Darwin worship, and demonisation

I make no secret that I admire Darwin as a historical figure very much, but I recently submitted a paper for an open access journal for science teachers at secondary level named Resonance, entitled "Not Saint Darwin". I was motivated by some of the rather uncritical, unhistorical and unnecessary examples of Darwin worship, and its obverse, Darwin demonisation. Here are some examples.

Darwin worship:

Charles Darwin was crazy about dinosaurs (MSNBC) [He also liked roast beef]

Yale Center for British Art to Present Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (Artdaily.org)

Galileo Gallilei vs. Charles Darwin - Whose year should 2009 be? (Softpedia) [Of course it's Darwin, but let's not forget to over-sanctify Galileo too]

Darwin shouldn't be hijacked by New Atheists - he is an ethical inspiration (Guardian) [There are layers of wrongitude in this one]

Father of Evolution (The Australian) [This isn't too bad]

Celebrating Charles Darwin in 2009 (Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News) [Really? How much of either did Darwin do?]

Darwin and Discovery (The Times) [You mean, Mayr and Dobzhansky and Discovery, right?]

The Big Question: How important was Charles Darwin, and what is his legacy today? (The Independent) [Not bad article, but again, haven't things moved on a bit?]

Darwin demonisation:

Alfred Russel Wallace's fans gear up for a Darwinian Struggle (WSJ) [Read Jim Lennox's letter in response]

This counts as several demonisations all reported in one article. Mostly they report the old saw that Darwin "stole" from Wallace all his grand ideas that we now remember him from. In particular the article reports on Roy Davies, a former BBC producer of science documentaries, who has written a book titled The Darwin Conspiracy. Davies was kind enough to send me a copy of his book, and while I have not been able to check out all the sources due to my imminent move, I must comment on it now, as it has been a while.

First a word about historical writing. I'm not exactly a historian myself, although my book on species is historical in character. But I did do a history minor, and I am well aware that if any narrative is going to be turned to polemic ends, it is the historical narrative. Historians call it "Whiggism" when history is turned to do duty to convince someone that some outcome is inevitable, progressive and heroic. But when the opposite is asserted, that there is a conspiracy aimed at hiding the real heroes, well we need a name for that. I will call it Toryism, to balance out.

Davies book is the very model of Toryism. From a bare possibility that Darwin refined some of his ideas upon reading Wallace's letter in 1858, Davies, and his intellectual antecedents Arnold Brackman and Loren Eiseley (who replaces Wallace with Blyth), develop the notion that Darwin was not really all that original, and in fact there was a major under-the-table bit of prestidigitation to ensure that Darwin and not Wallace got the credit for the theory of evolution.

The book is replete with the sort of breathless language no historian would use injudiciously, like "scientific crime", "one of the greatest crimes in the history of science" (what, up there with Nazi eugenics or the lobotomy fad?), and so on. He even says "I am convinced that Charles Darwin – British national hero, hailed as the greatest naturalist the world has ever known, the originator of one of the greatest ideas of the nineteenth century – lied, cheated and plagiarised in order to be recognised as the man who discovered the theory of evolution" (p162). And this raises flags of concern. The sources used are authentic, in particular Dov Ospovat's excellent study on Darwin's development, but since all scholars have used these same sources for decades now, how is it that it took a journalist and producer to identify the crime? The obvious answer is, it didn't, and he hasn't.

Davies interprets any kind of possibility as evidence that Darwin stole. From listing the famous Brackman argument of the supposed delay in the receipt of the letter from Wallace to Darwin being evidence that Darwin rewrote his earlier manuscripts, and Hooker and Lyell were in on the game, to suggestions that Darwin was not clear on the difference between species and varieties (did it escape Davies' attention that Darwin never sorted that out?) anything that could indicate Wallace's priority is taken as hard evidence it did. And that is not unlike the theist's God of the Gaps - any place where God might act beneath the notice of science, is where He does. It's equally bad argument in either case.

