"Anyone seriously interested in the history of current controversies involving religion and science will find Gilbert's book invaluable…[Redeeming Culture] is an important contribution…very engaging and insightful."—Peter Causton, The Boston Book Review
"An always fascinating look at the conversation between religion and science in America."—Publishers Weekly
An excerpt from|
American Religion in an Age of Science
The energie of the universe is constant
William Jennings Bryan, Scientist
William Jennings Bryan never wrestled a lightweight. His opponents over the decades had been organized business interests, the banks, the corrupt East, the Republican Party, World War I, and German militarism. Now, at the end of his life, he faced the most clever and subtle force of all: the science of evolution. Never one to shirk a momentous encounter, he wrote, "In this fight I have the most intolerant and vindictive enemies I have ever met and I have the largest majority on my side I have ever had and I am discussing the greatest issue I have ever discussed."1
With the end of the war, Bryan had become a national voice for Fundamentalist Protestants. Shortly before his death he had been engaged as a tour leader to conduct a group of Protestant pilgrims on a trip to the Holy Land. Known widely to his supporters as a political figure of high principles and to detractors as a man of quixotic faith in lost causes, Bryan had increasingly moved, with the rural political laity he represented, from radical to conservative populism. A critical element in tempering this change was the rapid growth of Fundamentalism, based on a profound social and intellectual split in American Protestantism just before World War I. A man of many causes, Bryan articulated the anxiety of the legions he led into an aggressive religious contest with modern American society. It is wrong to dismiss Bryan or the larger causes he represented as the aftershocks of modernization. At least two of his principal ideas recurred in a new form in the late 1930s and then continued for the next three decades. They include the assumption that one test of scientific theory is its intuitive clarity, its appeal to commonly understood experience. The second is the democratic suspicion of elites. Both issues almost invariably combined and reinforced each other, particularly in popular culture.
The specific cause that most preoccupied Bryan was the crusade to exclude Darwinian science from the public schools. Meeting with considerable success in the South, Bryan helped convince the Florida legislature to pass a resolution in 1923 against teaching evolution in the schools. His handiwork showed in the antievolution law of Tennessee.2 But he was most comfortable leading intrepid legions of Fundamentalists into battle in July 1925 at Dayton, Tennessee, in the famous Scopes trial testing the validity of that state's antievolution law. Almost immediately after its conclusion he died: some said of a broken heart and the loss of a lost cause.
The traditional telling of this story is certainly the most dramatic. Bryan mustered an army of believers who, to their anguish and outrage, listened with horrified incredulity to his betrayal on the witness stand of their rock-hard, literal interpretation of Genesis. Bryan's confusion before the bar was their undoing too, and his sad defeat in death brought the decline of organized resistance to evolution. The high-flying standards of parochialism were lowered as most Americans subsequently accepted sophistication . . . and modern science.
A more recent version of this historical encounter at Dayton is less conclusive. True, the Scopes trial was a journalistic disaster for Fundamentalism and a triumph for lawyer Clarence Darrow of the defense and the Baltimore pundit H. L. Mencken. But the cultural meaning was less certainly clear. Fundamentalists continued to press, successfully in some cases, for the passage and enforcement of antievolution laws. To a degree they went underground or, better, stepped out of the public spotlight. They continued to construct arguments and assemble constituencies against Darwinian science, and they successfully discouraged the teaching of evolution science in the public schools for two generations. When they resurfaced in the 1960s and 1970s as a powerful force in education and politics, they surprised only the inattentive.3
Yet there is another story still to be told with William Jennings Bryan as its leading player. Not only does this demand a reassessment of Bryan's role and intentions, it requires a reexamination of the meaning of science and religion in American culture—of how these words were used and what aspects of culture they designated. Bryan's actions and writings at the penultimate moment before the trial suggest that his greatest mistake was to take for granted an unchanging and unchallenged compromise between science and religion established in the nineteenth century. He wrongly assumed that the heart of American culture was whole. Instead he revealed a fault line between popular and professional science, ready to break open during times of stress in American culture in the 1920s and again in the postwar period.4
On 30 December 1924, William Jennings Bryan paid his five dollars to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This old, distinguished organization of scientists was the bedrock of respectability, and Bryan's act proclaimed his assumptions about the relation of amateurs and professionals. In effect, he affirmed the reputation of the organization as hospitable to independent membership by men merely interested in science or peripherally associated with research. The AAAS was an umbrella organization of the American science establishment and devoted much of its energy to popularizing modern scientific theories, yet it remained open to men like Bryan.5
