Steve Mirsky does a little Darwin Quote Mining reversal exercise in a recent post called “Never You Mine: Ben Stein’s Selective Quoting of Darwin:”
One of the many egregious moments in the new Ben Stein anti-evolution film “Expelled” is the truncation of a quote from Charles Darwin so that it makes him appear to give philosophical ammunition to the Nazis. Steve Mirsky reports.
Steve rightly corrects stein, but does not put the quote mining in sufficiently broad context. So I do:
The original text from Darwin that Stein refers to in Expelled! expresses Darwin’s ambivalence about the social sensitivities one might dervive from the application of his own theories of Natural Selection to the human condition, and about his own wonderment about and respect for human altruism.
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. 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. 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. 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.
In the movie, Stein quotes only the first part of this (With savages … through … animals to breed…)
This contrast is actually part of a long series of contrasts and ironies that Darwin cites by which one thing causes what looks like a culling of those with some undesirable characteristic, while another thing causes the opposite. This is embedded in his Chapter 5 of the Descent of Man, in which Darwin outlines Wallace’s supposition that the evolution of the human intellect (which provides humans with the capacity to make tools, clothing, fire, etc.) separates humans from the forces of natural selection. Darwin is not so sure. He cites numerous ways in which selection, one way or another, could have an effect on human populations.
Darwin contrasts “pre civilization” humans with technologically modern humans and cites the differences that may apply, thus foreshadowing later 20th century research from evolutionary psychology on the meaning of the “environment of evolutionary adaptiveness.” He also asks if it is the case that human society has always “advanced” (by some standards held by Victorian English Gentlemen) or if there have been reversals. He cites evidence of both and concludes that it is a happier thought that the former would be true. Obviously he was wrong about that supposition, but on the other hand, one can sense the irony in his statement.
In short, Darwin was writing as a Victorian with almost no evidence that could be made sense of, or at best, very culturally bound and highly in accurate models, of human prehistory, the relationship between genes and intelligence and other behavioral traits, and so on. He was speculating, asking questions, meandering through a series of suppositions.
He was not promoting eugenics.
The larger irony is that the camp … the elitist political and social club … that Ben Stein comes from and panders to is the same group in modern America that insists that there are genetic determinants of things like morality and intelligence, or attitudes towards breeding, and so on, that are reliably predicted by recognizing a person’s skin color. I’m not saying that Ben Stein, American economists, fundamentalist Christian, and former Nixon speech writer is a racist.
But I’d bet money on it.
Source of quote:
Darwin, C. R. 1882. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray. 2nd edition, fifteenth thousand.