LETTERS TO THE EDITORS
Creating Science Interest
To the Editors:
Edward Davis's article, "Science and Religious Fundamentalism
in the 1920s" (May-June), raises two important questions for
American scientists and nonscientists alike: How did the situation
concerning this topic in the U.S. compare with that in other
countries at this time? What are the comparative attitudes around
the world at present?
If significant numbers of our citizenry doubt the laws of
radioactivity that indicate an age for the Earth of over 4 billion
years, and hence contradict fundamentalist biblical chronology, but
support the long time scales demanded by evolution, then there is
the real danger that our nation, despite its military might, will be
regarded by more enlightened peoples and nations of the world as
being intellectually backward. This, in turn, undermines the fine
work that has been accomplished by so many in our scientific
community, and contributes to a poor educational atmosphere for our
young people, thereby further eroding the intellectual level of
society, and its future potential.
One way to improve the situation would be for NOVA to
launch one or more programs dealing with the life and
accomplishments of Henri Becquerel, Pierre and Marie Curie, Lord
Rutherford, Frederick Soddy and the many others who contributed so
much to knowledge in the area of radioactivity and radioactive
decay, and its significance for dating.
Such programs should highlight parallel efforts by those who
contributed to our knowledge of laws of sedimentation and
paleontology more generally. Explanations as to what makes the Sun
shine, and contributions by the late Hans Bethe, should also be
described. Elementary courses at the junior high and high school
level on these topics, together with suitable textbooks, should also
be developed, together with appropriate low-cost, clearly written
paperbacks for the general public.
Frank R. Tangherlini
San Diego, California
Dr. Davis responds:
First, on the issue of the Earth's age, I would contrast (in this
case) the 1920s with the 1960s and subsequent decades. Virtually all
fundamentalist leaders of the 1920s, including William Jennings
Bryan, accepted a lengthy Earth history (many millions of years; at
the time, geologists estimated approximately 100 million years for
the Earth's age), with most living things having come into existence
and then gone extinct prior to the appearance of humans. They had
various ways of understanding this religiously, in relation to the
Genesis creation stories, but nevertheless they had no quarrel with
"deep time" itself.
This changed radically in the 1960s and afterwards with the
influence of The Genesis Flood (1961) by John C. Whitcomb,
Jr., and Henry Morris—a work that has accurately been called
the "bible" of creationism. If you want to read more about
the encounter between conservative Protestants and modern science in
the period from 1859 to 1920, I recommend David Livingstone's
Darwin's Forgotten Defenders (1987) or Ronald Numbers's
The Creationists (1992), especially the former.
Bryan was, of course, opposed to evolution, as were some
conservative Protestants in England and other countries, for reasons
such as those I wrote about in the article. At the same time, other
conservative Protestants accepted evolution, as Livingstone (an
English author, incidentally) documents well.
As for today, creationism (particularly the young-Earth variety) is now
a worldwide phenomenon. Indeed, the leading American creationist website
) is operated by an Australian, Ken Ham, and one of Ham's principal
associates (Jonathan Sarfati) is also Australian. There are Islamic
creationist organizations in Turkey and other places, and Jewish
creationist organizations as well.