book reviews, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, May 2015

The May installment of mini book reviews has the two books I referenced in my last post about criminal justice, as well as two very different novels set during World War II, and another book on creation and evolution because I can’t stop reading about the topic.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.  It started with calls for a return to “law and order” during the tumultuous 1960s, then with Nixon calling for a “war on drugs” that didn’t really come to fruition until Reagan’s administration.  Reagan truly initiated the Drug War early in his time in office by dramatically increasing anti-drug budgets.  Interestingly, at the time he called for a War on Drugs in October of 1982, only 2% of the country thought drugs were the most important issue facing the country.  Things didn’t get better under Clinton in the 1990s.  He enacted many “tough on crime” policies such as 3-strike life sentences for certain crimes.  His administration cut public housing at the same time it was increasing money for corrections.  In Alexander’s telling, no one is blameless for the current predicament of mass incarceration.  After detailing the history, Alexander shows how police have virtually no legal restraints in carrying out the drug war.  Because there are few, if any constraints, the seemingly race neutral drug war ends up targeting and incarcerating people of color disproportionately, especially in light of the fact that whites and people of color use drugs at similar rates.  Even after someone has served a sentence for a drug crime, the system isn’t done with them yet.  Policies that control ex-prisoners make it difficult to truly re-integrate into society, often leading to second class status or, even worse, recidivism.  In order to end mass incarceration as a caste system, it is not enough to point out that drug use is a public health problem and not a criminal one.  Alexander argues that the racial component of mass incarceration has to be confronted head on.  If it is not, then even if mass incarceration is ended, another racialized caste system will emerge just as Jim Crow followed slavery, and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow.  I would highly recommend this book.
  • Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is a critical examination of the American criminal justice system.  And it is vitally important that we look at it.  Benforado details the many, many ways that the criminal justice system does not, in fact, deliver justice.  The structure of the book, from investigation to adjudication to punishment, allows him to show how things can go wrong each step of the way.  Along the way he points out the relevant social science research that helps to explain how these mistakes can be made.  For instance, some innocent people confess to crimes that they didn’t commit in order to make a grueling interrogation stop.  Or they might take a plea deal if they’re led to believe that a trial will not show their innocence.  Astoundingly, over 90 percent of those charged with a crime and offered a plea take it without a trial.  During a trial, it can be hard to determine guilt or innocence when prosecutors withhold evidence or a jury inaccurately rates a witness trustworthy or not.  Or take an eyewitness’s evidence: people’s memories can be notoriously unreliable when looking at a lineup or recalling the circumstances of a crime.  Memories can be easily corrupted or altered or even fabricated without the eyewitness realizing he or she is doing it.  And the impartial judge who oversees the proceedings of a trial may not be as objective as we would like to believe.  Of course everyone has biases, but it’s amazing how something like the time of day can affect someone.  In studies, judges are more lenient earlier in the day, but they are much harsher before lunch or at the end of the day.  How is that fair?  When it comes to punishment, Benforado puts forth the scientific evidence that “it is a desire for retribution—not deterrence or incapacitation—that has the strongest influence” (191).  This type of punishment leads to mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, life without parole, and the death penalty, which don’t work to actually deter crime.  Once in prison, it’s hard not to become “institutionalized” or broken as a person (whether by solitary confinement or the threat of rape and violence), so it’s not surprising that so many prisoners cannot re-integrate into society after serving time.  Benforado offers a smattering of possible reforms big and small that could get us closer to true justice.  One of the best suggestions, I thought, was the virtual courtroom.  It would remove obvious problems like being “swayed by the attractiveness of a witness” (266) or thinking a nervous witness is lying when they are merely nervous at speaking in public (we are not good at detecting whether people are lying or not, though we think we are).  My only real complaint with the book is that it sometimes reads too easily.  Benforado presents historical cases or the social science research so smoothly and convincingly (similarly to Malcolm Gladwell) that I was almost entertained by the story he was telling or the research findings he was presenting, when I really should be outraged.  It’s not that I wasn’t ultimately outraged, but maybe the pill should stick in the throat more rather than go down so easily. Despite that slight, and possibly idiosyncratic, complaint, I would highly recommend this book to everyone.  [Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof from the publisher via a giveaway in the hopes that I would give an honest review of the book.]
