Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Darwin, Racism and Puppies

Dembski is blathering on about Charles Darwin being a racist and Jason Rosenhouse and PZ Myers have done a good job of answering the charge. Jason correctly points out how easy it is to find thousands of statements from Christians of the same era that are every bit as racist; indeed, far worse because they endorse slavery, which Darwin fiercely opposed. Dembski would no doubt get annoyed if someone quoted that as though it had something to do with the validity of Christianity; why, then, does he do the same thing with Darwin? Because he’s a demagogue and that’s how demagogues behave. And Jason nails what is really going on here:

What I find remarkable is how important creationists think it is to try to discredit Darwin personally. They think they have accomplished something if they can make Darwin look bad. So they endlessly recycle quotes like this or “tell the tale” of how Darwin stole evolution from Wallace or promote countless other little myths that make them feel better about ignoring a century and a half of steady progress in science.

These are the people who lecture us constantly about the great moral insights provided Christianity. Among these insights is said to be the fact that we are all sinners, that we all fall short of God’s glory. Point out to them that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves, thereby participating actively in one of the most evil institutions deivsed by man, and they don’t even bat an eyelash. Sure, they partook in many of the sins of their day, but that does not diminish the greatness of their accomplishments.

Indeed it doesn’t. But for some reason Darwin doesn’t get the same level of respect. Dembski feels no shame in finding a few obnoxious sentences from one of Darwin’s books and using that to dismiss the whole man. Never mind that his racism was completely the product of his time, and that his views were utterly commonplace. Never mind that Darwin compares favorably with his contemporaries on issues of racial understanding and tolerance. Never mind that at that time much of the vilest racial rhetoric ever uttered was coming from pulpits on Sunday morning. Apparently when Dembski objects to someone’s scientific ideas, his spirit of Christian charity goes out the window.

Mind you, this isn’t quite as ridiculous as Sal Cordova’s incredibly dishonest quotation of Darwin about beating puppies. Richard Hughes sent along this dishonest little quotemine from Sal at Dembski’s Home for Wayward Sycophants. Here’s how Sal quotes Darwin:

I beat a puppy, I believe, simply from enjoying the sense of power

Charles Darwin
Autobiography

And here’s the actual quote, in context:

Once as a very little boy whilst at the day school, or before that time, I acted cruelly, for I beat a puppy, I believe, simply from enjoying the sense of power; but the beating could not have been severe, for the puppy did not howl, of which I feel sure, as the spot was near the house. This act lay heavily on my conscience, as is shown by my remembering the exact spot where the crime was committed. It probably lay all the heavier from my love of dogs being then, and for a long time afterwards, a passion.

Changes the meaning just a bit, don’t you think? I can’t think of any possible reason for Sal’s quotemine other than plain old character assassination. The same is true of Dembski’s quotation. It has nothing at all to do with the truth or falsehood of evolution; it is solely about trying to discredit Darwin personally by ripping his statements out of the context of the time. This is how demagogues operate. It may be illogical, but it’s effective rhetoric. And it speaks volumes about the intellectual honesty of the person making it.

Comments

  1. #1 Brandon
    March 23, 2007

    To people who don’t understand science, evolution sounds like a religion, like an alternative to Christianity. If you were going to discourage someone from becoming Christian, for example, you might tell him stories about how Christ was hypocritical or excessively violent, whether these stories were true or not. Never mind the fact that this is an ad hominem argument, but creationists seem to be under the delusion that scientists believe that evolution is “good” or “benevolent.” This, of course, is not true. Evolution, like all scientific truths, is simply there, whether for better or worse. For that reason, attacking anything besides the details of the theory itself is simply pointless and immature.

    On the bright side, Dembski’s rants like these have destroyed anything remotely resembling credibility he may have had in the scientific community.

