The Republican War on Science
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Chapter 11: “Creation Science” 2.0

The following excerpt contains an update not found in the original hardcover edition.

NEARLY FORTY YEARS AGO, in 1966, two talented young political thinkers published an extraordinary book, one that reads, in retrospect, as a profound warning to the Republican Party that went tragically unheeded.

The authors had been roommates at Harvard University, and had participated in the Ripon Society, an upstart group of Republican liberals. They had worked together on Advance, dubbed “the unofficial Republican magazine,” which slammed the party from within for catering to segregationists, John Birchers, and other extremists. Following their graduation, both young men moved into the world of journalism and got the chance to further advance their “progressive” Republican campaign in a book for the eminent publisher Alfred A. Knopf. In their spirited 1966 polemic The Party That Lost Its Head, they held nothing back. The book devastatingly critiqued Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy—the modern conservative movement’s primal scene—and dismissed the GOP’s embrace of rising star Ronald Reagan as the party’s hope to “usurp reality with the fading world of the class-B movie.“

Read today, some of the most prophetic passages of The Party That Lost Its Head are those that denounce Goldwater’s conservative backers for their rampant and even paranoid distrust of the nation’s intellectuals. The book labels the Goldwater campaign a “brute assault on the entire intellectual world” and blames this development on a woefully wrongheaded political tactic: “In recent years the Republicans as a party have been alienating intellectuals deliberately, as a matter of taste and strategy.“

The authors charge that Goldwater’s campaign had no intellectual heft behind it whatsoever, save the backing of one think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, which they denounce as “an organization heavily financed by extreme rightists.” Continuing in the same vein, they slam William F. Buckley, Jr., for his attacks on leading universities and describe the advent of right-wing anti-intellectualism as “crippling” to the Republican Party. The book further deplores conservatives’ paranoid distrust of the “liberal” media and the “Eastern Establishment,” and worries that without the backing of intellectuals and scholars, the GOP will prove unable to develop “workable programs, distinct from those of the Democrats and responsive to national problems.” If the party wants to win back the “national consensus,” the authors argue, it must first win back the nation’s intellectuals.

Clearly, The Party That Lost Its Head failed in its goal of prompting a broad Republican realignment. The GOP went in precisely the opposite direction from the one these young authors prescribed—which is why the anti-intellectual disposition they so aptly diagnosed in 1966 still persists among many modern conservatives, helping to fuel the current crisis over the politicization of science and expertise. In fact, the chief difference between the Goldwater conservatives and those of today can often seem more cosmetic than real. A massive number of think tanks have now joined the American Enterprise Institute on the right, but in many cases these outlets still provide only a thin veneer of intellectual respectability to ideas that mainstream scholarship rejects.

Certainly, the proliferation of think tanks has not had as a corollary that conservatives now take scientific expertise more seriously. On the contrary, the Right has a strong track record of deliberately attempting to undermine scientific work that might threaten the economic interests of private industry. Perhaps more alarmingly still, similar tactics have also been brought to bear by the Right in the service of a religiously conservative cultural and moral agenda.

The next three chapters demonstrate how cultural conservatives have disregarded, distorted, and abused science on the issues of evolution, embryonic stem cell research, the relation of abortion to health risks for women, and sex education. In the process, we will encounter more ideologically driven think tanks, more questionable science, and more conservative politicians willing to embrace it.

The story begins, however, with a narrative that cuts to the heart of the modern Right’s war on science. You see, despite the poignant accuracy of their critique, the authors of The Party That Lost Its Head—Bruce K. Chapman and George Gilder—have since bitten their tongues and morphed from liberal Republicans into staunch conservatives. In fact, you could say that they have become everything they once criticized. Once opponents of right-wing anti-intellectualism, they are now prominent supporters of conservative attacks on the theory of evolution, not just a bedrock of modern science but one of the greatest intellectual achievements of human history. With this transformation, the modern Right’s war on intellectuals—including scientists and those possessing expertise in other areas—is truly complete.

 

Three decades ago, no one could have guessed that Bruce Chapman—who did not respond to interview requests for this book—would wind up at the helm of a religiously inspired crusade against evolution. After the publication of The Party That Lost Its Head, Chapman carried on his liberal Republican campaign through his involvement in Washington state politics. Elected to the Seattle city council in 1971, he later became secretary of state of Washington and made an unsuccessful stab at the governorship in 1980, running to the left of conservative Democrat (and later ozone depletion denier) Dixy Lee Ray. (Both Chapman and Ray lost in their respective primaries.) Throughout this period, evolution historian and Chapman acquaintance Edward J. Larson has noted, Chapman was a moderate “Rockefeller Republican” to the core.

