Schools for the Enlightenment or epiphany?: Steve Fuller

December 23, 2005

Does allowing faith a more prominent role in education mean allowing unreason and intolerance on to the curriculum?

Steve Fuller argues that intelligent design shows how the Bible has been a powerful spur to science...

For the past two decades, intelligent design theory (IDT) has been wrestling for space alongside neo-Darwinism in the US high-school biology curriculum. IDT would have students approach science by trying to get inside "the mind of God". That IDT is more than an American quirk is suggested by the resurgence of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism worldwide. Secular societies insist on a segregation of science and religion that many thoughtful monotheists find arbitrary and even oppressive.

To its opponents, IDT is a thinly veiled attempt to reverse scientific progress by reintroducing biblically inspired teachings. The shock value of the allegation assumes that the Bible has been mainly a deterrent to science. But that assumption is false. The Bible has provided a powerful spur to the scientific imagination.

A staple in the psychology of scientific creativity is the word "heuristics". It refers to mindsets that facilitate problem-solving. The person who coined "heuristics" also coined "scientist" to name a specialised profession: William Whewell, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who was the leading natural theologian of the mid-19th century.

For Whewell, one biblical teaching stood out as a heuristic for science: that humans are created in the image and likeness of God.

This claim can be taken in two ways. One stresses the similarities, the other the differences between humans and God. Are we junior creators or senior creatures? Junior creators reason from hypothetical causes to sensible effects, while senior creatures try to infer causes from effects.

The former promises an argument from design, the latter to design. The former fuels ambition, while the latter encourages a humility verging on mystery.

This dual reading of the biblical claim captures the difference between the attitudes of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Newton presented his mathematical physics as the divine plan that was implicitly written into the Bible. He clearly thought he had got into God's mind. In contrast, Darwin pursued the humbler path of William Paley's analogy of nature's order being like a watch found on a beach, which implied the existence of a watchmaker. Unfortunately, the fossil record revealed to Darwin only a lot of broken half-watches, nothing that could have been produced by a God worthy of human respect. Darwin's humility remained, but his faith disappeared.

In today's secular culture, Darwin is more readily embraced than Newton as a scientific icon although Newton remains unquestionably the greater scientist. The American Museum of Natural History has an exhibit devoted to Darwin's life that includes a reconstruction of his home. This is not surprising. Darwin's biography projects the politically correct image of a Christian who loses his faith through scientific inquiry. We are unlikely to see a similar exhibit for Newton because his life teaches that the Bible can provide a sure path to great science.

IDT's heuristic value for science education lies in the distinctly nonconformist reading of the Bible that united Newton and the other scientific revolutionaries of the 17th century but has been consistently opposed by the Catholic Church. These Protestants believed that the Bible addressed the faithful directly and individually, without the mediation of priestly authority. Thus, Newton read the Bible as a personal intellectual challenge to "reverse engineer" the divine plan. The result was science's most powerful vision, the mechanical world-view.

Nowadays mechanistic approaches to nature are criticised for oversimplifying complex organic processes. However, they were originally subversive for suggesting that God is just a big mechanic, not some opaque animating force. Biology thus reduces to divine technology. Animals - including humans - are products of artifice in exactly the same sense as our own machines. Indeed, mechanists have expected that technological progress would allow us to fathom life's mysteries by stimulating our capacity to mimic God's handiwork.

In updating the mechanical world-view IDT is less a rival theory of life to Darwin's than a more ambitious theory of "design" that is indifferent to the distinction between living things and inanimate objects. This shift in scientific focus helps to explain IDT's peculiar modes of reasoning - why, say, the biochemist Michael Behe moves so easily between reasoning about the design of mousetraps and cells.

Contrary to popular accounts, Darwin never provided a mechanistic account of evolution because he lacked a credible theory of genetics. Indeed, by the time The Origin of Species reached its 50th birthday in 1909, Darwin's theory was itself close to extinction. It could offer only "just so"

adaptation stories to explain species change. However, Darwinism was saved by the rediscovery of the work of Gregor Mendel, a Catholic monk whose statistical account of heredity was meant to capture the range of traits that God deemed permissible in a given species. Such knowledge would allow humans to extend their dominion over nature - via agriculture - and thereby complete the divine plan.

The history of genetics quickly lost its theological overtones despite retaining a name that references Genesis. Nevertheless, if the history of genetics is treated as distinct from that of neo-Darwinism, the "playing God" theme becomes even clearer over the 20th century, especially with advances in molecular biology and now biotechnology. Geneticists have been always keen to speed the processes of evolution by experimenting on species such as the fruit fly, whose reproductive patterns might allow the equivalent of billions of years of change to occur over, say, the six days stipulated in Genesis.

No doubt IDT trades too much on neo-Darwinism's empirical weaknesses as if IDT had no positive scientific vision of its own; God appears more as a gap-filler shrouded in mystery than a principled architect whose example we might follow. But it is the latter vision that poses a serious challenge to Darwin's apostasy.

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at Warwick University. He was an expert witness in the recent Pennsylvania trial on the teaching of IDT.

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