We can expect more battles about Darwin before school boards across the country. But who cares? Impatient by now with the legal and religious debate around intelligent design, many of us may wonder just that. In fact we all need to care -- Darwinian theory has practical ramifications beyond the narrow question of what mechanism drives evolution.
Darwinists say the evolutionary mechanism must be purely material. ID theorists find evidence in nature of an intelligent purpose shaping life's history. Which view we convey to our children may affect their adult lives.
The scientific impact: Consider our country's role as the leading exporter of scientific ideas. Modern science from its start has been fueled by religious wonder. In his new book, "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success," sociologist Rodney Stark points out that real science arose only once. That was in Europe at the hands of devoutly Christian scholars: "medieval scholastics, sustained by that uniquely Christian 12th-century invention, the university."
Unlike the ancient Greeks who believed the universe had no beginning and thus no designer, Christians and Jews read the opening chapters of Genesis as an affirmation that nature is God's handiwork. To understand Him, it helps to understand His creation. Writes Stark, "Newton, Kepler and Galileo regarded the creation itself as a book that was to be read and comprehended."
In erasing God's role from the history of biological existence, Darwinism erases a primary motivation to pursue scientific discovery.
The economic impact: In formulating his theory of natural selection, Darwin said he drew inspiration from the work of Thomas Malthus, the 18th-century political economist. Malthus portrayed life as a "struggle for existence," pitting animal against animal. Darwin added that organisms maximized their chances of survival if they possessed favorable variations (later explained as genetic mutations).
In economics, Malthus's view leads to the dismal belief that people are merely consumers, competing with one another for scarce resources. Similarly, Darwin's theory teaches us to think of life as a fierce struggle against others. It thus subtly undercuts the healthy belief that seeking wealth means providing a service to people rather than a way of robbing them. As my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin points out, humans do best in careers they consider morally commendable. If we want our children to enjoy affluence as we do, it matters what we teach them about the nobility of creating wealth.
The moral impact: In "The Descent of Man" (1871), Darwin spells out the moral implications of his theory, notably that unguided evolution produced the moral laws as much as it did the plants and animals. Such laws could have turned out differently, as the animals could have turned out differently had chance variations led life's history down a different path.
So there is nothing absolute about our ideas of right and wrong. Wrote Darwin, "We may, therefore, reject the belief, lately insisted on by some writers, that the abhorrence of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience." If ethics has no such secure foundation, there can be nothing sacred about doing the right thing.
No, I am not saying that Darwinism necessarily leads to scientific, economic and moral breakdown.
On the other hand, one can hardly deny the sad coarsening of our culture. Whatever its merits as science, Darwinism as a philosophy is far from uplifting or ennobling. Today when young Americans could use a little uplift and an appreciation for what's noble, letting them know about intelligent design, an alternative scientific theory with none of Darwin's drawbacks, couldn't hurt and might help.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History"" (Doubleday).