Sunday, April 09, 2006


Evolution Debate as Red Herring?

My take on the creation science debate being a red herring is actually not entirely original. I’ve long considered the creation vs. evolution debate it to be a solved legal problem that requires maintenance, sort of like weeding a garden after you’ve done all the work planning, and planting, and pruning. What do you do when you have weeds? You pull them, of course.

However, once you start pulling up these particular weeds in the garden you realize that the weed is actually not the problem.

Being from a state with quite the history of dealing with the controversy (Arkansas) is both an advantage and a disadvantage here.

It’s a disadvantage because it can polarize to the point of paralysis and the extremists get most of the press. The debate monopolizes your attention to the point that you think the debate is the issue. Constantly being made fun of by people from other states or regions gets old fast. You can start to fall for the inferiority complex. You begin to self-flagellate. You go on crusades. You get taken advantage of, which is what this essay ends up being about.

It’s an advantage because of the opportunity, if you made the effort, of being able to observe something truly devious, elegant, and deceptively complex in practice. And you also get to practice debating. A lot.

I’m going to start with a political assertion from Thomas Frank (“What’s the Matter with Kansas”). This expands the creation science debate by quite a bit. Instead of it being simply a conflict of ideology (“defend science against those in-denial bible-thumpers!” or “defend our faith from the heresy of the dogma of atheism!”), the debate can be explained as a conflict that exploits the emotions of both sides for tremendous political capital, which is then spent in an entirely different direction. Frank identifies three issues that are most likely to be used in this manner. Abortion, Homosexuality, and Evolution. I’d add Flag Burning and English as the Official Language as supporting case members.

The recipe for Applied Republicanism that follows is from the point of view that capitalism is the most important activity that government can support, and that capitalism solves all problems. Capitalism and free markets are more efficient for solving social problems than government. Government is the problem, not the solution, unless you are rich, and then it is the solution.

People that aren’t participating in capitalism are not generally good consumers. People that aren’t good consumers are not patriotic because they are not supporting capitalism. People that are not patriotic are dangerous. Dangerous people must be neutralized.

This is the dominant view of the Republican Party in America. There are exceptions and modifications to this general attitude, e.g. moderate Republicans that understand regulation of industry is of huge social value. However, a tenet of the Republican faith is the primacy of capitalism. Capitalism made the country great. Opposing capitalism, in whole or in part, means you oppose Republicans. Or worse, you’re defined as opposing Freedom.

“In the book Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman presents his view of the proper role of competitive capitalism - the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market - as both a device for achieving economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom.” -from the Book jacket.

The equation of free markets to democracy and national security is clear, even from the most deliberately inoffensive, blandest of the bland document in politics. The Party Platform.

2004 Republican Party Platform excerpts:

“Republicans applaud President Bush for launching groundbreaking efforts to address the needs and hopes of the world’s poor, cutting across traditional boundaries to focus on what works. We agree with President Bush that the United States must use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe – by actively working to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.”

“Republicans know that a strong world economy enhances our national security by advancing prosperity and freedom in the rest of the world. Economic growth supported by free trade and free markets creates new jobs and higher incomes. It allows people to lift their lives out of poverty, spurs economic and legal reform, enhances the fight against corruption, and reinforces the habits of liberty.”

“Republicans support efforts by the President, Vice President, and Republican Congress to ensure that America takes the side of reformers who are committed to democratic change. We support doubling the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy and focusing its new work on bringing free elections, free markets, free speech, and free labor unions to the Middle East. We support the President’s expansion of America’s public diplomacy efforts, including the use of radio and television to broadcast uncensored information and a message of tolerance in Arabic and Persian to tens of millions of people.”

See also “The Anti-Capitalism Virus” for a particularly strong screed.

Is freedom necessarily dependent on free markets? Perhaps, in certain cases, it can be a powerful tool for enabling freedoms. However, the application is far from universal. In other words, not every culture, not every country, and not even our own country derives universal freedom from free markets.

