Sunday, January 16, 2011

Enlightenment of the 18th century is under attack

In Defense of Marxism and Science

We print below, edited for publication, a presentation by T. Marlow of the Spartacist League at a Chicago forum last July 24.

When the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace went to present a copy of his treatise on celestial mechanics to Napoleon, the latter is said to have stated: “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace replied, “I had no need for that hypothesis.”

Two centuries later, any American politician caught on tape saying something like that would never be able to run for dogcatcher, let alone the Senate or presidency. The U.S. is peculiar among the advanced industrial countries in its level of religiosity—over three-fourths of respondents in an AP poll said they believed in angels. Worse still is an increase in the rejection of scientific thinking, from the millions seeking miracle cures from a panoply of snake-oil vendors to a politically cohesive and dangerous sector of religious fundamentalists out to turn the U.S. into a theocracy. I am not referring to the demented followers of Osama bin Laden. I am speaking of the Christian right, which has abortion and evolution as focus points of attack.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels state: “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” Well, we have a ruling class that could be described as drunk with power. The collapse of Stalinism in East Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-92 was a world-historic defeat for the working class of the world. The American bourgeoisie declared the “death of Communism,” and even the “end of history.” With military power far greater than any of their imperialist rivals in Europe or Japan, the U.S. rulers have acted with little restraint on their predatory desires, as in Iraq and Afghanistan and recently in Haiti.

At the same time, the consciousness of the proletariat has been thrown back so far that even advanced workers and others involved in social struggle no longer identify their goal as building a socialist society. In the U.S. in particular, there is the question of race: black oppression is the bedrock of American capitalism; the notion of black people as being inferior, which survives to this day, was the ideological counterpart to black chattel slavery. America is if anything more segregated than 25 years ago.

Especially since the September 11 attacks, the “war on terror” has been used to beat the working class into submission and squelch opposition to the predations of U.S. imperialism across the globe. It is not just the linguistically challenged George W. Bush—Obama was made Commander-in-Chief in part to give the image of U.S. imperialism a needed facelift. But smoother words have not changed American military rampaging in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor the extension of police-state measures at home. The American ruling class sees no reason why it cannot continue to literally get away with murder.

In these circumstances it is no wonder that religious reaction is ascendant and even the rationalism of the Enlightenment of the 18th century is under attack. You don’t have to be a Marxist to oppose things like creationism, but without a Marxist program you have no way out of the impasse in which society finds itself. Society is rent by class struggle, legal and extralegal, as the bourgeoisie seeks ever greater profit from the exploitation of labor and workers resist. As Marx showed, there is a fundamental contradiction between the private ownership of the means of production and the further advance of productive forces. The rule of capital must be smashed by the working class, organized and led by a revolutionary Trotskyist party.

Part of the process of building that party is to educate the proletariat as to its historic role and responsibility for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. That means a Marxist understanding of society, and that in turn means an understanding of the work of science and its defense against the purveyors of mystical and medieval rubbish. So first we have to review a bit of history.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 to the birth of Leonardo da Vinci in 1452 (or the victorious siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks a year later) marked about a thousand years. That’s about one-fifth of the entire history of human civilization since the first example of writing (the cuneiform tablets of southern Mesopotamia from about 3000 BC). In West Europe this period is called the Middle or Dark Ages. Not coincidentally, the dominant political and economic institution in this period was the Roman Catholic church. Along with the nobility, the church was a major landowner. The vast majority of the population was made up of serfs tied to the land of their lord, to whom they owed service as a feudal obligation. Illiterate, disease-ridden, all but slaves to their temporal and spiritual masters, the peasant masses faced, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan [1651]).

The Renaissance, which began in the city-states of northern Italy and was spurred by the growth of trade with the East, helped engender a new class of merchants, later to become the bourgeoisie of modern capitalism. As these merchants’ ships went further out into the world, they needed better knowledge on the workings of the natural world and the cosmos. In his 1883 Introduction to Dialectics of Nature, Engels succinctly notes:

“The main work in the first period of natural science that now opened lay in mastering the material immediately at hand. In most fields a start had to be made from the very beginning. Antiquity had bequeathed Euclid and the Ptolemaic solar system; the Arabs had left behind the decimal notation, the beginnings of algebra, the modern numerals, and alchemy; the Christian Middle Ages nothing at all.”

