The trouble with everything

Friday, January 13, 2006

A critique of pure bullshit reason

Origin of the Specious
Why do neo-conservatives doubt Darwin?

By Ronald Bailey

Darwinism is on the way out. At least, that's what Irving Kristol announced to a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington not long ago. Darwinian evolution, according to the godfather of neo-conservatism, "is really no longer accepted so easily by [many] biologists and scientists." Why? Because, Kristol explained, scientifically minded Darwin doubters are once again focusing on "the old-fashioned argument from design." That is to say, life in all its apparently ordered complexity cannot be understood in terms of chance mutation and the competition for survival. There must, after all, be a designer. So, exit Darwin; enter--or re-enter--God.

This may seem to some readers to be a personal quirk of Kristol's. Perhaps as he approaches Eternity (he's 77), he may want some grand company there. But Kristol's friend and colleague Robert Bork is claiming the same thing: Charles Darwin and his theories are finished. In his new work, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, Bork pins his own anti-evolutionary attack on Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, a recent book by biochemist Michael Behe. Bork declares that Behe "has shown that Darwinism cannot explain life as we know it." He adds approvingly that the book "may be read as the modern, scientific version of the argument from design to the existence of a designer." Bork triumphantly concludes: "Religion will no longer have to fight scientific atheism with unsupported faith. The presumption has shifted, and naturalist atheism and secular humanism are on the defensive."

Are these merely two isolated intellectual voices preaching that old-time design? Hardly. Last summer, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank devoted to studying the role of religion in public policy, and now headed by neoconservative Elliott Abrams, called together a group of conservative intellectuals, including Kristol, his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Hoover Institution fellow Tom Bethell, to listen to anti-Darwin presentations by Behe and Michael Denton, author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Himmelfarb has told at least one colleague that she, too, thinks the Behe book "excellent."

There's yet more. The neoconservative journal Commentary, of all periodicals, joined this attack last June with a cover essay, "The Deniable Darwin," written by mathematician David Berlinski.

"An act of intelligence is required to bring even a thimble into being," wrote Berlinski, "why should the artifacts of life be different?" Berlinski warmly endorsed Behe's book, praising it as "an extraordinary piece of work that will come to be regarded as one of the most important books ever written about Darwinian theory. No one can propose to defend Darwin without meeting the challenges set out in this superbly written and compelling book." Commentary Editor Neal Kozodoy says he was "delighted" that his magazine served as a "forum for airing this issue." Berlinski "hit a nerve," according to Kozodoy, not only among the scientists he criticized, but "out there, among general readers, many of whom seem preoccupied with the issues he raised."

What's going on here? Opponents of Darwin traditionally have been led by biblical literalists, whose "arguments" on the subject have been generated mostly by the Book of Genesis. Now their camp includes some of the most prominent thinkers in the conservative intellectual movement.

As a matter of historical curiosity, this new turning of neocon eyes toward heaven comes just as Pope John Paul II has officially recognized that "the theory of evolution is more than an hypothesis." Indeed, it comes as evolutionary thinking itself is shedding considerable light on an array of questions and problems, from brain growth to the development of immune systems, from sociobiology to economics, from ecology to software design. Such research is yielding anti-designer results. F.A. Hayek long ago recognized the phenomenon of "spontaneous order" and described how it arose in markets, families, and other social institutions. Now, ingenious computer models are confirming Hayek's insights. It is increasingly obvious that social systems, from commerce to language, evolve and adapt without the need for top-down planning and organization. Order in markets is generated through processes analogous to Darwinian natural selection in biology. In other words, we can indeed have apparent design without a designer; the world is demonstrably brimming with just such phenomena.

But the neocon assault on Darwinism may not be based on either science or spirituality so much as on politics and political philosophy. That is the view of Paul Gross, a biologist and self-described conservative. Gross is much concerned with the interplay of science and politics--he is the co-author of the 1994 book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science--and is puzzled by the attacks on evolutionary biology by people whose political views he largely shares. Regarding Commentary's anti-Darwin article, he says he is mystified that the magazine "would publish the damned thing without at least passing it by a few scientists first."

