Law, Darwinism, and Public Education

  • Francis Beckwith
  • Mar 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Francis Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design. New York: Roman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003. 183 pages. $24.95.

Much of the current debate as to whether Intelligent Design (ID) should be taught in public schools is partly based on the confusion of what ID is about and therefore its appropriate role in public education. Advocates of ID, particularly mainstream Evangelical Christians, endeavor to lobby into law the teaching of ID in public schools as an alternative to Darwinism in order to make a case for God. They do so, however, without considering how ID fundamentally differs from creationism. The latter has faced numerous judicial perils. On the other hand, opponents of ID—especially those who hold to methodological naturalism—contend that ID is just a covert enterprise by the religious right to propagate religion, which violates the establishment clause of the U. S. Constitution. Perhaps the debate would not be so contentious if Law, Darwinism, and Public Education by Francis Beckwith were mandatory reading for those campaigning for and against ID in public schools.

In this short but very insightful book, Beckwith’s goal is to make a legal point that ID—whether right or wrong—should be taught in public schools. Hence, the focus of the book is not the truth of ID. Rather, given the legal principles employed in previous judgments against creationism, Beckwith examines whether teaching ID would suffer the same fate.

After a short but helpful introduction summarizing the growth of ID, Beckwith builds his case in chapter 1 by examining various court cases on creationism and evolution that have shaped jurisprudent decisions and political philosophy. They include the Scopes (Monkey) Trial (1925), Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), and McLean v. Arkansas (1982). The essential principle that emerged from these cases is that according to the Court, “government …must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of non-religion; and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite” (12-13). The eventual ruling of the courts was that the teaching of creationism was judged to be inherently religious and thus violated this principle of neutrality.

This principle of neutrality is what Beckwith considers in his extensive treatment of Edwards v. Aguillard in chapter 2. His strategy is to integrate the basic principles employed in the previous rulings against creationism and apply these same standards for the teaching of ID. In Edwards, the Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of creationism violates the Establishment Clause (unlike the teaching of evolution). The conclusion was based on the examination of legislative history as well as broad judicial history of the creation/evolution conflict. The Court reasoned, “the motivation of the supporter of creationism is sufficient to conclude that the act’s predominant purpose is to advance religion” (56). The Court’s holding has become the standard in which the creationism/evolution argument is addressed.

But Beckwith’s careful examination of evolution reveals is to be a thoroughly naturalistic account of all life. Its claim of neutrality is thus suspect because evolution limits the explanation of the origin of life to strictly naturalistic explanations while at the same time presupposing a metaphysic (materialism).

The courts’ conclusion that evolution is not a theory that provides answers inconsistent with either the existence or non-existence of God overlooks that design and evolution are two metaphysical perspectives of the same subject (origin of life). The courts relied on unchallenged and philosophically controversial premises concerning the nature of metaphysical and theological claims in general, premises that were deeply embedded in public culture and reinforced by previous cases (e.g., Epperson, McLean, Edwards).

For example, one premise is that materialist explanations of the origins of life on earth are the only ones accorded the privilege of being called “knowledge.” Other explanations are pejoratively called “supernatural” or “miraculous” and are never permitted to count against materialist explanations. So to say that belief in a Designer’s existence is not inconsistent with naturalistic evolution is to imply that a Designer (whatever or whoever that may be) is not really an object of knowledge.

In chapter 3, Beckwith presents numerous and diverse aspects of the ID project that test the embedded and largely unchallenged metaphysical claims concerning origins in a highly sophisticated way. For example, Beckwith considers William Dembski’s development of “specified complexity” (SC) as an account of design in nature that is not explicable by naturalism. According to Dembski, SC establishes contingency, complexity and specification. Contingency ensures that an object is not the result of an automatic and therefore unintelligent process. Complexity ensures that the object is not so simple as to be readily explained by chance. Specification ensures that the object exhibits a type of pattern that is the trademark of intelligence.

Beckwith’s aim is to also distinguish ID from creationism in that design theorists defend a perspective that is grounded in arguments that are both empirical and philosophical. Given the court’s’ understanding of creation science, ID clearly is not creation science. He does an excellent job of acquainting the reader with the essential aspects of the ID movement, while assessing whether particular strands of thought on ID are relevant as to whether it would pass constitutional muster. According to Beckwith, “all that is necessary to permit (or require) ID in public school classes is that it does not unconstitutionally advance religion, and its proponents make a reasonable and intellectually respectable case for their position, that the state have a legitimate interest in exposing students and faculty to ID, and that the state have legitimate means by which to accomplish this” (92). Beckwith concludes by arguing that prohibiting ID from public schools would undermine the nature of education, which involves freedom of thought.

The book culminates in chapter 4, where Beckwith considers whether teaching ID in public schools would violate the Establishment Clause. Beckwith effectively argues on the legal principles concerning the definition of religion, examining if ID conforms to such a definition. Compared to previous rulings on creationism, it is clear that ID is not a conventional religious system, and its purpose is to provide answers to some of the questions for which the evolutionary paradigm fails to provide. ID should thus not be disqualified from being taught in public schools as long as it exposes students to new and important scholarship and furthers and protects academic freedom.

Although the book contains numerous references to legal problems and judicial reasoning, Beckwith steadily maneuvers through difficult legal problems and critically evaluates the strength of the courts position. The book is well documented and is extremely thorough. Beckwith's strength is his understanding of constitutional law and his astute philosophical insights. He is thus able to build his case logically and does so with fair treatments of both sides of the issue. This important book is a must for all those who are interested in law, philosophy and religion, and for those who engage in the debate of ID in public schools.

Josee S. Derman
Denver Seminary