History, we are sometimes told, repeats itself. This is arguably true in that whenever we human beings are confronted with a set of circumstances we tend to respond to them in the same way, whatever era we live in. Canada last week provided a classic example.
Close to 600 years ago the established authorities of the Western world – people who everywhere commanded unquestioned respect– knew as an incontrovertible fact that the sun and all the planets revolved around the Earth.
Not only was it self-evident – you could see them doing it – but the great Aristotle himself had said so, and when the great Aquinas adapted the great Aristotle’s philosophy to Christian theology, he embraced Aristotle’s science as well. So that was that. The bishops said so. The Bible seemed to say so. Case closed.
But it wasn’t closed. When a devout Christian named Copernicus propounded as fact that the Earth and all the planets actually revolved around the sun, and offered mathematical evidence, he was quietly dismissed as deluded.
However, by the next generation other non-conformists – certain Jesuits and an Italian named Galileo – were spouting the same sort of nonsense, so something absolutely had to be done. This kind of talk was eroding respect for established authority, officialdom declared. And when Galileo defiantly offered telescopic evidence for his theory, those in control decided to shut him up.
The revolution of the sun and planets around the Earth was not an assumption, declared the pope of the day, but a well-established fact, and these dangerous meddlers were popularizing their nonsensical views among students, teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers. Galileo was compelled to recant his dangerous claims, and a little later died in comfortable retirement. (He was never persecuted, tortured and otherwise physically coerced, however, as later mythology would claim.)
Fast forward now to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For more than 100 years the priests of our day, meaning the scientists, have cherished as incontrovertible fact the thesis that all the species of nature, man included, came about by accident. By an astonishing coincidence, the single cell appeared; by millions of further accidents, the cell evolved over countless generations into ourselves and what we see around us.
Nothing directed this process – it just happened. And to demonstrate how man himself happened, various “transitional species” leading up to the appearance of humans were portrayed in realistic line drawings in the best high-school science textbooks. There was no evidence for any of these transitional species, of course; they were invented in order to show how it all worked.
By the 1990s, however, certain non-conforming individuals began to question this so-called thesis. They did not dispute the antiquity of the Earth. They did not claim the book of Genesis to be a scientific document. They were not priests or pastors, or biblical “creationists.” They were philosophers and scientists who challenged the infallibility of what’s called “natural selection,” the notion that everything came about by chance.
When Darwin invented this theory, wrote one biochemist, the single cell, the founding building block of nature, was seen as a blob, a “black box” that could not be opened. But now it has been opened, and found to be of staggering complexity and efficiency. To suggest it happened by chance was frankly preposterous. It had to have been “designed.”
The proponents of what came to be called “intelligent design” are naturally being denounced by “respectable scientific authority,” and since advocacy of “ID” is obviously a career terminator, only about 10 percent of scientists (many safely retired) have done so. But their number is growing, and the movement is regarded by the scientific establishment as a serious danger.
Since it began in the United States, one McGill University group decided that something must be done to prevent its spread into Canada. They requested a $40,000 federal grant to find ways to prevent ID from “eroding acceptance of evolutionary science in Canada.” To McGill’s horror, the request has now been turned down on the grounds that it offered no evidence to support the truth of the natural-selection process. No proof is necessary, thundered a McGill spokesman; natural selection is “an established scientific fact.”
A government spokeswoman begged, very tentatively, to differ. There are phenomena, she said, “that may not be easily explained by current theories of evolution.” After all, the scientific understanding of life “is not static. There’s an evolution in the theory of evolution.”
You wonder if this notably intrepid woman will go down in history. Like Galileo.