Nov. 4, 2006 — -- For centuries, Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution have been hotly debated.
According to author Philip Kitcher, that trend is set to continue into the future, unless we can resolve the clash between religious faith and the discoveries of modern science.
In "Living with Darwin," Kitcher provides an informed, intelligent chronicle of Darwin's theory and the controversy surrounding it.
In 1882, when Charles Darwin died, his family planned tobury him in the churchyard of the village of Down in Kent,where, in his retreat from the bustle of scientific debate, hehad spent the last 40 years of his life. Their private plans wereoverridden by a public campaign, orchestrated by those whohad championed Darwin's ideas, and it was decided quicklythat he should be interred in Westminster Abbey, amongthe other luminaries of British science. Whatever doubts theymay have harbored, leading figures of the church declaredtheir satisfaction that "properly understood," the evolutionaryideas that had seemed so inflammatory in the 1860s, wereperfectly compatible with Christian doctrine. Darwin's ownagnosticism, well concealed by his cautious attempts to avoidalienating potential readers -- as well as to ensure that the religioussensibilities of his wife Emma (née Wedgwood ) were notoffended by his expression of his ideas -- went unmentioned.
Instead, the many tributes from the pulpit heralded him asan old-fashioned Deist, perhaps even as an interpreter of God'sBook of Nature. As one of the eulogies put it, "This man, onwhom years of bigotry and ignorance poured out their scorn,has been called a materialist. I do not see in all his writings onetrace of materialism. I read in every line the healthy, noble,well-balanced wonder of a spirit profoundly reverent, kindledinto deepest admiration for the works of God." With wordslike these, Darwin was laid in his place of honor beneath themonument to Newton. It seemed as though the church hadmade its peace with him.
Peace would not last, of course. Almost exactly a centuryafter Darwin was acclaimed as a "spirit profoundly reverent," hisdetractors petitioned in American courts to protect innocentschoolchildren from the corrosive influence of his theory. Inmany parts of the world, Scandinavia, Australia, Korea, theNetherlands, the years since 1882 have been punctuated byperiodic attempts to disinter Darwin, to repudiate the soothingrhetoric that accompanied his burial, and to expose him as aruthless enemy of right religion. Nowhere have these effortsbeen more strenuous than in the United States, where defendersof evangelical Christianity have campaigned in the1920s, in the 1970s and 1980s, and again today, to remove his ideasfrom science classrooms or to "balance" them with theoriesmore friendly to faith. Current discussions renew many of thearguments that were traded in the Tennessee courtroomwhere, in the summer of 1925, John Scopes was arraigned forteaching the "monkey theory." These arguments were joined withless flair in 1982, when Darwinism was again called to the barin neighboring Arkansas. Through all these episodes, leaders ofthe anti-evolutionary movement have been consistently clearthat Darwin has had a dreadful influence on subsequent culture.
"Evolution is the root of atheism, of communism, Nazism,behaviorism, racism, economic imperialism, militarism, libertinism,anarchism, and all manner of anti-Christian systemsof belief and practice."2 Initially, when the question "whichnineteenth-century thinker has had the most damaging effecton twentieth-century thought and practice?" is posed, it seemsthat there are several good candidates -- Nietzsche, perhaps,with his declaration of the death of God, or Marx, whofamously characterized religion as the opium of the people.Evangelical Christians are perfectly sincere, however, whenthey answer that it is Darwin, chosen by the Anglican churchto lie beneath the great, and, in his unorthodox way, devoutNewton, who is the real culprit.
From the perspective of almost the entire communityof natural scientists world-wide, this continued resistanceto Darwin is absurd. Biologists confidently proclaim thatDarwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is as wellestablished as any of the major theories in contemporary science,as the atomic chemistry that schoolchildren learn or themolecular genetics that is emerging from a great scientificrevolution still in process. Perhaps with a modest amount ofoverstatement, they echo Theodosius Dobzhansky's famousline, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light ofevolution."3 Religious scientists, often endorsing the ecumenicalattitudes that accompanied Darwin's burial, express regretthat their more militant fellow believers conjure an oppositionthat does not exist. Yet the issue will not go away. Detailedreplies elaborated in one generation may inaugurate a periodof calm, while resentment of Darwin and the establishmentthat defends him smolders sullenly. But the antipathy toDarwinian evolution runs so deep that sooner or later theresponses will be forgotten, ignored, or evaded, and the controversywill erupt anew.
