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...

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About the Author

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.