Review: Intelligent Design and Fundamentalist Opposition to Evolution
Work under Review
Other than the tantalizing clue of a dedication "To my fellow evangelicals," Angus Gunn offers little sense of the purpose or intended audience for this short, polemical work. Whether these referenced evangelists are spreading the good news of the Christian gospels or the modern evolutionary synthesis is not clear, though his book seems to lament the drift of ever more American Christians into anti-evolutionist camps. Evangelical Christian fundamentalists and nonfundamentalists might agree on very little, he asserts, but they "find common ground in their opposition to the theory of evolution" (p 53). How they came to this state, and why that poses a problem for modern America, is the focus of the book.
The major theme of Gunn's work is "the importance of modern science and the tragedy of fundamentalist rejection of it for such a long time" (p 2). Gunn attacks one side of this problem in the final chapter, offering a few case studies of how biological research has been important in improving "human welfare". Concentrating on recent advances in genetics and their positive impact on medicine, Gunn also appends a listing of "medical breakthroughs over 100 years" at the end of his book (p 189–90). The role of biological research in these advances is not entirely clear, and it seems that Gunn could have strengthened his case for the plausibility of evolution by examining how human pathogens actually evolve and not just stating that science is finding ways to combat disease.
Perhaps too easily blurring distinctions among "creationists, ... proponents of intelligent design, [and] fundamentalists" (p 3), Gunn nonetheless offers some helpful insights into what unites anti-evolutionists. In less temperate moments he damns them all as "just defending the past" (p 1), but at his best Gunn demonstrates the binding thread of a "common sense" approach to science, theology, and even political philosophy that lies at the heart of an evangelical rejection of evolutionary biology. The problem with such a belief, he notes incisively, is that these claims to inductive study of science or scripture mask the reality that the reader or Baconian scientist are still engaged in a process of interpretation. Theological fundamentalists seek to privilege their readings as the most authentic, but their conclusions are no less bound up with their own times and concerns than are those of theological modernists or evolutionary biologists. Gunn seems unwilling to pursue these insights about interpretation into science, boldly claiming,"science is and always has been free from issues of ethics and morality" (p 4), despite the growing literature in the social history of science since Thomas Kuhn's path-breaking The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).
Too often Gunn falls into an approach he criticizes when used by anti-evolutionists; like several chapters in The Fundamentals, the early-twentieth-century handbook of theologically conservative Christian thought, Gunn's book frequently proves more "vitriolic rather than critical" (p 93). He describes evolutionary opponents as practitioners of a "mindless fundamentalism"( p 22) who refuse "to deal rationally" (p 39) with modern science. He even turns on its head the oft-used anti-evolutionist attack linking belief in evolution with the Prussian militarism of World War I or the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Gunn explains the success of George McCready Price's flood geology with an explicit connection to Adolf Hitler, suggesting that both perpetrated "a big lie" (p 160) with disastrous consequences. I am not suggesting a purity of motive for anti-evolutionists — among other sources, evidence from the 2005 Dover trial demonstrated a clear pattern of deception on the part of several proponents of "intelligent design" — but to equate opponents of naturalistic evolution with a mass murderer of historic proportions is sure to produce more heat than light.
Beyond the excess of vitriol, Gunn's volume suffers from insufficient background in the admittedly voluminous secondary literature. He asserts that Dayton, site of the 1925 Scopes trial,"was as fundamentalist as any place in America" (p 106), although as Edward Larson has demonstrated, the town was mostly Methodist and had a higher percentage of non-church members than many surrounding towns (Larson 1997: 92–3). Careless editing leads Gunn to several confusing passages: he covers the same topics in multiple places, at times repeating multiple sentences verbatim (for example on p 120 and 161, on Henry Morris); he seems to regard Stephen Jay Gould as a contemporary of Karl Marx and a precursor to the Russian Revolution (p 103); and he suggests that modern scientists no longer regard "naturalism ... as very important" (p 129).
US President Warren G Harding (1921–23) reportedly remarked "I have no trouble with my enemies, but my damn friends ... they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!" The President was reacting to accusations lodged against several members of his short-lived administration; Harding complained that allegations of wrongdoing by others prevented him from pursuing his agenda. While there is no hint of corruption, malfeasance, or malicious intent in the volume under review, Angus Gunn's combative approach and inattentive editing might leave defenders of the teaching of evolution in public schools wandering the hallways after dark. In short, it is neither a very effective tool for explaining to evolutionists why fundamentalist Christians cannot accept the central arguments of modern biology nor for converting anti-evolutionists to an understanding of the importance of modern science.
Kuhn TS. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Larson EJ. 1997. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books.
Charles A Israel
Department of History
Auburn AL 36849
Charles A Israel is Associate Professor of History at Auburn University and the author of Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870–1925 (Athens [GA]: University of Georgia Press, 2004).