God Didn't Make Me No Monkey Man: An Evolutionary Biologist and a Humanist Discuss How to Discuss the Scopes Trial at 85

Paul Harvey

Readers of my entries on this blog (those of you who are still awake, at any rate) will know of my previous career as a biology major (and thanks a lot, Physics 201, for making me see that perhaps History was a better way for me to go), and my literary love of Darwin's Origin of the Species, which I've blogged about before.

HNN this week is featuring a great set of responses and reflections on the Scopes Trial and the issue of the tortured discussion of evolution in public discourse. No other scientific "theory," even those which would appear to pose major challenges to certain genres of biblical interpretation, invokes such passion and furor. There is no equivalent, in chemistry or molecular biology or even in physics for god's sake, to the various "Creationist" institutes and museum dotting the landscape. That fact has long puzzled me.

David Reznick's "An Evolutionary Biologist's Reflections on the Scopes Trial," notes that "A peculiar attribute of evolutionary biology is that, even though it is an arcane science, many people have opinions about it, much more so, I think, than any other science. Why?" He then goes on to detail some possible reasons, and at the end to ask for the help of humanists:

"Some historians and philosophers have helped by articulating how evolution fits in to the development of science, but also by dealing with the relationship between science and religion as a topic for the humanities classroom, rather than the science classroom. We need the help, so I encourage my colleagues in the humanities to expand these efforts."

Everett Hamner provides precisely that help in his terrific piece "A Humanist's Reflections on Evolutionary Biology." Our faithful blog readers will recall that just a bit ago Everett posted his reflections on William Brown's The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.

In today's piece, Everett calls for classroom discussons to distinguish between science and scientism, to humanize scientists engaged in discovery, to "question bifurcations between the religious and secular," and to cultivate more careful readings of scriptures (plural), not their dismissal.

I would add that it wouldn't hurt humanist students to be required to take some more science classes (and, yes, vice-versa) so they can engage this discussion more knowledgeably, but that's just me.

On the latter point, the importance of cultivating careful readings of scriptures, Everett writes the following: To encourage this shift is merely to appreciate that setting the writings of an amazingly resilient ancient Near Eastern tribe or of a sixth-century Meccan revolutionary against a product of Victorian science is to compare apples and oranges. When people grasp the differences in purpose between the Bible, the Qur’an, and The Origin of Species, major stumbling blocks on the path to consilience begin to dissolve.

Yes, and yes -- another way of saying that we should help students cultivate a true historian's sense of the past.

And finally, I leave you with some unforgettable music: Eli Framer's God Didn't Make Me No Monkey Man, a country blues/string band classic you can listen to while reading Origins or taking a look at Jeffrey Moran's excellent article "Reading Race Into the Scopes Trial: African American Elites, Science,and Fundamentalism," from the Journal of American History 90 (December 2003) (access to History Cooperative or J-Stor required).


Everett said…
Absolutely, Paul, on that need for humanists to do a little more science homework. Here's my favorite place to send people wanting a basic refresh on evolution, or even a little more:


Big Fred said…
See info on a new movie about the Scopes Trial at www.allegedthemovie.com. We have a Facebook page too.