As Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (Feb. 12) looms, evidence mounts: No way is all the furor over the teaching of evolution going to disappear, or even abate. Not in our own time, brothers and sisters.
A Gallup Poll of June 2007 found Americans equally divided as to whether they believe or disbelieve Darwin's theory of evolution. Just a month ago, another poll showed belief in the devil running stronger among Americans than belief in the teachings of Darwin, who, to some opponents, is himself a sulfurous figure in red tights.
Then there's the foofaraw over the Texas state education board's narrow failure last week to preserve a 20-year-old rule requiring classroom exposure of the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. Champagne and cake passed among the proponents of Darwinism. The New York Times declared, charmingly, that, "scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the curriculum to educators and scientists "
Proponents of the idea that an "intelligent design" informs the universe breathed more easily when the board voted to allow arguments having to do with the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of gaps or contradictions in the fossil record. The Times wondered, "how that differs from the old language of 'strengths and weaknesses.'" And so on. And so on .
What we all intuit about the debate, to the degree it really is one, rather than a shouting contest, is what our Victorian forbears intuited: that evolution is less about fossil records and genetic adaptations than it is about the Lord God Almighty. It's the great religious controversy of our times: Did He or didn't He? Because if He did, major consequences ensue; if not, same story.
"With Darwin," a columnist in Britain's Daily Telegraph observes, "secularization and atheism began to have momentum." The pushback, which began immediately, goes on to the present day, immortalized, in American history at least, by the Scopes Trial in 1925, and by the invigorating movie based on the play about the trial, "Inherit the Wind," starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March.
Neither the trial nor the movie/play settled anything. How could they have? The two camps -- biblical and Darwinian -- merely bellowed past each other. The judicious judgment of John Henry Cardinal Newman that Darwinism "may simply be suggesting a large idea of divine providence and skill" left too much ambiguity to suit most. Ambiguity, when it comes to evolution, is a thing many people dislike strongly. On go the furor and the anguish.
It's hard, with it all, to see why the scientific types cling so feverishly to the creed -- alien to the whole of civilization, prior to the 19th century -- that God couldn't have dealt the cards originally. Well -- they respond -- it's because there's no evidence to show it. Possibly not. There is something else, though: a thing called common sense. Everything here and all around us just happened, without the intervention of a Designer? Isn't that just a little improbable?
Whittaker Chambers, observing his baby daughter's ear one day, sensed the argument for creation. Through volumes of fossil evidence his mind hacked with a dazzling blade. "No God" made no sense. I have thought the same thing about the body's digestive faculties. It all just -- you know -- happened? Tell me another one.
How you introduce God to classrooms armored in the secularism of the past century -- with pedagogues and politicians wary of breaking down some mythological "wall" between church and state -- is another matter entirely, one on which I don't expect to see us make much progress in our present mood.
So what happens now? "God knows" could be a cop-out -- or a scintillating revelation. Maybe we just leave the Darwinian theory to lie there and gather appreciation, or the reverse, as we await a Final Word. A God capable of making the world (assuming, as I do, that He did so) would seem capable of prying open fast-shut eyes that they might see His handiwork, and, seeing, come to know how it all happened.