August 29, 2008
Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity From Darwin to Intelligent Design
By Day, Matthew
doi: 10.1017/S0009640708000863 Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design. By Peter Bowler. New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. x + 258 pp. $24.95 cloth. Rummaging around for a title to his now-classic study of the religious movements that rocked central and western New York state during the first half of the nineteenth century, Whitney Cross decided that he could do no better than to lean on Charles Grandison Finney. These territories represented a burned-over district, he concluded, a land exhausted by decades of religious fervor and creativity.
Almost a century and a half has passed since the publication of Origin of Species, and in many ways the historiography of religious responses to Darwin's "dangerous idea" represents another kind of bumed-over district. The tales of how Christian communities have assimilated, resisted, or ignored Darwinian evolution have been told so often and by so many different parties that one might be excused for doubting that there is much left to say about the matter. Because of this, I don't believe it is a criticism of Peter Bowler's latest book to observe that while it occasionally gestures toward new terrain-such as the counter-cultural ties that bind Scientific Creationism and Immanuel Velikovsky's work on the veracity of ancient myths (205-208)-it never quite breaks new ground. Nevertheless, because Bowler knows the features of this landscape so well, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons is a notable achievement.
The book's structure is admirably clear and efficient. Chapter 1 ("The Myths of History") offers a survey of the key historical developments with an eye toward undermining the passe notion that religion and science are ineluctably at war. Chapter 2 ("Setting the Scene") explores the intellectual trends that prepared the way for Darwin's theoretical innovations, including very useful discussions of Robert Chambers, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and William Paley. Chapter 3 ("Darwin and His Bulldog") examines the structure of Darwin's evolutionary gambit, the philosophical ambitions of the firstgeneration "Darwinians," and the liberal Protestant willingness to see divine purpose in evolutionary progress. Chapter 4 ("The Eclipse of Darwinism") analyzes the apparent collapse of Darwinian selection theory during the early days of the "genetical" revolution and the liberal Christian embrace of nonmaterialist models of evolution. Chapter 5 ("Modern Debates") argues that appreciating the historical complexity of the engagement between Christianity and evolutionary theory necessarily undermines the rhetorical simplicity of both hard-line Darwinians who belittle religious people and unrepentant creationists who ridicule scientists.
As one might gather from this brief outline, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons does not set out to radically re-imagine the historical contours of the continuing struggle over evolution. Yet, because it assembles the crucial figures and events in an easily accessible and wonderfully economical package, the book is exceptionally well-crafted for its intended general authence. Indeed, reading Bowler's book is a bit like watching a major league baseball player take batting practice. Even when routine, it is satisfying to watch a professional make something difficult look easy.
Florida State University
Copyright American Society of Church History Jun 2008
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