Rabbi’s Essays

Evolution in the Schools

A number of years ago, I led a study on the Book of Genesis for a number of University graduate students. We began at the beginning, and took about two years of gathering nearly weekly in order to get to the end. A fascinating transformation took place over that time. The students came from a number of disciplines: law, medicine, psychology, and history, among others. As we began with the account of creation, the discussion was dominated by how could one possibly take such a text seriously. At the end of the two years, they were asking how they could engage more of their colleagues in biblical studies.

The initial difficulty with respect to a study of Genesis came, as you can guess, from the early stories found in the Book: six days of creation, an earth-covering flood, and impossibly long age spans. In essence the problem is, if you cannot take these stories seriously, how can you be serious about the rest of the book!

For many contemporary Americans, this is exactly the problem, although in reverse. Since they insist on taking the Bible seriously, they therefore feel obligated to take the first chapters seriously as well. Thus, they feel no choice but to accept the biblical account of a divinely created world that was produced somewhat less than six thousand years ago.

There are all types of individuals in the world. The concern that there are some who cling to the notion of biblical creation would not be so great if the numbers were not so large and their influence on the American education system were not so great. News reports in early 2005, noted that a surprisingly large number of public school science teachers simply avoid teaching about evolution. It is not worth the hassle.

The controversy regarding evolution is quite amazing. It has been fully eighty years since the famous (notorious) Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, which had sufficiently embarrassed enough people that anti-evolutionism remained quiescent for a while. Yet, here it is again, attacking so-called ‘Darwinism’ in every which way, including a very sophisticated notion that has been dubbed “Intelligent Design (ID).”

Why evolution? Why is the opposition to it so forthright and persistent? Why is this a predominantly American phenomenon? Finally, what should a faithful and religious Jew think about Darwinian evolution, creation and ID? This essay touches on issues of biblical literalism and inerrancy, American anti-intellectualism, the tension between science and religion, the problem with science, and modern Jewish thought.

The Heart of the Matter

Warning labels were pasted in textbooks in a county in Georgia, stating that evolution is only theory, and therefore need not be treated with the seriousness of proven fact. Of course, the labels could have said that the intelligence of the Cobb County Board of Education is only a theory, and such a statement would have been no less valid! Indeed, the assertion that the earth revolves around the sun is no more or less a theory than evolution.

The warning labels betray the attitudes behind the anti-evolutionists. First, and perhaps foremost, is that evolution itself is the touchstone of the debate. All of science is, and has been throughout history, controversial. Science itself is an attempt to describe nature, but nature is incredibly elusive and complex. Hypotheses are put forward, experiments are devised, and a theory is created that seeks to explain growth, movement or chemical change. The theory is a mirror of truth; a contingent statement that such-and-such is the way the world works. The key word here is ‘contingent.’ Scientific assertions are only approximations of reality. They get modified all the time. What appeared to be true today turns out not to be as true tomorrow.

These general statements about science and scientific truth cover every element of inquiry, from physics to astronomy to chemistry to botany to geology, and, of course, to biology. Evolution, however, is the singular component of the scientific endeavor that is fiercely questioned. This privileged position is worthy of consideration. (Before Darwin, there was Galileo. Note, that the opprobrium that was brought upon the fifteenth-century Pisan by the Church has virtually completely disappeared. The loudest opponents to the notion of evolution, even those who stick stubbornly to the idea of a universe that is less than six thousand years-old, are nonetheless at peace with the idea of a sun-centered planetary system, and of moons revolving around Jupiter.)

The ideas and feelings behind the opposition to evolution are somewhat complicated. I rely for my own understanding on two works: Martin Marty’s Modern American Religion (in 3 volumes, covering the years 1893 to 1960), and Richard Hofstadter’s seminal Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

The idea that more complex life forms might have evolved out of simpler forms precedes Darwin by a half-century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had determined that there had been an evolutionary process. Lamarck’s observation was generally accepted in the scientific community, and had little impact on the religious world. There were two reasons for this circumstance. First, while scientists were able to observe the evidence of evolution, they made little effort to explain or describe the mechanics behind it. Thus, those religious thinkers who became aware of Lamarck’s work had little trouble incorporating it into an interpretation of the Genesis account. After all, the Bible does portray creation as taking place in a roughly evolutionary fashion: from fish and birds to landed animals and finally to human beings. I will touch upon the second reason in a moment.