Why is this? The question has two parts. First, how can theallegedly massive evidence in favor of Darwin's central claimsbe overlooked? How, if facts reflect what confident scientistssay, is even the illusion of a serious debate created? Darwin'sdetractors cling to the belief that the "massive evidence" isoverblown, and that the enthronement of Darwinism amongthe genuinely established sciences is the triumph of atheisticmaterialism. They believe that this atheistic materialism hascunningly co-opted religious scientists who don't even realizethey have been tricked. Like all comprehensive scientific theories,evolutionary theory has unresolved questions thatchallenge biologists. In order to address these challenges andthose of Darwinism's detractors, a clear presentation of theevidential situation, a delineation of the grounds on whichDarwinism rests, of the problems it faces and to which itsopponents point, and an appraisal of the merits of potentiallyopposing viewpoints must be provided.
The second part of the question concerns the source of thevehement opposition. Why is it that this particular piece of scienceprovokes such passions, requires such continual scrutiny,demands such constant reenactment of old battles? Again,those who would disinter Darwin have a favorite explanation.The sepulcher in Westminster is a screen and the enthusiasmfor Darwin's "reverence" a whitewash. From the militant evangelicalperspective, foolish Anglican churchmen were caughtup in popular enthusiasm, and signed on to "life without God."
They thought, of course, that they were only eliminatingGod from any direct role in the long history of life on ourplanet, operating in the venerable tradition that saw theCreator's action as remote, as a wise institution of initial conditionsfrom which the universe, and life within it, could unfoldby well-designed natural processes. In fact, however, theywere accepting "life without God" in a far more dangeroussense, blindly overlooking the subversive implications of thisparticular conception of life's history, the denial of all purpose,all providence, and all spirituality. The second issue,then, revolves around the implications of Darwinism. How doesit affect our understanding of ourselves, our place in the universe,our religious beliefs and aspirations?
In what follows, I hope to address both issues.
I write at a time when opposition to Darwin has a new face.Intelligent design, it is claimed, is not a religious perspective atall, but a genuine scientific alternative to Darwinian orthodoxy,something that could be taught alongside evolutionary theoryin the high-school biology curriculum without raising anyanxieties about teaching religion, and that could even provideschoolchildren with an "exciting event" on their "educationaljourney."4 Those who support this proposal, and who wish tosee it enacted as law, can be divided, for my purposes, into twomain groups. There are the architects of intelligent designtheory, the "intelligent design-ers" as I shall call them, and thecitizens whose support they enlist. In appraising the ideas andadvertisements of the intelligent design-ers, I do not mean tocriticize the sincere and worried people who rally to theircause. Only in the final chapter of this essay shall I consider thesources of their concern.
Advertising intelligent design as independent of religiousdoctrine is accurate in one important sense. To claim thatsome kinds of organisms are products of intelligent designdoes not logically entail any conclusion about the existence ofa deity, let alone any specific articles of Christian faith. Froma legal perspective, however, what matters is whether theremight be genuinely nonreligious reasons for advancing aproposed law. If nobody would support the law except on thebasis of religious beliefs, then, in the pertinent sense, the lawcannot be independent of religion.5 On this score, there areample reasons for worrying about measures intended tointroduce intelligent design into the biology curriculum.
In the first place, the style of argument that permeatesclaims of intelligent design traces back to William Paley'sNatural Theology -- required reading for Cambridge undergraduateswhen Darwin was a student and explicitly intendedas a response to the "atheistic" arguments of David Hume'sposthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.6 Second,studies of explicitly Christian writings about Darwinism haveshown that as the fortunes of "scientific creationism" -- thefavored alternative of the 1970s and the 1980s -- have waned,references to "creation science" have given way to citations of"intelligent design" without other perturbations of the prose.7Third, as the recent trial in Dover, Pennsylvania made clear, thesupport for teaching intelligent design in the local high schoolcame from religious people who felt the need to campaign foran alternative to Darwinism that accorded with their faith.Finally, in the wake of the rebuke administered by the votersin the local elections, who replaced the members of theDover School Board who had agitated for the inclusion of intelligentdesign in the curriculum, Pat Robertson himself issueda warning that this apparent repudiation of God would undermineany appeal to the Deity should some catastrophe strike thecommunity.