HUMAN EVENTS Interview:Contrarian Think Tank Challenges Darwin

In an August 1 interview, President Bush was asked whether public schools should teach the theory of intelligent design (which proposes that life forms show evidence of having been designed) in addition to the theory of evolution (which proposes that all life forms developed solely through random mutations by natural selection).

“I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught,” said Bush, stressing that the decision was a state and local one.

Since then, Time magazine has pointed to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute as the “headquarters” for intelligent design theorists, and the New York Times has run three front-page articles about the institute and its scholars, who challenge Darwinian orthodoxy.

Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman was director of the Census Bureau in the early 1980s before he became a deputy assistant to President Ronald Reagan. In 1985, Reagan named him U.S. ambassador to the UN Organizations in Vienna, Austria, where he served for three years. Human Events editors Terence Jeffrey and Allan Ryskind spoke with Chapman this week.


Why is the liberal establishment press so shaken up about the Discovery Institute?

Bruce Chapman: Some of them are really worried that the dominant paradigm of Darwinism in this country is vulnerable. They are so worried that they are willing to distort what we say, to misrepresent our definitions and our aims, and to stoop to ad hominem attacks rather than discuss the evidence.

If they are convinced Darwinism is true, why are they worried?

Chapman: Frankly, I believe they are convinced it is true only on an ideological level. This is their religion. A few years ago, a friend who was producing a program on PBS had a debate that we helped to sponsor between Michael Behe—one of our fellows and a distinguished professor of biology at Lehigh University—and Michael Ruse—a leading philosopher of Darwinism. The producer told me later the show had a record response, but PBS was not pleased. I asked him, Why? He said: “You have to understand, Bruce, Darwin is their religion.” And I have learned over the years that that’s absolutely true.

The Times suggested the Discovery Institute is ideological, that you’re not a scientist, and that you cater to Christian conservatives because they are your financial base. Could you address those criticisms?

Chapman: Let’s start with the first question. What is the Discovery Institute? We’ve been around for 15 years. Our motto is: “How to make a positive vision of the future practical.” We are futurists. We are contrarian. I like to think I borrowed a lot of my ideas and approaches to the think-tank world from Dr. Herman Kahn, who founded the Hudson Institute. We have a major program in transportation, with both a regional and national focus. We do work on economics, foreign policy, technology and democracy, religion and public life, and then there is the program on science and culture, which is where we deal with Darwinism.

We got into the question of Darwin’s theory indirectly as an academic-freedom question. In 1993, an evolutionary biologist at San Francisco State, Dr. Dean Kenyon, was about to be driven out of the faculty because he had advised his students that he no longer credited Darwin’s theory, even though he had previously written a textbook on the subject. The biology faculty wanted him removed from his tenured position, and the greater faculty almost went along with that. One of our future fellows, Dr. Steve Myer, who has a doctorate in the philosophy of science from Cambridge, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, which I saw, defending Kenyon.

That brought us into it, because any time I see someone in academia telling you that you cannot discuss a certain topic, then that is exactly the topic I want to look into.

As I did look into it, I encountered someone who had been a couple of years ahead of me at Harvard College in the 1960s, Dr. Philip Johnson, who went on to become a distinguished professor of evidence at Boalt Hall Law School at the University of California at Berkeley. Johnson had written a book, Darwin on Trial, after he became interested in the subject and discovered, as a professor of evidence, that the evidence for Darwinism isn’t really there.

We have to put a plug in here—Johnson’s book was published by Regnery, a sister company of Human Events.

Chapman: Go right ahead.


Chapman: I began to see a theme: The world view of the Darwinists is really the world view of materialism—something C.S. Lewis had warned us about decades earlier. Now, you could begin to see it elaborated in a number of different fields in our culture. I began to think of this as a key to a great many other issues. The ties are not always direct, but they are still there. For example, one of our brightest lights is a one-time member of Nader’s Raiders, who is now a more conservative lawyer and social critic, Wesley J. Smith. He writes about everything from animal-rights issues—where he sees PETA and the animal-liberation people posing an expanding threat—to issues such as euthanasia and assisted suicide. When you start to think about what is behind this, as Smith did, you start to see materialist assumptions about the nature of human beings—that we are not exceptional, that we have no superiority over other creatures in the animal kingdom.

Whittaker Chambers, in Witness, famously argued that Communists and liberals share the same fundamental belief—materialism—which entails the idea that there are no objective rules of right and wrong and that, therefore, man himself can reorder society according to his own design. Do you believe that this faith in natural selection, enforced by establishment science in the U.S., is really an instrument of a liberal establishment that wants to order society according to its own whims? Is its purpose to create a scholarly justification for reordering society?

Chapman: I think you have to look at this on two levels. On one level, there is a strict question of science, which is whether or not Darwin’s theory is true. That subject needs to be addressed straight on, on the evidence, and no religious or philosophical implications should be, or need to be, brought into the discussion. As a pedagogical question it is very straightforward, and as a pedagogical question the evidence for Darwin’s theory is under increasing scientific attack.

On the second level, the philosophical level, yes, it is the threat to the materialist world view that excites all the agitation. We never bring up religion or theological implications in that regard. But the left always does. That is their default position. They go to it almost immediately. And that is very telling, I think, because the ruling paradigm is becoming vulnerable. Turn it around, and think how damaging to the Victorian world view Darwin’s theory was.

Is the alternative to Darwin that your group represents getting into the private and public schools?

Chapman: What we have tried to deal with at the Discovery Institute, as regards education, is the problem with the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Although our scientists are propounding a theory of intelligent design, as a research program and a positive alternative to Darwin’s theory, all that we have asked for in high schools is that students learn the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory. We believe that once they look at the actual evidence of the so-called demonstrations of Darwin’s theory in their textbooks they will see that those demonstrations are flawed or even bogus in many cases. That would be an inoculation against this one-sided, ideological approach the Darwinists have insisted upon.

The other side doesn’t want to talk about the evidence for and against Darwin’s theory. They want to talk about intelligent design as if it were going to be a requirement in the schools. We have never argued that it should be made a requirement, but they want to pretend we are doing that so they can distort its meaning and claim that it is religious. Then they can try to persuade a judge to outlaw it as a breach of the1st Amendment.

Nonetheless, we are making a lot of progress at the high-school level. After protracted debate, Ohio’s state school board decided students there should learn to analyze evolution critically. As a practical matter, that has meant learning the scientific evidence against Darwin’s theory as well as for it. It is a very good plan, and something similar is close to being adopted, despite a great deal of sturm and drang in the press, in Kansas. In some other localities they are already teaching the evidence for and against Darwin’s theory. If they leave it at that, the ACLU will have to leave them alone.