Edward Larson’s Trial and Error demonstrates the interplay between public opinion and the legislative-judicial process in our country on the creation-evolution issue. It shows how the public teaching of science in America has dramatically changed from the 1920s, when teaching evolution was forbidden, to the 1980s, when only teaching evolution is permitted. It accounts for the difference by a shift in popular opinion—for in a democracy, the public teaching of science is not just a scientific issue, but a political issue too. And one senses from the book that the last word from the public on this issue may not yet have been heard.
The author could easily have written Trial and Error as a comedy of errors. Instead, Mr. Larson—a Harvard lawyer with a Ph.D. in history of science—has written a balanced and objective account of the subject of his subtitle: “The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution.” For example, rather than casting William Jennings Bryan in the familiar role of reactionary buffoon, Larson does not fail to mention Mr. Bryan’s prominence in the Progressive movement nor the role that this liberal movement played in inspiring the anti-evolution crusade of the 1920s. And refusing to follow the current scientific establishment in dismissing contemporary “creationists” as rural rustics, Larson gives the funny lines to the likes of an Arkansas judge who in 1982 erected a wall of separation between religion and science: overturning equal time for creation and evolution as an unconstitutional establishment of religion, one Judge Overton, relying on expert testimony from a positivist philosopher of science, defined science as “what scientists do” (p. 161).
But it has been quite some time since scientists knew what they are doing.
Eliminating God from science by definition, positivism provides no philosophical credibility for the “instinctive faith”—necessary for science per Alfred North Whitehead (Science and the Modern World)—”that there is an order of nature which can be traced in every detailed occurrence.” Whitehead found but “one source” for the origin of the belief without which “the incredible labours of science would be without hope”: “insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.” With “every detail . . . supervised and ordered,” “the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.”
Without God as the creator and legislator of nature, there can be no cause and effect, no order, no intelligible, objective reality in nature. Without God as the creator and legislator of nature, nature is not rational and science is not reasonable. C. S. Lewis put his finger upon the open nerve of contemporary science nearly four decades ago when he wrote:
Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. In most modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already appeared—the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim that science is true (Miracles: A Preliminary Study, Macmillan, 1947, p. 106).
The same scientific establishment that denies an orderer, a designer, an arranger—in a word, God—now denies order, design, arrangement—in a word, truth. It is not uncommon to read in philosophy of science literature that science does not seek rational understanding of “reality,” a word not often before put in quotation marks. Even some of the best scientific minds have been affected. Thus, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born had written:
In 1921, I believed that science produced an objective knowledge of the world, which is governed by deterministic laws. The scientific method seemed to me superior to other, more subjective ways of forming a picture of the world. . . . In 1951, I believed none of these things.
C. S. Lewis warned that “We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the Scientific Age,” and it is hard to disagree when a Max Born effectively repudiates science, and when eminent scientists, advocating subjective rather than objective criteria in the quest for knowledge, recommend the sacred writings of Eastern mysticism. (See, for example, Vince Taylor, “Subjectivity and Science: A Correspondence About Belief,” Technology Review, February 1979, pp. 48-57.)
Religion, it would seem, is going to get into science one way or another—either through the back door as the last resort of those who feel constrained to put such words as reality in quotes, or through the front door as the proud premise of searchers after objective order.
After several decades of trying to ground democracy on moral relativism, there is growing recognition—and not just on the Right—that democracy requires a divine foundation. Thus the Brookings institution’s recently published study, Religion in American Public Life, declares that “republican government depends for its health on values that over the not-so-long-run must come from religion,” for “human rights are rooted in the moral worth with which a loving Creator has endowed each human soul” (p. 348).
I would argue that the modern natural rights doctrine originated not in a Hobbesian moral gloss on Machiavellianism but rather grew spontaneously out of Puritanism (a thesis that ought to be familiar to any casual reader of de Tocqueville). But for now, suffice it to say that the common people at the time of the founding did not read Locke esoterically. Most, of course, did not read Locke at all, but rather learned political philosophy from pulpit pounders who preached the “Lockean consensus” into existence. So, then, why was it “self-evident” to those whose sentiments were harmonized in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
For the generation of the founding, the evidence for God’s existence abounded as they contemplated the stars, the sun and its planets, the plants and animals, and man—especially man, for man himself seemed to provide the most striking confirmation of the divine. “To . . . show that we are capable of knowing, i.e., being certain that there is a God, and how we may come by this certainty,” argued Locke—a source of more than one consensus—in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “we need go no further than ourselves, and that undoubted knowledge we have of our own existence.” If so, then, as the reasoning of the age went, men ought to see—Locke called this “the most obvious truth that reason discovers . . . its evidence . . . equal to mathematical certainty”—that in the beginning, such a world—with man—could have been created only by an infinite rational God.
It was the belief that man was created by God that made the truths of the Declaration self-evident to the people of 1776:
For men being the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker—all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business-they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure; and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy another, as if we were made for one another’s uses as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. (Locke, Second Treatise, sec. 6)
In Engle v. Vitale, the 1962 Supreme Court decision outlawing school prayer, Justice Hugo Black offered this consolation:
There is of course nothing in the decision reached here that is inconsistent with the fact that school children and others are officially encouraged to express love for our country by reciting historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence which contain reference to the Deity or by singing officially espoused anthems which include the composer’s professions of faith in a Supreme Being, or with the fact that there are many manifestations in our public life of belief in God.
But what if the kids want to go beyond “reciting” the Declaration? What if they ask questions? “Who is the Creator?” “What does created mean?” “Didn’t we learn in science class that man evolved from animals?” Will it be constitutional for the teacher to answer?
Descending from the mountains, Zarathustra encountered one old hermit saint, living in the forest, away from the world, resigned to making and singing songs—no rational sermons, note—and laughing, crying, humming in praise to his—note, no one else’s—god. “Could it be possible?” Zarathustra asked himself when alone. “This old saint in the forest has not yet heard anything of this, that God is dead!” But God is alive and doing well in the hearts of Americans, of whom 94 percent profess belief in Him, 89 percent say they pray to Him regularly, and 88 percent say the Bible is His inspired word. Half consider Adam and Eve parents of the human race; even many who do not nevertheless favor the teaching of creation in the public schools. Thus speak Roper and Gallup, Zarathustra to the contrary notwithstanding.
Nietzsche’s prediction of islands of faith remaining in a sea of atheism missed the mark by much more than a margin of statistical error when Darwin’s darkness and other clouds of atheism blackened the horizon as the twentieth century approached. But he was not the last atheist to be fooled by a Holy Ghost who delights to hide in the darkest darkness coming just before dawn.
The elites that dominate American civilization today have been unjoyfully surprised by the massive resurgence of orthodox Christianity, and the revival of Protestant fundamentalism most noticeably, as A.D. 2000 approaches. But these oligarchs of culture forfeit the right to rule our minds If they either cannot see or do not care that the death of God means the destruction of science . . . that a society that funds the public teaching of science but forbids mention of God contributes to the ruin of science . . . that evolution can endow us with urges, even aspirations perhaps, but certainly with no natural rights . . . that democratic civic education taught without religious and moral content is societal suicide . . . that a religious people whose institutions presuppose the existence of a Supreme Being will finally have enough of the secularism of the most severe sort—plain old atheism—running rampant in their schools.
Trial and Error reminds us of the importance of public opinion in regard to these matters; and therefore that we the people, perhaps after all miscast as Nietzsche’s last men, may not be finished yet.