It was a good weekend for fools. Someone tried to claim that manspreading was an anatomical feature of the male skeleton; a biological anthropologist slapped that nonsense right down. The alt-right continues to express their indignation at the idea that the Roman empire was ethnically and racially diverse; no less an expert than Mary Beard splattered that one, with an amusing amount of politeness and incredulity. Against all that, the appearance of yet another loon declaring that Charles Darwin was a fraud and evolution is wrong is comparatively mundane and routine, but I guess I’ll take a poke at it.
It’s an article written by a guy named A.N. Wilson, published in the Evening Standard. Wilson also publishes in the Daily Mail, so you kind of know where he is coming from. He declares that he has spent the last 5 years working on a book about Darwin, which is less of a mark of distinction than you might think — he previously wrote a biography of Hitler that was panned scathingly.
Novelists (notably Mann) and literary scholars (such as J P Stern) have sometimes managed to use a novel angle of approach to say something new and provocative about Hitler, the Nazis and the German people. However, there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style; just evidence of the repellent arrogance of a man who thinks that because he’s a celebrated novelist, he can write a book about Hitler that people should read, even though he’s put very little work into writing it and even less thought.
I have no idea of his status as a novelist, but apparently he thinks he can write a book about Darwin that people should read, even though he’s put very little work into writing it and even less thought. We know this because his little op-ed is a steaming pile of ill-informed garbage. His research seems to have consisted of scouring the creationist literature.
Funnily enough, in the course of my researches, I found both pride and prejudice in bucketloads among the ardent Darwinians, who would like us to believe that if you do not worship Darwin, you are some kind of nutter. He has become an object of veneration comparable to the old heroes of the Soviet Union, such as Lenin and Stalin, whose statues came tumbling down all over Eastern Europe 20 and more years ago.
You know, evolutionary biologists will all tell you that Darwin was a smart man who had a remarkably powerful insight, but that he was born over two centuries ago, lacked the biological background we now take for granted, and made a few mistakes himself. We can appreciate the great contributions he made to science without granting him godhood. Yet it’s common in the creationist literature to claim that ‘Darwinists’ worship the man in the same way they worship Jesus.
It’s also a common creationist trope to tie the contemporaries Darwin and Marx together (they also usually include Freud) in a kind of sympathetic magic — they lived at the same time! Marx’s communism collapsed! Therefore, Darwin’s evolution will also collapse! Any day now. Just you wait.
That was his first paragraph, and he’s already got everything wrong and is basically lying about the science. How can it get worse? Someone, hold his beer.
Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are. It is a theory whose truth is NOT universally acknowledged. But when genetics got going there was also a revival, especially in Britain, of what came to be known as neo-Darwinism, a synthesis of old Darwinian ideas with the new genetics. Why look to Darwin, who made so many mistakes, rather than to Mendel? There was a simple answer to that. Neo-Darwinism was part scientific and in part a religion, or anti-religion. Its most famous exponent alive, Richard Dawkins, said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. You could say that the apparently impersonal processes of genetics did the same. But the neo-Darwinians could hardly, without absurdity, make Mendel their hero since he was a Roman Catholic monk. So Darwin became the figurehead for a system of thought that (childishly) thought there was one catch-all explanation for How Things Are in nature.
Darwinism is exactly science as Mendelian genetics are. Darwinism: a rough pencil sketch of the process of biological change, written out with a few examples, that was subsequently greatly expanded with a century of more detailed work. Mendelian genetics: a rough pencil sketch of the process of inheritance, written out with a few examples, that was subsequently greatly expanded with a century of more detailed work. Contrary to Wilson’s implications, Mendelian genetics is a great oversimplification, important for getting us on the right track, but one of the early arguments against it was that it didn’t seem to apply to most of the patterns of inheritance we see. Mendel made mistakes, too: I can give you exceptions to all four of his “laws”. Mendel did not finish all of genetics. Trust me, every year I get a crop of students who think that because they understand the terms “dominant” and “recessive” and can draw a Punnett square, they fully understand genetics.
The comparison of Darwin and Mendel is actually apt: two guys who had a profound insight that established a scientific framework for understanding an important biological process that led to an explosion of research that refined and expanded upon their early observations. Also, evolution is no more going away than is genetics.
As for the canard that we don’t like Mendel because he was Catholic…bullshit. I play up the importance of Mendel and specifically address the revolution in thinking about inheritance that he discovered to my classes, and I’m a goddamned atheist. Meanwhile, Darwin spent most of his life waffling on the god question, decided he was an agnostic, and simply avoided ever addressing it in public — and I tell my students that Darwin was not an atheist. Religion just isn’t a factor here, and is more of a personal complication than a key component of our interpretation of their work.