Free markets (especially unregulated ones but even regulated ones in a world with non-homogenous ethical behaviour) can indeed reduce freedoms and reduce standards of living for some while ensuring freedom and a higher standard of living for others. Free markets require certain things in order for them to not be destructive. The original concept of Capitalism is based on progress, defined as the production of wealth through economic growth. Economic growth has no end state. Government should support capitalism because the creation of wealth is assumed to benefit all citizens, and this benefit is assumed to continue linearly with wealth creation.

The person to elucidate this the best was the person most often credited with the codification of capitalist ideas, Adam Smith (who wrote Wealth of Nations).

Is the US Republican version of free-market Capitalism entirely authentic? To me, Republicans seem to currently champion a flavor of capitalism that benefits the most powerful entities in the country at the expense of both the worker and the environment. Instead of benefiting all, we clearly have a problem with government benefiting particular groups at the expense of others. In the case of the environment, this type of wealth creation harms everyone, even the very wealthiest. While the very wealthy can delay drinking the same water, breathing the same air, and suffering health effects from pollution and climate change that the “rest of us” suffer from, there isn’t enough money in the world to put off the inevitable economic damage from degenerated capitalism, which I’ll call consumerism.

Republicans Don't Understand Capitalism

“It's clear that Bush's idea of "capitalism" consists of socialism for the rich, and brutal, dog-eat-dog capitalism for the rest of us. As a result, in Bush's America, U.S. corporations pocket over $300 billion a year in corporate welfare. And over 60 percent of corporations pay zero income taxes.
Meanwhile, small mom-and-pop businesses across the land are struggling to compete with the likes of corporate-welfare-collecting giants like Wal-Mart. As a result, Wal-Mart's success in crushing its smaller rivals has nothing to do with "the free market" or "capitalism."

Republicans know nothing about capitalism. And the fact that they control all the levers of power in this country at the moment is worrying for anyone who's concerned about America's economic health.”

The wealthy are a minority. Most people do not benefit from the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer or the middle class declining in relative wealth and number. Claiming that the poorest of the poor are better off now than hundreds of years ago is not real progress. It might even be true, but is not a justification for the disparity in economic progress across society, or the damage incurred so that a few can have most.

Obviously, Capitalist Republicans controlling all levers in the country requires a large number of people voting against their economic self-interest.

These large numbers of ordinary people that voted in their economic self-interest (gee, no thanks, I don’t want my standard of living lowered or environment trashed to make a few people even wealthier, but thanks anyway) kept the Capitalist Republicans at bay, by the way, for decades.

Democrats firmly controlled Congress and routinely, if not entirely effectively, identified with and represented the much more numerous workers rather than the much more prosperous owners.

So, how do you get people to vote against their economic self-interest? After all, with all that time on their hands, and Democrats becoming used to the status quo, you have a lot of time to come up with political strategies. The winner? Classic bait and switch.

1. Deliberately choose an emotional, already-lost culture war issue. Don’t pick a real issue. If you do, then the electorate will expect progress to be made on it once you are in office. The issue selected has to be a loser, previously settled, but emotionally powerful, and complex enough to generate “new” developments that will soak up the energies of people that would otherwise be standing in the way of capitalism.

2. Fuel it with funding, prop it up with legal teams, and encourage activity by leveraging particular (usually protestant literalist) religious beliefs at the expense of others (catholic, Unitarian, Judaic, eastern, other).

3. Wait for Defenders of the Ideological Faith to show up and protest. They will find it irresistible to swoop in and fight a can’t-lose battle like going to bat for evolution against intelligent design. This is so clearly a separation of church and state issue that it seems like a waste of time. But, the feeling of being obligated to defend what is clearly the right path is just too strong to resist.

