Commentary

A Textbook Case of How Not To Combat the New Right

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Not long ago, my oldest daughter came home from her public school in Arlington, Va., and told me that her teacher had been talking about creation and evolution. The topic had been brought up by a questioning student, who no doubt had heard or read about the hullabaloo these issues have raised. The teacher had taken some time to explain to the class that there are two competing views of how the earth was formed and how life developed on it. He had added that when they were older they would need to study this question carefully and make up their own minds. That was all--no big deal.

My reaction to this report interested me. I found myself saying "right on" to the teacher. He had been absolutely correct, I felt, to describe the competing theories. If my daughter had been in high school, it would have been perfectly okay to look at the theories in greater depth. What is school for, after all, if not to teach her to examine tough issues and make up her own mind--to think, in other words?

That reaction was re-experienced when I got the first of what I am quite sure will be many appeal letters from civil-liberties groups urging me to send them money to ensure that the kind of discussion my daughter took part in will not be repeated there or anywhere else in American public schools. I shook my head and threw the letter away. With the kind of attitude expressed there, which is also that of most leading defenders of evolutionary theory against creationist attacks, I am convinced that they will lose the battle for evolution, and that if they do they will deserve their gloomy fate.

Their fundamental mistake, I believe, is that of old generals: They think they're still fighting the last war, namely the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Only this time, the roles are reversed: Instead of struggling for the right to teach evolution, they are now struggling to deny the teaching of anything else. This stance violates deep American traditions of fairness and free debate. It also reinforces those feelings of resentment against professors and intellectuals that are so common among the creationists' constituency. This constituency is a natural part of the New Right, and the evolutionists' strategy of keeping creationism out of the schools offers almost a textbook case of how not to go about combating New Right influence.

A comparison of quotations from the two camps is instructive. The creationists' magnum opus, Scientific Creationism, states, "In public schools, both evolution and creation should be taught as equally as possible, since there are children of taxpayers representing both viewpoints in the classes." Even in church-sponsored schools where creationism is taught, students "should, by all means, be well versed in evolutionary concepts and the supposed evidences for evolution."

On the other hand, Niles Eldredge, a curator at the Museum of Natural History in New York and a leading defender of evolution, stated flatly not long ago that "no form of creationism even remotely qualifies for inclusion in a science curriculum." Writing in The New Republic, he added that "acceptance of equal time for two alternative authoritarian explanations is a startling blow to the fabric of science education." This, even though he defined science, in the same article, as "the enterprise of comparing alternative ideas about what cosmos is, how it works, and how it came to be." Another leading spokesman, Harvard University's Stephen Jay Gould, calls creationism "perverse, since it masquerades under the 'liberal' rhetoric of 'equal time'." The talk of "weighing both sides," he says, is "a mere matter of political expediency."

To be sure, the creationists hope to drive the evolutionists out of the field of science. But they are proposing to do it through the medium of open debate that Mr. Eldredge himself defines as the essence of the scientific "enterprise." No wonder that Christianity Today, a leading nonfundamentalist evangelical journal, felt obliged to take evolutionists to task. "Scientists who maintain faith in evolution," it editorialized last winter, "are contemptuous. They are not willing to face creationism on its merits, but want to stop the arguments for it from reaching public-school students.... How can creationism be dangerous? If it is presented as science in the classroom alongside evolution, and there is no evidence for it, it will fall of its own weight.

"The fundamentalist Christians of the last generation found they could not obliterate a disagreeable idea by simply having it banned from academic discussion. The evolutionists of today should learn from that experience."

These editors could not, in my judgment, be more correct. Alan Crawford, in his fine book on the New Right, Thunder on the Right, explains how this movement is fueled by resentment against "Eastern elitists,'' especially professors and associated intellectuals and professionals. The attitudes displayed by Mr. Gould and Mr. Eldredge provide fuel for this mindset. Science may be the "enterprise" of comparing ideas, both men imply, but that work is something ordinary mortals should leave to their betters--particularly New York researchers and Harvard professors. Furthermore, the theories of this elite are not subject to challenges except by qualified opponents, the qualifications to be determined, of course, by the elite itself.

