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Pathfinders: Digging Up Old Bones

Politics and ideologies are in reality best understood not as imponderable excursions into the deeper truths of society but as products mass-produced off a production line and sitting on ideological supermarket shelves with brightly coloured labels, often red, blue, yellow or green or some novel mix thereof. One thing which you cannot fail to have noticed about commodities generally, and which these ‘soft’ commodities share with ‘hard goods’ like washing machines, cleaning products and tinned spaghetti is the inane compulsion to keep rebranding themselves with the legend NEW! in a big starburst banner just next to the price. As with NEW! pasta shapes, so with NEW! Labour. As with NEW! blue-whiteness, so with NEW! blue sky thinking. As with ‘revolutionary’ NEW! hair colour, or our special NEW! improved recipe, the manufacturers are challenging you to do what is probably impossible, and spot a difference that doesn’t exist, due to a change they didn’t make on a formula they didn’t modify. Why the manufacturers do this, in a fast-changing world where novelty has a short shelf-life, is too obvious to need spelling out, but one has a deep-rooted suspicion that many consumers too are so accustomed to these everyday revolutions that they would manage to find a difference between ‘old’ cola and ‘new’ cola even if there wasn’t one. This may be because they desire to see themselves as sophisticated and discerning customers with subtle palates that can detect changes at homeopathic levels, and thus they delude themselves and their peers, and in so doing become accessories to the grand illusion, perfectly trained pavlovian customers of capitalism.

Anyone who remembers, say, the adverts of the 1970’s will have a strange feeling of detached deja-vu when seeing modern commercials for ‘revolutionary new products’ such as sunglasses that react to light (aka ‘reactolites’ in the 1970s ), but the feeling is somehow detached because nobody seems to remark on the fact that this is yesterday’s leftovers being served up as fresh. Perhaps to the extent that we stop bothering to protest, we join those consumers who can detect non-existent changes to recipes and in our own way become complicit in the grand illusion, finally for the sake of a quiet life pretending we don’t remember or don’t care. Meanwhile those who don’t remember previous incarnations will of course be under the happy impression that they are getting the newest and the brightest and the best of everything.

So it is part of the heavy labour of any forward-looking revolutionary to be backward-looking as well, in order to recall all the previous times society, debates, ideas and individuals have trod the same paths and been down the same blind alleys, and to remind those who are listening that the most heavily signposted routes are usually the ones that don’t go anywhere. And where politics, or its twisted and malicious great-aunt, religion, impact on the one truly novel field of human endeavour, science, the same dead hands of bigotry beckon us down the same old cul-de-sacs, winding along scenic back roads that skirt the evidence and obscure the real lay of the land.

So it is with the ‘controversy’ over Darwinian evolution. Just when you think, after the recent court judgments in America against it, that creationism is becoming a laughing stock and the American public are finally becoming tired of being caricatured as vegetable-brained hicks who praise the Lord and marry their sisters, the debate convulses once again, a bubble emerges from the fetid swamp, and a NEW! argument explodes over the scenery. Neoconservatives, it seems, are now at war with the religious right in an attempt to reclaim Darwin as the ideological figurehead, not of the scientific liberal progressive agenda, but of red-blooded two-fisted Republican screw-the-other-guy frontier capitalist values (‘A Split Emerges as Conservatives Discuss Darwin’, New York Times, May 5). The argument of the neo-cons is of course that evolution, being ‘red in tooth and claw’, and involving the ‘survival of the fittest’, is perfectly suited to the conservative view of capitalism. Never mind that the first of these phrases was coined by T H Huxley and the second by Herbert Spencer, Darwin is held up as the perfect justification for any amount of callous disregard by the rich of the vast majority of the world’s poor population, and the only people persistently getting in the way of this wonderful ‘proof’ of capitalism’s natural and therefore inevitable provenance are those silly religious evangelists who don’t seem to understand how to intelligently design capitalism’s propaganda machine.

And it is at this point that the reactolite factor sets in. People new to this debate might screw up their eyes, dazzled by the spectacle of conservatives being pro-Darwin and fighting their own religious brethren. But there’s more. What would they make of the logical extension to this scenario, which is the emergence of a liberal progressive element opposed to evolution? Yet the world has seen it all before, where the conservatives championed Darwin and the liberal progressives championed creationism. It was a sell-out gig, it was a set-up, it ruined careers, and it made history. It was the Scopes Monkey trial of 1925, a trial so bizarre that the defendant deliberately got himself accused as a teacher of evolution even though he was actually a football coach, where his friends were on the prosecution counsel, and where the jury was instructed by the defence not to find him innocent. The story of this world-famous publicity stunt, engineered entirely by the defendant and his team of bible-baiters, is hugely entertaining and too long to indulge here (but look it up in Wikipedia).

Why the pro-evolution lobby, and people like Clarence Darrow and H L Mencken, would want to crucify the religious right in public is not difficult for any scientifically-minded progressive to comprehend, especially one with a sense of humour. But, asked Stephen Jay Gould, in his perceptive article on the subject, what on earth possessed a liberal and progressive, three-times Presidential candidate like William Jennings Bryan, a man who had devoted his life to social reform, to lead the prosecution, in what he must have known was an ambush (see Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, 1999)? Bryan, ever since lampooned as the villain of the piece, was according to Gould motivated not so much by any fondness for the theory of creationism or its adherents as by a truly messianic hatred of the iniquitous implications of what had already by then become known as Social Darwinism, a vicious ideology of social callousness which owed more to Spencer than Darwin and whose consequences in social inequality and poverty Bryan had spent his life trying to battle. Gould, himself a lifelong bitter opponent of creationists, nevertheless manages to paint a sympathetic portrait of a decent man consigned to history as a buffoon, who found himself on the wrong side for the right reasons.

To socialists this is all old hat now, and they won’t be tempted into the debate between neo-cons and evangelists in the neo-neo-Darwin saga. They know that Darwin wasn’t a social Darwinist, that capitalism doesn’t show the survival of the fittest but in fact destroys the healthy host and preserves the degenerate and useless parasite, and also that the enemy of your religious enemy is not necessarily your friend. Those addicted to the NEW! however might end up scratching their heads over this one.