“Scientific creationism” came on the scene when the Christian right reared its ugly head in the 1984 Reagan campaign. It was part of the effort by ultra-right ruling class elements to whip up a backlash against the people’s movements.
The concept goes back to early 19th century figures like William Paley (1743-1805). He saw it this way: You are walking across a field and accidentally come upon a watch. You pick it up. Wouldn’t you marvel at both its complexity and purpose? If one gear were off, wouldn’t the watch grind to a halt? Wouldn’t such an intricate design with an implicit purpose imply a designer? Paley answered “yes!” In the same way the complexity of organisms and how well they fitted their way of living — birds have wings, fish have fins, and so on — meant there has to be a designer.
A few decades later, Charles Darwin turned that idea on its head. The kernel of Darwin’s theory is simple and powerful, and he supplied a mountain of evidence for it. Yes, the organisms best adapted to their environment survive and have offspring. This may be a thick beak to crack nuts or swift feet to avoid predators. But nature is doing the sculpting, not some mysterious outside force. A nut-eating bird whose inherited beak isn’t thick enough to do the job might not get enough nourishment. It would be more susceptible to disease and bad weather. It might not be successful in mating and having young. So these genes wouldn’t be passed to another generation. That’s natural selection.
Fast forward to the 1990s and “intelligent design.” It is the brainchild of lawyer Phillip E. Johnson. He initiated the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which promotes this latest creationist belief.
Intelligent design proponents simply give Paley’s 19th century argumentation a modern twist. They say: look at the complexity and purpose of, for example, the DNA molecule. Doesn’t it imply an intelligent designer?
No. Evolution on the cellular and molecular level is well documented. For example, hemoglobin is a very important complex molecule in many organisms. Yet data show this molecule in a simpler form in primitive jawless fish. Its evolution has been traced through all the vertebrate animals, gaining in complexity along the way. Complexity, even on the molecular level, is a product of natural selection and evolution.
Creationists attack Darwin as if there has been no further development of our understanding of evolution since his time. That’s not the case. For example, Darwin thought evolution was too slow to observe. We now have seen bacteria change when their environment changes rapidly. Bathe bacteria with antibiotics and up pop strains resistant to those antibiotics. It doesn’t take years, let alone millions of years. As in all good science, Darwin provided a theoretical foundation that is proving expansive.
Evolutionary facts and theory are central to the life sciences. Without them natural history would be just a jumble of labels and figures, in which causes and effects are disconnected.
Seeing cause and effect through the scientific method is important in economics and politics too. The ultra right aims to confuse and divide the working class, especially around causes and effects. You don’t have health insurance? Blame the gay guy up the street. Your public school is falling apart and taxes are high? Blame teachers’ salaries and the teachers’ union. You don’t have a job? Blame China. Drug dealers on the streets? Blame the nonbelievers. 9/11 attack? Invade Iraq. The list goes on. If a scientific cause-effect analysis is made, the role of class becomes clear, and the real enemies of the people come into focus, as well as real solutions.
The battle over evolution and science is an ideological battle that we must engage. When the Dover, Pa., school board recently mandated that a disclaimer about evolution be read in science classrooms, the science teachers, as one, refused to comply. These teachers put their jobs on the line. They are heroes in the struggle against this attempt to turn the clock back 150 years.
In the 17th century, a janitor named Anton van Leeuwenhoek recorded the first observations of microbes. He said, “On these observations I have spent more time than many will believe, but I have done them with joy….
“My determination is not to remain stubbornly with my ideas but … to use the little talent I have received to draw the world away from old heathenish superstitions and to go over to the truth and to stick to it.”
His humility and dedication to science and the truth should inspire us. Like him, let’s do it with joy.
Nick Bart is an environmental activist in Connecticut.