Summer for the Gods

How conservative Christians coalesced against the teaching of Darwin

This excerpt is condensed from the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Summer for the Gods" (Basic Books), by Edward J. Larson. Larson, a historian at the University of Georgia, has in previous sections described how "religion versus Darwin," which was not a hot controversy in the United States in the decades immediately following the publication of Origin of Species, became one in the 1920s. Three forces were at work, Larson says.

One, the discoveries of ancient fossils of earlier humans, which forced men and women to contemplate the notion that not just animals but Homo sapiens descended from earlier forms. The best known, "Piltdown man," turned out to be a forgery, but several genuine proto-human fossils were uncovered as well. Two, the new social phenomenon of universal, public-financed high school education, which put the curriculum of the public school into play as a subject of general debate. The third factor came from the left. Establishment liberalism, which was aghast when the liberal president Woodward Wilson favored restrictions against free speech by those who opposed World War I, began to center much of its political and legal strategy on winning First Amendment cases. When bans against the teaching of evolution were proposed, this seemed to the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union an ideal ground on which to battle for free speech.

In this chapter, Larson describes how conservative Christians coalesced against the teaching of Darwin, with William Jennings Bryan rising as their champion.

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Fossil discoveries of the 1920s provided persuasive new evidence for human evolution and, as such, provoked a response from anti-evolutionists. Paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn threw down the gauntlet in his reply to William Jennings Bryan's 1922 plea in The New York Times for restrictions on evolutionary teaching. Bryan had argued that "neither Darwin nor his supporters have been able to find a fact in the universe to support their hypothesis," prompting Osborn to cite "the Piltdown man" and other recent hominid fossil finds. "All this evidence is today within reach of every schoolboy," Osborn wrote. "It will, we are convinced, satisfactorily answer in the negative [Bryan's] question, 'Is it not more rational to believe in the creation of man by separate act of God than to believe in evolution without a particle of evidence?'" Of course, the fact that all this evidence was within the reach of every public school student constituted the nub of Bryan's concern, and Osborn further baited anti-evolutionists by stressing how fossil evidence undermined belief in the special creation of humans.

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Edward J. Larson
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