4. Denigrate the Defenders of the Ideological Faith as “liberal elite”. They are the perfect foil.

5. Capitalize on the latent anti-intellectual bias that links “liberal” with “intellectual”.
Since the “liberal elite” and “intellectuals” are poorly defined but ubiquitous and possessing of a negative connotation in political language, and it’s been this way for quite a while, otherwise moderate voters begin to trend towards the right. And they keep going to the right.

6. Win elections due to the fact that you’ve successfully captured moderates.

7. Get back to work promoting capitalism, especially the military-industrial complex, because national defense is a priority.

8. Dismantle regulatory laws that impede capitalism.

What should be an obvious question is where American anti-intellectualism comes from. Especially since anti-intellectualism allows the recipe to work so well against the scientists defending evolution.

The golden age of the social status of science and scientists in the United States was the 1920s. Tennessee vs. John Scopes (aka The Scopes Monkey Trial) occurred in 1925. To call the trial anything but a circus in atmosphere would be the understatement of the century. Public attention was riveted, famous people traveled from far away to participate. It was cast as a battle royale between the forces of the archaic and the ignorantly hidebound, and the forces of progress and the scientifically knowledgeable.


“The Scopes Trial had its origins in a conspiracy at Fred Robinson's drugstore in Dayton. George Rappalyea, a 31-year-old transplanted New Yorker and local coal company manager, arrived at the drugstore with a copy of a paper containing an American Civil Liberties Union announcement that it was willing to offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Rappalyea, a modernist Methodist with contempt for the new law, argued to other town leaders that a trial would be a way of putting Dayton on the map. Listening to Rappalyea, the others--including School Superintendent Walter White--became convinced that publicity generated by a controversial trial might help their town, whose population had fallen from 3,000 in the 1890's to 1,800 in 1925.

The conspirators summoned John Scopes, a twenty-four-year old general science teacher and part-time football coach, to the drugstore. As Scopes later described the meeting, Rappalyea said, "John, we've been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution." Scopes agreed. "That's right," he said, pulling a copy of Hunter's Civic Biology--the state-approved textbook--from one of the shelves of the drugstore (the store also sold school textbooks). "You've been teaching 'em this book?" Rappalyea asked. Scopes replied that while filling in for the regular biology teacher during an illness, he had assigned readings on evolution from the book for review purposes. "Then you've been violating the law," Rappalyea concluded. "Would you be willing to stand for a test case?" he asked. Scopes agreed. He later explained his decision: "the best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle." Herbert and Sue Hicks, two local attorneys and friends of Scopes, agreed to prosecute.”

The trial opened with drama. The transcript is on the web, of course. After opening statements, the defense moved to cancel the indictment on both state and federal constitutional grounds. The goal was not to win, but rather to get the issue before a higher court, like the U.S. Supreme Court that would once and for all clearly state that laws censoring the teaching of evolution were flatly unconstitutional.

At the end of the trial, Darrow, representing John Scopes, asked the jury to return a verdict of guilty in order that the case might be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Under Tennessee law, Bryan was thereby denied the opportunity to deliver a closing speech he had labored over for weeks. The jury complied with Darrow's request, and Judge Raulston fined him $100.

A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court did indeed reverse the decision. However, it was over a technicality regarding who set the fine!

The case was not sent back for further action. Instead, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case and stated "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case." Bummer.

Forty years after the trial, John Scopes wrote an essay about his impressions of it all. Here is the end of his essay. The writing of the essay occurred at about the same time of Epperson v. Arkansas - Supreme Court of the United States (1968), which did indeed settle the constitutionality questions that the Scopes trial was aiming for.

“The defense had hoped to call a number of scientists as witnesses. They were to testify in regard to the erroneous belief that there was an irreconcilable conflict between the theory of evolution and the Genesis account.

One scientist made it to the stand, but Judge Raulston shortly ruled that scientific testimony was not admissible. I think that was a defeat for us, but only in the terms of our legal goals. The material sent out from Dayton through the news media included the interviews and the affidavits of the scientific witnesses; these made a tremendous impact on the science education of the country and the world.

