Stifling Intellectual Inquiry

Original Article

“In fact, the breadth and extent of the anti-evolutionary movement that has spread almost unnoticed across the country should force American politicians to think twice about how their public expressions of religious belief are beginning to affect education and science. The deeply religious nature of the United States should not be allowed to stand in the way of the thirst for knowledge or the pursuit of science. Once it does, it won’t be long before the American scientific community—which already has trouble finding enough young Americans to fill its graduate schools—ceases to lead the world.” That is the editorial voice of the Washington Post which, on this subject as well as most others, is temperate compared with many others in the liberal establishment.

The alarm is prompted, of course, by the efforts of school districts to teach students that evolution is a theory. That evolution is a theory is a fact, unless somebody has changed the definition of theory without notifying the makers of dictionaries. The “search for knowledge” and “the pursuit of science,” one might suggest, will suffer grievously if we no longer respect the distinction between theory and fact. To argue that skepticism about the theory of evolution is inadmissible if it is motivated by religion is simply a form of antireligious bigotry. It is a fact that many devout Christians, many of whom are engaged in the relevant sciences, subscribe to the theory of evolution. It is also a fact that some scientists who reject religion also reject evolution, or think the theory highly dubious. That is the way it is with theories.

Theories are proposed principles or narratives that are both arrived at and tested by their explanatory force relative to what are taken to be known facts. To simply equate evolutionary theory with science is a form of dogmatism that has no place in the pursuit of truth. The problems with that approach are multiplied by the fact that there are such starkly conflicting versions of what is meant by evolution. The resistance to the theory is almost inevitable when it is propounded, as it often is, in an atheistic and materialistic form. Atheism and materialism are not science but ideologies that most people of all times and places, not just “red state” Americans, deem to be false. Proponents of “intelligent design” and other approaches, who are frequently well-certified scientists, contend that their theories possess greater explanatory power.

If someone claims the theory of evolution is false because it contradicts their understanding of what the Bible says, that is not a scientific argument in the ordinary meaning of science. It is an argument from the authority of the Bible, or at least from a certain interpretation of the Bible, One may make that argument in an eminently rational way, although in a way that will not be convincing to many people. Just as the theory of evolution is not convincing to many people. That is the way it is with arguments. The proponents of intelligent design, however, are not making their argument from the authority of the Bible but from what they are persuaded is the scientific evidence. Their opponents contend that their argument is discredited because most of them are Christian believers. Turnaround being fair play, one might answer that the more aggressive proponents of evolution are discredited because they are typically ideological atheists and materialists. These are religio-philosophical disputations of a low and ad hominem sort and have no place in what is, or should be, scientific methodology.

The great question of the origin and development of life in the cosmos is endlessly fascinating. Intellectual freedom and integrity require that all pertinent evidence and lines of reasoning be taken into account in forming speculations, hypotheses, and theories regarding that great question. It is a historical fact that evolutionary theory, variously construed, has achieved a status as “the truth” among most scientists in the century past. It has also had its very eloquent dissenters, such as David Berlinski whose work has received frequent attention in these pages (see Public Square, FT May 2004). For the past decade, we have had the scientific proponents of “intelligent design” sometimes frontally challenging and at other times offering significant modifications of the theory of evolution. The defenders of evolutionary orthodoxy raise the alarm at any suggestion of intelligent design or purpose, thereby implicitly endorsing a narrowly dogmatic version of evolutionary theory.

Some school boards have very modestly suggested that students should know that evolution is not the only theory about the origin and development of life. What they want students to know is an indisputable fact. There are other theories supported by very reputable scientists, including theories of evolution other than the established version to which students are now bullied into giving their assent. On any question, the rational and scientific course is to take into account all pertinent evidence and explanatory proposals. We can know that the quasi-religious establishment of a narrow evolutionary theory as dogma is in deep trouble when its defenders demand that alternative ideas must not be discussed or even mentioned in the classroom. Students, school boards, and thoughtful citizens are in fully justified rebellion against this attempted stifling of intellectual inquiry.