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The Byrne Report

Monkey Biz


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IT IS DOWNRIGHT SCARY 146 years after Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, religious folks continue to believe that the science of evolutionary biology is false. In a New York Times op-ed piece last week, a Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop declared that Darwin's theory of natural selection is not true. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn said that both quantum mechanics and Darwinism are vain attempts to explain away what he calls the "overwhelming evidence" of intelligent design, or creationism.

In May, I wrote critically about John Taylor Gatto, the anti-Darwin author whose critique of American education inspires home-schoolers across the political-religious spectrum. The theocratically inclined Gatto responded with a letter to the editor (July 6), and a personal missive to me in which he claimed that Darwinism is not "science at all" but "speculative fiction."

Gatto and Schonborn are not alone. Entire school districts are teaching creationism on a par with natural selection. Coupled with the Bush administration's cynical coddling of Christian fundamentalism, an assault upon science and education is sweeping the land.

And it is not aimed only at conservatives. For example, Gatto said that as a person of Irish descent, I should be incensed at Darwin because he unfavorably compared the "careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman [who] multiplies like rabbits" to the "sagacious and disciplined" Scot. Many critics of Darwin want to score points with liberals because the wealthy, upper-class Darwin believed the darker, poorer human races to be intellectually and morally inferior to the pale rich. Darwin, they say, was the first social Darwinist, and his scientific method is therefore wrong.

The matter is not that simple. In his youth, Darwin was politically radical, a committed abolitionist who believed humans are descended from apes and slime. In 1859, he published Origin of Species. Buttressed by massive amounts of field work, Darwin showed that small variations in the adaptive capacity of individual plants and animals have remarkable consequences for groups over thousands of generations. His theory of natural selection explicates the evolution of the eye, for instance, showing how this universal organ gradually emerged from complex interactions between beings and environment. Darwin's scientific coup zapped the need for a creator or, in modern parlance, an "intelligent designer."

Darwin left humans out of Origin, saving the acknowledgement of our simian relatives for The Descent of Man, published in 1871. In Descent, he demolished the popular theory that the blacks were not just a race, but a "lower" species than whites. In Descent, Darwin showed that all humans are descended from a common ancestor: the apes.

He then tried to explain the economic disparities between "savage" races and aristocratic Brits like himself. Without the benefit of genetic modeling techniques, he applied natural selection to society. He erroneously concluded that superior races evolve mentally and spiritually through "sexual selection." Using contaminated data about black physiognomy and culture drawn from the British colonies, he concocted a theory of sexual preference that conformed to his own class and racial prejudices.

Fortunately, Darwin's theories, like life itself, have evolved since his day. It is abundantly clear that race, like gender, is a social construct, not a biological imperative. It has been shown that poverty and war are caused by economic exploitation and political oppression, not by inherited traits or the moral degeneracy of the starving billions. Building on Darwin's insight that the history of a species emerges as a "self-organizing" phenomena from a series of random interactions, we now see that entire ecological niches compete to replicate themselves. An abundance of fossil and geologic records--coupled with the ability to trace migration patterns and species branching through DNA sampling--has more than proved that life forms thrive through differentiation and extinction.

The basic tenets of natural selection were popularized among the masses during the 19th century. Workers, political reformers, scientists, academics and many religious leaders saw in Darwin's theories the hope that humans would ascend from the muck of slavery and the mire of capitalist brutality. Unable to dispute Darwin's basic logic, much of the religious establishment co-opted Darwinism, claiming that God designed evolution as a way to perfect certain types of humans. Over the last century, various social Darwinists, including the neoconservatives surrounding George W. Bush, have bastardized the concept of "survival of the fittest" (which applies to species, not to individuals or races) to justify war, theft and sexism.

Impelled by theocratic philosophies, Bush, Gatto and the Vatican are each working to privatize the ailing system of public schooling. Each promotes an educational model that replicates their own kind to the exclusion of others. Sound familiar?

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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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