Transylvania University logoTransylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, honored me with an honorary degree at its Academic Convocation on September 15, 2017. The following is the third (and final) installment of a lightly edited version of my talk on that occasion. In part 1, after introducing myself and NCSE, I described the issues in Kitzmiller v. Dover, and in part 2, I discussed the testimony offered by the expert witnesses for the plaintiffs and Judge John E. Jones III’s decision.

 

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Transylvania University logoTransylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, honored me with an honorary degree at its Academic Convocation on September 15, 2017. The following is the second installment of a lightly edited version of my talk on that occasion. In part 1, after introducing myself and NCSE, I described the issues in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the 2005 trial over the constitutionality of teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools, presided over by Judge John E. Jones III. 

 

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Transylvania University logoTransylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, honored me with an honorary degree at its Academic Convocation on September 15, 2017. The following is the first installment of a lightly edited version of my talk on that occasion.

 

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Cover of Matthew Avery Sutton's American Apocalypse

Although it was published a few years ago, I don’t feel embarrassed that I have only recently finished reading Matthew Avery Sutton’s excellent American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (2014). What I feel embarrassed about is that although I bought a copy of the book when it was published, I read a copy from my local public library, because my copy is in a box somewhere. Anyhow, as its title suggests, Sutton’s discussion centers on the attitude of American evangelicals toward the end-times prophecies of the Bible. Accordingly, the book addresses how they thought about and reacted to events of the day, from the Great War through the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, to 9/11, interpreting them through the lens of their premillennarian convictions. Overall, I enjoyed, and learned a lot from, American Apocalypse.

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Henry Drummond

In part 1, I was discussing “The Last Word of Great Scientists on Evolution,” a 1925 antievolution pamphlet by J. J. Sims about which I have long been curious. The title is ambiguous: are the last words on evolution the final, conclusive, and binding verdict on evolution from the assembled host of great scientists, or their rattling deathbed croaks? Both, as it happens: Sims not only deploys the usual motley assemblage of putatively authoritative quotations but also relates not one but two deathbed recantations. The first, unsurprisingly, is Lady Hope’s story about Darwin. The second, which was unfamiliar to me, was a story about Henry Drummond (right; 1851–1897), the Scottish naturalist and Free Churchman whose The Ascent of Man (1894) was among the early influential versions of theistic evolutionism.

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Henry DrummondFor quite a while now, I have been on the lookout for “The Last Word of Great Scientists on Evolution,” a 1925 antievolution pamphlet by J. J. Sims. I was pleased, then, to find a copy recently. Sims was apparently a “World-Known Lecturer on ‘The Bible and Science’” as well as the author of “Pearls from the Deep,” “The History of Satan,” “We Drew the Fire,” etc., according to the title page. The pamphlet isn’t entirely unknown—writing in The American Mercury in 1928, Maynard Shipley took a swipe at it, and Ronald L. Numbers mentions it in a footnote in The Creationists (1992) on account of its “inconsistent” response to George McCready Price—but it’s not exactly famous, either. Nor is Sims, although later in 1925 he was serving as the Field Secretary of the Bryan Bible League, founded in memory of the fallen William Jennings Bryan.

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Passage from James Park's A Text-Book of Geology (1925)

Looking for something else, I stumbled across the following quotation, reproduced on a young-earth creationist ministry’s website under the heading “Quotes to Note” and credited to Creation 2(1):4, which appeared in January 1979:

The obvious lesson from the study of fossils is the elementary truth that life even in the earliest times, differed in no way from life today. Further, we observe that the lower types of life that appear in the oldest rocks have persisted through all geological times up to the present day.

The passage is attributed to James Park’s Textbook of Geology. Neither a publisher nor a place of publication nor even a year is provided, although such information is provided for other quotations appearing under the same heading.

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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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