When Charles Darwin set out on the H.M.S. Beagle, he was already quite well versed in the notion of evolution. Darwin’s great contribution was to determine a mechanism by which the evolution took place. He theorized that life forms persist as a result of natural selection, based on mutations that allow for survival in the face of changing environment circumstances. The key word here is ‘natural.’ Evolution, in Darwin’s estimation, occurred exclusively as a matter of physical and chemical forces. Hence, God had nothing to do with the creation of Man!

With the publication of The Origins of Species, a shot was fired across the bow of traditional religious thought. Darwin was suggesting that God played no direct role in the creation of human beings. The lessons of Genesis—particularly the account of God breathing life into the clump of earth and producing the first “Adam” (Gen. 2)—were being stretched to the limits of interpretation.

America the Exceptional

Darwin’s finding created a flurry of controversy throughout the world, but the reaction could hardly be more strident and condemnatory than in the United States. A high point in this opposition coalesced around the prohibition to teaching evolution in Tennessee High Schools, enacted in 1925, and challenged in the famous Scopes Trial a year later.

Darwin had published his work over fifty years earlier. Why did it come to a head in the 1920s? The answer is that evolution only began to show up in high school science texts in the first decades of the twentieth century. Up through the beginning of the century, only a tiny percentage of Americans attended college or university, and a substantial number had no education past an elementary level. Average Americans did not have to confront the issue of Darwinism until high school education became more prevalent.

Underlying the American experience was a thoroughgoing ambivalence regarding education, an ambivalence that persists to this day. The U.S., from colonial days to the eve of World War I, was substantially two societies: the settled dwellers in towns and cities, and the frontier pioneers. The towns and cities allowed for the creation of institutions that in turn produced striations in society, in particular economic, political and intellectual elites. The frontier was too scattered and too unsettled to permit anything but the most rudimentary institutions. Hierarchies did not form, and the population tended to look upon elites with suspicion and innate dislike.

One positive ramification of the frontier heritage has been an egalitarian and aggressively democratic spirit. The United States has been mostly free of ruling elites. On the other hand, American culture has always, and continues to endure a persistent streak of anti-intellectualism. Pioneers had little time and energy for formal education. Rather than treating this circumstance with regret, there has been a tendency to consider it a virtue.

To this day, the notion of just what education is in the United States remains a highly contentious debate. Conservatives rail against the liberalism of the university, deeming it somehow a conspiracy—hatched undoubtedly in the ‘radical’ 60s—that has served to deny all but left-wing thinkers faculty appointments and tenure, particularly at the more select institutions of higher learning in the country. They are right, of course. Universities are places where Liberal Education takes place. While the word has a somewhat different meaning from the more conventional political connotation, colleges tend to promote open-mindedness, sophisticated and nuanced thinking; in general, an anti-orthodoxy.

Counterpoising liberal education, many conservatives promote practical learning; education not as exploration and mind-expansion, but rather as skills acquisition for participation in the economy. Real truth is already given, either by the revelations of Scripture or by the practical reality of everyday life. The ‘truths’ discovered in school, whether in history, mathematics, literary analysis or science, are immaterial, or worse, they are dangerous. They lead to a breakdown in traditional authority, to confusion, and thus to a debilitating weakness that could affect the security of the nation.

Opposition to the teaching of evolution, therefore, is not an exercise in willful ignorance. It is a sacred crusade for the defense and protection of the country!

