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Socialism Today 96 - November 2005

The ‘intelligent design’ controversy

EIGHTY YEARS after the infamous ‘monkey trial’, when John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution, fundamentalist Christians in the US have stepped up their campaign against Charles Darwin’s ideas under the name of so-called ‘intelligent design’.

Intelligent design holds that evolution is not a proven fact and nature is so complex that a ‘designer’ must be responsible. Although the intelligent design advocates do not say it, there is no doubt they mean God is the designer.

Religious groups want to push intelligent design into all American life. In June, the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington DC, a prestigious government-funded museum, allowed the showing of an intelligent design film on its premises. Also in June, a publicly funded zoo, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, voted to allow a display showing the six day creation described in Genesis. Since 2003, bookshops at the Grand Canyon, part of the US National Park Service, have sold a creationist book about the canyon, saying it was formed by Noah’s flood. IMAX theatres across America have not screened science films with evolutionary content to "avoid controversy".

In particular, the creationists want intelligent design taught in public (state) schools. Disputes involving teaching intelligent design along with evolution are bubbling in around 20 of the 50 states. The Christian right, which is behind the attack on science education, got the public backing of George Bush, in September. The born-again Christian president told reporters that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution, "because part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought".

The reactionary character of today’s creationist campaigners is revealed by looking at the ideas of the one of the main Christian organisations behind intelligent design, the ‘Discovery Institute’. The Institute has Karl Marx, as well as Darwin, in its sights. Its ‘Wedge Strategy’, written in 1999, aims "to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God".

The different US states and their elected boards of education decide what is taught in public schools, but Bush can put pressure on the Justice Department to support challenges to Darwinism. In a federal lawsuit, eleven parents and the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging the decision, last October, of the board of education in Dover, Pennsylvania, to give intelligent design equal status with evolution. Recently, the state school board in Kansas held public hearings on the merits of including intelligent design in the science syllabus.

Intelligent design derives from an early 19th century explanation of the natural world given by the English clergyman, William Paley. But the idea that the complexity of an organism is evidence of the existence of God was overturned by Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In this scientific landmark, Darwin demolished the idea that a supernatural force (God) created life and showed that humans evolved from lower orders – ape to man – over hundreds of millions of years.

The struggle to have evolution taught in US schools reached a turning point with the Scopes Trial in 1925. A teacher, John Thomas Scopes, taught evolution in the small town of Dayton, in Tennessee, and thereby broke the law of the state. But in an ensuing trail, William Jennings Bryan, a three time Democratic presidential candidate, who defended biblical creationism against Darwinism, was demolished in cross examination by the criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow. Scopes was successfully prosecuted for teaching evolution, but the case saw a press backlash against creationism and a change in public opinion across the US. As US society urbanised, making huge advances in science, technology and industry, the US working class won better living conditions, wages, education, and social and civil rights. Ignorance, bigotry and prejudice were pushed back.

Biblical fundamentalism evolved its arguments, so that by the 1960s they talked about "scientific creationism". Having learnt from previous defeats, including the 1987 Supreme Court decision that strict creationism may not be taught in state schools, the creationists resorted to a more ‘sophisticated’ argument. They claimed they do not want to ban Darwinism but just have a discussion about other possibilities by "poking holes" in evolution. Today’s intelligent design advocates re-hash Paley’s arguments by using molecular biology.

The vast majority of scientists in the US reject the intelligent design arguments. The US National Academy of Sciences "said intelligent design ‘and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life’ are not science because their claims cannot be tested by experiment and propose no new hypotheses of their own". (The Economist, 30 July) A July editorial in the New Scientist magazine said the case for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution is "no stronger than the case for teaching students about supposed controversy between astrology and astronomy".

Advocates of intelligent design dismiss evolution as ‘merely a theory’, as valid as their own. But evolution is supported by a vast mountain of evidence. Evolution occurs all the time. The race between medical science and ‘bird flu’, for example, sees scientists struggling to develop new vaccines to deal with a world pandemic, should the flu mutate into a form transmittable between people. In contrast, "intelligent design’s appeal to supernatural forces by definition puts it outside the scope of science", according to Eugenie Scott, head of the US National Centre for Science Education. (New Scientist, 9 July) Evolution is one of the central tenets of modern science and forms the bedrock of all biological sciences. But if it was accepted that the ‘unexplainable’ in nature is due to an almighty ‘designer’, biological research would be threatened.

Anti-evolution ideas have returned with force due, in part, to the political and ideological aims of the Bush administration and the powerful US Christian fundamentalists.

The attack on science is part of a broader right-wing agenda that includes the destruction of the welfare system, increased workplace exploitation, and making the super-rich even richer. Growing poverty, social inequality and rising living costs show the dead-end of US capitalism.

The Bush administration wades in on questions like evolution, opposes stem cell research (which has the potential to end diseases and disabilities, like diabetes and motor neurone disease) and supported the Catholic hierarchy-backed campaign to keep Terri Schiavo, a tragic brain-dead patient, artificially alive. Bush regards conservative, Christian evangelical sections of society as a social base from which to make neo-liberal attacks against the working class and to pursue his imperialist policies.

Creationism is also resurgent in other parts of the world. In July, Christopher Schonborn, the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, rejected the "supposed acceptance" of the Roman Catholic Church of "neo-Darwinian dogma". In Britain, millionaire car dealer and Christian fundamentalist, Peter Vardy, financed Emmanuel College, in Gateshead, in 1990, forcing the school to teach both evolution and creationism in science classes. Vardy has since funded new ‘academy schools’ in Middlesbrough and Doncaster. Last year, Serbia briefly banned teaching evolution in schools and only creationism is now taught in schools in Turkey. Evolution is no longer taught in universities in Pakistan.

Fundamentalist Christianity is growing in Africa and Latin and North America. Two-thirds of Americans think humans were directly created by God, as opposed to 22% who think people "evolved from an earlier species". Half do not think apes and humans had a common ancestry. Concerning science education, 64% of people questioned in a recent US poll said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism, as well as evolution, in schools; 38% said they favoured replacing evolution with creationism.

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’, said Karl Marx. This is even the case in today’s sole superpower. The pro-big business Republicans cynically manipulate the big swathes of the US that have turned to evangelical Christianity following decades of poverty, job losses, de-industrialisation and union defeats, and after repeated ‘betrayals’ by the Democrats, who are equally pro-big business. "Creationists depict evolutionists as a cultural elite, out of touch with American society", says Kenneth Miller of Brown University, Rhode Island.

But it is working people in the US ‘bible belt’ that suffer the most from the alliance of the Christian right and Bush. In the Journal of Religion and Society, a researcher, Gregory Paul, showed that in the US, "the strongly theistic, anti-evolution South and Midwest [have] markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the Northeast where… secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms". (Quoted by George Monbiot, The Guardian, 11 October)

Working people in the US need a party of their own, a mass socialist party that will oppose Bush, the bosses and the reactionary, right-wing ideas and prejudices that divide and weaken the working class. A mass workers’ party would stand on the side of human solidarity and progress, as part of the struggle for a new socialist society.

Niall Mulholland


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