Now I am not insisting that Mr. Gould and Mr. Eldredge actually think this way about nonscientists. But that's how they come across. Such an attitude was expressed rather baldly by Professor Ashley Montagu of Princeton University in a radio interview I heard recently. Montagu, who has defended evolution in books for decades, explained that he refused to take part in debates with creationists, because such people are "ignorant" and "bigots." He made these remarks in a heavy aristocratic British accent, the kind that turns "issue" into "isss-yew" and which in my book is snobbery made audible. His pronouncement left the interviewer, and this listener, dumbfounded. In American public life, one debates an opponent precisely to expose such problems as ignorance and bigotry. In the Scopes trial, Clarence Darrow managed to turn public opinion against the fundamentalism represented by William Jennings Bryan by showing in extended debate that Bryan was ignorant of his subject and bigoted against those of contrary opinion. By the time Darrow was through with him, Bryan was a laughingstock to his foes and an embarrassment to his friends.

Such has not been the outcome of more recent debates between modern creationists and their evolutionist adversaries. In fact, the results have suggested an ironic reversal of the Scopes experience. Mr. Eldredge acknowledged this poor showing in his New Republic piece. "Before school boards and parent groups, creationists are fond of 'debating' scientists by bombarding the typically ill-prepared biologist or geologist with a plethora of allegations.... Not all the proper retorts spring readily to mind. Retorts there are, but the game is usually lost anyway as rebuttals strike an audience as simply another set of authoritarian pronouncements they must take on faith."

Again, it is astonishing that Mr. Eldredge cannot see the implications of his remarks: Since many evolutionist defenders are poorly prepared to debate, the solution is not to debate; besides, even a qualified debater would be wasting his or her time on groups of parents or school-board members. Good grief--how much more help to the New Right could any outlook be?

If the advocates of evolution are going to roll back the creationist legions, they will have to do a whole lot better than this. Their arrogant unwillingness to do the homework necessary to meet and defeat the creationists in the public arena contradicts their own values and is a sure recipe for defeat. Key segments of the American voting public have shown that they are not putting up with such stuff from politicians or professionals any more.

And why should they? I'll be damned if I will tell my daughters that they shouldn't study creationism in school just because some Ivy League professors say it's no good. As Mr. Eldredge himself admitted, "If scientists frequently act as if their ideas are the truth, they are simply showing their humanity.... Scientists, like everyone, get their egos wrapped up in their work. They believe passionately in their own ideas, even if they are supposed to be calm, cool, dispassionate, and able to evaluate all possibilities evenly. (It is usually in the collective process of argument that the better ideas win out in science; seldom has anyone singlehandedly evinced the open-mindedness necessary to drop a pet idea.)"

I wish Mr. Eldredge would take his own advice. Today science, particularly ideas about how the world and life came to be what they are, is a public affair. The professionals in the field have no warrant for acting as if they were beyond the reach of ideas current among the lay public. So their "collective process of argument" had better be extended enough to deal meaningfully with the creationist challenge.

This challenge is qualitatively different from what Clarence Darrow faced in Dayton, Tenn., almost 60 years ago. It is articulated by people who have considerable familiarity with the subject; its spokespeople include highly articulate figures who are especially adept at communicating with ordinary people. It won't do just to quote H.L. Mencken, as Stephen Jay Gould does, on the subject of "forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles." Thus far in the second war over evolution, the creationists have outsmarted the evolutionists at almost every turn, showing more sophistication and a better understanding of public expectations.

Niles Eldredge insists that all the creationist notions "can be refuted." I think he is probably right. But they will not refute themselves. He and his colleagues are going to have to take up the gauntlet, complete the necessary preparation, and do their refuting in public, including schools, and in a manner that ordinary but intelligent citizens like myself and my daughters can understand. To refuse this challenge is not only unscientific, it is also as the creationists understand only too well, un-American.

Vol. 01, Issue 16, Page 18-19

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented