By Leigh Powell
“The story of Darwin’s recantation of evolution on his deathbed can be traced back to Boston,” says Edward Caudill, professor of journalism and electronic media in UT Knoxville’s College of Communication and Information. “A female evangelist told a crowd that she had been there, at Darwin’s deathbed, and he had asked her to join him in prayer, said he regretted the evil things he had said regarding evolution.
“Of course, the evidence supports that this never happened,” Caudill continues. “But the guy who sets off this wave of atheism and agnosticism with his ideas recanting on his deathbed? You can’t help but like the story!”
Caudill can recount lots of Darwin stories—of varying veracity. He has researched press coverage of Darwin and evolution since he began working on his dissertation at the University of North Carolina in 1984.
“I’m not a scientist, I’m not a biologist—I never pretend to be,” Caudill says. “But I do find Darwin and his ideas to be engaging subjects. Darwinism in America: there’s such ambivalence about it. It’s a non-controversy in Europe and in the world of science. But we also cling to our Protestant origins and all of the religious overtones they bring with them.”
Caudill characterizes media as “a cauldron of culture.” As such, media have portrayed both sides of the Darwinian debate. “It takes no genius of media analysis to see that this makes a great story,” Caudill says. “You have two relatively adamant sides—you pick your ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy.’”
On one hand you have the Darwinists, and on the other you have the creationists. Creationism, Caudill explains, has many definitions, but for his research purposes, he considers it to be the belief in “the 6,000-year-old Earth—Genesis as a scientific document.” It may seem curious in this day and age that not only do people believe in creationism, but that it receives so much media attention. But the media, Caudill says, get stuck in the middle: “In our culture, we can hardly resist the egalitarian impulse to let everyone have a say. We may mutter about the absurdity of an idea, but we still give it space to be discussed—and thus give it at least some credibility.”
The conflicting depictions of Darwin, his ideas, and the people and ideas that oppose him have resulted in what Caudill calls “myths.” Caudill has found myths in regard to other figures as his research has evolved—pun intended—from Darwin to facets of the Civil War in the press. “For example, the myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest raises people’s hackles,” he says. “Do you want the genius cavalryman, or the murderous slaveholder? Did he start the Ku Klux Klan? The evidence goes back and forth.”
The same ambivalence exists with science: We choose the myths we want to embrace. “The same people who denounce evolution and Darwin,” Caudill says with a smile, “still get their vaccines.”
Caudill’s current research is bringing him full circle; he now is looking at media portrayals of intelligent design.
“The media create culture and consume culture,” he says. “They have a dual obligation: to get the facts of the moment right and also to explain them to the audience so that the audience can understand. To accomplish the second, they may leave some things out. What the media tell and what they don’t—these are the underpinnings of our cultural myths.”
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