  2. #2 Dave S.
    March 23, 2007

    You see the same sort of thing from the AIDS denialists. They will attack Robert Gallo interminably as if by undermining him they somehow undermine the HIV/AIDS connection. Apparently they truely believe that everyone that comes afterward simply assumes the pioneer is correct and all future research is based on that assumption. They believe therefore that if you take away the pioneers research (by discrediting the person), all the rest collapses as well. It betrays a deep ignorance on their part of how science works.

  3. #3 The Schwa
    March 23, 2007

    I know if someone were to point out that Isaac Newton was racist, I would have my doubts that F does actually =ma, and I would wonder whether an object in motion does, in fact, tend to stay in motion. These guys are so good at casting doubt on science, it’s scary!

  4. #4 Michael Suttkus, II
    March 23, 2007

    Not only was Newton a racist, but he was an utter criminal. He created an inferior calculus system to Leibnitz, and did so after Leibnitz, but stole full credit for calculus, leaving Leibnitz a footnote for centuries. How can you believe anything produced by such a dishonest man? Face it, gravity is immoral and F=MA is just a religion.

    (And, yes, I know that Newton v. Leibnitz is more complicated than that, but it’s irrelevant to the point.)

  5. #5 tacitus
    March 23, 2007

    Dembski’s personal crusade against Charles Darwin ramped up around Darwin Day (Feb 12th) and hasn’t let up since. If you read some of his posts, it’s clear that he’s becoming increasingly bitter about the high regard in which Charles Darwin is held by scientists and supporters of science everywhere.

    And he’s only going to get shriller as Feb 2009 approaches when the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth will be celebrated, along with the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. Already he is whining about “Darwin Deification” to the point he has written a mock tribute to Darwin and encouraged his fellow IDists to do the same.

    Perhaps Dembski is jealous now that he realizes he will never be truly regarded as the Isaac Newton of information theory.

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 23, 2007

    It’s even worse than you think. Pat Hayes at Red State Rabble checked out one of the quotes used by Dembski, and found this:

    Before we decide, let’s do what Dembski and his readers didn’t. Let’s read the passage in context. Here’s a link to the Project Gutenburg online text of Descent of Man.
    .
    As you can see, the first sentence cited by Dembski (The reckless, degraded…) is Darwin summarizing the views of Greg and Galton. The rest of the paragraph is Darwin quoting Greg.
    .
    Does Darwin do this because he agrees with Greg and Galton? No. He cites their arguments in order to refute them. They argue that if evolution were true, the Irish would “multiply like rabbits” and the good frugal Scots would, by their habit of marrying late, become extinct. In effect, Greg and Galton are making a powerful argument against evolution in man.
    .
    Darwin goes on in succeeding paragraphs to offer a number of arguments against this line of thinking — which after all, challenges the validity of his theory of evolution.
    .
    Nothing in the paragraph, not one word, reflects what Darwin believed….

    Dembksi’s personal hatred for Darwin has been clear at least since his vise strategy action figure abuse photo (May 2005). Darwin was a far better scientist than Dembski, and IMHO, Darwin was a far better human being as well.

  7. #7 Colugo
    March 23, 2007

    While IDists are guilty of irrelevant and dishonest Darwin-bashing in order to attack evolutionary science, we on the other side often overindulge in Darwin veneration. After all, we don’t want to go to the trouble of celebrating Darwin Day and supporting the Beagle Project for someone who is not a good guy.

    We want Darwin to be a deeply admirable person – a progressive in the Victorian era, a man ahead of his time. Perhaps even an example of the salutary effects of science and evolutionary thought on the human mind.

    Like most people, Darwin is a mixed bag. He was progressive in some ways, but in many ways he was very much a man of his time, place, and station. However, just as in the case of Newton, we don’t have to revere Darwin personally, make him into a kind of role model, and soft sell his bad points in order to admire and appreciate his scientific contributions.

  8. #8 Jose
    March 23, 2007

    Darwin made a famous slight against someone ridiculing them for their height. If we employ the same standard of Born Again Political Correctness that this person is using we may have to discard Newtonian physics based on that.