Bryan designated Section D (Astronomy) as his chosen area of specialty. Earlier, he had sent in his application but neglected to sign the check. Now he "returned it with the season's greetings." As he told the amused men of the press, he was "only one of several thousand members who harbors doubts on the subject of evolution."6 The announcement of this surprising affiliation interrupted the annual meeting of the AAAS in Washington, D.C. A highly publicized feature of the gathering was a thorough and critical scientific refutation of Bryan's position on evolution theory presented by Edward L. Rice, a biologist from Ohio Wesleyan University. As Science magazine reported shortly afterward, Rice's address had been a model of temperance and toleration, calling for the judicious consideration of all theories. Rice hoped that mutual respect between science and religion would enrich both, provided Bryan and his followers and some strident proponents of Darwinism would lower their shrill voices.7
Rice's quiet accounting of Bryan's scientific errors was devastating. One could only conclude that the "Great Commoner" did not understand scientific method or Darwin's writings. His position against evolution theory came from outside the normal standards of scientific debate. Bryan's charges constituted a crude lawyer's brief, a scattered shower of rhetoric that rained indiscriminate accusations on a theory that was in fact measured and reasonable, the very model of a careful analysis. Perhaps because of Rice's judicious warning, the AAAS was enough impressed with the threat that Bryan represented to organize a committee to promote the teaching of science and evolution in the public schools.8
But the larger question is, Why did Bryan join the AAAS in 1924? What was his motivation in pledging membership to the largest and most reputable scientific organization in the United States and one known, incidentally, for its vocal support of evolution theory? Quite clearly the answer has nothing to do with a run-up to the Scopes trial. The Tennessee antievolution law that created the case did not pass until the spring of 1925, well after he secured his membership. Neither the American Civil Liberties Union nor John Scopes had yet imagined initiating a test case for Darwinism. The explanation lies instead in taking seriously Bryan's assumption that he was, on his own terms at least, a scientist. Doing so reveals the sort of science to which he committed his soul and how, perhaps, millions of other Americans understood science.9
In the early 1920s Bryan pressed his case against modernism in religion and science with the steady nerves and energy of a convert, addressing meetings of antievolutionists, speaking from the pulpit, lobbying in the halls of state legislatures, and even venturing at times into hostile universities. One of the most pointed of his testimonies came when he addressed the state legislature of West Virginia on 13 April 1923 as an expert witness on evolution theory and modern science. He repaid the attentive legislators with an extended lesson in chemistry. For his text Bryan took an interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics that appeared to nullify any possible natural evolution toward more complex life forms. Everyone knew that the world of chemistry was constructed out of ninety-two elements, he noted. No force in nature could make these elements evolve; they simply were what they were. So, he continued, water consisted of its two constituent elements, separated or combined. There was no prewater, no vestigial water, no evolution of something into water. Between its constituent elements and water itself, there were no missing links, no intermediate forms. Water was water. Hydrogen and oxygen were hydrogen and oxygen. Thus, he concluded, chemistry "mocks the atheist and brings confusion to the evolutionist." "Is it conceivable that two such gases as oxygen and hydrogen should just happen?" he asked rhetorically. The implied answer was that only God could create something as useful and perfect as water from such base elements. Furthermore, as the second law of thermodynamics seemed to demonstrate, the world left to itself would degenerate into chaos.10
His second lesson from chemistry concerned the ideas of permanence and pattern. "Chemistry has taught us the properties of matter and the way to use them, but they are all stationary," he declared. If scientists could detect any change in nature, its direction would necessarily be toward degeneration and disintegration, never evolution into higher orders. Here he rested his case: God had created a world in which species, like the elements, were stable and unchanging. The essence of true science, he concluded, was the study of "classified Knowledge" and its organization into patterns and hierarchies; all else was speculation. All truth derived from God, "whether in the book of nature or the Book of Books." Neither guesses or hypotheses (which he equated) were themselves scientific. Only descriptive classification was.11
Going through the vast inventory of God's patent office of elements, creatures, and natural phenomena, the scientist would never find anything that contradicted the Bible. He could not discover exceptions to design and pattern in any of the splendid, sublime richness of creation. Nor could he ever find anything irrational, anything that contradicted common sense, for science was a universally legible revelation of God's purposes. The book of nature could not contradict the Book of Revelation because both hewed to the same laws, logic, and principles. Anything absurd to man's mind was just as surely absurd to God. A world without an ultimate reason, based on evolution out of nothing toward something, upon change from simple to complex, from plain to brilliant and beautiful, from the inanimate to the quick, from instinctual to intelligent, all conceived without larger purpose, was impossible.
