Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 2010

June 2010

God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom

By Mano Singham

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Pages: 192

Price: $34.95

Review Author: Terry Scambray

You can judge this book by its cover — or at least by its title. Whenever evolution is situated in opposition to “creationism,” it signals that this most profound drama has suffered a mutation and has degenerated into melodrama.

Too bad that Mano Singham, an adjunct professor of physics at Case Western Reserve with a background in philosophy, chose to write this brief legal history of the Darwin wars without a broader perspective on the issues. For Singham, the Darwin wars are a tedious replay of the 1925 Scopes trial, to which a third of his book is devoted. Although Singham relies on some of the recent scholarship on that episode, he still sees the case in the provincial way H.L. Mencken presented it. Brilliantly acerbic though he was, Mencken nonetheless saw the case as a narrow contest between biblical literalists and evolutionary scientists. This caricature pervades Sing­ham’s entire book, which, unfortunately, makes it a tedious and tendentious replay.

In his myopic view, Singham sees the various legal challenges to Darwinism during the past 60 years as attempts by religious zealots to storm the wall that separates church from state. He begins his story of these legal challenges by pointing to state laws that banned the teaching of evolution in the wake of the Scopes trial. Though rarely enforced, these laws ran into trouble in the 1950s after the launching of Sputnik, which created an increased emphasis on science. With this emphasis came new textbooks that included more material on evolution, which teachers were required to present.

The Arkansas Education Association, sensing a conflict, challenged state law requiring its presentation. The case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968. The Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that laws banning the teaching of evolution because they conflict “with a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis” are unconstitutional.

Well enough as far as it goes. But this decision, unfortunately operating in the shadow of the Scopes episode, framed the argument once again as a science-versus-religion conflict.

In 1971 the Lemon v. Kutzman case resulted in what is now known as “the Lemon test.” Though the case was not about evolution, the Supreme Court ruled that the intent of any law must be purely secular, neither advancing nor retarding religion. Since Singham sees the Darwin debate as a contest between religion and science, he finds this criterion useful for the legal melodrama he narrates.

In 1981 the Louisiana legislature passed a law that provided for a “balanced treatment” policy for state schools, featuring the teaching of creation science alongside evolution. This policy was also outlawed by the Supreme Court. In the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case, the Court ruled that the mandated teaching of creation science “impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.” The Court claimed that the Louisiana legislature was driven by religious motives when it passed the balanced-treatment policy. Thus, the Court majority ruled that the law failed the Lemon test.

It is worth noting that Justice William Brennan wrote in his majority opinion that “teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.”

Also ignored by Singham is Justice Antonin Scalia’s incisive dissent in the Edwards case. Scalia argued against the Lemon test by noting that laws that provide assistance for the poor would have to be struck down if subjected to such a test because they arise from “religious beliefs.” Scalia also pointed out that “political activism by the religiously motivated is part of our heritage.” Scalia argued that for the Court to take any side in this case embroiled it in religion because the Court had defined secular humanism as a religion, a central tenet of which is evolution. Further, Scalia indicated that someone would have to be “gullible” in order to believe that evolutionary theory is so conclusive that there could be no contrary scientific evidence. He referred to such gullibility as “illiberal” and “Scopes-in-reverse.”

Singham predictably approves of a federal judge’s 2005 decision in Dover, Penn., that banished the teaching of “intelligent design” from local classrooms. Singham sees intelligent design, as did the judge in that case, as merely a clever ploy by creationists to smuggle religion into the classroom. It is not. Intelligent design is based on the observation that the complexity in nature looks contrived. Contrary to Darwinism, which argues that accidental, unintelligent forces are responsible for this complexity, intelligent-design advocates argue that the best explanation for such sublimely interdependent patterns in nature is that they are, indeed, designed.

Intelligent design is truly scientific in that it puts no limits on the search for truth, unlike Darwinism, which permits only naturalistic or materialistic explanations. More importantly, most intelligent-design proponents are not fundamentalists — some are not even Christians. That’s because intelligent design does not posit the Christian God as the designer, nor does it rely on the Bible or any sacred writings. As Michael Denton, the well-known molecular biologist, medical doctor, and non-Christian, has written, “the inference to design is a purely a posteriori induction.”

Singham’s fundamental weakness is that he equates “science” with naturalism. Certainly science at the experimental level should stick to naturalistic causes, what he calls “methodological naturalism.” But methodological naturalism should not lead to “metaphysical naturalism,” a philosophy that holds that nature is all that exists.

What is lost on Singham, and like-minded individuals, is that restricting the study of origins to naturalistic causes came about due to a theological concern. As biophysicist Cornelius Hunter shows in his formidable book Science’s Blind Spot, this concern developed in the 17th century when the microscope and telescope began offering new perspectives to scientists who then became troubled as to how a good God could have made such a treacherous and ostensibly bungled creation. The best option, they thought, was to protect God by removing Him from the scene, making Him a distant, deistic god, undiminished by the problems of His own creation. And so Prof. Singham’s “scientific materialism” is entangled in religion in ways that, ironically, would make it fail his esteemed Lemon test.

