Thursday, November 8, 2018

REWRITING HISTORY TO SUSTAIN A MYTH


In my last post (in Sept, as I did not post in October), I briefly mentioned a new book by David Quammen, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. Its focus is on later developments in the science of evolution, but it does pay some attention to Darwin. Now that I have had a chance to read at least these and related parts of the book, I can say once again that the myths about Darwin continue. For a science that is supposed to offer insights into the origins of life forms, evolutionary theory is preciously ignorant of its own origins.

Quammen treats evolution as if it were Darwin’s own theory. In discussing Darwin’s early Notebooks (before he came up with natural selection), Quammen refers to evolution as “his theory.” Like every other writer, he presents Darwin as if he had a blank mind when he went on his Beagle voyage, as if he came up with evolution all on his own. Yes, Quammen acknowledges that Darwin had predecessors, including his own grandfather, Erasmus, but he regards them as figures who may be dismissed, not having accomplished too much except for their wild speculations about evolution. He gives them all short shrift, leaving us with no details of what they actually did accomplish. They did more than engage in wild speculation.

Quammen faults Erasmus Darwin for having “offered no material mechanism” for his evolutionary ideas, but that is not what the earlier Darwin should be remembered for. Erasmus Darwin admitted he did not know the cause of evolutionary change, but he could still see it happening. What Darwin grand-père did was to present enough evidence for a general theory of evolution to make it a reasonable hypothesis to pursue. The scandal of science was that other scientists would not acknowledge what a good job he did at this, his grandson Charles never admitted it, and historians of science today are still loathe to deal with it.

Towards Charles Darwin, Quammen is extremely generous. Even though Darwin got a lot wrong, it is not his fault, as he did not have the advanced knowledge from later genetics, molecular biology, and more. He did not even know how heredity works. Referring to Charles, Quammen says, “He did the best he could, which was exceedingly well, with the evidence he could see.” But this is even more true of Erasmus who had less information to work with than his grandson did. In Erasmus’s day, it was not even settled whether extinction was a fact of life and the age of the earth was still hotly debated. Yet Erasmus could see enough evidence to make evolution a credible hypothesis. Quammen doesn’t get Erasmus’s accomplishment at all.

The biggest shock of Quammen’s book is that he completely omits Robert Chambers whose book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published 15 years before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, really put evolutionary theory on the map. Chambers did this by proving that evolution was more probable than the idea of special creation. He assembled almost all the same evidence that Darwin was privately working on without publishing his conclusions. (Darwin wrote two preliminary unpublished essays in 1842 and 1844; the second one was completed in May, several months before Chambers anonymously published Vestiges in October.)

Chambers saw what Darwin saw: A large pattern of evidence made evolution the better explanation for what was going on. Here is just some of the evidence Chambers presented: the fossil record, incomplete as it was, supported the idea that life forms were evolving and, just by the way, man was a late arrival (which did not make mainstream scientists happy); the commonality of structure in various organic beings (Chambers gave an example, also used later by Darwin, of the bone structure in a human hand being similar to that in a bat’s wing); the existence of intermediate forms and gradations, which Chambers often called links (though he became infamous for suggesting that spontaneous combustion played a role, he loved to emphasize how gradual evolution was); the fact that nature’s potential for variation could be seen in artificial selection or breeding; and the startling resemblance of the embryos of many different adult animals, as if they all had the same common ancestor.

Small wonder then that so many young scientists were favorably inclined towards the development hypothesis, as it was known, as a result of Vestiges; ten editions had come out before Origin appeared. Quammen falsely claims that Darwin’s book all on its own “converted a generation of scientists to the idea of evolution.” The conversion process had actually begun earlier with Chambers’s book. Quammen fails to give credit where it is due and bestows credit where it is exaggerated.

Chambers is still overlooked by most writers, and Quammen joins this grand tradition of erasing a Darwin competitor from history. Vestiges came out in 1844 and, by 1847, most scientists, including Darwin, had figured out Chambers was the author. He was working class and that could not be tolerated in science which was dominated by the upper classes. He was also holistic in his approach to evolution, which meant that he did not see mankind as the be-all and end-all of nature. That human beings are part of a whole and are related to other parts of the whole should make us more humble. That is not a lesson western scientists wanted to learn.

