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Monday, August 25, 2008

Edward Larson at Chautauqua

Edward J. Larson is University Professor and Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University. He has a law degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Larson is a prolific writer. He is the author of seven books including Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997) for which he received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. Many of us know him for his more recent books, including Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (2004) and The Creation-Evolution Debate: Historical Perspectives (2007).

Larson gave an interesting and informative talk about the evolution-creation controversy in America. His ideas about the real battle in the Scopes trial are very interesting. He claims that the main dispute was about the social implications of evolution and the conflict between science and religion has been overplayed—especially in the movie Inherit the Wind.1

I've heard this before. William Jennings Bryan was a populist who thought that social Darwinism is what led to the First World War. He was afraid that teaching evolution in the schools would encourage social Darwinism. Of course, he was also religious and feared that evolution was a threat to religion.

For many in the audience the history of the trials was new information and Larson did a good job of explaining both the scientific issues and the legal ones. He cautioned the audience that things could deteriorate rapidly with only one or two changes on the Supreme Court.

Someone from the audience asked what would have happened if the Dover case had been appealed. Larson said he was confident that the decision would have been upheld at the district court but he's not so sure about the current Supreme Court. If he had to bet, he would put his money on the decision being upheld but he's not very confident.

The one thing that troubled me about his lecture was that he always referred to the conflict between creationism and the Theory of Evolution. My students picked up on this since I was emphasizing the differences between evolution as a fact and a theory. As most of you know, creationists are as much opposed to the facts of evolution as they are to evolutionary theory. It would be better, in my opinion, to refer to the conflict as a fight between creationism and the fact of evolution. To use the phrase "Theory of Evolution" seems to be catering to creationist misconceptions.

On Thursday afternoon the schedule called for a discussion with Diane Ackerman, the author of The Zookeeper's Wife. Unfortunately, Ackerman couldn't make it so Edward Larson filled in with a fascinating (according to Ms. Sandwalk) talk about his latest book A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. Apparently religion played an important role in that election with Jefferson being accused of lacking belief.

1. The theater class took a course on the play Inherit the Wind. Apparently, the staging of the original play is remarkable. That group also discussed the differences between the real trial and the one in the play and the influence of McCarthyism. I wish I could have taken that course last week, and many others.


  1. Are you sure about Larson and Ackerman? I never heard of that, and Google offers no clue.

  2. I'm told he said this at the lecture but I'll take it off the blog until I can confirm.