Attacks on evolution and the right wing’s social agenda

Charles Darwin (1809-1882), originator of the theory of evolution.

A recent court case in Pennsylvania brought the right wing’s attacks on science into the public spotlight. The case is the tip of the iceberg in a well-funded effort to promote religious ideology at the expense of scientific and rational thinking.

The Harrisburg, Pa. case involved the legality of referencing “intelligent design” in public school biology classrooms. “Intelligent design” is a code phrase for the anti-scientific idea of a god creating life. The movement asserts that only an unknown designer—not evolutionary processes—can explain the development of life on earth and the biological complexity of the natural world. 

The case comes from a 2004 decision by a Dover, Pa., school board requiring biology teachers to read a four-paragraph statement telling students that “gaps” existed in current evolutionary theory and that “intelligent design” was a reasonable alternative worth exploring. Eleven parents sued the school board, calling the statement a violation of the separation between church and state and a thinly veiled attempt to reintroduce a faith-based concept of “God” into the natural sciences. 

Attorneys presented final arguments for the case on Nov. 5.

A brief exposition of the political forces and “scientific” premises behind the intelligent design movement shows that the parents’ accusations are correct. The Harrisburg trial has not received national attention because of Dover’s renegade school board, all of whose members were voted out on Nov. 8. At the root of the trial and the entire intelligent design “controversy” is a far-reaching, right-wing attack on the fundamental methods and premises of modern science. 

It is an attempt to roll back more than a century of scientific thinking and progress with implications that go far beyond biological theories.

Science and evolution

The main issue in the Harrisburg case was whether intelligent design represents religion or science. In common definitions, a theory is accepted as scientific when it is consistent, testable, correctable, progressive (meaning it builds off of previous discoveries) and based on controlled, repeated experiments. 

Every high school science class learns about the scientific method, which is the cornerstone of every scientific theory. This method begins with observations of natural phenomena. Then reasoning is used to generalize from the observations to make theoretical models capable of making predictions about future observations. These predictions are then tested in experiments and results are collected. Once the results can be reproduced consistently, the hypothesis becomes a theory. 

Science attempts to arrange observations of the natural world into rational laws that allow us to understand that world more completely without resorting to forces outside of nature itself.

This is an important feature of evolutionary theory. In 1859, Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species,” which elaborated the theory of evolution by natural selection. That theory says that over time, biological populations change according to the capacity of certain individual organisms to adapt to their environment. Darwin explained this adaptation as a result of the chance variations of the organism’s individual traits. 

The organisms that survive are able to reproduce. As the changes accumulate over generations, new species arise—those that are best able to adapt to their natural environment. The conditions of the natural world—not humans or any god—determine which species survive. 

One aspect of Darwin’s theory is “common descent,” which means that all living things come from a common gene pool or ancestor. Over billions of years, this common pool has split into various families and species. 

One can see evidence of common descent in the traits shared by all living organisms. In Darwin’s time, he was only able to make this argument with visible observations, comparing the anatomy of various species. For instance, even birds that do not fly have wings—suggesting that birds come from a common ancestor. 

Darwin’s theory was incomplete, lacking an explanation of how certain traits were inherited or the source of variations among individual organisms. In the 1930s, however, scientists used their knowledge of genetics to update and improve evolutionary theory. The discovery of DNA was a stunning confirmation of evolution and common descent. Every living thing has nucleic acid as its genetic material with the same 20 amino acids as the building blocks for proteins. 

The explanation for variations was given when scientists discovered that a whole variety of genetic mutations regularly occur in cell division and other biological processes. 

Far from being an unchanging belief system, evolutionary theory has been tested against biological and archeological facts, revised and improved time and again.

The ‘god of gaps’

Does intelligent design hold up to these same scientific standards? The National Academy of Sciences regards evolutionary theory as the bedrock of modern biology. It recommended that intelligent design “and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life” not be treated as science. (“Science and Creationism,” 2nd ed., 1999) 

Although intelligent design advocates have different names for their arguments—“irreducible complexity,” “specified complexity,” and the “fine-tuned universe”—they all can be reduced to the same premise: since organisms are so complex, and so “perfectly put together” in ways that evolution cannot fully explain, someone or some thing must have designed them.

Evolution is a general theory that provides a framework for explaining the development of different species. How each individual species and mutation arises and fits into the evolutionary framework is an active area of scientific work. 

