August 11, 2005
Editor’s Corner - Junk Science
"Both sides ought to be properly taught," President George W. Bush told reporters in Texas Aug. 1, "so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.... You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
Bush, of course, was talking about the debate over whether "intelligent design," which is reclothed creationism, should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology classes. And his declaration is consistent with his past statements on this matter, which have riled his critics then and now. Those who rail, however, that Bush's views represent a fundamentalist, right-wing takeover of reason should remember that William Jennings Bryan, the most articulate and forceful opponent of evolution in American history, was a lefty.
A really big lefty.
The man who came to embody a reactionary opposition to modern science did so out of a deep concern for the fate of all of society's oppressed: the poor, the trade unionists and women. He ran four times for president as a populist Democrat, once on the same ticket that offered his Scopes trial nemesis, attorney Clarence Darrow, as a congressman.
Bryan's objections to evolution will be spookily or wearily familiar to anyone who has been following the current revival of the debate. The literature of the intelligent design movement makes a totem of the eye, using its complexity on the cellular level -- of which Darwin had no idea -- as proof of Darwin's blind spot. Bryan was drawn to the eye as well. The chances that an eye evolved out of "light-sensitive freckle" are so astounding, he orated, "Is it not easier to believe in a God who can make an eye?"
Bryan opposed teaching evolution not only because he believed it would undermine belief in God and the Bible, but the Great Commoner also feared that a Darwinian view of humanity "would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and power of wealth."
The end result would be social Darwinism by those who "worship brute ancestors" and the unrestrained use of eugenics.
What Bush and Bryan have in common, if not their political affiliations, is a faith-based understanding that science devoid of moral compass is a dangerous enterprise. And the 20th century provides plentiful examples that this is true. As wrong as Bryan was about the science of Darwin, he was prescient as to the implications. Francis Galton repackaged the science of his cousin -- Charles Darwin -- into junk science. In the late 19th century, he invented eugenics, and the idea held England in thrall until the 1930s. One fan across the Channel was Adolf Hitler, who wrote adulatory letters to leading eugenicists, and would use their crackpot theories to give his human experiments the patina of medical research.
The president's partiality to intelligent design keeps with a fundamentalist religious tradition that from the beginning has viewed evolution as contradictory to the word of God as revealed in the Bible. If humans evolved from lower life forms as a result of a mechanistic biological process, where is our sense of purpose, our meaning? If we are no different than animals, what prevents us from treating others like animals?
No such contradiction need exist. Bryan famously said that where the Bible and the microscope disagree, throw out the microscope. But 700 years earlier, the Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides said that if religious teachings contradicted direct observations about the natural world, either we failed to understand the teachings or the observations. In other words, the deeper we contemplate science, the more profoundly we must understand faith. The study and acquisition of scientific knowledge, he wrote, "are preeminently important religious activities."
Through scientific understanding, Maimonides wrote -- and centuries of Jewish doctors lived to prove -- we can better take care of our bodies, that we may more fully serve God.
A great wealth of Jewish tradition adheres to this view. We need science to explain how the world works. We need scripture, study and prayer to understand why it works, and to what ends. All of which suggests that, even for a religious person, intelligent design belongs in a comparative religion class -- or perhaps in a design class.
Abba Hillel Silver, the great American rabbi, said it best -- to Bryan no less. Silver stepped into the fray just as Bryan penned his 1925 attack on evolution, which he titled, "Is the Bible True?" Silver answered Bryan -- and Bush -- in a sermon at The Temple in Cleveland.
"Science or religion?" Silver said. "Which will survive? Why, both -- if man is to survive. Without religion, science is a dreadful destroyer, a machine that will crush the very man who invented it; for the mind let loose in the world, unrestrained by ethical and moral consideration, uninspired by purpose, is so much dynamite in the hands of a child. Religion without science is a helpless thing, subject to all the angers of superstition, subject to constant degeneration, because with the mind atrophied and the intellect left untrained, a man remains permanently incomplete. Science and religion are friends. God created His world by wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord."