Picks and Pans Review: The Creationists

updated 03/15/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Ronald L. Numbers

In Inherit the Wind, Hollywood's version of the 1925 "Monkey Trial" in which John Scopes was convicted of teaching Darwin's theories in a Tennessee public school, Frederick March thundered and glowered as a William Jennings Bryan-style character, the Bible-thumping creationist whose "old time religion" won the day against the evolutionism of Spencer Tracy's Clarence Darrow figure. In the movie, the Bryan character came across as a fire-breathing dinosaur. Compared to modern day creationists, he was a pussycat.

In this excellent history, Numbers shows that there have been several versions of creationism. Bryan subscribed to the "day-age" theory, according to which the six days in the Genesis story are not to be taken literally. Bryan conceded that the earth, and life itself, may be quite ancient. Not so Bryan's successors, for whom a is a day, period, and life is at most 10,000 years old. At the time of the Scopes trial, creationists rejected evolution because it conflicted with religious doctrine. Nowadays the tactic is to claim that evolution and creationism are both sciences and deserve equal time in the biology class. The ploy has been unsuccessful: Federal courts in Arkansas and Louisiana in led in 1982 that "scientific creationism" is just a religion in disguise and cannot be taught in public schools because of the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, creationism remains a central current in Fundamentalist theology.

Numbers, the son of a Fundamentalist minister, is a remarkably even-handed historian. His book has been praised by evolutionists and creationists alike. He gives creationism the objective scrutiny it deserves. (Knopf, $27.50)

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