White Lies of Dover

The Limits of Darwinism

For what seemed like a generation, the late Carl Sagan was the voice of science on public television. With an exuberant confidence in the empirical method, he showed viewers of the edifying PBS series Cosmos how the procedures of science had successfully unraveled many mysteries of the universe.

Sagan never curtailed his understandable enthusiasm for natural science—the discipline of investigating empirically measurable phenomena in order to formulate testable hypotheses that explain and predict how the material universe works. But his enthusiasm also allowed him to convey, as though it were science, a point of view that strayed silently beyond science and into the realm of philosophy. Sagan’s Cosmos spread the following error: Since science investigates only matter, only matter is real. That is not a scientific proposition, because it is not limited to measurable phenomena and cannot be verified or falsified empirically. The same unspoken conflation of natural science and philosophical materialism continues to be the source of much confusion in one of today’s hot-button legal and educational controversies—the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The theory of evolution does not purport to explain the origins of life, or creation, or continuing existence, or to answer the primordial metaphysical question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The theory is an enduring professional consensus about how living nature developed into a variety of species over time. It is considered scientifically dispositive because it produces empirically verifiable hypotheses. Darwin introduced a new paradigm for the science of biology. According to this paradigm, the development of species can be explained as the result of random mutation and natural selection.

But today Darwin is often in the news for reasons that have little to do with science. In 2005, for instance, there was a media frenzy surrounding a court case (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) in Dover, Pennsylvania, about a school board’s decision to require teachers to read a one-minute statement to students at the beginning of their ninth-grade biology course. The statement advised students that Intelligent Design (ID) was an alternative theory to evolution and referred them to a book about ID. The board’s decision was challenged in court, and the case itself produced the correct result: ID does not qualify as an alternative scientific theory, and should not be presented as such in public schools. News reports, however, did little to explain why ID isn’t a proper scientific theory. Instead, they embraced a “town divided” theme. The Dover judge, John E. Jones III, was even quoted as saying “it was like a civil war.” On the PBS program Nova, a distinguished academic announced that one side in the debate about ID “makes people stupid,” while a local observer declared, “In the beginning, God created.... To me, that’s all I need to know.” Both the court’s lengthy opinion and media accounts of the case obscured several important points about this ongoing controversy.

First, the conflict between science and religion is a false one. It results from identifying the Judeo-Christian tradition with the view that the creation story in Genesis is to be interpreted literally. Thus Nova described the dispute in Dover as a “rift between science and Scripture [that] nearly destroyed the community.” A representative of the National Center for Science Education told viewers of the program that the case was about a movement to “re-Christianize American society.” Rarely mentioned are the many Christian criticisms of biblical literalism. St. Augustine abandoned literalism about seventeen centuries ago, when he developed a remarkably sophisticated theory of biblical interpretation to reconcile the obvious differences between our empirical knowledge of nature and the Genesis account of creation. Today, every serious Christian thinker cedes to science its proper jurisdiction over the investigation of the natural world. There is no theological argument against using scientific methods to develop evolutionary theory in order to explain how the material universe works, wherever that effort may lead.

Some secularists insist on a conflict between science and religion because they hope it will discredit all nonmaterialist viewpoints, which they hold in low regard. By associating those viewpoints with the Religious Right or with biblical literalism, they score an easy, empty point. The real issue is the relationship between science and metaphysics, and their different methods. Here the only conflicts are between different metaphysical outlooks—not between science and religion. Religion, despite its metaphysics, can accommodate science’s materialist method; and science, despite its materialist method, can accommodate religion’s nonmaterialist metaphysics.

Second, although religion addresses metaphysical questions, not every metaphysical position is religious. By carelessly equating a metaphysical position with religion, our public discourse assumes a conflict between one kind of philosophy and the First Amendment’s establishment clause. That clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Since 1947, those ten words have given rise to thousands of pages of judicial and academic interpretation. Recently, Chicago legal historian Philip Hamburger convincingly argued that by forbidding the new U.S. government to legislate either for any national, or against any state, establishment of religion, the establishment clause never mandated the separation of church and state. But whatever the establishment clause permits or prohibits, it was clearly not intended to keep any philosophical viewpoint out of schools or other public venues. Once that point is clear, it is hard to credit Nova’s claim that “the future of science education, the separation of church and state, and the very nature of scientific inquiry were all on trial” in Dover.

It was also a mistake to equate the motivation of ID proponents with the “theory” of ID itself. Nova told viewers that

the climax of the trial would be the judge’s ruling on a question: “When they introduced intelligent design into the classroom, were members of the Dover School Board motivated by religion?” If so, that would amount to a violation of part of the First Amendment to the Constitution, the establishment clause, which mandates the separation of church and state.

The false equation of individual motivation with legal purpose or effect leads to a conclusion everyone would reject: that lawmakers motivated by, say, the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount could not make valid laws penalizing murder, theft, or fraud, or authorizing antipoverty programs. In Dover, the real problem—apart from the fact that ID is not a properly formed scientific theory—was that proponents of ID misled everybody about their motivation, so discrediting themselves and angering the judge, who ruled against them.

A common confusion in public discourse is to mischaracterize a dispute over academic norms as a clash over the First Amendment. This transforms a dispute that should be resolved by voters or their representatives on school boards and in legislatures—prudently, and with the advice of educators—into an issue to be decided by a judge. Voters in Dover did finally resolve the matter, as they might have done without any lawsuit. They elected a new school board controlled by those who supported teaching evolution in science class without reference to ID. Since ID has not yet proposed—and may never propose—any testable hypotheses, the voters were indisputably correct, for reasons that have nothing to do with the First Amendment. But even if the normal political process had failed to solve the problem, the appropriate judicial remedy would be a challenge based on statutory or administrative academic norms, not a challenge based on church-state constitutional norms, which can ignite sectarian “civil war.”

In France and Germany, the subject of philosophy is part of the secondary-school curriculum. It is taught as a subject wholly distinct from religion or theology. In contrast to religious faith, philosophy is reason’s construction of a theory about fundamental aspects of our experience (so metaphysics is a theory of the real, epistemology a theory of knowledge, and ethics a theory of right action). Discussions of philosophical questions have been largely absent from U.S. public schools, whose curriculum was shaped by the disciples of the pragmatist John Dewey. But American pragmatism is itself a philosophical theory about fundamental aspects of our experience. Its characteristic rejection of metaphysics, like the hard materialism of many scientists, is part of an ongoing discussion within philosophy about what counts as real. High school students should be introduced to this discussion by teachers who know something about its complexity. Philosophical theories should not be mere footnotes, or suppressed axioms, of a literature, civics, or biology curriculum.

There is no good reason that a teleological theory of the cosmos, like the one awkwardly advanced by proponents of ID, should not be addressed in our public high schools—not in a biology class but in a philosophy course governed by sound academic norms. Just as educators need to avoid crossing over from religion into empirical science, they also need to avoid crossing over from empirical science into speculative metaphysics. For science to be confused with philosophy, or for either to be branded as religion, is to violate what Dominic Balestra, Fordham University philosopher of science, has called “epistemic justice”—which requires us to give each field of inquiry its proper respect and autonomy. The difference of scope and method between natural science and metaphysics is something public schools (and public television) should help our students understand. For now, they are mainly adding to the confusion.

Published in the 2008-10-10 issue: 

Eugene W. Harper Jr. is an adjunct fellow of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, and a partner of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey L.L.P. in New York. The views expressed here are his own.

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