Fundamentalist leaders in the 1920s saw profound problems: economic shifts from rural to urban, the greed of industrialists who ran factory towns and reduced men to machines, messages that taught children to reject tradition and disobey their parents' authority, the slaughters of the Great War. What was their world coming to?
Looking for causes, fundamentalists pointed to modernism, materialism, and atheism. The theory of natural selection stood as an icon for this corrupting path. Darwin implied Nietzsche. Nietzsche taught us God was dead and might made right. Atheism meant the collapse of tradition, family, and security. William Jennings Bryan concluded that if we taught children they came from animals, they would grow to believe they could act like them, too. One might not succeed against the assembly line or trench warfare but one could stop local schools from teaching evolution.
When Congressman Tom De Lay recently spoke about America's series of shooting sprees, he blamed materialism, atheism and evolution: when schools teach that children "are nothing but glorified apes who evolutionised out of some primordial soup of mud" what should we expect?
If provoked into "debates" about evolution, scientists should push past the provocation to engage the deeper issues. How do we reap the benefits of science's innovation without suffering reciprocal ills? How do we respond to shifting economic and cultural circumstances? This is not a fight of science against religion but about what these institutions symbolise.
Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Biology
University College London