Turkey Puts the Kibosh on Natural Selection

Photo by José María Mateos | CC BY 2.0

Obscurantists rejoice! Turkey has just decided that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can be taught no more. The deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmuş, member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and also Professor of Economics at Istanbul University describes the theory as “outdated and rotten” and informs the world that there is no law that says it must be taught. Did the theory need to be enforced by law when it is so checked and cross-checked and explains so many things on the basis of so few assumptions that some authors like Richard Dawkins—who summed it up as, “Life results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators”—David N. Stamos, and Jerry A. Coyne prefer to call it a “fact”. But the AKP will have none of that.

More than two centuries ago, the Anglican clergyman William Paley (1743-1805) wrote in his book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802), which had an enormous influence on subsequent religious thinking and especially among deniers of natural selection, that in contrast with a stone lying on the ground, which he could reasonably assume had always been there, a watch lying in the same place would suggest that, “There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use”. Therefore, “That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.” The vertebrate’s eye was another of his favorite examples. Not a good one, as we have known for some time now. The human eye is the crude result of many evolutionary contingencies, some of which—from an engineering standpoint, at least—were really botched jobs. It’s not the only example. Reproduction of mammals is also pretty chancy, what with the long, hazardous peregrination of semen, and the human brain itself is pretty slipshod. Yet Paley’s argument was accepted as the explanation for the natural world until the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. For example, only five years before it appeared, even the great geologist Roderick Impey Murchison wrote, “[…] whilst the geologist recognizes a beginning, he can see in the innumerable facts of the eye of the earliest crustacean the same evidences of Omniscience as in the completion of the vertebrate form”.

With Darwin, as is well known, these “design” ideas beat a retreat in science, although slowly and not without the odd brief rally. Now Paley has made a twenty-first-century comeback, this time in Turkey, after resurfacing in various parts of the United States. On 8 November 2005, the Kansas Board of Education voted to allow” intelligent design to be taught in its science program as an alternative theory (to put it kindly) to evolution which, they said, left many things unexplained, adding that “evolution is a theory and not a fact”. The previous year the rural town of Dover, Pennsylvania, with a population of 20,000 was the first in the country to introduce “intelligent design” into science teaching, whereupon ninth-grade biology students would have to learn “other theories” about the origin of life. A few weeks after the Kansas Board of Education decision, the federal judge John E, Jones III ruled on December 20, 2005 that it was unconstitutional for a Pennsylvania school district to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in high school biology courses, saying that, “the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.”

These are just a couple of many episodes and legal battles involving the teaching of natural selection, going back to the clamorous “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925 when the Criminal Court of Tennessee condemned a substitute high school teacher John T. Scopes to pay a fine of $100 for teaching human evolution in a state-funded school (although the verdict was overturned on a technicality). The religious groups pushing “intelligent design” are powerful and, although they might have lost a few legal battles, the long war is still being waged.

The core ideas of Darwinism are now “beyond dispute among scientists”, as Daniel Dennett puts it. And he adds, “New discoveries may conceivably lead to dramatic, even ‘revolutionary’ shifts in the Darwinian theory, but the hope that it will be ‘refuted’ by some shattering breakthrough is about as reasonable as the hope that we will return to a geocentric vision and discard Copernicus.” Then there’s the famous essay title of Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. Such strong statements from scientists haven’t precluded yet more advents of the wannabe competitor “intelligent design”, which is nothing other than a fairly recent imposter decked out in the pseudoscientific language favored by the hoary, indefatigable, influential legion of creationists whose less bizarre representatives are fully aware that, if their bible-bashing brethren keep hauling God into the limelight, their project has little future, so the new tactic is to sneak him in. “Intelligent design” presents an incredible designer not necessarily called God, but only in Cloud-cuckoo-land would people fail to make the connection. It’s just “a particular version of Christianity”, as Judge Jones put it.

“Intelligent design” is a political tactic. Traditional creationism (Genesis, Adam and Eve, the world being made in six days…) has no place in science, which is why the packaging had to be changed for the new offensive even if it means that a few diehards must fall by the wayside, moaning that this departure from the Bible is heresy. One such intransigent, Mark Looy of Answers in Genesis (“upholding the authority of the Bible from the very first verse”), writes

Called the “Intelligent Design” movement, it is led by scholars who argue that the design of living systems—and even the nonliving elements of the universe—suggest a Designer. While these “intelligent design” proponents have been effective in challenging evolutionary theory, and may indeed be making some inroads in the secular academic world, we’re not sure how effective the movement will be in the long run in changing many people’s hearts—or indeed restoring the foundations of our decaying culture. Because most of the leaders of the intelligent design movement […] are not fully Bible-believing scientists and researchers, their primary thrust is not to convince people that the Bible is totally true from its very first verse, including its gospel message. Also, while it is difficult to judge the motives of each one, we don’t see much evidence that these well-intentioned scholars are using their abilities to point people to the most important aspect of who the Creator of the universe is: that Jesus Christ is Savior. In terms of eternity, what does it really profit if a person accepts there is a Creator, but doesn’t recognize that He is foremost Christ the Redeemer (Colossians 1)?

