Despite the overwhelming evidence for it, evolution generates more controversy today than it did in 1859, when Charles Darwin first dropped the bomb called The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The descendants of groups who objected then are still raging now, and on the same grounds: Evolution denies the existence of God, nullifies the Bible and handicaps man's potential. After all, how moral can we be if we're descended from monkeys? Meanwhile, scientists add their own shrapnel, from their wars over evolutionary mechanisms and pace.
The average layperson could easily dismiss the guild debates as angels-on-a-pin esoterica. So when the hoopla went public in recent years, many assumed that evolution itself was at stake. It wasn't. In his bird's-eye view of the front -- The Evolutionists: The Struggle for Darwin's Soul (W.H. Freeman, 262 pages, $22.95) -- physicist Richard Morris shows that it's not about whether evolution happened, but how.
For instance, since Darwin's steady, self-propelling process fails to accommodate catastrophes, like the meteor strikes that doomed the dinosaurs, scientists are trying to stretch his original concept to fit ecological disasters -- including the influence of humans.
We not only escalate extinction by destroying habitats, we also create new species.
As biologist Stephen Palumbi explains in The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change (W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $24.95), our reliance on pesticides and antibiotics mutated new pests that are immune to them.
"Darwin made a serious error about the speed with which evolution can happen," he says.
Pace was also the focus of Stephen Jay Gould, the brilliant paleontologist / gadfly who (with Niles Eldredge) developed the radical concept of "punctuated equilibrium" -- evolution that occurs in fits and starts, alternating between quiet and active phases. Gould, who died last year, questioned whether natural selection, Darwin's centerpiece, is universal or even (gasp) necessary, claiming that change can occur accidentally, with no adaptive purpose. As Morris writes, the resulting scientific uproar "appealed to all the people in the world who desperately want not to have to believe in Darwinism."
The idea that one must "believe in" evolution is the core of the firestorm: the perception that evolutionary theory competes with -- and therefore threatens -- religion. This notion gains credibility wherever people are unaware that science uses the word theory even for things that are proven. In popular usage, theory implies a tentative conclusion, which requires faith; and if faith is involved, evolution must be a kind of religion in itself -- and a godless one, which alarms the creationists.
Their basic tenets are explained by biologist John Moore in From Genesis to Genetics: The Case of Evolution and Creationism (University of California Press, 231 pages, $27.50). Among them: Everything in the Bible is true; God made the world in six 24-hour days, creating humans in His own image about 4000 years ago (estimated by adding up all the "begats" in the Bible); and life forms have never changed since Creation, regardless of any evidence that suggests otherwise.
Moore wonders how the Bible can be the infallible word of God when there are at least three different versions, all with translation and copyist errors. He compares two Genesis interpretations, and reports that at the landmark 1925 Scopes trial, even creationists distinguished between the St. James and King James variations.
Despite such irregularities, the publishers of the 1974 Scientific Creationism textbook intended to "re-establish special creation, on a Biblical and scientific basis, as the true foundation of knowledge and practice in every field." In The Triumph of Evolution: and the Failure of Creationism (Henry Holt, 223 pages, $14.95), paleontologist Niles Eldredge rails at the "science" tag-on as "a transparent attempt to bypass any First Amendment objections to teach patently religiously inspired material in a public school science class. No one was fooled." But the greatest danger is "pretending to young minds that we cannot tell the difference between good science and bad, between the real and the bogus," which "makes evident to most students that adults don't care much about the truth."
Gould also addressed creationist views in his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press, 1,464 pages, $39.95): "Since evolution deals with the ultimate origin of life, an inherently religious question, it is therefore a religion, and our brand deserves just as much time as theirs in science classrooms."
His tome is a tough slog, with sentences that wind around on themselves, but it's also spiced with mischief: Biblical quotes that Gould sprinkles throughout, claiming they're merely "literary," just like Shakespeare.