Academic Freedom at Risk in Science Debate. (Part 3 of 3)

If an established academic truth is challenged by new scientific insights, should authorities allow classroom discussion of such challenges?

That was the question many people believe was placed on the national stage by the famous Scopes Trial on evolution in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Three-quarters of a century later, the questions are the same, only now the issue is whether recent challenges to Darwinism itself–challenges coming not from clergymen, but from scientists–should be acknowledged in high school and university classrooms.

Since, as this week’s New York Review of Books makes clear, Darwinists are now in strong attack on one another, too, it is becoming increasingly hard to squelch a broad debate.

Materialism (or “naturalism”) has been assumed true by most scientists since the late 19th century. The universe and life on earth, it says, began and continues to evolve from self-assembling particles of matter (hence, materialism), following only blind, unguided processes. Today this philosophy prevails in all scientific disciplines, from physics and biology to cosmology. It has been adopted by the soft sciences like psychology and sociology.

It entered law and criminology in 1924, the year before the Scopes Trial, when the Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow used evolutionary arguments in the Leopold-Loeb murder case in a successful effort to mitigate the punishment of two rich and well-educated youth, age 18 and 19, who admitted to killing a 14-year-old just for the thrill of it.

The “distressing and unfortunate homicide” happened, Darrow asserted, because in these “boys” a normal emotional life failed to “evolve” properly. Speaking of Richard Loeb, he demanded, “Is Dickie Loeb to blame because…of the infinite forces that were at work producing him ages before he was born…? Is he to blame because his machine is imperfect?”

Leopold and Loeb–he repeatedly termed them “children”–were really helpless agents of their genes. “Nature is strong and she is pitiless. She works in her own mysterious way, and we are her victims. We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand, and we play our parts.”

The case foreshadowed decades of legal theory that seeks to justify outrageous and irresponsible behavior; think, for example, of the recent Menendez brothers murder case. Darrow brought noted scientists as witnesses to bolster his case against personal free will and for biological determinism. Real science, one might say, did not lend itself to this demoralization of our culture, but the materialist philosophy of science regrettably did and does.

The scientific challenge to materialist orthodoxy in the past quarter century has sprung from many sources, including chaos theory, which points to nature’s unchartable causation, to the Big Bang theory of creation, to biochemist Michael Behe’s recent evidence of the “irreducible complexity” of cells. It is in biology, however, that the chief challenge is mounted.

What many people know of the issue of evolution (meaning the creation of whole new species by incremental changes over many ages, not micro-evolution within species, which nearly everyone accepts) seems to come from a play and movie of 40 years ago, Inherit the Wind. Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, it portrays the real history of the Scopes Trial with about as much authenticity as Oliver Stone, in JFK, displays in his film on the Kennedy assassination.

Yet Inherit the Wind handled its subject with wit and charm, and is therefore far more effective propaganda. The play, indeed, is required reading in many a high school and college course. It also is the script that reflexive journalists have in their heads whenever the subject of evolution arises in some public school district, even today.

In a forthcoming book, Summer for the Gods, Edward Larson, a historian of science and law at the University of Georgia (and a Discovery Institute fellow) effectively debunks the Inherit the Wind convention and its misuse. (In fairness, the authors of Inherit the Wind did not claim to be presenting accurate history.) The real Scopes Trial tale is far more layered and nuanced, and Scopes’ attorney, Clarence Darrow–yes, he of Leopold-Loeb fame–does not come off nearly as well in a straightforward history.

Larson is so even-handed that his dust jacket endorsements include evolutionist and historian of science Will Provine of Cornell, as well as Provine’s frequent debating rival, Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley professor who has made fighting Darwinism a personal crusade.

But even if the Inherit the Wind script had been accurate and well-rounded and the Scopes Trial lesson truly was a morality tale about academic freedom, the issue today would be just the opposite as the one presented in the play and film. The question now is: Should schools and teachers be ALLOWED to present SCIENTIFIC evidence contrary to Darwinism? (Indeed, should someone like me be allowed to write about it when I have an obvious involvement in the subject? See the letters-to-the editor!)

In recent years the answer in many places has been no. At San Francisco State University, for example, biology professor Dean Kenyon was ordered out of his classroom and back to the laboratory in 1993 when he insisted on exposing students to both Darwinian theory and evidence against it.

Then something strange happened. Advocates of academic freedom woke up and rallied to Kenyon’s defense. After a bruising battle, he was permitted back in his classroom. That’s progress.

There are going to be a lot more Dean Kenyons.

This article is part three of a three part series. Be sure to read parts one and two:
1: God and science back in the news. (May 16, 1997)
2: Materialism’s Slipping Hold on Science and Culture. (May 22, 1997)

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.