I happened to be reading the transcript of the 1925 Scopes (“Monkey”) trial the other evening, then woke up to front page pictures of Ardi, who was described “a 4.4 million-year-old human forbear.” Scopes and Ardi prompted a swirl of competing thoughts and emotions, but two thoughts stood out.
The first is that a trial is the worst possible place to debate these issues. In a trial, the parties try to concede as little as possible, rather than acknowledging the strengths as well as weaknesses of the opposing position. Attacks on evolution tend to attack particular elements of evolutionary theory—pointing out limitations in the fossil record, for instance—and treat this as disproof of the theory as a whole. Evolutionists tend to point to difficult Biblical texts or bloodshed in the name of religion—and treat this as conclusive evidence that Christianity is not true. Linking a handful of problematic details and inviting a jury to draw a sweeping conclusion is a classic rhetorical strategy in trials.
Second is the issue of humility. In the Scopes trial, Darrow repeatedly referred to religious critics of evolution as “bigots and ignoramuses,” and was cheered on by the East Coast press. He wasn’t treated much better by William Jennings Bryan and the defenders of the anti-evolution law. This absence of humility has characterized the subsequent debate as well, and is reinforced by its judicial, point-counterpoint quality. (Think of a few of the best known books: Darwin on Trial; God is Not Great). Greater humility might mean more acknowledgment of the limitations of evolutionary theory by evolutionists, and more willingness by Christian critics to marvel at the mysteries reflected in the decoding of genome or the discovery of fossils like Ardi.
The stories about Ardi noted that her discoverer, Tim White, waited many years before finally going public, painstakingly piecing together a large number of fossils even as fellow scientists pushed him to announce his discoveries. I don’t know anything about Dr. White or his reasons, but I like to think he wasn’t interested in firing salvos into the science vs. religion debate as soon as he could. Instead, he wanted to be as careful as possible, and to pursue the best understanding of the significance of what he and his team had found, without paying attention to the battles playing out on the best seller lists.