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Iconoclast: Farewell to Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell
Photo: Tom Bethell, via Discovery Institute.

As a Darwin skeptic, journalist Tom Bethell preceded almost everyone I know. His groundbreaking attack on evolutionary theory in Harper’s Magazine appeared in 1976. It is my sad duty to report that Tom passed away on Friday. We will have more to say about him. As to his gifts as a writer and thinker, I reviewed his wonderful book Darwin’s House of Cards back in 2017. From, “Tom Bethell’s Rebuke to Fellow Journalists: A Skeptical Look at Evolution Is Not Beyond Your Powers“:

Not a religious apologist or a cheerleader for any competing view, but rather an old-fashioned skeptic, Bethell has been doubting Darwin since he was an undergraduate at Oxford University. I admit he’s a longtime friendly acquaintance and a contributor to Evolution News, so I’m not unbiased. But others who, like me, have followed him for years agree in savoring his work.

That includes some eminent names. Novelist Tom Wolfe has called him “one of our most brilliant essayists,” and Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard, a great writer himself, says, “As a journalist, Tom Bethell is fearless. As a storyteller and stylist he is peerless. All his gifts are on generous display in this fascinating and admirable book.”

He has been writing about Darwin (among many other subjects, of course) for forty-plus years, beginning with an article in Harper’s in 1976. Wry, unfailingly clear, never technical, yet astonishingly well informed, he has produced what might be the Platonic ideal of an introduction to an often challenging and certainly controversial subject. He covers the waterfront, probing the strength of Darwinian thinking with reference to common descent, natural selection, extinction, homology, convergence, the fossil record, biogeography, cladistics, Lenski’s long-term experiment with bacteria, and much more.

He concludes that while confidence in the pillars of Darwinism — common descent and innovation through natural selection — hit their high-water mark at the celebration of the Origin of Species in 1959, the evidence has steadily and increasingly gone against the theory. The whole edifice rested on a 19th century faith in Progress, propped up by a dogmatic commitment to materialism. As the former falters, the structure is in danger of collapse.

A Gift for Friendship

To have won the admiration of Tom Wolfe is no small accomplishment for a journalist. Bethell was a vivid personality and highly independent. He could be entertainingly irascible, as he demonstrated in an email list in which we both participated. He was also loyal. I thought of him recently in connection with another journalist I knew, Joseph Sobran. As some may recall, Joe Sobran self-destructed, in career terms, and was forced out at National Review. By the end of his life, he had reconciled with his former employer, William F. Buckley Jr. But in the years when as far as I’m aware, everyone else in the world of conservative journalism had dropped Sobran as too toxic, Tom Bethell, I know, remained his close friend. That struck me as a tribute to Tom’s character. A gift for loyalty and friendship is undoubtedly even more precious than a gift for thought, analysis, or writing.

I remember having an exchange with Tom about the meaning of his last name, which seems to correspond to the Biblical place name Beth El, meaning “House of God.” He has gone on now to that House. All his friends at Discovery Institute wish Tom’s wife Donna much comfort. You can see him below in a video we released, “Iconoclast: One Journalist’s Odyssey through the Darwin Debates.”