Creationists, pro-lifers and conservatives now pose a serious threat to research and science teaching in the US, report Oliver Burkeman and Alok Jha
The Guardian (England), via Hoovers, Apr. 10, 2003
One of the first signs that something was changing came in March last year in the suburbs of northern Atlanta, when people started talking, a little more frequently than might be expected, about mousetraps. It was hardly unprecedented in the US that a group of local parents should be lobbying for their children to be taught that evolution was a disputed theory, not a fact. But the way some of them were doing it was new, which is where the mousetraps came in. Unlike some of the openly evangelical Christian lobbies, they didn’t want schools to teach creationism – the theory that God created the universe in seven days – they only wanted to air a theory known as Intelligent Design. ID holds that the living cell is “irreducibly complex”, like a mousetrap. Remove the spring from a mousetrap and it isn’t just an inferior mousetrap; it isn’t a mousetrap at all. It had to have been created by an intelligent designer. It was the same, they said, for cells, and so life must have been designed by some kind of intelligence. Critics called this “stealth creationism” – religious dogma masquerading as science – but the ID proponents got their way, thanks partly to wording in President Bush’s new education bill. Schools in Atlanta are now theoretically entitled to “teach the controversy” (though officials have urged teachers to stick to evolution for now, sparking a lawsuit) – and textbooks presenting Darwinism as fact have stickers inside, pointing out that it might not be.
Some other signs: if you were contemplating an abortion and were worried about the rumour that it might increase your risk of breast cancer, you might visit the website of the government-funded National Cancer Institute to read their factsheet, which noted that most scientists doubt a link. Or, at least, you might have done so until June last year, when the page, criticised by some Republicans in Congress, simply vanished. (A replacement page was posted last month.) Or maybe you were an Aids activist, elated by the president’s unexpected (and genuinely revolutionary) announcement in the State of the Union address of $15bn (pounds 9.7bn) in funding for fighting the epidemic worldwide – and then surprised to find that only around 10% was destined for the Global Aids Fund, while the rest would be funnelled through US agencies, where it is more likely to be accessible to American abstinence-only groups campaigning against condoms.
Welcome to the new battlegrounds of American science. No conspiracy, nor even one political agenda, links the incidents above. But US scientists say they are indicative of a new climate that has emerged under the Bush administration: one driven partly by close relationships with big business, but just as much by a fiercely moral approach to the business of science. The approach is not exclusively religious, nor exclusively rightwing, but is spreading worry as never before through the nation’s laboratories and lecture halls.
As prescient observers of the events north of Atlanta last year realised, these aren’t the old wars of science versus religion. The new assaults on the conventional wisdom frame themselves, without exception, as scientific theories, no less deserving of a hearing than any other. Proponents of ID – using a strategy previously unheard of among anti-Darwinists – grant almost all the premises of evolution (the idea that species develop; that the world wasn’t necessarily created in seven days) in order to better attack it.
“It’s not that I don’t think Darwinian evolution can’t explain anything,” says Professor Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the movement’s foremost academic advocate, when asked how he accounts for the very visible evolution of, say, viruses. “It’s just that I don’t think it can explain everything. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for example, is one of the things it can explain.”
Similarly, the White House’s strategy on global warming is not to scoff at the scientific establishment’s warnings on climate change. Rather, it trumpets the importance of their research activities and calls for even more research – years more, in fact – before any action is taken. In the same fashion, one of the most popular arguments currently circulating on anti-condom websites claims not that they encourage promiscuity but that they can’t protect against HIV. The reason, it argues, is because the virus is 0.1 microns in diameter, while there are tiny pores in latex measuring 10 microns. (There is no evidence for this.)
A related tactic has been observed in recent weeks among the conservative organisations vying for a say in how Bush’s new Aids cash should be spent. The Bush administration had long been criticised by the left for neglecting the promotion of cheap anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) in favour of policies that benefited patent-owning pharmaceutical giants. Usaid, the government’s international development agency, argued at one point that Africans would find it hard to adhere to drug programmes because they had a different conception of time.
Suddenly, though, ARVs are the right’s new passion – because, argues Holly Burkhalter of the pressure group Physicians for Human Rights, spending more money on drugs means condom programmes could be starved of cash. It is the most unlikely reversal of positions, she argues. “Who knew? Now you have the activists putting the case for prevention and the conservatives campaigning to make treatment widely available in Africa.”
The two men inside the Bush administration who have had the most to do with this shift in approach are about as different from each other in style as it is possible to imagine – except, perhaps, in their avoidance of the media spotlight. One is Karl Rove, the president’s senior political aide, a master tactician who has been Bush’s main strategist since his earliest days campaigning for the governorship of Texas. (He does not seem overly bothered by scruples: in one campaign, for another politician, he claimed to have discovered a bug in his office on the day of a major debate. The opponent, tarnished by the insinuation of dirty tricks, lost the race, but the ensuing police investigation found nothing.) His importance should not be understated. “If Karl Rove did not exist, George Bush would not be president of the United States,” the liberal columnist EJ Dionne wrote bluntly this month.
Some saw Rove’s influence at play when John Marburger, Bush’s new science advisor, was informed that the role would no longer be a cabinet position. The White House had decided that “they don’t need that level of scientific input,” Allan Bromley, the first President Bush’s science advisor, said glumly at the time.