Gross believes that the conservative attack on Darwin may be a case of tactical politics. Some conservative intellectuals think religious fundamentalists are "essential to the political program of the right," says Gross. As a gesture of solidarity, he says, these intellectuals are publicly embracing arguments that appear to "keep God in the picture."

The end of the Cold War may also be a factor. Marx fell with the Soviet Union; Freud has been discredited by modern psychology and neuroscience. The last standing member of the 19th century's unholy materialist trinity is Darwin. Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, makes the connection clear: "Darwinism is the most important of the materialist ideologies--Marxism, Freudianism, and behaviorism are others--which have done so much damage to science and society in the 20th century." Kristol agrees. "All I want to do," he told his AEI audience, "is break the bonds of Darwinian materialism which at the moment restrict our imagination. For the moment that's enough."

But something deeper seems to be going on, and the key to it can be found in Bork's assertion in his book that religious "belief is probably essential to a civilized future." These otherwise largely secular intellectuals may well have turned on Darwin because they have concluded that his theory of evolution undermines religious faith in society at large. Of course, this is not a novel thought. Many others have arrived at the same conclusion. Conservative activist Beverly LaHaye, a biblical literalist who is president of Concerned Women for America, puts the matter directly: "If the biblical account of creation in Genesis isn't true, how can we trust the rest of the Bible?"

Kristol and his colleagues may worry that once this one thread is pulled from the fabric of religious belief, perhaps the whole will become unraveled, with grave social consequences. Without the strictures and traditions imposed by a religion that promises to punish sinners, the moral controls that moderate our base desires will lose their validity, leading ultimately to moral chaos. Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is "the opium of the people"; they add a heartfelt, "Thank God!"

It is no secret that many neocons are in a deep funk over the state of American society. (For an especially glum assessment, dip into Bork's best-seller.) In the 1960s, many of them advocated federal programs to ameliorate such social ills as poverty, crime, racial discrimination, illegitimacy, and drug abuse. But as one social welfare program after another succumbed to its unintended consequences, they recognized the limits of governmental intervention. Having suffered a crisis of faith in the efficacy of social science, they now believe that only the restoration of religious belief among the masses can re-establish order in American society. As David Brooks recently wrote in the conservative journal The Weekly Standard, policy intellectuals used to sound like economists; now they sound like ministers. He's right. At conservative confabs today, the longing for yet one more Great Awakening of religious fervour is palpable.

Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded--or even if it suspects--that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

Another prominent neoconservative, Leon Kass, author of Toward a More Natural Science (1985), and a member of the University of Chicago's prestigious Committee on Social Thought, also believes that evolutionary theory poses a threat to social order: "[T]he creationists and their fundamentalist patrons...sense that orthodox evolutionary theory cannot support any notions we might have regarding human dignity or man's special place in the whole. And they see that Western moral teaching, so closely tied to Scripture, is also in peril if any major part of Scripture can be shown to be false."

At the heart of the neoconservative attack on Darwinism lies the political philosophy of Leo Strauss. Strauss was a German political philosopher who fled the Nazis in 1938 and began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1949. In an intellectual revolt against modernity, Strauss focused his work on interpreting such classics as Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's The Prince.

Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that `the truth will make men free.'" Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."

Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

In crude terms, some critics of Strauss argue that he interpreted the ancient philosophers as offering two different teachings, an esoteric one which is available only to those who read the ancient texts closely, and an exoteric one accessible to naive readers. The exoteric interpretations were aimed at the mass of people, the vulgar, while the esoteric teachings--the hidden meanings--were vouchsafed to the few, the philosophers. Philosophers know the truth, but must keep it hidden from the vulgar, lest it upset them. What is the hidden truth known to philosophers? That there is no God and there is no ultimate foundation for morality. As Kristol suggests, it is necessary to keep this truth from the vulgar because such knowledge would only engender despair in them and lead to social breakdown. In his book, On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon's Hiero, Strauss asserts with unusual clarity that Socratic dialogues are "based on the premise that there is a disproportion between the intransigent quest for truth and the requirements of society, or that not all truths are always harmless."

