Russian creationists

New Scientist has this article about something an Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church said about how evolution “should be taught to children as one of several theories, but children should know of other theories too.” They’re pointing out that this is a lot like the “Teach the controversy” approach creationists here in America advocate as part of their “wedge strategy” and how that contrasts with the history of the godless commies of the Soviet Union.

But here’s the thing: Russians being wrong about evolution is not a new phenomenon. It’s not even necessarily a religious or post-Cold War one, either.

Way back around the early 19th century, there was this French naturalist called Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His view was that species evolved, but since they didn’t know shit about genes back then he was completely wrong about how that happened. Lamarck thought traits acquired throughout an individual’s lifetime could be passed on to future generations along with traits which were originally inherited when the individual’s parents reproduced. So a crude way of putting it is that if you have a rat born with large eyes whom for some reason had its tail cut off, according to Lamarck the rat’s progeny should have large eyes and short tails. Also giraffes apparently got their long necks by stretching for food in tall trees, and then passing that stretchiness on to their offspring, according to Lamarck. To be fair, Darwin didn’t know shit about genes either and he was wrong about how units of heredity worked too, but in less significant ways.

Anyway, by the early 20th century Mendel‘s theory of genetics merged with Darwin’s theory on the origin of species and that’s kind of the founding of modern biology. But – and this is where we get back to Russia – at the same time a “geneticist” called Trofim Lysenko starting reviving a hyper-politicized version of Lamackism in the Soviet Union. He managed to convince the political leadership that the accepted theory of genetics was wrong. And he did that not with scientific evidence, but by appealing to its consistency with the prevalent political philosophy of the country.

Funnily enough, if you read the Wedge Document, you’ll see that that’s exactly the approach creationists at the Discovery Institute are now using. Instead of basing theories on facts, they want to base theories on ideologies. For the Discovery Institute, their problem with Darwinian evolution is that it’s too materialistic. For Stalin and Lysenko, their problem with Darwinian evolution was that it wasn’t advocating the exact right kind of materialism. Both camps care(d) more about the implications of scientific theories than about whether or not they were true.

Another weird similarity between modern creationists and Stalin-era pseudoscientists is this weird tendency to try very hard to associate complex issues with a single person. So for creationists, evolutionary biology isn’t just that; it’s DARWINISM. And for Lysenko, genetics wasn’t just genetics, it was “Mendelism-Weissmanism-Morganism.” But then again, you get that with lots of issues which attract kooks – health care reform is “Obamacare,” global warming is really all about Al Gore, etc…

Anyway, even though it apparently helps to spread pseudoscience if you wear funny costumes and have religious beliefs, it’s not completely necessary. The right dichotomy here is between following evidence and following ideology. A lot of times religion has something to do with it, but that’s not the beginning and end of the problem with attacks on science.

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