Saturday, July 14, 2007

Larson on Evolution

I just finished a great read on the history of evolutionary thought and science by Edward Larson. Larson won a Pulitzer Prize in history for his book Summer for the Gods which contains a detailed look at the Scopes monkey-trial from the 1920s. He is a fine historian and also an educated student of the history of science. His history of evolution starts pre-Darwin by expounding the main views of scientific creationism before Darwin released Origin of Species in the late 1850s. Larson gives a chapter to Darwin, but actually moves quickly from him to the time in between his original book and the neo-Darwinian synthesis now popular among scientists. Larson spends quite a few pages outlining the social responses to Darwinian evolution, from the eugenics movement (let's be active in promoting evolution by only letting the best reproduce and keeping the worst from reproducing) to the religious anti-evolution movements. These sections of his book are very fair, even though it is clear that Larson is a believer in evolutionary theory. As one inside the Christian movement, I appreciate Larson's fairness and clarity on the creation science response to evolutionary science.

This book is helpful one several fronts and is the major reason I encourage all Christians to pick up a copy. First, it helps to place our current discussions in the correct historical framework. What I mean by that is simply that we tend to repeat arguments from the past that have been discredited or we attack planks of evolutionary theory that are no longer even supported by scientists. In this way, being educated on the 150 years of development in evolutionary science helps us to be much smarter in our discussions about origins issues. Second, this book helps give you a beginning knowledge of evolutionary language, including the big ones that everyone knows - natural selection, random mutation, etc. - but also branching into areas that I knew very little about - genetics, breeding, microbiology, etc. Throughout, the book doesn't get overly bogged down in scientific lingo, but gives the reader the historical view of how the theory of evolution has changed. Finally, this book is helpful because it is recent and shows how evolutionary science is continuing to develop and change. In other words, while the scientific community has consensus that evolution has taken place, the definitions involved and mechanisms at play are always being discussed and reworked as biologists look closer at all the facts.

Overall, I'm not sold on the theory, but I'm also not as n\antagonistic as I was before because I now see that beyond the science, there are major philosophical forces at work. Throughout his book, Larson does a great job of helping the reader see the philosophical underpinnings of the scientists who moved the theory along. And by seeing this snapshot, we again see wide variety - from the atheistic naturalist (who believes there is not god and that everything has happened by random chance) to the deistic scientist (who believes God (or some higher power) set it all up and let it go and now remains hands off to the theistic position (which believes that God created everything from nothing, established natural law, sustains it, and continues to intervene within His system regularly). These are philosophical and theological questions, not scientific questions. Wherever you land on the issue of evolution, you still have to be honest enough to say that the scientific evidence in nature does not explain the ultimate issues related to origins and life after death. We have to either dismiss these issues as unknowable or rely on revelation. And I guess you know where I land on that.

Overall, great read - if you care about soundly intelligent on this issue, pick up a copy and get to work!

1 comment:

dt said...

Great review. Thanks! dt