Fall 2005 -- This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the 1925 trial of John Scopes, who was accused of violating Tennessee’s prohibition on teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species. Prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate and Christian fundamentalist, squared off against famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Although the anti-Darwinians won that skirmish, they came off badly in court, looking like closed-minded bigots.
The Scopes “monkey trial” marked the birth of “creationism”—the doctrine that man and the universe were created out of nothing by some consciousness only a few thousand years ago, rather than by evolutionary processes taking millions of years. But in its 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found creationism to be a religious belief and banned its teaching in public schools, seemingly once and for all, as a violation of the separation of church and state.
Now the war between creationism and evolution has flared up again, and old-fashioned Bible literalists are enjoying a resurgence. As just one indicator, a $25 million, 50,000-square-foot Creation Museum opened recently in Petersburg, Kentucky. Its exhibits proclaim that Man is only 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs rode as passengers on Noah’s ark.
Most of today’s controversies, however, center on those who want to have “intelligent design” taught in schools as science. A high-profile legal battle currently rages over a Dover, Pennsylvania, school board requirement that science teachers read a four-paragraph statement in class calling Darwin’s science into question and offering intelligent design as an alternative. One high school physics teacher in that jurisdiction complains of pressure from school board members not to “teach monkeys-to-man evolution.” Even President Bush has jumped into the fray, suggesting that intelligent design should be taught in schools along with Darwin.
Advocates of this belief claim that the structure of the universe and human beings is too complex to have arisen naturally and thus had to have a “designer.” They maintain that their beliefs are not religion but just another rational explanation of human origins, and therefore should be taught in science classes. Some of its advocates even maintain that science itself is a “faith”; so if you can teach one faith in schools, why not others?
Pitted against these proponents are those who understand that all living things—including humans—evolved from lower life forms over millions of years. They answer the creationists by explaining the science of evolution, and by observing that creationists are really pushing a religious rather than a scientific belief.
There are important points that both sides in this debate must recognize. First, creationists must appreciate that their beliefs are not—in any way, shape, or form—science. Science entails a rational method for acquiring knowledge, and the creationists are disingenuous if they maintain that their faith-based beliefs should be taught in classes as part of biology, geology, or any other such discipline.
The war between creationism and evolution has flared up again.
Second, those who take a rational approach to knowledge must understand that deep moral concerns motivate many creationists, and that these concerns should be addressed. They fear that if humans are merely animals produced by material processes, then there is no firm foundation for ethics; indeed, some see the social breakdown around them resulting in part from the teachings of Darwin. Since they reject moral relativism, they believe they must reject evolution. Thus, they find themselves attracted to convoluted and unconvincing critiques of science, and looking to mandates from God to supply humans with a moral code.
Creationists are right to reject moral relativism, but they are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of morality. Indeed, their beliefs ultimately undermine it. What they must grasp is that with the proper understanding of the foundations of ethics, they can have both morality and science.
To begin, we must define clearly what science actually is, and what should be taught in schools as science.
Science is not simply a set of beliefs. Rather, it is the chief method human beings use to acquire knowledge of the physical world.
We observe interesting phenomena. The moon goes through phases and changes position in the sky. The temperature, precipitation, and length of day and night change over a 365-day period. Lightning flashes overhead, and rain falls. Why?
Using the scientific approach, we put forward theories that attempt to explain the causes of these phenomena and to predict other facts. We then test those theories, seeking facts that might prove or—just as important—disprove them. In light of new facts we reject a theory, accept it, or, more often than not, amend and refine it. Science is a self-correcting methodology.
On a voyage around the world, Charles Darwin observed how different animals showed variations in their attributes that allowed them to fit into certain environmental niches. On the basis of mountains of observations he speculated that over long periods of time—perhaps millions of years—the characteristics of living things change. Some changes help certain organisms to survive better, and they produce offspring with the same features. Other changes put other organisms at a disadvantage, and they die out.
This theory predicts that we should find very old fossils of life forms that no longer exist, as well as fossils of intermediate forms of life between those old ones and live ones that still bloom, swim, walk, or fly today. Sure enough, we find hundreds of fossilized dinosaur skeletons and fossils of intermediate creatures—for example, the archaeopteryx, between dinosaurs and modern birds.
But most dramatically, we find hundreds of bones of creatures that are clearly not modern humans but are fundamentally different from apes and other simians. They had bigger brains than monkeys and skeletons that indicate they walked upright. There are handmade rock tools and fire-burnt sites associated with their fossils, too.