And the tragedy here is that it actually detracts from the importance of Wallace. There have been several recent biographies of Wallace, such as Peter Raby's, that deal with his achievements, and he is in many ways more radical a thinker than Darwin. But trying to do this Toryist revisionism does nothing for him. Wallace himself never claimed the slightest credit - if anything he continued, long after Darwin died, to assert that he merely kicked Darwin along a bit. In an essay published in 1903, he wrote

"The One Great Result"
In conclusion I would only wish to add, that my connection with Darwin and his great work has helped to secure for my own writings on the same questions a full recognition by the press and the public; while my share in the origination and establishment of the theory of Natural Selection has usually been exaggerated. The one great result which I claim for my paper of 1858 is, that it compelled Darwin to write and publish his Origin of Species without further delay. The reception of that work, and its effect upon the whole scientific world, prove that it appeared at the right moment; and it is probable that its influence would have been less widespread had it been delayed several years, and had then appeared, as he intended, in several bulky volumes embodying the whole mass of facts he had collected in its support. Such a work would have appealed to the initiated few only, whereas the smaller volume actually written was read and understood by the educated classes throughout the civilised world.

And the Wallace boosters have to explain that, as neither Davies nor Brackmann can.

Let us abandon either hero worship or demonisation and just deal with the history - these were human beings, not godlike figures engaged in some cosmic struggle. They both deserve credit for what they achieved, not what we want them to have achieved.

References

Brackman, Arnold C. 1980. A delicate arrangement: the strange case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Times Books.

Davies, Roy. 2008. The Darwin Conspiracy: Origins of a Scientific Crime. London: goldensquare books.

Eiseley, Loren C. 1979. Darwin and the mysterious Mr. X: new light on the evolutionists. New York: Dutton.

Ospovat, Dov. 1981. The development of Darwin's theory: natural history, natural theology, and natural selection, 1838-1859. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Raby, Peter. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: a life. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wallace, Alfred Russel. 1903. My Relations with Darwin in Reference to the Theory of Natural Selection. Black and White (17 January 1903): 78-79.

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Nice post John. I agree wholeheartedly.

(trackback)

By John Lynch (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

The only thing I'd change is that it should be called Republicanism, as our version of Tories has been much more successful of late in rewriting history in the conspiracy mode.

The main reason I do not have a Darwin fish on my car, despite the fact that I appreciate the joke, is that taking a fish icon and replacing "JESUS" with "DARWIN" makes the statement that people who accept scientific evolutionary explanations for the origin of life on earth feel the same way about Darwin as Christians feel about Jesus.

And now, having made what passes for a substantive comment, I can't resist commenting on this:

...due to my immanent move

May the Force be with you and your belongings.

Good post, making all the right points. Of course, the point of the book is not to set the record straight, it is to sell books. Like Expelled, I have to wonder whether it isn't best ignored and left to die.

IT'S NOT DARWIN'S OR WALLACE'S THEORY
The above criticism of Roy Davies', book is typical of those given by Darwin admirers in that it seeks to preserve the Darwin myth by not really engaging with the evidence presented to destroy it. Readers might be interested in my own research called "It's Not Darwin's or Wallace's Theory which can be found by searching Google for "wainwrightscience"
Dr Milton Wainwright,Dept Molecular Biology and Biotechnology,University of Sheffield, UK.

By dr milton Wainwirght (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

Nice post, John. As an admirer of Darwin, and a Wallace by name, I approve of your sentiments, and I venture to guess that Charles and Alfred would have as well.

If you, or anyone else here, is going to be in Vienna this Feb. 12, I'll be celebrating the two hundredth birthday of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln (a moderately famous American) in my workshop, any you're all invited.

cheers from overcast Austria, zilch

The fact is that all scientists great and small owe something of their accomplishments to those that came before them. Darwin was no different than Einstein, Galileo or Newton in this regard. Part of the problem with some of the accusations against Darwin (that he ripped of Wallace or Polynesians or whoever) is that foolish idea of paradigm shifts, that somehow science operates like a sort of intellectual punctuated equilibrium.

Of course Darwin would have been paying attention to the ideas and observations of others. That's the way science works. All scientists stand on the shoulders of giants.

Still, the fact remains that Darwin is one of the great pivotal figures of science, and certainly one of the central figures of biology. His ideas have been heavily refined and modified, but that too is the nature of science.

By Aaron Clausen (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

I've been searching for some good ideas to illustrate a poster celebrating Darwin, and want to thank you for posting the Yale link to art and science in your post on Darwin worship.

