Critique of Intelligent Design

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, Critique of Intelligent Design (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008).

The intelligent design (ID) movement has been aptly called the Trojan horse of Christian Creationism with its pretense that no claim of a particular deity is being invoked, only that the so-called irreducible complexity of living organisms has to be explained by design and not as a product of biological evolution. This book’s staunch critique of ID and defense of the materialist foundation of science is very welcome, especially as we now see an opportunity to reverse the propagation of ID ideology sanctified by the Bush White House.

The authors lucidly explain the long thread of materialist challenge to the religious worldview going back to the ancient philosophers, notably Epicurus, whose writings, along with those of Democritus, were apparently decisive in Marx’s own education. I would have welcomed more context for this history. For example, it could have been mentioned that the roots of ancient materialism are found in the still relatively undifferentiated societies that predated class division. Benjamin Farrington argued that Thales of Miletus kicked Marduk (the ruler of Babylonian gods) out of his philosophy because Thales lived in a relatively equal community where theory and practice were still the common activity of each member. Not until the aristocracy arose in ancient society did idealist philosophy find a natural place when only common people still worked in manual labor directly with nature, hence the Platonic supremacy of mind over matter.

The authors do an outstanding job in setting forth the contributions of the trinity of evil-doers on the ID list -– Darwin, Marx and Freud. The Darwin chapter alone is worth the price of this volume. The authors emphasize that the agenda of the modern US ID movement is really political. It has attacked materialist influence in diverse areas of our culture and legal system, including criminal justice (prioritizing punishment rather than treatment and elimination of the social causes of crime), sex education (abstinence rather than birth control), and of course abortion. Their target has been what remains of the welfare state, and its materialist ideological foundation in the social sciences. In light of these uses of ID ideology, it would be interesting to analyze the analogous promotion and social agenda of ID movements in other countries, inspired by Islamic, Jewish and Hindu creationism.

The authors argue that the “conflict between religion and science is a permanent feature of our present-day capitalist society.” ID is in their view a “counter-revolution against science” (26). The authors’ agenda is clear: we must struggle to remove all obstacles to rational debate in the interests of protecting and enhancing democracy. Religious ideology is seen as antithetical to rational thinking. However, I think this way of posing the antinomy of science and religion oversimplifies the role of religious ideology in relation to social movements. Religion is not always on the wrong side of the class struggle. It has served both the oppressor and oppressed, even after the Enlightenment, indeed even now. Examples of the progressive uses of religion include its appropriation by the abolitionist and civil rights movements and of course contemporary liberation theology. The religious ideology of the oppressed and exploited has drawn from the cumulative experience of class struggle going back to ancient times as well as from Marxist sources in the past 150 years.

I suspect most people want what the pragmatists and pessimists call the impossible, a future that is free of war, hatred and pollution, with the maximum biodiversity possible. This will require the broadest possible popular movement. People of all faiths and no faith must respect each other’s orientations, agree to disagree, and continue the dialogue, or we will fail miserably. In much of the world, indeed in the United States, non-believers are a minority, mainly hidden in the closet, barely tolerated or even persecuted. Hence, claims that spiritual and ethical values must be uniquely grounded in religious belief should be challenged, in the name of universal human rights. On the other hand, progressive materialists should welcome with open arms all those inspired by the humanist values of the world’s religions. Further, the battle for the separation of religion and state, and for secular public education, is imperative. Inevitably, contradictions will arise between this struggle and parallel struggles for social progress and peace, but such differences must be resolved by dialogue and persuasion not coercion.

In their discussion of Stephen Jay Gould’s formulation of NOMA (“Non-Overlapping Magisteria” of science and religion), the authors argue that Gould leaves little to religion, since only ethics is left to the latter (as well as to the humanities) – what they call the social-contractual parameters of human behavior. This formulation implies that ethical principles cannot be derived from materialist science. “It is doubtful whether there is a foundationalist ought (as commonly presupposed by religion), that can tell us what moral values should be. Therefore, it is left to humans to construct their own morals” (24). The authors argue that “Questions of what we ought to do (the morality of morals) are indeed important, but they do not have absolute answers — they can only be answered by people in the context of their times” (196). Of course all standards of ethical behavior are socially constructed (as is science itself), and in the final analysis are linked to class interests. The authors cite Marx’s view that “moral conditions evolve with the material needs of human communities” (99). Hence ethical imperatives are derived from the collective experience of human communities and societies, going back to our prehistory.

