Henry DrummondFor quite a while now, I have been on the lookout for “The Last Word of Great Scientists on Evolution,” a 1925 antievolution pamphlet by J. J. Sims. I was pleased, then, to find a copy recently. Sims was apparently a “World-Known Lecturer on ‘The Bible and Science’” as well as the author of “Pearls from the Deep,” “The History of Satan,” “We Drew the Fire,” etc., according to the title page. The pamphlet isn’t entirely unknown—writing in The American Mercury in 1928, Maynard Shipley took a swipe at it, and Ronald L. Numbers mentions it in a footnote in The Creationists (1992) on account of its “inconsistent” response to George McCready Price—but it’s not exactly famous, either. Nor is Sims, although later in 1925 he was serving as the Field Secretary of the Bryan Bible League, founded in memory of the fallen William Jennings Bryan.

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Passage from James Park's A Text-Book of Geology (1925)

Looking for something else, I stumbled across the following quotation, reproduced on a young-earth creationist ministry’s website under the heading “Quotes to Note” and credited to Creation 2(1):4, which appeared in January 1979:

The obvious lesson from the study of fossils is the elementary truth that life even in the earliest times, differed in no way from life today. Further, we observe that the lower types of life that appear in the oldest rocks have persisted through all geological times up to the present day.

The passage is attributed to James Park’s Textbook of Geology. Neither a publisher nor a place of publication nor even a year is provided, although such information is provided for other quotations appearing under the same heading.

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06.26.2017

William Pepperell Montague (1937; painted by Winifred Smith Rieber)

A few years ago, in the introduction to a special issue of the philosophy journal Synthese focusing on creationism, I wrote:

In the first wave of antievolution activity—the attempts during the 1920s to remove evolution from the classroom—philosophers were all but uninvolved in the debate. Although the impresario of the Scopes trial, George Rappelyea, hoped to get John Dewey to testify for the defense (de Camp 1968, p. 80), only experts in science and religion were selected, and in the event they were not permitted to testify (Larson 1997, pp. 170–193). Only [Alfred North] Whitehead, of the leading American philosophers of the day, reacted to the trial, according to a study of American intellectuals and Darwinism (Conkin 1998, p. 145). And his muted reaction took the form of a piece in the Atlantic Monthly, published after the trial, which mentioned evolution just once and Scopes, the law under which he was prosecuted, and the trial itself not at all (Whitehead 1925).

Well, I accurately reported what Paul K. Conkin said in When All the Gods Trembled, but both he and I seem to have overlooked someone!

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06.19.2017

John Augustine Zahm, via Wikimedia Commons

There are memorable lines aplenty in the beloved film The Princess Bride (1987), thanks to the screenwriter William Goldman, on whose 1973 novel it was based. Among them is the following, addressed to the villainous Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) by the fencer Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin): “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The word in question is “inconceivable,” which Vizzini uses so freely that his henchman is eventually forced to protest, and I was reminded of it when browsing through John Augustine Zahm’s The Catholic Church and Modern Science: A Lecture (1886). Zahm (right; 1851–1921) was a priest as well as a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Notre Dame.

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05.26.2017

Erasmus Darwin, portrait by Joseph Wright, 1770. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1974 film Young Frankenstein, directed by Mel Brooks, there is, as I recently realized, a surprisingly erudite joke. In a scene early in the film, Dr. Frankenstein—who, in order to distance himself from a notorious grandfather, pronounces his surname “Fronkenshteen”—is talking with a student. “Isn’t it true,” he is asked, “that Darwin preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case until, by some extraordinary means, it actually began to move with voluntary motion?” Frankenstein (played by the late Gene Wilder) replies, “Are you speaking of the worm or the spaghetti?” and then adds, “Yes, I did read something of that incident when I was a student, but you have to remember that a worm … with very few exceptions … is not a human being.” No argument there, although it would be interesting to hear about the exceptions!

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Warren Overton

When it comes to modern young-earth creationist literature, there is, to coin a phrase, no new thing under the sun. The same old long-ago-debunked claims appear and reappear. I couldn’t be more jaded if I were a greenish metamorphic silicate. So when a colleague in North Carolina offered to send a copy of Kent Hovind’s booklet Help! I’m Being Taught Evolution in My Earth Science Class! (2008), I was willing to take a look, but I wasn’t expecting to find anything interesting. How wrong I was! The foreword to the book is by a Warren Overton (above)—who identifies himself as a son of the judge, William R. Overton (1939–1987), who presided over the trial in McLean v. Arkansas, the 1982 case in which Arkansas’s Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act was found to be unconstitutional.

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Image of Darwin from The Book of Knowledge

The Butler Act, outlawing the teaching in Tennessee’s public schools of “any theory that denies the divine creation of man and teaches instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” became law on March 21, 1925. But it really wasn’t a matter of national interest until May 1925, when, in short order, John Thomas Scopes agreed to become the defendant in a case testing the law’s constitutionality, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow agreed to join the legal teams representing the prosecution and the defense (respectively), and Scopes was duly indicted. That was enough to kindle interest in the issue of teaching evolution around the country. And my choice of the particular verb “kindle” is deliberate.

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01.05.2017

The example of the watch in William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) is famous. A stone found on a heath, Paley explains, seems not to require any explanation, but a watch, with its component parts apparently designed to perform a function, demands to be explained, and explained, moreover, in terms of a designer. And the same is true, he argues at length, of living things. Although Paley is sometimes credited with the example of the watch, it is, I think, generally recognized that he was only the latest in a long string of writers to use horology in the service of natural theology: Cicero, in the first century BCE, similarly appealed to sundials and water-clocks in De natura deorum. So Paley wasn’t original. But was he a plagiarist?

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12.28.2016

Title of Allem's thesisIn “Evolution in the Back Seat,” I mentioned Warren Allem’s 1959 University of Tennessee, Knoxville master’s thesis, “Backgrounds of the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee.” Allem’s thesis is well worth a read, I think, if you’re interested in the Scopes trial, especially because it’s freely available on-line. The main attraction is the interviews he conducted with various residents of Dayton who witnessed the events surrounding the trial. These interviews are frequently cited in the scholarly and popular literature—Edward J. Larson in “The Scopes Trial in History and Legend” (in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers’s edited volume When Science and Christianity Meet, 2008), Michael Lienesch in In the Beginning (2007), and Randy Moore in Evolution in the Courtroom (2002), for example, all cite Allem’s thesis.

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