Despite its analytical power to explain what scientists see in nature, the modern neo-Darwinian theory of evolution has taken it on the chin recently.
Public opinion surveys suggest that only about 1 in 10 Americans believe that life developed through purely natural processes, without divine assistance. And over the past year, state and local school boards from Kansas to Pennsylvania have voted to open their biology classes to supernatural explanations for life.
Last month, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, one of new pope's closest advisers, decreed that an "unguided evolutionary process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply cannot exist." This month, President Bush added his voice to the chorus saying that schools should teach intelligent design, or "ID," alongside the theory of evolution. And in suburban Cobb County, the school board continues its legal fight for textbook stickers that stress the supposed tentative status of evolutionary science.
One problem is that most Americans don't find Darwinism appealing. According to modern Darwinists, random genetic variations chosen by a dog-eat-dog struggle for existence created all living kinds, even humans -- with nothing guaranteeing our survival at the top of the heap. At any time, any one of a host of horribles, from a nuclear holocaust to a mutant virus, could replace us with cockroaches (or even bacteria) as the dominant species on Earth. Darwinism is not a comforting worldview for conscious, egotistical beings like us.
Humans are mammals with a sense of purpose. That is our nature. Many theories of modern science have challenged our sense of purpose. Astronomy has moved us from the center of a finite universe to the periphery of a minor galaxy in a vast and expanding universe that may itself be only one of many universes and merely a blip in time that came from and will return to nothingness. Geology and paleontology have pushed back our origins beyond any meaningful comprehension. Darwinism leaves life itself to chance. No wonder people rebel against such ideas.
Notwithstanding protests by its proponents to the contrary, the intelligent design movement is a rebellion against modern science. Scientists look for natural explanations for natural phenomena. Their best explanations, if they survive rigorous testing, become scientific theories.
The argument for intelligent design, in contrast, stands or falls as a critique of science. Its proponents may challenge the sufficiency of evolutionary explanations for the origin of species, but they have not -- and cannot -- offer testable alternative explanations. The best they can offer is the premise that, if no natural explanation suffices, then God must have done it. Maybe God did do it, but if so, it's beyond science.
This is where lots of people would like to be: beyond science. There is little solace in science for members of a species that seek meaning above all. We arose from the muck by chance and through a struggle for existence. We will return to the dust knowing that everything that can remember us or be influenced by our efforts ultimately will end. Life passes from darkness to darkness with fleeting patches of light along the way.
The intelligent design hypothesis posits that we came from a designer who transcends nature's limits and offers us hope that we will live beyond those limits someday. We pass from light to light with bits of darkness only in this world.
If given only these two alternatives, then it should come as little surprise which of them many Americans choose to believe and want to teach to their children -- especially now that credentialed academics associated with the ID movement have given them some reasons to doubt Darwinism.
Twenty-five years ago, President Reagan offered voters morning for America in place of President Carter's vision of a national malaise. Voters chose Reagan in a landslide. Now President Bush wants schools to offer morning for eternity alongside Darwinism. If we took a popular vote, I suspect that ID would win in many places.
America's decentralized system of elected local school boards facilitates the challenge to Darwinian instruction. Highly motivated groups of concerned voters can have a major impact on what is taught in their local schools. When popular challenges to Darwinism surface, such as the current ID movement, they are bound to take root somewhere. It may be Cobb County one month and Dover, Pa., the next.
The media then focuses the nation's attention on those few places where the pot is boiling rather than the many places where it is not, creating the impression of exploding support for ID everywhere. Add to that the continuing appeal of evangelical Protestantism, with its tradition of looking for evidence of God in nature, and the result is a fertile field for challenging Darwinism.
It is different in Europe, where there are few evangelical Christians and a long tradition of cultural deference to established authority. National experts set the school curriculum throughout Europe. Even if Europeans were inclined to challenge Darwinism, they simply would not have the opportunity to put the question to a popular vote as Americans do through local school boards.
And when Americans vote, they vote with their hearts as well as their minds. Given the options, I'm sure that most Americans would prefer to be the product of a purposeful designer than purposeless evolution. Not surprisingly, that is what many of them see when they look at nature: design and purpose. To some, it simply does not seem fair to exclude that perspective from the classroom. But that does not make it science.
Edward J. Larson is the Russell Professor of History and Talmadge Professor of Law at the University of Georgia. His 1997 book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion won the Pulitzer Prize in History.
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