The church dogma on what we would call astronomy was what Ptolemy wrote in the second century AD. In his system, the Earth formed the center of motion, around which the Sun and planets rotated. The stars were fixed on a celestial sphere further out from the Sun and planets. What was on Earth was corrupt; what was in Heaven was perfect.

What passed for medicine also came from the Greeks, in particular, Hippocrates, in the 5th century BC. Human health was determined by the interplay of the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile). Ill health meant an imbalance of the humors, which could require purging or bloodletting. These and other often fatal remedies continued to be used in the 18th and 19th centuries: George Washington himself died most likely as a result of bloodletting by his doctors when he fell ill in 1799.

In the 1500s, things started to crack for the feudal order and especially for the church. The Protestant Reformation is normally tagged to 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg. This doctrinal split would lead to no small amount of bloodletting not intended for medical purposes—for example, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Rather more unnerving to the feudal structure was the Peasant War in Germany, beginning about 1525. The same Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet on this occasion titled “Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants.”

Galileo was born in 1564 to a noble—but not rich—family. Like many children before and after, he was taken to church by his parents, and evidently the sermons were as boring then as now. Unlike other kids, he made some good use of the time. He observed the great chandelier in the church, which would swing when disturbed by a breeze. He timed the swings using his pulse and found that the period was independent of the amplitude of the oscillation. That’s now Physics 101, and laid the basis for the first accurate clocks based on pendulums.

Galileo was above all a keen observer and experimentalist. When he heard that spectacle lenses were being used in Holland to view distant objects, he immediately constructed a crude telescope. Spurred by the results, he worked out his own procedures for grinding lenses to the exquisite tolerances needed for higher magnification, and produced a relatively small 20X to 30X telescope. He viewed the Moon, and saw not a perfect luminous disk but a place with geologic features just like the Earth—mountains, valleys, plains. When he looked at Jupiter, he saw little stars nearby seeming to move across the planetary disk. He immediately realized these were moons. Subsequently he observed Venus and saw it go through phases like the Earth’s moon.

These observations shattered the Ptolemaic model of an Earth-centered system and convinced Galileo that Copernicus’ idea that the Sun was the center of motion was in fact correct. For publishing this belief, Galileo was tried by the church in 1633 and, not surprisingly, convicted of heresy. Threatened with torture by the Inquisition, he recanted and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. From there he wrote his Mathematical Discourses Concerning Two New Sciences and had it smuggled out of reach of the Vatican to Holland, where it was published in 1638. His observations on the motions of falling bodies anticipated Isaac Newton’s synthesis 48 years later.

Why did Galileo recant? One answer is that he was scared by what happened to Giordano Bruno, the itinerant ex-priest who supported Copernicus’ idea about the Sun at the center, and much else. He was accused of heresy, imprisoned and tortured for seven years during his trial and finally burned at the stake in 1600. And the man who had ordered Galileo to abandon Copernican ideas in 1616 was the same Cardinal Bellarmine who sent Bruno to the stake. From what I have read, it is unfair to say that Galileo was a coward. First, Galileo’s book, giving very thinly veiled support to Copernicus’ theory, had been published in 1632 and already had circulated throughout Europe. Second, he had no substantial religious differences with the church on matters of theology, so a refusal to recant would mean torture and death for no real purpose.

Giordano Bruno was another matter, and it is very doubtful whether his recantation would have saved his life—he actually offered to partially recant in an appeal to the Pope. Just to give you an idea, here are a few of the things with which he was charged: 1) erroneous opinions on the Trinity and the divinity of Christ; 2) belief in the reincarnation of souls in new bodies, human or animal; and (the kicker) 3) denial of the virginity of Mary. There are not a few Christians who would roast poor Bruno today for that! You can imagine how well it went down with the Pope in 1600.

Science and the Industrial Revolution

Following Galileo, Newton produced his three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. Along with Gottfried Leibniz, he also invented differential calculus—the mathematics needed to solve the problems of moving bodies with forces such as gravity acting upon them. In biology, Carl Linnaeus introduced the systematic classification of animals and plants, based on form and structure. And in 1785, the Scot James Hutton laid the basis for modern geology and showed that the Earth had to be much, much older than the 6,000 years deduced by Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656) from a study of the biblical sources.