Political scientist Shadia Drury, a passionate critic of Strauss, puts it this way: "For Strauss, the ills of modernity have their source in the foolish belief that there are no harmless truths, and that belief in God and in rewards and punishments is not necessary for political order....[H]e is convinced that religion is necessary for the well-being of society. But to state publicly that religion is a necessary fiction would destroy any salutary effect it might have. The latter depends on its being believed to be true....If the vulgar discovered, as the philosophers have always known, that God is dead, they might behave as if all is permitted."

Thus, to preserve society, wise people must publicly support the traditions and myths that sustain the political order and that encourage ordinary people to obey the laws and live justly. People will do so only if they believe that moral rules are divinely decreed or were set up by men who were inspired by the Divine.

Kristol restated this insight nearly five decades ago in an essay in Commentary dealing with Freud: "If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without...let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish."
Thus, following the lead of Strauss and Kristol, those who support the attacks on evolutionary biology may be reasonably suspected of practicing a high-minded hypocrisy. They want to bolster popular morality and preserve social order. Attacking Darwin helps to sustain what Plato regarded as a "Noble Lie"-- in this case preserving the faith of the common people in Genesis, and thus the social order.

But perhaps this analysis is too cynical. Perhaps Darwinism really is being challenged by new scientific evidence. In that case, the neoconservative intellectuals would be on the cutting edge of a reassessment of evolutionary biology. Kristol certainly seems to think that Behe's and Berlinski's attacks on Darwin have "fractured the dogmatism of the neo-Darwinian synthesis," and he believes that as a consequence "there is room for metaphysical and theological speculation." Let's take a look.

Mathematician David Berlinski's Commentary article, "The Deniable Darwin," has been warmly embraced by conservative intellectuals. The magazine published a voluminous correspondence concerning the piece in a subsequent issue, including letters from both critics and supporters. Hoover Institution fellow and long-time anti-Darwinian Tom Bethell, for example, commended Commentary. "Now we no longer believe in the idea of progress," he wrote, "and faith in biological evolution may be jeopardized as a result." Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the politically conservative Jewish organization Toward Tradition, hailed the Berlinski article as "a shot in what is becoming a great moral revolution." He added, "Discovering that Darwin is deniable might tell us a little of how primitive life began. It would tell us everything about how modern life should continue. Today's greatest question is whether humans have been touched by the divine and thus possess moral judgment or whether we are just sophisticated animals."

But Berlinski stoutly declares in Commentary that he is no creationist. He claims merely to be engaged in critiquing the failures of Darwinism. Berlinski is particularly savage about what he regards as Darwinism's tautological character. "Time and again, biologists do explain the survival of an organism by reference to its fitness and the fitness of an organism by reference to its survival, the friction between the two concepts kindling nothing more than the observation that some creatures have been around for a very long time."
In Berlinski's view, evolutionary theory simply says that the ones that survive are the ones that survive. But that is not quite right. Darwinian natural selection sifts for useful variations among mutations, thus natural selection generates increased fitness, not just preserving the fittest. This process generates new species, species B being the descendant of earlier species A. This claim is clearly more than a tautology.

Berlinski also contrasts geological theory with evolutionary theory. He argues that geological theory offers general rules that, for example, exclude the possibility of "a mountain arranging itself in the shape of the letter `A'." He then grandly proclaims that "the theory of evolution, by contrast, is incapable of ruling anything out of court [emphasis his]."

The comparison between geology and evolutionary biology is particularly apt, but not in the way Berlinski thinks. Geology, like evolutionary biology, is to a considerable extent a historical science which tries to analyze unrepeatable events that happened in the distant past. Events in geology, like those in evolution, are compounded of myriad facts, contingencies, and details that simply cannot be completely accounted for. Despite geology's general and well-understood principles--the operation of faults, plate tectonics, upthrust, etc.--geologists are still unable to predict an earthquake's strength, time, or location. But Berlinski certainly never says that geology is not a science.

