The Guardian 6 April, 2005
The contest between
evolution and creationism
The recent Indian Ocean tsunami brought forth a crop of clerics and others who attributed the tsunami and the huge loss of life to "God's will". At least one cleric declared it to be God's "punishment" for the sins of the people. Are the only sinners those who tragically lost their lives?
Since the tsunami a British survey ship has been over the area and taken sonic soundings of the fault line under the sea where the earth's plates collided. This scientific expedition provided real pictures of the exact spot where one plate was forced under the other. It was this which created the earthquake and the tsunami and then last week another major earthquake. This process is in line with theories and research tracing the earth's creation and cooling. It is a confirmation of the theory of evolution.
The struggle between science and faith in a supernatural power is centuries old and it will go on for centuries more. It has taken many forms as the scientific knowledge of the world around us has increased along with our means to study it.
The many ongoing advances of science, and with them a better knowledge and understanding of the world around us, have provided us with explanations for much of what formerly appeared inexplicable. In particular, scientific research has proven that the biblical description of the origin of the earth is not accurate.
Many Christians accept scientific outcomes such as for the age of earth and the theory of evolution and do not take the Bible descriptions literally.
Those holding to creationist views (rejecting the theory of evolution) of the origin of the earth and the world around us fight hard to sustain explanations based on "God's will".
One example of the virulent campaign being waged against evolution is contained in a recent article in Political Affairs (9-2-05) published by the Communist Party, USA and written by Prasad Venugopal. It says that 24 states of the US this year have seen efforts to change the way evolution is taught. The article explains that high school science curricula is to include a book on the Biblical origins of the Grand Canyon!
In the State of Kansas, "conservatives have won a majority on the State Board of Education, which is expected to introduce changes to the high school science curriculum challenging the theory of evolution". In Missouri, a state representative has introduced "bills for the next session of the Legislature [one of which] would require publishers that sell biology textbooks to Missouri to include at least one chapter with alternative theories to evolution".
With the re-election of George Bush (a born-again Christian) who regularly peppers his speeches with religious references, the campaign against evolution was bound to hot up.
Creationism taught in schools
In Australia, since the introduction of state aid to private schools, there has been a mushrooming of Christian fundamentalist schools. The curriculum at these schools promotes creationist theories and rejects scientific method as a means of knowing the world.
The Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) schools, for example, have their own text books propagating a belief in the literal truth of every word of the Bible.
They dismiss the findings of scientists by saying: "They can only make blind guesses. They have no way of knowing if their guesses are close to the truth or not "
"The problem each of these scientists must face is that they were not present at creation. They have no way of knowing what exactly happened. Moses, the man God used to write Genesis, was not present at the creation either; but God was. God told Moses what really happened at creation." (taken from a science text book)
It is therefore desirable that all who profess a scientific evaluation of the world should be armed with knowledge about both evolution and creationism.
Darwin's theory of evolution was a major triumph of modern science and was set out in his book On the Origin of Species published in 1859 not quite 150 years ago. The Communist Manifesto, which first set out the role played by the class struggle in the evolution of society and was based on a scientific and not a creationist understanding of the world, was first published in 1848.
The theory of evolution is based on the basic ideas that:
(1) the universe, including the Earth and the universe around us is billions of years old and has gradually evolved;
(2) the first forms of life on Earth developed from non-living matter nearly three billion years ago;
(3) more and more complex forms of life emerged through a process called "natural selection"; and that
(4) the entire history of life can be explained through natural processes and is not the result of divine intervention.
Darwin's theories have been proven by innumerable scientific experiments, by the study of fossils obtained by palaeontologists, the study of rock formations by geologists, the study of plant life by botanists, the study of the universe by cosmologists, etc. This process which results in our ever expanding knowledge will continue into the future.
Simple forms of life developed over time to more complex forms as environmental and ecological conditions changed. The dinosaurs and many other species died out as a result of climate changes or evolved into other forms of life as a consequence of these changes. The human species (homo sapiens) also evolved over millions of years.
All of these changes can, with an adequate knowledge of the conditions at the time, be explained. The creationists bitterly oppose these scientific explanations which stand on their own feet without "recourse" to or "reliance on" any theory of divine intervention to justify them.
Theories of creation have also evolved over time from the "dreaming" of primitive societies, to the belief in a number of Gods and then to a single God which underlies most modern religions.
While some creationists attempt to ban books on evolution and deny the work of scientists, others attempt to give their religious beliefs a scientific aura. As the power and truth of evolutionary ideas become more and more widespread, the language and methods of science are being used to argue for the "scientific teaching of Biblical creationism".
Combining science with creationism
In the United States the Creation Research Society views itself as existing "to train students in scientific research and teaching skills, preparing effective warriors for the faith" and as "a professional organisation of trained scientists and interested laypersons who are firmly committed to scientific special creation".
