Writing at Christian Today Tony Campolo has unleashed a stunningly stupid barrage of attacks against Charles Darwin.
Campolo is a bit of a celebrity among the evangelical left. He can thump his Bible with the best of them, but also defends progressive political positions. That he is usually a rare voice of political moderation in an ocean of evangelical narrow-mindedness makes this essay especially disappointing. We consider his essay in full.
Many supporters of the principle of separation of church and state say that the Intelligent Design Theory of creation ought not to be taught in public schools because that it contains a religious bias.
They say that Intelligent Design proponents suggest that the evolutionary development of life was not the result of natural selection, as Charles Darwin suggested, but was somehow given purposeful direction and, by implication, was guided by God.
Where to begin? The main reason for not teaching ID in schools is that its scientific claims are universally false. It’s that simple. We shouldn’t teach ID in science classes for the same reason we shouldn’t teach 1+1=3 in math classes.
The reason it should be illegal to teach ID in the schools is that it does, indeed, run afoul of the separation of church and state. Saying that it contains a religious bias is a huge understatement. In reality it is nothing more than an attempt to put a scientific gloss on certain sectarian Christian religous ideas about the creation of the universe.
Furthermore, nearly all supporters of ID reject the common ancestry of life on Earth. It is therefore an error to present the movement as if it represents some challenge from within evolutionary theory. Most ID supporters hope to achieve considerably more than a reassessment of the mechanisms of evolution.
Arguing in favour of what they believe is a non-prejudicial science, they contend that children in public schools ought to be taught Darwin’s explanation of how the human race evolved, which they claim is value-free and dependent solely on scientific evidence. Nothing could be further from the truth! (Emphasis in original.)
I’m sure I could find a few things farther from the truth than the idea that evolutionary theory is dependent solely on the evidence, or that it is value free. We also should not let slide the reference to “Darwin’s explanation” as if evolutionary theory has not progressed in the last two centuries.
This is a prelude to a load of ignorant, scurrilous, oft-refuted crap about what a big racist Charles Darwin was. Let’s have a look:
In reality, Darwin’s writings, when actually read, express the prevalent racism of the nineteenth century, and endorse an extreme laissez faire political ideology that legitimates the neglect of the suffering poor by the ruling elite.
Those who argue at school board meetings that Darwin should be taught in public schools seldom have taken the time to read what he had to say. If they even knew the full title of his book, which is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, they might have gained some inkling of the racism propagated by this controversial theorist.
And with these two paragraphs Campolo dismisses himself from all serious consideration. He is just another twit repeating talking points on topics about which he knows nothing.
Campolo has a lot of nerve boasting of having read Darwin’s work. If he had invested any care in such a project he would know that the “races” referred to in the subtitle of Darwin’s book were not human races at all. Indeed, The Origin says almost nothing about human evolution. Darwin, following common usage of the time, was using “races” the way we use the word “subspecies.” Meanwhile, “favored” did not mean “favored by God,&rdquo, or “favored in some moral sense.” It meant simply favored with anatomical variations that gave their bearers a leg-up in the competition for survivial.
The canard that Darwin was a racist because he referred to “favored races” is one of the hoariest creationist cliches there is. It is far more foolish, and far more obscene, than creationist classics like, “Natural selection is a meaningless tautology!” and “Evolution conflicts with the second law of thermodynamics!” I had thought this argument was the exclusive domain of the very dumbest religious extremists. To see a normally serious fellow like Campolo making this point is really quite depressing.
And if Campolo intends us to worry that accepting evolution leads to the legitimation of neglect for the suffering poor at the hands of the ruling elite, he really needs to explain why it is the anti-evolution wing of the American electorate that most stronlgy supports the neglect of the poor. Anti-evolutionism and political conservatism go hand in hand. It was President Bush and his fellow right-wingers, anti-evolutionists virtually without exception, who spent the last eight years doing everything in their considerable power to gut every social program that aided poor people. Their guiding economic philosophy was the redistribution of wealth upwards.
The people who support aid to the poor are precisely the political progressives with whom Campolo closely associates. They are also the ones most likely to believe that control over science curricula should not be farmed out to brain-dead religious know-nothings. Go figure.
Then, if they had gone on to read his second book, The Descent of Man, it is likely that they would be shocked to learn that among Darwin’s scientifically based proposals was the elimination of “the negro and Australian peoples,” which he considered to be savage races whose continued survival was hindering the progress of civilisation.