Chambers offered a far more humane version of evolution than Darwin who was obsessed with ranking organisms (“groups subordinate to groups” appears throughout Origin) and with upholding the idea that the dominant species become ever more dominant. Western scientists tend to study nature to learn how to become more dominant and controlling. That was not Chambers’s goal, except that he was after any information that could improve the well-being of the lower classes.

There is a reason why people like Chambers are erased from history and it does not speak well for the inhumanity that constantly recurs in science.

The rest of Quammen’s book is quite fascinating. He has a great story to tell about new discoveries in molecular biology, horizontal gene transfers, and evolution among bacteria proceeding by absorption and not by natural selection. He would replace Darwin’s tree metaphor with the idea of a web. And then another curious omission on his part. Quammen never tells his readers that Erasmus Darwin chose the web as the best way to describe what happens in nature. “Life’s subtle woof in Nature’s loom is wove,” he wrote. And not just one web, but many webs: “webs with webs unite” and “the living web expands.” In this sense, Erasmus saw further ahead than Charles and he did it with much less evidence.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer


Saturday, September 29, 2018

BEGIN AGAIN


Today’s sermon is based on the third sentence of the first paragraph of Erika Hayden’s front page review (NY Times Book Review, Aug. 19, 2018) of David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. She writes that Charles Darwin’s “radical idea [was] that, over time, organisms change to give rise to new species.” This is yet another example of how pervasive is the misrepresentation of Darwin and the history of evolutionary thought. This was not Darwin’s idea. It was given to him by previous naturalists. They also gave some evidence for it, and one, Robert Chambers, even proved it was more probable than the traditional view that each species was created separate and apart from the others. Darwin merely continued a well-established idea.

In the year that Darwin was born (1809). French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck outlined how human beings may have evolved from apes. Fifty years later, in On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin still could not bring himself to say anything about this. So much for how daring he was. It was only twelve years after that, in The Descent of Man (1871), that he finally approached this theory of human origins, and he did not have much more to say about it than Lamarck did 62 years earlier.

Even the expression “origin of species” was well in use before Darwin. Robert Chambers used it twice in the second edition of Explanations (1846). In the first edition of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), he used “origination of new species.” Comparing the birth of new species to the birth of individual organisms was common to all the early evolutionists, including Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who was making this point in his work in the 1790s. Their main point was that creation was not over, it was still going on. That scared a lot of people, but it exhilarated many more.

The reason this is important is because we have lost something valuable by suppressing this history. The first evolutionists were more holistic than Charles Darwin. They looked at the evolution of the whole of nature and they did not elevate the strong or dominant species over the weak and small, as Charles Darwin did. They emphasized the oneness of life on this planet and believed nature made room for all. They had a humanitarian vision that we have forgotten. We have prodded ourselves into forgetting the origins of evolutionary thinking and how it entered the world in a humane way. We need their vision now more than ever.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

WORLDVIEW


[My book A Short But Full Book on Darwin's Racism is available here at Amazon and other vendors.]

I think the main reason Darwin’s The Origin of Species is considered such a classic is because it promotes the worldview of that time and ours—that is, that conquering is good and the culture that does it the best or the most is the premier, superior culture on earth—and his book makes us feel good about this very selfish point of view by demonstrating that this is not a moral or immoral choice we are making, but simply, what nature wants, so we don’t have to feel guilty about it or the disappearance of other cultures, or feel anything at all but unqualified joy that we are so blessed.

I once heard an author of self-help books say in an interview on the radio that the first piece of advice he gives to anyone who wants to publish a successful book or create any kind of successful business is that you must not challenge the worldview of your audience. As I see it, that’s why western culture often seems to be a closed circle, we are all talking to each other within set parameters, thinking about how to advance our culture, while we pretend we are making objective discoveries about the world or adding something new to our world, when it’s always the same old same old.

