Book Review: The Late Great Ape Debate

The subjects of evolution and creation are explosive ones, not only because of their scientific implications, but for their social and political ones as well.  That’s been the case since Darwin first set forth the theory.   It is certainly true today; for all of their protestations about the desire to be “scientific,” implementing whatever can be extracted philosophically from evolution or creation overshadows the impact each has on the course of science.

For Christians, evolution has been a difficult subject from the start, because it challenges (depending upon your hermeneutics) the Christian view of man.  That’s a large reason why Christian organisations have been in the forefront of allowing the presentation of “creationisms” in the public schools, the aversion of the legal system notwithstanding.  And understanding creationism in the plural is justified: contrary to its opponents’ representations, creationism is not univocal in many ways.

That diversity of opinion is in many ways the raison d’être of The Late Great Ape Debate, Bayard Taylor’s foray into the evolution-creation debate from a Christian perspective.  He begins by taking the reader through two seminal events in the debate: the 2007 opening of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the 1925 Scopes Trial in neighbouring Tennessee.  His treatment of the latter–which he picks up again later in the book–is that it a) was a set-up publicity stunt by the ACLU and their evolutionist friends, b) its coverage was larded (especially by H.L. Mencken) with the same high-handed, elitist snob contempt for William Jennings Bryan and the citizens of Dayton that we see today against “flyover country” inhabitants in the U.S., and c) the dramatisation Inherit the Wind is a propaganda piece which played fast and loose with the facts of the case.

From here he lays out the core of what he believes the Christian can and cannot believe about the subject.  That core is surprisingly broad, a theme he carries throughout the book.  From here he delineates the five lines of thought on the subject that are out there: young earth creationism, old earth creationism, intelligent design, theistic evolution and naturalistic evolution.  He carries through his subsequent description of each of these in a laid-back fashion, using different types of apes and monkeys as monikers for each.  In doing so he shows the strengths and weaknesses of each, how they relate to the Scriptures and science and how they relate to each other.  Using a combination of charts and anecdotes, his presentation of the whole scene is one of the best and most succinct that I have seen anywhere.

In putting his own wrap on the subject, he makes two significant conclusions.  First, he finds that those who a) profess and call themselves Christians and b) who adhere to pure naturalistic evolution are “surrender monkeys,” and his poster child for that is none other than Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, a bête noire of this blog for many years.  His trashing of Spong is, for one of those who follows the Anglican-Episcopal world, one of the high points of the book.

The second is that he himself tends to gravitate towards intelligent design.  In doing so, he points out that ID, far from being the monolithic cause its opponents caricature it as, is a fluid, open world with many different points of view.  That made me rethink where I was at in this debate.  One thing that Taylor’s book underscores is that the debate is constantly changing in response to the morphing scientific, political and legal environment that we find ourselves in.

He ends the book with a brief but trenchant section on how he thinks it best for Christian parents to introduce their children to the subject, and how Christians in general need to concentrate on what is essential and not get sidetracked in that which is not.

The Late Great Ape Debate is, IMHO, one of the best treatments of the subject I have seen, especially for the general reader, and it will be some time before it is bettered.

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