This summer, the folks in Dayton, Tennessee are no doubt at least recognizing, if not celebrating, the eightieth anniversary of the Scopes Trial, sometimes popularly dubbed the “monkey trial”, which, largely because of the mythology that has been built around it by Hollywood and the larger than life personalities who were involved, has become the ultimate historical confrontation between the “evolutionists” and the “creationists”. Most people probably don’t remember that the prosecution won the case, and Mr. Scopes was found guilty of violating Tennessee law by teaching Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species. What is vivid with most people as the mythology of the trial has grown and been embellished is its caricature of the buffoonery of the argument of the case made on behalf of the state by the “creationist” counsel, William Jennings Bryan. And for the past eighty years, the relative positions have been solidified in the public mind and in the culture war—the evolutionists as the progressives, enlightened by the scientific method and unburdened by faith-based biblical creation myths, versus the creationists, retrograde medievalists who would roll back the scientific revolution and infect the teaching of biology with religious mythology.
In fact, in this confrontation, as with much else in our public square today, the two camps are talking past each other, because both arguments have long ago become much more about worldviews than about science, and worldviews, as someone before me has said, are essentially all about how one feels about two things—human origins and human consciousness. Tell me what you believe about how we got here and how human consciousness was developed and I will tell you what you believe about the large majority of the hot button social issues that permeate today’s public debates. How do Americans divide on these questions? The closest proxy for an answer comes from a series of polls conducted by the Gallup organization from 1982-1998, which asked people which of the following statements best describes their point of view: (1) Creationist: believes God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, (2) Theistic Evolutionist: believes that God guided the process of evolution over millions of years, or (3) Darwinist: believes that God played no role in evolution. The poll results remained virtually unchanged over this period, as follows: Creationists – 44%, Theistic Evolutionists – 39%, Darwinist – 10%, Don’t Know/Other – 7%.
Whatever your personal view of human nature or human origins, it is pretty well accepted that Darwin rejected the traditional view that had been dominant in Western thought for many centuries before him, which is that man significantly differs in kind, not in degree, from all other animal life. Since his time, with the enormous advances in the biosciences, it has become popular to note that, at the level of DNA, humans and chimpanzees differ by only 1%. But it is more than just a little obvious that this seemingly small difference accounts for an enormous gulf in the respective potentialities of humans and the other animals. Why? As Mortimer Adler has so clearly explained over the years, it boils down to man’s intellect, which in simplest terms is the exclusively human attribute that allows man an imagination, or as Adler put it, “to understand what certain kinds of objects are like both (a) when the objects, though perceptible by the senses, are not actually perceived, and (b) also when they are not perceptible at all, as with the conceptual constructs we employ in physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever that such concepts are present in animal behavior. Their intelligence is entirely sensory”.
Russell Kirk approaches the question from a slightly different direction: “The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the chaos of many events. It is a strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest”. Obviously, what we have known as Western Civilization would have been impossible without this human capability that Kirk describes.
Many may continue to wonder and debate about the source of this human consciousness, but we’re all still waiting for either evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology to satisfactorily explain it within a strictly materialist worldview.