing the teaching in Tennessee’s public schools of “any theory that denies the divine creation of man and teaches instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” became law on March 21, 1925. But it really wasn’t a matter of national interest until May 1925, when, in short order, John Thomas Scopes agreed to become the defendant in a case testing the law’s constitutionality, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow agreed to join the legal teams representing the prosecution and the defense (respectively), and Scopes was duly indicted. That was enough to kindle interest in the issue of teaching evolution around the country. And my choice of the particular verb “kindle” is deliberate.

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01.05.2017

The example of the watch in William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) is famous. A stone found on a heath, Paley explains, seems not to require any explanation, but a watch, with its component parts apparently designed to perform a function, demands to be explained, and explained, moreover, in terms of a designer. And the same is true, he argues at length, of living things. Although Paley is sometimes credited with the example of the watch, it is, I think, generally recognized that he was only the latest in a long string of writers to use horology in the service of natural theology: Cicero, in the first century BCE, similarly appealed to sundials and water-clocks in De natura deorum. So Paley wasn’t original. But was he a plagiarist?

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12.28.2016

Title of Allem's thesisIn “Evolution in the Back Seat,” I mentioned Warren Allem’s 1959 University of Tennessee, Knoxville master’s thesis, “Backgrounds of the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee.” Allem’s thesis is well worth a read, I think, if you’re interested in the Scopes trial, especially because it’s freely available on-line. The main attraction is the interviews he conducted with various residents of Dayton who witnessed the events surrounding the trial. These interviews are frequently cited in the scholarly and popular literature—Edward J. Larson in “The Scopes Trial in History and Legend” (in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers’s edited volume When Science and Christianity Meet, 2008), Michael Lienesch in In the Beginning (2007), and Randy Moore in Evolution in the Courtroom (2002), for example, all cite Allem’s thesis.

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12.14.2016

Charles Lyell, via Wikimedia Commons

In “A Pseudo-Darwin Quotation,” I was discussing a spurious quotation that William Bell Riley seemed to have invented and misattributed to Darwin in his pamphlet “Evolution—A False Philosophy,” published sometime in the 1930s. Part of my interest stemmed from the fact that Riley imported the “why are there still monkeys?” challenge into the passage, although it was missing from the actual passage from Darwin that Riley was, more or less, paraphrasing. A persistent, widespread, and tiresomely familiar objection to evolution, the challenge “if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” presupposes a misconception of evolution as exclusively consisting of change within a lineage, neglecting the possibility of a lineage’s splitting, resulting in two divergent lineages—such as those eventuating in today’s monkeys and today’s humans, not to put too fine a point on it.

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Riley's pseudo-Darwin quotationIn “Evolution—A False Philosophy,” a pamphlet published sometime in the 1930s by William Bell Riley (1861–1947), the Baptist preacher who was as responsible for the flourishing of the antievolution crusade of the 1920s as anyone, there appears a spurious quotation attributed to Darwin. Riley is here concerned to claim that the “whole doctrine of transmutation”—change in species—is “unknown to nature’s ways,” and he naturally wants to invoke Darwin in support.

This fact was admitted by Darwin himself. Here is Darwin’s language from “The Descent of Man,” the 1874 edition:

“It is asking a great deal of intelligent people to believe the theory which is not supported by evidence, just where evidence is most needed. Now these missing links, if there are any, should be more highly developed than the forms lower down in the scale from which they evolved, and therefore more able to continue. Then why not continue, if they ever evolved, while their weaker progenitors, less able to live, continue to this day?”

Now listen to Darwin’s answer to his own question:

“But this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, from general reasons, believe in the general principle of Evolution.” (emphasis in original)

Although the answer is Darwin’s (except for the emphasis on “weight” and the capital E in “Evolution”), the question is not. What Darwin wrote was, “The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form,” to which he answered, “But this objection,” etc.

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