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The “Great Evolution Debate,” as it was billed, was held in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on June 28–29, 1966, following a decision by Judge Murray O. Reed on May 27, 1966, which declared that Arkansas’s 1928 law banning the teaching of evolution in Arkansas’s public schools was unconstitutional. A case challenging the right of a state to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools had been filed in the Pulaski County Chancery Court, with Little Rock Central High School biology teacher Susan Epperson as the point person. The case was heard in April 1966, leading to the decision by Judge Reed in May.
Professor James D. Bales of Harding College (now Harding University) in Searcy (White County) led the anti-evolution side in the debate. A member of the Church of Christ, he was known as a polemicist for anticommunism and fundamentalist religion. In the 1940s, he had founded his own anti-evolution organization. In 1965, he made an appearance at the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock, where he distributed an anti-evolution tract. It claimed that because scientists were unwilling to debate its merits, evolution had not been proven scientifically. It also included a challenge to scientists to debate him.
One copy of the tract found its way into the hands of H. Brent Davis, an agnostic activist. Previously a speech instructor at Arkansas A&M College in Monticello (Drew County), which is now the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM), he had lost his job when he protested the use of “the strap” on prisoners at the Arkansas State Penitentiary. Subsequently, he became the field secretary for the Anti-Fraud Committee of Texas, founded and chaired by H. B. Dodd. The organization specialized in debunking faith healers.
Davis sent Bales’s challenge to Nobel Laureate Hermann Muller, professor emeritus of the zoology department at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. An atheist, Muller circulated a statement supporting the scientific validity of the theory of evolution, which eventually received 178 signatories. He also accepted the challenge and assembled a team to go to Little Rock to debate Bales.
Muller’s team included a then-unknown Carl Sagan of the Harvard University Observatory; Richard Lewontin, chairman of the biology department at the University of Chicago; Thomas K. Shotwell, a science writer for Salsbury Laboratories in Charles City, Iowa; and Ernan McMullin, chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Notre Dame, who was known for his theologically liberal views. In turn, Bales assembled a team that originally included Jack Lewis of the Harding Graduate School of Religion at Memphis, Tennessee, and Jack Wood Sears, chairman of Harding College’s Biological and Natural Sciences Department. However, Lewis proved unable to attend, leaving only Bales and Sears to represent the anti-evolution side in the debate.
The debate, to be held in the City Auditorium, was scheduled to feature three sessions arranged for the evenings of June 28, 29, and 30. The first session, debating the proposition “Resolved: That Genesis provides the most probable explanation for the origin and nature of the universe,” would pit Sagan and McMullin against Bales and Sears. The second session was to feature Lewontin and Shotwell against the Harding College professors arguing over the proposition “Resolved: That the theory of evolution has been scientifically established.” In the third session, which featured the proposition “Resolved: That the Bible is the word of God,” Bales and Sears were to meet Davis and Dodd.
However, before the debates even began, controversy erupted. In reference to Mark 16:18, which claimed that Christ’s disciples would drink poison and not be harmed, Davis asserted that he would bring a vial of poison for Bales to drink. The professor’s reply was that the agnostic Davis could drink it himself.
A second controversy concerned the debate’s third session. Muller’s team said they would not participate, maintaining that the theory of evolution and the truth of religion were not at odds. Rather, religion and science were different human endeavors and did not address the same issues. They believed the session’s proposition concerning the truth of the Bible pitted science against religion, which they considered an “extremist” position. A telephone call between Sagan and Bales apparently resolved the issue, but once in Little Rock the scientists learned that the third session had merely been postponed. Further protest resulted in the third session being canceled.
On June 28, the night of the first session, an overwhelmingly “fundamentalist” crowd of 1,600 filled the auditorium. In defense of the proposition that Genesis best explained the universe’s origin and nature, Bales questioned whether godless matter, which had “no morality,” could create “morally sensitive man.” Furthermore, he refuted evolution by pointing to an incomplete fossil record. Before his response to Bales, Sagan read a statement denouncing the deception concerning the third debate. He also derided Davis for creating “a carnival-like atmosphere,” asserting that the agnostic crusader had no authority to represent Muller’s team. Sagan then presented a slideshow illustrating the vastness of the universe. McMullin argued that Genesis was not meant to be taken literally and that the Bible and the theory of evolution represented “different fields of human endeavor.” The Arkansas Gazette reported that the debate “seemed to be more of a series of monologues by persons without enough common points of reference to hold a logical dispute.”
Interest in the debate waned significantly from the first to the second night, with only 700 spectators present on June 29. In the second session, Lewontin explained that, to scientists, a “theory” was not speculation. Rather it constituted “a body of knowledge including facts, observations and an explanation of them.” Bales sought to make his point by presenting a picture of the Tree of Life illustrating species said to have evolved from one another; there were “large gaps in its trunk and most of its branches had been severed.” Bales announced that, in lieu of the June 30 session, he would lecture on Isaiah 53, which Shotwell protested. Whether the lecture was given went unreported.
The Pulaski County Chancery Court decision ruling in favor of Epperson was overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1967, only to be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968. Bales continued his anti-evolution activities, publishing a book in 1966, Why Scientists Accept Evolution, co-authored by Robert T. Clark. In 1976, he published a second book, titled Evolution and the Scientific Method.
During Arkansas’s 1981 creation science controversy—with adherents to the idea that the formation of earth was the result of a sudden, and fairly recent, act of creation arguing that the “scientific” idea of creationism should be given time equal with evolution in the classroom—Bales wrote a letter to the Arkansas Gazette in which he claimed that the 1966 debate had been a “disaster” for the scientists. In particular, he chastised Sagan for being absent from current proceedings, noting an unsuccessful attempt by creationist Thomas B. Warren to arrange another debate with Sagan.
Act 590, which gave the instruction of creationism equal time with evolutionary theory in public schools, was signed into law by Arkansas governor Frank White in 1981. However, the law was ruled unconstitutional by Judge William R. Overton of the federal District Court of Eastern Arkansas in 1982. Finally, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 striking down Louisiana’s creationism law settled the issue for all the states in the country.
For additional information:
Bales, James D. Evolution and the Scientific Method. Searcy, AR: J. D. Bales, 1976.
Bales, James D., and Robert T. Clark. Why Scientists Accept Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1966.
“Bates Seeks Third Partner as Evolution Debates Near.” Arkansas Gazette, June 21, 1966, p. 1B.
“Great Debate is On; Davis, Bales, Others to Begin Arguing.” Arkansas Gazette, June 16, 1966, p. 1B.
James D. Bales Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Kazan, Chris. “Bales Gets Challenge to Debate Agnostic but He’ll Talk Alone.” Arkansas Gazette, June 30, 1966, p. 3A.
———. “Davis Says He’ll Offer Poison Vial to Bales; Debate Opens Tonight.” Arkansas Gazette, June 28, 1966, pp. 1A, 2A.
———. “‘Great Debate’ Draws 1,600; Two Deplore ‘Atmosphere.’” Arkansas Gazette, June 29, 1966, pp. 1A, 2A.
“A Second Debate Draws 700 as Bales, Writer, Biologist Find Little Common Ground.” Arkansas Gazette, June 30, 1966, p. 3A.
Witham, Larry A. Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Todd E. Lewis
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 6/14/2017
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