But didn’t Darwin challenge the worldview people had that man is at the center of the universe and that organisms are fixed and could not possibly be changing as time goes by? No, he did not. There are two points to make about that.

First, man is still at the center of things in Darwin’s system, he is the goal of evolution, and not just any man, but European man, or even more specifically, British man. At the end of The Descent of Man, he calls man “the very summit of the organic scale” and at the end of Origin, he calls the higher animals, “the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving.” In Origin, he expresses his pride in the superiority of British life forms and the superiority of Britain’s ability to artificially create new varieties and export them to different parts of the world. It would not be a stretch to say that Origin was written to make British imperialists proud of their achievements (in case they were having any doubts). Darwin embraced the idea of changing species in a limited way. In his world, change reinforces the dominant species, so nothing ever really changes. The strong get stronger, the weak weaker.

Secondly, even if someone insisted that there is in evolutionary theory a completely different understanding of nature than the standard worldview of Darwin’s time, that credit should go to the evolutionists who preceded Darwin. In the limited space of this blog post, I will single out Robert Chambers who more than anyone else made the public comfortable with the idea of gradual change in the organic world, producing new species over long periods of time. Unlike Darwin, he did it in a radical way and did not strive to make evolution fit the imperialist mode. Achieving ever more dominant species was not Chambers’s vision of evolution.

As far as Chambers was concerned, evolution blessed all life on earth, the strong and the weak, all have a valuable place in nature, and in fact, the world was constantly changing so that a life form that was down one day could be up the next. For Darwin, evolution was about dominance and any life form that did not do that was on “the high road to extinction.” For Chambers, there was no inevitable extinction, nature was always ready to hand out blessings even to the weak and the small. Social classes were not fixed either. In a sense, for Chambers, all life was upwardly mobile. That was not true for Darwin who held all life to be divided into three categories—dominant, extinct, or on the way to extinction.

If anyone challenged our worldview, it was Chambers, which is probably the main reason his reputation has not fared so well. Chambers saw the meaning of evolution in the whole of nature in which mankind is just a piece. We get our dignity and our humility from being a part of the magnificent whole, not from being superior to other organisms. Chambers was delighted that human beings are descended from previous animal forms, making us a late arrival on earth, and drew the conclusion that because we are related to so-called lower animals who were here before us, we are bound to respect them and treat them well.

Darwin found the meaning of evolution in hierarchy and dominance. With the help of friends, he managed to make himself appear to be a revolutionary, while giving aid and comfort to the ruling classes. Very early in Origin, Darwin told his readers that dominant species “become still more dominant” which is exactly what the upper classes wanted to hear. He believed lower animals are here to serve us and while we should not be wantonly cruel towards them, we are entitled to experiment on them, including performing surgery on live animals, if necessary to find ways to improve the human condition. He pleaded with a Royal Commission not to recommend placing an outright ban on experimentation on living animals.

Darwin accepted the ranking of organisms that was popular in his time and had been popular at least since the Middle Ages. Darwin was a biological theologian. He made the theology of “groups subordinate to groups” (a phrase he frequently uses in Origin) the centerpiece of his system of thought. The previous evolutionists like Chambers and Erasmus Darwin challenged this stilted worldview. We still cannot forgive them for that. As long as western culture thrives, we will deprecate their insights and achievements.

So it goes. As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot put it, “Worldview wins over the facts.”

© 2018 Leon Zitzer


Saturday, July 28, 2018

SPECIAL CREATION IN DISGUISE


In my work, I have been very critical, and will always be critical, of the way Charles Darwin introduced racism into evolutionary theory. The evolutionists who preceded him, such as his own grandfather, did not do that. They were holists and saw the evolution of the whole in which each part, small and great, weak and strong, played a vital role. From the point of view of the whole, there really is no such thing as being small or great. All the parts are equal in the service they give. Charles Darwin, on the other hand, replaced this approach with a belief in hierarchy in which each species is ranked.