The hard-won knowledge from other sciences supports these findings. Biology shows us that genetic mutation was the mechanism that changed the physical characteristics of living things, and it also shows us in great detail exactly how humans are related to modern primates. Geology tells us that it takes millions of years for the physical features of our planet to change. Physics tells us how to date rocks based on radioactive isotopes found in them. Thus, we can accurately date the pre-human fossils that we find.
For example, from the fossils of more than three hundred individuals we find that Australopithecus afarensis lived 3 to 4 million years ago, stood upright, but still had a small brain, closer in size to an ape’s. Homo ergaster lived about 1.6 million years ago, had a far larger brain (though still smaller than those of modern humans), and had more extensive tool technology. By such means paleontologists trace the human family tree back three hundred thousand generations.
There is no serious disagreement among scientists about whether humans evolved. Rather, their questions concern, for example, whether evolution was smooth or occurred in swifter, punctuated bursts of change, or whether certain species led directly to humans or were dead-end creatures that died out.
Creationists manifestly do not follow this scientific methodology to come to their beliefs. They simply assert that humans were created pretty much in our current state only a few tens of thousands of years ago, and they then pick away at some of the open questions of paleontology. Their starting points in fact are religious texts. If they are honest at all, they will acknowledge that their beliefs about human origins are part of their religious convictions—matters of faith, not science—and so they will not insist that those beliefs be taught as science or as a challenge to science. By what standard could they mount such a challenge? There is no epistemological equivalence between the assertions of creationists and knowledge acquired through the scientific method.
The advocates of intelligent design fare little better. Their argument amounts to: We’re amazed at how intricate, complex, and well-integrated the universe is in general and humans are in particular. This couldn’t have happened by chance evolution. While humans perhaps did evolve, some designer must have been guiding the process.
This is an old argument in new clothing, one that might qualify as an attempt at philosophy but certainly not at science.
First, intelligent design by its nature is a belief based on religion, not science. Who is the designer? A human? Can’t be—we’re the ones being designed. Aliens from other worlds? Not metaphysically impossible, but, again, we’ve got no evidence for that whatsoever. Well, then, the designer must be—you guessed it—a divine entity. A god.
Second, if we are awed at the complexity of humans, how much more awed should we be at the complexity of our omnipotent designer? If complexity requires explanation, we might rightly ask, “Who designed the designer?” The answer from intelligent design proponents is always, “He/she/it didn’t need one. God always was.” Oh? Then why not conclude the same thing about the universe—the natural world and its processes?
Creationists see evolution and atheism as tied together.
Third, complexity does not imply “design.” One of Adam Smith’s most powerful insights, developed further by Friedrich Hayek, is that incredible complexity can emerge in society without a designer or planner, through “spontaneous order.” Hayek showed how in a free market the complex processes of producing and distributing goods and services to millions of individuals do not require socialist planners. Rather, individuals pursuing their own self-interest in a system governed by a few basic rules—property rights, voluntary exchange by contract—have produced all the vast riches of the Western world.
Many creationists who are on the political Right understand the logic of this insight with respect to economic complexity. Why, then, is it such a stretch for them to appreciate that the complexity we find in the physical world—the optic nerve, for example—can emerge over millions of years under the rule of natural laws that govern genetic mutations and the adaptability of life forms to changing environments? It is certainly curious that many conservative creationists do not appreciate that the same insights that show the futility of a state-designed economy also show the irrelevance of an “intelligently designed” universe.
It is also strange to see conservative creationists adopting a policy practice that was central to Stalinist Russia.
Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet pseudo-scientist who rejected the Darwinian insight that evolution occurs through genetic mutation. He believed—with the earlier, discredited theorist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck—that living creatures can, in effect, simply will their evolutionary change. For example, as the environment changes and there are fewer low-hanging leaves, short-necked critters stretch their necks to reach leaves higher on the trees. Over time these critters will themselves, in effect, into becoming giraffes.
Communist doctrine held a similar view of the evolution of human nature. Communism is, of course, contrary to human nature—most of us look out for ourselves rather than contently sacrificing for the “common good.” But the Reds thought that by changing our political-economic environment, we could simply will a change in our nature to make us into post-capitalistic, altruistic, socialistic men.
Scientific evidence did not support this belief, but the Bolsheviks did; so they mandated that this ideological article of faith be taught in schools, and they simultaneously repressed the critical, empirical approach to biology.
