How did life begin? How do human beings relate to the rest of nature? These are religious questions, but also scientific ones. It's important to keep the scientific answers separate from those based on revelation.
The Governor of Louisiana signed the Science Education Act into law last month, a piece of legislation that would allow public high school teachers to introduce "alternatives" to Darwinism in biology classrooms. The bill touts academic freedom, but many fear it is just a subterfuge for sneaking "Intelligent Design" into the state's science curricula.
The furor concerning life's origins has been with us for a long time, and even predates Darwin. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson wondered how life originated back in the eighteenth century. They were particularly fascinated by the theories of a French naturalist, the Comte de Buffon.
Buffon rejected the Biblical account of creation. He supposed the Earth was formed eons ago in a cosmic collison, when a stray comet smashed into the sun. As a result of the collision, a chunk of hot stellar material spun off into a roughly circular orbit. As the millennia passed, the chunk cooled. A crust formed over the surface of the planet. Water vapor condensed to form liquid, in the form of oceans. And after a long time, heat acting on naturally occuring chemicals in the ocean depths spawned the first living creatures. It was a purely naturalistic account of creation, without relying on any divine intervention.
A recent book on the founder's faith by Steve Waldman asserts that Jefferson believed in "intelligent design." It's a specious claim, like observing that Jefferson believed there were only six planets, or that he thought wooly mammoths were still roaming the northern regions of Siberia. As a man of the eighteenth century, Jefferson was limited in the astronomical and biological information available to him. But he was an empiricist and scientifically-minded. Had he been alive today, he doubtless would have subscribed to the overwhelming consensus among biologists that Darwin's theory of natural selection and random variation (not ID) is the best explanation for the amazing diversity and complexity of life.
Together, Jefferson and Madison wondered how Buffon's theories could be tested. Madison proposed careful surface measurements of the Earth's radiant heat. If our planetary home began in an astral collision and still contained a hot core, a gradient of temperature changes ought to be observable as one moved from equator to pole, because the planet is not precisely spherical. While Madison never had the time or instruments to carry out such researches, his commitment was to experimental method.
Madison and Jefferson together did dissections of various North American mammals, comparing their anatomy to their European counterparts. This was to test Buffon's hypothesis that the Earth's cooling had forced mass migration of animal species in the distant past, causing the creatures to gradually evolve new adaptations in response to the changing climate.
What we need today is not Intelligent Design, but more intelligent faith--a faith like that of the founding fathers, who were not afraid to inquire and explore, following the data whevever the conclusions might lead.
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