  9. #9 Alan B.
    March 23, 2007

    A couple years ago I was surfing through the channels and paused at TBN long enough to hear someone give a Darwin quote that, to modern sensibilities, sounded fairly sexist, and followed it with, “Now, ladies, you wouldn’t trust someone who would say something like that, would you?” A week earlier I had heard, on the same channel, a long discourse about how a woman had to defer to the authority of her husband, or, if unmarried, to another male relative….

  10. #10 Jim Goff
    March 23, 2007

    What I find remarkable is how important Darwinsts think it is to try to discredit Dembski personally. They think they have accomplished something if they can make Dembski look bad. Brayton feels no shame in finding a few obnoxious sentences from one of Dembski’s blogs and using that to dismiss the whole man.

  11. #11 Raging Bee
    March 23, 2007

    Jim: the difference between Darwin and Dembski is that Darwin gave us solid accomplishments that have withstood the test of time and reality. Dembski has given us nothing but lies, obfuscation, phony science, and defamation.

    Discredit Darwin personally, and you still have the theory of evolution to contend with. Discredit Dembski personally, and you have nothing left but a vacuous pseudoscience barely covering a dishonest religious doctrine — which you can’t discredit without pointing out the dishonesty of its proponents.

  12. #12 Squiddhartha
    March 23, 2007

    tacitus, I don’t think it’s jealousy on the part of Dembski; the IDers, and all the others who promulgate the “Darwinist” label, need evolutionary theory to be equivalent to a personal cult. That allows them to attack the theory by attacking the man, and allows them to paint “Darwinists” as “believers” who are every bit as faith-based as themselves.

    The disconnect between this view, and fact, doesn’t seem to bother them one bit.

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    March 23, 2007

    Jim Goff writes:

    What I find remarkable is how important Darwinsts think it is to try to discredit Dembski personally. They think they have accomplished something if they can make Dembski look bad. Brayton feels no shame in finding a few obnoxious sentences from one of Dembski’s blogs and using that to dismiss the whole man.

    You’re missing a crucial distinction: my criticisms of Dembski are directly related to the issue of his credibility and intellectual honesty. They’re also directly in response to arguments he makes for his position. Thus, they are clearly germane in a way that his criticisms of Darwin’s personal views are not.

  14. #14 Poly
    March 23, 2007

    Let’s understand something here. Darwin did espouse ideas that we would now consider as racist. Not so much in The Origin of Species, but quite a bit in The Descent of Man. Does that make him a racist? That’s a difficult question to answer, and I think any answer would be speculative. What we can say is that in this respect he was in the mainstream of science for his time.

    Pointing to other contemporaries who held similar misapprehensions serves no purpose except to confirm how seriously wrong a consensus may become. It doesn’t indicate anything at all about their positive contributions in there own special fields, any more than it indicates anything about Darwin’s.

    This should tell us that we all should be critical about what scientific knowledge is and what the scientific process is telling us. And what we should concentrate on are those ideas which were able to surpass, in some way, the ‘conventional wisdom’ of their day, and not those which, for whatever reason and in whatever area of knowledge, could not.

  15. #15 Tyler DiPietro
    March 23, 2007

    This should tell us that we all should be critical about what scientific knowledge is and what the scientific process is telling us.

    A good way to put this is that while our understanding from science has improved, so has a great deal of our understanding of science itself. Thinkers like Popper, Quine and Kuhn have contributed a lot to our reasoning about science and the limitations and fallabilities therein. It’s why I think that philosophy of science is an important area of study in addition to science itself. Theoretical auxiliaries help quite a bit.

  16. #16 gwangung
    March 23, 2007

    What I find remarkable is how important Darwinsts think it is to try to discredit Dembski personally.

    What? You think showing how Dembski distorts Darwin’s statements is PERSONAL?

