Politics & Policy

For Devolution

This week, President Bush reiterated his view that public schools should teach students “both sides” of the debate between intelligent design and evolution. To describe the conflict as a debate between two “schools of thought,” as the president did, is already to take sides: For critics of intelligent design, there can be no debate between an elegant scientific theory with vast explanatory power and a religious dogma that masquerades as science.

We see no reason to dispute the vast majority of scientists who believe in the common ancestry of life on earth–which many of the IDers, we gather, accept–and also believe in natural selection as the mechanism by which it attained its present variety. At the same time, we see no reason to accept the notion, made current by some popularizers of Darwin, that natural selection can explain absolutely everything about human beings. This is not just a matter of science having some mysteries still to solve: We doubt that a material explanation can in principle be found for the non-material phenomenon of consciousness. (Which is why those who are committed to the proposition that such an explanation can be found are so keen to redefine consciousness as a material phenomenon.)

The remaining issue, then, is whether the processes of random mutation and natural selection are “random,” “blind,” or “unguided.” The theological stakes here seem much lower than is typically supposed. Let us grant that God does not intervene to suspend the laws of nature so that mankind could come into being; let us grant that the laws of nature know nothing of what they are generating. Who made a universe with just the laws that could produce mankind? For a man to walk on water would be a miracle; but for water to exist at all is another kind of miracle. Forces of nature may be blind, but that does not mean that they were set in motion blindly. So proof that blind forces of nature created man hardly undermines the plausibility of the argument from design.

“That evolution is a national issue is almost entirely the result of mistakes by the Supreme Court.”

We are in favor of basic scientific education that reports the consensus of scientists on questions of scientific fact while carefully avoiding disputed theological or philosophical claims. But really, what does it matter what the president thinks about evolution or how it should be taught? There are no national standards that require evolution, or any other subject, to be taught in a certain way in the public schools. Nor should there be. (The most common argument for a national standard is that math in Oregon isn’t different from math in New York. But scientific facts and mathematical relations are also the same in Kiev, which does not mean we need binding international standards in education.)

That evolution is a national issue is almost entirely the result of mistakes by the Supreme Court. It has first set itself up as the regulator of all local governmental practices that have religious overtones. Compounding the error, it has decided to try to figure out the motivations of all those practices. So a local school board’s failure to teach evolution becomes, literally, a federal case: a violation of the Court’s version of the separation of church and state.

Whatever the outcome of the debate over evolution, it should be conducted at the local level. A federal judiciary that sees fit to police the boundaries between science and religion has already lost sight of its own boundaries.

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