Jewish World Review August 8, 2005/ 3 Av,
Designing an intelligent debate
But what the president actually said was hardly enough to shake
the earth. He said he thinks it's important for children to understand what
the endless argument over the Darwinian theory of evolution is all about.
"Both sides should be properly taught . . . so people can understand what
the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different
schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be
exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
This naturally opens a Pandora's box (to draw on a metaphor of the
ancient Greeks), because how children learn about "the debate" is crucial to
their understanding of it. As far as I can tell, the president does not
advocate teaching "intelligent design," the belief that a divine hand was at
work creating the universe, as a scientific course, but to let children know
there's a debate over Charles Darwin's theory that man evolved from lower
life forms. Fair enough.
There's some truth in that. Important pieces of the "truth,"
culled from meticulous research that is still going on, support the
Darwinian theory. But in actual, provable fact, Darwinians are no more
knowledgeable than Aristotle was in plumbing First Causes.
One revealing anecdote from the early conflicts over Darwinism
comes from the debate between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and the scientist
T.H. Huxley at Oxford in 1860. With extravagant gestures and mock
politeness, the bishop turned to Huxley, defending Darwin's celebrated
"Origin of Species," and "begged to know, was it through your grandfather or
your grandmother that you claim descent from a monkey?" Huxley, armed with
the learning of the Enlightenment and scientific method, replied that he
would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be
"ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the
William Irvine writes in "Apes, Angels and Victorians" that one woman expressed her intellectual confusion by doing what any well brought up Victorian lady would do to escape the unpleasantness of the moment. She fainted. But Huxley was confident that science, superior to religious belief, could offer something more tangibly enduring than theology. Fainting would not be necessary.
Scientists hold many different interpretations of the significance
of Darwinism. The evidence at its best explains how and why certain species
change, survive or become extinct. There are holes in the theory, as
intellectually honest scientists including Darwin himself have always
readily conceded. Intelligent design, on the other hand, depends not on
evidence but belief. Religious values, like fashion, depend on belief in
What this debate shows is how intellectuals, so called, are quick
to ridicule religious folk, much in the way that Bishop Wilberforce made fun
of Huxley. If religion was once regarded as the key to history, as Lord
Acton observed, "in today's intellectual circles . . . it's more like the
skunk at the table," as Os Guinness recalls in the Wilson Quarterly. He
advocates a public discussion of religion in American life today as a way to
get a firmer grasp of the way that religious belief, whether the Darwinians
like it or not, has shaped who we are, where we came from and where we're
going. The debate over "intelligent design" vs. Darwinism, as demonstrated
by the furor over the president's innocent remarks, is not likely to evolve
into such a discussion. More's the
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