Tuesday, 17 March 2009

A materialist critique of pseudo-science

Review by Duroyan Fertl
Green Left Weekly, 13 March 2009

Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present
By John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark & Richard York
Monthly Review Press, 2008
240 pages, $33.95

In recent decades a form of militant creationism — masquerading as science under the name of “Intelligent Design” — has gone on the offensive, promoting the teaching of biblical creationism in schools, and carrying out a broader “wedge strategy”, aimed at transforming the place and nature of science in society.

Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present, is almost overdue in this respect. It traces the rise of the “design” phenomenon, and its relationship to conservative, right-wing politics, and places it in the context of a 2500-year-long debate between materialism and creationism that lies at the heart of Western civilisation.

Critique of Intelligent Design is a tour de force through the historical contest between science and belief. While the book focuses largely on recent centuries, it also traces the debate back as far as the fifth century BCE to Greek philosopher Socrates, and the third century BCE Greek materialist Epicurus, each of whom gave lasting form to the opposing arguments.

That this is not simply a history book becomes clear early on. In identifying the minds behind the “design” movement — a reworking of pre-Darwinian natural theology — the authors find at the heart of the project not merely the reintroduction of religious ideas into classroom science, but the roll-back of scientific thought since the Enlightenment.

In fact, the authors show how the proponents of intelligent design see themselves as fighting a war against materialist science and reason that dates all the way back to ancient Greece.

While the chief targets of intelligent design adherents are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and — above all — Charles Darwin, key architects of the movement, like William Dembski of the right-wing Discovery Institute, also take aim at Epicurus, and the first century BCE Roman poet Lucretius, as the forefathers of the naturalism and materialism they seek to purge from society.

Their aim is not simply to incorporate evolution into creationism, or vice versa, but to gradually substitute the materialist outlook currently dominant in the sciences with a return to faith and a belief in “divine providence”.

The intelligent design movement’s agenda extends well beyond the natural sciences, as becomes clear from a study of a very influential figure in the design movement: the author CS Lewis — most famous for his Christian parables posing as fantasy books in the Narnia series.

Now a patron figure for the intelligent design movement, Lewis was once a materialist, but became an outspoken source of Christian apologetics. He advocated an essentially fundamentalist Christian worldview, where materialism poses an absolute threat to religion and belief.

As the authors unearth the history and providence of its rise, intelligent design is revealed to be little more than a stalking-horse for full-blown creationism, which rejects evolution, science and — ultimately — the idea that all existing things are determined above all by their physical nature, rather than by ideas, beliefs or religion.

What makes intelligent design most dangerous, in the eyes of the authors, is that it conducts a deliberate, insidious strategy of undermining scientific education and knowledge by stealth.

Instead of simply counterposing creationism to evolution, intelligent design injects religion into science by playing on people’s doubts or ignorance, and attempts — as creation science tried years before — to give a “scientific” gloss to religious doctrine.

As the book illustrates, this strategy is even stated explicitly in the drafts of some of the intelligent design movement’s key documents, most notably the infamous 1999 “wedge document”, and the book Of Pandas and People, which laid out the strategy of undermining science and materialism in favour of religious doctrine.

Another danger lies in the political connections of the intelligent design movement. Like its forerunner, “creation science”, which relied on such patrons and spokesmen as Ronald Reagan, intelligent design has some powerful backers, including former US presidential candidate John McCain.

Critique of Intelligent Design is not the first book to unpack the design movement’s agenda, however. What makes it unique is that it avoids the temptation of engaging in a point-by-point refutation of the arguments, preferring instead to go to the heart of matter, and challenge the ideas of intelligent design on a fiercely materialist — and Marxist — basis.

The discussion of Marx’s materialist approach is a vital part of this approach. Despite being a key target of intelligent design’s proponents, Marx is frequently ignored or excluded in materialist and sociological critiques of creationism and its offshoots, largely for political reasons. Critique of Intelligent Design, therefore, fills a void in the generic argument for materialist evolutionism, especially on the question of religion.

Marx’s critique of heaven as a precondition for the critique of Earth — and the very material interests of those who promote intelligent design — stands firmly alongside the revolutionary discoveries of Darwin as an affirmation of scientific materialism and poses a serious challenge to idealist and creationist arguments.

This is, of course, why the strategy of the intelligent design advocates is not limited to attacking Darwin, and naturalism within science, but has spread out into the political sphere through its attacks on social science. The implications of evolution and materialist science fundamentally threaten the central tenets of creationism and undermine the literal interpretation of the Bible upon which it relies.

Despite the conciliatory attempts from many materialists, from Epicurus to Stephen Jay Gould, to accommodate religion in the “gaps” between scientific knowledge, the intelligent design movement is dedicated to one thing alone — the reintroduction of creationist fantasy into scientific methodology.

Two centuries after Darwin’s birth, and 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of the Species, the knowledge that material reality is amazing and intelligible on its own terms, without the need for gods and demons, remains under assault.

Critique of Intelligent Design offers the tools to understand and defend the critical, materialist, thought that underpins the natural and social sciences alike, and to see that, as Darwin concluded his major work, “there is grandeur in this view of life”.

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