The middle to late 1700s was a period of tremendous advances in science and technology, driven by (and pushing forward) the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Science was held in high esteem by the rising entrepreneurs, and in the growing manufacturing city of Birmingham there arose an informal grouping called the Lunar Society, which coalesced around 1765 and lasted about 30 years.

The name came from their routine of evening dinner meetings on the Monday closest to the full moon, a practical idea since many had a trip of several miles on horseback to their homes, and there were no streetlights. That would change—one of the Lunatics (as the Society members jocularly called themselves) was William Murdoch, who was developing the production of gas from coal to use for illumination. Other notable members included James Watt, inventor of the condensing steam engine (which made steam power practical and efficient enough for its later use in locomotives); Joseph Priestley, the preacher and chemist credited with the discovery of oxygen; Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and an evolutionist; and Josiah Wedgewood, chemist and mineralogist who made a fortune by making fine ceramics and pottery. Benjamin Franklin was a corresponding member—he was celebrated throughout Europe as an eminent scientist for his work on electricity.

Politically the Lunatics were pretty progressive for their day. Many had favored the colonists during the American War of Independence and also supported the revolutionaries in France. In fact, on 14 July 1791 they were having a dinner in Birmingham to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille when the inn was threatened by a mob howling “Church and King!” The mob’s main target was Joseph Priestley, whose support for the National Assembly won him an offer of French citizenship. Priestley’s house was set on fire by the mob, but fortunately he and his family escaped. They later emigrated to the U.S.

It is literally inconceivable to envisage something like the Lunar Society today. An approximation would be for the heads of U.S. Steel and General Motors to have joined with the leading professors of MIT and Harvard to sign a petition supporting Fidel Castro in his struggle against the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1958!

The Lunatics mirrored capitalism in its youth, breaking down the barriers of feudalism as part of the practical struggle of the marketplace. Capitalism did bring a large increase in the productivity of labor and a corresponding vast increase in the amount of goods produced. Some of this trickled down even to the working class, whose labor created the surplus value pocketed by the capitalist as profit. However, exploitation of the most brutal fashion remained the lot of the masses, and the next economic dislocation causing a reduction or cessation of industrial production would (and did) throw the workers on to the street with no means of support. The scientific unraveling of the basis of capitalist production and profit was presented in detail by Karl Marx in his work Capital in 1867. But the core of Marxism—dialectical materialism—had been enunciated 20 years earlier in the Communist Manifesto.

The Science of Marxism

In his 1883 preface to the Communist Manifesto, Engels wrote:

“The basic thought running through the Manifesto—that economic production and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising therefrom constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently (ever since the dissolution of the primeval communal ownership of land) all history has been a history of class struggles, struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social development; that this struggle, however, has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie), without at the same time forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression and class struggles—the basic thought belongs solely and exclusively to Marx.”

For the first time, the study of human society and its development had been given a firm scientific and materialist foundation. It is not surprising that Marx and Engels immediately appreciated the significance of Darwin’s Origin of Species, first published in 1859. The astounding variety of animals and plants in their myriad shapes and forms were not static sculptures made by a divine Creator, but had evolved from a common ancestor and differentiated over the expanse of geologic time. As Engels said in his 1883 speech at Marx’s grave:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”

The philosophical scaffold of Marxism is called dialectical materialism. Materialism, meaning that the world exists in reality; it was not created within the realm of the human mind. Dialectical in the fact that the essence of our world (indeed our universe) is matter in motion. All things exist not in stasis but in a process of development. An analogy is the difference between a still photograph and a motion picture. We know this almost by instinct when we look at plants and animals—consider the bud of a cherry tree, from emerging green speck in spring to flower to tasty fruit. But from birth in a class-divided society, we are made to accept the idea that the social structures and norms of human relations are essentially static—there are rulers and ruled, usually with God blessing the whole arrangement.

The genius of Marx was to apply the dialectical materialist method to the study of society and economy. In a 1914 piece titled “Karl Marx,” V.I. Lenin quotes Engels, adding his own interpolations:

“‘Nature is the proof of dialectics, and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich [this was written before the discovery of radium, electrons, the transmutation of elements, etc.!] and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis Nature’s process is dialectical and not metaphysical.

“‘The great basic thought,’ Engels writes, ‘that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away…this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that in this generality it is now scarcely ever contradicted. But to acknowledge this fundamental thought in words and to apply it in reality in detail to each domain of investigation are two different things…. For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendency from the lower to the higher. And dialectical philosophy itself is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain.’ Thus, according to Marx, dialectics is ‘the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought’.”

