David Klinghoffer is surprised that his Disco. ‘tute colleagues managed to get an article published at the Huffington Post. Klinghoffer’s colleague must’ve known this was coming, and HuffPo isn’t notorious for refusing essays, so I can’t fathom why it was any sort of surprise. Nor is “pleasant” the word that came to mind on reading the essay, or anything coming from Disco. Anyway, Klinghoffer asks us to “Try to Imagine Our Country’s Founding if the Founders Had Not Been Advocates of Intelligent Design:
The Huffington Post pleasantly surprised us today with an excellent piece on the necessary role of faith in public life, by James Robison and Discovery Institute’s Jay Richards…
The authors prompt me to wonder how Darwinists think the American Revolution might have gone — whether it would have been possible at all — if the Founders had not been intelligent-design advocates.
For the rest of Klinghoffer’s piece he studiously avoids asking any “Darwinist” anything of the sort, or citing their views on the matter. Of course.
The thing is, it’s not a hard question to answer, since – contrary to Klinghoffer’s framing of the question – it doesn’t even involve a counterfactual. The Founders were not, as a group, advocates of intelligent design in any sense that means anything today.
First, because their religious views were notably heterogeneous, with mainstream Christians of various denominations to deists like Thomas Paine (whose deistic attacks on organized religion verged on atheism), George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (a self-described follower of “materialism,” who loved the ethical teachings of Jesus but who edited all miracles out of the New Testament), and Benjamin Franklin (who was regarded by his contemporaries as “an apostate or an Atheist”). It seems rather hard to extract support for intelligent design from men who saw the New Testament as a “dunghil” of supernatural tales from which a diamond of ethical teachings had to be extracted, or who wrote, “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”
Of course, the religious views of the Founders are almost irrelevant here. The important thing is that “intelligent design” as advocated by Klinghoffer and the Discovery Institute is a modern phenomenon, an offshoot of the 20th century creationist movement that came into its own in the 1980s and ’90s. Creationism in this sense, and intelligent design in particular, are reactions against evolutionary biology, an idea that did not exist during the life of any of the Founders (Madison was the last to die, in 1836, before Darwin had drawn his first evolutionary tree).
Indeed, Klinghoffer and other Disco. staff have argued that ID is defined by its anti-evolutionism – any even loosely anti-evolution argument is treated as pro-ID, even if it doesn’t argue in favor of ID. But how could someone who died before Darwin published On the Origin of Species be expected to take a position on the merits of Darwin’s argument, let alone on modern evolutionary biology?
To say they were “intelligent design advocates” wrongly treats them as if they were of a single mind on this (or nearly any topic), misrepresents their religious views, and mangles the history of science and philosophy beyond repair. “Intelligent design” didn’t exist in 1776, and to claim anyone alive at the time as an advocate for it is radically anachronistic, not to mention insulting to the reader’s intelligence and to the founders of this great nation.
Which is to say, the United States of America wasn’t founded by ID advocates, so a USA founded by people who weren’t ID advocates would look exactly like the one we actually have.
Setting aside the bizarre anachronism of trying to force late-18th century thinkers into late-20th century arguments, it’s far from clear that the Founders would have been ID advocates even if the concept meant anything to them. Franklin and Jefferson, in particular, were active natural philosophers, and would presumably have taken some stance on evolution if they had lived a century later. What would they have said about ID creationism?
Franklin’s essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” has been suggested as an inspiration for Malthus’ essay on population growth, an essay which Darwin credited as a major inspiration for his thinking on natural selection. Not only that, but Franklin socialized with Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus (who was also an advocate for transmutation of species), and Charles’s father visited Franklin in Paris and regaled his children with tales of the American Founding Father. It’s hard to imagine him abandoning this idea he may well have helped inspire.
But Franklin’s writings and research tended more to the practical, mechanical, or physical than to the biological, and it’s hard to know what he might have thought of evolution. Thomas Jefferson, was a polymath, a political philosopher, an agronomist, and a naturalist. And his writings reveal some attempts at grappling with the questions Darwin would later answer so cleverly. And alas, Jefferson let his deism lead him astray on some scientific issues. “The movements of nature are in a never ending circle,” he wrote in “A Memoir on the Discovery of certain Bones of a Quadruped of the Clawed Kind in the Western parts of Virginia,” published in 1799 in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. In that essay, he argues not only for the fixity of species, but denies possibility of extinction: “The animal species which has once been put into a train of motion, is still probably moving in that train. For if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another and another might be lost, till this whole system of things should evanish by piece-meal; a conclusion not warranted by the local disappearance of one or two species of animals, and opposed by the thousands and thousands of instances of the renovating power constantly exercised by nature for the reproduction of all her subjects, animal, vegetable, and mineral.” He rejected the possibility of extinction because he saw no route to the origin of new species; if only extinction was possible, the earth would become depauperate in time.
Indeed, part of Jefferson’s agenda in sending Lewis and Clark to survey the Louisiana Purchase was to locate living specimens to match fossils found on the East Coast, specimens which would rival the size and ferocity of anything in Old World bestiaries and establish that extinction was impossible. He was wrong, of course.
While creationists might pounce on his apparent rejection of species transmutation and extinction as anti-evolution, this would be historically illiterate. Evolution didn’t exist yet, and in its absence, it was not unreasonable for people to look for other explanations for the diversity of life. So we have to look deeper, and ask how Jefferson approached questions of divine intervention in the world. The fact that he edited miracles out of the Bible is pretty significant in that regard: intelligent design calls for countless miraculous interventions throughout life’s history, after all. If he didn’t think Jesus could turn water to wine, why expect Jefferson to look for Jesus to slap a flagellum on bacteria?
Indeed, some of what Jefferson said about science would fit him in nicely with the New Atheists. He told the natural philosopher Correa de Serra, in 1820: “Priests…dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversions of the duperies on which they live.” And he declared, in an 1819 letter to William Short (a close friend and secretary during Jefferson’s ambassadorship in France): “As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”
That last is not noteworthy in itself, except that Klinghoffer’s (whiggish, anachronistic) account of the eternal struggle between intelligent design and evolution places Epicurus at the font of evolutionary thinking, and thereby at the root of all moral evil. Here’s Klinghoffer in 2009:
The most profound interpreters of the Hebrew Bible … have always understood that “Biblical religion” sets itself against a masterless, materialist picture of nature. Classically, that picture is crystalized in Epicurean philosophy, a vein of thinking that led to Darwinism. …The horror in which Biblical tradition holds Epicureanism is reflected in a rabbinic term designating a particular kind of heretic: apikorus, literally an Epicurean. The Mishnah urges us to “Know how to answer an Epicurean.”
The apikoros is listed alongside other heretics, those who say the resurrection of the dead has no support in the Torah and those who deny the Torah’s divine origins. These are intellectual matters, not merely ones of temperament or manners. In a Hebrew dictionary, it is defined as an “atheist, freethinker, heretic.”…
The full intellectual line of descent from Epicurus to Darwin is traced with brilliant clarity by Benjamin Wiker in Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists.
I suppose the only remaining questions are: how could Klinghoffer claim a self-described follower of Epicurus – an affirmed apikoros and materialist – as a supporter of intelligent design? And how much of history is he prepared to tear up to do it?