Many MR readers will remember when teaching the theory of evolution was prohibited by law in some U.S. states. This wasn’t just at the time of the infamous Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925 but still decades later. In the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, the anti-evolution law took on a new significance, symbolizing the suppression of intellectual freedom which was the hallmark of that grim episode in U.S. history. In 1955, the ACLU, which had initiated the original constitutional test of the Tennessee law that culminated in the Scopes trial, again called for repeal of the law, as a symbol of every attack on the freedom of thought. That same year, “Inherit the Wind” appeared on Broadway, presenting the “monkey trial” as a thinly disguised metaphor for McCarthyism.
The point here is that there was a time, not so very long ago, when no even mildly progressive person, and certainly no one on the left, would have had any doubts about what it meant to suppress the teaching of evolution. It represented not just some laughable flat-earth ignorance but a dangerous assault on basic freedoms and even a foretaste of fascism.
Today, something has changed. The outright legal prohibition of evolutionary theory in the classroom is probably a thing of the past in the United States, but the recent decision by the Kansas school board to “discourage” the teaching of evolution and to exclude questions about it from student evaluation tests is alarmingly close. The striking thing about this decision isn’t so much that it happened—after all, in recent years we’ve become accustomed to the excesses of Christian fundamentalism. What’s even more frightening is that the instinct to oppose this kind of thing seems to have become a lot weaker than it used to be. A major lead piece in the Sunday New York Times “Week in Review,” for instance, was pretty calm about the Kansas decision and simply suggested that evolution and creationism be taught side-by-side. And no politician has had the guts to denounce the decision as the dangerous and retrogade step that it is.
But more remarkable still is the fact that Christian fundamentalism can now find support in the work of some supposedly radical academics. For instance, that NY Times piece points out that creationists have invoked the relativistic arguments of postmodern philosophy, suggesting that the theory of evolution, no less that creationism, is built on certain basic tenets of faith. Making that kind of connection between creationism and postmodernism may, as theTimes says, be “an act of intellectual jujitsu” on the part of creationists, but the fact is that their attack on science isn’t a million miles away from the postmodernist critique.
People living at the end of the twentieth century aren’t likely to be unaware of all the things that can be said about the evils perpetrated with the help of science. Nor are socialists likely to be unfamiliar with the observation that scientific knowledge, like any other expression of human consciousness, is mediated by all kinds of things, from the biological apparatus of human perception to the collective values of a given society; that scientific practice is affected by its time and place; and that scientists, like other human beings, are susceptible to influence by everything from material interests to cultural habits to their own psychological idiosyncracies. And we’ve all certainly experienced attempts to close off debate by means of appeal to the higher authority of scientific expertise.
But surely the whole point about scientific knowledge—in the now conventional meaning of “science” (which we refuse to call “Western science,” as postmodernist critics are inclined to do)—is that, whether it succeeds or not, it’s meant to be critically self-conscious about its own flaws and to look for methods of transcending them, as far as is humanly possible. It’s a form of knowledge that’s defined by the obligation to question and to test, not to take appearances for granted or to leave authority unchallenged. In other words, it’s defined by qualities that are essential to a critical and democratic intelligence.
You would think, then, that critiques of science, especially from the left, would have more to do with its failures to live up to its own principles than with the principles themselves. But instead we’re getting what, for lack of a better word, we can only call irrationalism, of which the rejection of scientific reason is just one example. The United States may be the only country in the advanced capitalist world where an absurdity like the Kansas decision could happen. But the irrationalist trend has become a fairly widespread current—not just in various kinds of religious fundamentalism but in the intellectual culture of the West.
The new irrationalism is frightening enough, but it’s especially so when our intellectual resources for combatting it seem to be depleted. It’s hard to know exactly why this is happening. To say that it’s all a response to the horrors of the twentieth century, or to the imperialism of “Western” science, doesn’t seem adequate somehow. What we’re seeing here isn’t just revulsion against the crimes and oppressions of our time but a suspension of precisely those critical faculties that should be mobilized against them.
It’s true that the flight from fear and despair to superstition is an old story. As long ago as the seventeenth century, the philosopher Spinoza, for instance, commented on it. It’s possible that, at least in some cases, in a world with plenty of desperate people, we’re seeing that kind of escape. But how does that explain the irrationalism of left intellectuals in the richest countries of the world?
Whatever the explanation for this cultural trend, one thing about it may be revealing: it tends to be associated with the view that there is no alternative to the world as we now know it, or more specifically, no alternative to capitalism. For those who still believe that there is a better world to hope and struggle for, the tools of critical reason, such as those at work in scientific inquiry, are an indispensable weapon in the arsenal of human liberation.
Rose N. Rubin, a friend and supporter of Monthly Review since its founding, died last summer at 91. MR board member John J. Simon, who knew her, writes:
Rose Rubin was born in Dorchester—then a Jewish working-class neighborhood in Boston. It was from there that she later commuted by streetcar to Radcliffe College—an institution not known for welcoming either Jews or the daughters of the poor; nonetheless, she made this journey to the vertex of higher education for women and to a world of intellectual ferment, in which she honed her lifelong commitment to social justice and to socialism. Always an activist, Rubin participated in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys, and organized support for the Spanish Republic. In the later thirties, along with her husband Bill Rubin, a prosperous businessman who shared her radicalism, she helped found the American Russian Institute, a research center for analysis of Soviet affairs. During the Second World War, the Institute played an important role in mobilizing popular support for the Soviet struggle against Hitlerite fascism.
With seemingly limitless energy, Rubin joined and often provided leadership for a variety of radical causes, including the founding of the Jefferson School for Social Science (an innovative adult education project sponsored by the Communist Party), Henry Wallace’s 1948 third party presidential race, Vito Marcantonio’s multiple (and successful) Congressional campaigns, and the National Guardian, an independent radical newsweekly that was, with Monthly Review, a rare voice opposing the Cold War.
In the sixties, Rubin, a proud “old lefty,” nonetheless threw herself into the causes of young radicals. She was an early supporter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the peace movement and the struggle against the war in Vietnam, the emergent feminist movement, and, for forty years, a champion of the Cuban revolution. A person of small stature, Rubin cast a long, militant shadow on the history of her times.
Rose Rubin is survived by two activist daughters, Nancy and Susan, and a multitude of friends and comrades. Her daughters have suggested that, in her memory, donations be made to Monthly Review Foundation.
We want to thank W.H. Locke Anderson for his many years of contribution and commitment as Associate Editor of MR.
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