1. Dstopak says

    We are truly living in an Orwellian world when Christians blame Darwin for anti-Semitism.

    Hatred of Jews stems directly from Church Doctrine. Who killed Christ? Who spurned his teaching when after all he himself was Jewish preaching to and dieing for Jews? After the early Church leaders, themselves Jews, failed to convert their stubborn co-religionist they turned to the Gentile slaves of the Roman Empire, where the Christian message of salvation had resonance. From then on the Jews were marked as a target, the primary example of those who reject the manifestation of the Son of God.

    Of all of Hitler’s crimes, killing Jews was the most rooted in Christianity, fulfilling the doom decreed by the early Church fathers and their descendants. What chutzpa! What utter lack of self-awareness! What ability to weave a web of lies in the name of truth!

    The Chain of Being be damned, this is a screed as scary as Hitler reborn.

  2. lockean says

    The fear that the people over the hill or deep in the forest are irrational and subhuman savages, who don’t respect incest taboos, who are cannibals, who therefore must be killed, avoided, or enslaved, etc. is found everywhere among human communities and seems to derive directly or indirectly from our instincts. This instinctual fear is expressed among civilized people by pseudo-scientific racial categorization, Minstrel shows, West Virginia jokes, movies like ‘Deliverance’, and political invective against ‘tax-and-spend, bleeding-heart, far-left, extremist America-hating liberals.’ Perhaps your suspicions regarding bible-thumping Creationist Christians, and/or their suspicions regarding you Godless Darwinists are not entirely unrelated phenomena. There is something deeply satisfying about imagining the vileness of our enemies, particularly when they really are our enemies.

    The tendency to classify things in hierarchies also seems to be (however unfortunate) an innate part of our thinking, and doesn’t require a medieval idea like a spore to seed its growth. Wilkins got this notion from (and fails to give credit to) Lovejoy’s ‘Great Chain of Being,’ a book still in print not because it’s accurate, but because it tells us what we want to hear, that we are atop a hierarchy of understanding while our predecessors were superstitious cretins down at the bottom.

    Most Americans and Germans in the late 19th century did not get their notions of evolution from reading Darwin, nor from reading the obscure authors Wilkins digs up. The elephant in the room is Herbert Spencer. Spencer was huge. His books were translated into every major language, read by the intelligensia and elite everywhere, and they did not carry warning labels saying ‘This is Social Darwininism not Darwinism’ (the term wasn’t coined yet), nor ‘This is Spencer’s view of evolution not Darwin’s.’ For all anybody knew, what Spencer said himself and/or described Darwin as saying was the actual Theory of Natural Selection, the latest discovery, the truth about evolution. Even if they tried to read Darwin afterwards and got past the first few chapters, they would read him in the manner Spencer had effectively taught, and sadly Spencer was the better writer. Haekel was the other major German source for evolutionary thought, and his views were as skewed as Spencer’s.

    For all any late 19th century laymen could know, the latest discoveries in science supported euthanizing the physically and mentally infirm, sterilizing the poor, and restricting interbreeding with lesser races.Such ideas had and have nothing to do with medieval philosophy, and only the most tangential and tragic relation to real science.

  3. Steve Watson says

    So lockean: you’re saying that Lovejoy just invented the whole GCB idea, and retroactively imposed it on history? I’ve read the book, and I don’t recall the sort of progressivist-triumphalist message you appear to see there (but it is a longish book with a lot of stuff in it).

  4. Scott Hatfield says

    Hey, PZ:

    At the beginning of the year in my high school classes I introduce the notion of hierarchy with pyramid diagrams. For example, biology is based on chemistry, which in turn is based on physics. Then a little bit later I give then a pyramid diagram with kingdoms at the base and species at the top, but then I warn them about Aristotle’s scala naturae. When I explain that Aristotle thought the elephant second only to man as a created being most of the students instantly get the point: there’s something wrong about speaking of organisms as being ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ on a ladder of life.


  5. lockean says


    I am being rather unfair to Lovejoy, it’s true. It’s frustrating to me that many historians of science don’t consider that people in the past didn’t have freedom of the press and sometimes had to use rhetorical devices to argue indirectly against the authorities of their day, but Lovejoy shouldn’t be singled out. Great Chain is a better book than most. Thanks for calling me out.


