Workers have stake in defending science
(As I See It column)
BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
The campaign to undermine the teaching of science in schools—under the cover of promoting “intelligent design,” a “balanced view” of evolution, or other repackaged versions of creationism—has suffered repeated setbacks. At the same time, working people need to take seriously this reactionary campaign, which is used to defend the capitalist status quo, and answer it wherever and whenever it is raised.
Workers and farmers have a stake in defending a scientific, materialist approach to nature as well as to society. This is necessary to understand the world and be able to fight effectively to change it in the interests of the vast majority.
For decades, forces seeking to push back the teaching of science and promote biblical myths about the origins of life have been waging this reactionary campaign in various forms. This is part of the effort by rightists to foster irrational ideas and obscurantism in order to promote anti-working-class solutions to the sharpening social crisis caused by capitalism. They play on the insecurity and fears of middle-class and other layers, decrying the “decadence” of society and “loss of moral values.” Those who benefit from these ideological campaigns are the wealthy capitalist rulers.
While reactionary forces have been forced to concede many of the advances of science, their target remains the materialist approach. Materialism maintains that nature alone, based on matter in motion, has a self-sufficient existence. Everything in human life is derived from and dependent on the objective world.
The opposite view is idealism, which denies that nature is primary, making it subordinate to mind or spirit.
Religious and other idealistic—that is, antiscientific—notions obfuscate an understanding of the development of human society and the modern class struggle. They are used to try to convince working people that we are the objects, not the subjects, of history; that there must be a “plan,” a supernatural creator, to whose goals we should submit rather than rely on our own actions to take control of our destiny.
First explained by Charles Darwin in the book On the Origin of Species in 1859, the evolution of animals and plants by natural selection has been amply confirmed since then by scientific investigation of the fossil record, anatomy, and genetic evidence.
The battle to advance this scientific understanding of nature has made great strides over the past decades. It’s worth recalling that until the late 1960s, several states still had laws on their books forbidding the teaching of evolution.
But the mass movement for Black rights in the 1950s and ’60s led to important gains for the working class as a whole. Under the impact of those gains, the Supreme Court in 1968 issued a ruling that struck down an Arkansas statute banning the teaching of evolution in the schools.
Placed increasingly on the defensive, rightist forces pitched their case as demanding equal time to present their challenge to the study of evolution. Packaged as “creation science,” they campaigned to include this assault on science in the public schools.
However, these forces suffered a further blow when the Supreme Court in 1987 struck down Louisiana’s “Creation Act,” ruling that teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional.
This led rightists such as those from the Seattle-based Discovery Institute to peddle “intelligent design”—what Leonard Krishtalka, director of the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, aptly called “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” Unable to make much headway, these forces have adjusted their arguments once again. Rather than openly advocate the teaching of “intelligent design,” they are pushing to introduce “questions” about evolution into school syllabuses under the banner of “Teach the controversy.” This issue is being fought out today in the school systems in 20 states.
Forcing creationism into the curriculum makes a mockery of scientific study. As the late Stephen Jay Gould, a leading defender of Darwinian evolution, put it, teaching biology without evolution is “like teaching English but making grammar optional.”
The political limits on how far these right-wing forces can push today is a registration of long-term trends that have strengthened the working class. An article in New International no. 12 titled, “Their Transformation and Ours,” explains that the trend toward the separation of religion and religious institutions from politics and the state “continues to advance hand in hand with the worldwide spread of capitalism and the consequent expansion of the proletariat. The hold of religious beliefs on the political behavior of the toilers also continues to decline. Whatever the religious affiliations of hundreds of millions of toilers worldwide, it is not religious bigotry but the proletarian habits of mutual trust, tolerance, and class solidarity that working people learn in the course of common struggles.”
It’s working people, not the representatives of capitalism, who are the bearers of culture and science in the march forward of humanity.