The Real Problem with Darwin

The 1920s was an era of particularly virulent religious and political fundamentalism. A resurgent Ku Klux Klan reached its zenith in membership. Immigration policy formally cut off the flow of new Americans from the ‘non-white’ regions of Southern and Eastern Europe and East Asia (Northern and Middle Europeans were warmly welcomed.) Isolationism restrained American participation in international affairs, and kept it out of the League of Nations. And, of course, the teaching of evolution was fought everywhere.

By the end of the decade, however, the tide began to turn, and with the coming of the Depression, religious evangelism was more wedded to liberal causes, such as support for the social and economic policies of the New Deal, than with conservatism and reaction. Yet, the spirit of opposition to evolution, as well as many of the attitudes that defined the special brand of American anti-intellectualism, hardly disappeared. The backlash to the New Deal was embodied in McCarthyist anti-communism of the 1950s, and in the latter part of the 1970s, the Moral Majority was gathering as a renewed political force. And once more, anti-evolution—now in the form of creationism—was a centerpiece of the New Right.

Anti-intellectualism has remained an unbroken and unshakable element of American culture. It is often delusional and self-defeating, but that does not mean it is altogether wrong. Anti-intellectualism entails a reflexive suspicion of expertise, and often experts are indeed deserving of that suspicion, especially when they insist they are right, but are not. Scientists occasionally promote (or, at very least, do not disabuse) the notion that they have a God-like access to the truth. Yet, their claims and assertions turn out simply to be incorrect or unverifiable. Further, science, which so often is harnessed by society for its benefits, is also capable of unlocking destructive forces.

The heart of the problem is that science is value-free, but some scientists and promoters will claim that science itself is a value. I think a most apt example is the image of two graduates of a program in Chemistry. One finds employment concocting methods of masking the detection of steroid use, and the other works for a lab that refines detection methods. What restrains them, say, a year later from switching jobs? Underpinning the intense opposition to evolution, I think, is the reaction to the arrogance and dominance of science in a society that is mostly alienated from the incredibly complex skills and knowledge set that make up contemporary scientific investigation.

There is a second critical objection that may be made with respect to Darwinism. It is not with the science, but rather with the social and political inferences that can be drawn from a theory of natural selection that is based on the concept of the survival of the fittest. When survival of the fittest is applied to human communities, it justifies the oppression of the powerless on the part of the powerful. Social welfare, even compassion, one can argue, need not be exhibited in a society because it is unnatural. William Jennings Bryan, the populist Democratic politician who argued the State of Tennessee’s position in the Scopes Trial, came to his firm opposition to evolution from his revulsion to the social inequity enshrined in Darwin’s doctrine.

Actually, it is quite unfair to tar Darwin with what has come to be known as Social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer began to promote his ideas on the natural rights of the powerful a few years before The Origin of Species was published. Darwin’s work, however, gave (unintended) scientific legitimacy to Spencer’s ‘enlightened cruelty,’ thus opened evolution itself up to attack.

Darwin, Intelligent Design and Judaism: Opportunities and Limits

The objections I have described to the theory of evolution have been psychological, social and political. In what way are they also religious? The first chapter of Genesis does indeed describe the creation of the world that not occurs in six days, but also that each element of creation is produced discretely by God. This is what the text says, but what are we as faithful religious Jews obligated to believe?

First, we must distinguish between ‘inerrant’ and ‘literal.’ When asserting that the Bible is inerrant, one is stating that nowhere is the text false. To accept the Bible literally, one must argue that the plain meaning of each word is also true. Faithful Jews may profess the inerrancy of the Bible, but cannot avow to its literal truth. All the words have depths of meaning that defy any particular plain meaning. The text must be interpreted.

Thus, a Jew hardly has to accept the literal truth of Genesis, chapter 1. OK, but then, what does a Jew do with it? Traditional Jewish thought—that is, the ideas put forward by the classic rabbis—proposes these lessons: Creation is the exclusive work of the Creator, the sole God of the universe. Creation was intentional, designed and coherent, but it also contains inherent contradictions, a condition that inevitably leads to the existence of evil. Finally, Creation is complete. When God rested on the ‘seventh day,’ everything that was to exist in the world had come into being, including those phenomena that would not become manifest until sometime later.

