Fundamentalism And The Year Of 2005

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 02

January 08,

And The Year Of 2005




2005 closes and 2006 opens, we find that scientific outlook against Christian
fundamentalism has made an important gain with the rejection of intelligent
design theory by an US court. At the same time, it also suffered a serious
reverse as Hwang Woo-Suk’s research on therapeutic cloning was found to be
fabricated. In the battle against fundamentalism waged worldwide, the results
are a mixed bag for the year.




are major events in science. Intelligent design is just a cover up to teach the
Biblical story of creation in another way. It is virtually a pariah even in the
US academic circles where Christian fundamentalists have been fighting for more
than 100 years to have evolution banned from being taught in schools. If not
banned – they argue – then it must not be privileged over other views of
creation such as the Bible. After failing in all such attempts with the courts
striking down the teaching of religion in state supported schools, the
fundamentalists have hit upon a new stratagem. It consisted of clothing all the
old arguments against evolution to claim a space in schools for a theory of
Intelligent Designer of all life. Who this Designer is, was left unsaid. During
the proceedings in the court case in a Pennsylvania town, where a school board
had prescribed teaching of Intelligent Design, the supporters even
disingenuously suggested that it need not be god, it could also be a being from
outer space! Fortunately for the Pennsylvania children, where a school board had
introduced this in the 9th standard biology curriculum, US District Judge John
Jones has now ruled that teaching “intelligent design” would violate
the Constitutional separation of church and state. In his view, Intelligent
Design is nothing but religion dressed up differently. Intelligent Design may
finally be on the way to meet its maker! Kansas children are not so lucky, as a
Kansas court has allowed this.


the Pennsylvania judge, incidentally a Republican Bush appointee, ruled against
intelligent design, the Kansas court refused to intervene in a similar case.
This is not surprising in a country where 44 per cent believe that Darwin’s
theory of evolution is wrong and their president has gone on record to support
intelligent design being given space in science curriculum. Or a country where
fundamentalists routinely bomb clinics where medical termination of pregnancies
are carried out and even target doctors and nurses working there for
assassination. While teaching bad biology or science in the US matters only to
the US, fundamentalism takes on a different dimension if its president Bush
claims that he attacked Iraq because God spoke to him. If a leader in a
developing country spoke for the creation of myth to be taught in a science
course or justified his political action as a result of god’s communion with
him, international media – read the western media – would have gone to town
on Islamic or various other kinds of backward beliefs so prevalent in such
backward societies. Bush, of course, is immune to such criticism, never mind the
consequences for Iraq (or West Asia) or even his own country.




the Christian fundamentalists attempts to smuggle religion as science failed in
the US, the scientific community was also deeply scarred by the fraud committed
by Hwang in stem cell research. It was a spectacular self-goal because stem cell
research is already under serious attack by the Christian fundamentalists. Stem
cell research uses stem cells from aborted foetus. Such use of aborted foetus
has come under attack as anti-abortionists oppose all abortion, even when it is
done for therapeutic reasons or to preserve the life of the mother. By
introducing fraud in this highly contested field, Hwang has just helped all
those who are opposed to science in any case. It is not that Hwang’s fraud is
the most important one in science in the last few decades, but it is certainly
the most visible one, partly due to the contested nature of stem cell research
and also due to the promise that therapeutic cloning held out. It is now
clear that we are not likely to have a stack of ready made body parts grown from
our own cells to replace our damaged ones
. The promise of
therapeutic cloning in which we can grow replacement body parts is still there,
but the date is uncertain.
And it may still go the way of gene therapy
touted as a solution to all birth defects 25 years back, but has still to make
the cut.


cell research is based on how the single cell that all embryos start with get
differentiated later to become specialised cells of specific organs. Obviously,
the single cell that we start with has the potential to become specialised which
it loses later. Stem cells are therefore special and if they can be created from
the patient’s own cells from cloning, then we, at least theoretically, would
have the possibility of growing our own body parts from our own genetic
material. This is what therapeutic cloning – or regenerative medicine – is
all about.


stem cell research with its immense potential of repairing damaged body parts
has also drawn the ire of Christian fundamentalists. Currently, the only way
stem cells can be harvested is from aborted embryos. Since Christain
fundamentalists oppose all abortion – irrespective of any reason – they have
also opposed all stem cell research. In the US, stem cell research funding has
been cut and the field made so restricted that researchers believe that it is
not possible to do good quality stem cell research in the US. In spite of
support from Nancy Reagan and Christopher Reeves, stem cell research continues
to be under attack in the US, an attack that is openly supported by a
fundamentalist president.




work was important on two counts. One was that he appeared to have successfully
derived stem cells by infusing the nucleus of the patient into the egg cells
harvested from donors. So the embryo was the clone of the patient and the cell
lines derived from this embryo then would be capable of generating parts in
patient’s body where it would be introduced. While this is not a simple issue,
it was thought that generating a patient specific stem cell line meant that at
least a very important first step had been taken. The second reason for its
importance is that it would also show how the US was falling behind in an
important scientific area due to fundamentalism. While the fraud that Hwang
committed has impacted seriously the area of regenerative medicine, it would be
on par with some other frauds that have been uncovered in the last 20 years in
science. Unfortunately, the damage to the other battle of Hwang’s fraud has
been considerable.


is not that therapeutic cloning is the magic wand which will solve all problems
of damaged body organs. There is important work being done in the world in this
regard, including, for example, in L V Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad. Here,
stem cell research is being done to repair damaged cornea with some success. But
it is important to understand that in science whether such breakthroughs will
take place next year of after 20 years or never at all is impossible to predict.
Gene therapy, regarding which also such predictions were made 25 years back, has
yet to take off. However, all such avenues need to be pursued as any
breakthrough in any of these areas brings hope to people who currently have no
hope. To stop research on the basis of religious beliefs is to snatch such hope
away from people suffering from terminal conditions. It was Christopher Reeves
becoming completely paralysed after breaking his vertebral column that he became
a champion of stem cell research. So also with Nancy Regan. When Ronald Reagan
became a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, the only hope lay in stem cell


evolution or stem cell research is only some of the examples of fundamentalist
assault on science. Earlier, the church (or similar religious institutions)
could dictate what could or could not be done by science. A whole range of areas
was earlier outside their domain. Now fundamentalism has to wear scientific
clothes to oppose science. This is in itself a victory for science. But the war
is far from over. It continues whether over teaching evolution in the US or over
the origins of Harappan civilisation in India. The people and views may be
different, but the method is same. Parade selective evidence to support
pre-conceived notions and claim this is scientific: this is the strategy of
fundamentalism today –– from Kansas to India.