The other man is Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The occupant of that role was always going to be a central figure in an administration as morality-driven as Bush’s. In Kass, the president found a paragon of good repute (a renowned ethicist at the University of Chicago, Kass exudes erudition) who nevertheless differed radically from the academic consensus on the issues his committee would be considering, such as euthanasia, human cloning and in-vitro fertilisation.
“It is rare to see a scientist who thinks that nascent human life has any dignity worth respecting whatsover,” he said last year, arguing that the scientific establishment “treat it as chopped liver”.
Rove’s alertness to Bush’s Christian-conservative voter base and Kass’s moral convictions proved a powerful combination when it came to one of the most radical science policy changes to emerge from the current White House: the clampdown on human cloning.
The Bush presidency was in its infancy when Rove identified cloning as a topic that needed to be tackled. The administration’s contempt for the issue was made transparent when he suggested introducing a bill into Congress that would ban all forms of cloning. Kass readily agreed: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings,” he has written, “not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.”
The problem for scientists was that the legislation could single-handedly destroy research using stem cells (otherwise known as “therapeutic cloning”, a term the anti-cloning lobby rejects), as well as closing the door on reproductive cloning – making cloned babies. Stem cells are the master cells found in early-stage embryos. They evolve into all the different tissues of the body, and doctors hope to treat several serious diseases by directing the cells to develop into specific implants. Advised by Kass’s council, however, Bush announced in 2001 that he would end government funding for the cultivation of new cell lines, forcing scientists to find private funding or rely on existing, often contaminated lines.
On the subject of whether to introduce a wider ban on cloning itself, though, the US is stuck. Galvanised by the news that the Raelians, a Canadian cult, claimed to have overseen the delivery of the world’s first cloned baby, the House of Representatives tabled a bill earlier this year to ban all cloning. Fortunately for the scientists involved, the bill is now destined for the more sympathetic Senate. But Bush has already made it clear in several statements that he is reluctant to sign any bill into law that did not ban all forms of cloning.
Cloning proponents like Howard Garrison, director of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, say that when they sit down with sceptics they go a long way in convincing them. But the president “listens selectively”, says a source close to one of the national academies, the learned societies which represent the elite scientists in the US. In the White House, an embryo is an embryo and must be protected at all costs. Not that this is necessarily a cause for surprise. “We elected a Republican president,” sighs the source. “And the scientific community tends to be more liberal.”
Nor, perhaps, was it a surprise that evolution, in this climate, would come in for a renewed bout of questioning. Bush has said that he has not made up his mind on evolution – a stance that is politically helpful in the US, where Christian conservative voters feel strongly but where there is not, on the other side of the debate, a unified “pro- evolution” lobby likely to be turned off a candidate solely on the basis of such remarks.
But John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice has proved active: when Michael Dini, a Catholic biology professor at Texas Tech University, announced that he would not write academic recommendations for students who did not “affirm” that there is a scientific explanation of the origin of the species, a creationist student launched a lawsuit. Such lawsuits aren’t uncommon. What was uncommon was that Dini, soon after, received a call from government lawyers, demanding the handover of numerous documents, and implicitly threatening to make a minor local dispute into a high-profile federal case.
Advocates of ID, too, are making further attempts to change school curricula, and this month achieved success in Tennessee. Their strategy is to adopt a studiedly undogmatic style, and to come across as amiable debaters willing to listen to your doubts. “All very good questions,” says Behe when asked about the most glaring absence from ID: a theory of when, and by what mechanism, an imputed intelligent designer actually did their intelligent designing. (Also: who designed the designer?) “We’d all like to have the answers. Suppose you drove someone who’d never seen Mount Rushmore to look at it. They would immediately apprehend that the mountain had been designed, formed by intelligent activity. Now, most people would think that designer would be God . . . but where the designer came from is a separate question.” (Most scientists point out, among many criticisms of ID, that it assumes the function of an organism to be a given: true of a mousetrap, but not necessarily of living things – ends themselves can change.)
Kenneth Miller, a professor at Brown University in Rhode Island who is one of the most persistent critics of ID, remains happy at the overwhelming lack of success the movement has had. “But none of that has come without concerted work,” he says. “I think they’ve made significant advances in public opinion: if you ask the American people, do you believe in the general Darwinian theory, they split 40/40 [with 20% unsure].” ID, he says, is “stealth creationism – it’s been recognised for what it is, which is a quasi-political theory.”
Critics speak with similar alarm about other theories that have been getting a new airing recently, on Aids and abstinence and global warming, for example – theories presented as rival scientific ideas asking only for a “fair hearing”. “It’s a very good rhetorical strategy, because it appeals to the very American sense of openness and fair play,” says Miller. “But there’s something called the scientific process, you know – involving open publication, criticism, and rejection of things that aren’t convincing. We don’t teach both sides of the germ theory of disease and faith-healing. Evolution isn’t in the classroom because of political action or court decisions. It’s in the classroom because it made it through, it stood up to scrutiny and became the scientific consensus. It fought the battle and won.”
Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brain Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W Bush by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M Cannon. Public Affairs (2003). ISBN: 1586481924
Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics by Leon R Kass. Public Affairs (2002). ISBN: 1586481762
Clones and Clones: Facts and Fantasies about Human Cloning ,edited by Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein. W W Norton (1999). ISBN: 0393320014