Designing an intelligent debate

Posted: Aug 08, 2005 12:00 AM

When George W. Bush remarked to Texas reporters the other day that he thought the belief in "intelligent design" a fit subject for polite conversation, his critics accused him of trying to reprise the Scopes trial. Haven't we argued enough about God vs. monkeys?
But what the president actually said was hardly enough to shake the earth. He said he thinks it's important for children to understand what the endless argument over the Darwinian theory of evolution is all about. "Both sides should be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

 This naturally opens a Pandora's box (to draw on a metaphor of the ancient Greeks), because how children learn about "the debate" is crucial to their understanding of it. As far as I can tell, the president does not advocate teaching "intelligent design," the belief that a divine hand was at work creating the universe, as a scientific course, but to let children know there's a debate over Charles Darwin's theory that man evolved from lower life forms. Fair enough.

 A Christian friend of mine insists that Darwinism is now taught as "doctrine" rather than theory, that "scientists get hysterical in a hurry if you question any part of the theory, like Christian theologians protecting the doctrine of the Virgin Birth." Intolerance and intransigence, he says, are now the province of the Darwinians, who regard insult as legitimate argument.

 There's some truth in that. Important pieces of the "truth," culled from meticulous research that is still going on, support the Darwinian theory. But in actual, provable fact, Darwinians are no more knowledgeable than Aristotle was in plumbing First Causes.

 One revealing anecdote from the early conflicts over Darwinism comes from the debate between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and the scientist T.H. Huxley at Oxford in 1860. With extravagant gestures and mock politeness, the bishop turned to Huxley, defending Darwin's celebrated "Origin of Species," and "begged to know, was it through your grandfather or your grandmother that you claim descent from a monkey?" Huxley, armed with the learning of the Enlightenment and scientific method, replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be "ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth."

 William Irvine writes in "Apes, Angels and Victorians" that one woman expressed her intellectual confusion by doing what any well brought up Victorian lady would do to escape the unpleasantness of the moment. She fainted. But Huxley was confident that science, superior to religious belief, could offer something more tangibly enduring than theology. Fainting would not be necessary.

 To those of us who lived through much of the 20th century, witnesses to the atrocities committed in the name of science, Huxley's optimism seems considerably wide of the mark. But that doesn't mean that "intelligent design," a reworking of "creation science," should be taught as part of a science course. Intelligent design and the theory of evolution belong to separate spheres of theoretical thought: one is substantiated by faith, the other by scientific evidence.

 Scientists hold many different interpretations of the significance of Darwinism. The evidence at its best explains how and why certain species change, survive or become extinct. There are holes in the theory, as intellectually honest scientists -- including Darwin himself -- have always readily conceded. Intelligent design, on the other hand, depends not on evidence but belief. Religious values, like fashion, depend on belief in "the designer."

 What this debate shows is how intellectuals, so called, are quick to ridicule religious folk, much in the way that Bishop Wilberforce made fun of Huxley. If religion was once regarded as the key to history, as Lord Acton observed, "in today's intellectual circles . . . it's more like the skunk at the table," as Os Guinness recalls in the Wilson Quarterly. He advocates a public discussion of religion in American life today as a way to get a firmer grasp of the way that religious belief, whether the Darwinians like it or not, has shaped who we are, where we came from and where we're going. The debate over "intelligent design" vs. Darwinism, as demonstrated by the furor over the president's innocent remarks, is not likely to evolve into such a discussion. More's the pity.