  • The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard by Patrick Hicks is a novel of witness and remembrance.  It’s an unflinching account of the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp told in a documentary style.  I’ll admit that I mistakenly thought it was going to be told more from the point of view of the title character (though the back cover and the blurbs are quite clear about the documentary nature of the story).  A story told from the POV of the Commandant would have been contrary to the spirit of the novel.  Rather, the narrator refers repeatedly to the absences and the missing, to the thousands killed on a daily basis, about which “traditional modes of storytelling fail us” because “the darkness itself is the story.”  It’s powerful.  And haunting.  The fictional camp of Lubizec is modeled on real camps like Treblinka.  In high school I read Jean-Francois Steiner’s account of Treblinka and the revolt by the prisoners there.  Something similar happens in this novel, but the narrator reminds us that this is not an adventure story, it is rebellion against the killings.  And though this is not a character study of the Commandant, it does in its own way try to humanize him by detailing his family life outside of the camp.  He is truly a bifurcated individual, a loving father at home and a cold, unfeeling engineer of murder at the camp.  His two selves seem impossible to reconcile.  Near the end of the novel, he even refers to himself in the third person when trying to explain his actions during the war.  I would highly recommend this book to everyone wanting to understand the Holocaust better.  [Disclosure: I am acquaintances with Patrick Hicks; he teaches literature and writing at the same college where my wife teaches.]
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff is a marvelous adventure story set during World War II during the siege of Leningrad.  The narrator, Lev Beniov (in the conceit of the novel this is the author’s grandfather telling him the story), along with Kolya, a deserter from the Army, must find a dozen eggs for an important Colonel, so that his daughter can have a wedding cake.  The city is surrounded by the German army, and the people are starving during the winter months.  It simultaneously has the quality of a fairy tale where the heroes have to accomplish an impossible task while also being a coming of age story for the 17 year old narrator.  During their search, the two young men encounter the many brutalities of the war, but there is also a lot of humor in the story, especially the way Lev and Kolya interact.  Kolya treats Lev like a younger brother whom he can teach about the ways of the world and women.  Like any quest narrative, it hits the right notes with twists and obstacles to keep our heroes from their objective, while also subverting some of our expectations along the way.  It was a very satisfying read.  As it was primarily a guy book, I would recommend it as that, though noting that anyone could enjoy it.
  • Evolution from Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence by Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett is a useful book on the topic of theistic evolution.  The two authors (one a theologian, the other a scientist) offer a helpful guide to the landscape of Christian approaches to origins.  They critique the young earth creationist and the intelligent design positions, but in the most fair and serious way I’ve ever seen.  They treat those who hold those positions with the utmost respect as fellow Christians (it’s a marked contrast to books I’ve read by Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller).  Curiously, they don’t spend any time with old earth/progressive creationists.  The best part of the book is where they detail the spectrum of beliefs in the theistic evolution camp.  They analyze various thinkers in five areas: (1) deep time, (2) natural selection, (3) common descent, (4) divine action, and (5) theodicy (i.e. an attempt to answer why a good God would allow evil and suffering).  Afterwards, they present their own model that avoids some of the pitfalls they see in the other positions.  For example, most of the other thinkers used some version of the free will defense to answer how God could allow evil.  The problem they see with a free will defense is that it requires God to relinquish interacting with creation, which then makes evolutionary processes random and purposeless.  Most theists would like to avoid that conclusion.  Their approach is novel, by contrast, but it too is rather unsatisfying.  They view creation as both an initial point in time (creatio ex nihilo) as well as an ongoing process (creatio continua) that is not yet complete until it can be redeemed as a “new creation.”  In their reading, the “very good” declaration of Genesis is from the standpoint of the new creation, looking back on the whole history of creation (seems like a stretch).  They admit that they, like Job, don’t know why suffering and death are part of the creation at this time.  So, it’s still a mystery.  Regardless, the book is a handy reference for the various positions within theistic evolution.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the debate on creation and evolution.
book reviews, faith, history, literature, personal, science

