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Intelligent Design – A new attack on science from the right

John McAnulty

4th January 2005

It’s 75 years since the Tennessee ‘Monkey’ trail in the United States, in which local biology teacher John Scopes was brought before the state courts charged with teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection to high school students. The case against Scopes eventually collapsed, leaving behind a stereotype of the ignorant, fundamentalist, cracker-barrel redneck that informs the outside world’s perception of the American deep south until this day.

Now the issue has resurfaced in a wave of battles in school boards across the U.S. under the banner of a new movement called ‘Intelligent Design’. Intelligent Design arose as a movement following a decades-long battle by right-wing religious fundamentalists to establish creationism – the belief that the biblical account of the creation of the natural world was literally true – as a ‘scientific’ conception, deserving equal time with evolution in US schools biology curriculum. In 1987 the US Supreme Court ruled such attempts unconstitutional as establishing a link between state institutions and religion, on the grounds that the ‘evidence’ offered by the creationists from the bible rested solely on religious faith and had no basis in scientific fact.

Intelligent Design follows the same agenda as the earlier creationist movement but avoids all mention of God and the Bible. Essentially it advances one argument – that if something is complicated then it must have been created by someone. This argument goes all the way back to St. Augustine and was a standard proof in medieval theology for the existence of a creator. Its use as an argument against evolution was based on the ‘watchmaker’ analogy advanced by the Anglican archdeacon William Paley in 1802. If we found a watch, argued Paley, we would automatically look for its creator.  In the same way the complexity of living things proves that an intelligent being must have created them. The Intelligent Design movement uses the same argument with a modern gloss, arguing that the discovery of binary codes and assembly programs in the cell prove that these were designed.

This is utter nonsense. Codes and programs are simply metaphors for the complexity of the cell. They are not literal descriptions of reality. The jargon masks the fact that the arguments for intelligent design are centuries old and have been thoroughly debunked by evolutionary theory. The complexity of living things arises in response to their environment. Living things either fit in, survive and breed, or they die. Because all species have a wide range of types they change over long periods of time as the environment changes and give rise to new types. A standard design argument used to be that the eye was too complex to arise from an adaptive mechanism, but when a model of a light-sensitive patch of skin was allowed to ‘evolve’ in a computer simulation, in a remarkably short number of generations it produced a structure almost identical to the human eye.

The proponents of Intelligent Design are dishonest. They stay well away from any direct challenge to evolution in the scientific journals. They don’t want to stop evolution being taught, they say, but just to have equal time because evolution is ‘only a theory’. This plays on popular confusion about the methods of science. The law of gravity is a law because it can be the subject of endless experiment, reduced to mathematical equations, and shown to operate across the universe. Evolution remains a theory because the immense time periods over which it stretches makes experimental verification difficult. It could fall, but if it did all of modern biology and genetics would fall with it.

The Intelligent Design movement is no small band of flat earth cranks. Real money from the Christian right within the US Republican party funds the Discovery Institute of Seattle, led by Bruce Chapman, a former administrative officer within the Ronald Reagan cabinet. The institute organises across the US using a strategy developed by California law professor Phillip Johnson called ‘the wedge’ in ironic imitation of a mechanism of natural selection proposed by Darwin. The wedge aims to challenge evolution through direct attacks on individual scientists’ papers, often pretending that their disputes involve doubt about evolution, through infiltration of school boards and proposals to change school textbooks and finally through forcing their way onto public forums and television. Apply the wedge strongly enough, argues Johnson, and the whole theory of evolution will collapse.

What’s the purpose of all this? Why is such serious money and organisation from a section of the ruling class used to try to destroy the theory of evolution? Johnson makes it clear in his writings that a major aim of his strategy is to eventually discredit all of science and the whole idea of rational thought about a universe based on matter and energy. To fully understand the significance of this we have to appreciate the narrow focus of the US right. They have no intention of bringing down the multinational Monsanto or an agricultural industry that, in the US, is dominated by genetically modified crops. Their mentor, George Bush, bans federal research on cloning tissues to cure conditions such as diabetes, but leaves private industry free to do what it pleases, meaning that the US is one of the centres for the most insane and irresponsible attempts to clone humans. Similarly, Bush tries to defend the right of giant multinational drugs companies to charge what they like for drugs against AIDS, but ties government aid to entire generations dying in Africa to moralistic campaigns demanding sexual abstinence.

The America, the world, envisaged by the Intelligent Design movement is a world where billions will be available for science and technology. But it will be science and technology for the ruling class. The workers are to have the tools of rational thought denied to them in an education system that teaches obscurantism. They will be tied ever more closely to the obvious alternative – a religious dogmatism that tells them what to think, to know their place and to obey their betters.

The response to Intelligent Design is not simply to defend science and the scientific method. It is to lead a counterattack demanding the restructuring of science and the education service so that the advances of science are available to all and the application of these advances are in the interests of the vast majority of the human race and help to preserve the natural world that we are a part of.


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