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What's at stake in...
The battle over evolution

April 1, 2005 | Page 8

DAVID WHITEHOUSE explains what's important about the theory of evolution.

POLITICIANS IN 19 states are trying to force biology teachers to sow doubts about the theory of evolution. Doubts are all they can manage for now, since the alternative view--"creation science," which has also been repackaged as something called "intelligent design theory"--finds little support among people who actually study living things.

Virtually all biologists believe that material processes, not divine intervention, account for the origin of life from inanimate matter--and for the adaptive "fit" between organisms and their environments. As a result, courts have ruled since 1968 that mandating creation "science" in public schools is an unlawful imposition of a religious view.

Faced with these setbacks, creationists now propose teaching the "controversy" over evolution as a matter of free speech. This new strategy resembles the tobacco companies' four-decade attempt to convince people that there was a "controversy" over the connection between smoking and disease.

As with the corporate-sponsored tobacco "researchers," creationists have a hidden motive for pushing discredited ideas. The companies were after profits--and the creationists are pushing a conservative social agenda.

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THE ATTRACTION of creationism for conservatives is that it presents a static, unchanging view of nature--a view they use to justify the social status quo. A God that produces an unchanging natural order would, of course, produce a similarly "perfect" social order and prescribe the proper function of everything in both.

Creationists claim that their God prescribes a social structure in which some people must be subordinate to others--just as humans must obey God. Further, the nuclear family--with a man in command--is supposed to be the eternal social unit for rearing children. The creationists also say that God created sex only for reproduction. That way, they can condemn abortion and gay sexuality without having to make a real argument.

Unfortunately for the creationists, 150 years of investigation has strengthened Charles Darwin's arguments that species change--and even change into new species.

As Darwin pointed out, the resemblance of fossils to today's species indicates that some species give rise to changed versions of themselves. Genetic and other physical similarities between species indicate how closely related they are to each other. Human genes, for example, are 99 percent the same as a chimpanzee's.

The geographic locations of different species confirm these judgments. Related species, even ones that are adapted to different ways of life, tend to be found in adjoining areas--as we should expect if they have a common ancestor.

For these and a thousand other observations, creationists have only twisted explanations. Lacking support from the evidence, creation "science" is propped up by political-religious fervor--and by the money that flows to those who promise to make backward views seem respectable.

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IF CREATIONISM lends support to the political right, does evolution confirm left-wing ideas? Lots of people have thought so.

If nature has a history, they've reasoned, then human relations can change, too. What's more, if the changes in nature come from processes that are internal to nature itself--and not from an outside force, like God--then changes in society may be possible through the actions of humans themselves. In other words, humans created oppressive institutions, and humans could change them.

Ideas like these--including some of the first scientific ideas of biological evolution--inspired many leaders of the French Revolution of 1789, 60 years before Darwin published his theory. Some favored a thoroughly materialist outlook, dispensing with talk of gods and spirits in order to seek a natural understanding of everything.

They saw humans as sociable, intensely inventive animals. As with other animals, the development of healthy human characteristics would depend on a nurturing environment--in the case of humans, a society fit to live in. Revolutionaries thus saw themselves as engineers of new social circumstances.

Fifty years later, however, Karl Marx pointed out the flaws in this view: "The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by people and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society."

In other words, the architects of the new utopia would have to achieve god-like detachment from today's society to avoid its corruption--not a real possibility if materialism is correct. Further, their scheme would continue the pattern of elite rule, where people who specialize in producing ideas govern those who work with their hands.

A truly materialist view, Marx reasoned, would have to explain that ideas--even useful and powerful ones--don't come out of thin air. They come from people's confrontation with their own circumstances of life.

In 1859, the same year that Darwin published his landmark The Origin of Species, Marx laid out this view of historical materialism, writing that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."

Marx considered himself an adherent of Darwin's biological materialism. In a letter to his political collaborator, Frederick Engels, Marx wrote of Darwin's book, "This is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view." Engels later wrote several works that explored the connections between the materialism of natural science and the radical position of materialism in the human sciences.

In one essay--called "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man"--Engels showed how the denigration of manual labor led most biologists to a false view about how human intelligence developed. Scientists assumed that the key event in human evolution was the growth of a big brain--with upright posture and tool making following from this. But this doesn't make much sense, since high intelligence wouldn't give much reproductive benefit to an animal that's still on all fours--and this is how adaptive traits are spread by "natural selection."

Engels pointed out that if upright posture came first, then the hands would be freed to do work. Only at that point would there be a big payoff for those with big brains--through improved work methods to gain control over their environment.

Likewise, as labor based on an upright posture created new discoveries about the world, "men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other." The benefits of labor multiplied as cooperation improved through the use of language--and the growth of the brain received a new impetus. Engels' side of the debate was confirmed by the 20th century discovery of Australipithecus fossils, with an upright posture and small brains.

Thus, the exalted mental capacity of humans arose as an adaptation to help us perform social, manual labor more effectively.

Social relations have their own "logic" that operates with some independence from the human biology that they're built on. As a result, today's dominant ideas are shaped by the needs of the dominant social class to control the work process and its products.

This is possible, as Engels noted, because "the mind that plans the labor process" need not be attached to the hands that do the work, and societies could develop a division between mental and manual labor. Marx and Engels thought that the modern working class could reintegrate these two aspects of life in a society where workers rule themselves. Revolution would solve the riddle of who "educates the educator"--since workers' efforts to reshape society would spur a process of mass self-education.

Although Darwinism and Marxism are compatible and even kindred theories, the truth of Darwinism doesn't come close to proving that socialist revolution could work. Certainties belong to those who have a pipeline to an "absolute" authority. Materialists, however, have to prove their ideas in practice.

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