Book Reviews, January 2015

Here is the first installment of mini book reviews that I promised earlier this year.  I’m planning on writing these reviews for nearly every book I read, first posting them on and then collecting them monthly to post here (so you can eagerly anticipate the next installment on February 28th!).  My goals for this project are twofold.  Most importantly, I want to make sure that I am paying attention and digesting what I read.  I’m hoping that the process of writing these reviews will encourage closer reading and understanding on my part.  The secondary goal is to provide useful book recommendations for anyone who reads my blog (I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the fiction reviews).  Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments.

  • Saving Darwin by Karl W. Giberson is a decent overview of the creation/evolution debate from a theistic evolutionist, if not as in depth as I would sometimes like.  But sometimes it’s good to step back and view many facets of a debate instead of focusing solely on particulars.  While I am in the same camp as Giberson (someone of faith who accepts evolution), I am still learning much about the issue.  So while I’ve enjoyed more thorough treatments of the Scopes trial by Edward Larson or the history of young earth creationism by Ronald Numbers, it was helpful to read a summary of the U.S. court cases since Scopes and an analysis of the “dark companions” of evolution such as social Darwinism and eugenics.  Giberson is well read on all aspects of the debate so I found his end notes especially helpful in preparing a further reading list to delve deeper on some of these issues.  As a Christian, I especially liked the section where he wrestled with intelligent design, admitting that he wished that the argument from design were true.  He cannot accept it theologically though because of what it would say about God when one considers bad designs (human knees that wear out) or seemingly horrific designs (various parasites).  Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone of faith willing to consider evolution and looking for a solid overview of the debate.
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer is an enjoyable Sherlock Holmes adventure, filling in a perceived gap in the canonical works by Arthur Conan Doyle.  I only finished reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories last year (though they were given to me when I was in junior high by my older brother—thanks Alex!), so I was looking for something more now that the BBC’s Sherlock is between seasons as well.  Meyer’s book was a decent “fix” for my itch.  Watson narrates, as he does most of the original stories, and his voice is a credible facsimile.  I never felt taken out of the story because of the narration.  The plot concerns Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (the “seven-per-cent solution” also mentioned in the original stories) and his heretofore unmentioned meeting with Sigmund Freud.  It’s all very clever and well done, but that’s part of what I didn’t love about the book.  It seems that books (or movies) like these—prequels, reboots, or continuations of famous characters or series—often succumb too much to fan service instead of trying to do something new.  By fan service, I mean bringing back beloved elements or tying together every last unexplained detail in the original or having a huge crossover event (world’s most famous detective meets the father of psychoanalysis!).  But maybe it’s the predictability of the original series that makes it beloved in the first place.  So a reasonable facsimile can keep people happy in the meantime.  I was reasonably entertained.
  • Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert E. Webber is a book I needed to read.  Perhaps it would have been even better if I had read it when I first started attending an Episcopal church in grad school.  The book is mostly a story, the first half Webber’s personal story from evangelicalism to the Episcopal church, and the second half the stories of other like-minded evangelical pilgrims on the Canterbury trail, so to speak.  Webber frames his own story as a search for six needs that he found fulfilled in the Anglican tradition: mystery, worship, sacraments, historic identity, ecumenicalism, and a holistic spirituality.  Sometimes I wished he would spend more time on any of these topics, but he was more concerned with telling his story instead of deep analysis of liturgy.  I suppose that means I need to look somewhere else for that kind of book.  I found Webber’s and his co-pilgrim’s stories comforting as they found richness and freedom in the same way as I have in the Episcopal church.  The book is not meant as a critique of the evangelical churches that they left, but merely a way to tell through personal spiritual journeys how not everyone’s needs are met in an evangelical church.  Webber points out the many strengths of evangelicalism and how the two traditions can learn from each other.  I think this is a book that any evangelical who is interested in liturgical worship should read.  Episcopalians should also seek out this book to find out why evangelicals (like me) were attracted to their door. [Please note that there is a newer edition of the book which keeps all of Webber’s text and story, but replaces the original co-pilgrims’ stories with newer examples.  I have not read this new edition, so I cannot say if I prefer it over the original.]
  • The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould is an excellent history of science that argues against biological determinism of intelligence.  His main argument is that intelligence is not a single, innate, heritable, quantifiable entity, able to be ranked.  By going back and looking at the data and methodology of key figures along the way, Gould is able to show where scientists erred.  He shows how easy it was for scientists’ bias to affect how they measured the size of skulls in the 19th century or how IQ tests for U.S. Army recruits in World War I were inadequately administered and the content biased against immigrants and those without formal education.  This history is humbling for science, a warning always to be aware of bias.  However, I had trouble following his arguments against the theory of general intelligence (g) by Spearman and later Burt.  It involves factor analysis, a method of statistics initially invented to analyze mental tests (but used for many other things).  I don’t have any background in statistics, so I couldn’t tell if his critiques hit the mark or not.  But I did understand when he pointed out that the correlations between a set of mental tests could just as easily show the advantages or deficits of environment as a biological IQ.  He also explained how using other statistical methods on the same data, it is possible to see multiple intelligences (as in Gardner) instead of one general intelligence underlying everything.  Gould wrote the book originally in 1981, but revised it after The Bell Curve came out in 1994 so that he could add a few supplementary essays rebutting it.  The Bell Curve made a big splash when it was published, but Gould feels that it was merely rehashing the same biological determinism of intelligence that he had already shown was mistaken.  I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of science or the science of intelligence. [Please note the comment below about the controversy surrounding this book]