The Dialectic of Science

Scientists seek to be as objective as possible, to eliminate systematic errors and to require that facts be established by experiments which can be repeated by others to confirm the results. Theories are built upon testable hypotheses, which lead to more experiments and further refinements of existing theory or creation of a new and better one. Science has its own dialectic—it is not static, but ever-changing. It is also materialist. Nature and her workings are to be explained using natural causes. Things happen for physical reasons, not the whim of a Zeus, Yahweh, tree spirit or water nymph. On one side science, on the other superstition, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Any human activity such as science is subject to error, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. The human brain is very good at finding patterns. This was selected for by evolution. Our ancestors did not have the luxury of extended observation time to determine whether that shadowy figure in the grass was a grazing gazelle or a Smilodon with 7-inch fangs. But that pattern-seeking neural circuitry can also fool us. When I look at the sky I don’t immediately see bulls and crabs and hunters with studded belts. But given enough boredom, or perhaps eating the right mushrooms, one could certainly explain the constellations seen by Greek shepherds 2,500 years ago.

Another common fallacy is that correlation implies causality, which actually is an offshoot of seeking patterns where none really exist. An amusing example of correlation not being cause comes from an open letter to the Kansas School Board written by Bobby Henderson on behalf of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which was set up as a satirical protest against creationism:

“You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s. For your interest, I have included a graph of the approximate number of pirates versus the average global temperature over the last 200 years. As you can see, there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature.”

Above all, one must remember that scientists are human and work in the midst of a class-divided society. Even a religious physicist can be objective when measuring the distance between the Earth and Moon, but as one approaches social questions and research, ingrained bias emanating from the dominant social mores can sometimes overwhelm the best of objective intentions.

A striking case in point is given by the late Stephen Jay Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man. He recounts the story of American physician Samuel George Morton, who had collected some 600 skulls representing populations on the continents of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Morton measured the cranial volume of the skulls (a good measure of the brain size of the person when alive) and published his results, including the original data. Just as Morton would have expected, Anglo-Saxons had the highest average (92 cubic inches), followed by Asians in the middle and blacks on the bottom (83 cu in). When Gould re-analyzed Morton’s data he found biases built into the specimens used for each racial group. For example, the aboriginal sample was heavily represented by skulls from Peruvian people who are short. Similarly, the black sample included proportionally more women than the Caucasian. Smaller bodies means smaller brain mass—it has nothing to do with intelligence, and should have been corrected (but wasn’t). As Gould noted, this was done “without conscious motivation; expectation is a powerful guide to action.”

In medicine today, researchers use the double-blind randomized clinical trial to eliminate such subjective biases from influencing the results. Double-blind means that both the study subjects and those providing the treatment do not know whether any particular patient is receiving the actual medicine or a sham control. Blinding the patients by randomization helps correct for the placebo effect—people want to be cured or get some relief from illness or pain and will respond just to the soothing voice of a caregiver or to a sugar pill (especially if brightly colored!). Blinding the caregiver prevents unconscious cues being given to the patient that would allow the latter to guess that they are receiving real treatment rather than the control.

Medical Quackery

It is true that what is now called science-based medicine is rather a recent innovation. Voltaire is credited with the aphorism, “Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of which they know nothing.” In 1891, the writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes acidly noted that if most of the drugs then in use were loaded on a ship and if it “could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.”

Times do change, and procedures such as MRI or CT scans which are routine today would have seemed like science fiction a generation or two ago. As advances have been made in physics and chemistry, and especially molecular biology, they have dramatically affected the practice of medicine. Yet the popularity of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) is great and rising. Many people can’t afford regular medical care, and patients will grasp at anything that promises a cure. I.e., CAM is a social problem.

What is alternative medicine? There are lots of definitions, but at bottom it is the same division that separates science from non-science. Real medicine is based on substances or procedures whose efficacy can be explained by purely natural causes. All the rest depends on something non-physical, be it divine intervention (prayer healing) or the invocation of some mysterious “energy” or “life force” outside the laws of physics. Medicine is real and the rest is faith-based, not unlike religion, though at times without the guy in the sky.

