Darwinism Comes to America

Ronald L. Numbers

Harvard University Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000 http://dannyreviews.com/
The introduction to Darwinism Comes to America summarises the history of creationism and describes the main players in the modern debate: naturalistic evolutionists (with varying degrees of hostility to religion), theistic evolutionists, intelligent-design theorists, old-Earth creationists, and the "scientific" creationists who have co-opted the general term "creationist". But though readable by itself, Darwinism Comes to America is not so much an integrated book as a collection of studies, a kind of supplement to Numbers' earlier work The Creationists. The focus is on common misconceptions about the history of religion and science in the United States.

The first chapter looks at the eighty naturalists who joined the National Academy of Sciences between 1863 and 1900. Numbers finds no sudden revolution resulting from the publication of The Origin of Species: while most shifted to evolution, few were committed to natural selection as the dominant mechanism and they held a wide range of views, with no simple split between Lamarckians and Darwinians. Nor was there any religious crisis: there is not one clear case of a naturalist changing or losing faith as a result of evolution. Numbers offers some statistical analysis, looking at factors such as birth-order, age and social class, and in an appendix provides brief biographies of all the naturalists.

If "Darwinism" meant different things to different people, so did "creationism" and "creationist", as chapter two describes. Originally used quite broadly, they have become specific to followers of flood geology and proponents of a young earth: "once marginal views, inspired by the visions of an obscure Adventist prophetess, now defined the very essence of creationism." Despite a few prominent cases such as the Woodrow affair, where a leading Southern Presbyterian scientist-cleric was sacked (and charged with heresy) after arguing that evolution was "probably true", Numbers in chapter three argues against the common belief that "antipathy to evolution has been characteristic of the American South". And a chapter on the Scopes trial tries to correct some of the legends and myths that surround it, most notably the depiction of the trial as a "moral victory" for Darrow and evolution and the idea that Bryan betrayed creationism (the day-age theory he espoused was, far from being a concession, in fact Fundamentalist orthodoxy at the time).

The last two chapters cover the responses to evolutionary science in two religious traditions. The Adventists, following prophetess Ellen G. White, always paid greater attention to geology than evolutionary biology: George McCready Price was the leading advocate of flood geology when it was very much on the fringes. Adventists now exhibit a broad range of beliefs, from the conservatives of the Geoscience Research Institute to more liberal Adventist scientists. Most in the Pentecostal and Wesleyan-Holiness traditions, at least among the elite, have stuck to day-age or ruin-and-restoration interpretations of Genesis; flood geology was never as popular as among Fundamentalists. But in a tradition that stresses action and behaviour over doctrine and belief, attacking evolution has never been a primary concern.

Although Darwinism Comes to America will primarily interest history of science specialists, many lay readers will also be fascinated by Numbers' investigation into the "dark corners of the history of evolution in America". It is, after all, an issue of importance outside academia — as Numbers predicts, "America will continue to witness spirited, indeed acrimonious, debates over the scientific, theological, and political consequences of evolution for the foreseeable future".


Acknowledgements: thanks to the National Center for Science Education for suggestions for this review.

January 2000 [updated September 2000]

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- Ronald L. Numbers - The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism
- books about evolution
- more history of science
- books published by Harvard University Press
%T Darwinism Comes to America
%A Numbers, Ronald L.
%I Harvard University Press
%D 1998
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0674193121
%P 216pp