The Scopes trial and Christian subculture

One last time about Summer for the Gods and the Scopes trial (parts 1 and 2 here and here). But first a quick recap: In 1925, spurred on by Christian fundamentalists, the state of Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution. The ACLU wanted to show the law was unconstitutional, so they worked with John Scopes in the small town of Dayton as a test case. He was brought to trial for teaching evolution, thus breaking the law. William Jennings Bryan, a former politician and a leader in the anti-evolution movement, joined the prosecution against Scopes. Clarence Darrow, a defense attorney and famous atheist, joined the defense team.

During the trial, antievolutionists felt that the media was biased against them, and they were right. Most newspapers in the country stated that they were for Darrow and the defense. And it wasn’t just the Scopes trial. There were creation-evolution debates back then just as now, and creationists such as George McCready Price (a precursor to Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, writers of The Genesis Flood) complained that the press didn’t acknowledge when they won a debate. Larson points out that media bias probably wasn’t malicious (aside from the obvious attackers like H.L. Mencken), but rather “due to its insensitivity to faith-based arguments” (125). This makes sense: most outsiders don’t understand the intricacies of another group’s thought system or values.

Though Scopes was the defendant, the defense team went on the offensive against a narrow reading of Genesis. Darrow asked that Bryan be put on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible. Against the advice of the rest of the prosecution, Bryan thought it would be a good idea to defend Biblical literalism in the public forum. Darrow took the opportunity to attack every aspect of the Bible, forcing Bryan to defend every miracle or hard question (i.e. Where did Cain’s wife come from? or How could Jonah survive three days inside a whale?). He eventually pushed Bryan so far that he had to repeatedly admit that he didn’t know or couldn’t explain how the event took place as described in the Bible. As for the Genesis account of creation he had to admit: “I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it I will accept it” (189). Bryan had defended his faith, even if he couldn’t explain it on all points, but most media saw his reticence as a failure in the face of scientific explanations.

Because they didn’t think they were getting a fair shake with the media, “[a]ntievolutionists increasingly turned to interdenominational journals and publishers to communicate their side of the story” (127). In the immediate aftermath of the Scopes case, both sides declared victory. The antievolution prosecution could claim victory because the jury agreed with them and convicted Scopes. The defense claimed the moral victory that their ideas had triumphed when Clarence Darrow humiliated William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand. Larson shows that it took quite some time for the latter narrative to take hold as the consensus view, aided especially by the play and movie Inherit the Wind, a highly fictionalized version of the trial that really was more about the communist witch hunts of the 1950s (much like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) than the Scopes trial of 1925.

The Scopes trial highlighted the fissure between modernists and fundamentalists in many denominations and seminaries at the time. Fundamentalists increasingly withdrew from the broader culture and “set about constructing a separate subculture with independent religious, educational, and social institutions” (233). This is the subculture I grew up in, one that only accepted the Young Earth Creationist account. It was also a subculture that was separate and removed from the broader culture, which is how I could seriously never encounter anyone who entertained the notion of an old earth or evolution.

The Christian subculture I grew up in was all-encompassing. I attended private Christian school. On Sundays we attended morning and evening services at church. Wednesdays were prayer meeting. For a grade school boy like me, we had Christian Service Brigade, a more Christian version of Boy Scouts. Brigade had summer camp, which I attended four different times. When I was in junior and senior high we had Wednesday evening youth group. The youth group had socials, took missions trips, and attended the big youth conference for our denomination. For entertainment I read Christian fiction from the Christian bookstore. It wasn’t all that I read, but I did read a number of books by Frank Peretti and the like (my reading habits as a high schooler may be a topic I return to, and for those who don’t know, Peretti’s best known work This Present Darkness is a novel of spiritual warfare between angels and demons). I mostly listened to Christian music, and I wrestled with my conscience when I sometimes listened to secular music. In junior high, I had a dubbed copy of Amy Grant’s secular album Heart in Motion, but I taped over it when I became convicted that secular music was sinful. In high school I eased up on some of my conviction about secular music a little bit, but the majority of my music listening was Christian (or religiously friendly like U2).

