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Intelligent Design vs. Materialism

In Melvindale, Michigan, a blue collar suburb of Detroit, the school board held a tumultuous public hearing this week that seems to have caught everyone by surprise. The Board chairman, John Rowe, a former science teacher who now directs nuclear medicine and radiology at an area hospital, started with what he thought was a reasonable idea: Let students know that there are increasing scientific arguments against the Darwinian dogma of evolution by chance and natural selection (“materialism”). But then the board–like the school board in Sultan, Washington recently and many other communities– ran up against “the script.”
The script is “Inherit the Wind,” a popular film from 1960 that presented a fictional version of the famous Scopes Trial on the teaching of evolution that took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennesee. Oddly, “Inherit the Wind” is taught as history in many schools today, even though, as University of Georgia professor Edward Larson explains in his scrupulously objective new book, “Summer for the Gods” (Basic Books, N.Y.), it distorts the actual events of the trial.

No matter, in the film script and in any public discussion on teaching evolution, people who challenge Darwinism are assigned Hollywood-style roles as intolerant, ranting Bible-thumpers. The ACLU and other backers of Darwinism get roles as idealists defending reason. Never mind, either, that in 1925 the issue was whether evolution could be taught in public schools, while today the Darwinist position is that nothing else can be taught. So much for the progress (or evolution, if you will) of academic freedom.

But the Melvindale school board should not be intimidated, for help is on the way. A number of scientific attacks on materialism are emerging from manifestly respectable quarters. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University (and, by way of disclosure, a colleague of the writer’s at Seattle’s Discovery Institute), has made a persuasive case for design rather than evolution in that elementary form of life, the cell. In “Darwin’s Black Box” he shows that the cell is “irreducibly complex;” that is, it could not have evolved through small, incremental changes, because to function it has to have all its parts in place at once. Behe’s book is in its 16th printing, not including half a dozen foreign translations, and antagonists have been unable to discredit it on scientific grounds.

A whole string of other scientific works also are strengthening the case against Darwinism and for a theory of intelligent design. The subject is highlighted this week on the PBS program “Technopolitics” and William Buckley has scheduled a major debate on it next month for PBS’ “Firing Line.”

In hearings around the country, scientific experts are pointing out that high school textbooks almost always omit crucial data on the sudden appearance of 50 major groupings of organisms in the Cambrian period–the so-called “Biological Big Bang.” On the other hand, they note, textbooks typically continue to use discredited drawings about the evolutionary process based on the work of Ernst Haeckel. These drawings purport to show that early embryonic developments of vertebrates are strikingly alike, indicating that fish, pigs and humans share common descent. The trouble is that Haeckel, a late 19th century German racist whose work on the evolution of humans later was exploited by the Nazis on behalf of their master-race theories, apparently doctored his drawings to achieve the desired effect, something a scientist should never do. Moreover, scientists in our century have shown that early stages of the embryos in question, in fact, are not alike.

Are attacks on materialism from scientific quarters having any effect? They are having enough of one that the National Association of Biology Teachers last month voted to drop the terms “unsupervised” and “impersonal” from its standard description of the evolutionary process. These are words, of course, that effectively would deny the possibility that life came from a creator. The NABT still wants evolution alone to be taught in the classroom, but the group’s director, Wayne W. Carley, acknowledged that “our intent is to say that science cannot comment on whether evolution is supervised by some ‘intelligent design’ or not.”

This represents a step forward. The argument that materialist evolution can explain the origins of the universe or of life on earth ultimately is a philosophical one, not a testable scientific proposition. Indeed, with new discoveries in biology, higher mathematics and other scienctific fields, and the persuasive explanations of the Big Bang theory and Chaos Theory, the materialist ideology is becoming ever more suspect.

Even so, the school board at Melvindale is not proposing to keep Darwinian evolutionary theory out of the classroom, merely to be sure that the arguments against it and for intelligent design are clearly explained to students. The object is not to close minds, but to open them.

Of course many pastors and other religious people care about this issue, and it is understandable that they would support the scientific critics of materialism. No matter how they regard Biblical authority on creation, they can see how materialism, with its assertion that only material causes are real, has damaged modern culture and undermined religious faith. It is largely due to materialism, for example, that we see so many pseudo-scientific excuses for irresponsible behavior in society and so much junk science in courtrooms.

Opponents of Darwinism should not try to win with scripture, but neither should defenders stoop to stigmatizing opponents as religious zealots.When evolution is discussed again in Melvindale, the schoolboard–and the national media–should follow the competing views of science, and throw away the heavyhanded Hollywood script.

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.