December 1, 1991
The science of evolution has been the subject of fundamentalist broadsides from the moment it emerged as a powerful new way of viewing human development. But how did it come to be and what forces stood in the path of those who shared a genuine interest in unlocking the true nature of our species?
Absorbing yet eminently readable as a critical survey of the history of evolutionary theory, Interpreting Evolution presents a profoundly lucid introduction to the lives and intellectual legacies of two extraordinary minds: the great English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and the French Jesuit paleontologist/philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Anthropologist H. James Birx explores and evaluates their contrasting worldviews; in doing so, he focuses a perceptive eye on the crucial events that enabled Darwin to develop a scientific theory of organic evolution, and isolates the salient philosophical ideas that inspired Teilhard de Chardin to reconcile his mystical theology with a dynamic model of the universe.
Highlighted are the major scientific influences on the early development of Darwin’s theory of organic evolution as descent with modification, notably his five-year global expedition on the H.M.S. Beagle (especially its five-week visit to the Galapagos Islands). Darwin’s now classic work, On the Origin of Species, was greeted with a firestorm of protest and controversy when it first appeared in 1859: it challenged the very heart and soul of Old Testament teachings, namely, that humans were the special creation of a beneficent God. Nearly a century later, Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man was to be branded with official censure by the Catholic hierarchy for introducing the truth of evolution into modern theology and for the blasphemous suggestion that the human species was actually evolving, albeit toward final spiritual unity with God.
Remarkably, given the vast amount of evidence to support its scientific hypotheses, evolution has had to face one challenge after another in this century: from the notorious Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925 to the specious arguments posed by so-called special creationists. In reply to these critics, Professor Birx cogently argues that if we are to understand and appreciate the place of our own species within this dynamic universe, we must acquire a cosmic perspective as well as an evolutionary framework. Furthermore, as a powerful response to doctrinaire challenges by entrenched religious fundamentalism, he maintains that both scientific naturalism and rational humanism are supported by evidence and logic.
Interpreting Evolution cuts through mounds of verbiage that have clouded many a mind over the years to emphasize the simple yet crucial distinction between the fact of evolution in science and the interpretation of this process in serious literature. This timely work will prove invaluable not only for scholars and students but for the general reader as well.
H. James Birx received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University College at Geneseo, and his M.A. in anthropology and Ph.D. in philosophy from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has authored numerous articles and five books, including the award-winning Theories of Evolution (1984) and the critically acclaimed Human Evolution (1988). Dr. Birx is professor of anthropology and chair of the anthropology/sociology department at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.