by DoMajure & Marc Rome / December 2005
The heated national debate between so-called intelligent design and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has been spotlighted during the recent six-week trial in a Pennsylvania federal court concerning the legality of actions by the Dover, Pa., school board. The trial’s final arguments were delivered on Nov. 4.
A required statement, read in Dover’s ninth-grade science classes, sparked a lawsuit naming the school board. The statement questioned the scientific theory of evolution and argued that “[i]ntelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” It also referred students to the school library copies of “Of Pandas and People,” a book challenging Darwin’s theories.
The suit was filed in December 2004 by 11 parents contending that intelligent design was repackaged “creation science”—the view that a supernatural being created humankind, as it is written in the Bible—and maintained that the board was imposing its religious views on students.
Stephen S. Russell, the Dover school board’s lawyer, delivered a memorandum to his clients reminding them of their “lengthy public record of advocating ‘putting religion back in the schools,’” according to the Nov. 4 New York Times.
However, the contentious issue is not likely to be resolved even after the judge weighs in, which is expected sometime in January. For example, 20 states have proposals at various levels of government that are hostile to teaching evolution.
The Kansas state school board recently approved new high school science standards that admit religious and supernatural explanations as a component part of the scientific method. These explanations degrade scientific inquiry in that, rather than attributing natural phenomena to processes that are subject to observation and verification, they are simply
explained away as having come from an “intelligence.”
Voters in Dover rejected such obscurantist sentiment in a Nov. 8 election in which eight proponents of teaching evolution in science classes replaced all eight pro-intelligent-design school-board members. Jill Reiter, joining a rally of high school students supporting the new board members, explained in an AP dispatch, “My kids believe in God. I believe in God.
But I don’t think it belongs in the science curriculum the way the school district is presenting it.”
A 1987 Supreme Court decision, Edwards v. Aguillard, found that the teaching of creation science in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment “because it lacks a clear secular purpose.” For many proponents of creation science, this marked the death-knell of overt religious terminology and the transformation of creation science into so-called intelligent design.
For example, the primary creation science textbook, “Of Pandas and People,” used variants of the word “creation” in earlier editions. Shortly after the 1987 Supreme Court ruling, a new addition of the same book included variants on the term “intelligent design,” which crudely replaced references to creationism. Accordingly, Biblical literalism is more and more
becoming an outmoded alternative to evolution.
Personalities like William Jennings Bryan, famous for fire-and-brimstone explanations of the earth’s origins in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, have been swept aside. Sophisticates like Michael Behe and Phillip E. Johnson have replaced them.
These two leading opponents of Darwinian theory argue for intelligent design and have doctorate degrees, credentials that for many lend creditability to a concept that the overwhelming majority of the scientific community considers pseudo-science.
A change in form only Despite its relatively sophisticated new spokespeople, the intelligent design movement maintains the long-held fundamental disdain that reactionary forces have had for science. History has many examples in which authoritative bodies embraced such views. The Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 for concluding that the stars are suns. Galileo was put on “trial” in 1633 for stating the Copernican view that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Michael Behe, author of “Darwin’s Black Box,” invokes his concept of “irreducible complexity” as a justification for believing in intelligent design. He uses the mousetrap as an example of an irreducibly complex system. The mousetrap consists of five pieces that must all be present for it to work. If any piece is missing, it can’t catch mice. Therefore, it’s not a
He argues that the “trap” could not be the result of successive modifications, as held by the theory of evolution. Rather, it had to spring into existence, already complete, without evolving. According to Behe, “natural selection can only choose among systems that are already working,” and therefore must have been designed.
Behe also asserts that certain biological systems are irreducibly complex. As examples, he points to flagella (organs that some bacteria use for propulsion) and the “exquisitely coordinated mechanism that causes blood to clot.” Thus, if any of the biochemical parts are missing or their function is not timed properly then these processes will not work.
