What’s going on at The New Republic? The current issue of the magazine features two broadside attacks on the movement known as Intelligent Design [ID], and the magazine’s online edition adds a third. The articles are filled with rhetoric, vitriol, and urgency. Clearly, panic is setting in in some quarters–and that panic is over evolution.
In the August 22 edition of the magazine, literary editor Leon Wieseltier sets the stage by attacking Intelligent Design as “an expression of sentiment, not an exercise of reason.” In the online edition, reporter Ross Douthat argues that Intelligent Design “will run out of steam–a victim of its own grand ambitions.” Then, the magazine offers a massive article and book review by Jerry Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago. All this seems a bit much if the magazine’s editors really believe that Intelligent Design is about to run out of steam.
Coyne writes the cover story for the magazine, placing Intelligent Design and other criticisms of evolution in what he sees as their places–far outside the mainstream of what he considers to be intelligent thought. A faculty member of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Chicago, Coyne argues that Intelligent Design is simply the latest form of creationism, albeit a disguised form that constitutes a subtle political threat to the dominant scientific worldview. He argues that “Christian fundamentalist creationism has undergone its own evolution, taking on newer forms after absorbing repeated blows from the courts.” As he sees it, Intelligent Design “is merely the latest incarnation of the biblical creationism espoused by William Jennings Bryan in Dayton.” Lest anyone miss his point, Coyne then asserts: “Far from a respectable scientific alternative to evolution, it is a clever attempt to sneak religion, cloaked in the guise of science, into the public schools.”
Like many scientists fervently committed to evolutionary theory, Coyne demonstrates frustration and perplexity when confronted with the reality that so many millions of Americans reject the theory. By any measure, Coyne is a confident and assertive proponent of evolution, willing to argue that we should now know evolutionary theory to be true. “We have known for a long time that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old . . . and that species were not created suddenly or simultaneously (not only do most species go extinct, but various groups appear at different times in the fossil record) and we have ample evidence for species’ changing over time, as well as for fossils that illustrate large morphological transformations.”
Efforts to legislate curbs on evolutionary teaching in the public schools are, in Coyne’s view, evidence of a basic anti-intellectualism among the American people. Beyond this, he consistently asserts that opposition to evolution must be a disguised form of religious argument.
Coyne’s article provides an interesting perspective into the mind of those scientists and proponents of evolutionary theory who simply will not accept any acknowledgement that evolution remains a controversial issue among the American people.
When schools in several states decided to paste warning stickers on biology textbooks, proponents of evolution immediately took to the courts. Just this year, a federal judge ordered stickers removed from biology textbooks in Cobb County, Georgia. The stickers had read: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.” One might think that evolutionists, if truly confident of their theory, would see these stickers as nothing like a threat to their dominance in the academy. Not so.
As Coyne argues, “By singling out evolution as uniquely controversial among scientific theories, the stickers catered to religious biases and thus violated the First Amendment.” Talk about a stretch of logic. Furthermore, Coyne’s statement is a blithe effort to ignore the obvious–that evolution is “uniquely controversial among scientific theories,” at least among the American people.
In Coyne’s rather conspiratorial version of the controversy’s history, creationists simply came up with Intelligent Design after all else failed. “They are animated, after all, by faith,” he explains. “And they are very resourceful.”
Coyne’s potshots follow the usual pattern of scientific condescension. Intelligent Design is dismissed as “the latest pseudoscientific incarnation of religious creationism, cleverly crafted by a new group of enthusiasts to circumvent recent legal restrictions.” Evolution, he argues, is both “a theory and a fact.” He adds: “It makes as little sense to doubt the factuality of evolution as to doubt the factuality of gravity.”
Opponents of Intelligent Design who wish to come into the real world for a moment will recognize the limitations of such claims. After all, gravity, though unseen, fits naturally into the worldview of most conscious persons, who observe the operation of gravity on a daily basis and find the “theory” of gravity to be an intellectually satisfying way of explaining the world they observe. This is hardly the case with the theory of evolution.
