Providence Lost - and Found?

M.D. Aeschliman
National Review
September 29, 2003
Print ArticleOriginal article

Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design, by Francis J. Beckwith (Rowman & Littlefield, 224 pp., $24.95)

As long ago as 1941, in his still-classic Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, Jacques Barzun wrote of the Darwinian controversy that it is “a major incident . . . in the dispute between the believers in consciousness and the believers in mechanical action; the believers in purpose and the believers in pure chance.” He went on to say that “the issue is not local and limited but universal and permanent.” Sixty years later, in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun complained that in regard to the facts and presuppositions of evolution “the diversity of views is rarely confided to the student or educated reader.”

A succession of defeats in the U.S. courts has afflicted those groups of parents, teachers, and legislators who have crafted state laws that would allow or require the teaching of views about human origins and development that differ from the hard Darwinian line, views that take seriously the possibility of intelligent design and purpose and allow the inference from it to a Creator. The first of these great defeats — actually, a Pyrrhic victory — was of course the humiliation of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925, at the hands of Clarence Darrow and his appreciative corps of sophisticated and scornful journalists, including the acidulous H. L. Mencken. Bryan’s worries about Social Darwinism, immoralism, and atheism, and his concern for local control of schools, were then and have often since been mocked, despite their tragic relevance to the moral-political history of the period 1914–1945, not to speak of our own time. The play and film Inherit the Wind made Bryan’s name a joke, destroying his reputation and the memory of his long, noble life as a democratic political reformer.

The most recent major legal defeat for the effort to break the hard-Darwinian monopoly came in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana statute in Edwards v. Aguillard. The Edwards case is a prime focus of Francis Beckwith’s careful, detailed new book.

The Edwards decision had something in common with earlier hard-Darwinian victories: It was based on the view that the only alternative to full-strength Darwinism is a thinly veiled Fundamentalist creation science that can be easily dismissed as an impermissible attempt to establish religious orthodoxy in science teaching. But the problems with hard Darwinism have not been exclusively religious: The list of its scientific and philosophical opponents is long and impressive. (Students, of course, are rarely told this.) Critics from Darwin’s time to our own have noted, for example, the unwarranted, illogical attribution of purposiveness to “natural selection.” In the words of the philosopher Richard Spilsbury, in Providence Lost: A Critique of Darwinism: “The basic objection [to Darwinism is] that it confers miraculous powers on inappropriate agents. In essence, it is an attempt to supernaturalize nature, to endow unthinking processes with more-than-human powers — including the power of creating thinkers. . . . I find it impossible to share this faith that supra-human achievements can be encompassed by sub-human means and sub-rational mechanisms.”

Beckwith’s book shows conclusively that the opponents of hard Darwinism have a strong case, one that cannot be marginalized as a sectarian throwback. He provides a detailed introduction to a school of scientists and philosophers who have developed the critique of Darwinism to a high level of sophistication. This “Intelligent Design” school has always had proponents among physicists — perhaps now more than at any other time during the past two centuries, owing to the widespread acceptance of “Big Bang” cosmology. But it also has support among biologists and mathematicians, including figures such as Michael Behe and William Dembski, who have published widely and influentially.

The chief publicist of this movement has been Phillip Johnson, a former law professor at Berkeley who has been most dogged in identifying and critiquing the key argumentative and logical move that has underpinned the hard-Darwinian ascendancy: The exclusive naturalism of the hard Darwinians’ methodology ultimately entails that materialism will be the only acceptable worldview. Yet, as true rationalists have tried to explain to students ever since the days of Socrates, science is a subset of reason but not the whole set; it derives its principles and procedures from reason. “Scientific reasoning,” Alfred North Whitehead wrote, is itself — and must be — “completely dominated by the presupposition that mental functionings are not properly part of nature.” The assertion that they are part of nature is self-refuting, because it robs all thoughts and statements of any possible rational validity or truth.

In the battle between consciousness and mechanism, between human and sub-human, proponents of intelligent design wish simply to have students in tax-supported public schools introduced not just to materialist principles, but also to the arguments and evidences for the existence of design and purpose in the self, nature, and the universe — arguments and evidences that have persuaded and inspired reflective persons across many cultures and many centuries. Materialism should not be our established orthodoxy.

The demotion of the Bible in American culture may be irreversible, even though for Western people it was in fact the marriage of Hebrew monotheism and Greek rationalism, consummated in the New Testament, that eventually gave us the idea of the regularity of nature and its penetrability by reason. As Whitehead, Pierre Duhem, C. S. Lewis, and Stanley Jaki have shown, in the fullness of time this gave us the scientific revolution of the 17th century and the scientific and technological achievements that have grown from it. But the Bible is not a science book and cannot replace the proper elaborations of the sciences, though it is a permanent challenge to the materialistic tendencies of many modern scientists and the technological barbarity of much modern life.

Francis Beckwith’s judicious, important book deserves a wide audience. As he makes abundantly clear, the establishment clause of the First Amendment applies also to atheism, scientific materialism, and secular humanism, which are not to be favored over their opponents in tax-supported institutions of education at which attendance is mandatory. As Justice William O. Douglas rightly and famously wrote in Zorach v. Clauson (1952), American political “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” The inference to a Creator from the recognition of order, pattern, and design in self, nature, and universe must be a personal one, but the recognition and explanation of such evidences — the claim that there is a Providence to be found — cannot rightly be prohibited from our schools as long as this constitutional republic bears any trace and memory of its own founding.

—Mr. Aeschliman is professor of education at Boston University, adjunct professor of English at the University of Italian Switzerland, and author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.