The Evolving Sequel to Bryan's Last Campaign

An Op-Ed Essay by Charles F. Austerberry, Ph.D.

January 19, 2005

Used by permission

Lawsuits over evolution disclaimer stickers in Cobb County, Georgia and "intelligent design" textbooks in Dover, Pennsylvania, appear to be motivated by the same fears that led to the 1925 trial of biology teacher John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee. As a Christian and a biologist, it distresses me to see fellow believers still defending religion with spurious attacks on science. On the other hand, I also admire much about the Scopes trialís most notable prosecuting attorney, William Jennings Bryan, who died in Dayton just five days after the trial was over. I think we can learn from both his wisdom and his error.

Bryan moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1887 as a young lawyer. At age 30 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908. University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor Doug Linder writes of Bryan: "Although his dream of the presidency was never realized, Bryan succeeded in transforming the Democratic Party from a conservative party of Civil War losers to a coalition more focused on the interests of blue-collar workers, farmers, and religious and ethnic minorities." Bryan was also a champion of womenís suffrage, campaign finance reform, and consumer protection. Why did the progressive "Great Commoner" make his final and most passionate campaign an attack on the teaching of evolution?

Bryan witnessed "Social Darwinism" being used to justify exploitation of the poor and weak, in America and abroad, through unregulated capitalism, militarism, imperialism, and racism. He concluded that only morality rooted in the Bible could counter the "might makes right" philosophy he thought must be inherent in evolution. He felt that if manís special creation by God is lost, so too is manís special relationship with God. Many anti-evolutionists today share Bryan's belief that evolution undermines morality. Tom DeRosa of the Creation Studies Institute writes: "We understand that evolution is dangerous. It reduces the value of human life. It makes way for evils such as abortion, homosexual marriage, and racism."

Plenty of theists consider their traditional religion and morality compatible with evolution, including human evolution. But anti-evolutionists reject theistic evolution as making God's activity in the world too distant or subtle to have moral force. Bryan wrote in "God and Evolution": "The theistic evolutionist puts God so far away that He ceases to be a present influence." Similar objections are heard today. Creationist Bert Thompson predicts in Evolution as a Threat to the Christian Home: "Those who try to effect a compromise through theistic evolution . . . will watch the Bibleís authority come to mean less and less as the days pass. Children, convinced they are no more than ëglorified apes,í will turn to hedonism and utilitarianism by the untold thousands."

I believe such fears are misdirected. Attempts to justify selfishness as "natural" started long before Darwin. Examples include slavery, and also the subjugation of women. Evolution is just one more theory hijacked for fallacious misuse. At its best, religion can help prevent these abuses of both science and humanity.

Theistic evolutionists (myself included) believe that being made "in the image of God" through evolution still entails moral responsibility. Albert Einstein was right in saying that "science without religion is lame." Equally important was the rest of his warning: "religion without science is blind." We theistic evolutionists believe that evolution disclaimer stickers have no place in biology textbooks. We expect historians to seek explanations for human history in human terms, without allusions to supernatural "Intelligent Nation Builders." Similarly, shouldn't we expect scientists to seek explanations for the natural world in natural terms, without substituting "Intelligent Designer" for "we're stumped"?

Modern evolutionary theory is stronger than in Darwin's day, or in Bryan's day. For example, recent genetic data have confirmed Darwin's conclusion that humans and other primates share some of the same now-extinct ancestors, but the data have also disproved the racial assumptions of "Social Darwinism." Evolution is a healthy, productive scientific theory, and students should learn this.

Students should also know and appreciate Bryan's determined defense of human equality and dignity. Bryan's religion blinded him to the scientific truth of evolution, but it enabled him to reject cruel - and now known to be unfounded - applications of human evolution widely promoted under the mantle of science. The deeper wisdom motivating today's anti-evolutionists still deserves respect too, even if their understanding of science does not.

Bryanís desire that biology class not become a crusade for atheism can be achieved, without making it a crusade for theism and without confusing students about evolution. If disclaimer statements are needed, rather than singling out evolution they could simply remind students of two basic points applicable to all scientific theories:1. Until scientific problems are actually solved in practice, itís unknown whether they are solvable through natural science. New evidence and ideas may or may not become available in the future.

2. Both successful scientific theories and unsolved scientific problems are compatible with diverse philosophical and religious perspectives. The results of scientific investigations do not establish any particular philosophy or religion.

Dr. Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who has directed the Human Genome Project in the United States, lamented: "We seem to be engaged in contentious, destructive, and wholly unnecessary debate about evolution and creation. From my perspective as a scientist working on the genome, the evidence in favor of evolution is overwhelming . . . Outside of a time machine, Darwin could hardly have imagined a more powerful data set than comparative genomics to confirm his theory."

If William Jennings Bryan had lived today, perhaps he would have come to accept evolution. In any case, we can do so without abandoning religious faith. As Collins eloquently puts it:

"I think scientist-believers are the most fortunate. We

have the opportunity to explore the natural world at a time in history where mysteries are being revealed almost on a daily basis. We have the opportunity to perceive the unraveling of those mysteries in a special perspective that is an uncovering of Godís grandeur. This is a particularly wonderful form of worship."


Doug Linder, "William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)" web page,, accessed January 14, 2005.


"Was Darwin Wrong? (Yes)," Creation Studies Institute News, December 2004. Coral Ridge Ministries web page,, accessed January 14, 2005.


William Jennings Bryan, "God and Evolution," New York Times, February 26, 1922. Available on-line as html at, and as PDF at


Bert Thompson, "Evolution as a Threat to the Christian Home," November 16, 2004. Apologetics Press web page,, accessed January 15, 2005.


Albert Einstein, "Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium," 1941. The Quotations Page web page,, accessed January 16, 2005.


Francis Collins, "Faith and the Human Genome," lecture delivered August 4, 2002. Transcript published in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 55, Number 3, September 2003. Available on-line at


Francis Collins, Ibid.