Are these claims backed up by science? Take the mousetrap example. Kenneth R. Miller, professor of biology at Brown University, points out that if parts of the mousetrap are removed, what’s left is not a mousetrap, but parts remain that are still functional: a catch that’s a fish hook, a spring that’s a keychain, etc. Thus, Behe’s position that the pieces
of biological systems must spring into existence assembled in their final form before they can perform a useful function is scientifically wrong.
Then there’s the flagella. Behe points out that certain parts of the flagellum cannot function
separate from related parts. However, scientists have observed that these parts can function alone and are used by many bacteria to inject poison into other cells. Miller notes that although this is a different function, “it nonetheless can be favored by natural selection.”
The proteins used to clot blood indicate a similar pattern of modification and adaptation to a different system. Russell Doolittle, professor of biochemistry at UCSD, has shown how proteins in the digestive system have been modified by evolution to produce the blood clotting system.
Another standard argument that one hears from supporters of intelligent design is that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. The second law states that there is a tendency for complexity to decrease. So, they ask, how can evolution produce complex biological systems from primitive ones? But this is a misapplication of the second law since
it only applies to closed systems, and biological systems are open systems—i.e., systems that allow for energy and matter to flow in or out.
Science or politics?
Is the push for intelligent design motivated by a desire to further the scientific search for truth or is it a political movement whose aim is to weaken the scientific approach? Some of the methods and statements made by its leading proponents would indicate the latter.
Phillip E. Johnson’s book, “Darwin on Trial,” acted as a catalyst in the creation of what is now called the Center for Science and Culture—which is sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a right-wing think tank. The CSC declared its goal in an early mission statement:
“Nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its damning cultural legacies.” Johnson refers to the strategy of the CSC as the Wedge, whose aim is to free science from the influence of “atheistic naturalism.”
Intelligent design advocates have published an article in only one peer-reviewed journal (the August 2005 issue of Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington), which offered tenuous empirical data to support their claims. According to Johnson, “this isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science. It’s about religion and philosophy.”
Politically, the CSC has a strong public-relations program that seeks alliances with conservative Christians and influential politicians.
Jonathan Wells, a biologist and CSC fellow, has stated that he earned his Ph.D.s in religious studies and biology in order “to devote my life to destroying Darwinism.” Clearly, the interests of the intelligent design movement are political and not scientific.
The continued efforts of the intelligent design movement to gain a foothold in society coincides with recent remarks by Pat Robertson, one of the most reactionary mouthpieces of the capitalist class. During a Nov. 10 “700 Club” TV broadcast, the multimillionaire preacher lashed out at the newly elected pro-evolution school board in Dover, Pa. Robertson warned Dover residents, “You just voted God out of your city.”
Such irrational sentiments have recently manifested themselves in thuggery. On Dec. 5, two religious zealots beat University of Kansas Professor Paul Mirecki, while making hostile references to the class he had planned to offer titled, “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent design, Creationism, and other Religious Mythologies.”
The U.S. ruling class is divided on the issue of whether and to what degree reactionary ideology should be allowed to impinge on scientific thought. For example, while The New York Times and other major papers have generally expressed themselves against the
teaching of intelligent design, The Wall Street Journal printed an editorial earlier in the year that was for it.
Many capitalists in the United States realize that education cannot neglect scientific progress if U.S. corporations are to stand up to the rapidly advancing technology of their competitors abroad.
Frederick Engels, co-founder of scientific socialism with Karl Marx, declared that Darwinism gave us a dynamic view of nature in which “all rigidity was dissolved, all fixity dissipated.”
Darwinism is both dialectical and materialist, showing that animal and plant species, through natural selection, can undergo changes in accord with changes in the environment, and that those unable to adapt themselves sufficiently can die out and be superceded by species more suited to the new conditions. This was accepted by Marx and Engels as “the basis in natural history for our view.”
Just as Marx explained how economic and class forces motivate change in society, Darwin gave us a scientific and dialectical understanding of nature that must be defended if we are “not to merely interpret the world but to change it.”