August 2022: The Copyright to the Universe

Who Owns the Copyright to the Universe? A Different View on Evolution, Intelligent Design, & A Purposeful World.

It has been nearly a century since the Scopes Monkey Trial drew national and worldwide attention to the question of what should be taught in schools, and whether elected lawmakers should provide legislative answers.

During an oppressively hot and humid July, in 1925, the little town of Dayton, Tennessee, became the epicenter of a fight that continues to this day. At issue was a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolutionary theory.

The Butler Act made it a crime for a teacher in a publicly-funded school “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

The man at the center of the controversy, science teacher John Scopes — who was accused of teaching evolution at the Rhea County Central High School — was a quiet, relatively unknown man at the time. Both the prosecution and defense, however, brought in high-profile lawyers to argue the case, including William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

Hundreds of reporters representing newspapers across the United States as well as many international papers flocked to Dayton, frantically writing what became front-page headline stories. John Scopes was convicted of violating the Butler Act. After appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court set aside Scopes’s conviction on a legal technicality. 

More than four decades later, in 1968, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas (393 U.S. 97) that state laws such as the Butler Act are unconstitutional. Tennessee had already repealed the Butler Act a year earlier, in 1967.

The Scopes Trial points to important political questions on which Americans are more divided now than they were in 1925: 

  • What does it mean to teach science in public schools? Who defines what science is and is not?
  • Should elected lawmakers, or unelected bureaucrats, command what must be included in school curricula, or prohibit what must be excluded?
  • Or is the solution more educational choice — different kinds of schools and curricula from which parents and children may choose?  

Beyond these immediate, political questions, the Scopes Trial also points to deeper philosophic questions. Many people of religious faith are critics of modern theories of evolution because they assume those theories result in nihilism — a view that there is no objective moral truth, that human life is the result of mere chance, that human life is therefore purposeless and meaningless. 

The debate is often framed as evolution versus intelligent design, as if the two are mutually exclusive and incompatible with each other. According to Harry V. Jaffa (1918 – 2015), however, there is another alternative: evolution and intelligent design/purpose/meaning. 

Jaffa was a longtime professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California, and the author of numerous groundbreaking books. Jaffa deserves great credit for recovering and almost single-handedly reviving the study of the natural law principles of the Declaration of Independence, a document he devoted much of his life to understanding. 

This case study features a short essay Professor Jaffa wrote in 2005, responding to the eminent scholar James Q. Wilson, and addressing the subjects of evolution, intelligent design, and purpose.

While some readers will find the argument counterintuitive, Jaffa points out that the ideas of purpose and intelligent design do not necessarily require an intelligent designer. 

Just as the concept of darkness is impossible to understand without knowing what light is, so too the concept of chance cannot be understood without knowing what its purpose is. Darkness is inseparable from light in the same way chance is inseparable from purpose. 

To speak of a world in which darkness is a meaningful concept is to speak of a world in which light exists, and is known. Similarly, to speak of a world in which chance is possible is to speak of a world of purpose. Purpose requires intelligence. A purposeful world, therefore, is a world of intelligent design. 

Here is Professor Jaffa in his own words:

 

COPYRIGHT TO THE UNIVERSE

In a Wall Street Journal essay, James Q. Wilson praised a Pennsylvania federal judge’s decision to strike down efforts of a local school board to have “intelligent design” taught, alongside evolution, as part of a science curriculum. 

In “Faith in Theory,” appearing on December 24, 2005, Wilson wrote:

What schools should do is teach evolution emphasizing both its successes and its still unexplained limitations. Evolution, like almost every scientific theory, has some problems. But they are not the kind of problems that can be solved by assuming that an intelligent designer (whom advocates will tell you privately is God) created life. There is not a shred of evidence to support this theory, one that has been around since critics of Darwin began writing in the 19th century.

One wonders who it was that gave federal courts jurisdiction over local school boards to determine the curriculum of our public schools. And who gave Professor Wilson the authority to say that there is not a shred of evidence to support the idea of intelligent design in the universe? 

There are persons with high academic credentials—although perhaps not as high as Professor Wilson’s—on both sides of this question. That the members of a school board are persuaded by those with whom a federal court, or Professor Wilson, disagrees, ought not to stigmatize them as heretics before the Inquisition of scientific orthodoxy.

Professor Wilson is behind the curve of controversy on this topic, which has raged in recent years beyond the boundaries of the 19th-century debates—or of the absurd Scopes trial. There is, for example, nothing in Darwinian theory that excludes the possibility that natural selection is the means by which God created the species. It may be an act of faith to believe this, but it is no less an act of faith to deny it. There is therefore nothing in the logic of evolution, strictly speaking, that places it in opposition to the Bible. Hence there never was any compelling reason for Biblical fundamentalists to oppose the teaching of evolution; nor is there reason now for Darwinian fundamentalists to oppose the teaching of intelligent design. 

While there is nothing in the theory of evolution that contradicts the proposition that this is how God created, there is also nothing in the theory of intelligent design that necessarily implies a designer. Aristotle says that whatever can come to be by art—that is, by intelligent design—can also come to be by chance—that is, without an artisan or designer. 

Evolution is an account of how species were formed by actions or events that did not intend to form the species. But the role of chance in the coming-to-be of species by no means excludes the possibility that what came to be was an intelligent end or purpose. Aristotle says that he went into the market to buy a cabbage, and there he met a man who owed him money. The meeting was the result of chance, but that meeting fulfilled an intelligent purpose, namely, reclaiming the money that was owed. 

