A Book Review of John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present (Monthly Review Press, 2008).
There are many interesting features of this book, authored by academic Marxists (or at least people who used to be Marxists) and published by a historically Marxist press. The argument is presented as a critical intellectual history, which, while clearly written from a committed ‘materialist’ standpoint, is quite nuanced. But from the standpoint of ID defenders, the book’s most interesting feature is that the authors gladly embrace ID’s demonised image of its opponents. So those who remain sceptical of ID rhetoric that connects Epicurus, Darwin, Marx and Freud as part of a vast ‘materialist’ conspiracy should be silenced by what transpires in these pages: Yes, such scary two-dimensional materialists do really seem to exist – and they write books like this.
Things could be worse. The authors, to their credit, do not indulge in the ‘new atheist’ pastime of diagnosing religious belief as a mental disorder with a possible genetic basis. Rather, they stay on more familiar Marxist ground of arguing that religion serves a deep human need that nevertheless should be overcome if we are truly to mature as a species. However, other than a blind faith in whatever direction science happens to take us, the authors never make clear what such maturity would amount to. Considering that they’re supposed to be Marxists, they are surprisingly dumb to the tension involved in claiming that we are capable of ‘developing’ in an ultimately purposeless universe. Yet, their commitment to radical contingency goes so far as to embrace Stephen Jay Gould’s notion that replaying the tape of life would likely result in a completely different natural history – that is, pointlessness with a vengeance.
The ancient Greek therapeutic philosopher Epicurus functions as an intellectual polestar for the text. Marx did his Ph.D. on Epicurus and was especially taken by the Epicurean project of disabusing people of the existence of gods. It is probably the source of the more general Marxist strategy of ‘demystifying’ ideologies. However, the authors presume that a straight arrow of influence runs from Epicurus to modern science to Marx. Here they fail to take seriously the therapeutic dimension of Epicureanism. Epicurus basically believed that fear of the gods was a major source of unnecessary anxiety. Once people stopped believing, they would realize that their lives are not so momentous, which would then enable them to adapt more effectively to circumstances over which they have relatively little control.
While the authors make much of Epicurus’ materialist metaphysics (which he undoubtedly held), what mattered more was his overriding sense of the randomness of nature. Thus, to ‘free’ oneself of belief in the gods was not meant to empower the patient to take responsibility for nature and penetrate its mysteries. On the contrary, Epicurus wanted his patients to be ‘free’ in the sense of being relieved of fictional burdens that prevent them from leading peaceful vegetative lives. How Freud described Leninism – an ‘infantile neurosis’ – is probably how Epicurus would have described the ceaseless striving associated that is common to Christianity, modern science and Marxism itself. It is more than a little ironic – not to mention disappointing — that I need to point this out to Marxists, who after all are the ones who normally demand that we consider how ideas work in practice.
But this criticism should also alert ID supporters to beware of any blanket condemnations of a general philosophy like ‘materialism’ (which in ID circles, at least, seems to be used to capture something both moral and metaphysical). Here the book’s black-and-white presentation of the ‘Materialism versus Creationism’ narrative means that the authors fail to consider the changing conception of materialism, even within the lifetimes of Marx and Engels. The authors lean heavily on early Marxist writings, which polemically counterposes materialism to Christian supernaturalism very much as the authors themselves do. However, materialism underwent a significant metamorphosis in the 19th century, especially in the physical sciences. It is captured in the history of the concept of ‘energy’, understood as matter’s organizational principle, which in the 20th century expanded into the modern concept of information. The authors neglect this side of the story – but the original Marxists did not. Indeed, Engels actually rated the Unitarian preacher and chemist Joseph Priestley – someone whose views were much closer to ID than to Epicurus – above any of the 18th century French materialists in understanding the ‘dynamic’ character of matter.
Of course, I’m not saying that Engels converted to Christianity in old age, but rather that Marxists have always required a conception of matter much more purposeful – dare I say ‘intelligent’ – than dumb Epicurean atoms to get their own account of human emancipation off the ground. This is why Marxists usually took their Darwin with large doses of Lamarck – sometimes with disastrous consequences (e.g. the Soviet agricultural policy known as Lysenkoism, not discussed here, perhaps unsurprisingly). When the authors mention, almost in passing, that the only thing Marx didn’t like about Darwin was his reliance on Thomas Malthus (Darwin’s inspiration for the theory of natural selection), alert readers should think twice about just how committed Marx was to Darwin. In any case, I rather doubt that Marx and Engels would have had any reason to believe in a planned anything (revolution, economy, etc.), if their materialism entailed the level of chance entailed by, say, Gould’s replayed tape of natural history. In that respect, the book under review represents a very decadent form of Marxism – one that has been abstracted from any sense of purpose that it might have once had.