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John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, and the Culture Wars

Resolving a Crisis in Education Published in 1996 Intercollegiate Review, vol. 31, no. 2.

In a recent essay, Martin Eger has identified two major social and educational issues at the center of the our contemporary “culture wars.”1 The two controversies are the teaching of ethics in the public schools — especially from Junior High through High School — and the teaching of science, specifically the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution. What Eger calls the “Tale of Two Controversies” is particularly appropriate to the theme of this symposium on “The Death of Materialism” for two reasons: first, it illustrates a contradiction in the very nature of “rationality” that materialism has sponsored; and second, it provides an opening for an alternative educational policy that I believe will remove this contradiction and put in its place an educational policy that will advance science education and promote dialogue between the academy and the community. 

My own aim here will be to set forth the fact and nature of the contradiction over rationality manifest in this dispute, comment on the views of reason advanced by both sides, and to offer suggestions for its potential resolution.

Following the precepts of J.S. Mill’s 1859 classic On Liberty, contemporary educational theorists, notably Clive Bell and Lawrence Kohlberg, have been urging the importance of critical questioning as the ground of reason (Eger, 293-301). According to this line of thought it is not enough that a person has a correct moral belief if that belief, and the orientation that underpins it, abides in the individual’s mind as a prejudice. The important point is that the individual be able to defend his or her beliefs. Even as it is not enough for an individual to know the answer to a geometry problem without knowing how to perform the proofs, so in ethics it is not enough to know what is right and what is wrong without being able to make a case. Clearly the position — that the student be able rationally to defend his or her ethical commitments — is closely connected with a second position: that the student be able to consider alternatives, even radical, immoral, or socially unacceptable alternatives to present ethical practices.

Why teaching this position would be opposed by parents should be clear. The classroom practice, supported by the disciplinary theory, places a wedge between the moral education offered by the home and the moral education offered by the school. The burden of the parent to encourage the child to develop a moral point of view, subscribe to certain precepts and follow certain models of conduct, is undermined when the school urges the student to question those very precepts and consider alternatives to those very models. It can hardly be a source of delight to educational theorists or classroom teachers that this practice has placed the school and the family at odds for over a decade. As Eger documents, the reason why educationists, backed by the power of the state and the courts, insist on an educational program that is guaranteed to be controversial and divisive is that the issues at stake are fundamental. (Eger, 293-298). Following Mill, it is a fundamental and settled conviction of educators that reason is a better alternative to decision making than tradition or prejudice and that critical questioning and the consideration of alternatives are the defining characteristics of reason in ethical decision making and values clarification.

As a rhetorical educator I find much to applaud in the educational program I have briefly sketched. First, it is based on argumentation; second, it offers training in seeing or discovering opposite points of view; third, it encourages the weighing of evidence; and finally, it would encourage the student to think for himself.

The case of the teaching of science presents a remarkably contrasting model. Here the advocates of science, particularly of Darwinism or contemporary neo-Darwinian theory, sound remarkably like the aggrieved parents who show up at public meetings to protest the ethics curriculum. Philip Kitcher and Michael Ruse, two prominent defenders of orthodox Darwinism, alike urge that the very idea of exposing scientifically untrained minds to complex scientific questions and asking them to make up their own minds is silly and allowing them to think that creationism in some way presents a serious alternative to Darwinism is a fundamental dereliction of educational duty. As Ruse puts it, “Teaching scientific creationism will stunt abilities in all areas…. Thus I say keep it out of the schools” (Eger, 299).

The symmetry of these two cases could not be more remarkable. What is the very mark of reason in one model is the very hallmark of unreason in the other. For ethics, the giving of reasons for every belief differentiates reason from prejudice, whereas for science the mastery of a prior set way of doing things is the precondition for proper understanding and competent practice. Whereas in ethics the consideration of unorthodox or conventionally unacceptable alternatives — for instance, that dishonesty might be the best policy — is to be met without prejudice, for science the mere consideration that there might be some arguments in favor of creationism is a dereliction of educational responsibility. For ethical reason, the training of the mind requires that a student realize there is something to be said in favor of almost any position. For science, any argument in favor of “creationism” is false — in advance — and education consists in recognizing that fact whether one knows why creationism is false or not.