Berlinski is simply wrong when he claims that evolutionary biology "is incapable of ruling anything out of court." Two examples: Darwinians would confidently predict that fossilized human skeletons will never be found among undisturbed Jurassic fossils. Also, biologists agree that a general principle of evolutionary biology rules out the possibility that there are organisms that will sacrifice their own reproductive success in order to enhance the reproductive success of some other species.

Berlinski also argues that mathematical calculation shows it is absurdly improbable that life could have arisen by a chance combination of chemicals in the primordial soup. Berlinski asserts that randomness overwhelms any other process if we try to maintain the perspective of naturalism. Therefore we are treated to calculations that show the number of all possible proteins is far greater than the number of atoms in the universe or the number of seconds that have passed since the Big Bang. These calculations are supposed to overwhelm our capacity to believe that life could arise spontaneously. But is life really so improbable? Investigations into complexity theory by Stuart Kauffman and other scientists at the Santa Fe Institute indicate otherwise: that spontaneous order may be part and parcel of the universe.

The other new anti-Darwin champion is Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe. In Darwin's Black Box, Behe argues that many cellular systems are "irreducibly complex." An irreducibly complex "system needs several components before it can work properly." He uses the humble mousetrap as an example--one cannot catch mice with only a platform, then catch more with the addition of a spring--all the pieces must be there for it to work. Behe then proceeds to describe in great detail examples of what he thinks are irreducibly complex biological systems, e.g., bacterial flagella, the cascade required for blood to clot, and the chemical chain that must fire in order to for us to see. In each case, he asserts that there is no way that such a complex structure could have arisen gradually--all the links must be there in order for the systems to operate properly.
Behe, in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, frankly acknowledges that his is "a distinctly minority view among scientists on the question of what caused evolution." But Behe wants it clearly understood that he is no biblical literalist: "In the book I specifically say I am not a creationist, agree that the universe is billions of years old, [and] believe in descent of life from a common ancestor."

Unlike Berlinski, Behe more or less concedes that Darwinian evolution occurred once the biochemical systems operating inside of cells were "designed." In his view, the flowering of the various species we find in the fossil record and in the world today were potential in the original "designed" cells that came into existence 3.5 billion years or so ago.

Behe is addressing the origins problem--how did the whole show get started in the first place? It is true that no satisfactory answer for the question of how life began has yet been devised; it is a question that scientists are only beginning to address in an organized manner. Richard Dawkins, the arch-Darwinist author of The Selfish Gene (1976) and last year's Climbing Mount Improbable, accuses Behe of intellectual laziness on the question. "The role of a biochemist is to work on problems," he says, "not just throw up his hands and say that since it's not obvious how some biochemical cascade may have evolved, then it must therefore be the result of design."

Among those working on the origins question is biologist and Nobel laureate Christian De Duve, who has outlined a theory of how life might have arisen. He dubs his theory the "thioester-iron world," after the chemicals he thinks could have reacted together to create "protometabolisms" that could evolve. He admits his theory is very speculative, but believes that one day biologists may find traces of the prior existence of these protometabolisms in the biochemistry of contemporary organisms.

Another promising approach is complexity theory. Scientists at the Santa Fe Institute argue that life is practically the inevitable result of the laws of physics and chemistry. According to Stuart Kauffman, life bootstrapped itself into existence through auto catalytic sets of chemicals that were in the primordial soup. Kauffman postulates that if a chemical soup has enough different types of compounds, they will begin to act in metabolic ways and be able to reproduce and evolve. (See "Who Ordered That?" February 1996.)

Robert Shapiro, a professor of chemistry at New York University and author of Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth (1986), explains how Kauffman's theory might be checked out: "You take what you think are a nice set of chemicals and you put them together. You decide what the appropriate energy source is and you just follow it. If a network of reactions à la Kauffman sets itself up--A catalyzes B, B catalyzes C, C catalyzes D--and you don't get all tar or an equilibrium mixture where nothing changes, but energy is being used productively ...with certain chemicals taking over the mixture and others disappearing," then you will have established a base from which to proceed. "Now you play with initial ingredients and see how broad the base is of chemicals which will support this pre-biotic simulation." If the chemical reaction networks remain open-ended, then biochemists may have developed a plausible example of how such networks began to evolve into living things.