Christian fundamentalists perceive that media is against them so they in return reject much media and have created and/or turned to their own alternate media. I was originally going to write on this interesting and worthy discussion, but my thoughts grew as I realized that Christian fundamentalists withdrew from more than just media but from the larger culture and set up their own subculture to replace it. Certainly there were elements of the subculture already in place before the Scopes trial, but the trial served as a wake-up call to fundamentalists that they had to train their believers in the true faith and that could only be done by withdrawing from the larger culture which was antagonistic to their faith.

Most important was setting up alternative education. Bryan College was founded in Dayton, Tennessee not long after the trial, and many other fundamentalist educational institutions sprang up with similar missions of upholding biblical inerrancy and a Young Earth interpretation of Genesis in the wake of the trial. The college I attended, formerly a high school, became a four-year Bible college in the 1930s, along with the wave of other institutions.

So this is the reason I find the Scopes trial so fascinating—the fact that it was a defining moment for American Christianity that led to the fundamentalist subculture that I grew up in. It was a defining battle in what later came to be defined as culture wars. Fundamentalists staked their position as being anti-evolution, and that stance led to a withdrawal in many other areas of life, from media and entertainment to education. They created an entire separate culture that paralleled the broader culture, but was antagonistic in many ways. It was and is an us vs. them mentality. These are all issues that I plan to return to in the future.

history, politics

The Scopes trial and democracy

Back to Summer for the Gods – Edward Larson’s book on the Scopes trial.  A quick recap for those just joining us (Part 1 here): The state of Tennessee passed a law banning the teaching of evolution.  John Scopes agreed to be a test case for the ACLU, who hoped to show that the law was unconstitutional.  He taught evolution in his biology class and was prosecuted for breaking the law.  William Jennings Bryan, himself a leading proponent of anti-evolutionism, offered his services to the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney, attached himself to the defense team for Scopes.

One of the key disagreements at work in the Scopes case was not science versus religion, but rather differing political philosophies.  The prosecution argued that the law banning the teaching of evolution expressed the will of the people; Scopes broke the law when he taught evolution.  Open and shut case.  Book ‘im.  The defense countered that sometimes the will of the majority tramples on the rights of the individual.  In this case, Scopes was denied the academic freedom to teach the generally accepted view of science.  In other words, let the experts teach their subject.

William Jennings Bryan embodied the majoritarian argument of the prosecution.  Majoritarianism had been his political philosophy his entire life.  He was a populist and reformer.  According to Larson, “Reform took two forms for Bryan: personal reform through individual religious faith and public reform through majoritarian governmental action” (37).  It was an interesting paradox—he combined “left wing politics with right wing religion” (97).  It’s hard to imagine such a politician today.  He rose to fame at the 1896 Democratic convention, when, as a congressmen, he bucked the party establishment and the incumbent president Grover Cleveland by trying to win the nomination.  Bryan delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech, a populist plea to ease the debt and credit burden on the farmers by switching from the gold standard to a currency backed by silver.  The speech won over the audience, and he secured the nomination.

Though Bryan did become the party’s nominee for president, he lost the election.  He ended up becoming the Democratic nominee twice more, but he never became president (again, impossible to imagine either modern political party nominating the same candidate three times for President).  After losing the nomination to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, he served as Secretary of State in Wilson’s cabinet, but resigned in protest when Wilson wanted to enter World War I.  Though out of office, he continued working towards reform.  He gave hundreds of speeches and argued for the passage of several constitutional amendments:

  • direct election of senators—previously, senators were chosen by the state legislature; by electing senators directly, voters had more say in who represented them, making this a majoritarian reform.
  • Prohibition—this amendment made the possession and sale of alcohol illegal in an attempt to reform social ills.
  • women’s vote—thus giving the right to vote to half of the population of voting age; clearly the most majoritarian reform possible at the time.

The Scopes case combined his views of majoritarianism with his personal faith.  The vast majority of Tennessee voters didn’t believe in evolution, so a law banning the teaching of evolution expressed the will of the majority.  It was his argument that the people who paid for the education of children should decide what they are taught.

