Beyond the Scopes Trial?

Singham’s new book misses the Christian foundation of law and much more.

by Terry Scambray

New Oxford Review

God vs. Darwin: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom by Mano Singham (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).

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

Too bad that Dr. Singham, an adjunct professor of physics at Case Western Reserve and an individual with a background in philosophy, chose to write this brief legal history of the Darwin wars without a broader perspective on the issues.

For Professor Singham, the Darwin wars are a tedious replay of the 1925 Scopes Trial to which a third of the book is devoted. Although Singham relies upon some of the recent scholarship on that episode, he still sees the case in the provincial way that the Baltimore journalist, 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 the entire book which, unfortunately, makes Dr. Singham’s book itself a tedious, not to mention, tendentious replay.

Such being the case, Singham views the various legal challenges against Darwinism during the last 60 years as attempts by religious zealots to storm the wall which separates church from state.

He begins his story of legal challenges to evolution by pointing to laws which banned the teaching of evolution in the wake of the Scopes trial. Though rarely enforced, these state laws ran into trouble in the 1950’s with the emphasis on science after the launching of Sputnik. With this emphasis came new textbooks which included more material on evolution which teachers were required to present. The Arkansas Education Association, sensing a conflict, challenged the Arkansas law.

In 1968 the case ended up in the United States Supreme Court which ruled inEpperson 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 vs. 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 religion vs. science contest, he finds this criterion useful for the legal melodrama that he narrates.

In 1981, the Louisiana legislature passed a law which provided for “a balanced treatment” policy for their schools, featuring the teaching of creation science along side of evolution.

This policy was also outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard. 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 Brennan in his majority opinion also wrote 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 case.  In it, Scalia argued that the Lemon test is skewed because laws, for example, which provide assistance for the poor would have to be struck down, according to Lemon, because such laws arise from “religious beliefs. .  . Also political activism by the religiously motivated is part of our heritage.”

Indeed taking any side in this case embroiled the Court in religion because, as Scalia wrote, secular humanism has been defined by the Court as a religion, a central tenet of which is evolution.

Additionally, 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”.

However, it is understandable that Scalia’s dissent is ignored since Singham, himself, seems unaware of any scientific evidence against Darwin. As it happens, evolution is not supported by the fossils, nor by the fact of the insurmountable distinctions that exist between different kinds of organisms, nor by the various experiments which mimic evolution in the laboratory.

But most importantly, Darwin’s theory says, for example, that when a squirrel turns into a hawk even over long geologic periods of time that all of these momentous changes happen accidentally.  In other words, nature alone can make itself.

Thus, this argument is not necessarily about a particular interpretation of “Genesis.” This argument, which dates to the ancient Greek materialist philosophers, is a philosophical argument besides being part of a broadly religious debate. Caricaturing it as a contest between enlightened science and ignorant fundamentalists can only show, ironically, the ignorance, or duplicity, of those trying to make such an argument.

Predictably Singham approves of a federal judge’s 2005 decision in Dover, Pennsylvania, which banished the teaching of intelligent design from the classrooms there. 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. Thus there is something afoot that one would recognize as an intelligence or a mind at work. Contrary to Darwinism which argues that accidental, unintelligent forces made 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.

Besides, most intelligent design proponents are not Fundamentalists and some are not Christians while a few are even agnostics and atheists. And that’s because intelligent design does not posit God as the designer nor is it involved in 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.”

Furthermore, as University of Wisconsin historian of science and evolutionist Ronald Numbers states, equating creationism with intelligent design is “the easiest way to discredit intelligent design.”

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

What is finally lost on Singham, and like minded individuals, is that restricting the study of origins to naturalistic causes came about historically because of 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 a different perspective 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.

So Professor Singham’s “scientific materialism” is entangled in religion in ways that, ironically, would make it fail his esteemed Lemon test.

Regardless, most scientists who have ever lived have thought of nature as designed and fine tuned for life. Indeed, even Darwinists admit that life does appear designed. But they toss design out, insisting that only naturalistic explanations qualify as science. But such a self serving, ideological restriction ends up blinding science to what may be the truth.

Since Mencken’s portrayal of the Scopes trial continues to be so influential in this debate, it may be fitting to conclude with some of his remarks. While Mencken had conflicting ideas at various times in his life about religion, there is no question that he was mainly negative toward it. However, Mencken wrote this:

I can recall no concrete atheist who did not appear to me to be a donkey.

To deny any given god is, of course, quite reasonable, but to deny all gods is folly. For if there is anything plain about the universe it is that it is governed by law, and if there is anything plain about law it is that it can never be anything but a manifestation of Will.

 Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, CA

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