Buzzwords like “energy” and “life force,” which are at the heart of all alternative medicine nostrums, are really nothing but a cover for the idea of “vitalism”—i.e., that there is something unique about living systems. This was scientific mainstream until the 1820s when German chemist Friedrich Wöhler accidentally synthesized urea from inorganic compounds. This was the first time a molecule previously only obtained from living organisms had been created in the laboratory, and it marked the birth of organic chemistry. Actually the division of chemistry into organic and inorganic is itself a vestige of the vitalist era. The laws governing chemical reactions are the same.

Edzard Ernst, an MD and also practitioner of CAM, and Simon Singh, a British science journalist, have written a useful book, Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine. If anything the authors bend over backwards to give CAM the widest latitude to show proof of some shred of benefit beyond the placebo effect. And what is the conclusion? Acupuncture and homeopathy: useless; chiropractic: maybe you could try it but only for lower back pain, though a physical therapist would be just as good, and cheaper; herbal medicines: a few have a mildly positive effect, but in most cases conventional drugs work as well or better.

So why is CAM still around? Here are 33.9 billion reasons: that is the number of dollars Americans spent out-of-pocket on alternative medicines in 2007, according to the National Institute of Health’s alternative medicine center. This does not even include charges to insurance. Out of that, about $15 billion went for supplements—that’s about one third of the out-of-pocket expenses for real prescription drugs. One possible reason is the odd belief that nature is this kind, gentle, holistic entity that has only your best interests at heart. This shows a profound ignorance of the natural world. I would suggest that those so believing pick up a good book on human parasitology, preferably with good color pictures!

Chiropractic Pseudoscience

I’ll pick on chiropractic. These guys not only fleece you but can cause great damage in the process. Chiropractic started in the 1890s when one Daniel David Palmer came up with the idea that diseases were caused by misalignments of the vertebrae that interfered with the flow of “innate intelligence” from the nervous system to the organs. These disruptions were called subluxations. Was this on the basis of systematic investigations of any kind? No. Palmer’s epiphany came one day when he claimed to have cured a person with hearing problems by adjusting his spine. One slight problem is that the cranial nerves controlling hearing and balance go directly from the lower brain to the middle ear—they do not emanate from the spinal cord at all. As for the “innate intelligence,” not a shred of physical proof has ever been given for its existence.

Chiropractors perform what they call manipulation to cure the subluxations in the vertebral column. This is a rapid acceleration thrust on the bone which moves it just past the point where muscles could conceivably move it on their own, but short of bone and tissue damage. Well, that’s the theory. For my book, it sounds more like what happens to your spine in an automobile accident. When applied to the cervical vertebrae—the seven vertebrae of the spinal column in your neck—the results can be vertebral arterial dissection. This can obstruct blood flow to the brain or throw a clot that leads to a stroke.

Chiropractors, like all purveyors of “alternative medicine,” like to portray themselves as little Davids struggling against the Goliaths of Big Pharma and the American Medical Association. But chiropractors pull in almost $4 billion a year—it’s a business, just like Big Pharma. Chiropractor Web sites are full of handy tips on “practice building”—roping in more patients, preferably for weekly or biweekly office visits. Even if you are well, they want you to get an adjustment—like a tune-up, I guess. Even cars only need an oil change every 6,000 miles, not every week!

Religious Obscurantism

Now we come to the granddaddy of all quackery: religion. I’m going to concentrate on the Christian fundamentalists, in particular the very political anti-science, anti-evolution movement now masquerading as Intelligent Design (ID). All three of the so-called Abrahamic faiths share a common creation myth. God created everything, and all the animals and plants have come from that creation pretty much unchanged. Some of the anti-evolution types allow for a bit of change within a species, but no speciation. So, it was no surprise that Darwin’s book was met with such hostility by the believers of theism: God was removed as the causative agent for the wonderful variety of living things, and man was an animal like the rest and descended from primate ancestors. And what the yahoos couldn’t stomach at all was Darwin’s speculation—now backed by overwhelming evidence—that the human ancestor had come out of Africa.

Intelligent Design is a relatively recent sprout on the Christian bush. Actually, it is an example of rapid speciation into a new environment. Prior to 1987, the creationists were touting “creation science” and demanding that it be taught in the public schools alongside evolution. That got shot down by a series of court decisions, starting with an Arkansas case in 1982, and then in the Supreme Court in 1987. So rather quickly—no evolution here!—“creation science” transformed itself into “intelligent design.”