Bryan affirmed this conception of science with every breath of culture he inhaled. His understanding of science was firmly grounded in a popular view that flourished from the early nineteenth century. At that time, under the influence and challenge of the Enlightenment, American philosophers and theologians, and especially the Scottish thinkers who influenced them, developed a theory of science that enthralled the democratic, evangelical fervor of the antebellum period. Based on Sir Francis Bacon's separation of science and religion, this theory granted to each realm a place in the glorification of God. Bacon's inductive methodology in science (that observation leads to theory) provided a commonsense answer to the difficult and complex problems stirred up by modern science and philosophy. Reasonable men agreed that observation was the method for acquiring truth, and reasonable men knew that what they observed was real and tangible.12
The philosophies of the Scotsmen Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart, based on this commonsense view of religion, appealed to American Protestants who feared the radical, antireligious fringe of the Enlightenment. Forever explained by the compelling brilliance of William Paley's metaphor of the Watchmaker and the watch, the Creator and the created, this unity of science and religion inspired a generation of American scientists who emerged after the American Revolution.13 What Paley did was to refashion an old argument that had long been part of Christian eschatology into a modern demonstration of natural theology. His philosophy of creation affirmed, in Aristotelian fashion, that God created a world of separate species, each with its own essence. By this formula (elaborated brilliantly by Saint Thomas Aquinas among others), human essence was of the utmost importance and difference, defined as it was by spirit, soul, and reason. Paley translated such notions into mechanical metaphors, uniting technology and theory into a persuasive and easily understood metaphor that was readily accessible to nineteenth-century thinkers.14
By Bryan's day the assumptions and language of this unity bore little direct resemblance to contemporary European or American scientific theories or philosophic systems such as pragmatism. But it persisted generally, even if its visible roots had long since disappeared. Commonsense science had dissolved into American culture until it had become simply common sense.15
Although he repeated these ideas as his own, Bryan's reasoning was contained within the essential outlines of the philosophy. The highest pillar of truth, he wrote, was the agreement of science and religion on one essential proposition: mankind was the center and purpose of the universe. Science and religion were just complementary methods of understanding God's design. A corollary that followed described science as democratic in character and meaning. Just as every person could read and understand the Bible, so each could understand and appreciate the workings of nature. To suppose otherwise would undermine the democratic nature of Protestant culture and invite in a priesthood of interpreters of science and maybe even religion. True science would naturally affirm true religion. The common man understood this unity that American society was based on. To deny it would undermine American democracy itself.
