How would the creationism-evolution controversy have been different if World War I had never happened? That’s the premise for a series of intriguing short articles posted at the website of the National Center for Science Education.
The NCSE—inspired by the centennial of the outbreak of World War I in 1914—has
invited several guest scholars to ponder this question of alternate history. George E. Webb, Professor of History at Tennessee Tech University and the author of The Evolution Controversy in America, looks at the life of William Jennings Bryan, who, by the time of the Scopes Trial in 1925, had become the public face of the anti-evolution movement:
Bryan was greatly influenced by the revelation that many German officials had embraced “Darwinism” (as Bryan perceived it) as the foundation for the militarism that had led to the Great War. He had read Vernon L. Kellogg’s Headquarters Nights and Benjamin Kidd’s The Science of Power, but had apparently missed the authors’ observations that these German leaders had misinterpreted Darwin’s work and had strangely merged “Darwinism” with the ideas of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Bryan soon began writing essays and giving speeches with such titles as “The Menace of Darwinism” which caught the public’s attention and identified him as the leader of the crusade.
Webb also argues that, prior to Bryan’s activism, evolution was not a major concern among the Evangelical/Fundamentalist community in the United States. They were much more focused on issues such as missionary activity, evangelism and historical criticism of the Bible, which was perceived as an attack on traditional religion.
However, Webb argues:
Because German militarism and its supposed connection with Darwinism remained central in Bryan’s arguments until his death shortly after the Scopes trial, World War I clearly was necessary for this crucial component of the anti-evolution crusade… More likely, absent the war, Fundamentalists would have remained only marginally interested in the place of Darwinism in public education, preferring instead to continue their focus on issues more directly related to their theological perspectives.