2 min

ID versus determinism

George Hislop in the DNA

Americans are all in a tizzy about Intelligent Design (ID), a theory claiming that aspects of evolution only make sense if there are design intentions behind them, some invisible guiding hand. Whose hand? One guess… his name starts with G and ends with D. ID is religion disguised as science so it can be taught in schools.

I’m aware that public schools are the only sphere of American society where explicit religiosity has been exorcised, making this a major culture war. But I find it odd that people so readily dismiss ID as nutty, considering that very few nonscientists seem comfortable adopting the only other worldview possible, if you pay attention to science.

The scientifically mandated world view? Humans are here by an accident of random mutation and natural selection, soulless creatures like any other, whose every action is determined by genes and environmental inputs. There is no meaning of life. The fact that you’re wearing that bright orange vest isn’t a demonstration of your capricious trend-bucking soul; it’s because a certain admittedly large set of material factors — a hormone wash in the womb, an influential grade-five teacher and your proximity to a Goodwill store may be leading ones — made your purchase of the vest inevitable. Every aspect of your life is determined.

Determinism has always played a part in talk about homosexuality. Some people claim they’re born gay; because it’s innate, you shouldn’t question it. If typical ID advocates weren’t so homophobic, they might use homosexuality as a perfect example of ID. Homosexuality drastically reduces the chance of someone having kids, so it makes little intuitive sense in a purely Darwinian world and could very well be part of God’s intelligent design. Instead, rightwingers are more likely to use determinism against us, claiming, for example, that AIDS is an inevitable result of (punishment for?) the gay “lifestyle.”

The recent death of pioneering gay activist George Hislop at age 78 raises questions about free choice and how an individual can shape the world. Certainly, Hislop’s death has triggered some soul-searching (if there is a soul, of course) here in Toronto, particularly amongst gay men of a certain age. What have I achieved? What are my contributions? How much of my life has been shaped by the flow of history — particularly the gay and lesbian liberation movement that blossomed since the 1960s — and how much by my own efforts? Are there particular people who deserve particular credit for the amazing changes of the last 30-plus years and, if so, who are they?

I’ve overheard some gay Torontonians wonder why Hislop has received such acclaim. It’s true that Hislop’s ventures in business and electoral politics were not particularly successful. But I think his achievement — where he had the most effect and played the role that few others were capable of playing — was as a personality. I hate to use the word “representative” because there are far too many self-appointed ones around and, hey, we’re all too diverse nowadays to be represented, but Hislop was an incomparable representative.

What Hislop founded or who he fought (though he did lots of founding and fighting) matters less than the style with which he did it. In a closeted 1950s world, he was out. To a straight eye, nurtured on very limited, negative stereotypes, Hislop didn’t seem like self-loathing damaged goods. He didn’t seem like a sicko or a criminal, though early in his life he would have certainly qualified as both.

At the same time, he was not a neutered show dog. He didn’t censor his sexual appetites or cut off pieces of himself in order to win acceptance. To an “average Canadian,” Hislop was somebody you could hang out and have a drink with. That wins over the public more than any good argument can.

Perhaps Hislop was born with his charm genetically imprinted. That doesn’t make him any less an agent of change. He chose to wield his powers for good and happily handed the rewards on to others. That’s the kind of intelligent design I could learn to love.