The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays

By James V. Schall

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 332

Price: $34.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

The Mind That Is Catholic is a selection of twenty-two essays Fr. James Schall, S.J., has published over the past fifty years. Whether they deal with Plato, Augustine, Western secularism, or the Trinity, these essays all ask an important question: What is unique about the mind that is Catholic? Fr. Schall answers that this mind is open to the entirety of what is. Catholics realize that man is endowed with “a nature, an inner configuration” directing him to know and love “what is true from whatever source its evidence might arise, even from common sense, even from reason, yes, even from the revelation handed down to us.” It is the Catholic mind that cherishes this complete receptivity to what is.

Catholics are open to both Athens and Jerusalem, to both reason and revelation. Fr. Schall explains that we have faith in reason because we believe “reason contacts a world we did not create ourselves out of our own minds.” Yet we also know that finite reason cannot account for all that is. Miracles occur, so we need an understanding of reality open to these occurrences. “Ultimately, we are receivers.”

Catholics are not utopian because we do not ignore man’s inclination to sin. We know that in no area of life — family, politics, religion — are men “immune from the results of the Fall or the hope of the Redemption.” Revelation depicts original sin as resulting from “the claim to locate the distinction between good and evil in the human soul, in its power to make and choose.” Thus, the Fall was “located in the spiritual, not material side of the rational being.” From this, Catholics conclude that exterior change will not set things right without the reformation of our souls. Modern secularists believe, however, that the world can be improved merely “by a reorganization of property, family, and polity.”

Fr. Schall observes that the secularist mind is shut off to what is. It refuses to grant existence to what it has not willed. With the rejection of faith, an autonomous mind has arisen whose “self-enclosed circlings” have no source but itself. Although it boasts of openness to all things, this modern mind is characterized by “closed parameters,” as when it marginalizes metaphysics and theology, the “two core disciplines that come closest to grounding the whole human world as an order and not a chaos.” Its great principle is supposedly tolerance, but this word disguises an unwillingness to find the truth. Tolerance today means that nothing is “intolerable” except for the “public claim that Christianity, in its central positions about God, world, and man, is true.” It is another way of saying, Do not try to change anyone’s views by debate because you will be violating a central principle of modern culture.

What causes bitter antagonism in today’s “tolerant” world is the Catholic claim that there is a right way to live, and that right and wrong are objectively grounded in what is. For the modern mind, the great project is “to replace all natural and divine ends by man-established ones.” When a mind has rejected openness to the given order of the world, the only remaining source of rationality is an intellect presupposed to no given form of its own and bent on “creating” man according to norms specifically opposed to what he was seen to be in nature. Among other things, this autonomous mind denies the body’s “intrinsic connubial orientation,” and treats it as if it contained in itself no principles or structures that need to be respected. In the end, though, such freedom, oriented to nothing but itself, makes man miserable: “For autonomous man, final existence of some perfect polity down the ages arrayed against nothingness is the sole human guarantee, whatever its consolation, against ultimate human and individual meaninglessness.”

After we have heard the secularist explain everything by reason, including reason itself and its reasonableness, we discover that his sort of humanism is no humanism at all. Fr. Schall notes that much of this sort of philosophy is a desperate effort to “prove” that revelation cannot be true. Yet revelation gives an accurate account of our human condition and of our yearning for happiness. Far from being the death-knell of philosophy, revelation is its reawakening. St. Augustine inaugurated a new era when he made revelation the starting point for reason, and with him philosophy became receptive to whatever is, from whatever source. Since then, Catholic thought has preserved theology and philosophy in a mutual openness because when reason wrestles with revelation it strangely becomes more itself, more philosophical. It develops a sense of a whole that fits together, at least in its general outlines. It comes to realize that things were originally intended for an end higher than we might expect.

Moreover, knowledge of the inner life of God teaches us “what we are.” If there were no persons in God, it is unlikely there would be persons anywhere else. The Trinity means that God is not alone and so has no need of man or the universe. This truth — that Trinitarian life is complete in itself — is “the essential and magnificent foundation of the dignity of creatures.” In this light we understand that all that is outside the life of the Trinity is related to God “not by necessity but by love and choice.”

Revelation is also needed to set a limit to politics, lest politics “become a spurious description of the order of reality, itself dependent solely on human projections.” Some things, however, are beyond politics and must be allowed to be what they are or else perish. Today, the autonomous polity claims an absolute freedom vis-à-vis man, although God Himself respects man’s free will. Catholic thought regards the human person as transcending the polity because there is something eternal in man: “Both human and divine will stand outside the laws of social and natural science, without denying the reality of secondary causes and an order of nature.”

Perhaps the two most charming essays in this book are those on “play,” in which Fr. Schall speaks of sports as a contemplation of what is. Games exist for their own sake in a sort of eternal time. Played for themselves, they belong in the realm of “superabundance.” Though we have no need of them, we love games as we love beauty, rejoicing that “what is not ourselves exists as it does and as do we, beholding it.”

