- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

By Larry A. Witham
Oxford, $30, 330 pages

What a novel notion for journalism: The reporter tries to help his readers understand. Yes, understand; not just get them indignant or steamed up. He seeks out the major players who can shed light. He sits down with these at various times and places, interviews them, listens attentively, digests their various reflections and contentions. And it gets more novel yet he treats the matter at hand with intelligence and impartiality.
Larry A. Witham's mold-breaking exercise in recounting the apparently permanent controversy over evolution may or may not find imitators among the numerous journalistic specialists in expose and angst. Yet the contribution he makes to public understanding of a complex and divisive topic is considerable. Nowhere in this volume will the reader hear the whirring noise of authorial axes being ground.
In "Where Darwin Meets the Bible," Mr. Witham, longtime religion and culture reporter for The Washington Times, is all respectful ears and eyes as he gathers accounts of what Americans think about evolution, and what they do with what they think. It would not be too much to say that he has written an invaluable and, in its own way, fearless, textbook to which resort may be made by all who want to know just what this controversy is about, and why, after a century and a half, it still won't go away.
The latter question actually isn't so difficult. One's views, howsoever formed and expressed, on the origins of life arise generally from one's views of God and His workings in the world. So it was conspicuously at that legendary Jazz Age occasion, and Battle of the Titans, known as the Scopes Trial. William Jennings Bryan clashed with Clarence Darrow over a rearguard action of the Tennessee legislature, which, in barring Charles Darwin from the schoolhouse door, saw itself as battling for the dignity and authority of the Lord God Jehovah. The trial, as Mr. Witham demonstrates, never goes away. Both sides in the evolution controversy still invoke it as a touchstone intellectual freedom vs. veneration for the reputed creator of the Universe.
The trial itself, in 1925, resolved nothing. No courtroom proceeding could possibly do so. The hand of the Creator is no more to be proved according to the rules of evidence than is the moral worth of unborn life, as per the persistent controversy over abortion.
Come to think of it, the record of controversy reveals science as falling short of establishing on laboratory grounds its positions on evolution. People believe as culture and faith, or lack of the latter, have prepared and equipped them to believe. Mr. Witham's opening question in the book "Will it never end?" hangs tantalizingly when the book is closed. No, evidently it won't end, all the more reason, possibly, for the curious to walk with Mr. Witham along the battle front, seeing what is to be seen. There is much.
It was, of course, Charles Darwin who more or less kicked off the controversy in 1859 with "On the Origin of Species." The gap between Darwin and the religious has never been so wide as is often portrayed in folklore. The Genesis account of Creation, being among other things highly unspecific about ways and means, binds relatively few Christians: fewer anyway than was the case in 1925, when the question was often posed: Are we descended from apes?
The Roman Catholic Church has always seemed generally unperturbed at the entry of science into the investigation of how life began. The church sees the author of everything as the author of human inquiries as well. More Biblically centered Protestants constitute the chief opposition to Darwinism, though the question long ago ceased to be one of the apes vs. us.
The opposition now includes those with strong scientific credentials: as if to say, look, what do you mean, science trumps God? Not the science we know. The school of thought known as "intelligent design" is stunningly knowledgeable about the complexity of life. It reasons: All this could not have, and did not, just happen. Intelligent design doesn't explain the mechanics of creation, but it undermines flat Darwinian claims to scientific omniscience. Darwinians acknowledge the power of the assault. If, as Mr. Witham puts it, biological materialism is not in crisis, "the power of Darwinian evolution mutation and natural selection to explain all things seems to be."
Mr. Witham, over the past half dozen years or so, has spoken with just about all the key players in the controversy. He lets them, in return, speak for themselves, never getting in the way, never twisting their words to point the reader in some pre-determined direction. The topic is, needless to say, mind-boggling, which may be one reason many Americans (save when the propaganda drums thump wildly) pay it marginal attention at best. The more attention you pay, the more confused you may well get. It was all so much easier in the days of George Herbert, the 17th century Anglican poet, who found himself able to write with easy confidence, "When God at first made man,/Having a glass of blessings standing by…''! Not "if God" "when God."
Certainty clarifies. All we know, with toes barely over the threshold of the 21st century, is that, regarding creation and its mechanics, the old-fashioned kind of certainty lies beyond human grasp. Not so an intelligent grip on the complexities of the matter. Those thirsty for knowledge about the controversy that in some sense underlies all other controversies owe it to themselves to grab and digest this admirable book.

William Murchison is Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University.

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