Coyne certainly has no lack of confidence in evolutionary theory. After describing the dominant neo-Darwinian account of evolution, he then offers several paragraphs of “proof” for the theory. “And so evolution has graduated from theory to fact,” he asserts. “We know the species on Earth today descended from earlier, different species, and that every pair of species had a common ancestor that existed in the past. Most evolutionary change in the features of organisms, moreover, is almost certainly the result of natural selection. But we must also remember that, like all scientific truths, the truth of evolution is provisional: it could conceivably be overturned by future investigations. It is possible (but unlikely!) that we could find human fossils co-existing with dinosaurs, or fossils of birds living alongside those of the earliest invertebrates 600 million years ago. Either observation would sink neo-Darwinism for good.” Coyne sees the theory as safe, secure, and satisfying.
So why are so many persons drawn to the theory of Intelligent Design? More broadly, why do so many persons reject the theory of evolution? Coyne doesn’t even see the universe as offering an appearance of design. Instead, he sees only evidence of what would be an incompetent designer. “Organisms simply do not look as if they have been intelligently designed,” he asserts. “Would an intelligent designer create millions of species and then make them go extinct, only to replace them with other species, repeating this process over and over again?” If so, the intelligent designer must be “a cosmic prankster.”
But if Coyne misses the attraction of Intelligent Design–and fails to understand why so many Americans have such an aversion to evolutionary theory–Ross Douthat thinks that he gets it. “The appeal of ‘Intelligent Design’ to the American right is obvious. For religious conservatives, the theory promises to uncover God’s fingerprints on the building blocks of life. For conservative intellectuals in general, it offers hope that Darwinism will yet join Marxism and Freudianism in the dustbin of pseudoscience.”
Nevertheless, Douthat sees Intelligent Design as a potential “political boom for liberals, and a poisoned chalice for conservatives.”
Extending the debate over evolution to the nation’s Culture War, Douthat argues that the evolution wars allow liberals “the opportunity to portray every scientific battle–today, stem-cell research, ‘therapeutic’ cloning, and end-of-life issues; tomorrow, perhaps, large-scale genetic engineering–as a face-off between scientific rigor and religious fundamentalism.” The embrace of Intelligent Design on the part of many conservatives “reshapes the ideological battlefield,” Douthat argues, helping “liberals cast the debate as an argument about science, rather than morality, and paint their enemies as a collection of book-burning, Galileo-silencing fanatics.” We have been warned.
But it is Leon Wieseltier who takes the argument to the next level. Of the three articles, Wieseltier’s is the most acerbic, dismissive, and revealing. After all, Wieseltier argues that intelligent persons must not only reject Intelligent Design, but what he describes as any “literal” belief in the Bible.
As Wieseltier styles the issue, Intelligent Design “is a psalm, not a proof.” Here’s how he sets the issue: “The problem is that the cosmology in Genesis does not resemble what we know about the origins of the world. Which is to say, Intelligent Design was prompted by the consequences of literalism in the interpretation of Scripture. Now, there is no more primitive form of monotheistic religion than this. If you believe that the world was created by God in six days because the Bible says so, then you must also believe that the Israelites saw God’s hand, because the Bible says so, and that Moses spoke to God face to face, because the Bible says so, and that God’s feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, because the Bible says so, and so on. The intellectual integrity of monotheism depends upon the repudiation of such readings. Sanctity is not an excuse for stupidity.”
Now, he certainly put those who believe the Bible to be true in our place, didn’t he? Wieseltier’s tactic is to style any understanding that the Bible conveys actual truth claims as “literalism,” which must be dismissed by all right-thinking people.
Wieseltier’s article is helpful because it underlines the anti-supernaturalistic bias that stands behind the intellectual condescensions of the intellectual elite. “I do not mean to gloat,” Wieseltier insists. “If you were raised on Scripture as a child, if the Bible was your first enchantment, then it is not an easy matter to pull slightly away, to confer upon your improvising intellect so much power over its significations.” He continues: “There really is something childish about the notion that everything is exactly as the Bible says it is: this is the spell of fairytales.”
Wieseltier has been liberated from such “fairytales” and now encourages all thick-headed literalists to follow his example. Note carefully that Wieseltier’s rejection of biblical “literalism” goes far beyond a denial of six day creationism. Indeed, he rejects a literal understanding of all Scripture. It’s just poetry, after all.
Perhaps the most important lesson offered by this hyperbolic issue of The New Republic is the fact that the intellectual elite is directly threatened by the persistence of those who reject evolution. These three articles may represent intellectual condescension at its worst, but they also demonstrate intellectual anxiety. Someone has hit the panic button.