The trial over intelligent design in the United States may seem new, but it's an old argument. To move forwards, argues Philip Ball, we'll have to look to the past.
"I do not detract from God. Everything that is, is from him, and because of him. But [nature] is not confused and without system, and so far as human knowledge has progressed it should be given a hearing. Only when it fails utterly should there be recourse to God."
It would be nice if this opinion had been voiced by someone at the ongoing trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. The Dover parents, who are suing their school board, are trying to establish their right not to have their children taught creationism, under the label of intelligent design, as if it were a science. Their claim is that the constitutional separation of church and state is being undermined.
Reason is the devil's harlot Martin Luther
But the man who offered this perceptive analysis of the rightful role of science in a faith-based society died nearly 900 years ago. He was an Englishman named Adelard of Bath and, as one of the most accomplished twelfth-century translators of ancient Greek scientists such as Euclid, he was instrumental in the rise of science in the Western world.
Adelard was nothing if not a devout Christian. But he had no time for those who insisted that people should not inquire too deeply about nature and should rather accept the world as the creation of an ineffable God.
The twelfth-century debate about the proper bounds of science and faith was every bit as heated as it is in modern America. But there seems to have been little mention of this during the trial or its press coverage, or even more broadly in discussions about creationism and science. Rather the whole thing is treated as a modern issue.
This should be an affront to historians and theologians. The position of the Christian fundamentalists represents a distortion of history as much as it does a distortion of science, and it is wrong to suppose that this is a battle that scientists must fight alone.
Commentaries on the Dover case have often implied that the clash between science and literalist, anti-rational religion began with the Scopes 'monkey trial' in 1925 . This tendency to act as if the world began with the twentieth century is usually deplored by historians, not just because it prevents us from learning from the past, but because it seems to deny that the past existed at all.
The only sign of a historical perspective behind the trial has been the glib suggestion that the fundamentalism behind the intelligent design movement risks sending us back to the Middle Ages... or worse still, the Dark Ages.
That alone should be enough to provoke an outraged intervention from historians. They have long struggled against the outdated prejudice that portrays the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition that was banished by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
In fact, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had their own renaissance, and produced figures like Adelard who were every bit as rationalistic as Copernicus. As for the Dark Ages, historians abandoned the term ages ago, recognizing for example that for the Islamic world the seventh and eighth centuries were something of a golden age of learning and culture.
The desire to understand natural phenomena using science and reason was developed by Adelard's contemporaries such as William of Conches and Thierry of Chartres, both of whom sought to explain the Book of Genesis in terms of Plato's theory of the elements.
They were denounced for their presumption, naturally, but William responded to his critics with strong words that bear repeating today: "Ignorant themselves of the forces of nature and wanting to have company in their ignorance, they don't want people to look into anything; they want us to believe like peasants and not ask the reasons behind things."
Intelligent design pretends of course that it has a scientific spirit. But its preordained and untestable conclusion, that evolution was guided by a creator, makes a mockery of that. It is hard to see how its proponents' refusal to accept a scientific theory supported by overwhelming evidence can be regarded as rational.
Such strands of fundamentalism exemplify the anti-rationalism that has surfaced from time to time since the early days of the Christian Church. In his embittered later life, St Augustine wrote of the "empty longing and curiosity" that is "dignified by the names of learning and science". And Martin Luther's conviction that redemption came through faith alone led him to say, "Reason is the devil's harlot".
Christian theologians examine the intellectual traditions of their faith rather than reading the Bible as a kind of unimpeachable rule book, and today most agree that these were not the church's finest moments. So why are they not stepping up to disassociate themselves from the modern version that is the intelligent design trial?
Behind the battles
John Brooke, a historian of science and theology at the University of Oxford, UK, has illustrated the wisdom of taking a historical perspective in such cases. "Debates so often construed in terms of an essential 'conflict between religion and science' usually turn out to be something else... and far more interesting," he says.
Scientists surely need to debunk intelligent design, but they shouldn't imagine that that is what the argument is really all about. History shows us that some people feel uneasy about, even outraged by, the idea that nature does not need to be steered by an intelligent hidden hand, and they probably always will.
It is totally unrealistic to imagine that nine hundred years and more of faith-based opposition to reason will be banished overnight by the US judiciary. But if there is any hope of moving forwards, surely that can be accomplished only by remembering to look back.
Otherwise, there will be no better demonstration of the maxim that those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.
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Ball, P. Those ignorant of history.... Nature (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/news051031-6