But enough about that, for the time being. Darwin did sometimes get things right. It is interesting how Darwin admirers and followers do not listen to some of them. Earlier this year, Edward O. Wilson published The Origins of Creativity. I usually quote directly from the source, but this time I am going to the New York Times Book Review (Jan. 14, 2018) for a quote from his book: “It is becoming increasingly clear that natural selection has programmed every bit of human biology—every toe, hair and nipple, every molecular configuration in every cell, every neuron circuit in the brain, and within all that, every trait that makes us human.” So says Wilson.

But Darwin warned against such thinking, which he admitted he had been guilty of. In The Descent of Man, he said he had been led to “my tacit assumption that every detail of structure, excepting rudiments, was of some special, though unrecognised, service.” And so he had “extend[ed] too far the action of natural selection.” In other words, it is possible to overdo explanation for “every toe, hair, and nipple,” to use Wilson’s example.

What is more interesting still is Darwin’s insight into why he had made this mistake. He had retained a belief in special creation: “I was not, however, able to annul the influence of my former belief, then almost universal, that each species had been purposely created.” Believing in the purpose of each “toe, hair, and nipple” was just another version of believing in the special creation of each species.

This means that many Darwinists today, including Wilson, are believers in an intelligent designer. I am sure they would furiously object. But whether you call your intelligent designer God or natural selection, it comes to the same thing. Darwin’s point was that to be supremely careful (and Darwin often failed in this), we must remember that natural selection does not design anything. It eliminates mutations that are injurious to an organism, but it does not create beneficial mutations, except by accident, and it certainly does not create the optimum design that would serve an organism well. Almost any natural organism could have been designed much better for its environment. No organism follows the best design possible, which is why new organisms, introduced from another environment, often decimate native populations; they just happen to be an even better fit in that environment.

That is not the only issue on which Darwinists have failed to follow Darwin. There is another story to tell about how far apart Darwinists and Darwin are in belief in randomness. Darwin disparaged chance, often calling it “so-called chance.” He believed in determinism all the way, “fixed and immutable laws” as he once put it. But that is a story for another time.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

DARWIN FLIP FLOPPING


One of the peculiar things about Darwin is that it is often difficult to know when we can trust something he says. In his letters, he sometimes, to put it frankly, sucks up to his correspondents. One example of this is in an early letter to his friend and mentor Charles Lyell. He adds a postscript claiming he has no idea what Lyell thinks of Lamarck, but he wants to reassure him that he took nothing from Lamarck. In fact, Darwin had to have known that Lyell disparaged Lamarck in his Principles of Geology. Darwin was being disingenuous when he claimed ignorance about Lyell’s thoughts on this.

In his published work, his sincerity can also at times be questioned because it may be something he offers for public consumption, but was not really committed to. In the published version of his Beagle Diary, he twice expresses melancholy for the Natives who are losing all their land (for the Maori in New Zealand and for the Indians in Argentina). The original Diary contains no such lament. He is more hard-hearted about the Native losses and their eventual extinction (as he also is in later work and letters). The melancholy might be in the published version because it had become customary for Europeans to express compassion for what was happening to Indigenous peoples. He needed to appear to be a proper civilized person. The melancholy properly disguises what he really thought.

I recently came across another example of Darwin’s occasional duplicity which I had previously been unaware of. It surprised me; a case where I thought Darwin was trustworthy turns out not to be the case. This again concerns Lamarck. In his early letters, he always denigrates Lamarck to his friends, even though in his private Notebooks, he has some good things to say about him. His public stance was always to put down Lamarck. But, as is well-known, in the “Historical Sketch” which he added to the third edition of Origin (under some pressure from people who thought he was taking too much credit for himself), he made it up to Lamarck and praised him to the skies. He did a better job for Lamarck in that Sketch than he did with anyone else he treated there; certainly much better than he did for Robert Chambers. I had always believed that Darwin was quite sincere in his praise for Lamarck.