In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin went so far as to rank races in terms of what he believed was their nearness and likeness to gorillas. He further proposed the extermination of those races which he “scientifically” defined as inferior. To not do so, he claimed, would result in those races, which have much higher birth rates than his designated superior races, exhausting the resources needed for the survival of better people, and eventually dragging down all of civilization.
Darwin even argued against advanced societies wasting time and money on caring for those who are insane, or suffer from birth defects. To him, these unfit members of our species ought not to survive.
Campolo does not provide any quotations to support these contentions. But these charges are so tiresome and cliched, that others have taken the time to refute them. The ever-useful Wikipedia provides some of the grim details.
Here’s a typical example. In the Descent of Man Darwin wrote the following:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.
You will search that paragraph in vain for any suggestion that Darwin supports anti-poor social policies or that he desires to exterminate the lesser races. Indeed, it seems pretty clear Darwin was saying exactly the opposite. But you can imagine what that paragrpah looks like after the creationist quote-miners chop it up and conveniently omit certain strategic clauses. (And if you can’t imagine it, go to the Wikipedia article to see how the trick is done.)
By modern standards we can find passages in Darwin’s writing that come off as terribly racist. His casual references to savages, as opposed to civilized people, is not something anyone would write today. But if this is to be the standard, I think you will be hard-pressed to find anyone of Darwin’s time and social class who was not a fire-breathing racist. It is a triviality to find Christian preachers of the time defending slavery and overt racism in explicitly religious terms. Should I worry about the ethical impications of accepting Christianity?
In case you think that Darwin sounds like a Nazi, you are not far from the truth. Konrad Lorenz, a biologist who provided much of the propaganda for the Nazi party, made Darwin’s theories the basis for his polemics. The Pulitzer Prize winner, Marilynne Robinson, in her insightful essay on Darwin, points out that the German nationalist writer, Heinrich von Treitschke, and the biologist, Ernst Haeckel, also drew on Darwin’s writings as they helped Hitler develop those racist ideas that led to the Holocaust.
You just knew that was coming.
The casual linking of Darwin with Nazis is another of those asinine talking points that immediately dismisses the speaker from serious consideration. For a brief overview of how silly this is, go here. But even taking Campolo’s claims at face value they don’t add up to much. He has identified three people who accepted evolution and who also endorsed loathsome political views. From this we are meant to conclude that acceptance of evolution leads to acceptance of Nazi racial theories.
How impressed would Campolo be if I started piling up the examples of loathsome Christian racists and political extremists? Would he slap his forehead and conclude that Christianity leads naturally to vile opinions? Of course not.
Let’s bring it home:
Those creationists who fear Darwin because his theories contradict their literal Biblical belief that creation occurred in six 24-hour days, do not get at the real dangers of Darwinism. They do not realise that an explanation of the development of biological organisms over eons of time really does not pose the great threat to the dignity of our humanity that they suppose. Instead, they, along with the rest of us, should really fear the ethical implications of Darwinism.
I hope that in school our children will be taught that it is up to science to study the processes that gave birth to the human race. But, as postmodern as it may be, I also want them to learn that whatever science discovers about our biological origins, there is, nevertheless, a mystical quality in human beings that makes each of us sacred and of infinite worth.
Personally, I hold to the belief that, regardless of how we got here, we should recognise that there is an infinite qualitative difference between the most highly developed ape and each and every human being. Darwin never recognised this disjuncture. And that is why his theories are dangerous.
After the torrent of ignorance that characterized the earlier part of the essay, this ending seems downright anti-climactic. Personally I am far less impressed by the merits of humanity than Campolo. To say there is an “inifinite qualitative difference” between humans and apes is absurd, and is utterly at odds with biological reality. But that has nothing to do with the obligations we all have towards one another. Quite the contrary, in fact.
As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out a whle back, evolution pretty much proves racial equality. The evolutionary split between humans and apes, and the subsequent diversification of humanity into distinct subpopulations, occurred so recently that there simply has not been time for significant cognitive differences to develop. Evolution also promotes a feeling of kinship and relatedness among all human beings, and also with the rest of nature. It is not hard to build congenial moral and political views on such a foundation.
Christianity, by contrast, neatly divides the world into the saved and the not saved. It teaches that people who dissent from certain key theological points will spend an eternity in hell for their freethought. It claims to have the absolute truth on issues about which no one has any business being certain, and it claims that it’s holy book is an infallible source of wisdom and information.
People who believe such things have nothing to teach the rest of us about morality.