There was a time, not so many years ago, when one might have dismissed this difference on the grounds that the objects of ethical and scientific reason are different and thus their methods are incommensurate. Given this older way of thinking one could make very short work of the “contradiction” that I have presented. Once upon a time “ethics” in contradistinction to “science” was understood as being concerned with the world of “opinion” and required interpretation and deliberation to achieve agreement. According to this way of thinking, science discovered natural laws, and when — through the language of logic or experiment — nature spoke, deliberation ceased (Eger, 304-311). Were it still accepted that there are two very separate methods of reason — one for the humanities and one for science — and that they pursue very different objects (understanding in the humanities and demonstration in science), one could argue that there is no contradiction in our model of reason in the public schools. To the contrary one could argue that since there is no science in ethics — deliberation is the best you can do. But by the same token since there is real knowledge in science, there is no justification for rehashing known errors. The students should be taught the right way and that’s it — our national security or our scientific/economic competitiveness in global markets depends on it.

Space does not permit me to rehearse the shift in the philosophy and history of science associated with the name of Thomas Kuhn and which has taken place in the last twenty years to bring this older model into question. My point is simply that in light of the revolution in the philosophy and history of science in the past twenty years, science too is established by informal reason or argument.2 This is not to say that science is oratory. Science is exacting knowledge — but it is exacting knowledge which pursues different paths in different fields, and in all the fields it crosses, argumentation is now recognized as playing a role formerly assigned to logic and demonstrations.3 Scientific method properly understood is allied fundamentally with the methods of the humanities and the current denial of debate in science education is without philosophic justification (Eger, 304-316).

Speaking as a teacher in the oldest of the humanities I welcome this shift in perspective because I believe that the education of the student for life — liberal education in the best old-fashioned sense of the term — will be the beneficiary. 4 While it remains true that “good fences make good neighbors,” the methodologic and metaphysical Berlin Wall that has separated science from the humanities — and from philosophy and theology — is not my idea of a good fence. The rhetorical turn in science studies — the turn to argument and deliberation — represents an opportunity for science education which I for one welcome.5

Now others reading this may have a very different attitude toward the new relation between the humanities and science that I have sketched. At this time when our culture is undergoing a shift of values so radical that the term “culture wars” has been coined to describe it, it will be asked,”won’t this new policy hand a victory to religious fundamentalists? Won’t this just make our divisions all the worse?” For those of us who believe that good science education is imperative in modern education — the idea that a bad or discredited theory would be able to present itself as though it had scientific merit may still seem outrageous, new philosophy of science or not. I hope to persuade you that debating Darwinism and comparing it with alternatives is the appropriate liberal educational approach to this issue. Furthermore, I hope to persuade you that teaching the technical details of science — the nuts and bolts, the “science” part of science — will not be sacrificed by an approach to science that stems from a view that teaching science is not that different from teaching social studies.

Let us start with the basic notion that lies at the heart of the unease many of us may feel about the debate or deliberation model that I have set forth. Most of us believe (and why shouldn’t we for this is what we have been taught) that science explains by natural law. We do not want science taught by debate in the public schools because we know perfectly well that invocations of a first cause, intelligence, or God is going to be introduced, and when it is science will fly out the window. If we open the front door to this kind of passion, isn’t cognition or any serious chance of learning going to go out the back?

I teach argument and deliberation on controversial issues and have done so throughout my career as an educator. While I am keenly aware of the tact and training an educator needs to deal productively with disputes in the classroom, the enemy of learning in the classroom is not passion but indifference. It is hard enough getting American undergraduates to care for any idea — even a wrong one. Passion contains an element of reason and, as Aristotle pointed out, this is the key difference between a human emotion and an animal drive. 6 We can be argued into and out of anger. As an educator I teach for keeps and I want my students to bring their deepest values to my classroom and place them at risk — for when they do they themselves will learn and in the process they will energize the indifferent.

The proposition — indeed the dogma — we have all been taught, that science explains by natural law, is demonstrably false. Its removal opens the possibility that inferences to intelligence — something non-material — may be justified in science. This in turn raises the philosophically and educationally interesting question of where one draws the line between material and non-material explanations in science.

