Stoics & Design

Learning from Old Books Would Have Helped a Federal Judge

In 2005, in a federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Dover Area School District was put on trial for introducing "intelligent design" (ID) in the ninth-grade biology class. ID, though understood by its proponents as a scientific alternative to Darwinism, was understood by the parents who sued the school board as disguised biblical creationism; hence, they said, teaching it violated the separation of church and state.

Trial evidence showed that several school board trustees endorsed ID because they saw it as compatible with their Bible-based religion. Thus, the plaintiffs' lawyers could have chosen to focus only on the narrow legal question—whether the school board was primarily religiously motivated—and won the case easily. But their goal was not merely to put the school board on trial, but (as they later said) to "put intelligent design on trial"—and brand it as creationism. And they succeeded. In the final ruling, the school board's ID policy was overturned, and ID itself was labelled as creationist and therefore ­unconstitutional.

Upon reading the ruling, I knew the judge had erred—and I knew it because I'm a reader of old books. The basic arguments of ID don't come from the Bible. All of them can be found, in rudimentary form, in the writings of pre-Christian classical ­philosophers.

Ancient theories of intelligent design arose in opposition to the proto-Darwinian position of some of the ancient atomists. That position is well-stated in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius. Though Lucretius did not argue that some species turned into other species by gradual steps, he did anticipate Darwinian thinking in other ways. For example, he said it was a mistake to suppose that the eyes had been created in order that we might see (IV.825–6); in fact, the reverse was the case: "For nothing has been engendered in our body in order that we might be able to use it. It is the fact of its being engendered that creates its use" (IV.834–5). He also suggested that ­creatures that by chance were badly formed would be unable to find food, reach maturity, and reproduce, and thus "nature prohibited their development" (IV.846–7). Thus, two essential ingredients of Darwinian thinking, anti-teleology and natural selection, are of ancient origin.

Arguments of the Lucretian kind were rejected by other ancient philosophers—the Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics. The Stoics in particular had a regular stock of arguments for the intelligent design of nature in general, and of living beings in particular. These are well-expressed in Cicero's De Natura Deorum(On the Nature of the Gods). Anticipating Paley's watchmaker analogy, the Stoic Balbus declares (II.xxxiv) that "when you look at a sun-dial or a water-clock, you infer that it tells the time by art and not by chance; how then can it be consistent to suppose that the world . . . can be devoid of purpose and of reason?" Balbus goes on to say (II.xlvii) that "the reason of an intelligent being" appears in the parts and functions of plants and animals, and that "great care" and "much reason" have gone into ensuring the reproduction of plant and animal species (

Note that all these ancient "ID" arguments were pre-Christian, and that their proponents argued from first principles, not from Genesis.

In light of this, the broader part of the Dover ­ruling—that ID is inherently a form of biblical creationism—was clearly faulty. ID is, in fact, the restatement, in terms of modern biochemistry and mathematics, of arguments made by philosophers long before the time of Christ. Had the defense lawyers known this, they could have presented a better defense. Had the judge known it, and taken it to heart, he would have limited his ruling to invalidating the policy of the school board and steered clear of any broader judgment. The outcome of the case could have been quite different—if those involved had been in the habit of learning from old books. •

From Salvo 22 (Fall 2012)
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received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He writes on education, politics, religion, and culture.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #22, Fall 2012 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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