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How the Evolution Debate Devolved

David Klinghoffer

William F. Buckley

An old and cherished colleague from National Review, Linda Bridges, passed away at an untimely age over this past weekend and this caused me to look back on things — including the evolution debate. Linda edited among much else a volume of collected columns and other writings by the magazine’s legendary founder, William F. Buckley Jr.

I was looking at it as I remembered Linda. The book is Athwart History, and it includes a column Buckley wrote in 2007 that starts out with a reference to Discovery Institute.

It is “So Help Us Darwin” — described in the table of contents as dealing with “Darwinist absolutism and the controversy over ‘intelligent design.'”

An intimidatingly learned colleague has written to a few friends to deplore the latest bulletin on Senator John McCain, who is of course running for president. The news is that McCain has agreed to speak at a luncheon hosted by the Discovery Institute in Seattle. What offends my friend is that the think tank in question supports the concept of Intelligent Design. And the question raised — believe it or not –is whether such a latitudinarian thinker should be thought qualified to be president of the United States.

It seems an ancient controversy, and of course it is.

In fact, McCain did not end up speaking on that occasion, which is neither here nor there.

Read the rest. Buckley writes that “the intelligent liberal community should not impose on anyone a requirement of believing that there is only the single, materialist word on the subject” (of evolution). He also refers to a Firing Line debate, conducted for television before an audience at Seton Hall University in 1997. You can see it here on YouTube courtesy of the Hoover Institution. That is twenty years ago, and I’m struck by something.

The debate is presided over by Michael Kinsley, with Buckley, David Berlinski, Michael Behe, and Philip Johnson arguing for the Darwin-skeptical position. Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott, and Barry Lynn argue on behalf of the Darwin faithful. There is much wit, some sharp words and banging of Kinsley’s gavel, and a great deal of intelligence on both sides.

I’m struck by how difficult it is to imagine such an event today. The anti-evolution debaters are all excellent, and many of their points (as well their names and faces) will be familiar to readers of Evolution News. They are of course, except for Buckley, affiliated with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

This debate took place just a few months after the launch of the CSC, and arguments for intelligent design against Darwinian evolution have deepened considerably since then. In 1997, major books by Stephen Meyer, Douglas Axe, Jonathan Wells, William Dembski, Jay Richards, and others had yet to be written. For a history of Dr. Behe’s argument for ID, see our recent documentary Revolutionary: Michael Behe & The Mystery of Molecular Machines.

Has the Darwinist counterblast strengthened, meanwhile? No, and that is the point. I would say it is either static, or it has devolved, at least in relationship to the argument for ID. At least, twenty years ago they answered us. As ID has extended its inference from the scientific evidence, however, Darwinists today are largely content with ad hominem attacks and dishonest attempts to conflate ID with Young Earth Creationism.

It’s a pleasure to see David Berlinski and Ken Miller going at it in a one and one. Darwinists today would tend to shrink from such encounter. Why? The question, I think, is self-answering. Darwinism is more “absolutist” and closed to discussion than ever.

A lot changes in two decades. For my own reminiscence of Linda Bridges, by the way, see here at National Review Online. And for wonderful and moving portraits contributed by other colleagues (Jack Fowler, Lacey Washington), I encourage you to see here and here.

Photo: William F. Buckley, Firing Line, via YouTube.