These general statements serve to establish a Jewish attitude toward scientific investigation. Those who engage in science should expect the world and all its elements to be organized and coherent. Further, science is an act of discovery, not invention. The universe is all there, although some of it might be hidden or very elusive. When something previously unknown is discovered, scientists should be able to explain it within the context of God’s overall design. Most important, however, is that God is finished creating. God’s activity is no longer to be found in natural history, but only in human history.

Where then does Darwin’s theory of evolution fit in? The brief answer is completely. It is based on a rational and coherent universe. And, it engages in observation and discovery. God is bracketed out of consideration of the truths of natural history. Finally, its conclusions—that more complex organisms are the products of evolution from simpler organisms – are manifestly indicated by the description of unfolding creation in the biblical text.

So, Darwin is not a problem for Jews, but Darwinism can be! First, as noted above, Darwin’s theory is a theory, not absolute truth. The mechanics of evolution continue to be elusive. Both the doctrines of natural selection and survival of the fittest have been attacked by observable counterexamples. The reality of evolution is undeniable. Just how it works is still open to investigation.

Among the more intriguing critics of Darwin are those scientists and their supporters who have promoted then notion of Intelligent Design. ID proponents highlight the weaknesses in Darwin’s classic theory, and then suggest that these problems can best be solved by positing an overall intelligence that has directed the development of organic life.

Many critics of ID have charged that it is a backdoor way of teaching biblical creationism. I personally think this attack is too extreme. ID proponents seem to accept the overall concept of evolution: more complex organisms have their origins in less complex ones. Their argument is in the details. We might nonetheless ask two questions: Is ID wrong? Is ID science? I believe the answer to both questions is no, and in this answer we might come to appreciate the possibilities and limits of science.

ID is not wrong because, in the final analysis, it does not posit anything about evolution that is not already inherent in Darwin. Darwin, as most scientists, began with the assumption that nature is rational. It behaves according to certain rules, and it is the scientist’s calling to determine just what those rules are. Evolution, therefore, takes place in the context of a design, a design that is intelligent as opposed to random or haphazard. ID tells us nothing that we—scientists or observers—do not already assume. (Is nature really rational? That is a question for some other forum. In the history of human inquiry, the rationality of the universe has mostly been taken as a given.)

On the other hand, ID’s assertion of an external intelligence is not science. Science is the analysis of observation that is justified by observation. It is admittedly a closed system, but when the scientist is engaging in science, metaphysical considerations must be bracketed out. If a question is asked for which no answer is known, the scientist is obligated to look for the answer, and not to stop the inquiry by suggesting that it will never be known. ID finds gaps in the current understanding of evolution, and then jumps to the metaphysical realm for an answer, essentially abandoning science.

Yet, at this point, we become aware of the limitations of the scientific enterprise. Science simply cannot answer everything, even as it searches for that answer. Go back to the question: I just posed: is nature really rational? Science simply cannot answer this query. If it is going to be answered, it must be by some other means. As geneticists and biologists go about attempting to solve and resolve the outstanding difficulties in current understandings of Darwin’s theory, they will never be able to get to the bottom-line issue of how this design (the overall mechanism) was determined in the first place.

Anti-evolutionists, whether they are creationists or proponents of ID, have misdirected their attacks, but they have nevertheless tapped a central and critical concern. Science—and the teaching of science—ought to be free and fearless, but it also must be placed in context. So often, assertions regarding nature, because they are done with due regard for precision and objectivity, are turned into assertions about values. William Jennings Bryan certainly went overboard, but he was hardly mistaken in his fierce opposition to the damage that could be brought upon society by Social Darwinism.

Science, in the end, is only science. It tell us a lot about the human form, function and origins, but it can tell us virtually nothing about who we are, or what God (or our highest hopes and values) require of us.