A second accomplishment was the limiting of the passing of anti-evolution bills in other states. This was achieved through the activities of six groups of people; the defense team and their aids who organized and presented our case; scientists; theologians; educators who worked then and are continuing to work for a better concept of education and the freedom of inquiry; the large numbers of ordinary citizens who thought or were capable of learning to think by the simple process of reasoning from cause to effect; and last, buy by no means least, the news media. The efforts of these groups, I think were responsible for limiting the passing of anti-evolution bills to only two additional states, Mississippi and Arkansas.

The trial created a better climate for understanding divergent points of view. The intermingling of a great number of people from all over our country (where did they find accommodations?) and the news gathered and sent out by reporters from the North, East, South, and West lowered to some extent the barriers of misunderstanding that separated the different sections of our country. By no means were these barriers demolished but the top rails were removed or splintered.

The trial marked a beginning of the development of a national consciousness of the roles played by religion, science, and education. I think the importance of communicating the thinking of the professionals in these fields to the general public was first generally appreciated during and immediately after the trial.

I believe that the Dayton trial marked the beginning of the decline of fundamentalism. Each year—as the result of someone’s efforts to better interpret what the defense was trying to do—more and more people are reached. This, in conjunction with the labor of scientists, educators, ministers and with the dissemination of the results of their efforts through books and news media, has retarded the spread of fundamentalism.

But most importantly, I feel that restrictive legislation on academic freedom is forever a thing of the past, that religion and science may now address one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect and of a common quest for truth. I like to think that the Dayton trial had some part in bringing to birth this new era.

I have had a continuing interest in the issues of the trial but never as a participant. Many times I have been asked why I have had no further role to play relative to the issues—even why I did not at least capitalize on my publicity and reap the monetary harvest that was close at hand. Perhaps my best answer is to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge’s “I do not choose to run”, for me it would be, “I did not choose to do so.”

Thus, 1926 was most likely the year of greatest positive momentum for science.

However, the first few signs of a developing economic disaster were being reported. The phrase “technological unemployment” and evaluations of the rate of it happening. Technological unemployment at this time meant that machines were replacing men. This by itself is not bad. Machines free us from dangerous, repetitive, dirty work and allow great increases in productivity.

However, the rate of technological unemployment had never been this high, for this long, and in this many industries.

As many as 200,000 workers a year are replaced by automatic or semi-automatic machinery during the decade, and it wasn’t just one field, it was almost all fields, except those that couldn’t be easily automated. Like, scientists and engineers.

In the pre-computer era, anyone that did “computer” work, or was a knowledge worker, was largely immune. The good times rolled for the capitalists at the top of the food chain, who directly and hugely benefited from the productivity gains, and the people coming up with the ideas for the machines. Protests from the proletariat were ignored, even as creative and highly-skilled people were summarily thrown out of work on an ever-widening basis.

Not even farming, the ultimate generalist activity, was immune from mechanization.

"Recent Social Trends," by O. E. Baker of the United States Department of Agriculture:

“The five years from 1922 to 1926 [he writes] are in several ways the most remarkable in the history of American agriculture. Agricultural production increased about 27 per cent, while crop acreage remained practically stationary and labor engaged in agriculture declined.”

The causes of the Depression are of course several and complicated. However, the primary reason most often given is due to grossly inequal distribution of wealth throughout the 1920's followed by stock market speculation.

From The Technological Unemployment and Structural Unemployment Debates by Gregory R. Woirol

From 1923 to 1929, corporate profits increased 62%, this wealth went mostly to upper brackets. Tax policies of government favored wealthy; workers real income increased by 11%, and most of this increase in purchasing power was caused by the lowered price of food--paid for by poverty of farmers. The top 5% of wealthy took one third of all increased wealth.

A major reason for this large and growing gap between the rich and the working-class person was the afore-mentioned increase in productivity that allowed manufacturing to dramatically increase output.

