A Pournelle Misunderstanding

Jerry Pournelle is apparently convinced that “intelligent design” creationism is unfairly being suppressed. Among a smorgasbord of misunderstandings served up by Jerry, I’m just going to pick on a little one here.

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about intelligent design because I have never had any concern about the impossibility of reconciling something like Darwinian Evolution and religion (nor indeed of reconciling reason and religion). This is probably due to my education at Christian Brothers College (now Christian Brothers High School) in Memphis during the 1940’s. Brother Fidelis was careful to teach the theory of evolution (although the Scopes Law had not yet been repealed and it was in theory illegal for him to do so) along with St. Augustine’s and St. Thomas Aquinas’s discourses on reason and science; and the concept that God could easily have created the universe in germinal causes and fixed laws, and allowed development to proceed with a bare minimum of miraculous interventions.

(Emphasis added.)

It is possible that I misunderstand this; if “Christian Brothers College” (now High School) was, in fact, a public school in the 1940s when Jerry Pournelle attended, then you can ignore everything further, because it is all premised on taking Christian Brothers High School as being both now and then a private Catholic school.

There is no “Scopes Law”. The law under which John T. Scopes was tried was the “Butler Act”. The Butler Act is not mysterious, and we actually know the content of it. Or, at least, some of us do.

An Act prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred ($100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($500.00) Dollars for each offense.

Section 3. Be it further enacted, That this Act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare requiring it.

Was Brother Fidelis really a scofflaw as Pournelle asserts? It seems most unlikely. The most likely scenario is the one where Pournelle’s high school alma mater really was a private school, and thus what was taught within it was completely unaffected by the content of the Butler Act.

I went to a Catholic high school, too, and was taught evolutionary science from the BSCS curriculum textbook there. We didn’t spend our limited time in science class being taught things that hadn’t passed scientific muster. I don’t know why Jerry Pournelle thinks the limited time of public school students should be given over to credulous treatment of the sham of “intelligent design” creationism.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

5 thoughts on “A Pournelle Misunderstanding

  • 2008/07/05 at 6:02 pm

    The first line in that section from Pournelle was, “I don’t usually get into the “Intelligent Design” argument, because I don’t have a lot to add to it; but once in a while poseurs like Professor Richard Dawkins jump into the fray with such outrageous aplomb that I feel compelled to answer.”

    Jerry, (1) Dawkins is not a poseur, and (2) you have overestimated your ability to comment intelligently on “intelligent design” creationism. With regard to (1), it appears that you may be having a problem with projection. Dawkins hasn’t “jumped into the fray”; you have. Dawkins has been commenting and interacting with the IDC advocates since they announced themselves as enemies of science education back in the late 80s and early 90s.

    I do sympathize with the health problems you are facing, Jerry; I started this weblog flat on my back in the hospital following major surgery, so I have been low myself. However, in reading various of your comments concerning the line you take with respect to the ADA and other issues, I find that vitiates the effect that the sympathy might otherwise engender. Good luck getting well again, Jerry, and maybe some of the cognitive issues so readily apparent in your outing on IDC will be revealed as side effects of your current poor condition.

  • 2008/07/06 at 12:34 am

    Pournelle should stick to the “fiction” half of science fiction.

  • 2008/07/06 at 3:52 pm

    Is this something afflicting science fiction writers these days? There’s James P Hogan, apparently a supporter of any loony idea http://www.jamesphogan.com/ and of course Michael “Federal Climatology Expert” Crichton.

  • 2008/07/06 at 9:36 pm

    Don’t forget Orson Scott Card and Scott Adams as literary types who get really touchy when people ask them to take responsibility for the nonsense they talk when discussing evolution.

  • 2008/07/07 at 6:08 pm

    Jerry seems to have made a mistake in calling Dawkins a “poseur” and perhaps was wrong about the title of the law and its reach. Dawkins is obviously qualified to speak about evolution and defend it as an expert. And the Scopes Law (er, Butler Act) did apply only to public schools.

    But that doesn’t seem to be his main point in the blog post.

    He seems to be reacting to the caustic approach taken by Dawkins and some others. It causes discomfort even among those that are not invested in the argument and familiar with the participants. Pournelle admits he is mostly an outsider. It is that “revulsion of the less informed” when exposed to the sometimes caustic reaction to people of faith that lends support to the Creationist cause.

    In other words, Dawkins may inadvertently be helping the Creationists more than any of the Creationists.

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