November 18, 2005
The Matter With Kansas
WASHINGTON -- Because every few years this country, in its infinite
tolerance, insists on hearing yet another appeal of the Scopes
monkey trial, I feel obliged to point out what would otherwise
be superfluous -- that the two greatest scientists in the history
of our species were Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and they
were both religious.
Newton's religiosity was traditional. He was a staunch believer
in Christianity and member of the Church of England. Einstein's
was a more diffuse belief in a deity who set the rules for everything
that occurs in the universe.
Neither saw science as an enemy of religion. On the contrary.
``He believed he was doing God's work,'' wrote James Gleick in
his recent biography of Newton. Einstein saw his entire vocation
-- understanding the workings of the universe -- as an attempt
to understand the mind of God.
Not a crude and willful God who pushes and pulls and does things
according to whim. Newton was trying to supplant the view that
first believed the sun's motion around the earth was the work
of Apollo and his chariot, and later believed it was a complicated
system of cycles and epicycles, one tacked on upon the other every
time some wobble in the orbit of a planet was found. Newton's
God was not at all so crude. The laws of his universe were so
simple, so elegant, so economical, and therefore so beautiful
that they could only be divine.
Which brings us to Dover (Pa.), Pat Robertson, the Kansas State
Board of Education and a fight over evolution that is so anachronistic
and retrograde as to be a national embarrassment.
Dover distinguished itself this Election Day by throwing out
all eight members of its school board who tried to impose ``intelligent
design'' -- today's tarted-up version of creationism -- on the
biology curriculum. Pat Robertson then called down the wrath of
God upon the good people of Dover for voting ``God out of your
city.'' Meanwhile in Kansas, the school board did a reverse Dover,
mandating the teaching of skepticism about evolution and forcing
intelligent design into the statewide biology curriculum.
Let's be clear. ``Intelligent design'' may be interesting as
theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed,
tautological ``theory'' whose only holding is that when there
are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge -- in this case,
evolution -- they are to be filled by God. It is a ``theory''
that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such
things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other
such evolutionary changes within species, but that every once
in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating
change and says, ``I think I'll make me a lemur today.'' A ``theory''
that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending
to be science -- that it be empirically disprovable. How does
one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the
lemur, or evolution -- or behind the motion of the tides or the
``strong force'' that holds the atom together?
In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science,
Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping
the phrase ``natural explanations for what we observe in
the world around us,'' thus unmistakably implying -- by fiat of
definition, no less -- that the supernatural is an integral part
of science. This is an insult both to religion and to science.
The school board thinks it is indicting evolution by branding
it an ``unguided process'' with no ``discernable direction or
goal.'' This is as ridiculous as indicting Newtonian mechanics
for positing an ``unguided process'' by which the Earth is pulled
around the sun every year without discernible purpose. What is
chemistry if not an ``unguided process'' of molecular interactions
without ``purpose''? Or are we to teach children that God is behind
every hydrogen atom in electrolysis?
He may be, of course. But that discussion is the province of
religion, not science. The relentless attempt to confuse the two
by teaching warmed-over creationism as science can only bring
ridicule to religion, gratuitously discrediting a great human
endeavor and our deepest source of wisdom precisely about those
questions -- arguably, the most important questions in life --
that lie beyond the material.
How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could
be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical,
more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions
of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived
from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule,
pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton
and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of
2005, Washington Post Writers Group