OK, Wilson, keep the nonsense flowing.
The great fact of evolution was an idea that had been current for at least 50 years before Darwin began his work. His own grandfather pioneered it in England, but on the continent, Goethe, Cuvier, Lamarck and many others realised that life forms evolve through myriad mutations. Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution, so he tried to airbrush all the predecessors out of the story. He even pretended that Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, had had almost no influence on him. He then brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false.
Evolution was an inevitable theory — both Wallace and Darwin came up with the idea, and it is true that there were predecessors who came close. But for someone who “wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution”, Darwin was awfully reluctant. Sitting on your marvelous idea (and he knew exactly how important it would be) for 30 years is not exactly a symptom of ambition. Also, being eager to be fair to Wallace and giving equal credit to him to the Royal Society doesn’t fit Wilson’s characterization.
But most of those predecessors did not actually identify the central principle of evolution: that it is a property of populations, not individuals. Most of those others saw evolution as the product of individual striving, rather than shifts in the frequency of kinds of individuals in a population. That’s the insight that had people smacking their foreheads and wondering why they didn’t think of it before, because it was so obvious once you accepted that frame.
But what, pray tell, are Darwin’s two false ideas?
One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.
Oh, please, this is another creationist trope: that punctuated equilibrium is anti-Darwinian, and that the “missing links” are missing. Gould and Eldredge were arguing that the pace of evolutionary change, and the infrequency of fossilization in small populations, would mean that most of the changes would be invisible to us. Every evolutionist groans at the words “missing links” because we don’t believe in them — every population is a gemisch of variation, speciation is complex and messy, and there is no single thread of change. The very idea is a betrayal of the key concept of evolution, of thinking in terms of populations.
When people talk of “missing links”, I just want to ask who, among the 7 billion people on Earth, do they think is the “missing link” to the population of Homo sapiens who will be living here in the year 2100? Do you think that if we dig around in 19th century graveyards we can find the skull of the missing link between Victorians and the Disco generation?
Hard-core Darwinians try to dispute this, and there are in fact some “missing links” — the Thrinaxodon, which is a mammal-like reptile, and the Panderichthys, a sort of fish-amphibian. But if the Darwinian theory of natural selection were true, fossils would by now have revealed hundreds of thousands of such examples. Species adapt themselves to their environment, but there are very few transmutations.
There are lots of transitional forms. Again, this is standard issue creationist bullshit, and blatantly so, of the type I was debating against in the 1980s.
And what is Darwin’s second grievous error?
Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless: that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall. Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer. He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things. He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.
We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.
OH GOD. THIS MAN IS WRITING A BIOGRAPHY OF DARWIN? Darwin did not propose that Nature was always ruthless. Darwin is the guy who also came up with the idea of sexual selection, and as Wilson has already pointed out, favored a more gentle, gradual pattern of incremental change (we even call it “gradualism” now). He was a man of his times, which were far more brutally racist than those ideas of Darwin’s — he was prejudiced, but he was relatively less so than many of his contemporaries. We can not excuse his biases, but when you call out the abolitionist and blame him for Nazism, while ignoring the whole damn edifice of Victorian-era colonialism and exploitation, I think you’re missing the mark.
Evolutionary theory did not lead to National Socialism — the Nazis despised Darwin, banned his books, and instead praised the church as a unifying moral force in the country. Look to Houston Stewart Chamberlain for a philosophical foundation of Hitler’s ideas — he hated Darwin. He loved Goethe.
Meanwhile, the Nazis admired the American policy of extermination of the Indians, which, unless you think Europeans waited until 1859 to begin the slaughter, was pre-Darwinian. Eugenics was only named by a Darwinian, but it had been practiced for millennia by farmers. This is just another creationist cliche that is anachronistic and wrong.
For a more balanced perspective, read Robert Richards’ Was Hitler a Darwinian (pdf), which is an excellent critique of this whole line of nonsensical thinking.
In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!
Wilson apparently has not read any of the credible historical or scientific literature on Darwin, but that doesn’t stop him from scribbling up his biases into a whole book that someone is seeing fit to publish. This opinion piece is apparently an attempt to publicize that book (it’s coming out next month!), but it is bad PR for what is obviously going to be drivel. The good news is that Richard Evans will be able to change a few proper names and recycle his previous review of a Wilson book, which will make it easy: while some people could say something new and provocative about Darwin, “there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style”.
Don’t buy it, obviously.