Creationists generally claim that the universe, including the Earth, is relatively young and was created instantly; that all life was created instantly and life forms have remained unchanged since creation, that fossil records, etc. can be explained by catastrophic processes such as the Great Flood of Noah's time.
These principles are combined to argue for the validity of a literal reading of the Bible, and the presence of an all-powerful and an all-seeing Christian God who is the Creator. There are a number of versions of creationism which have led to schisms within the various religions but these differences do not alter the fact that all creationists regard Darwinism and evolution as a threat to creationist ideology.
While some creationists have attempted to find a way to combine creationism with science, the fundamentalists aggressively assert a strict interpretation of the "true word" of God through his various disciples.
It was with the idea of finding a way to combine scientific knowledge with creationist ideas that the Vatican invited a number of scientists to visit Rome some years ago. The group that accepted the invitation included a number of well-known scientists.
Australian Paul Davies, who is a popular science publicist and author is one such scientist who often attacks materialist philosophy which underpins all science, including that of evolution.
In his book The Matter Myth co-authored with John Gribbin he writes: "Many people have rejected scientific values because they regard materialism as a sterile and bleak philosophy, which reduces human beings to automata and leaves no room for free will or creativity. These people can take heart: materialism is dead." (Davies and Gribbin The Matter Myth. Penguin p 7)
In another book, The Cosmic Blueprint, Paul Davies speculates on some supernatural design when he writes: "Consider, for example, intricate organs such as the eye and ear. The component parts of these organs are so specifically interdependent it is hard to believe that they have arisen separately and gradually by a sequence of independent accidents. After all half an eye would in fact be utterly useless." (Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, Penguin, P. 111).
That last remark of Davies' is almost unbelievable, coming from a modern scientist. For example, if the beginning of the evolution of an eye was merely a patch of light-sensitive cells, this could prove of great importance for an animal's species to survive. It could help it to avoid obstacles, and more importantly it would give a warning if the shadow of a predator fell upon the animal.
A similar argument could be applied to the ear, since the mere detection of a vibration could also alert an animal to possible danger.
The excitement of truth and evolution
In giving a scientific explanation of evolution and, at the same time, disputing the idea that materialism is some lifeless philosophy Engels wrote in Dialectics of Nature: "Thousands of years may have passed before the conditions arose in which the first animals were developed, essentially by further differentiation, the numerous classes, orders, families, genera, and species of animals; and finally mammals, the form in which the nervous system attains its fullest development; and among these again finally, that mammal in which nature attains consciousness of itself man.
"Man too arises by differentiation from a single egg-cell to the most complicated organism that nature produces ...
"When after thousands of years of struggle the differentiation of hand from foot, and erect gait, were finally established, man became distinct from the ape and the basis was laid for the development of articulate speech and the mighty development of the brain " (Marx-Engels Collected Works Vol 25 pp 329-330)
The Political Affairs article notes that a book titled Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution argues that "Creationists represent only one facet of a movement that is dedicated to extinguishing secular humanism, under which they include all attitudes and educational programs that do not explicitly include their theological doctrines Fundamentalism's defence of 'traditional' values and morιs feeds on anti-intellectualism, conservatism and fear of social change."
The Political Affairs article quotes Richard Lewontin a US biologist who questions the reasons for the growth and popularity of creationist groups and arguments within the American social context. He asks: "Why now? Why only in America? Why the passion, commitment, expenditure of time and money by fundamentalists?"
The answers, in his view, lie in a "historical understanding" of the economic and political nature of US society and in "southern and south-western American populism" that flourished in the early 20th century, as well as in the "materialist explanations of the world".
Globalisation is radically restructuring the US economy in the 21st Century through global trade treaties and domestic policies that benefit multinational corporations at the expense of workers and the middle class. The rapid polarisation due to immigration, the outsourcing of jobs, the disappearance of the manufacturing base, are resulting in the dislocation of individuals and families, primarily among the poor and the working class.
Richard Lewontin writes that if people "have no control over their economic and political lives, at least they [can] control their cultural and religious lives and what [goes] into the heads of their children".
The Political Affairs article concludes: "The struggles over creationism and other conservative social issues such as reproductive rights, gay marriage and the separation of church and state will sharpen over the next decade".
The offensive by the anti-scientific creationists is not confined to the US. The Australian government under Howard is also promoting the so-called "traditional values" of family and church but is doing so in a much more clandestine way than are Howard's US counterparts. This is a story for another occasion.
The task of the left and progressive forces today must be to shift the debate back to the true nature of capitalism and, at the same time, explain the truth of evolution in the context of Marxist dialectical and historical materialism.
Acknowledgement to Prasad Venugopal of Political Affairs
from whose article a number of references and quotations have been taken.