'Intelligent Design' Deja Vu

By Douglas Baynton
Saturday, December 17, 2005

School boards across the country are facing pressure to teach "intelligent design" in science classes, but what would such courses look like? Thankfully, we need not tax our imaginations. All we have to do is look inside some 19th-century textbooks.

The one science course routinely taught in elementary schools back then was geography. Textbooks such as James Monteith's "Physical and Intermediate Geography" (1866), Arnold Guyot's "Physical Geography" (1873) and John Brocklesby's "Elements of Physical Geography" (1868) were compendiums of knowledge intended to teach children a little of everything about Earth and its inhabitants.

These textbooks seem also to have been intended to provide solace for the existentially anxious. All of them offered in one form or another the reassurance that "Geography teaches us about the earth which was made to be our home." Earth by itself "could not be the abode of man," advised one. "Therefore, two indispensable agents are provided -- the sun and atmosphere." The entire vast history of the planet was summed up as the "gradual formation by which it was made ready for the reception of mankind." The lay of the land had been thoughtfully arranged for our benefit: "As the torrid regions of the earth require the greatest amount of rain, there are the loftiest mountains, which act as huge condensers of the clouds." Because the breezes that blew down mountainsides cooled the inhabitants below, the highest were located in the hottest parts of the world "for the same reason that you put a piece of ice into a pitcher of water in summer, rather than in winter."

Evidence of design was found in aesthetics as well. Behold "how greatly the scenery of mountains ministers to our love of the beautiful and sublime," one book counseled, "and how much would be lost in this respect if the surface of the earth were a monotonous, unbroken plain." Wherever we look we see "a beautiful world, which was made for the enjoyment and benefit of the whole human family."

What is wrong with such comforting thoughts? For one, if you've concluded that the world is designed for humans, there is no compelling reason to stop there. Why not a world made not just for your species but also for your race, your nation, your moment in history? For example, the designer's partiality toward the temperate zones was demonstrated by the fact that they were blessed with the useful animals, while "the fiercest Carnivora, as the lion, tiger, and jaguar . . . have their homes within the torrid climes of the globe." Too bad for the people of the torrid climes.

Another book explained that all the plants and animals that lived and died for eons did so precisely because humans, during their industrial era, would need the coal. The author observed that "the wisdom of this Plan is further recognized in the fact that the coal is found, mainly, in those parts of the earth that are best fitted for human habitation -- in the United States, Great Britain, Western Europe, British America, and China."

Of course, these observations contain germs of truth. The presence of useful animals affects social development. Mountains modify climate. Design arguments, however, reverse such practical explanations, replacing natural causality with supernatural predestination. In doing so, useful answers that open up further questions are replaced by answers that are emotionally satisfying but intellectual and practical dead ends. After all, once you know that mountains exist because they were meant to exist, what is left to do but to sit in your armchair and meditate on the wisdom of their design?

Two textbooks laid out the very terms of the current controversy. Brocklesby's "Elements of Physical Geography" told readers in 1868 that "the physical phenomena of the world reveal in their harmonious action a unity of plan and purpose, and display in an infinite variety of ways the 'Power, Wisdom and Goodness of the Almighty Designer.' " By 1901, the Rand-McNally Grammar School Geography instead maintained that the study of geography ought to reveal "a connected chain of causes and results, every link of which presents a problem to stimulate investigation and awaken rational thought."

There is our choice. The details have changed, but the fundamental habits of thought at issue have not. Do we want children to learn what is currently known and, more important, what remains to be discovered, about the physics of planetary motion? Or rather should they learn that "As the earth is round, only half of it can be lighted at once. In order that both sides may be lighted, the Creator has caused the earth to rotate"?

The writer is an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. He will answer questions about this column on Monday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company