Review: Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC

Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC
Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC by Time-Life Books

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This entire series of books is a great general introduction to the important events, figures, places, etc. of history. I keep a copy of the series in my classroom and at home and frequently use it to teach both my students and my own children. I recommend this entire series for anyone with little historical knowledge who wants a good introduction to the subject as well as for those who desire to make children historically literate.

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Augustine, evolution, and exegesis

Following his two principles for the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, Augustine, in my judgment, succeeded in demythologizing Genesis 1 in the fourth century A.D. The literal, fundamentalist reading of that text and the acceptance of that literal reading as containing the factual truth about God’s creation of the cosmos makes an utter mockery of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim belief in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo by God.

According to Augustine’s understanding of God as a purely spiritual being having eternal (i.e., nontemporal and immutable) existence, Genesis 1 cannot be interpreted as a succession of creative acts performed by God in six temporal days. In Augustine’s view, the creation of all things was instantaneously complete. God created all things at once in their causes. The actualization of the potentialities invested in those original causes is a natural development in the whole span of time.

If Augustine were writing in the twentieth century, he would have called it an evolutionary development. The order of “six days” is not a temporal order but an order of the graduations of being, from lower to higher. In thus interpreting Genesis 1 in the light of twentieth-century knowledge of evolutionary development, Augustine would be following his own two rules for (1) holding on to the truth of Sacred Scripture without wavering, but also (2) holding on to an interpretation of it only if that accords with everything else now known.

Demythologizing Genesis 2 and 3 is more difficult. What Augustine did with Genesis 1, someone must do with Genesis 2 and 3. If they are Christians, they must interpret the story so that it preserves basic Christians beliefs: about the moral state of the human race, a state that requires a redeemer and a savior for the salvation of the soul and the resurrection of the body. The narrative in Genesis 2 and 3 must be read so that its exegesis supports the Christian belief that God, in creating man in his own image, endowed him with free will and, thereby, with the choice between obeying or disobeying God’s commandments.

The story of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve and of the serpent and Lillith, may be a myth rather than true history, but this does not alter the religious significance that must be found in it when it is properly interpreted in nonnarrative terms. That is the task of the biblical exegete when he attempts to preserve the religious doctrine while removing the mythology. Demythologizing Sacred Scripture calls for profoundly daring biblical exegesis, that dares to be true to the two precepts that Augustine himself followed in demythologizing Genesis 1.

Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion, pp. 65-66

Responses to Darwinism in the Gilded Age

Just as the Copernican Revolution several centuries earlier had displaced the earth and its inhabitants from the center of the universe, so the Darwinism of the nineteenth century unseated man from the throne he had claimed for himself. With the earth removed from the center of the universe by Copernicus and man removed from the zenith of the created order by Darwin, the old understanding of human beings and their place in the cosmos was overthrown. The task taken up by thinkers of the generation after Darwin was to understand the implications of Darwin’s theory for humanity and to formulate a cohesive philosophy capable of imbuing human life with meaning while taking the new scientific discoveries into account. In the words of historian Ruth C. Crocker, as in European thought, “American intellectual life in the Gilded Age is often viewed primarily in terms of a response to Darwinism.”1

Perhaps the most ubiquitous element of this response was a newfound impetus for the idea of progress. Westerners, particularly Americans, had made the idea of progress a central aspect of their self-understanding since the Enlightenment. In fact, Darwin himself was one of the inheritors of this idea and his theories in large part presuppose and depend upon it. In short, “the idea of evolution gets some of its moral, social, and even cosmic significance from its implication that the general motion in the world of living things, perhaps in the universe, is a progress from lower to higher forms.”2 All of the various Gilded Age responses to Darwin’s ideas, no matter how much they may differ from each other on their particulars, share in this belief in and focus upon progress. In their beliefs about what constituted progress and precisely what man and the cosmos were progressing toward, however, the various responses differed radically from one another.

European responses to Darwinism were often attempts at a synthesis with Hegelianism, another philosophy, very popular and influential throughout Europe, which placed a strong emphasis on the idea of progress. According to historian Richard Tarnas, “metaphysically inclined scientists such as Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sought to conjoin the scientific picture of evolution with philosophies similar to Hegel.”3 These philosophies tended to see the process of evolution as oriented toward a divinely-directed goal and a point of unity between God, the cosmos, and man in the future. American responses, however, as well as later European responses, tended in the opposite direction of denying the possibility of formulating any “metaphysical system claiming the existence of a universal order accessible to human awareness” and emphasizing the disunity, and even enmity, between human beings and between all creatures.

The philosophy of pragmatism, the product of the thought of American philosophers and psychologists William James and John Dewey, which “question[ed] whether there was such a thing as universal truth,” is one example of the former type of response to Darwinism.4 According to James, Dewey, and the other pragmatists, ideas and beliefs were similar to the biological components of a species. There were none that were true in an absolute sense, or at least discernible as such as by biological beings such as humans, but some were “true” in a contingent sense in that they had demonstrated value for the current state of the species. This idea cast all ideas, as well as the very concept of and search for truth, into question.

Social Darwinism is perhaps the greatest example of the latter type of American response to Darwinism in its emphasis on the competition between individual men as well as between races and social classes. One of the most extreme proponents of a philosophy of pure Social Darwinism was the sociologist William Graham Sumner. Sumner spent a large portion of his career defending the thesis that social policy should adhere to the concept of survival of the fittest. To this end, Sumner attacked any program which attempted to aid the poor through charity or to redistribute wealth as contrary to nature and detrimental to the future of humanity. He believed that “feeding the hungry and unemployed” impeded the progress of human evolution and that “unfit people” should be allowed “to die, or at least not reproduce.”5 Although Sumner was one of the most outspoken and extreme advocates of Social Darwinism, the philosophy itself was popular throughout the American elite and was used by such figures as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie to justify their tenacious pursuit of financial success to the detriment of others.

The various reactions to and extensions of Darwinism during the Gilded Age, including in the European attempts at a synthesis between Darwin and Hegel, as well as in American pragmatism and Social Darwinism, all demonstrate the disorienting effect Darwinism had on Western thought at the close of the 19th century. For some, as with the pragmatists, this displacement in ideas was impetus to abandon the very search for truth. For many, such as the Social Darwinists, this displacement prompted a kind of conservative synthesis, in which older ideas were combined with Darwinism in order to present a firmer ideological basis for the status quo. For all, Darwinism forever changed the nature of Western thought.


1 Ruth C. Rocker, “Cultural and Intellectual Life in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 219.

2 Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 437.

3Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 383. 

4 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 144.

5 Edwards, 144.



Calhoun, Charles W. The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Editor. The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II. Chicago: William Benton, 1952.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

Review: In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion

In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion
In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Atran offers an innovative and interesting look at religious thought. Rather than adopting an extreme stance on the existence of God or other similar metaphysical persons and concepts or the usefulness of religion for human life and attempting to defend this position through haphazard scholarship and polemic as have perhaps most thinkers who have addressed these issues, Atran adopts an explicitly agnostic stance and instead attempts to explore the relation between human evolution and religion, concluding that, no matters its truth or use-value, religion is part of human evolutionary psychology and is here to stay. Along the way, Atran provides a number of fascinating experiments, anecdotes, observations, and arguments to make his case and to criticize and critique other theories. No matter one’s disagree or agreement with Atran’s theory, this book provides a wealth of knowledge, a great deal of insight, and a plethora of fuel for thought.

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