I'm all for this Darwin worship - as you put it. I haven't read everything about Darwin, but have started in on "The Origin of Species" several times since Thanksgiving. All I can say is "Thank God for the Movie!"

I am drafting some sketches with an artist this week for a celebratory Darwin Anniversary poster.

When you stop to think about how you want people to remember Darwin-- when you get past the worship and demonization, what do you see? Five or six themes to narrate on one page.

Could be fun.

Best fishes,

Timothy

You can certainly admire Darwin wihout elevating him to sainthood (and is any human being worthy of that anyway?) I have even seen creationists try to use his all too human flaws against his ideas (he had racist tendencies, as did most 19th century Europeans.) Darwin gave us a concept that has been studied, debated, and ultimately vindicated, and his human imperfections only serve to make him more interesting. Forget cannonizing the man; just give him credit for being one of the greatest, most original thinkers of his time, or any other.

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

This Darwin-Wallace manufactoversy is tiresome - a bit like Shakespeare and Francis Bacon all over again. Or the neo-confederates who discover regularly (every twenty years or so a new one comes along) that the Confederate states were right to secede and Lincoln was an intolerable tyrant etc. etc.

The REALLY interesting thing is that Natural Selection was proposed by two men from the same society at almost the same time (Jacob Bronowski pointed that out) - both were mid-Victorian naturalists who had travelled extensively and who read much the same books in the same language.

However, it seems that Darwin (the elder) had influenced Wallage, not the other way round.

Didn't Wallace later refer to it as "Mister Darwin's theory"? And were not Darwin and Wallace congenial in their relationship? I am very impressed that two individuals of dissimilar background but similar experience came to the same conclusion. Makes me think there might be someting to it!

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

it is probable that its influence would have been less widespread had it been delayed several years, and had then appeared, as he intended, in several bulky volumes

So here we see how incredibly important is the job of popularising science. Wallace is right.

Oh, and racist tendencies? That's our perspective today - but surely Darwin did his bit to show that there was only one human race? At the very least he was always anti-slavery and anti-cruelty.

Regarding breathless prose no historian would use, in the last of the four BBC Radio4 programmes, Jim Moore described the change of Darwin's burial place from Downe to Westminster as a 'corpse-snatch'. Twice, if I recall correctly.

Rather an inaccurate series in some ways, though good in parts. Kept going on about "why the delay?" and no-one thought to mention that Darwin was writing three geology books as well as developing his theories of geology, organising publication of reports on his collection, revising his Journal and Remarks, and being held up a great deal by illness. They did discuss the barnacles, but seemed to get it out of sequence.

Another oddity was starting his collecting career in Cambridge, then briefly mentioning Edinburgh without saying much if anything about his collecting and studying marine invertebrates, one of the few areas of expertise he took on the Beagle voyage. However they then went on at some length about him falling out with Grant on his return. To dramatise the establishment abhorrence of evolution as an excuse for the alleged "delay".

But you're my hero, John!

No party is complete without a clown act, and the Isaac Newton of Information Theory is ready with his act - Intelligent Evolution - the work of Alfred Wallace; by W.A.Dembski, is due in the bookstores next month.

Just remember, the great man's 200th birthday is Thursday, February 12, so do something Darwinny to celebrate!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 19 Jan 2009 #permalink

Jeremy--Like Expelled, I have to wonder whether it isn't best ignored ***How funny--the type of attitude Ben talks about in Expelled--truth hurts?!

Ray--and ultimately vindicated,**It's not been vindicated--except in people's minds--not scientifically.

For anyone interested in a negative review of The Darwin Conspiracy, written in some depth and and is unusual in that he actually appears to have read it, go to www.genesis.com or google Darwin no conspiracy. Yes, he's a creationist. He seems to want to show how fair and open minded he is. Still it provides amunition for people wanting to defend Darwin. Davies' book was not intended to have any negative implications for evolutionary theory. I read it as history with a case to make. I didn't find or expect to find a smoking gun. It's more an exercise in reading people or detecting deception, something most people are not very good at. My conclusion was that Darwin was a great populariser of evolution and an extremely accomplised liar. The evidence itself is cumulative, and in addition to Davies' book, reading Darwin's letters and noting which ones are missing is also helpful. People will come to different conclusions, based in most cases on their preconceptions and preferences. An author can provide reasoning and evidence, but can't provide understanding.