Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Hallowed Secularism and the Fight over Evolution

8/1/2007--The disagreement between atheists and religious believers over the ground of existence is what is actually behind the controversy in America concerning teaching evolution in the schools. That fight is not about facts so much as about meaning. Eventually, the people who deny that evolution is the way life unfolds will have to give up, since evolutionary theory is fundamentally an accurate explanation of how things are. Even religious believers cannot fight facts forever.

But there are scientists and historians of science and philosophers of science who subtly, and not so subtly, use the facts of evolution to assert that there is no God and that the process of evolution has no meaning. And, indeed, Pope Benedict agrees that when a person has lost God, “then you are nothing more than a random product of evolution.”[1]

How should we characterize this dispute between some scientists and Pope Benedict? They probably agree on the facts of evolution. They probably also agree that the matter of whether evolution is random, in the special sense that its processes have no meaning, is not an aesthetic judgment, but is, in some way, true or not.

This dispute is absolutely capable of rational discussion. The dead ends of evolution seem odd if an intelligent designer is involved. Why did God bother with Neanderthals, for example? On the other hand, over time and in a general way, the universe selected for beings with increasing capacity for gratitude, for reverence and for expanding the circle of empathy. And, as the work of Frans de Waal, and others suggest, these moral traits did not just pop up in humans but at least began to evolve in animals that are close to us on the evolutionary tree.[2] Why would that be? What kind of a universe selects for morality? I would answer, one grounded in meaning.

So this dispute over evolution is quite deep. It is not just “one side” that wants to inject religion into biology class. The meaning of evolution is inherently a religious question, however one ultimately understands that meaning. If we are alone and the universe is an accident, you have one kind of religion, or worldview if you prefer. If, on the other hand, reality supports compassion and love, that is, selects for it, then you have a very different approach to life—a different religion. The issue of the ground of life cannot be avoided.

I don’t have any doubt about the scientific account of evolution. But I would not have wanted my children to conclude from biology class that life has no meaning. And, since the presentation of evolutionary theory inevitably emphasizes its randomness, biology class is likely to carry a hidden message of meaninglessness. That message is no more scientific than its opposite, so it has no place in biology class, but it tends to be there all the same.

This is what is bothering most of the people who oppose evolution, as Philip Kitcher explains in his book Living with Darwin. For most opponents, evolution is not a problem because they want the literal truth of Genesis or don’t believe an eye could be put together naturally. The dispute is about whether the universe is mere mechanism. Turning to my own specialty, law, I have a suggestion for a new disclaimer for biology class, which I think is constitutional and might reassure some of these parents. My disclaimer would begin as follows:

Some people believe that evolution is a random process. Others believe that it is directed by God. Biology class is the place for you to see how evolution works. This class is not the place to judge whether evolution serves any larger purpose.

Assuming that the words “random process” are not misunderstood—I am not denying that statistics suggest mutations are random, I am referring to the results of evolutionary processes—this statement, unlike the one in Dover Pennsylvania, is probably constitutional.

But I would like to go further. There isn’t any reason why schools should not take a stand on the side of meaning. Whatever the separation of Church and State means, it cannot mean that the State may only imply that life has no meaning, not that life does have meaning. I would like to add the following in a statement to biology students:

Evolution is a messy process, with many dead-ends. But, in the end, evolution has produced beings with ever more curiosity and capacity for gratitude; ever more caring and capacity for self-sacrifice; ever more interiority and capacity for expanding the circle of empathy.

A statement like this one might dilute the opposition to Darwin.

[1] Jesus, at 166.
[2] See Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton University Press 2006).

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