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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dispatch From Chautauqua

FROM BARBARA KING: My second day at Chautauqua was both exhausting and exhilarating. Edward Larson kicked things off with a talk about the history of teaching evolution in the United States, "from Dayton to Dover."
Larson identified three more-or-less chronologically-ordered phases, in terms of which was the dominant strategy: attempts to remove evolution from the classroom altogether; programs designed to balance instruction so that both evolution and creationism are represented; and the "evolution is just a theory" movement, where intelligent-design advocates and others insist that evolutionary theory is debatable and needs evaluation against alternatives.
Particularly intriguing to me was Larson's explanation of a seismic shift that came in 1961 (the second phase). Until then, even the most prominent figures who challenged the teaching of human evolution in public schools—like William Jennings Bryan of the famed 1925 Scopes Trail in Dayton, Tennessee—did not embrace biblical literalism. Only when Virgina Tech engineering professor Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood in 1961 did "a scientific-sounding" reply to evolution become available. Here was a turning point, with Morris a "Moses leading the faithful into a promised land where science proves religion," said Larson—except, as Larson was quick to explain, the science was so drastically flawed as not to be science at all. The Earth is not 6,000 years old, and dinosaurs and early humans had not co-existed, as Morris claimed.
Yet, I learned, the Morris text is now in its 42nd printing! It's a powerhouse influence on some significant number of Americans still today. This fact reminds us that though a lot of high-profile court cases turn on questions of teaching intelligent design, an army of young-earth creationists is out there too, fighting from a biblical-literalist position against the chance for public high school students to learn genuine science.
Larson concluded his talk with these words: "If history is any guide, dark clouds remain on the horizon" for the teaching of evolution in American public high schools.
In the wake of that chilling prediction, I sought relaxation and immersion in beauty, and found it in a midday organ concert. It, together with last night's Brahms symphony by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, brought special pleasure to my visit. The science and religion of Chautauqua is infused with music.
In the afternoon, I gave a talk myself, based on my book Evolving God. As a biological anthropologist, I look for deep roots in apes and in human ancestors of what (later in human evolution) became religion. During the lecture and in the vigorous half-hour question-and-answer session that followed, I enjoyed talking with Chautauquans about empathy, compassion, and violence in great apes and humans, and about the earliest prehistoric rituals (e.g., burial ceremonies) of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that may give us clues to humans' seeking of the sacred.
An honor followed the talk: I was interviewed for a podcast by the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell. (The interview should be up on Chautauqua's Web site next week.) For decades, Campbell has been a formidable global presence in the fight against poverty and injustice. She's also, I have now discovered, a warm and purely fun person to spend time with.
Tonight's agenda is simple: ice cream! And I fly home tomorrow.