Anti-communist creationists certainly have disagreements with Darwin that are different than Lysenko’s. But creationists also hold beliefs based on ideology rather than the scientific process and wish to foist those beliefs onto the science curricula by power of law. No, they are no longer pushing to ban the teaching of evolution from classrooms, as did their predecessors in many states, including John Scope’s Tennessee. But their political pressure has had a chilling effect on textbook publishers and teachers, making them reluctant to openly discuss the purely rational pursuit of knowledge.
Yet another fear causes creationists to reject the findings of science.
Many early proponents of science and evolution were on the political Left. For example, the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 affirmed support for evolution and the scientific approach. But its article fourteen stated: “The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible.”
Subsequent humanist manifestos in 1973 and 2000 went lighter on the explicit socialism but still endorsed, along with a critical approach to knowledge, the kind of welfare-state democracy and internationalism rejected by conservatives. The unfortunate historical association of science and socialism is based in part on the erroneous conviction that if humans can use scientific knowledge to design machines and technology, why not an entire economy?
Further, many supporters of evolution were or appeared to be value-relativists or subjectivists. For example, Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes in the “monkey trial” eight decades ago, also defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. These two young amoralists pictured themselves as supermen above conventional morality; they decided to commit the perfect crime and killed a fourteen-year-old boy. Darrow offered the jury the standard liberal excuses for the atrocity. He argued that the killers were under the influence of Nietzschean philosophy, and that to give them the death penalty would hurt their surviving families. “I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all,” he said. “I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love.” This is the sort of abrogation of personal responsibility, denial of moral culpability, and rejection of the principle of justice that offends religious conservatives—in fact, every moral individual, religious or atheist.
In addition, nearly all agnostics and atheists accept the validity of evolution. Creationists, as religious fundamentalists, therefore see evolution and atheism tied together to destroy the basis of morality. For one thing, evolution seems to erase the distinction between humans and animals. Animals are driven by instincts; they are not responsible for their actions. So we don’t blame cats for killing mice, lions for killing antelope, or orca whales for killing seals. It’s what they do. They follow instincts to satisfy urges to eat and procreate. But if human beings evolved from lower animals, then we might be merely animals—and so there would be no basis for morality. In which case, anything goes.
To religious fundamentalists, then, agnostics and atheists must be value-relativists and subjectivists. Whether they accept evolution because they reject a belief in God, or reject a belief in God because they accept evolution, is immaterial: the two beliefs are associated, just as are creationism and theism. By this view, the only firm basis for morality is the divine edicts of a god.
This reflects the creationists’ fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of morality.
We humans are what we are today regardless of whether we evolved, were created, or were intelligently designed. We have certain characteristics that define our nature.
We are Homo sapiens. Unlike lower animals, we have a rational capacity, an ability to fully, conceptually understand the world around us. We are self-conscious. We are the animal that knows—and knows that he knows. We do not survive automatically, by instinct, but must exercise the virtue of rationality. We must think. We must discover how to acquire food—through hunting or planting—how to make shelters, how to invent medicines. And to acquire such knowledge, we must adopt a rational methodology: science.
Furthermore, our thinking does not occur automatically. We have free will and must choose to think, to focus our minds, to be honest rather than to evade facts that make us uncomfortable—evolution, for example—because reality is what it is, whether we like it or acknowledge it or not.
Our most important creation is our moral character.
But we humans do not exercise our minds and our wills for mere physical survival. We have a capacity for a joy and flourishing far beyond the mere sensual pleasures experienced by lower animals. Such happiness comes from planning our long-term goals, challenging ourselves, calling on the best within us, and achieving those goals—whether we seek to nurture a business to profitability or a child to adulthood, whether we seek to create a poem or a business plan, whether we seek to design a building or to lay the bricks for its foundation.
But our most important creation is our moral character, the habits and attitudes that govern our actions. A good character helps us to be happy, a bad one guarantees us misery. And what guides us in creating such a character? What tells us how we should deal with our fellow humans?
A code of values, derived from our nature and requirements as rational, responsible creatures possessing free will.
We need not fear that with evolution, or without a god, there is no basis for ethics. There is an objective basis for ethics, but it does not reside in the heavens. It arises from our own human nature and its objective requirements.
Creationists and advocates of intelligent design come to their beliefs in part through honest errors and in part from evasions of facts and close-minded dogmatism. But we should appreciate that one of their motivations might be a proper rejection of value-relativism, and a mistaken belief that acceptance of divine revelation is the only moral alternative.
If we can demonstrate to them that the basis for ethics lies in our nature as rational, volitional creatures, then perhaps we can also reassure them that men can indeed have morality—yet never fear to use that wondrous capacity which allows us to understand our own origins, the world around us, and the moral nature within us.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.