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Review: Critique of Intelligent Design

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
29
Year: 
2009
Issue: 
4
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
32–33
Reviewer: 
Arthur McCalla
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present
Author(s): 
John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008. 240 pages.

The great merit of this book is its authors' recognition of historical contingency as key to the battle over "intelligent design". They argue that every natural and social science originated in a materialist (in the sense of naturalist) critique of some version of "intelligent design" and its accompanying teleological explanation. Proponents of "intelligent design" throughout the ages, in turn, have attacked materialism for its rejection of design and teleology, resulting in a 2500-year dialectic between scientific materialists and their theological and philosophical opponents. The authors further note that whereas the history of this conflict is well known to present-day creationists (the young-earth creationist Henry Morris referred to it as "the long war against God" and it receives prominent exposure in the Wedge document of the "intelligent design" proponents affiliated with the Discovery Institute), it is little known among defenders of science. The authors' intent in writing this book is to add to the armory of opponents of creationism by reconstructing this "long critique of design, which was so integral to the development of science in all its forms" (p 28).

After introductory chapters setting out the purpose and scope of the book and reviewing the Wedge strategy (chapters 1–2), the authors get down to their twofold main work. First, they present a series of chapters depicting how specific natural and human sciences could be brought into existence only by means of their founders' rejection of "intelligent design" (chapters 3–7); next, they reflect on the nature of historical materialism and its relevance to human well-being in light of the present-day controversy over "intelligent design" (chapters 8–10).

The authors begin their first task by noting both that creationist views predate Christianity and that the argument from design was itself developed as a reaction against the materialist theories of ancient Greek atomists. Their chapter on the ancient Greeks quickly focuses on Epicurus — the archenemy of creationists through the ages and therefore the hero of the authors' counterhistory. Ancient Epicurean materialism was a philosophy of both nature and society. Its atomist universe evolves, driven by contingent occurrences (the famous Epicurean swerve), into greater complexity, while human society, freed by philosophy from fear of divine caprice or fatalist submission to mechanistic determinism, develops in the direction of greater freedom and happiness. Epicurus thus becomes the figure of the liberator of humanity from superstition and establishes the authors' fundamental contention that the struggle against "intelligent design" is a struggle not only for scientific truth but also for human freedom.

The following chapters identify the revival of Epicureanism as a major influence on key thinkers of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, and then discuss more fully Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Of Darwin, little need be said here, except that the authors usefully remind us that it was Darwin himself who gave us the term "intelligent design" in its modern sense as the position which his theory of evolution by natural selection was intended to overthrow. Marx is the intellectual center of the book — the authors write from an enlightened Marxist perspective — and the chapter devoted to him presents Marx as the principal nineteenth-century scholar of Epicurus and interprets his accomplishment as a parallel attempt to dismantle both religious teleology and mechanistic determinism in order to construct a materialist philosophy of both nature and society that would free humanity from irrationalism and injustice. The very existence of a chapter on Freud is interesting, given the often bitter rivalry between Marxists and Freudians in the twentieth century. And indeed it is not at all certain that the authors regard psychoanalysis as a science; one suspects that Freud receives a chapter only because he is prominently attacked by creationists. In any case, in culminating with Freud's philosophical assessment of religion as an illusion that conflicts with science, the chapter underlines the common theme of materialist thinkers from Epicurus onwards: science liberates humanity from bondage to the unreason of religion.

In what I have designated as the second part of the book, the authors distinguish contingency from randomness and celebrate it as the substrate of human freedom. Proponents of "intelligent design" pursue an either/or strategy, according to which we must choose between understanding the world to be the result of blind chance or of a superior Intelligence; and since the complexity of the world rules out the former, the latter is left as the more reasonable explanation. The authors expose the hollowness of this strategy by explaining carefully that what it (deliberately) omits is the understanding of the world that is in fact that of modern science: the world is the product of contingency operating along historically and structurally conditioned pathways; as such, natural and social history is governed by natural forces independent of either design and purpose or mechanistic determinism. The authors' demonstration draws heavily on the work of Stephen Jay Gould and his various collaborators (and one detects below the surface of the text the authors' engagement in side-debates within modern evolutionary biology concerning the tempo of evolution and the relation between formalism and structuralism in biology).

"Intelligent design" is, of course, the thin end of a wedge, the thick end of which is the reactionary social, cultural, and political program of the Christian right. Here again, the arguments of its proponents turn on an either/or choice: either the universe is designed by a supernatural Intelligence or there can be no meaning or morality to human life. Once more, the authors explain how the historical materialist notion of contingency provides a way out of this suffocating dualism. History is open-ended in the sense that human actions are one of the forces that will shape it. Humans have the freedom to participate in the construction of meaning.

Readers may wonder if this book is the thin end of a Marxist wedge. While the authors are committed to historical materialism as a revolutionary project for humanity, and while they assert that the conflict between religion and science is insurmountable within the present social order, their commitment is to a historical materialism stripped of the determinism of vulgar Marxism and in which Darwin is as important as Marx. My only significant reservation regarding this useful and thoughtful book is that historiographically it is insufficiently radical. The authors themselves cite the Hegelian dictum that "contraries belong to the same genus" underlying Marx's contention that atheism is simply the inversion of theology and therefore not a radical break with a religious way of thinking (p 97, quoting Thomas Dean's Post-Theistic Thinking: The Marxist-Christian Dialogue in Radical Perspective). In simply inverting the creationists' "long war against God", the authors endorse their either/or way of thinking. The role of religion in the history of science, we may suspect, is more complex and ironic than either side suspects.

About the Author(s): 

Arthur McCalla
Department of Philosophy/Religious Studies
Mount Saint Vincent University
166 Bedford Highway
Halifax NS B3M 2J6 Canada
arthur.mccalla@msvu.ca

Arthur McCalla is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy/Religious Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, and the author of The Creationist Debate: The Encounter between the Bible and the Historical Mind (London: T&T Clark International, 2006).