That science does not explain simply by natural law has been brilliantly demonstrated by Stephen Meyer. As Stephen Meyer has argued in his Cambridge thesis and elsewhere, there are such things as “historical sciences.”7 Two examples of such sciences are biology and geology. In geology, for example, there is no “covering law” model. Instead, the proper explanation for the unusual height of the Himalayas is a history of the particular local and non-recurring events that led to it. Much of the argumentation in The Origin of Species, is similarly historical. What this means, as various others have observed, is that The Origin‘s form of argument is “abductive.” To say no more about it, in an abductive argument the same events may be explained equally well by more than one hypothesis. Furthermore, were the prohibition against inference to agency enforced, some sciences clearly would have to be dismissed as sciences. For instance, what is the principle behind the SETI project if not the assumption that in the cosmos there may be patterns produced by intelligences like our own, and that we can, by applying what we know of the proper scientific laws, distinguish intelligent messages from random noises or distinguish apparently intelligent messages from the real ones? Cryptology is another science that draws inferences to intelligent design from patterns that may at first appear to be random. Other similar sciences would be anthropology and forensic science. One can imagine numerous blackly humorous scenarios of positivist detectives never finding evidence of anything but death by natural causes. Of course, they would always be right since it is only the boundary conditions — like the string attached to the door attached to the trigger of the gun — that are set by intelligence.

But, even if we set aside the positivist prohibition against inferences to intelligence as too broad, aren’t we basically opening the door to an essentially sectarian religious controversy if we allowed debate over Darwinism in the public schools?

Not necessarily.

The very idea that the debate over “evolution” is between Darwin’s theory and a young earth, six day creation model is itself an artifact of the polemics of the evolution controversy. It is true that there are today vigorous advocates of a “young earth” creationism. But, this is not the only, and certainly not the most philosophically sophisticated, version of “creationism.” While I personally do not have any problem with “young earth” creationism being pitted against Darwinism in the schools, the fact of the matter is “creation science” is Genesis in positivist drag and everybody knows it.

Let us consider a philosophic position that has been reemerging recently that is called “intelligent design.” The “intelligent design” hypothesis is this: as a critique it claims that scientific naturalism — the philosophy that stands behind Darwinism and compels our belief in its best explanations however weak, or as Darwin once put it “absurd”8 is inadequate to explain certain kinds of patterns we find in nature. As a research program, “intelligent design” is the search for events or structures that are — or are good candidates for being regarded as — acts of an intelligent agency.

Is there evidence of intelligent design in nature? There might be. Absent the dogma of scientific naturalism that requires that we accept as “scientific” the best of the materialist explanations of the origin of life — no matter how implausible — and allow inference to the best explanation, intelligence becomes a serious candidate. Absent the requirement to accept the “just so” stories that are so often Darwinian explanations for real novelty in nature, and leaving behind the biologically trivial differences between varieties and species where Darwin is probably right, intelligence might well be the best explanation we have for the origin of phyla, classes, families, and orders. What may be true of the large features of biological nature might also be true of the smaller featuresl. In Darwin’s day, the chemistry of sight and how the body fights disease were all black boxes. In the face of ignorance it is forgivable to assume that there might be some simple explanation. Only since the 1950s, when the structure of the first protein molecule was resolved, have we understood the unforgivable exactitude of protein sequencing. Professor Mike Behe has argued that in the case of the cilium and many other structures we are dealing with “irreducible complexity.” 9 Darwin had argued that if a single structure could be shown that in principle could not have been formed by intermediate structures his theory “would absolutely break down” (Darwin, 189). His statement was, of course, a hyperbole, but if one wanted to fuel a good debate there is plenty of evidence for structures that are likely candidates for defeating Darwinian explanations. Professor Behe says he has scores of them and in fact regards organic chemistry as the study of “molecular machines.”