Where there is no intelligent purpose there is no chance. Without knowing what purposive action is, we could not recognize non-purposive or chance occurrences. The idea of chance—and hence the idea of evolution—is linked inexorably to the idea of purpose.

The process of evolution may have been governed by chance, but the emergence of the human species resulted in an intelligent, and intelligently purposeful, being. The difficulty faced by those claiming exclusive sovereignty for what they consider the method of science in the curricula of our schools is that they fail to realize how limited is the understanding aimed at or achieved by this method. The Darwinian evolutionists assume that the human species, like all living beings, emerged from the struggle for survival merely for survival’s sake. That is, the species that survived were better adapted for survival but, from the point of view of evolution alone, for nothing more. Yet, humans often sacrifice their lives for something they think more important than survival. Belonging to the human species means precisely to be endowed with purpose or purposes distinct from what may be attributed to adaptation in the process of Darwinian evolution.

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Nazism is one of several examples of creeds that attempted to reduce all human morality to whatever led to success in the struggle for survival. In the case of the Nazis this meant victory in war. They were defeated, however, by those they had believed were genetically inferior. But no sane person believes that the outcome of World War II proved that anyone was genetically superior or inferior to anyone else. Some of us believe—rightly I would contend—that constitutional democracy is morally superior to tyranny, and that it deserved to prevail. 

But, as Churchill observed, in war it is not possible to guarantee success; it is possible only to deserve it. We must be prepared to recognize that sometimes the undeserving succeed, and the deserving fail. But it is never better to be undeserving than deserving. It is never better to be a successful tyrant than a failed enemy of tyranny. Noble failure ought to be preferred to vulgar success. What constitutes the human good, or human goods, is not a matter of chance, however much the outcome of human action is subject to chance. What constitutes the human good cannot be discovered, or determined, by any examination of the evolutionary process. What made the cause of Churchill better than the cause of Hitler is a conclusion derived from experiences altogether different from anything experienced by subhuman, or prehuman, organisms engaged in the struggle for survival.

Besides, the theoretical activity involved in Darwin’s attempt to understand the origin of species cannot itself be understood, or justified, as an outcome of an evolutionary struggle. Darwinism belongs to that sphere of human activity, philosophic thought—of which modern science is a part, but only a part—which attempts to discover what we are, why we are, and how we can fulfill a destiny directed to something other than mere survival. 

The fitness of those who represent the survival of the fittest is acquired in a merely physical struggle in a physical environment bounded by sensible reality. We are, however, a species—the only earthly species—that can live outside the boundaries of the experiences that are accessible only by sense perception. We can become invisible guests in the house of Cephalus, more than 2,000 years ago, silently listening to the discourse of Socrates. We can visit the dusty plains of Illinois, in the summer of 1858, as Lincoln repeats against Douglas some of the same arguments that Socrates used against Thrasymachus. Douglas’s justification of slavery was only a version of Thrasymachus's (Darwinian) definition of justice as nothing but the interest of the stronger. 

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We cannot listen to the remote future, but it is essential to our well-being here and now to leave a record of our thoughts and actions for the contemplation of the unborn. Our Constitution is dedicated to securing the blessings of liberty not only for ourselves but for our posterity as well. We belong to that great chain of being that links past and future. We hope that posterity will learn from both our errors and our achievements. No man or woman lives only in a time and place circumscribed by an immediate physical reality. Even the least sophisticated among us, reading a trashy novel, is uniquely human in living outside of his or her self. If there is truth in Darwinian doctrine, it must be seen by acknowledging the higher ends served by man’s humanity as the ultimate ends of the evolutionary process. 

Darwin’s own career cannot be explained as resulting from adaptation for survival: he thought natural selection true, not simply advantageous to his own reproductive success. Nor can his espousal of such causes as the abolition of slavery be reduced to an evolutionary strategem. This is all the more remarkable in that, in opposition to Darwin and in a prologue to Hitlerism, Darwinism in the 19th century furnished a powerful defense of slavery. It was held to be a scientific truth that Negroes as a race had not evolved as far as whites, and that it was in their interest (as it was of dogs or horses) to be enslaved by a superior species. Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone” speech (March 21, 1861) defended the newly independent Confederate States of America as the first government founded upon the newly discovered scientific truth that the Negroes were an inferior race.

We are reminded that in the Creation story in Genesis, after God had finished, he said that the work He had done was “very good.” But not even God can look upon a work as good without having had a previous idea of what constitutes goodness. The idea of goodness—what Plato called the idea of the good—must pre-exist any work to be called good. 

To call a work good, whether the work be by God, or man, or chance, implies a pre-existing design. But the design, in itself, is independent of the designer. How the world came to be may be a mystery. That man is a rational being is a fact which we take as a starting point. If this fact is seen as the end or purpose of the evolutionary process, then we must conclude that the stages of the evolutionary process were means leading to this end. We must conclude that evolution in itself is an account of the accomplishment of a grand design.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Are the principles of the Declaration of Independence incompatible with evolutionary theory?
  • Jaffa suggests that human beings are the only Earthy beings who can live outside their own time and space—that they can experience other times and places through reading, listening, and imagining. Does this mean there might be a purpose for human life higher than mere physical fitness and survival?
  • Should parents be concerned about evolution and/or other subjects they don’t like being taught in schools? If so, what should parents do about it?

Responses