Majoritarianism sounds like democracy in pure form, but it runs into an obvious problem when the will of the majority is immoral (slavery comes to mind as an easy example).  I think another obvious problem is if the majority of people are ignorant.  It’s vitally important to have an informed electorate.  It’s no surprise that there are fights about curriculum: whoever controls public education wields great power.  In my own life, I feel that my history education, much like my science education, was woefully inadequate in high school.  I want to be an informed voter.  It’s one of the reasons I have been reading a lot more American history lately.

The United States is not majoritarian (at least in most aspects, referenda and other state and local issues are sometimes put directly to the voter); rather, America is a representative democracy—we elect others to be our proxy, hoping they are experts in areas we don’t have the time or inclination to know enough about.  When we do have strong opinions, we let our representative know how we feel, either beforehand by calling or writing our members of Congress (or state legislators, or city councilors), or afterwards at the ballot box.

I’m rather torn about majoritarianism.  On the one hand, I want to affirm democracy.  I want everybody to have a voice in how they are governed.  But as oft-quoted Winston Churchill affirmed, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  The majority can get it wrong.  And that’s not to mention all the ways that democracy can be abused (stolen elections, suppressed votes, beholden politicians to money, etc.).   In this specific case of anti-evolution laws, I would side with the scientists (who I would consider the experts) over the will of the majority.  Does this make me anti-democratic?  Perhaps.  But this is why education is so important.  If one disagrees with the majority, it’s then up to the minority to educate and persuade in order to change the will of the majority.

As a side note on education, high school curriculums can have a profound effect on later views of biology.  A recent study shows that college students are more likely to accept creationism if it was taught in high school (even if it was presented along with evolution).  Another study shows that high school biology teachers are often reluctant to teach evolution.  It’s no wonder that a third of U.S. adults do not accept evolution.  But acceptance of evolution is also a matter of who we consider the experts on the matter and how we decide who the experts are.  When I was a young earth creationist, I had a group of experts I trusted, including teachers and creationist authors.  But now that I accept evolution, my group of trusted experts has shifted accordingly. /end side note

I’d love to hear what others think about majoritarianism as a political philosophy.  Feel free to bring up other issues besides the teaching of evolution that involve majoritarianism.


The Scopes trial and me, part 2 (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept Evolution)

The question of evolution is one I’ve thought about a lot, and from both sides of the issue.  I started as a William Jennings Bryan and have become, if not a Clarence Darrow, at least a member of the defense counsel for Scopes.

When I was in grade school I was convinced that I was going to disprove evolution.  How exactly I was to do that I wasn’t quite sure.  My first step involved filling a notebook with a list of dinosaur names and facts about them.  I attended a private Christian school throughout elementary, junior and senior high.  So when it came time to put together a Science Fair project, I did one on the extinction of the dinosaurs.  My report was a garbled mishmash of Flood geology, a water vapor canopy, and National Geographic articles about extinction events like asteroids or a comet.  I created a diorama in a fish tank of plastic dinosaurs on land made of green Play-doh surrounded by blue plastic wrap to signify water: Voila!  The Flood.  What this was supposed to show or prove is beyond me.  Even my teacher had doubts about my project, noting that I had not followed the scientific method.  I had no testable hypothesis.

The standard Young Earth Creationist explanation of the dinosaurs’ extinction is that dinosaurs were created on the 6th day along with the other animals.  This happened approximately 10,000 years ago, give or take (or 4,004 B.C. if one is following James Ussher’s chronology where he added up all of the genealogies in the Bible to arrive at a date for creation).  Humans and dinosaurs coexisted until the time of the Flood.  The Flood was a catastrophic event that changed everything.  Before that time there was a water canopy that surrounded the Earth.  Once the water canopy was gone, (presumably the water rained down as part of the Flood), then the climate of the Earth changed.  Pre-Flood, the Earth’s climate was temperate and mild.  Post-Flood, the climate became closer to what it is today, perhaps even allowing for some sort of ice age or two (though the work of glaciers on the landscape could just as easily be explained by the Flood).  So dinosaurs died out after the Flood presumably because of the change in climate (or maybe an extinction event like an asteroid/comet also contributed, or so I guessed).

