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Another Monkey Trial?

Earlier in this space I have argued that rational, progressive Americans should be no less concerned about anti-evolutionism than about the so-called pro-life movement. The former issue may appear easier to neglect, as debates about it have an air of intellectualism and irrelevance, while as for the latter women’s rights are at stake, and clinics are bombed. At bottom, though, both are but fronts in the same ugly war, for in each case the Christian right makes an ungrounded claim to the sanctity of some class of entities –human beings among animals in the one case, fetuses among human beings in the other–, argues that as a result of their sanctity these entities are effectively off-limits to scientific investigation, and portrays itself as a persecuted minority in view of the broader society’s refusal to play along. In both cases, there is a deep mistrust of expertise, and a corollary sense that no decisions should be left up to people with special training. Every decision should be made by ‘ordinary’ Americans, and their continuing exclusion from the decision-making process –e.g., about whether evolution is to be taught as true, or whether a fetus’s ability to feel pain in the first trimester is to be accepted as fact– is for them evidence of their persecution, and of the control of American government by a sinister, secular cabal.

This is of course a perverse conception of democracy. No non-frivolous democratic system could, for long, permit everyone to vote on everything. Some decisions must be left up to the expert few in a position to make them informedly. And yet creationists explicitly complain about the lack of ‘representation’ of their view in school curricula, as if schools were legislatures, and as if lessons in schools ought not consist in the imparting of bodies of accrued knowledge, but instead in the representation of interest groups. In this respect, in spite of its own perceived distance from the academic left, the Christian right is much more postmodern than traditional: it all but openly concedes that ‘truth’ is only power in disguise. Some of us academic leftists, however, continue to believe that ‘truth’ is much better defined as ‘what is actually the case, independently of you, whether you like it or not’, and we thus bemoan the relativism of the Christian right.

Take the recent, troubling court case in Pennsylvania, at which an ‘expert’ witness, University of Idaho microbiology professor Scott Minnich, testified in support of the inclusion of ‘intelligent design’ in high school biology curricula (see the AP article, ‘Professor Defends ‘Intelligent Design’ in Pennsylvania Trial,’ November 4, 2005). Minnich maintained in his testimony that articles defending intelligent design are not published in major peer- reviewed scientific journals because, simply, intelligent design is a minority view. ‘To endorse intelligent design comes with risk,’ Minnich complains, ‘because it’s a position against the consensus. Science is not a democratic process.’

But what Minnich decries, we in fact have reason to celebrate, at least those of us do who believe, against the Christian right and the cynical, distrustful academic left, that Francis Bacon, Galileo, et al., did not have a uniformly negative impact in world history, and that a humble, non- fanatical commitment to scientific objectivity, to letting the world speak for itself, can be a good thing.

In the expert communities of people who study things like cell biology, genetics, organic chemistry, paleontology, ‘intelligent design’ (and I cannot bring myself to drop the scare-quotes) is indeed a minority view. But it remains one only because it is bad, and not, as Minnich appears to believe, because the experts have an a priori commitment to disdaining it. As a result, the vast majority of arguments for intelligent design are disseminated in the form of advocacy rather than through the presentation of research results. As Richard Dawkins put it recently: ‘It isn’t that editors refuse to publish ID research. There simply isn’t any ID research to publish. Its advocates bypass normal scientific due process by appealing directly to the non-scientific public and –with great shrewdness– to the government officials they elect’ (‘One Side Can Be Wrong,’ The Guardian, September 1, 2005).

Dawkins is often most un-nuanced in his understanding of political issues (I myself have criticized him to the delight of some Counterpunch readers). In this case, though, a lack of nuance and toleration is just what is needed. Philosophically, it may be interesting to doubt science’s claims to know the past, and it may be tempting to consider evolution by natural selection to be yet another transformation of ancient metaphysical ideas– even Plato, after all, has his myth of the earth-born men, and Anaximander speaks of the scattered body parts at the beginning of time, some of which were clumped together in arrangements better suited to survive than others. The philosopher of science Karl Popper, with his demanding conception of what can count as a scientific claim, noticed the ways in which claims about a distant non-repeatable past fail to qualify, and so deemed evolution a ‘metaphysical research programme’.

This is, again, all very interesting, but politically, when it comes to the sort of mundane issues school boards discuss, we had best bracket our subtlety and follow Dawkins. History has taught that in this sort of debate, subtlety will only be exploited by the other side. If we permit ourselves to doubt, the creationists will say: look at them, they doubt, whereas we do not, therefore, our interpretation of things must be the more robust one, and this must be because it is true. Fundamentalists are not swayed by subtlety.

In any case, outside of expert communities, among ‘real’ people, creationists cannot complain about being a persecuted minority, since not only are they not persecuted, but they are also not a minority. According to a CBS News poll last month, 51 percent of Americans reject the theory of evolution, believing instead that God created humans in their present form. (It is at least noteworthy that the pollsters did not ask these Americans to give reasons. In the world of polls, one person’s ‘beliefs’ count for as much as any other’s.) And according to an August poll by the Pew research center, 38 percent of Americans believe that creationism should be taught instead of evolution, and not just alongside it, as the more tactful ID- advocates claim to desire.

Let us thank God, or whomever, that polls are not immediately enacted into law. Instead, there is a bit of a delay, and at present we have not seen the total censure of science in American public schools. Creationism, I add, is not just bad for science education, it’s also disastrous for poetry, philosophy, and religion itself, for it reduces all truth to literal truth, and inculcates deafness to profounder registers. Absolutely nothing, theologically speaking, hangs on the answer to the question of the earth’s age, or of human origins. But the Christian right, in its betrayal of religion, has nonetheless chosen this battle. This could be to their detriment, as it forces them to defend laughably bad arguments that will only appear the more strained with repetition.

While there’s still time, it is vital that all who abhor fundamentalism — whether you have much interest in the intellectual question of human origins or not– actively oppose the creationists’ move for power over curricular decisions. For what is at stake is not just an intellectual question. If this were all it amounted to, it is safe to say the Christian right would not be interested in it. If the fundamentalists win on this front, a major step will have been taken towards the creation of a society that lets vested political interests pass for truth, that allows party-line philosophy to replace free inquiry. If the Christian right can pull this off in the guise of a persecuted minority, it is safe to say there will be no stopping them.

Justin Smith is a professor of philosophy and writer living in Montreal. He can be reached at: justismi@alcor.concordia.ca

 

 

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