Of course Bryan was not alone in defending the democratic foundations and purposes of science, although he gave a special twist to these notions. Certainly in its public countenance, at least, mainstream science equally proclaimed its democratic and social service aims. From the mid-nineteenth century, this justification grew in importance as science began to professionalize and enter the university. Its links with social reform in the Progressive Era and its ties to pragmatism are well-known examples of this orientation. The question was not whether or not democracy, but the definition of science in its social setting. Because Bryan used the same language of the democratic persuasion as did mainstream science, his arguments were both powerful and insidious, even as his populist politics clashed with the growing elitism of the science establishment. Both he and they appeared to be speaking the same language when in fact they were not.16
To Bryan there were deniers and false prophets. Using a deceptive science like evolution, scientists plunged toward their final destructive conclusions. World War I, with its merciless killing, its death by technology, illustrated perfectly such inevitable destinations: the absolute dangers of unbounded intelligence in the service of evil. In this appalling instance, intellect alone guided nations, and "learning without heart" pushed civilization toward the barbaric suicide of universal war. In this instance Bryan was voicing his dismay that Darwinism had been used to justify the German war machine, that the "survival of the fittest" had translated into "might makes right."17 To oppose this philosophy meant to dam up its sources in the hypothesis of evolution. Even in present-day America, Bryan warned, false science threatened the republic. Some five thousand strong, the scientific establishment planned to "set up a Soviet government in education, and, although public employees, demand the right to teach as true, unsupported guesses that undermine the religious faith of Christian taxpayers."
With this argument Bryan raised his last challenge to modernist science. The taxpayers, to use the crassest formulation of the argument, had the democratic right to determine what was taught in their schools. If information contradicted the knowledge of the Bible and the custom of their culture, it was clearly the right and duty of citizens to reject it as false. Bryan did not demand a specifically Christian education, he cautioned, only the exclusion of any non-Christian science, or the teaching of notions that would shake the Christian pillars of society.18
Using these tools, Bryan placed the keystone to his considerable edifice of anti-Darwinism. He revealed the nature of his definition of science. As a citizen in a democracy, he felt qualified and compelled to judge and guide the direction of social change. As an informed voter he had learned enough about both modern science and religion to adjudicate their conflicting claims in society. The preservation of democracy demanded that he oppose the establishment of any elite: corporations, banks, corrupt politicians, and now scientists, who would impose their esoteric reasons and secret purposes on the world. He could not accept the word of an expert over his own conscience if it contradicted common sense or shared culture. To do so invited reproducing the German experiment of World War I, a system of militarized ruthlessness. Better to recognize the limits and boundaries of knowledge; better to consult the books of God and nature in their splendid, literal concordances than worry about inconsistencies.19
Nor was Bryan the only critic of modern science and its opaque theorizing. During the controversy over Albert Einstein's theory of relativity that smoldered after World War I, lasting until 1924 or so, charges of elitism and obscurity were common. A few eminent scientists such as the astronomer Robert Millikan sought to integrate older scientific notions of a mechanistic, Newtonian world with modern theory, all the while holding firm to their belief in Christianity. Millikan's assembly of religion and science was published in 1927 as Evolution in Science and Religion.20
But Bryan gave no indication he was aware of this complex discussion of modern theory. Perhaps he joined the AAAS as a public gesture, designed to advertise his position or maybe as a defiant declaration of principle: from a saint in a laboratory coat. There is nothing inconsistent about either reason when seen within his peripatetic crusade against Darwinism. Responsible citizenship insisted that he apply his rich, beautiful voice to the rising chorus of democratic prophecy against apostate science. Common sense, derived from common culture and experience, made him, as much as anyone else, an interpreter of popular science. Recording his membership in the greatest scientific organization of his day was an act of informed patriotism.