    I do not think you understand the arguments AT ALL, then….

  17. #17 Troy Britain
    March 23, 2007

    For those interested I have a collection of quotes from Darwin on race and slavery on my site.

  18. #18 Jim Goff
    March 24, 2007

    Ed Brayton: “You’re missing a crucial distinction: my criticisms of Dembski are directly related to the issue of his credibility and intellectual honesty. They’re also directly in response to arguments he makes for his position. Thus, they are clearly germane in a way that his criticisms of Darwin’s personal views are not.”

    Yes, in reading your “arguments” against ID theory, I’ve noticed that they’re long on the ad hominem and short on substance. You’ve perfected the art of distorting the arguments made by ID theorists, yet that gives you no pause in accusing them of the same. It’s hard for anyone skeptical of Darwinism to find any value in your writings.

  19. #19 slapge
    March 24, 2007

    You’ve perfected the art of distorting the arguments made by ID theorists, yet that gives you no pause in accusing them of the same. It’s hard for anyone skeptical of Darwinism to find any value in your writings.

    Wow. It isn’t often that you can find such blatant projection and hypocrisy in just 2 sentences…

    I eagerly await the examples of Ed’s distortions of ID “theorists” (say – doesn’t there have to be a theory in order for someone to be a theorist in it?)…. I’m sure they are legion….

  20. #20 Ed Darrell
    March 24, 2007

    Poly said:

    Let’s understand something here. Darwin did espouse ideas that we would now consider as racist. Not so much in The Origin of Species, but quite a bit in The Descent of Man.

    Well, Darwin didn’t much like Turks. But that’s not Dembksi’s charge. Dembski is attempting to claim Darwin was prejudiced against Africans, much as a David Duke, or a similar character — and that’s false.

    Darwin personally opposed slavery, on two grounds: He thought that bondage of humans was immoral, and he was quite opposed to institutions that discriminated against people on the basis of color; in fact, Darwin’s opposition to slavery led to a famous argument with Capt. FitzRoy, with FitzRoy claiming slavery was fine according to scripture. Dembski’s hiding some skeletons in the closet on this issue.

    Darwin’s family, the Wedgwood end, put their fortune on the line to fight slavery. Darwin supported and applauded the work.

    Darwin wrote about the fine qualities of Africans held in bondage whom he had met and read about and heard about. He compared the genius of slaves in Brazil, demanding their freedom, to the genius of the best Roman generals. Racism? It appears Darwin’s crime was too much egalitarianism. Among other reasons Darwin’s theory was opposed in the southern U.S. was the fact that Darwin’s personal beliefs and his science removed any scientific basis to the racism behind slavery, the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws.

    Don’t forget Darwin’s college friend, the African who taught him (masterfully) the art of taxidermy.

    Don’t forget Darwin’s extensive descriptions of the Fuegan the ship delivered back to his home in Tierra del Fuego.

    Especially do not forget Darwin’s lament for the slaughter of Tasmanians in Descent of Man, a lament which I have seen cited as an argument against Darwin’s own views.

    Dembski is simply wrong, again, and cannot seriously be accused of being ignorant of his error.

  21. #21 Bill Snedden
    March 24, 2007

    Goff: Apparently you don’t understand the meaning of the term ad-hominem. Brayton et al don’t maintain that Dembski’s arguments are wrong because he’s a moron. They maintain that his arguments are wrong because they are wrong (and provide mountains of evidence in rebuttal) AND that Dembski is a moron. The former would be ad hominem. The latter is simply the truth.

    But if you disagree, the answer is simple: provide proof via link of Ed’s use of ad hominem. If you can’t, then you should acknowledge your error. ‘kay? Thanks.

  22. #22 Matthew Young
    March 26, 2007

    Seeing as how Darwin was also a Christian, does this alleged racism not discredit all of Christian theology as well? Gosh, we’d better hope the Muslims will forgive us.