That changed, however, when Chapman entered the Reagan administration in 1981 as director of the Census Bureau. In a Washington atmosphere in which Reagan himself catered to antievolutionist religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Chapman moved to the right relatively quickly. Indeed, in Chapman’s transformation into a conservative who would absurdly declare evolution a “theory in crisis,” which he did in 2003, one can trace key trends in the development of the modern conservative movement, such as the rising influence of the religious Right and the launch of an array of ideological think tanks. Among the latter must certainly be counted Seattle’s Discovery Institute, where Chapman currently serves as president and where George Gilder—who underwent a similar ideological transformation, becoming a supply-side economics guru—now serves as a senior fellow.

By June 4, 1983, Chapman could be found publicly condemning liberalism for its “shabby, discredited, sophistical values” and defending “traditional morality.” In an article on the “Harvard-trained former liberal,” the New York Times even singled out Chapman’s political shift as emblematic of “a converging of the intellectual left with the religious right within the [Republican Party] under the Reagan banner.” Chapman soon left the Census Bureau to work in the White House under Reagan adviser (and later antipornography crusading attorney general) Edwin Meese. “I have become more conservative as I have grown older,” he observed at the time.

As the 1980s ended, Chapman initially seemed to veer away from his newfound social conservatism. In the early days of the Discovery Institute—which originated as a Seattle branch of Indianapolis’s center-right Hudson Institute—he drew heavily on connections from his moderate Seattle past. The Institute’s first slate of directors read “like the guest list for a gathering of liberal Republicans,” noted Seattle Times columnist Herb Robinson in 1991. Originally, Discovery focused on issues like the economic competitiveness of Seattle and telecommunications policy. The vibe was forward-looking, futuristic, and intellectually contrarian.

Yet much as Chapman himself swung to the right during the Reagan years, Discovery too has turned to religious conservatism. In recent years, it has become home to a reactionary crusade against the theory of evolution that goes under the banner of “intelligent design” (ID). Bringing creationism up to date, ID proponents insist that living organisms show detectable signs of having been designed (that is, specially created) by a rational agent (presumably God), while denouncing “Darwinism” for inculcating atheism and destroying cultural and moral values that had previously been grounded in piety. Such arguments put the ID campaign squarely at the center of a religiously driven culture war, and Chapman has described ID as the Discovery Institute’s “No. 1 project.” His friend Gilder, meanwhile, has ridiculously pronounced that “the Darwinist materialist paradigm . . . is about to face the same revolution that Newtonian physics faced 100 years ago.“

Such declarations appear to have made more moderate Republicans rather uncomfortable. During a November 2004 science journalism conference in Seattle, I had the opportunity to ask former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, who once sat on the Discovery Institute’s board, what he thought of its antievolutionist activities. Ruckelshaus told me he hadn’t been interested in being involved in such a project. (In fact, in a 2000 speech on how to save the Pacific salmon, posted on the Discovery Institute’s website, Ruckelshaus called the fish “a marvel of evolutionary adaptation.“)

Clearly, Bruce Chapman has presided over an uncomfortable merger between pragmatic, centrist Republicanism and the antievolutionist, culture-warrior wing of the Right. Today, Discovery touts Cascadia, a technology-intensive project to improve transportation in the Pacific Northwest that is funded in part by the Microsoft fortune (through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) even as it seeks to replace one of the cornerstones of biology with what Wired magazine has labeled the 2.0 version of creationism. And Chapman—a man who by all accounts cares deeply about ideas and whom the New York Times once called “serious and scholarly“—has morphed into a leader of the nation’s most prominent religious crusade against modern science.

 

Intelligent design, as advanced by the Discovery Institute, has many antecedents. An older and more explicitly theological version of the idea holds that the universe itself shows evidence of God’s handiwork, a claim that science—which is limited by its methodology to studying natural causes, not allegedly supernatural phenomena—can neither confirm nor refute. Similarly, before the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, many, indeed most, educated men and women accepted the precepts of “natural theology,” an argument by analogy that just as human artifacts like watches show signs of a designer’s hand, so do specialized organs like the eye. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this argument was the Reverend William Paley, author of the 1802 work Natural Theology.

Darwin read (and was impressed by) Paley as a young student at Cambridge. His Origin, however, unfolds as an elaborate rebuttal to Paley’s recourse to divine intervention, explaining how complex organs could have evolved through gradual stages from imperfect but still useful antecedents, or from simpler structures that were co-opted for new uses. As Darwin noted in a famous passage from the book’s second edition:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Providing the linchpin of modern biology, Darwin’s work supplanted natural theology’s argument from design and left it by the wayside, at least from a scientific standpoint.

Representatives of Bruce Chapman’s think tank, however, have plucked the design argument from the annals of intellectual history and pronounced it modern science. Granted, today’s technophile ID advocates dress up their arguments “in the idiom of information theory,” as leading ID proponent William Dembski has put it, claiming (for instance) that the massive amounts of biological information encoded in DNA could not have arisen through natural selection and must therefore have been designed by an intelligent agent. But judging from ID’s poor scientific publication record, it has failed to convince working biologists to join in this quixotic enterprise.

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