Intelligent design advocates seize on phenomena that have not yet been explained by evolutionary theory as evidence for the work of a godlike being. According to them, every unexplained detail—for instance, a genetic variation that happened millions of years ago—can only be explained by some divine or supernatural intervention. 

For this reason, critics have called intelligent design the “god of gaps,” whereby its advocates use “God putty” to fill in every perceived crevice in accepted theories. This is not science. Instead of making conclusions based on what is observed, it makes conclusions based on what cannot be observed. It cannot be tested or corrected.

It is also bad logic. Why begin with the assumption that complexity requires conscious design and cannot develop according to its own internal laws? Why can there not be just some things we have not figured out yet? And if every complex thing must have a designer, who designed this intelligent designer?

In short, intelligent design requires faith. It breaks down once it is subjected to any serious scientific interrogation. It should be no surprise, then, that intelligent design advocates do not put their articles up for peer review. They keep their advocacy campaigns on the editorial and opinion pages.

The forces at play

Women in Boston face off against religious anti-woman bigots. Anti-evolution forces promote reactionary social ideology.

Photo: Marilyn Humphries

Although the spokespeople for the intelligent design movement include a few scientists, it is above all a political and religious movement. Scientists have called it “creationism in a lab-coat.” 

Since 1990, the Discovery Institute, a right-wing think tank, has championed intelligent design. It gives lucrative scholarships to individual scientists willing to give a cover of legitimacy to their anti-science schemes. Far from any aspirations to improve science, their own documents reveal an intention to use intelligent design to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview … and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” (Knight Ridder News Service, Oct. 16, 2005)

Their widely publicized strategy is called the “wedge strategy,” which aims not to take evolutionary theory head-on in the field of science (where they admit they will lose), but to simply “teach the controversy.” In other words, by appealing to “critical thought” and “free discussion,” they hope to win policy-makers and the general public over to the idea of presenting evolution as one of a variety of explanations for the development of life. 

The creators of the deceitful “wedge strategy” consciously avoid Biblical references and have tried to avoid any lawsuits that would put the legal system officially on record against intelligent design. In the 1980s, a school of “creation science” emerged, which attempted to have the flood of Noah’s Ark taught as a viable explanation for the world’s present geological makeup. When geologists universally rejected the view, the courts barred the teaching of the creation pseudo-science, and set the right-wing movement back. 

Learning from the experiences of their predecessors, the stated goal of the Discovery Institute’s sub-division, the Center for Science and Culture, is to have “design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life” by 2018. According to a document released by a member of Kansas Citizens for Science at a June 2001 conference, the Center’s five-year objectives include: “One hundred scientific, academic and technical articles by [Discovery Institute] fellows,” “significant coverage [of intelligent design] in national media,” and “ten states … [rectify] ideological imbalance in their science curricula.”

The right wing on the move

So far, thanks to heavy funding and right-wing political support, the Discovery Institute has been effective. By simply putting intelligent design on the map and stirring up a controversy—which does not exist in the science community—the movement has gained wide exposure. 

Appealing to the continued lack of scientific background among the U.S. public, the movement has won new supporters. Meanwhile, many Republican leaders, including President Bush, have endorsed intelligent design. (Associated Press, Aug. 2, 2005)

The rightists are not devoting so much time and energy to the intelligent design campaign for academic reasons, much less the interest of truth or science. They are aiming to strengthen the ideological position of Christian fundamentalism, an essential tool in providing the billionaires and generals with a semblance of a mass base.

It is part of the effort to roll back women’s reproductive rights. It is part of the effort to prevent the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities from winning any basic democratic rights. It is part of the effort to demonize the Arab and Muslim people to gain support for U.S. imperialism’s military adventures in the Middle East.

Karl Marx dedicated his economic masterpiece, “Capital,” to Charles Darwin. That was not because Darwin was a communist or a political activist. Instead, Darwin’s theory provided a materialist analysis of the development of the natural world, devoid of superstition or religious prejudice. Just as Darwin discovered that species developed according to their struggles and interactions with the world around them, Marx applied a similar scientific method to the development of human societies. What Darwin did for natural sciences, Marx did for social sciences. 

Socialists protect the tradition of materialist thought, which uses scientific examination and not some supernatural force to explain how the world works.

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