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Our Friend, Tom Bethell

Jonathan Wells
Tom Bethell
Photo: Tom Bethell, via Discovery Institute.

I first became acquainted with Tom Bethell in 1994, when he published “Email Evolution” in The American Spectator. Two years earlier he had met Phillip Johnson. In the summer of 1993, Phil and his wife Kathie had hosted a historic meeting at Pajaro Dunes, near Monterey, California. The meeting included a dozen scholars critical of Darwinism, and it marked the beginning of the modern intelligent design (ID) movement.

Since the meeting’s participants were geographically scattered, Phil set up a listserve named “Evolution” so they could stay in touch. Any member of the list could send an email to it that would then be forwarded to everyone else on the list. I had never used email before, so this was my introduction to it. In those days, I (like many others) used a telephone and a dial-up modem to access the Internet. For readers who are unfamiliar with this primitive technology, it’s portrayed in the 1983 film War Games.

In 1993 Phil’s “Evolution” listserve was revolutionary. As Tom wrote in 1994, “There has long been a resistance movement” to Darwinism that was not limited to biblical creationism, though the “opposition has been scattered and disorganized. But now the computer revolution has had the unexpected effect of permitting this opposition to get together electronically; to compare notes, argue, and talk things over.” 

The Evolution Wars

In 1999, Tom published “The Evolution Wars: Good Science Encounters a Bad Philosophy” in The American Spectator. He wrote that he had long taken an interest in this subject, and that the evolution wars were getting more interesting because of ID. He concluded by quoting Bruce Chapman, who at the time was president of Discovery Institute (he’s now Chairman of the Board). The question of evolution, Bruce said to Tom, “not only has a direct bearing on the integrity of science, it also has immense importance for our culture. The materialist superstition has affected our learning in all academic disciplines.”

Five years later Tom published an article in The American Spectator titled “Passionate About Evolution.” In it he praised Benjamin Wiker’s 2002 book, Moral Darwinism. Wiker traced the roots of Darwinism to classical Greek materialism — specifically the materialism of Epicurus. Tom, like Ben, concluded that Darwinism is essentially a moral and metaphysical vision rather than empirical science.

In 2004, Tom published a review of Richard Weikart’s book From Darwin to Hitler, titling it “The Final Evolution.” Tom pointed out that Darwin was a eugenicist and wrote in The Descent of Man (1871; pp. 168-169):

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; … No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.

According to Darwin, this practice stems from our sense of sympathy, which we cannot abandon “without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” But one thing that would help is “the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely.”

Tom noted that “Weikart is right to stress that the Darwinian ideology did not lead unavoidably to Nazism.” Nevertheless, it appeared to provide a scientific rationale for Nazi eugenics. “Darwin proposed no restrictions on ruthlessness, and the Nazis recognized none.” 

An Austere Figure

In 2006, atheist Michael Shermer published a book titled Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. The same year I debated Shermer in Washington, D.C. An overflow crowd attended, and at the back of the audience stood the austere figure of Tom Bethell.

In 2008, Premise Media released the full-length movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The film included interviews with many in the ID movement who had lost their jobs or been otherwise penalized because they were critical of Darwinism. The film also included an interview with Darwinist and arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, who candidly admitted that we don’t know the origin of life. In fact, Dawkins said, life might have been designed, though the designer must have been an intelligence elsewhere in the universe that had evolved naturalistically. Tom watched an early private screening of the movie and reviewed it in The American Spectator.

Michael Shermer was also interviewed in Expelled, and he was convinced that ID proponents were not being persecuted. He subsequently published a critical review of the film, which was rebutted by Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin

In 2016, Discovery Institute published a book by Tom titled Darwin’s House of Cards. The book includes penetrating criticisms of Darwinian evolution. But what I find most captivating about the book are Tom’s anecdotes about, and interviews with, prominent figures in the evolution debates. One of them was Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper, who famously wrote in 1974 that evolutionary theory contains no testable laws and is thus metaphysics rather than science. 

“A Pernicious Illusion”

Tom also interviewed American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) paleontologists Normal Platnick and Gareth Nelson. Nelson had written in 1969: “The idea that one can go to the fossil record and expect to empirically recover an ancestor-descendant sequence… has been, and continues to be, a pernicious illusion.” 

Another of Tom’s interviews was with Colin Patterson, a paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History. In 1981, Patterson had stirred up a hornets’ nest by rhetorically asking an audience at the AMNH, “Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing, any one thing, that is true?” Darwinists subsequently denied that Patterson had ever said that, but a creationist in the audience had taped the talk.

The Historical Record

Tom also interviewed Harvard biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. In 1972, Gould and paleontologist Niles Eldredge had written that the fossil record is characterized by “punctuated equilibrium” (punk eek, for short). This meant that the vast majority of species appear abruptly in the fossil record and then persist unchanged for some period of time before they disappear. The transitional forms postulated by Darwin’s theory are not there. In 2002 Gould wrote (in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, p. 759) that “every paleontologist always knew” that this is the dominant pattern in the fossil record. 

In 1997, Lewontin candidly revealed the materialistic philosophy underlying much of modern science — especially evolutionary biology. Scientists, he wrote, “have a prior commitment to materialism,” and “that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Tom’s fascinating interviews help to bring the evolution controversies to life. They also make Darwin’s House of Cards an important part of the historical record.

On February 12, 2021, Tom Bethell passed away at the age of 84 after a long illness. On March 7 The American Spectator published a moving tribute to him. The tribute concluded with “so, Tom, we must bid you farewell, and we do so in the way we know best and the way you loved most. You go with our prayers, our gratitude, and with our love.”

Amen.