American ideologues of all stripes frequently claim that they’re following in the tradition of the nation’s founders. Some will even suggest that certain prominent statesmen of 1776 would support their cause, even though those men were obviously never able to consider the issue in the present context. (Such claims rarely extend to early American politicians who aren’t famous.)
Last week in the Boston Globe, creationist Stephen C. Meyer topped all such claims. In an essay on the opinion page Meyer wrote:
For too long, an aspect of [Thomas] Jefferson’s visionary thought has been ignored, hidden away as too uncomfortable for public discussion—his support for intelligent design.To start at the top, Meyer’s suggestion that Jefferson’s theistic vision of the world has been “ignored” and “hidden away” is ludicrous. Scholars have written many books about Jefferson’s religious ideas. Like almost all Enlightenment gentlemen, he believed that a divine force created the universe, and that nature reflected its workings. Even evolutionary biologist and champion of atheism Richard Dawkins has said that in Jefferson’s time “the argument from design...was the only powerful argument for the existence of a creator.”
In 1823, when materialist evolutionary ideas had long been circulating, Jefferson wrote to John Adams and insisted that the scientific evidence of design in nature was clear: “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” It was on empirical grounds, not religious ones, that he took this view.
Meyer then states that “materialist evolutionary ideas had long been circulating” in 1823. In publishing his article, Meyer didn’t specify that he has a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science (rather than, say, biology itself). That history background makes it hard to understand why he neglected to mention the crucial “evolutionary ideas” Jefferson didn’t have available to him. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace didn’t describe their hypothesis of natural selection until 1859. The supporting evidence of an extensive fossil record, hereditary patterns, and genes came even later.
Thus, Jefferson never had a chance to consider the most fundamental ideas of modern biology or the best evidence for it. For Meyer to cast Jefferson as a creationist like himself is therefore akin to claiming that the third President would support only organic farming—after all, that’s the only type of agriculture he had his enslaved laborers practice. Or that Jefferson would oppose nuclear power, genetic engineering, and the mumps vaccine—he undoubtedly never wrote a word in favor of any of those things!
Folks interested in Thomas Jefferson’s thinking about the history of life on Earth in the context of his time—rather than within a religious polemic—might be more interested in The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, published this year by the Geological Society of America. Prof. Stephen M. Rowland contributed a chapter on Jefferson’s ideas, specifically how he clung “to an eighteenth-century, completeness-of-nature paradigm, after nearly all European and American intellectuals had moved on to a very different view of the history of life on Earth.” Here’s a summary of a paper that fed into that chapter.