In fact, a German scientist, Günter Wächtershäuser, has recently published a paper in Science magazine describing his efforts to uncover such plausible protometabolisms. He has found an open-ended chemical cycle that produces an active form of acetic acid, thought to mirror an ancient metabolic pathway in bacteria. Such a protometabolism, he argues, could have existed billions of years ago on metal sulfide surfaces found at hot deep ocean vents, and could have been one of the first steps in the evolution of life.

Kauffmanesque spontaneous self-organization would be a different source of order from that yielded by the process of Darwinian natural selection. Of course, Kauffman's work needs to be validated, but it is the kind of scientific theory that could make Behe's claims moot and undermine Berlinski's mathematical improbability argument. Berlinski's counterargument against the work of the Santa Fe Institute, by the way, is simple denial. "I find nothing of value in various theories of self-organization," he wrote in his reply to the Commentary correspondence, "the very idea is to my mind incoherent; but I leave it to others to make the case." Why not him? Berlinski thinks life's too short. "[S]oon the night comes, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, wherein no man can work."

So if Darwinian evolutionary biology is still a viable scientific theory, is it nevertheless a "harmful truth" in the Straussian sense? Does it necessarily undermine the moral order? Is it necessarily in conflict with religion? Kristol thinks so. According to him, it undermines even "the belief that there is such a thing as a moral code."
Last summer, the Divine Action Conference, held biannually at the pope's summer palace near Rome, brought together a group of scientists and theologians to address the issue of what science and religion may have in common. The conference topic was evolution.

The Divine Action Conference is jointly sponsored by the Vatican and the Center for Theology and Natural Science. The head of CTNS, Robert Russell, is both a physicist and an ordained minister in the Church of Christ. Asked about evolution, Russell said, "As a Christian, I believe in God as creator....All of nature articulates God's grace as creator and redeemer. So evolution, which we discover through science, is in fact the way God goes about being creator." Another conference participant, the Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy from the Fuller Theological Seminary, said: "I think it is a terrible misconception to see evolutionary biology and Christian theology as in competition. Ever since the rise of modern science, Christians have had to come to terms with some understanding of God working through natural processes. And God's action in natural biological processes should not be an exception to that."

These views are called "compatibilism." They see no necessary contradiction between evolutionary theory and belief in a divine creator. Russell and Murphy are "theistic evolutionists." In fact, during his lecture at AEI, Irving Kristol revealed that he is probably a compatibilist: "I accept evolution. Something like that happened." Compatibilism is scorned by some scientists; Richard Dawkins, for example, wonders, "Why deliberately set [life] up in the one way that makes it look like you don't exist?"

Still, it received a big boost in October when Pope John Paul II issued a statement that said, "fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just an hypothesis." The pope even suggested that humans arose from animal ancestors but added that, "If the human body has its origin in living material which pre-exists it, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God." The pope's statement added, "The convergence, neither sought nor provoked, of results of studies undertaken independently from each other constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory."

The pope certainly knows what he is talking about--the findings of palaeontology and genetics have converged. Today, biologists can construct nearly identical family trees of organisms using independently derived information from systematic biological classifications, the fossil record, and molecular data from the genomes of organisms.
Taxonomists classify organisms into familiar groups of kingdoms, families, genera, down to species by comparing their similarities and differences. The process of classifying reveals relationships, e.g., horses and hogs are more similar to each other than they are to hawks or hornbills. This implies that horses and hogs descended from some earlier mammal species rather than from some earlier bird species.

The fossil record supports the findings of the taxonomists by providing insights into the ancestral species of mammals and birds. The mammalian and the avian branches on the tree of life clearly derived from different types of reptiles that lived tens of millions of years ago.

Molecular biology traces how genes have changed over time. ln fact, some research suggests that mutations can act like a molecular clock that shows how long ago the last common ancestor of two different lineages lived. The more differences in the genes, the longer ago the common ancestor lived. For example, genetic changes show that horses and hogs shared a last common ancestor far more recently than either shared one with hawks or hornbills.

