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TRIAL AND ERROR The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution by Edward J. Larson (Oxford University: $17.95; 222 pp.)

January 05, 1986|David G. Savage | Savage is a Times education writer.

The attorneys from New York had come to the small Southern city to do battle with Christian fundamentalists before a judge and the assembled media. The issue was evolution versus the biblical story of creation, and specifically, whether the state could require the teaching of one version or the other to students in its public schools.

The time was December, 1981. In one sense, little had changed since 1925 when the world had focused its attention on a similar trial in Dayton, Tenn. There, a high school teacher named John Scopes was tried--and convicted--of having taught evolution to his students in violation of state law.

But though the issue and the law were largely unchanged in the 1981 trial in Little Rock, Ark., public opinion had changed markedly. This time, it didn't take Clarence Darrow ridiculing William Jennings Bryan to win the day for the evolution side. Instead, the state attorney general in Arkansas seemed faintly embarrassed to have to defend a state law that called for "a balanced treatment" in science classes between evolution and "scientific creationism." A parade of scientists came forth to testify to the validity of evolution and to denounce creationism as religion, not science. Meanwhile, the state was hard pressed to find anyone of scientific repute to testify in behalf of the creation story. One expert for the state, British astrophysicist Chandra Wickramasinghe, said he doubted whether evolution could have occurred as widely believed, but then went on to suggest that life was seeded on Earth by comets.

Needless to say, Federal Judge William Overton struck down the Arkansas law, calling it an unconstitutional attempt to inject religion into the classroom. His opinion so thoroughly knocked down the pretense that creationism was scientific that the state decided against a further appeal.

In "Trial and Error," Edward J. Larson, an attorney and former committee counsel for the House of Representatives, presents a concise and clearly written history of the struggle between evolution and creationism. He points out that by the 1880s, the theory of evolution had become firmly entrenched in American school textbooks, less than three decades after Darwin published his "Origin of the Species."

However, after the cataclysm that was World War I, a fundamentalist movement emerged that gave new life to creationism. The 1920s saw the high point of legislative activity in behalf of creationism in the classroom. Though the famous "Monkey Trial" made a mockery of the creationism in many sectors of the nation, fundamentalist tide still ran strong in the rural South. Again in the 1970s, creationism emerged, although this time seeking only "equal time" or "balanced treatment."

Larson, whose book benefits from his even-handed treatment of both sides, nevertheless ends with an oddly even-handed conclusion. "The controversy over evolutionary teaching is as lively today as ever," he writes. "Conviction on both sides of the controversy have been too strong to permit a compromise."

His account of the history suggests otherwise. A few creationists may still see this as a lively fight and will resist any compromise. But they have been waging a losing battle against science for centuries and expressions of faith, no matter how fervent, will not change that.

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