Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul
Friday, February 23, 2007
To the combatants, the conflict in Dover seemed new and dangerous, even epochal, but in truth it was but the latest iteration of a battle spanning five centuries and continuing still. It began when Copernicus launched the scientific revolution, removing humanity from the center of the solar system and revealing the Earth, despite all appearances and assumptions and faith to the contrary, to be a mere mote adrift in a vast cosmos, no longer the apple of God's eye. Then came the Age of Enlightenment and the learned deists who founded America, men like Jefferson and Franklin and Washington, who envisioned a creator setting the universe in motion but then letting matters unfold on their own-one reason, perhaps, why the Founding Fathers so adamantly fashioned a nation in which religion and government were never to interfere with each other. A century later, the paleontologists and geologists began to unearth a past no one ever had suspected, of long-extinct jungles, giant reptilian monsters, and an Earth that appears to be billions of years old instead of the 6,000 years carefully calculated from the Bible and assumed to be true for most of a millennium. That bedrock beliefs could crumble so quickly and easily in this new age of science was disturbing, to say the least, yet the western world took comfort in the one great truth that stood through it all, dating back to Plato and before: the grand design of life that laymen and scientists alike could observe everywhere around them. They witnessed the amazing delicacy and aerodynamic perfection of a bird's wing; the fish's sleek body so astutely fashioned to swim; the miracle of the human eye, a complex assemblage of innumerable parts that far outstripped anything man could ever hope to build-marvelous machines and breathtaking beauty in form and purpose, all of it evidence that a master engineer of infinite power had breathed life and purpose into creation. Science, it seemed, couldn't alter that fundamental truth; indeed, as the power of microscopes and telescopes and man's insight into nature increased, the purposeful design underlying creation seemed not less but more obvious. By the middle of the nineteenth century, scientific proof of the existence of God seemed achingly, gloriously within reach.
And then Charles Darwin took all that away, too, delivering in its place a world built in part by accident, in part by the brute, blind drive to survive-a purpose, to be sure, and a direction, but not a design. Chance, adaptability, and good fortune ruled this new world, where each species could not be seen, after all, as a master composer's symphony, but as a desperate mechanic's jury-rig of used parts. Dolphins (but not fish) have vestigial fingers inside their fins, and a bat's wing (but not a bird's) closely resembles the structure of the human hand not because such adaptations make anatomical sense from a design point of view, but because all three sets of limbs were derived from the same basic mammalian model: arms, wrists, phalanges, parts recycled and reshaped by variation and natural selection across vast stretches of time. Darwin and those who embraced and perfected his theory perceived an even greater grandeur in this view of life, of a nature so full of wonder that a simple, primitive life-form, no more than a germ, could evolve across the ages into a butterfly and a tiger and a man. To them, this suggested a God infinitely more subtle and magnificent than ever before imagined, having fashioned a creation that creates itself.
But the implications were also fairly horrifying when it came to man's place in this Darwinian world. Higher purpose was gone. Made in God's image-gone. And what of the soul? Only men had souls, it was said, but if humans shared a legacy with apes and sharks and garden slugs, did that even leave room for a soul? For an afterlife? For something greater than the flesh? The logic of Darwin, notwithstanding his own invocation of a creator in his writings, suggested that man's ascendance was nothing more than a happy accident, the flip side of which was this: If you could turn back the clock and do it all over again, humanity, which had the arrogance to fancy itself the pinnacle of creation, might not even come to exist the second time around. Life, intelligence, consciousness, and love were not gifts from God; it was all just a lucky break, a roll of the dice. And there it was: Darwin, alone among scientists in the new age, had finally provided the proverbial last straw for the faithful. It was one thing for science to destroy geocentrism, or to turn the Bible from literal history into lovely metaphor, but when it tried to dethrone man as God's masterpiece and render him no better (or worse) than marsupial or mollusk, then science simply had gone too far. The war that ensued has not really abated since.
"Will you honestly tell me (and I should be really much obliged) whether you believe that the shape of my nose (eheu!) was ordained and 'guided by an intelligent cause'?" an exasperated Darwin wrote to the pioneering geologist Charles Lyell amid the outcry that followed publication of The Origin of Species. It was as succinct a put-down of what has come to be known as intelligent design as has ever been delivered in science. But a century and a half later, Darwin's unfortunate proboscis (eheu! being Latin for "alas!") has still failed to stem the howls of protest from men and women who see evolutionary theory as both sacrilege and threat.
Tucked away in a mostly rural swath of York County, famous for the battle of Yorktown and for hosting the fledgling American government for nine months during the Revolutionary War as the founders dodged the redcoats, Dover began its life as a waypoint on the road to larger towns and markets. Even today, with a population just shy ...