Gould, Justice Scalia's Misunderstanding

The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools.

I simply don't see the point of this statement. Of course they are so entitled, and absolutely nothing prevents such a presentation, if evidence there be. The equal time law forces teaching of creation science, but nothing prevented it before, and nothing prevents it now. Teachers were, and still are, free to teach creation science. They don't because they know that it is a ruse and a sham.

Scalia does acknowledge that the law would be unconstitutional if creation science is free of evidence--as it is--and if it merely restates the Book of Genesis--as it does:
Perhaps what the Louisiana Legislature has done is unconstitutional because there is no such evidence, and the scheme they have established will amount to no more than a presentation of the Book of Genesis.

Scalia therefore admits that the issue is not merely legal and does hinge on a question of scientific fact. He then buys the creationist argument and denies that we have sufficient evidence to render this judgment of unconstitutionality. Continuing directly from the last statement, he writes:
But we cannot say that on the evidence before us .... Infinitely less can we say (or should we say) that the scientific evidence for evolution is so conclusive that no one would be gullible enough to believe that there is any real scientific evidence to the contrary.

But this is exactly what I, and all scientists, do say. We are not blessed with absolute certainty about any fact of nature, but evolution is as well confirmed as anything we know--surely as well as the earth's shape and position (and we don't require equal time for flat earthers and those who believe that our planet resides at the center of the universe). We have oodles to learn about how evolution happened, but we have adequate proof that living forms are connected by bonds of genealogical descent.

So I asked myself, how could Justice Scalia be so uninformed about the state of our basic knowledge? And then I remembered something peculiar that bothered me, but did not quite register, when I first read his dissent. I went back to his characterization of evolution and what did I find (repeated, by the way, more than a dozen times, so we know that it represents no one-time slip of his pen, but a consistent definition).

Justice Scalia has defined evolution as the search for life's origin--and nothing more. He keeps speaking about "the current state of scientific evidence about the origin of life" when he means to designate evolution. He writes that "the legislature wanted to ensure that students would be free to decide for themselves how life began based upon a far and balanced presentation of the scientific evidence." Never does he even hint that evolution might be the study of how life changes after it originates--the entire panoply of transformation from simple molecules to all modern multi-cellular complexity.

Moreover, to make matters worse, Scalia doesn't even acknowledge the scientific side of the origin of life on earth. He argues that a creationist law might have a secular purpose so long as we can envisage a concept of creation not involving a personal God "who is the object of religious veneration." He then points out that many such concepts exist, stretching back to Aristotle's notion of an unmoved mover. In the oral argument before the Court, which I attended on December 10, 1986, Scalia pressed this point even more forcefully with counsel for our side. He sparred;
What about Aristotle's view of a fast cause, an unmoved mover? Would that be a creationist view? I don't think Aristotle considered himself as a theologian as opposed to a philosopher.

In fact, he probably considered himself a scientist .... Well, then, you could believe in a first cause, an unmoved mover, that may be impersonal, and has no obligation of obedience or veneration from men, and infact, doesn't care what's happening to mankind. And believe in creation. [From the official transcript, and omitting the responses of our lawyer.]

Following this theme, Scalia presents his most confused statement in the written dissent:
Creation science, its proponents insist, no more must explain whence life came than evolution must explain whence came the inanimate materials from which it says life evolved. But even if that were not so, to posit a past creator is not to posit the eternal and personal God who is the object of religious veneration.

True indeed; one might be a creationist in some vernacular sense by maintaining a highly abstract and impersonal view of the creator But Aristotle's unmoved mover is no more part of science than the Lord of Genesis. Science does not deal with questions of ultimate origins. We would object just as strongly if the Aristotelophiles of Delaware forced a law through the state legislature requiring that creation of each species ex mihilo by an unmoved mover be presented every time evolution is discussed in class. The difference is only historical circumstance, not the logic of argument The unmoved mover doesn't pack much political punch; fundamentalism ranks among our most potent irrationalisms.

Consider also, indeed especially, Scalia's false concept of science. He equates creation and evolution because creationists can't explain life's beginning, while evolutionists can't resolve the ultimate origin of the inorganic components that later aggregated to life. But this inability is the very heart of creationist logic and the central reason why their doctrine is not science, while science's inability to specify the ultimate origin of matter is irrelevant because we are not trying to do any such thing. We know that we can't, and we do not even consider such a question as part of science.

We understand Hutton's wisdom. We do not search for unattainable ultimates.

We define evolution, using Darwin's phrase, as "descent with modification" from prior living things. Our documentation of life's evolutionary tree records one of science's greatest triumphs, a profoundly liberating discovery on the oldest maxim that truth can make us free. We have made this discovery by recognizing what can be answered and what must be left alone. If Justice Scalia heeded our definitions and our practices, he would understand why creationism cannot qualify as science. He would also, by the way, sense the excitement of evolution and its evidence; no person of substance could be unmoved by something so interesting. Only Aristotle's creator may be so impassive.

Don Quixote recognized "no limits but the sky," but became thereby the literary embodiment of unattainable reverie. G.K Chesterton understood that any discipline must define its borders of fruitfulness. He spoke for painting, but you may substitute any creative enterprise: "Art is limitation: the essence of every picture is the frame."

Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology geology, and the history of science at Harvard University.