Intelligent Design pretends that it is scientific, but its basic premises are very wrong and it is important to see why. Premise one is “irreducible complexity”—there exist things in nature like the eye, or with a nod to nanotech, cellular assemblages such as the bacterial flagellar motor. According to ID, such things have to be taken as a whole, with every part essential to function—remove one piece and it is non-functional. Supposedly there is no step-by-step way of building these structures, i.e., no Darwinian method. Since they are so complex, they couldn’t have come about by chance and therefore had to have been created by a Designer. They’re careful not to say God, but it’s pretty clear they are not referring to the Tooth Fairy.

In the Origin of Species, Darwin anticipated such problems, including the example of the vertebrate eye, and the creationists love to quote his sentence: “To suppose that the eye…could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.” But they never mention his answer in the very next sentence of the passage: “If any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.” Think about it: would you rather have blurred vision, or be totally blind? Even an imperfect eye gives an organism a selective advantage compared with no sight at all.

The second premise is the Anthropic Principle. There is such vastness to the universe. There is the beautiful, intricate motion of the planets around the Sun, moons around the planets, of the stars and the galaxies—they now agree with Copernicus and Galileo—and here is Earth, just right for living things to exist on. If the Earth were closer to the Sun it would be too hot—look at Venus. Further away and it would be too cold. It looks like the whole universe was created or fine-tuned with human life in mind, so to speak. Hence, there must have been a Creator. Sir John Polkinghorne, a respected British physicist and also a Christian minister, stated: “The fundamental parameters of the universe are such as to permit the creation of observers within it.”

Sounds profound, right? But physicist Robert L. Park translated Polkinghorne into something less pretentious, more along the lines of what Yogi Berra might have said: “If things were different, things would not be the way things are.” There is another amusing argument put forward by the late author Douglas Adams, who, among other things, wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and was a script editor for the famous British series Doctor Who in 1979. He compared the Anthropic Principle to a “puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’”

Of course the whole geological record shows that the Earth is much older than 6,000 years, and that thousands of species have come and gone over the ages. Creationists used to wail on about the lack of transitional forms for whales—how could a terrestrial mammal smoothly evolve into one now at home only in the oceans? Well, in the last 15 or so years, a whole string of fossils have been discovered showing in beautiful detail all those “missing forms.” In any case, the creationists aren’t about to let facts get in the way. Henry Morris, founder of the modern creationist movement, stated: “No geological difficulties, real or imagined, can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and necessary inferences of Scripture.”

While the creationists may seem fringe oddballs (comedian Lewis Black described them as the people who are “watching The Flintstones as if it were a documentary”), they are very political and they have supporters with deep pockets. In 1998, the Discovery Institute, a major think tank for creationism/ID, produced an internal memo called the “Wedge Document.” It was called that because they considered their attack on Darwin and evolution as the “thin edge of the wedge” for their broader “Governing Goals”: “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.”

Science and Communist Liberation

Human evolution happened in such a way that no hominid ancestor survived; it could have been otherwise but wasn’t. All humans are genetically members of the same species and there is no biological basis for the separation into races. It should be noted that Darwin was a staunch abolitionist, and during the U.S. Civil War hoped that the North would put emancipation on its banner and eliminate slavery no matter the cost in blood. As we wrote in “Hail Charles Darwin!” (WV No. 854, 16 September 2005):

“America’s other peculiarity among advanced capitalist countries is its deeply religious character. Nowhere else—not even in Italy where the Vatican still heavily influences civil society—is there such refractory religiosity and visceral hostility to the long-established facts of Darwinian natural selection as the motor force of evolution. Why? The absence of even a mass reformist workers party that expresses in even a blurry way that working people have needs and interests counterposed to those of their exploiters is a large part of the explanation for political backwardness in the U.S. But like everything else in this country, it also boils down to the central intersection of race and class. Religion in the U.S. supplies an ideology that can seemingly harmonize conflicting class interests while keeping this society with two races firmly ordered: capital above labor and white above black.”

Liberals worry about the denigration of science and rationalism—how is the country to maintain a competitive position in the world if the next generation knows more about the Book of Numbers than about algebra? Marxists are materialists and take it as a given that science and religion are incompatible.