In a brief review, it is impossible to convey a sense of the riches to be found in these essays culled from a lifetime of writings. Most important, though, Fr. Schall has achieved his goal in these pages and has made utterly clear what is unique and precious about the mind that is Catholic.

Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress

By Richard Weikart

Publisher: Palgrave McMillan

Pages: 254

Price: $79.95

Review Author: Lillie Beiting

The very phrase “Hitler’s Ethic” might strike readers as a glaring oxymoron, and rightly so. Thinking about Hitler as an ethical being seems ludicrous: How could the orchestrator of one of the most appalling modern atrocities subscribe to anything that remotely resembles an ethic? How could anyone ever attach a coherent ethic to a man whom we commonly dub an amoral nihilist?

In his well-researched and fascinating book Hitler’s Ethic, Richard Weikart tackles the common misunderstanding of Hitler’s amorality. Weikart argues that Hitler and his Nazi policy actually did operate on a coherent, if alarming, central ethic — an ethic of evolutionary progress. Weikart maintains that Hitler’s belief in the “survival of the fittest” was the foundation of his social policy and his morality. He regarded the success of the strongest race — the Aryan race or the German people (Volk) — as the sole guideline for moral authority. Hitler’s devotion to the evolutionary success of the German people would come at any cost and manifest itself in one of the most heinous displays of racism and contempt for human life in history.

Weikart, chairman of the Department of History at California State University Stanislaus, explains that Hitler’s anti-Semitism does not sufficiently account for the entirety of his philosophy. For Hitler, anti-Semi­tism was merely one component of a larger ideology, one that prized the supremacy and evolution of the Aryan race above all other concerns. Hitler appropriated Darwinist theory into his socially constructed notion of race in claiming that the Aryans represented the pinnacle of biological progress. Thus, for the Aryan race to succeed and inherit the earth, all weaker races needed to be exterminated. With this radical interpretation of Darwinism, Hitler believed that the only source of moral justification lay in action taken for the “progress” of the human species.

To structure his interpretation of Hitler’s correspondence, writings, speeches, and policies, Weikart explains that the German dictator followed six basic principles that embodied his vision of moral correctness: The state should promote pro-natal policies; eugenics should improve the biological quality of the German people; military action is required to obtain more living space for the Volk; policies should favor the Aryans over inferior races; Jews are one of the inferior races that must be exterminated; and racial mixture with inferior races must cease in order to prevent biological deterioration. Weikart illuminates these basic principles by detailing their many historical and social applications.

Because of its inherently reproductive nature, Hitler’s evolutionary ethic focused much of its energy socially, by encouraging the Volk to reproduce expansively while taking measures to prevent genetic mingling. More attentive to racial concerns than to economic realities, much of Hitler’s social theory took place on the home front. The Nazis redirected the meaning of moral propriety only to that which supported the continuation of the Aryan race through movements like anti-contraception legislation (for the Volk only, of course — sterilization is the correct policy for inferior races), expansive eugenic propaganda warning against copulation with inferior races (watch out for the Jews, they will breed rapists and criminals), the search for growing space or Leben­sraum (the risk of fine Aryan lives in war is only advantageous to grant future Aryan generations room to grow), and the re-appropriation of charity to a welfare system for economically disadvantaged Aryans (why waste money on the infirm when the healthy and racially adept could better use it?). These and other actions perpetuated Hitler’s evolutionary belief that some races are more moral than others, and that the superior mentality and morality of these higher races better merited the attention and resources previously given to those deemed inferior.

Though much of Weikart’s book focuses on immediate social applications of the Nazi ethic, it touches on the massive social maneuver most associated with Hitler — genocide. The detailed analysis of horrors during the Holocaust is painful to read, and the ties made between this evolutionary ethic and the mass murder of people deemed incompatible with Hitler’s evolutionary goals is the most haunting aspect of this book. Weikart’s last chapter is the crown jewel of his argument, for the detailed euthanasia of Hitler’s regime aligns itself well with evolutionary theory: If the only people worth moral esteem are healthy — i.e., the Volk who are capable of reproducing — then why not murder the disabled, the weak, and the racially impure? The Jews and other Holocaust victims caught the brunt of what was intended to be a much more widespread social plan.

Weikart explicitly states that this interpretation of Hitler’s ethic does not attempt to excuse Hitler’s action as misguided scientific intention, and that this theory does not account for every nuance of Hitler’s persona and ideology. Instead, it is a historical lens through which to consider the social error of racism while recognizing the impossibility of improving society through the callous and massive cost of human life. A thoughtfully researched and well-organized work, Hitler’s Ethic leaves the reader with a harsh reflection of the ramifications of blind evolutionary ethics. When the natural law is twisted to suit the contours of an ultimately racist agenda, wanton destruction and murder come to serve the highest moral purpose. After all, if the human struggle can be reduced only to the survival of the fittest, then there is no need for us to condemn the genocide of millions of human beings who do not make nature’s evolutionary cut, right?

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