Charles Darwin and COVID-19 are not normally linked. A search on these terms has more hits on the city in Australia than anything else. Yet as the battle between science and religion once again erupts in America, it is worth remembering that it has a long history in the United States.
We are now beginning the bicentennial of the “Diluvial Decade.” The 1820s earned this name because of the search for geological evidence of Noah’s Flood. The impetus was events in England where people began to notice fossils in sedimentary rocks. Their observations led them to conclude that the process of creating these layers was longer than allowed under the 4004 BC date calculated by Bishop Ussher in 1650 as date of the creation based on the biblical texts. The decade was on the cusp of the emergence of geology as a full-blown science in its own right. Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology; being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation would be published in 1830-1833. Eventually there would be a new “ology” in colleges as knowledge fractured into the silos that define the modern university with diverse specialties and expertise.
Back in the 1820s the lines were more blurred. Art, religion, and science overlapped. Thomas Cole, originator of the Hudson River school paid attention to the developments in the scientific area as he painted his landscapes; he also painted biblical scenes especially from the early chapters of Genesis involving the creation and the Flood. Ministers, too, not only were aware of the scientific knowledge but were active participants in the advancing of such knowledge. Geology was a tool to help understand the age of the earth and the impact of the Flood. College-educated ministers therefore studied both theology and geology as part of their training.
These issues were fought over in biblical studies. In the mid-19th century, Genesis commentaries contained detailed small-print introductory sections on geology since the Ussher chronology had been incorporated into the Authorized Version of the Bible (the King James Version). Extensive discussion ensued involving the validity and meaning of geological data for understanding the first stories of Genesis. When archaeology developed a few decades later starting in the 1840s but not picking up steam until later, the battlegrounds were enlarged with the presence of another new “ology,” Assyriology.
Niagara Falls was part of the debate. Explorers brought their sense of awe to first seeing the magnificence of this work of the Almighty. Artists later traveled to the upstate “Outer Mongolia” site to capture that awe in paint. With the completion of the Erie Canal, Niagara Falls became more accessible. It began to become a tourist site as it continues to be this very day.
But the accessibility of the Falls also brought scientists, people who approached the phenomenon from a slightly different perspective. The Falls are more than simply water falling over a cliff. They are part of a long chasm. How long did it take to create that chasm? How fast is the land eroding today? If it is eroding, that is, retreating, at a measurable rate, can that rate be extrapolated to determine how long the process of creating the modern Niagara Falls was? How did that amount of time correlate with Bishop Ussher’s interpretation of the origin of earth? What would you do when they didn’t correlate positively? How old was the earth anyway? OMG! That old!!
One venue for the discussion was an academic journal entitled The American Journal of Science and Arts, edited by Benjamin Stillman of Yale. As title suggests, at this point science and art were included in a single journal. Imagine today if the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History instead of being opposite each other across Central Park in Manhattan were combined as a single museum surrounded by a landscaped park. Obviously times have changed as knowledge proliferated.
The geological observations made in the 1820s were correct. There was a powerful and unknown force of water of great elevation at work that created the geological strata. The erratic rocks, those giant boulders seemingly in the middle of nowhere, had been pushed there by water. The terminal murrain of gravel and debris across the Long Island was left there by water. But the water was frozen and the concept of the Ice Age had yet to be discovered. Europeans had begun to develop the idea of an Ice Age. But Louis Agassiz’s presentation of the idea in 1837 did not fare well at first. It would be almost 40 years before the mechanism would be accepted and these geological formations could be explained without recourse to Noah.
There was an equal and opposite reaction to the world science was defining. The 1840s witnessed if not the birth than the beginning of the rise to prominence of premillennialism. When would be the end of days. Still 180 years later, people are turning to the Bible to determine when the return of Jesus will occur. One could make a study of all the prophecies that have been made predicting when it would happen. Two critical points should be noted. Those predictions have always been wrong…although they only need to be right once! They rely on the exact same verses from the Book of Revelation and the Gospels. It isn’t as if any new verses have been added to the canon in lo these 180 years. Yet there seems to be no awareness that people citing the same verses that are being cited today have always been wrong.
In these calculations, one verse is always ignored:
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)
So even before Darwin, the battle between religion and science had been engaged in America. It wasn’t Copernicus so much anymore as it was geology and evolution.
The penultimate showdown occurred in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN. To be fair, it was a put up job. The town fathers thought it would be a great way to generate some tourism and business for the community. It worked but it is fictional Hillsboro that is probably better remember because of the play and movie Inherit the Wind than Dayton. This McCarthy era fable centers of the battle between science and religion perhaps even more than the actual trial did. It also addresses what we now call the culture wars with COVID-19 being the most recent battleground.
In the movie, the arrival of Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow sets the scene for the culture wars. He is greeted by a group of clean-cut practically uniformed-in-white male students of the John Scopes figure, not a real scene. Before he meets them, he is semi-accosted by a more unkempt unruly disheveled adult male who presents the alternate view. The lines are drawn.
Later the fictional father of the fictional woman the Scopes figure loves delivers a fire and brimstone sermon in the dark of night. The darkness practically engulfs him.
During the trial, Tracy expands on the images of darkness and light. His fire and brimstone sermon is an oration to the jury reflecting the two different worlds in which the opposing sides operate. Eventually the fictional girlfriend Rachel chooses the man she loves over her father just as biblical Rachel chooses Jacob over her father Laban. Just as we the audience are to choose the forces of light over the forces of darkness. I will leave it to you figure out how the story could be retold for COVID-19 crisis we are experiencing today.
There is a longstanding aversion to science in the United States. It derives from the perception that science undermines the word of God. If you had to choose which country in the world would be most likely to have an anti-vaccine movement, the answer would be the United States. If you had to choose which country in the world would be the most likely to deny the existence of climate change, the answer would be the United States. If you had to choose which country in the world would be the most likely to reject COVID-19 as a hoax, under control, and won’t affect you, the answer would be the United States. Even if we had an adult in the White House, there would be resistance to the advice of the medical professionals among many people in this country. The battle is ongoing. At this point no one knows when Fauci will be asked to retire but it probably is sooner rather than later. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Our Lord and Savior, the Chosen One, Blessed Be his Name has said so.