Ferguson scored on one point, perhaps: Historians may be too optimistic about the role they can play in changing minds in a moment of political crisis. In the big picture, however, the historians make the better case.
History is crucial in our tumultuous moment. But to make a difference and shape our debates, trained historians must contribute a particular kind of historical thinking — one based in fact, evidence and painstaking research. It is not enough merely to call on Americans to study more history. There are plenty of other kinds of history to which Americans can, and often do, turn. But all histories are not created equal, and America’s long culture war over creationism can offer a glimmer of hope for historians trying to make a difference today.
When Charles Darwin published his evolutionary bombshell in 1859, his earliest defenders assumed that its explanatory power and intellectual elegance would soon sweep away all resistance. Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” told audiences in 1859 that all of society would immediately “turn to those views which profess to rest on a scientific basis only” as soon as the general populace heard “the facts of the case” for Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
But Huxley vastly overestimated the power of scientific facts. Two generations later, mainstream scientists were still hoping that a resistant America would soon accept the facts of Darwin’s case. In 1925, from his post as the head of the American Museum of Natural History, Henry Fairfield Osborn shared Huxley’s optimism, even in the face of a raucous anti-evolution crusade and Tennessee’s infamous Scopes Trial. There was no reason for doubt or delay, Osborn wrote. Even an “intelligent child,” Osborn insisted, would agree with the incontrovertible intellectual power of evolutionary theory “if the opportunity is afforded.”
This optimism stemmed from the belief that the truth underlying evolutionary theory was obvious. So long as scientists adequately distributed and explained these ideas, people would have no choice but to adopt them.
Yet by the 1960s, mainstream Ivy-League scientists could only shake their heads in dismay at the still-durable popular resistance to mainstream evolutionary science. As leading paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson pleaded in 1961, “One hundred years without Darwin are enough.” Discarding the optimism of Osborn or Huxley, Simpson glumly recognized the obvious fact: “Most people have not really entered the world into which Darwin led — alas! — only a minority of us.”
In the 21st century, mainstream evolutionary theory still has only a tenuous hold in America. As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found in a 2011 nationwide survey of high school biology teachers, a minority (28 percent) teach only real evolutionary theory, unmixed with creationism-friendly variations or watered-down evidence. Perhaps as a result, Gallup polls consistently find that large minorities of Americans believe that our species was created in a garden in the last 10,000 years or so, despite overwhelming scientific consensus about the impossibility of such notions.
Continued resistance forced scientists and science educators to realize that this pushback to evolutionary theory came not because of a lack of familiarity with evolutionary ideas, but rather to a widespread determination to stick with competing explanations, a dissenting “creation” science based in religious commitments.
As a result, scientists and science educators have matured away from the easy optimism of Huxley and Osborn. They’ve learned that when it comes to spreading acceptance of evolutionary theory, it has never been enough to simply provide more science. This struggle over evolutionary theory offers two lessons for those of us who remain optimistic about the power of historical fact.
First, in the age of Trump, studying history is not enough. There are too many histories — including those pushed by people with partisan agendas who have weaponized our past and by those who assert that historical understanding remains static — and too many lessons that can be learned. Those lessons can demonstrate the damage that Trumpism is doing to American democracy, or they can prove that only Trump is capable of making America great again.
They can support impeachment, as thousands of historians concluded, or they can support Trump, as he himself proclaimed last week, fuming to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme — yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.”
Historians can dismiss Trump's deeply flawed understanding of our past, but they cannot assume that merely spreading the word will be enough. Nor can they assume that Americans will trust in their academic credentials or degrees.
Yet the history of creationism’s culture wars also offers a ray of hope. Over the course of decades, creationist attempts to insert religiously motivated “creation” science into public schools have been met with defeat after defeat. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that evolution could not be banned from public schools. Influenced by a statement signed by 179 leading scientists, Justice Abe Fortas concluded that banning a scientific idea for religious reasons went against the grain of “the modern mind.” Decades later, in 2005, another federal judge ruled that creationist intelligent-design ideas could not be included in public-school science classes. Like Fortas, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that creationist science could be ruled out of bounds because of its roots as a religious, not scientific, idea.
Historians can bring this attitude into our current debates. They must move aggressively — not just exhort Americans to study the past, but help the public to dismantle historical interpretations that have been bent and twisted the past to support short-term political convenience. Further, historians must explain to Americans that historical interpretations change over time as scholars dig into archives and discover more about the past.
We can learn from evolutionary theory’s victories as well as its grueling decades-long failures. America does not need more history. Instead, it needs to appreciate its own best traditions of historical knowledge.