The survival of social groups requires a combination of altruist and coercive behavior; indeed this is arguably the basis for both humanist religious and Marxist ethics. Kropotkin argued that ethics should be founded on a purely naturalistic base, drawing on the materialist analysis of social life. Darwin’s research on animals, especially primates, suggests that behavior conducive to survival and flourishing of social groups arose through natural selection1 Contrary to Foster et al., I suggest that what one ought to do should be informed by the sciences, natural and social, and by the collective wisdom of human experience; hence ethics can indeed be foundational and not merely social-constructional.The Origin of Order on its back page: “The conventional concept of Darwinian evolution views populations of organisms as randomly varying systems shaped to adaptation by the external force of natural selection. But Darwinian theory must be expanded to recognize other sources of order based on the internal genetic and developmental constraints of organisms and on the structural limits and possibilities of general physical laws.” With the growing recognition of the evolutionary importance of feedbacks between organism and environment (e.g., niche construction; see Odling-Smee et al. 2003), the potential for attractor states in biospheric evolution is now being taken more seriously.

In the last section of their book, the authors provide an insightful survey of modern evolutionary theory, concluding that the inherent contingency of biological evolution does not follow a deterministic path; if the tape of life were replayed, they suggest, very different results should be expected. They stress the environmental aspects of the evolutionary process, viewing evolution as an ongoing process of self-organization of organisms and their ecosystems.

But if the tape of our biosphere –- life plus its global environment -– were played again, would its history necessarily differ radically from the one inferred from the fossil and geologic record? Are humans, or at least highly encephalized warm-blooded animals, the highly contingent and unlikely outcome of biosphere history as the authors imply, citing Gould’s views with approval (180)? The authors cite Stuart Kauffman’s concept of an attractor state of self-organizing complex systems, including the example of the biological cell (168). Gould himself supported this view in his praise of Kauffman’s book

My own view is that the biosphere and indeed biotic evolution are quasi-deterministic, i.e., the general pattern of the tightly coupled evolution of biota and climate was very probable and self-selected from a relatively small number of possible histories (Schwartzman 2008). For example, the long-term cooling history of the Earth’s biosphere correlates with the timing of major events in biotic evolution, such as the emergence of photosynthesis, eucaryotes (cells with nuclei) and animals (Schwartzman 2002). These organisms apparently only emerged when temperatures declined to the maximum limit that they could tolerate, i.e., 70oC (3.5 billion years ago), 60oC (2.8 billion years ago) and 50oC (1-1.5 billion years ago) respectively. This climatic temperature constraint on evolution explains the long delay in the appearance of complex life (eucaryotes including animals, fungi and plants). Atmospheric oxygen levels were apparently sufficient for animal metabolism by 2 billion years ago, but temperatures were too high for their emergence. Encephalization, the increase in brain mass relative to body weight, may well have been the probable outcome for the success of some warm-blooded animals as global temperatures plunged thereby allowing the loss of heat from energy-intensive brains (Schwartzman and Middendorf).

Thus, at least on a coarse scale, one might expect the same results if the tape of life and the biosphere were played again, since major innovations in the biotic evolution were the result of the co-evolution of life and its environment. Such a view is the subtext of the astrobiology research program in its plausible expectation of finding alien biospheres, in our own solar system (e.g., Mars, Europa) and on Earth-like planets in extra-solar planetary systems. Roughly deterministic evolution is not necessarily teleological; rather it reflects the self-organization of complex systems such as our own biosphere. And such a view is staunchly materialist. If the evolution of stars is deterministic (predictable from their initial mass and composition), why not that of biospheres? Such a view is compatible with recognizing the higher level of contingency in the development of human societies. The near future ecocatastrophe arising from unconstrained global warming or nuclear war is not inevitable. In the form of class struggle, including broad trans-class coalitions of the global peace and justice movement, human agency can still bring into being that “other world that is possible.”

Reviewed by David Schwartzman
Washington DC


1. Along these lines, an illuminating materialist discussion of the survival imperative expressed in contemporary humanist ethics is found in Verharen 2008.


Farrington, Benjamin. 1944. Greek Science, 2 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Kauffman, Stuart. 1993. The Origin of Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1924. Ethics, Origin and Development. New York: Dial Press.

Odling-Smee, F. John, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman, 2003. Niche Construction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Schwartzman, David. 2002. Life, Temperature, and the Earth: The Self-Organizing Biosphere. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schwartzman, David. 2008, “Coevolution of the Biosphere and Climate,” in Encyclopedia of Ecology (S.E. Jorgensen and B. Fath, eds), Oxford: Elsevier, 648-658.

Schwartzman, David, and George Middendorf. 2000. “Biospheric Cooling and the Emergence of Intelligence,” in A New Era in Bioastronomy, ASP Conference Series, Vol. 213, (G. Lemarchand and K. Meech, eds.), 425-429.

Verharen, Charles C. 2008. “An African and American Survival Ethics: The Case of Cuba,” Capitalism Nature Socialism Vol.19, No.4, 30-47.

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