“Intelligent design” fans may have lost a few creationists along the way but this doesn’t mean they aren’t still on the offensive. They think that Darwinian evolutionists are dogmatists so tightly locked into other points of view that they won’t even consider “alternative theories” like “intelligent design”, which they present as an open, non-dogmatic “scientific” point of view as opposed to the “scientism” of a bunch of stick-in-the-mud fogeys. The frequent use of the label “scientism” for those who believe that science can answer a lot of questions and raise new ones is telling. As Daniel Dennett puts it, “Those who fear the facts will forever try to discredit the fact-finders”.

The father or resuscitator of the “intelligent design” movement is Phillip E. Johnson, a retired Berkeley law professor who wrote the book Darwin on Trial (1991) as the vehicle for propagating his ideas. He wants to switch normal science—which has no need to refer to supernatural beings when enquiring into the mechanisms of natural processes—for “theistic realism”, his “science” which embraces the idea of God in the scientific process. Life is very complex so it can’t be explained by means of exclusively natural mechanisms. Ergo an intelligent designer must be introduced. None other than God.

It wasn’t until 1996 that these latter-day creationists began to reap the benefits of their propaganda efforts when they obtained grants from the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (now Center for Science and Culture) which proclaims that it aims inter alia, “To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies” and to “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”. As Barbara Forrest notes, the Center has “[…] “an aggressive public relations program, which includes conferences that they or their supporters organize, popular books and articles, recruitment of students through university lectures sponsored by campus ministries, and cultivation of alliances with conservative Christians and influential political figures”. Steven Pinker isn’t mistaken. More than a few “[p]eople desperately want Darwinism to be wrong”.

Stephen Jay Gould died on 20 May 2002 before he was able to agree with Richard Dawkins on the content of a jointly signed letter to The New York Review of Books with which they planned to debunk the “intelligence design” taradiddle. They had clashed over other questions but agreed to join forces to do whatever they could to put paid to the propagation of this so-called theory. Dawkins’ draft of the letter, which Gould did not live to comment on, reads:

But no qualified scientist doubts that evolution is a fact, in the ordinarily accepted sense in which it is a fact that the Earth orbits the Sun […] In the unlikely event that a significant argument should ever emerge from the ranks of creationism/‘intelligent design’, we will be happy to debate it. Meanwhile, we shall cultivate our evolutionary gardens, occasionally engaging in the more exacting and worthwhile task of debating each other. What we shall not do is abet creationists in their disreputable quest for free publicity and unearned academic respectability

Right now, about half the population of the United States believes that man (and woman) was created by God in his own image about 10,000 years ago and, whatever the scientific community might say, quite a lot of people also believe in “intelligent design”. Another factor is that the weird demagoguery claiming lack of evidence for natural selection is backed by millions of dollars and support from the topmost echelons of the Administration. The popular preacher Ron Carlson presents two stories to his audience, asking whether they care about which one is true. In his secular version,

[…] you are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach three and a half billion years ago. You are a mere grab-bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system… in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere.

The Christian version soothingly offers eternal life:

[…] you are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation…. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind…. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that…He gave the life of His only Son that you might spend eternity with Him.

Manichaean thinking wonderfully simplifies things: futureless grab-bag of particles or beloved beneficiary of God’s Great Sacrifice. It’s not difficult to imagine how consoling the sly promises of the second message could be for a lot of people whose earthly existence brings little joy. But comfort is one thing and science is another. And apart from asseverations like that of God’s love, “intelligent design” can only come up with attacks like science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist.

No, science can’t prove that there is no superior being and neither should it. As Bertrand Russell put it, belief in a china teapot revolving around the sun in an elliptical orbit does not deserve the same epistemological status as belief in its non-existence although it is impossible with present-day technology to demonstrate the latter. The existence of beings, events, material or feats does need to be demonstrated if there is any serious scientific intent in asserting it. But there is no obligation to prove the non-existence of what is denied. Must scientists really prove that flying pigs don’t exist when so much work needs to be done to save real species from extinction? The only limit to non-existent phenomena is the imagination. So the Grand Canyon appeared a month after the Great Flood. Holy foreskins fly up to heaven all by themselves. A donkey scolded a prophet. You can take human flesh at Sunday mass. A supernatural being is very concerned about what you do with your genitals. Elliptically spinning china teapots. Whatever.

It is apparently believed that you only have to say that for reasons A, B, C and D the existence of God is more plausible than an annual congress of gnomes on the northern slope of Mount McKinley. But if reasons A, B, C and D aren’t justified they’re not scientific arguments. They have to be treated on their own merits, like all other reasons worthy of the name. Dawkins’ logic is hard to beat: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” Yet, undeterred by reason, the “intelligent design” gang continue to beat their equivalent of Odin’s drum. Since the non-existence of an intelligent designer can’t be proven, the theory must have the same status in schools as Darwin’s natural selection. Students must learn, alongside Darwin’s arguments, that intelligent design is still a possibility. However they dress up their case, the “intelligent design” arguments aren’t good. The whirling china teapot is also a possibility.

Whether it’s called creationism or, more euphemistically, “intelligent design” loads of money and effort have been spent on loads of codswallop. In any case, says Steven Pinker, “[…] denial of the theory of natural selection will founder under the weight of the mass of evidence that the theory is correct. How much additional damage the denial will do to science education and biomedical research before it sinks is unknown.” Turkey has enough problems with religious fundamentalism. How much more damage will be done to reason and science now?

Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).