In the moments before the Scopes trial in July 1925, Bryan clearly anticipated the gravity of the confrontation and the considerable stake he had in its outcome. He continued to remark upon the undemocratic underpinnings of the science establishment and to excoriate elitism and exclusivity. Even if all 11,000 members of the AAAS were counted, that still constituted "a pretty little oligarchy to put in control of the education of all the children."21 But clouds of uncertainty were building. Asked by the Christian Fundamentalist Association to aid the local prosecution of Scopes, Bryan labored to shore up his arguments, to call on a counterscience implied in Fundamentalist religion. On one occasion he appeared to borrow a tactic from the scientists themselves. Referring to the AAAS committee on science education, he proposed his own "Board of Advisors" to inform the country "that our side was prepared to hold its own against their committee of scientists." Our experts will match your experts! There was also talk of opening a Fundamentalist university to teach the proper relation of science and religion (founded in 1925 in the soon to be hallowed town of Dayton).22 To muster support, Bryan wrote to several notable opponents of evolution to persuade them to testify at the trial. There he encountered unexpected difficulties. Although an enthusiastic enlistee in the larger cause, geologist and well-known critic of Darwin George McCready Price, author of The New Geology, declined to travel to Dayton. Another prominent antievolutionist, James M. Gray, president of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, also regretfully refused an invitation to testify. But he declared his allegiance to Bryan's cause and affirmed his willingness to serve on the advisory committee should it be formed. He also sought to bolster Bryan's understanding of the issue, sending him a copy of his pamphlet "Why a Christian Cannot Be an Evolutionist."23
Bryan responded by sending Gray his own pamphlet, "Indictment against Evolution," and asking advice on how to square the two different accounts of creation in Genesis. Gray's reply was politely instructive but cool. He first denied that there were two accounts of creation. The initial "account" described the creation; the second developed the "story of the things which follow their creation." As for Bryan's pamphlet, it was "weak and inadequate" because it only skirted the central issues of evolution and did not engage them. These, Gray informed his new pupil, revolved around the absence in evolutionary theory of a "personal Creator, Director and upholder of the universe."24
It is possible that Bryan suspected the inadequacies of his acquaintance with science and theology, as this correspondence might have suggested to him. There had been other early warnings. Several times in 1924 Bryan's literary agent had warned him that his column "Bible Talks" was supercharged with theological controversy and therefore hurting sales to newspapers.25 Still, the trial began with a major victory when the judge excluded expert witness for the defense. That had been Bryan's point all along: that the issue of Darwinism could not be settled by scientific elites. Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow (who fancied himself something of a scientist) would not be allowed to shift the trial to an elevated and complex discussion of science and so had to send his experts back to their university laboratories. So when Bryan agreed to testify and submit to cross-examination, he did it as an informed citizen, speaking to other citizens about their common culture of science and religion. Whatever his foreboding about his own lack of specific knowledge, he proceeded incautiously in the cause of democracy. That of course was his error, for Darrow had every intention of demonstrating Bryan's inadequate knowledge of the Bible. Prepared to attack the Darwinian hypothesis as bad science, Bryan was suckered into defending the literalness of the Bible—something he had serious private doubts about.
During this devastating cross-examination, in which the "Great Commoner" revealed what James Gray surmised, Bryan became befuddled. After bungling his defense, contradicting himself, and worse, offending many attending Fundamentalists, Bryan penned a revealing, heartfelt but feeble self-defense. In this document Bryan opened his wounds to the world and then, in what must be seen as a defiant act of self-medication, stitched up his self-esteem again. In his short public relations release titled "Mr. Darrow's Charge of Ignorance," he shunned his tentative role as a scientist and theologian to justify himself with the only expertise that remained to him. He was not "ignorant" as Darrow charged, even if the niceties of scientific theory and biblical exegesis eluded him. He was an expert in democracy, a citizen representing the considered opinions of other citizens. Admittedly, his reading of science had only been general; he was not a close student of geology, paleontology, or philology. "My life has been spent in the study and discussion of economic, social and governmental problems," and he had tested this learning before the general population, not among scientific elites. As if to regain his bearings, he recounted a short biography of his humble origins and mustered a roll call of his famous acquaintances and accomplishments. Writing more vigorously and now restored in dignity and self-confidence, he puffed: "In a trip around the world, I was given audience by a number of kings, emperors, and prominent public men, and have been cordially received by presidents of Latin America and high officials throughout both the eastern and western hemispheres." Now he returned, finally, to assault evolutionary science again. But gone were the learned references to chemistry, to the inadequacies of scientific theory, to missing links, to questions of order and classified knowledge. Stripped of rhetorical confusion and emotionally lean, his reason was elemental. Acceptance of evolution, he wrote, "changes the philosophy of life and tends to chill spiritual enthusiasm."26 Evolutionary science threatened the system of beliefs around which Bryan constructed his identity. It undermined American democracy and American history as well as the traditional alliance of science and religion. It challenged the culture in which Bryan lived and whose beliefs he articulated. It threatened his very being, as Christian, as citizen, as scientist, as American. He was the object lesson of its pernicious progress.