History and Discourse Around Evolution at SU (2009)

by Nancy Scott

The theory of evolution proposes that life changed and diversified over time through a process known as natural selection, in which organisms who are better suited to survive outreproduce and outlast other organisms.[1] The main ideology that opposes evolutionary theory goes under the monikers “creationism”, “creation science”, or “intelligent design”.[2] They claim that life was created in it’s final form, usually by a god.[3] Religion has always been somewhat at odds with evolution, which is a natural occurrence resulting from the lack of any mention of evolution in the Bible and other holy texts. The rejection of evolution by much of the religious public seems to be on the decline in recent years, however, with the introduction of new theories that allow aspects of creationism to be conserved while still accepting evolutionary thought. But as the principles behind evolution are brought to other fields, some of that tension seems to be resurfacing as people look for evolutionary perspectives that allow them to keep their faith intact. These effects were put on display at Southwestern University in 2009, with the discourse at times returning to an ideological battle.

 

The split between scientists and the lay people can be seen in the conflict between followers of evolution and creationism, with a major battleground for them being the rules around what is taught in public schools. Evolution has slowly replaced creationism in US public schools, but never in every state at once, and with uniformity within states.[4] In many instances teachers are not allowed to speak out against creationism while teaching evolution, and are allowed to frame them as “alternatives” to each other without taking a clear side.[5] Many of the decisions are handled on the state level.[6] In addition, teacher religious beliefs have been found to be predictive of their willingness to teach evolution.[7] For example, in 2007, Texas Education Agency’s Director of Science Curriculum, Christine Comer was forced to resign from her position after asking an anti-creationism speaker to speak at the school.[8] The Texas Education Agency explained that she had made it look like the TEA had taken a side on the evolution debate when they intended to remain neutral.[9] This example (which occured around two years before the Brown Symposium discussed in this paper) hilights that the “war” had yet to be won by the other side, and that battles were still being fought.

 

In CP Snow’s lecture the Two Cultures, he says that academia has been fractured along the lines of “scientists' ' and “literary intellectuals” [10]. This makes sense in light of the increasing knowledge gap between scientists and others caused by specialization of science[11] . In a way, Snow describes a deficit model, in which the scientists are separated not only from the general public, but also from other intellectuals from outside their field. But as we will see, the deficit model is not always accurate to reality. As said by Bensaude-Vincent, “notions such as “lay public” and “science mediators’ are historical constructions rather than stable categories”[12]. The “deficit model”, depicts the public as having a deficit of scientific knowledge and somewhat helpless, requiring the help of enlightened scientists to guide them to knowledge.[13] While it is easy to view the issue of evolution as seen by the public along the lines of the deficit model, with the evolutionists representing the scientists, and the ignorant and the religious representing the lay public, that is a reductionist view that ignores many of the nuances of reality.

 

            In 2009, two speakers spoke about evolution and religion at Southwestern University. One speaker was David Sloan Wilson, with his talk “ Evolution as the Theory of Choice for the Study of Religion”.[14] His talk revolved around the use of evolution as a model for the development of Religion.[15] He pointed out how the “survival tactics” of religious groups often mimicked the behavior of different species of animals in the wild, by cooperating with group members, and at times being hostile towards other, competing groups.[16] He described this as emerging from a type of “evolution”, not of species, but of ideas behind religion.[17] His insistence that religions were entirely human ideas gathered some dissent from the audience, with two (out of four) questions having to do with his claims against the “engaged god hypothesis”, or whether there is an active god.[18] This can be seen as a case of the popularization of science being done in a way that alienates the people it was attempting to reach. This plays into the version of the deficit model that depicts the evolutionist attempting to reach the religious masses, who reject him (at least in part) due to finding parts of his message offensive. But it can also be seen as an incident of a dialogue being had between the two worlds, something unexpected in the deficit model, in which communication is only necessary in the direction of scientist to layperson.

 

            The other speaker on evolution was Simon Conway Morris, who spoke on a religious view of evolution, describing an “alternate look between Darwin and Creationism”.[19] In “Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Songs of Creation”, he spoke at length about convergent evolution, which is the evolution of two unrelated species arriving at a point in which  the species are very similar in form.[20] He repeatedly used the word “inevitable” to describe this evolution, and he said that he was considering the possibility that the results of all evolution was predetermined.[21] This speaker shows some traits of religiosity while definitely being a part of the “scientific elite”, given his academic achievements (he was a professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at Cambridge).[22] This breaks down the version of the deficit model that paints religiosity, and even (to an extent) creationism as the common people who the scientists must educate. The audience used the question and answers to gain further information about the lecture, which is a more active involvement than the deficit model usually depicts.

 

The deficit model and Snow’s two culture models do not seem to apply neatly to the two lectures discussed. Wilson’s lecture featured a dialogue with the audience, dirtying the deficit model, and he occupied both the scientific and literary fields of academia simultaneously, working poorly with Snow’s Two Cultures proposition. The lecture represents somewhat of a reversal from much of history: the interpretation of religion in the light of evolution, rather than interpreting evolutionary thought in the light of religion. Morris’ presentation gives a modern take on religious interpretation of evolutionary theory: an attempt to potentially merge evolutionary thought with religious thought, rather than an attempt to subdue evolutionary thought with religion. Morris’ talk was much more religious than his contemporaries would have made it, despite being a scientist, which deflates the notion that religion can be used as a stand in for lay people in the deficit model. The presence of both speakers presenting in a very public forum in front of a mixed secular and religious audience is an example of the evolutionary and religious groups continuing to coexist in the modern day.

