Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 18, 2007

Creationist “science”

Filed under: science — louisproyect @ 4:03 pm

More than anything, the debate offered Republicans voters, and the nation, a chance to see the cast of candidates side by side for the first time. The debate was at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, with Nancy Reagan sitting in the audience.

There were revealing moments that went past the well-rehearsed lines by all the candidates. Three of the candidates — Mr. Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado — raised their hands to signal that they did not believe in evolution.

NY Times, May 4, 2007

Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism.

Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism”, 1933

Last night I attended a terrifically enlightening and entertaining lecture titled “What do Creationists Believe About Human Evolution” at the Museum of Natural History by Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

It gave me a chance to hook up with Marxmailer Mike Friedman who is working on a PhD in evolutionary biology at City University in New York out of the Molecular Systematics Laboratory at the Museum. His thesis involves a study of the Coral Snake and its non-venomous relatives from the standpoint of “co-evolution“.

I first met Mike about 20 years ago when we were both involved with Nicaragua Solidarity in New York. He had left the Trotskyist movement in order to enjoy a more productive personal and political life, as had I and thousands of other ex-Trotskyists.

Although I had a superficial understanding of creationist “science”, the talk really gave me a much better idea of what it was about and how important it was for people like Eugenie Scott to challenge it. As she put it, if they were simply about propounding theology, nobody would really care. But when they try to represent themselves as doing science, they must be answered.

Scott began by explaining that the creationists harp on what they regard as inconsistencies in evolutionary theory. If there are contradictions or seeming lapses in Darwinism, then it is regarded as false. From this, they draw the conclusion that their own beliefs are true. As soon as I heard this, I turned to Mike and said that this is exactly how 911 conspiracy theorists operate.

Within the creationist camp, there are two broad categories. There is “creationist science”, which tends to a strictly literal interpretation based on Scripture. There is also a subset within creationist science called intelligent design that tries to represent itself as more amenable to evolutionary theory and data without letting go of the basic creationist schema.

This schema pivots around the belief that God created everything at once that has ever existed, from dinosaurs to homo sapiens, including–most conveniently– fossil remains. Closely related to this belief is a denial that all living creatures have a common ancestor in ocean-based single cell organisms. Instead of an evolutionary tree, they posit something structured much more like a lawn in which the different blades of grass amount to “kinds”. God created these kinds within seven days, as described in Genesis. Once the kinds were created, there could be natural selection within them–thus the differentiation between bison, antelopes and cows which are all part of the same kind. Yes, I know. It is a perfectly ridiculous idea but millions of Americans believe it. It should be added that man and chimpanzee are not members of the same kind, even though their genetic makeup is much closer than that of bison, antelopes and cows. Unlike the film character “Morgan”, the creationists have no identification with the noble primates. For myself, I sometimes have the feeling that the world would be better off if it was ruled by the orangutan or the bonobo chimpanzee.

The notion of kinds is key to explaining how all of God’s creatures could have fit on Noah’s Ark, a Biblical legend that occupies the same kind of central role in creationist science that E = mc2 occupies in nuclear physics. It would be a big problem for scientists to explain how two of every animal in the world could have fit on the ark, but if you narrow that down to kinds, there’s no problem.

The preoccupation with kinds has led to a subdiscipline within creationist science, namely baraminology. This neologism comes from Hebrew: bara, created, and min, kind. Perhaps some of you are aware of a flap that took place in June 2004 when an article defending intelligent design appeared in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a peer reviewed scientific journal. Von Sternberg was the editor of that issue and an employee of the Smithsonian Institute. Publication of the article was considered a coup by the creationists, but led to calls for Von Sternberg’s firing by genuine scientists. Defended by the imbecile former Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum, Von Sternberg claimed religious persecution. If you look at his CV, you will see why it is so necessary for Scott and others to challenge him. Unlike Santorum and the boneheaded candidates who denied evolution at the Republican debate, he has a PhD in Biology.

I strongly recommend a visit to the website of the National Center for Science Education. It is a tremendous resource for the struggle against what Trotsky described as “cultural excrement”.

Back in 1960, when I was in high school, the drama club mounted a production of “Inherit the Wind”, a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee that was written only five years earlier. It dramatized the famous Scopes Trial, which pitted Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan. Darrow was defending John Scopes, a high school teacher who had defied a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching in Tennessee public schools of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

Since the Bush administration is trying to turn the clock back to the 1890s, when McKinley was seizing Cuba and the Philippines, it is no surprise that it is also looking benignly on the creationism of the period as well. When I think about this, I am inspired to repeat Diderot’s observation that “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”–substituting president for king of course.

2 Comments »

  1. on point. Good news about Mike Friedman, too. I knew him ten years ago when we were both working for an alternative school program in central Harlem. Solid cat.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — May 19, 2007 @ 1:43 am

  2. It would be great if you could back up allegations of the improprieties of anthropogenic climate change “deniers” (this has a delicious “malleus maleficarum” ring to it, don’t you think?) with some solid documentation and a demonstration of a “causal link” to how funds from an organization led them to endanger their own careers by espousing that oh-so-dangerous skepticism that leftist ecologists seem unable to deal with rationally. But I know causal links are not the left’s forte nowadays. In any event, concocting corporate conspiracy theories to deal with those pesky gadflies out there is simply a dodge to keep people from getting the bigger picture: Environmentalism is simply the nouveau Marxism. As a scholar of Soviet politics, this move seems to me like an intellectual “weekend at Bernie’s” – you dress up the skeleton of Marx in environmentally-friendly rags and trot him out to “Staying Alive” by the Bee-Gees. This is just another way of saying Marx is deader than disco. If you want to be at the top of the intellectual food chain, start thinking for yourself and stop contriving flimsy ad hominem attacks.

    Comment by A. Nony Mouse — December 14, 2007 @ 6:35 am


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