Scientists both took credit and allowed credit to be given to them, as this increased output was directly enabled by huge technological advancements. A cursory reading of any archived newspaper or magazine of the decade reveals article after article reflecting this positive glow.

The promise of science and technology was ubiquitous in advertisements, articles, editorials, dinner-table conversations, and in real life. Real changes were taking place and they were not just modernizations. The promise of science, as the swirl around the Scopes Trial shows, was of a new golden era enabled by science.

The absolute enormity of the unemployment during the 1930s soon turned the aura of science from gold to lead, in a weird sort of anti-alchemical process. Rapidly, even scientists were out of work. Shocked, they had to form or join relief societies of their own, or take whatever work they could find. A 33% unemployment rate for engineers and scientists was not unusual.

The accusation that technological unemployment, foisted on the country by scientists, was made by many people, at many levels. Scientists defended themselves publicly, often denying any negative effects from scientific advancements, and generally sticking to a very unapologetic stance. Many of the speeches at the time made from conventions and meetings are excerpted in “Beyond the Laboratory” by Peter Kuznick, as well as in The New Republic’s archives, and archives of other newspapers. There was an active science media service at the time that promoted scientific news.

Debates definitely raged. Whether true or not, there was definitely a shift in public opinion concerning science and technology. On the heels of (or perhaps solving) the Great Depression, came World War II.

Scientists were gainfully employed to make better weapons. The government hired wholesale the services of thousands of scientists and engineers who, virtually to a man, went along with the idea of making and dropping an atomic bomb on Japan, or whatever else they were tasked with doing.

The resulting atomic age was not an optimistic one, nor did the social status or trust in science return to anything like the pre-war, pre-depression era. There was a stigma associated with science. My grandmother, for example, doesn’t trust scientists because she doesn’t believe that they care about the results of their work. Hers is not an unusual sentiment. She also is not a fan of space travel or astronomy due to the space race with Russia that had definite threatening military overtones. People don’t like feeling threatened.

Reading through many memoirs of the many famous wartime scientists, you get a feel for the nostalgia of a simpler time, when they were more respected, less “used”, and had a clearer conscience.

Scientists, through Roosevelt’s adroit playing of the Blue Ribbon Panel tactic and wartime activities, were now cemented to the government. In the 1920s, industry and academia employed them. Industry rapidly figured out that pure science was a relative waste of time and started paying only for targeted research, but in a post-war US, things would only get worse.

One of the only standouts of pure research was Bell Labs, for a time. The existence of this group was most likely due to the luxury that a monopoly has, instead of any altruistic industrial reasoning.

Therefore, it’s my feeling that the anti-intellectualism is really anti-scientism leftover from the Depression and WWII, and it’s due to the perception that scientific optimism is naïve, and that scientists are arrogant about their work being primarily good. The application of knowledge can never be assumed to be good by its discoverers. In fact, the scientist doesn’t have much control over what other people do at all with their findings.

The scientist may not be able to imagine how their particular chemistry oddity ends up – they may assume it has application as a new medication that dramatically improves the very ill, but instead it ends up being used in a weapon that renders soldiers permanently blind. Who gets the blame? Should scientists deny all culpability or not?

The pendulum definitely swung against science for a while. It didn’t help much for the major representatives of science to publicly ask for special government assistance at the start of the Depression because they were somehow more special than others. Nor did it help for them to publicly deny any responsibility for technological unemployment right after claiming so much credit for technological advancements. As is the case in most of reality, it is probably somewhere in between. You cannot eat your cake and have it too. Either share the blame, or share the credit.

Hence, American anti-scientism or anti-intellectualism, ripe for the picking, as it’s filtered through several decades of political and social progress, and the hopes that John Scopes expressed are again a bit delayed by opportunism.

The moral of the story according to Michelle? Resist the temptation to be played like a drum. You may not simply be pulling weeds. You may be playing a part scripted for you by people much more manipulative than you’d expect. Play your part in civil discourse and support efforts to get the issue resolved in court. Other than that, how about fixing American capitalism?

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