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Where's the 'Missing Link'?

Sean Gonsalves

In my neck of the woods - actually Woods Hole in Falmouth, Mass. to be exact - a new front in the "Culture War" has opened up.

A federal lawsuit has been filed against a biologist at the world-famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution by a zebra fish researcher named Nathaniel Abraham, alleging his civil rights were violated when he was fired because his belief in creationism.

The same day that story broke in the Cape Cod Times, the Associated Press had a story about how anti-evolutionists have come up with a new strategy in the battle against the unifying principle of the biological sciences.

The AP reported: "arguments for inserting skepticism, rather than religious concepts, into evolution lessons emerged after a federal court ruling nearly two years ago struck down the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes in Dover, Pa., said Michael Ruse, the director of Florida State University's program on the history and philosophy of science."

Ruse calls it "Strategy No. 4." What were the first three strategies?

Strategy No. 1: Prohibit teaching it. The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial put an end to that strategy.

Strategy No. 2: Get creationism taught in schools - the literal biblical account of creation - as an alternative to the "theory" of evolution. But courts rejected that strategy in the 1980s, Ruse said.

Strategy No. 3: Promote "Intelligent Design (ID)" - the notion that "the universe's order and complexity is so great that science alone cannot explain it."

That strategy hit the legal wall in Dover, Penn., where a judge ruled that ID was religion-in-drag, pretending to be science, which meant teaching it in public schools constituted a violation of the separation of church and state.

And that brings us to Strategy No. 4: "Ruse described it as presenting evolution as an 'iffy hypothesis' instead of what it really is - a scientific theory 'that's accepted like the Earth goes around the sun.'"

The new strategy seems to be losing steam too. "A suburban Atlanta school board abandoned its effort to put stickers in high-school science books saying that evolution is 'a theory, not a fact,' and South Carolina's Board of Education rejected a proposal to require students to 'critically analyze' evolution."

I don't know what strategy our zebra fish creationist is employing but I do know that in the "culture wars," as our conservative brethren call it, the teaching of evolution is considered nothing less than a satanic assault on the image of God.

I confess my heresy: like the Jesuit theologian/paleontologist Pierre Teilhard did 50 odd years ago, I'm a believer whose made his peace with evolution. But then, I've never understood why science and faith are discussed as if they're mutually exclusive. Folks who think evolution is an inherently atheist argument or those who think evolution disproves the existence of God are people with little imagination.

The evolution vs. creationism debate may be an unavoidable political fight but much more relevant and revealing is what many evolution-believing secular conservatives and evolution-denying religious conservatives have in common: a belief in social Darwinism.

A popular misconception is that Darwin coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." Actually, Darwin's thang was "natural selection," which turns out to involve lots of cooperation.

The origin of "survival of the fittest" can be traced to British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who had an illustrious career justifying racism and imperialism with his pseudo-science 50 years after Darwin published The Origin of the Species.

Spencer bastardized Darwin's theory and attempted to apply his misunderstanding of evolution to politics and economics. Thus began a political tradition in this country that has reached its apogee today, in which public policy is seen as a vehicle to prevent the weak from being "parasites" on the "fit."

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich marvels as I do at how "the modern Conservative Movement has embraced social Darwinism with no less fervor than it has condemned Darwinism."

Listen to Spencer's own words: "Society advances where its fittest members are allowed to assert their fitness with the least hindrance."

Listen to any domestic policy debate about crime or education and you'll hear Spencer lurking beneath the surface in arguments justifying everything from war to incarceration rates on down to wealth disparities.

All that supply-side, Ronald Reagan, freedom stuff about meritocracies and the liberal conspiracy to "dumb-down" America with egalitarianism is social Darwinism - in defense of the liberty of the "natural aristocracy."

So while science battles evolution-opponents, I'm trying to understand a conservative political species that opposes evolution on religious grounds while supporting social Darwinism on the political and economic grounds.

There's a missing link here.

Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and an assistant news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at

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