George Orwell once wrote a brilliant short essay about what to do when confronted with someone who firmly believes that the earth is flat. The first problem, as he was forced to admit, is that one tends to take the roundness of the globe for granted and has often forgotten what the initial arguments were. Thus, one useful handhold—the ability of round-Earthers to predict eclipses and so forth—is no good, because ancient Egyptian flat-Earthers could predict eclipses also (even if it took them a great deal more work). The unblinking wild-eyed flat-Earther, of course, is always ready with just this kind of “gotcha.” In the course of writing his column, Orwell gradually reconvinced himself and his readers that the world was spherical after all. Of course, he failed to demonstrate that it moves around the sun and that things are not the other way around, but that’s a whole other argument.
The piece came back to me after I finished reading Jacob Weisberg’s sarcastic demolition of the idea of “equal time,” or “teaching the controversy,” in respect to the new mania for “intelligent design” as a counter to evolution. In the formal sense, he was quite right. We do not and we should not teach rubbish and superstition alongside science. “Intelligent design” is not even a theory. It is more like a mentality. It admits of no verification or falsity and does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a series of hypotheses and experiments that have served us well in analyzing the fossil record, the record of molecular biology, and—through the unraveling of the DNA strings—our kinship with other species. And this is to say nothing of the possibility of medical advances that may astonish us in our own lifetimes. To put astrology on the same blackboard as the Hubble telescope would be an approximate analogy. I was sent, this week, an article on “Intelligent Falling,” wherein certain advocates of “intelligent design” said that gravity was not a natural law because it did not explain matters such as angel flight or the fall of Satan from heaven, the latter of which was mandated rather than gravitational. As is so often the case with pieces that appear in the Onion, I honestly could not decide whether this was a clever hoax or not—the arguments were almost exactly as stupid as the real thing.
Nonetheless, I found myself asking: How do I know about Darwin to begin with? And the answer was this: I was taught him as part of history as well as part of biology. After the voyage of the good ship Beagle and the amazing discoveries that attended it, Darwin decided to change his own theistic views and also to challenge the rooted conceptions of Christian Victorian society. He succeeded beyond any expectation. The great set piece, which I was taught in school, involved the debate at Oxford between Darwin’s supporter Thomas Huxley (ancestor of Aldous and Julian and coiner of the word “agnostic”) and Bishop Wilberforce, known even to his own flock as Soapy Sam. In front of a large audience, Huxley cleaned Wilberforce’s clock, ate his lunch, used him as a mop for the floor, and all that. It was a “tipping point.” After that, there were still those who believed that God had put fossils in the rock to test our faith, and those like Bishop Ussher who claimed to have dated the birth of the world to an exact time—4004 B.C.—but they were a spent force.
This moment was not to be staged in America for several more decades, but the courtroom battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in Dayton, Tenn., did eventually come. And old man Bryan blew himself out of the water by repeating Bishop Ussher’s claims. We have an excellent firsthand account of this from H.L. Mencken, and at least two movie versions of Inherit the Wind, which give a fair summary of the dispute between “Rock of Ages and age of rocks,” as Bryan so happily phrased it. There’s also an excellent essay by Garry Wills, in his book Under God, which argues, quite wrongly in my opinion, that Bryan has had unfair press.
To my point, then. Why not make schoolchildren study the history of the argument? It would show them how to weigh and balance evidence, and it would remind them of the scarcely believable idiocy of the ancestors of “intelligent design.” The tale is both amusing and instructive, and it is a vital part of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. How could intelligent scientific secularism lose if this were part of the curriculum?
If we take the president up on his deceptively fair-minded idea of “teaching the argument,” I think we could advance the ball a little further in other directions also. Houses of worship that do not provide space for leaflets and pamphlets favoring evolution (not necessarily Darwinism, which is only one of the theories of evolution and thus another proof of its scientific status) should be denied tax-exempt status and any access to public funding originating in the White House’s “faith-based” initiative. Congress should restore its past practice of giving a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s expurgated Bible—free of all incredible or supernatural claims—to each newly elected member. The same version of the Bible should be obligatory for study in all classes that affect to teach “divinity.” No more Saudi Arabian money should be allowed to be spent in the United States on the opening of jihadist madrasas or the promulgation of a Wahhabi Quran that preaches hatred and contempt of other faiths and of atheism until the Saudi government permits the unmolested opening of Shiite and Sufi places of worship; Christian churches and Hindu temples of all denominations for its Philippine, Indian, and other helot classes; synagogues; and Thomas Paine Society libraries. No American taxpayers’ money should be given to Israel unless it can be shown that it is not being used for the establishment of religion by Orthodox messianic settlements in the occupied territories and/or until the Israeli rabbinate recognizes Reform and Conservative Judaism as authentic.
Equal time. It has a nicer ring the more you say it. Bring it on.