To the Editor [NYTimes]:
In “Show Me the Science” (August 28), philosopher Daniel Dennett glosses over a point that is crucial for understanding the passions aroused by the current debate over the teaching of evolution in the public schools.
The point is just this: There is an immense difference between teaching that all living things, including human beings, are genealogically related, having evolved from one or a few original forms by means of an evolutionary process, and teaching that that process is known with scientific certainty to have occurred “without purposes and without intelligence.” The former claim is indeed a well-founded scientific generalization, based on a wealth of empirical evidence; the latter is an avowal of materialistic faith that is no more testable by ordinary scientific means than is the hypothesis of intelligent design.
This may sound like a quibble, but it is not. First, the sweeping reductive claim made for the theory of natural selection—that it has succeeded in eliminating all purpose, meaning, and value from nature as “unscientific”—is untenable. Any purposeful trait in an organism must already exist before it can be “selected.” Therefore, the theory of natural selection cannot explain how the purposefulness inherent in all living things has come to exist in the first place. Merely invoking “chance” to help us out of this difficulty is deeply problematic from a scientific point of view, never mind philosophy or religion. Nor do computer simulations help, since they themselves are intelligently designed and so merely beg the question at issue.
But second, and more important, what is at stake in the evolution debate is whether militant Darwinists like Dennett get to inculcate the nation’s schoolchildren with their own materialistic religion under the mantle of authority that our society accords to science. Dennett, who believes that human beings are nothing but fancy computer programs, has called for the forcible suppression of those guilty of the “deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 516)—that is, those who disagree with him. Is this really the sort of person to whom we ought to give the power to decide what is taught in the public schools?
Of course human beings are animals; but we are not “just” animals. We live in a world of symbolic meanings and ideal values that far transcends our animal ancestry. The real question in the evolution debate is whether we as a society are going to allow radical materialist thinkers like Dennett to hijack the public education system. If we allow the next generation of schoolchildren to be taught nothing but the Darwinists’ impoverished view of their own humanity—drained of all purpose, meaning, and value in the name of “scientific objectivity”—then heaven help us all.
University of Notre Dame