  6. says

    Lovejoy is indeed the background to my argument. But it is a very good piece of historical interpretation, and so far as I know it hasn’t been overturned by later research, although the book I am using for the figure is

    Kuntz, Marion Leathers, and Paul Grimley Kuntz, eds. (1988), Jacob’s ladder and the tree of life: concepts of hierarchy and the Great Chain of Being. Rev. ed. Vol. 14, American university studies. Series V, Philosophy. New York: P. Lang.

    The books I cited were not obscure – they were very popular works. I picked them because they were explicit in their racism. But Spencer is greatly misunderstood. So far as I can find, he did not make a racialist argument, and it might even be said he was a liberal rather than a social Darwinist, at least in the early years. Most people who criticise him appear not to have read him.

  7. says

    I read part of Lovejoy’s book when it was assigned (along with Plotinus and Augustine) as background reading for a seminar on Leibniz, and I remember it as really interesting and well done. Even if history of philosophy is not your thing (even I prefer the present, or some of it anyway), I think people interested in fighting (or defending) contemporary forms of Platonism should check it out. Now I will go read John’s post.

  8. lockean says

    Dave and John,

    Great writers from Pico to Shakespeare used the Great Chain of Being as a trope in their writing, but no major work from the Reanaissance to the early Enlightenment read in its entirety supports the notion that this was a formal principle of THINKING. If you know of one, tell me, and I’ll read it if I haven’t already. The foremost organizational principle of a Renaissance or early Enlightenment writer was usually, ‘How do I say this without getting burned at the stake?’ And any historian of science who does not consider the conditions under which a writer had to write is not a competent guide into what those writers were about. I don’t remember Lovejoy considering these issues AT ALL. Does he? And the failure of Lovejoy’s book to be rigorously criticized on this and other issues, doesn’t prove its soundness. What history of science book has ever been rigorously criticized? It’s not that kind of field.

    Second, saying that folks in the Middle Ages described Nature in terms of a Great Chain of Being does not establish that pseudo-scientific racist theories centuries later came from this source. What are the threads of connection besides both being hierarchical? One came after the other, but that does not mean it came FROM the other. If you’re not going to blame Lamark for racism (and I don’t), why blame some poor medieval scribe? Do you really think 18th and 19th cent. racists, whether working as scientists or not, needed ancient tomes to tell them what they wanted to believe? Don’t medieval people have enough sins of their own without being burdened with ours?

    Finally, Herbert Spencer began his career as a classic liberal in the David Hume mould, moved into what we call Utilitarianism and took that to its brutally logical conclusion. He always thought of himself as a liberal. As far as how misunderstood he was or wasn’t, we can delve into that, but the question is, Was he (with Haekel in second) the primary source of evolutionary thought in Germany as I have claimed?

  9. lockean says

    Not necessarily, Goldsteinian. Who Darwin praised could only have influenced German universities and scientists if they actually read Darwin and treated him as an authority. I think who they read was Spencer (in translation) and Haekel. I think they had more influential writers on eugenics.

    Moreover as John Wilkin’s post demonstrates (if nothing else) pseudo-scientific racism long predates Darwin. Where did it come from?

    How did Europeans heretofore satisfied to despise others by the universal human categories of custom, religion, language group, etc. suddenly decide to invent a new category? How did they go from seeing the Greeks as a race, the Romans as another one, and the Persians as another, to imagining vast biological groups spread across continents–“Caucasians, Negroes, Mongoloids,’ etc. How did they go from thinking Group X is inferior because their customs, habits, laws, religion, or appearance are allegedly inferior, to thinking more or less that Group X is inferior because they are part of a larger human species or subspecies whose customs, habits, laws, etc will inevitably be inferior because of the ‘race’ they belong to?

    How and why did Europeans and only Europeans imagine this new reality? Was it because their ships were the first to really travel the world? Was it because of the slave trade? Did it come from Science? Did it come from Humanism? Was it an attempt to explain European military and political hegemony? I don’t know. To say it came from Darwin is anachronistic. To say it came from the Great Chain of Being is ludicrous. But I don’t know where it did come from.

    Moreover, how much did these racial theories have to do with the rise of the Nazi’s? I don’t know that either.

  10. says

    I’ve only read Lovejoy’s work, and found it pretty good to the extent that I know the history (which is fairly well in terms of the major figures, but I am still of course an amateur in that area). But I don’t know how to evaluate the claim that GCoB had a role to play explicitly in racism and that. Creationism, sure. It is vital in understanding Leibniz, for example.