Despite the strong scientific support for evolutionary biology, there is no denying at least some of the force of the neo-conservative arguments about the role religion has played in sustaining civil society. Even Herbert Spencer, that champion of individualism, concluded in his autobiography that "the control exercised over men's conduct by theological beliefs and priestly agency, has been indispensable." There is an eerie sort of agreement between Darwinist Dawkins, Leo Strauss, and Irving Kristol. All three believe that religion's role in society may be to bolster social cohesion. Religious belief can persuade people, especially young men, to sacrifice themselves for the good of the community. Perhaps religion functions as a type of group selection device--it might be bad for individual members of society, but it is good for the whole and enhances the success of a group in its competition with other groups. Even Hayek argued in The Fatal Conceit (1988) that groups that evolved better institutions would out compete and replace groups with less effective institutions. Could Western religions be such institutions?

For Robert Russell, Nancey Murphy, and the pope, evolutionary biology doesn't undermine the authority of Christianity in the moral sphere, but their views are quite sophisticated. University of Florida historian of science Frederick Gregory has a point when he writes that people--such as many of the intellectuals at the Divine Action Conference--"who have felt forced by Darwin to admit that God has no reference to nature have made theology unrecognizable as theology to the majority of believers for whom a demythologized Christianity is no real Christianity at all."

Now, Irving Kristol, Leon Kass, and Robert Bork are smart men. They would certainly qualify as Straussian "philosophers." Perhaps they know the philosopher's "hidden knowledge." If so, what do they think they should do? A hint of how they may be responding can be found in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, written by Gertrude Himmelfarb. "So solicitous of morality were the Victorian agnostics," she wrote in 1959, "that they were even willing to make concessions to religion in the interests of public morality. They were willing to suspend their own disbelief in order to bolster up other people's morals--not their own, for of their own they had no doubt."

In 1995, Kristol acknowledged that some of his colleagues are emulating these Victorian agnostics when he wrote that many "neo-conservatives are not themselves religiously observant--though more and more are coming to be. This leads to accusations by liberal intellectuals of hypocrisy or cold-blooded political instrumentalism. But such accusations miss the point. All political philosophers prior to the twentieth century, regardless of their personal piety or lack thereof, understood the importance of religion in the life of the political community. Neo-conservatives, because of their interest in and attachment to classical (as distinct from contemporary) political philosophy, share this understanding."

A year ago, I asked Kristol after a lecture whether he believed in God or not. He got a twinkle in his eye and responded, "I don't believe in God, I have faith in God." Well, faith, as it says in Hebrews 11:1, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

But at the recent AEI lecture, journalist Ben Wattenberg asked him the same thing. Kristol responded that "that is a stupid question," and crisply restated his belief that religion is essential for maintaining social discipline. A much younger (and perhaps less circumspect) Kristol asserted in a 1949 essay that in order to prevent the social disarray that would occur if ordinary people lost their religious faith, "it would indeed become the duty of the wise publicly to defend and support religion."

We cannot know the innermost secrets of their hearts, but if these conservative intellectuals are indeed carrying out "the duty of the wise," then they have less faith in their fellow citizens than does the pope. The Vatican, after all, has had occasion to absorb a truth succinctly stated by biologist Paul Gross: "Everybody who has undertaken in the last 300 years to stand against the growth of scientific knowledge has lost." That lesson has a moral: If Darwinian evolution is scientifically true, then we have no choice but to go forward and build as good a society as we can in the light of this truth.

The Vatican also brings to bear the wisdom of St. Augustine, whose confessed life may be understood as an inquiry into nature and grace. "If we come to read anything in Holy Scripture," he wrote 16 centuries ago, "that is in keeping with the faith in which we are steeped, capable of several meanings, we must not by obstinately rushing in, so commit ourselves to any one of them that, when perhaps the truth is more thoroughly investigated, it rightly falls to the ground and we with it."

Contributing Editor Ronald Bailey is a television producer in Washington, D.C.
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