Mortimer J. Adler, 1902-2001

Mortimer Adler


by David F. Coppedge

Mortimer Adler was one of the great intellectual giants of the 20th century. Among his credits were Chairman of the Board of the Encyclopedia Britannica and compiler of the Great Books of the Western World. This set of 54 volumes of intellectual literature ranging from the Greeks to the early 20th century has sold half a million copies; it graces many a scholarly home’s library and university philosophy department. In addition, Adler wrote 45 successful books of his own, like How to Read a Book and The Difference in Man and the Difference it Makes (see bibliography at The Great Ideas website). Adler was a lifelong opponent of Darwinism.

Dr. Adler received a PhD in Psychology from Columbia University, but was primarily a scholar in intellectual history and philosophy and an advocate for liberal arts education, which should include familiarity with the long intellectual tradition of the Western world. It’s important for observers of the creation-evolution controversy to recognize that great thinkers like Dr. Adler, not just religious fundamentalists, have stood against Darwin’s views. Adler was familiar as few others with the range of philosophical and scientific ideas about man and his place in the cosmos; he himself recast the cosmological argument for the existence of God in 20th-century dress. That a man of his erudition and eminence would oppose the scientific consensus regarding evolution is telling.

Adler argued against Darwin’s views on both scientific and rational grounds – not religious dogma (he did not become a Christian himself till age 82, long after most of his books were written). He observed that Darwin’s theory was nothing more than historical myth-making, and believed the evidence opposes it. With debaters the likes of Mortimer Adler standing in their way, Darwinists cannot charge that their opponents are ignorant or religiously motivated. Dr. Adler further argued that Darwin’s theory is intellectually bankrupt because it dehumanizes man and makes his intellectual faculties no different from those of the animals. The Darwinian view of man, he argued, undermines all claims to rationality.

Mortimer Adler could certainly hold his own against the Darwinists, and he did so in dialogues in some of his books. He could call forth on demand quotations from Anselm, Aquinas, Averroes, Aristotle, Adam Smith, or whomever was needed to support a point. He could speak to fine points of philosophy, psychology, ethics, aesthetics, and theology. This was no lightweight standing in opposition to the Darwinists and positivists. He was, after all, the compiler of the Great Books.

Dr. Adler viewed Darwin’s hypothesis as a watershed in intellectual history, if not a dam breach. He marked history as BD and AD: before Darwin and after Darwin. No serious intellectual, he said, even Hobbes and Hume, had suggested that the human mind was continuous with that of the animals. Calling Darwin’s theory a wild speculation—a grand myth—he engaged in a decades-long crusade against Darwinism in his books and conferences, yet with the armor of a respected scholar.

An excellent article on Mortimer Adler’s views on evolution was written by Dr. Jerry Bergman, available in PDF form at CMI.  We defer to this article for more information and recommend going there now. Bergman also included a section on Adler in his new book Slaughter of the Dissidents. Bergman uses Adler, Von Braun and Ernst Chain as three examples of scientists who were not ruthlessly attacked for doubting Darwin.

As Darwin’s 200th birthday showed in 2009, the hype about evolution rose to hysterical levels. Darwinists tried to lump all Darwin doubters with religious fundamentalists and ignoramuses who want to set back American progress to the dark ages. Would that Dr. Mortimer Adler were still with us to set the record straight.

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