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BY GEORGE SIM JOHNSTON
A federal judge has
spoken: It is unconstitutional for a Pennsylvania school district to present
intelligent design as an alternative to “evolution.”
The framers of the Constitution, of course, never
dreamed that judges would some day use the First Amendment to prohibit local
schools from raising a metaphysical issue. But we’ll let that pass. It seems
churlish at this late date to express annoyance at the willful misreadings of the disestablishment clause that routinely
issue from the bench.
The most annoying aspect of this latest incarnation
of the Scopes trial is the way the debate was framed for the public. The
message was that if you think there are phenomena in nature — say, the human
eye — which are too complex to be explained by Darwinian selection, then you
are a creationist and so by definition reject the “fact” of evolution,
preferring religious obscurantism to scientific enlightenment.
But the real issue in this debate is not whether one
is “for” or “against” evolution. It is rather about the merits of Darwin’s
theory of natural selection. “Evolution” and Darwin’s explanation of the
origin of species are not the same thing. The media never make this distinction
and so give the secularist side of the debate an unfair advantage. The
proponents of intelligent design are not necessarily “anti-evolution.” But
they do question whether Darwinian selection can create everything from the
defense mechanism of the bombardier beetle to the human brain. And in this they
have good company.
Since Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, there have always been scientists who,
while accepting the idea of evolution, have questioned whether Darwin’s
mechanism of natural selection explains the appearance of complex life forms.
Natural selection, after all, only eliminates what doesn’t work. It doesn’t
“create” anything. The work of creation is presumably done by genetic changes
(and here we’ll put aside the vexed question of the origin of DNA). But Richard
Lewontin of Harvard, dean of American geneticists,
writes that “we know nothing about the genetic changes that occur in species
The French zoologist Pierre Grasse
compares genetic mutations to “a typing error in copying a text,” adding
that they “in time, occur incoherently. They are not complementary to one
another, nor are they cumulative in successive generations toward a given
direction.” Grasse calls himself an “evolutionist”
but flatly states that these small changes in gene frequencies have nothing to
do with the really big jumps in the evolutionary continuum — say, from reptiles
There is, in fact, a heated debate among evolutionary
biologists over whether the genetic changes that occur within species have anything to do with “evolution.” Yes, bacteria
can mutate in all sorts of ways, but they remain bacteria. These ecological
adjustments never add up to evolutionary novelties, tending rather to conserve
a species. They have nothing to do with the origin of new ones.
But once you decouple “within species” variation from
“evolution,” Darwin’s theory collapses, since it depends entirely on
extrapolation, on the idea that evolution is simply the process of variation
writ large. Many scientists admit this problem, but prefer not to mention it
when the order of the day is battling creationists.
There are other problems with Darwinism, which Judge
John Jones III downplayed when he mentioned that the theory is “imperfect.”
There is, for example, the failure of the fossil record to produce the
“innumerable transitional forms” that Darwin said had to be there. Anyone who
thinks that the theory has been “proved” has not been paying attention to the
work of paleontologists or to the sharp debates among prominent biologists or
to the fact that the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard declared the brand of
neo-Darwinism taught in Dover’s public schools “dead, despite its persistence
as textbook orthodoxy.”
We know that there have been a succession of life
forms in earth’s history, starting with the bacteria that appeared more than 3
billion years ago. But we are far from having a coherent scientific explanation
of how it happened. If this were plainly stated in academic textbooks, then
there would be less reason for the religiously minded to demand the kind of
disclaimer sought by the Dover school board.
But far from admitting to any problems, Darwinists
make sweeping claims about the theory’s explanatory power that are in no way
supported by the evidence. And not a few Darwinists use the theory as a
convenient weapon against religion. The theory is in many respects disguised
counter-metaphysics, and protests by Darwinists that they are strictly adhering
to the “scientific method” are often disingenuous.
I don’t blame parents and school boards for fighting
back. But a case can be made that intelligent design is a philosophical
enterprise that, strictly speaking, does not belong in a high school biology
In a perfect world, a biology teacher would admit
that there is much in nature that currently eludes explanation; he would then
humbly hand over his data to a philosophy teacher, who, in turn, might
profitably start a class discussion with Aristotle’s question, “How does nature
produce beings of such marvelous and intricate design?” The students could then
hear about teleology and final causes and have an interesting discussion.
That philosophy teacher might also point out that a
theory of evolution hardly disposes of ultimate metaphysical questions.
Indeed, he might put before the class Chesterton’s observation that evolution
“is not, touching the primary things ... a very profitable idea. Nobody can
imagine how nothing could turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to
it by explaining how something could turn into something else.”
George Sim Johnston, author of
Did Darwin Get it Right?
writes from New York.