John West at the McLaurin Institute

Yesterday, I hopped into the black evo-mobile and made the long trek to Minneapolis to witness another creationist make a fool of himself. As is my custom when traveling alone, I like to crank up the car stereo until the road noise is beaten back, and the soundtrack for my trip was first, NPR’s Science Friday, and then Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, which I’d received in the mail earlier this week (thanks, Richard!). This was a mistake. This would have prepared me for science, complexity, and beauty, but all I was going to get at the end was ideological stupidity, simple-mindedness, and a particularly ugly dishonesty.

But first, Free Beer! It was true! At least, it was free for us — our host, Rick Schauer, covered the tab, for which we owe him our thanks and appreciation. Rick also said that we could make this a regular tradition, so when creationists raise their hideous heads out there in the Twin Cities, we can gather and fortify ourselves before going off to battle. It almost makes me hope for more such intrusion. Almost.

And then the talk by John West.

One word: crap.

You can find good accounts of the event from Greg Laden and Mike Haubrich, and Kristine says it was taped and will be on YouTube soon, and August Berkshire of Minnesota Atheists recorded the audio, and the McLaurin Institute is also going to host a video recording, so it’s getting far more coverage than it deserved, and I feel rather superfluous, and late. Hey, I had to drive all the way across the state (soundtrack: The Current, which was playing some hard-driving mindless techno, and BBC World Radio) after the talk, so they all had a head start.

OK, so I’ll say a little more.

Greg got in late, so he missed the opening. The title of West’s talk is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (these guys have no originality at all): the Disturbing Legacy of America’s Eugenics Crusade. He also missed West’s opening, which was to mention me and the fact that I’d recruited skeptics to attend — the DI apparently follow this blog. He also introduced me as…as…


Which would have been totally flattering if it hadn’t been said by a Discovery Institute weenie who did not intend it as a compliment. It was more like a code phrase thrown to the faithful to warn them that one of Satan’s minions was in their midst.

The talk itself was in three over-long parts.

Part I: By selectively quoting parts of Darwin’s Descent of Man, we can make it sound like he was a strong supporter of the principles of eugenics. Also, Francis Galton was his cousin. Also, eugenics was supported by Charles Davenport of COLD SPRING HARBOR LABS, Edwin Conklin of PRINCETON, and Henry Fairfield Osborn of HARVARD. These elite ivory tower institutions of pointy-headed intellectuals apparently rule the world. This was the message of the first part of the talk, that these technocrats are responsible for promulgating the odious idea of eugenics.

Part II: Eugenics is bad. I can’t disagree with this part; in fact, one of my questions/comments at the end of the talk was to point out that if he polled all the hard-core “darwinists” in the country right now, he’d have a hard time finding any who supported eugenics any more. But yes, the tale of Carrie Buck is a horrible little story. It’s been told by evolutionary biologists, too, and far more movingly than could be said by a weasely little ideologue like John West.

Part III, in which the true point of his story is revealed: The lesson for public policy is that we shouldn’t listen to the scientists — they can be just as wrong as anyone else. Scientists don’t have any special right that policymakers listen to them alone, and most amusingly, he claims that in the case of eugenics, it was the critics who turned out to be right, not the scientific elites…as if none of the “scientific elites” were critics, or as if only the “scientiific elites” were responsible for eugenics.

Finally, the microphone was relinquished to Mark Borrello, who handed West his ass in ten fierce minutes. Just as an aside, I am extremely impressed with the fact that the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota has a historian and philosopher of science on their faculty — more biology departments ought to make those kinds of strategic alliances to broaden and deepen their discipline.

Anyway, Mark pointedly punctured West’s flimsy edifice of selective presentation of facts with some perspective. This was not Darwin’s public policy, and his writings on this subject are much more complex and tentative than West let on. There’s no denying that several prominent scientists were strongly in favor of eugenics at the turn of the century, but tying that to evolutionary theory was rather weak. The heyday of eugenics was also a period known as the “eclipse of Darwin”, when support for Darwinian evolution was at a low ebb; this was the time before genetics was reconciled with evolutionary principles in the neo-Darwinian synthesis, and there were a lot of malformed ideas flourishing on the scientific scene. And finally and most tellingly, he shot down West’s bizarre suggestion that a scientific elite has ever dictated public policy in this country. Eugenics was a popular movement, not a top-down set of rules imposed by Princeton and Harvard. And he pointed out some strong contemporary examples: if this were a scientific technocracy, why is it that the scientific consensus that embryonic stem cell research needs support and that global warming has a strong human contribution so thoroughly defied by public policy?

Finally, we got to the Q&A, sort of. The guy representing the Mars Hill group (it seems to be a McLaurin Institute, Jr. — the student recruiting arm of an institute for pseudoscience and christian apologetics) got up and rambled on, plugging his group and his lunches and a meeting of the students afterwards, and telling us that because the speakers went on long (West was long-winded, Borrello was the spirit of brevity and clarity), they would only have about 15 minutes for questions…and then, as Greg noted, he walked right over to a creationist fellow-traveler, “the Hat Lady”, who said, “I’d like Dr. West to respond to all of Mr. Morillo’s (sic) Points”. It was a setup. That wasn’t a question, and West didn’t have to answer anything, all he did was get an excuse to stand up and babble for ten more minutes.

Several of us did get in hard questions afterwards, and I think the majority of the questions were critical — one of the benefits of coordinating a skeptical response beforehand. West was repetitive in his replies. Basically, all he’d do is respond with “Davenport, Conklin, Osborn, and Harvard, Princeton” to everything — when guilt by association is all you’ve got on hand, I guess all you can do is wave your examples at everyone over and over again. I got in the last word, with a comment that quoted Darwin to show his views were more complicated than West let on, and I also asked how he explained the fact that the Republican debates of late sounded exactly like the “immigration is bad” rhetoric he cited, yet this is also a field of candidates who are not exactly evolution-friendly. He did at least admit that there were other factors than just the scientific position.

As Mark again pointed out, all West was doing was scapegoating: he was ignoring all the evidence of broad support for eugenics among the public and politicians to pin the blame on Darwin (which was ludicrous) and a prominent subset of the scientific community. I don’t think West was doing history: he was practicing history in the same way creationists practice science, deciding what his conclusion was going to be and then going out to glean evidence to support it, ignoring any evidence that the situation might have been much more complex than he wants it to be. His so-called lessons for public policy are therefore the “garbage out” to his pseudo-historical “garbage in”.

As I was leaving, I did say hello to Mr West, and shook his hand. He commented that he found my blog “rather amusing”, but he wondered if I was worried that “all my anger would harm my health”. I was concern trolled…by the Discovery Institute, in real life! I had to laugh.

And then I got out of there. Two hours of an imbecile was enough.