The Evolution Debate:

Myth, Science, Culture, Education
Mark Ryland
Catholic Exchange
August 21, 2003
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Deep cultural conflicts often give rise to myths. Some article of propaganda resonates so strongly with a part of the community that eventually - sometimes quickly - a deeply biased or simply false story is accepted as the truth about a set of historical events.

A Trial That Has Not Ended

So, for example, the role of ecclesiastical courts in the middle ages gave rise to the myth of "The Inquisition" (see Edward Peters, Inquisition) and the conflict between "progressive" scientism and traditional religion in the 19th century produced the myth of a medieval belief in a flat earth (see Jeffery Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians).

The popular story of the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" - particularly as told in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind - has become a powerful and enduring myth about the supposed conflict between science and religion. In the play, Darwin's utterly realistic explanation - championed by tolerant, open-minded, good-hearted progressives - triumphs over the vestiges of Christian mythology - championed by repressive, closed-minded, nasty reactionaries.

The true story of the Scopes trial in all its richness, subtlety, and ambiguity has recently been retold by Edward Larson in his fine book Summer of the Gods. But the myth lives on. Any attempt to look seriously at the question of the truth of neo-Darwinism - the scientific claim that natural selection operating on random variation from genetic mutation explains all facts of biological complexity and diversity - is dismissed by the cultural elites as disguised creationism and nostalgic religiosity.

So why, despite the repressive power of Inherit the Wind and a generation of individuals raised on its mythic elevation of evolutionary theory to a kind of secular religion, does the conflict over Darwinism continue stronger than ever?

We can begin to answer that question by noticing that even people who accept the "fact" of evolution are troubled by the extravagant and seemingly non-scientific claims made based on it. We are told by Darwinists that evolution is the "universal acid" eating away all traditional ideas and values, that man is just a complex but soul-less "meat machine," no different from any Cartesian animal, and thus subject to manipulation and experimentation like any other species - as least, those of us incapable of protecting ourselves, such as the sick, the elderly, and the unborn.

"But surely," says the average mild believer in evolution, "those extravagant non-scientific claims don't follow from the basic simple scientific idea that complex life-forms have descended gradually from simple ones. I can believe in neo-Darwinian evolution without necessarily adopted a repugnant philosophy and morality, can't I?"

The answer, ultimately, is no. Most people who think vaguely about Darwinism don't focus on the fact that the hypothesis utterly and absolutely excludes any purpose, intelligence, or meaning in the development of life. Humankind really is just a random, unplanned, unimportant collection of molecules, and - given the right configuration of political power - can and will be treated as such. Sure, you can believe in "evolution" in sense of change over time, or even common descent, but you can't believe in neo-Darwinian evolution without undermining any solid ground on which to oppose the philosophical and moral claims that flow from its utter denial of plan or purpose in human existence and all reality. The oft-touted compromise around "theistic evolution" - that God was somehow in the background of the evolutionary process - is ultimately either incompatible with strict neo-Darwinism (because God did something that had a real, observable effect) or meaningless (because He didn't).

The Difficulties for Darwin

Of course, being troubled by the moral implications of a scientific claim or theory doesn't make it false. If science can powerfully demonstrate that purely material causes, acting by random variation and natural selection over a long period of time, fully account for life as we know it, then we must accept that demonstration, and take a long, hard look at the uncomfortable conclusions that may follow from it.

But there has been no such demonstration. In the first place, let's assume that Darwinists could make their prima facie case based on, to take two important examples: (a) a natural history of life showing a smooth and continual Darwin-esque development that seemed intuitively consistent with the possibility that random variation and natural selection could work large changes in biological systems; and (b) DNA evidence showing crucial similarities and dissimilarities among the species fitting a pattern of branching and common descent. Even then, the vast improbabilities of certain key events and transitions (such as, on either end of the timeline, the origin of life from pre-biotic materials, and ultimately the emergence of self-reflective intelligence and language) would count overwhelmingly against the supposed "proof" that biology in general and humans in particular are the result of an undirected, random material process. The Darwinian hypothesis might remain plausible, but far from proven.

But as it turns out, things don't look anywhere near that good for the evolutionist. In the past 15 years we've learned from a growing group of scientists that even neo-Darwinism's narrowest scientific claims are not well-supported. In book after book scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have shown that a fair look at the evidence spells trouble for neo-Darwinism. From problematic leaps and stasis in the fossil record, to the contradictory data of the "molecular clock hypothesis," to various forms of "irreducible complexity" both large (emergence of sexual reproduction, evolution of bird anatomy) and small (the astounding "molecular machines" described by Michael Behe in Darwin's Black Box), we find solid reasons for the title of Michael Denton's classic book from the 1980s, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. In just the past two years over two hundred scientists in the U.S. alone have gone on record - despite significant career risk in professions dominated by Darwinian thinking - questioning Darwin's hypothesis and calling for renewed vigor in investigation of its truth.

Accompanying the crisis is a resurgence of interest in arguments for intelligent design as the cause of complexity in biology. Reformulated and strengthened with modern mathematical tools (see William Dembski, The Design Inference), intelligent design theory ("ID") is seeing a major renaissance. Contrary to claims made by many Darwinists, ID is not religion, disguised or otherwise. Nor is it a "new creationism," the polemical title given by its opponents to tie it to Bible-based theories of biological origins. Rather, following the very essence of science, ID is the application of human reason to draw the best inferences from known facts, and thus perfectly suited for public discourse and public education. Just as neo-Darwinism as a scientific claim should not be shunned simply because of its materialist and atheist implications, ID as a scientific discipline should not be silenced for the contrary.

Darwinism and Public Education

Given this crucial scientific controversy, with its large cultural implications, it is important for young people to learn all the facts about Darwin's theory of evolution: those supporting it and those undermining it. We should teach our students more about a foundational concept in such a crucial area of science, and teach it openly and critically rather than narrowly and dogmatically.

The Discovery Institute is leading the charge to return true science - that is, rational inferences to the best explanation from known facts - to the biology classes of public schools across the U.S. In state after state, with the help of Discovery's Fellows and other experts, parents and school boards are fighting to include the latest scientific information about Darwin's theory in high school textbooks and classrooms.

The goal of Discovery and its allies is not to teach less about evolution, or to teach it more half-heartedly, but rather to teach Darwin's theory more completely and effectively by including both the best and most accurate evidence for the theory as well as the most compelling evidence against it. Research has shown that students are excited by this "teach the controversy" approach and do better than their indoctrinated peers in understanding and recall of key concepts from their study of evolution.

Yet the resistance to this common-sense approach from the scientific and cultural establishment is astonishingly vigorous. Rather than being the champions of free inquiry that we might expect, the establishment has decreed that Darwinism is a dogma of modernity that must not be questioned - at least not in front of our impressionable youth! The simple rational inquiry into whether some biological entity or system is best explained by random variation/natural selection or some kind of designing intelligence is decried as thinly-disguised theology, indeed an unconstitutional establishment of religion! Who knows what horrors might result if students get a hint that science has not actually proven - indeed, far from it - that they are the random result of a purely material, mechanical, accidental process?

If neo-Darwinism is rationally compelling, then its proponents have absolutely nothing to fear from open-minded inquiry and discussion in our classrooms. If it is scientifically questionable, then our students should not be indoctrinated with the evidence in its favor only, and shielded from contrary data. In either case, our nation will benefit from a new generation of citizens who better understand how philosophical ideas are often smuggled in to public discourse under the guise of an all-knowing "science." Modern man can be afflicted by myths, too, and we still need the truth to set us free.