Here we come to the fundamental difference between Marxists and liberals. At bottom, liberals accept the existence of the capitalist order and their most radical demand is for reforms. Their high point was the French Revolution—liberty, fraternity, equality. All abstract ideals, behind which lurk the sanctity of private property and the class rule of the bourgeoisie. Liberals, it is true, will recognize the class struggle, but what they reject is that the proletariat should actually seize state power from the bourgeoisie.

The “liberty” so beloved by a capitalist is his liberty to make a profit, which necessarily comes through the exploitation of the workers he employs. Such exploitation is built into the capitalist system, a system that is at bottom irrational. Economic competition inevitably leads to military competition, and imperialist war. Imperialism can’t be reformed—the whole system of private property has to be overthrown. The goal of the Marxists is the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which on a global scale can lay the basis for a classless communist society.

Science can open up as yet undreamt possibilities for humanity. But under capitalism today, vast resources devoted to research are for military purposes. The American ruling class was the first to own and so far the only one to use nuclear weapons, and the warheads in the U.S. arsenal are now each 20 or more times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Even a “limited” nuclear war could have catastrophic consequences, beyond the initial effects of the explosions. Climactic changes could wreak havoc on key agricultural areas, putting the survival of the human species at risk.

The imperialists have to be removed from power and disarmed by the workers before the rulers kill us all. That will require building a revolutionary workers party, independent of all the parties of capital, including the Democrats. Obama has continued to carry on all the essential policies of the administrations before him. That is actually why the bourgeoisie put him in power. The whole racist, murderous edifice of American imperialism has to be smashed by the multiracial working class, organized into democratically elected councils and led by its Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party.

As this talk has been in defense of Marxism and science, it is worth noting Marx’s words at the end of the preface to the first German edition of Capital: “The present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing.” This dialectical mode of thought inspired Lenin, Trotsky and the whole Bolshevik Party that made the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. It remained a cornerstone of Trotsky’s thinking until the day he died.

In The Prophet Unarmed (1959) Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher cites a revealing sample of Trotsky’s vision of a future society, after capitalism’s demise: “The drudgery of feeding and bringing up children…will be lifted from the individual family by social initiative…. Woman will at last emerge from semi-slavery…. Socio-educational experiments…will evolve with a now inconceivable elan. The communist way of life will not grow up blindly like coral reefs in the sea. It will be built consciously. It will be checked by critical thought. It will be directed and corrected…. No sooner will one crust begin to form itself on the human existence than it will burst under the pressure of new inventions and achievements.”

The men and women of the future will no longer need religion, what Marx described as solace, the “opium of the people.” And the key to unlock human potential will be science, not superstition.

1 comment:

  1. When it comes to theocracies history has a strange sense of humor. The people who push for theocracy in the U.S. today -- heavily overlapping the Islamophobes -- stress the Christian character of their views on "science" while attacking those in the scientific mainstream as "Godless" (or, among the Islamophobes, as providing some backhanded support for a Muslim U.S.A.)

    Several decades ago, L. Sprague DeCamp, the 1950s science fiction editor, did a nice overview on the development of science called "The Ancient Engineers." In it he describes the views on science and religion by two leading theologians, one Christian and one Muslim. Thomas Aquinas argued in considerable length and detail that there was no contradiction between science and religion. al-Ghazzali, however, argued that there was a contradiction between the two and came down hard on the side of religion, attacking science on the grounds that it shook faith in the creator.

    The irony today is that the Islamophobes wrapping themselves in whatever pages of the Bible they have at hand, push the traditional Muslim view on science. The rest of us, including many Marxists recognize that Aquinas's thought captured the progressive side of the Christianity of his day. Even atheists recognize a certain correct logic in Aquinas's writings. That, in turn, once run through and round the psyche of the Christian Right becomes the basis for their fantasies of anti-Christians dominating them and forcing them to embrace notions they oppose for their own religious reasons.

    One thing often missed, it appears that a majority of Christian religions have no significant problem with evolution. I've even heard rumors that these people sometimes have fun baiting the Christian Right as heretics -- reminding them of the burning stake of centuries passed -- for denying God's Omnipotence. Specifically, in denying evolution and using their religious views to rationalize that, they deny God the power to have established Natural Law that functioned in a fashion described by Darwin and others.

    I have not, however, heard any rumors of how the Christian Rightists respond; on the other hand I've not been looking to hard either.