There was a feeling of excitement and relief from me upon the delivery in June of “House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey Through The Darwin Debates,” by Tom Bethell, who died Friday at age 84.
Everyone who saw him at the traditional Latin Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Washington D.C. knew that faithful worshiper Bethell was ailing. His completion of this final testimony on the controversy that has surrounded Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution and those who questioned it since the 19th Century was in doubt.
But with the devotion of wife Donna and the prayers of his fellow traditional Roman Catholics, Bethell saw his magnum opus come to life as he himself was near death. In his twilight days, he happily signed copies to his legions of friends.
For Tom Bethell, senior editor of the “American Spectator” and Media Fellow of the Hoover Institution, his clash with Darwinism began with an article he wrote in “Harper’s Magazine” in February 1976. Entitled “Darwin’s Mistake,” the article disputed Darwin’s theory of evolution and concluded it was “on the verge of collapse” with so many giving it scrutiny and concluding it was in error.
He also said that Darwin’s theory of “natural selection” (the survival and reproduction of a species due to characteristics of a particular organism) had been “quietly abandoned” by erstwhile supporters and that it was in fact a tautology (something subject to varied interpretations).
Strong medicine, all right, especially at a time when Darwin’s theories were taught as fact in biology classes worldwide. Biologists quickly sought to dispute Bethell’s claims and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a response in “Natural History” Magazine.
Soon Bethell would find himself engaged in stormy encounters over the issue he had raised with Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin and famed philosopher of science Karl Popper.
But Bethell’s words and analysis were clearly having an impact.
“Although I have been a skeptic about Darwin's theory of evolution since taking my high school biology class, his book for Regnery, ‘The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science,’ was instrumental in transforming me into a Creationist and strong anti-Darwinist,” Allan Ryskind, former editor and co-owner of the national conservative weekly “Human Events” told Newsmax.
Ryskind recalled how he “was brought up to believe in evolution, which my great high school biology teacher thought was true. But the textbook we used at Beverly Hills High and then another one at UCLA, made me dubious, even though the textbooks themselves were pro-evolution. But it was Tom's book and the intellectual heft he brought to the debate that, for me at least, clinched the case against the Darwinian view. I will be forever grateful for his good works on Planet Earth.”
Born and raised in London, England, the young Bethell had studied science and mathematics at Downside School and Trinity College at Oxford. After coming to the United States, he taught math at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia from 1962-65.
But, as Bethell’s friends liked to say, “journalism was his great love after [wife] Donna.” He was Washington editor of “Harper’s” and later for the “Washington Monthly.”
In the 1970’s, Bethell took on an unusual side assignment: he was hired as a researcher by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison for his celebrated prosecution of businessman Clay Shaw as a part of a conspiracy in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Bethell, who later wrote about his work on the case, came up with no evidence Shaw was involved and, after an hour’s deliberation, a jury acquitted Shaw.
Tom Bethell loved ideas, words, and discourse — even as it inevitably spawned controversy. While he didn’t always change the minds of those to whom he touched, it is inarguable he touched the lives of many and almost surely made them think a little more.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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