 

            The students of Southwestern University published several responses to the Symposium shortly after the event. Their opinions were somewhat mixed, with some viewing the event with reverence and others with complete disregard. One student, William Thomas referred to it as an “eye-opening opportunity” that can “broaden their field of knowledge” in his article “The question: Class or Brown Symposium'' in which he advocates for students to be allowed to attend future Symposiums instead of class.[23] In addition, some students seemed to resent the way the symposium approached the topic of Religion and Science, wanting it to focus more on science that backs up the validity of religion. In his article “God vs. science duke it out at SU, neither win,” Andrew Dornon stated that “The point of academia is to promote truth and the dismantling of false paradigms, such as racism and sexism. So why not religion?”, and called the lack of scientific proof of religion the ignored “pink elephant in the room”.[24] This stance was also represented in the question and answer section of the symposium (in which every speaker is gathered), in a question that asked why religious scientists don’t apply scientific principles to religion.[25] Interestingly, Morris and Wilson both had a response to the question, with Morris pointing out that science doesn’t have the answer to all questions, giving religion some usefulness in that regard, while Wilson pointed out that science was not a “value system” on its own, while religion can provide a value system.[26]

 

            The conflict between religion and evolution continues, and has been imortalized in Southwestern history. Andrew Dornon put it accurately when he said “neither God nor science won at Southwestern.”[27]  In the question and answer section of Wilson’s talk, this conflict came to light somewhat and was abruptly cut short by time without finding a clear resolution. There is seemingly an anxiety around taking evolutionary theories and thinking too far: issuing a direct challenge to religion, specifically Christian religion. While most agree that the Genesis account of the creation of life as we know it isn’t literally what happened, people seem to become upset and challenged when it is suggested that biblical events didn’t happen.  Some people, namely atheists such as Dornon seem very keen to push the issue as far as they can, perhaps in hopes of winning some ideological battles. So it remains that evolutionary theories can be used together with religious thought (as in Morris’ presentation), it can also still be seen as an affront to them (as in the crowd’s reaction to Wilson’s presentation).

[1] “Theory of Evolution.” National Geographic Society, June 5, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/theory-evolution/.

[2] Singham, Mano. God vs. Darwin: the War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Education, 2011), vii

[3] “Creationism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., March 10, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/creationism.

[4] “Teaching Evolution: A State-by-State Debate.” NPR. NPR, December 21, 2005. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4630737.

[5] Zabarenko, Deborah. “Tennessee Teacher Law Could Boost Creationism, Climate Denial.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, April 13, 2012.

[6] “Teaching Evolution: A State-by-State Debate.” NPR. NPR, December 21, 2005.

[7] Mangahas, Ana Marie E. “Perceptions of High School Biology Teachers in Christian Schools on Relationships Between Religious Beliefs and Teaching Evolution.” Journal of Research on Christian Education 26, no. 1 (January 2017): 24

[8] USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, November 30, 2007. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2007-11-30-schools-creationism_N.htm.

[9] USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, November 30, 2007. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2007-11-30-schools-creationism_N.htm.

[10] Snow, C. P. (Charles Percy), 1905-1980. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York :Cambridge University Press, 1959., 87-88

[11] Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette. “A Historical Perspective on Science and Its ‘Others.’” ISIS 100, no. 2 (June 2009): 361. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/599547

[12] Bensaude-Vincent, “A Historical Perspective on Science and Its ‘Others.”, 365

[13]  Nieto-Galan, Agusti. Science in the Public Sphere. (Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge, 2016), 3

[14]  Wilson, David Sloan. “Evolution as the Theory of Choice for the Study of Religion.” Lecture,

The Brown Symposium XXXI, Georgetown, February 6, 2009.

[15] Wilson, Evolution as the Theory of Choice for the Study of Religion

[16] Wilson, Evolution as the Theory of Choice for the Study of Religion

[17] Wilson, Evolution as the Theory of Choice for the Study of Religion

[18] Wilson, Evolution as the Theory of Choice for the Study of Religion

[19] Morris, Simon Conway. “Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Songs of Creation.”  Lecture,The Brown Symposium XXXI, Georgetown, February 5, 2009.

[20] Morris, Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Songs of Creation

[21] Morris, Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Songs of Creation

[22] Morris, Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Songs of Creation

[23] Thomas, William. “The Question: Class or Brown Symposium.” The Megaphone. February 12, 2009.

[24] Dornon, Andrew. “God vs Science Duke It out at SU, Neither Win.” The Megaphone. February 12, 2009.

[25] Newberg, Andrew, Simon C Morris, Mary E Tucker, David S Wilson, Christian Lavigne, Christopher Bader, and Paul Froese. “Panel Discussion.” Brown Symposium XXXI. February 6, 2009.

[26] Newberg, Andrew, Simon C Morris, Mary E Tucker, David S Wilson, Christian Lavigne, Christopher Bader, and Paul Froese. “Panel Discussion.” Brown Symposium XXXI. February 6, 2009.

[27] Dornon, Andrew. “God vs Science Duke It out at SU, Neither Win.” The Megaphone. February 12, 2009.

History and Discourse Around Evolution at SU (2009)