Now just because I do not favor the strictures that educators trained in the materialist paradigm place on reason in their classrooms — and want the courts to enforce — does not mean I reject their model of reason entirely. I would offer a good word for one aspect of the concerns of the defenders of the educational status quo in the science classroom. The defenders of the scientific educational status quo share a principle with the parents who object to the questioning of everything in ethics. The principle is that there is a right way and learning it takes time. Reason on this view is not just, or primarily, an individual possession, as John Stuart Mill tended to depict it — but an historical and communal achievement. On this view for young people to learn the right way to do science they must begin not by criticizing tradition, but by appropriating and learning to apply it. Science then, is not simply the immediate testing of results on some absolute once-and-for-all public scale but the learning of a practice, a set of assumptions and the appropriation and mastery of a prior tradition of doing things and looking at things. To do science is to stand on the shoulders of giants. To teach it responsibly is to guide students up the ladder to the giant’s shoulders — and not to permit them to wander off on their own.

I think there is a lot to be said for this model. Learning according to approved or time tested models of excellence is a great deal of what liberal learning traditionally has been about, both in ethics and in science, and certainly in the rhetorical tradition. The problem with this view as it is applied currently to the teaching of science is that it places science in a professional setting rather than in an educational one. Because there is no, or very little, debate over creationism or Darwinism in professional science — so the argument goes — it is a bad principle to confuse students with what is professionally irrelevant. If the science classroom were a kind of science trade school where, as in the case of classes in auto repair in a technical high school, students could be certified at the end of their education for employment — that would be one thing. The aim of high school education in science — like the aim of education in the humanities — is education. In education values other than simply learning how professionals do things must be weighed against the just and proper claims of critical thinking — understanding why things are done the way they are, how they have changed, and how they might change again.

It is in practical reason — in the ability to apply a principle to a case — that we see the connection of science education with the emphasis on critique in the critical thinking curriculum. Contrary to current practice in teaching critical questioning, there is no reason why students should not consult their parents, or other knowledgeable or experienced persons, about the questions on which they are called upon to deliberate in class, or even why they should not consult their religious leaders — if they have any. As with science, so with ethics, tradition is presumptively (and ought to be) regarded as much a repository of right reason or of potential right answers as one’s own native smarts or personal insights. Thus in science one should learn Darwinism, and the philosophic naturalism in which it is embedded in the professional practice of work-a-day scientists; most of whom no longer ask philosophic questions about what they do, if indeed they ever did. The teacher, and this it would seem to me is the proper business of an educator, can help point out where philosophic questions arise and where different people can take a different view of the scientific enterprise. To appreciate where questions naturally arise within a tradition, one must first have mastered that tradition, or at least its leading principles. At the moment of critique — and critique usually occurs when we apply principle to case — one can appreciate the conservative impulses that lead, on the one hand, to preserving tradition, and on the other, to grasp the possibility for radical alternatives to it. I see no problem in principle of an approach to science education based on an argument or debate model that would encompass both respect for traditional materialist assumptions in science while rigorously questioning these same assumptions in light of alternative possibilities.

For myself, as a rhetorician and as a humanist educator, I cannot imagine anything more educationally salutory than a bold, rhetorically-based plan for harnessing the abundant metaphysical energies of the American people for the study of science. The precise knowledge required to distinguish real from apparent design, the knowledge of biology required to discuss intelligently whether or not Darwinian stories were more plausible than intelligent design stories would unleash a tremendous — and perhaps even distinctly American — motivator to the study of science.

There are two points for which I have argued here.

First, Eger is correct, the impasse between the present programs for teaching critical questioning in ethics and prohibiting critical questioning in science represents a fundamental incoherence in the very model of reason that is presented in the public schools.

Second, if the academy, indeed the public schools, are to present a coherent view of reason, both sides need to revise their present incoherent model. On the side of ethics and its model of critical questioning, the idea of convention, tradition, and community needs to be affirmed as resources of reason to counterbalance the present excessive emphasis on the individual thinking, arguing and acting as a social atom apart from community. On the side of science, the ban on debate must be dropped, the notion of convention, tradition, and community should be taught but counterbalanced by strong emphasis on science as historical, and scientific insights as situated achievements. Further, and most importantly, the educational — as opposed to the professional — mission of science needs to be affirmed robustly, thus allowing for pertinent and constructive critique of current science.

From these two points I draw two implications.

