TCS Daily

Bush and Darwin

By Lee Harris - August 5, 2005 12:00 AM

In an interview earlier this week, President Bush made a strange and even paradoxical claim. When asked to give his opinion on the controversy surrounding the teaching of intelligent design theory versus the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution, he remarked that "both sides should be properly taught." (emphasis added)

Now it is possible to teach French and English to the same group of students: for an hour, you instruct them in French, and for an hour, you instruct them in English, with the end result being the achievement of bilingualism. On the other hand, what do you achieve if, for an hour, you teach your students that the earth is flat, and for an hour, you teach them that the earth is round? In this case, the end result is not bi-theorism, but at best a kind of cognitive schizophrenia, in which children are left wondering, "Well, which one is it? Flat or round?"

It is obviously absurd to argue that children should be taught both sides of the evolution controversy, if by "taught" you mean something on the order of teaching kids the capitals of the various states or the multiplication tables. When you teach a child that Tallahassee is the capital of Florida, or that 6x6=36, that is the end of the matter.

Both of these statements represent what we call facts, and facts are those things concerning which there is neither controversy nor dispute. Tallahassee is the capital of Florida because everyone accepts it as the capital; and 6x6 makes 36 because no one thinks of arguing about it. Both truths are truths by convention, which is a fancy way of saying that they are truths that we are all prepared to accept without argument.

The theory of the round earth is a bit different, because there are some people who continue to believe that the earth is flat. Yet the number of people who subscribe to this view is marginal --there is no substantial electorate that clamors to have flat earth theory taught in public schools. Furthermore, those wonderful pictures of the earth taken from outer space would certainly appear to point in the direction of a round earth, despite the flatness that is the most obvious feature of our immediate vicinity.

So is that what Bush's comments come down to? Were they designed simply to placate a benighted section of the voting population that insists on turning back the clock and disregarding the evidence of modern science? Did Karl Rove put the president up to enunciating the "both sides should be properly taught" principle as a matter of sheer political opportunism?

Perhaps, but before we pass this judgment let us consider another possibility, which is that where there is a political controversy, there can be no scientific certainty. Or, to put the matter another way, so long as men dispute with each other about the answer to a question, that question cannot be considered settled.

To the scientist, this thesis may smack of heresy. After all, if I have discovered the truth, and have expressed it in my theory, then surely everyone else should be obligated to accept my ideas and to put away those of their own that are in conflict with it. Yet, oddly enough, the world does not work this way, nor is it immediately obvious that the world should work in this way.

There are those who believe that when someone has expressed his own thesis that it is only fitting that those who disagree with his thesis should be allowed to express their disagreement and objections to it. Indeed, there are some scientists who have even gone so far as to make a point of making the strongest possible case against the very theories that they have taken enormous pains to devise.

The outstanding example of this attitude was Charles Darwin. In his great book, The Origin of Species, he went to enormous trouble to set out all the arguments he could muster against his own theory. And, to his dying day, he continued to be heroically willing to entertain objections to his own carefully thought out position.

Would Darwin have objected to President Bush's seemingly paradoxical comment that both sides in the evolution debate "should be properly taught"? Well that might depend on whether he was permitted to hear the president's justification of his position, namely that both sides should be taught "so people can understand what the debate is about," and the president's further statement: "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is 'yes.'"

With those conditions, the answer, I am confident, is: No, Darwin would not have objected. Indeed, he would have welcomed such debate. Debate is what he, like all great thinkers, lived for.

Darwin would have welcomed such debate because he was keenly aware that the problems he had raised were not capable of being resolved into trivial facts to be memorized like the names of the state capitals or the rules of the multiplication tables. He knew that his theory probed the ultimate questions, and that such ultimate questions could never be given a definitive solution to be taught by rote, and to be memorized by parrots.

What an insult to Darwin's intellectual genius to think that his theory is as obvious as two plus two equal four, or as innocuous as the facts contained in an almanac! Anyone who thinks Darwin's theory is obvious clearly hasn't a clue about its brilliance or its originality.

So this time Bush got it right, and the critics that are pouncing on his statement are getting it mostly wrong. There is no harm in teaching children to discuss and debate the ultimate questions -- indeed, the greatest danger is that we may raise a generation that is never challenged to think about such questions at all. If an open-ended debate about evolution stirs up the kids, then, for heaven's sake, let the stirring begin.

Darwin grew up believing in Adam and Eve -- proof that it makes little difference with what opinion we start out with, since all that ultimately matters are the convictions that we discover for ourselves.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.


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