In high school, instead of learning evolution, we learned evidence that the Earth and the universe were young, no older than 10,000 years.  The evidence included the rate of magnetic decay of the Earth and the amount of dust found on the moon (the latter of which I could not find with a quick perusal of Young Earth Creationist websites, perhaps that argument is no longer used) [edited to add: Subsequently I found on the Answers in Genesis site a long paper which concludes that the moon dust argument “should for the present not be used by creationists”].  We were told that the magnetic force would have been too strong if the Earth were older, and the moon would have had much more dust.  There was a lot more evidence.  The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 was meant to show that catastrophism could cause immense change that would make the affected area appear old.  The Flood, of course, was meant to be the prime catastrophe that caused mountains to appear or layers of sediment, and all the fossils and the Grand Canyon, etc.  Carbon dating was right out.  It didn’t show what it was meant to show, and wasn’t even accurate past a few thousand years.  Troubling aspects like visible light from distant galaxies was hand-waved away with the confidence that God could create the universe with the light already having traveled to Earth.  The universe could have the appearance of age if God so chose.  Humans, animals, and plants were all created fully formed, so it made sense that so would the universe.  Why it had to be so big was a question I never asked.

I continued my education at a private Christian college in the South.  Halfway through my first year, I picked up Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time from my roommate’s shelf.  I didn’t know much about it, except that Hawking was supposed to be a genius.  My memory of the experience is that much of the astrophysics went over my head, but that the overall grandeur of the universe, its immensity, hit home.  The evidence for a nearly 14 billion year old universe stacked up.  I faced some major cognitive dissonance.  The thought of an old universe was unsettling, but I had no intention of giving up my faith.  I remember trying to broach the subject of an old earth with some friends in the cafeteria.  I was nervous because it seemed like I might be flirting with potential heresy.  Nothing we talked about gave me an idea how to reconcile the impasse, so I ruminated on it for the next few months.

Fortunately for me, the college had invited Hugh Ross as a speaker for their annual lecture series in the Spring.  Ross is a Christian astrophysicist who interprets the days of Genesis as long periods of time (commonly referred to as the day-age theory of creation).  His interpretation does not allow for any macro-evolution of species into other species, instead relying on God to perform special creation at various stages of cosmic history.  It was a huge relief to me that there were other Christians who thought the Earth might be old, too.  I didn’t have to give up my faith or my new understanding of the universe.  I didn’t know much about science at that point, but it was clear to me that the Young Earth Creationism that I had believed considered a certain interpretation of Genesis as primary over scientific inquiry.  The only point of science was to prove what was already known from the Bible.  There was no discovery possible, only confirmation.  In theological terms, Young Earth Creationism treats special revelation (the Bible) as superior to natural revelation (the created universe).  Now that I’d had a personal encounter with science (not one mediated by the lens of creationism), I could no longer accept that.

So how could I have let go of my belief in a young earth, given my fundamentalist upbringing?  I had only attended Christian schools up to this point.  I was surrounded by people who thought very similarly to me, who believed the same things I did.  Before I heard Ross, I had never had a serious discussion about the age of the Earth where it wasn’t already assumed that it was created less than 10,000 years ago.  While it was this bubble that created my confident belief in a young earth, I think that it was also this same environment that actually let me question those assumptions.  If I had gone to a public high school or a state university, I would have felt under attack for my faith.  I undoubtedly would have stood up for my beliefs in a biology class, and held onto them all the tighter because they were part of my identity.  Because my belief about the age of the earth was safe in my Christian school environment, I could question it.

A few years later while in graduate school I read Del Ratzsch’s The Battle of Beginnings and  Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, two books that attempt to reconcile Christianity with evolution.  I found both of them very interesting and compelling, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to agree that God used evolution.  But I was now willing to say it was possible.  In the years since then, there wasn’t a single dramatic moment when I decided that I could accept evolution as an explanation for the diversity of species, but it gradually happened.  I suppose a change like this takes a lot of time.

I’ve only had a handful of conversations with family and friends about evolution since I became evolution-friendly, but the situation always makes me feel like the outsider, the stranger, the black sheep.  I’m no longer on the creationist team.  It’s the Bizarro-version of the creationist standing up to the evolutionist teacher and defending the faith: Now I’m the one standing up for evolution (or not saying anything). It’s pretty strange.

Evolution is a topic I’d like to return to again as I read (and reread) more.  I’d like to explore the theological implications of evolution: what does it mean for creation and humanity. But I’d also like to look at the science of it, too, as a layperson who doesn’t know much about science.