Do You Believe in Accidentalism?

Some commentators have compared the current argument over whether "intelligent design" merits mention in high school classes on evolution to the famous Scopes "monkey trial" in Tennessee in 1925. They seem to feel that it’s the same old dispute, dolled up in new clothes. They miss the delicious irony that it is, instead, the exact reverse of the Scopes trial.

In Scopes, the central issue was whether the theory of evolution could be put forward in the public schools of Tennessee (the school system subscribed to the belief that human beings were created directly by God). Today, the central issue is whether "intelligent design" may be mentioned in science courses in the public schools of Kansas, Pennsylvania and other states as a modification of the theory of evolution, which today reigns there as the exclusive explanation of the development of species, including our own. The supporters of evolution are as determined to ban all references of intelligent design as Tennessee’s schools were determined to ban all references to the theory of evolution.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines evolution as "the theory, now generally accepted, that all species of plants and animals developed from earlier forms by hereditary transmission of slight variations in successive generations." Evolutionists would agree that, for strict accuracy, the word "accidental" should be inserted before the word "variations." I see this as so important that I suggest we substitute the term "accidentalism" for the word "evolution." For that is what is at issue in the current debate: whether those slight variations are in fact totally accidental (in which case there is no need to posit the existence of a God, or anything else, to bring them about) or whether they are the product of intelligent design on the part of a pre-existing designer. The whole controversy thus becomes, as I see it, a subset of the larger dispute between those who believe in a God and those who prefer a strictly materialistic, and atheistic, explanation of the universe.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s wildly imaginative interpretation of the First Amendment, atheism has become the default conviction of American society. Because of the supposed "wall" between church and state, no serious reference to a God may intrude upon the public square. In public schools, children may — indeed, must — be taught the accidentalist theory of humanity’s origins; any notion that God played a part in the process is strictly prohibited.

But the concept of intelligent design presents a new problem, because it doesn’t depend upon the existence of a God, in the ordinary sense of that word, but only suggests that certain steps in the development of species are too complex to have been accidental, but require the pre-existence of some sort of intelligent designer. This modest argument has won the support of some thoroughly respectable scientists.

It has also won the undying enmity of many others, because they recognize the threat it poses to their own unstated but passionate atheism. They have flatly denied that there are any steps in the development of species too complex to be explained as sheer accidents — though there are numerous instances of steps they cannot ("yet") explain. They have pointed to the failure of intelligent-design proponents to publish their arguments in "respectable peer-reviewed scientific publications" — while fighting doggedly to keep them from being published there.

And, of course, they are battling furiously to keep any mention of intelligent design out of the hearing of the millions of students whom they are systematically drilling in the supposedly unchallengeable theory of accidentalism.

Why, I ask, should reasonable people be so afraid of an intuitively appealing suggestion that a scientific theory may need modifying? They reply that the suggestion itself is not "scientific," and thus has no place in a class on science. Let it be studied, if at all, in courses on religion.

And let their response be included in courses on logic, as a stellar example of intellectual dishonesty.