Bruce Robinson reviews A Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, Monthly Review Press.
150 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, religious opponents of the theory of evolution are attempting to gather forces around the idea of “Intelligent Design”, the very old idea that nature and humanity are the products of some form of divine creation and purpose.
Claiming that Darwinism is just one (incorrect) theory among many, its proponents are fighting battles in the US and to a lesser extent in Britain to get Intelligent Design taught alongside evolution in schools as a theory of equal scientific worth.
Foster, Clark and York, as Marxist theorists of nature, aim to combat religious ideas by “creating through social means a [broad] materialism-humanism” that overcomes the alienation from nature and society that is at the root of their appeal. In this book they seek to expose the broader aims of the Intelligent Design theorists, place them in the context of a 2,000 year long war between materialism and creationism, and refute their ideas by means of a view of nature that casts materialism in the framework of dialectical thinking.
They begin by examining the nature of the ID project, which follows what its proponents call a “wedge strategy” in which their ideas on science and evolution are the thin edge of a wedge that goes ever broader in combating materialism and secularism in politics, morality and all fields of thought in order to bring about the hegemony of Christian ideas. No compromise which advocates two non-overlapping spheres of science and religion (as advocated by Steven Jay Gould and moderate religious evolutionists) is acceptable to them as they recognise that once science is allowed to define its own sway, god can only be reduced to an ever smaller role.
Thus Foster, Clark and York write that “the intelligent design movement can be described as more theological than scientific, more political than theological.”
The book then traces the conflict between materialism and creationism back to Ancient Greece and the philosopher Epicurus, whom Marx described as the “greatest representative of Greek enlightenment”, “the atheist philosopher par excellence”, who banished the gods from influence over the material world, instead emphasising the role of contingency and freedom from pre-ordained purpose.
Epicurus’ ideas resurface in debates about the presence of divine design in science during the Enlightenment and also influenced Marx, who wrote his doctoral thesis on him. Foster, Clark and York then examine the anti-religious and scientific ideas of the three thinkers, who, alongside Epicurus, are the demons of the “wedge” theorists: Marx, Darwin and Freud. The atheism of Marx and Darwin’s gradual disillusionment with religion both resulted in practical attempts to free humanity from the need for it — for Darwin through science and for Marx through revolutionary politics. While much of this historical material in the book will be familiar to readers of Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology”, it is here recontextualised to confront the arguments made for Intelligent Design.
The closing chapters take on the scientific views of ID advocates, particularly the idea that natural selection cannot explain the great complexity of physical attributes such as the human eye nor the relatively rapid emergence of certain species.
Drawing particularly on Gould’s work and dialectical concepts of contingency and emergence, they both demonstrate the mechanics of how these things are possible within an evolutionary framework and show that “evolution clearly has no direction or purpose” so that “humans were not somehow meant to exist [and] that “evolution does not ‘progress’”. They expose the slipperiness of the ID arguments where god is switched on or off as an explanation for particular natural phenomena, depending on whether they are considered to be good or evil!
The Critique is a valuable reminder that Marxism requires science to fight religious reaction and that we cannot allow our social critique of the role of science to obscure its value in understanding nature — one key to combating the theories of the creationists. At the same time Marxism also has a distinctive contribution to make to that centuries old fight in terms of an uncompromising atheism, a philosophical standpoint that enables a better conceptualisation of scientific data and an ability to draw together the threads that connect nature and society.
By showing this and providing ammunition against one current (if long-standing) expression of regressive religious ideas, Foster, Clark and York have performed a valuable service, both theoretically and in pointing to the immediate danger posed by Intelligent Design advocates.