The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.”
—Colloquy between Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet
I first met Carl Sagan in 1964, when he and I found ourselves in Arkansas on the platform of the Little Rock Auditorium, where we had been dispatched by command of the leading geneticist of the day, Herman Muller. Our task was to take the affirmative side in a debate: “Resolved, That the Theory of Evolution is proved as is the fact that the Earth goes around the Sun.” One of our opponents in the debate was a professor of biology from a fundamentalist college in Texas (his father was the president of the college) who had quite deliberately chosen the notoriously evolutionist Department of Zoology of the University of Texas as the source of his Ph.D. He could then assure his students that he had unassailable expert knowledge with which to refute Darwinism.
I had serious misgivings about facing an immense audience of creationist fundamentalist Christians in a city made famous by an Arkansas governor who, having detected a resentment of his constituents against federal usurpation, defied the power of Big Government by interposing his own body between the door of the local high school and some black kids who wanted to matriculate.
Young scientists, however, do not easily withstand the urgings of Nobel Prize winners, so after several transparently devious attempts to avoid the job, I appeared. We were, in fact, well treated, but despite our absolutely compelling arguments, the audience unaccountably voted for the opposition. Carl and I then sneaked out the back door of the auditorium and beat it out of town, quite certain that at any moment hooded riders with ropes and flaming crosses would snatch up two atheistic New York Jews who had the chutzpah to engage in public blasphemy.
Sagan and I drew different conclusions from our experience. For me the confrontation between creationism and the science of evolution was an example of historical, regional, and class differences in culture that could only be understood in the context of American social history. For Carl it was a struggle between ignorance and knowledge, although it is not clear to me what he made of the unimpeachable scientific credentials of our opponent, except perhaps to see him as an example of the Devil quoting scripture. The struggle to bring scientific knowledge to the masses has been a preoccupation of Carl Sagan’s ever since, and he has become the most widely known, widely read, and widely seen popularizer of science since the invention of the video tube. His only rival in the haute vulgarisation of science is Stephen Jay…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.