First, the cognitive and philosophic gains of the move to rhetoric and argumentation in the contemporary philosophy of science will be purely academic until parents and humanist and scientific educators engage in serious discussion about the pedagogy that follows from this important development.

Second, there is the need for academics and the public to engage in dialogue. The idea that a major medium of communication between academics and the people they serve should be the courts seems to me flat wrong. From my perspective, this is one of the worst political legacies of scientific materialism. I am confident that rhetorically informed and competent educators could adjudicate most of the curricular disputes that center around the teaching of ethics and biology. I am confident it is possible to develop a pedagogy that is both philosophically sound and responsive to community values. The idea that academics are happy to make arguments in courtrooms they would never use in the seminar room or in other settings use scare tactics such as “it is either Darwin or the `religious right'” manifests a contempt for the public that is in the worst elitist traditions of the university.10 If the only thing that keeps “creationism” out of the schools is an argument that rests on implicit philosophic perjury and demagogic caricature, I say it is time to reexamine the policy.

The simple fact of the matter is that the public, on both the teaching of ethics and the teaching of science has been better critics of the discourse of public policy — and better advocates of the life of reason — than have the academics. The academics, typically, have suffered from a trained incapacity to see the situation whole. The public, whose concern is with the education of their children as whole persons, was the first to see the fundamental incoherence in the model of reason presented by humanist and scientist educators who each jealously guarded their halves of the truth. Unless it becomes a true social practice — a discussion linking the different parts of the academy in dialogue and the academy and the community in productive change, the “rhetorical turn” in science studies will be merely a “period piece,” another dated academic theory.

The discourse of the seminar room and the discourse of the classroom must be expanded to include sustained, genuine, practical — and honest dialogue with the community.

In his recent brilliant book on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Eugene Garver asks the question “why does reason persuade?” to which he gives a shocking, but solidly classical answer”when it becomes political.”11 I believe that the tale of the ethics and evolution controversies shows that it is now possible for humanist and science educators together to develop a curriculum that is educationally sound, democratic and persuasive.


  1. Eger, Martin, (1988), “A Tale of Two Controversies: Dissonance In The Theory and Practice of Rationality,” Zygon, Vol. 23., 291-325. My comments here are deeply indebted to Eger’s essay.
  2. Toulmin, Stephen, Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Understanding of Concepts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), Ch. 1.
  3. Toulmin, Stephen, Ibid. Ch. 1., see also Marcello Pera, “The Role and Value of Rhetoric in Science,” in Marcello Pera and William R. Shea, Persuading Science: The Art of Scientific Rhetoric (Canton, Massachusetts, Science History Publications, USA, 1991), pp. 29-54.
  4. See John Angus Campbell, “Oratory, Democracy and the Classroom,” in Roger Soder, John Goodlad, eds., Education and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). In press.
  5. Lawrence J. Prelli, A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1989). For an account of the educational implications of the the rhetoric of science, see Steve Fuller, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: The Coming of Science and Technology Studies (1993), esp. pp. 382-393.
  6. William Fortenbaugh, Aristotle on Emotion: A Contribution to Philosophical Psychology, Rhetoric, Poetics, Politics, and Ethics (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975).
  7. Stephen C. Meyer, Of Clues and Causes; A Methodological Interpretation of Origin of Life Studies (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, October, 1990), esp. pp. 79-99. See also, Stephen C. Meyer, “The Methodological Equivalence of Design and Descent,” in J.P. Moreland, editor, The Creation Hypothesis (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press,1993), pp. 67-112.
  8. “To suppose that the eye…could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.” Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species. A Facsimile of the first Edition with an Introduction by Ernse Mayer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 186.
  9. Michael Behe, “Microbiology and Irreducible Complexity,” Unpublished paper presented before the American Scientific Affiliation, Seattle, (August, 1993), 1-8, esp. pp. 4-6.
  10. On how “demarcationist” arguments such as those used to persuade the judge in the Arkansas “creation science” case are polemically as opposed to philosophically grounded see: Larry Laudan, “Demise of the Demarcationist Problem,” in Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, ed. R.S. Cohen and L. Laudan, Dorderect, Netherlands, R. Reidel, 1983), p. 119.
  11. Eugene Garver, Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 142-148.