What surprised me is that just a couple of years later, in a letter to Lyell, Darwin again attacked Lamarck. He called his work “a wretched book” and said he “gained nothing” from it. Then he righteously quoted his daughter Henrietta’s comment about how unfair it is that Lyell calls Darwin’s theory “a modification of Lamarck’s” (Lyell was not the only one to say this). In letters to friends and colleagues, he would profess humility and said he never claimed to take all the credit for evolutionary theory for himself. But the fact seems to be that Darwin did not like sharing the limelight. (Wallace was an exception to this probably because Wallace himself was so self-effacing and gave all the credit to Darwin, so Darwin did not mind sharing it with him.)

He had trouble admitting that he took the theory of evolution with him on his Beagle voyage; it had been given to him by Lamarck and his grandfather. Charles Darwin just wanted to see if he could find more evidence to confirm it. He did a lot of work on this, but he was building on the work of others. To claim that he gained nothing from Lamarck was ridiculous. Lamarck saw the greater probability of evolutionary theory, the gradual changes between species, the analogy of domestic productions, and the effect of external conditions on change in organisms (all of which Darwin admits in the “Historical Sketch”; he could see these things but he could not stick to admitting them). Darwin would have gotten nowhere if all this had not been given to him and if his grandfather Erasmus had not offered similar stimulation.

I can also recall something he took from Alfred Wallace and used in The Descent of Man, without giving Wallace credit (it was the point about the most patriotic men being out in front and dying in battle, and therefore not living long enough to give their good traits to the progeny they would never have). He also misquoted Wallace on another point which Wallace immediately pointed out on the first publication of Descent, but Darwin never corrected it. He was not filled with faults like these, but they come up enough times that one has to take care when reading Darwin.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer


Sunday, April 29, 2018

DOUBLE STANDARD


I continue to be amazed, and disheartened, by the way in which Charles Darwin’s racism is handled by the majority of scholars. Mostly, it is not handled at all; they prefer to write it out of history. But when some scholars do from time to time bring it up, they almost always understate it. In essays that are otherwise brilliant discussions of issues concerning colonialism, human rights, racism, anthropology, and any number of related matters, the same author who provides clear insights into these issues will either treat Darwin as a saint and/or minimize his racism and commitment to genocide.

Tom Lawson is a good example of this in his superb essay on Tasmania in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Genocide Research. He discusses the ways in which Britain has remembered and not remembered the genocide in Tasmania. Though some of his comments apply to our time, his focus is on the way they were memorializing this at the time of the events in question. They expressed regret at the demise of the Indigenous population and yet celebrated it as the triumph of their superior culture. Lawson is very hard on Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope for their racism and endorsement of the inevitability of genocide. But he applies a softer touch to  Darwin, even though just about everything he says about the racism of others applies just as well to Darwin.

There are two comments he makes about Darwin that I find rather odd. One is that Darwin “had been unwilling to declare the ‘extinction’ of ‘Aboriginal’ races inevitable in earlier publications” (i.e., earlier than The Descent of Man where genocide is treated as natural and inevitable). I have no idea what earlier publications he is talking about. Darwin always had an inclination to treat extermination as inevitable, even in The Origin of Species. While I am not aware of his using the word ‘inevitable’ in that book, his constant talk of the way the strong or dominant beat the weak and small has the whiff of inevitability about it. But I doubt that Origin is the book Lawson has in mind.

Lawson might be referring to the publication of Darwin’s Beagle Diary, which came out under various titles, the last being The Voyage of the Beagle. In that publication (the first edition being roughly two decades before Origin), he famously remarked, “The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals—the stronger always extirpating the weaker.” (A similar statement about the weak and strong would appear in the last sentence of Chapter VII of Origin.) While Darwin does not explicitly call this extirpation inevitable, it is certainly implied in that ‘always’.

In Darwin’s unpublished remarks, in his letters, you can see the same sentiment expressed over and over, and at times, more harshly. In a letter to Charles Lyell, he affirmed that the more intellectual races will exterminate the less intellectual. In a letter to Charles Kingsley, he stated that when all the lower races are gone, humanity as a whole will rise higher. Darwin tended to be more discreet in his published work, but he was no different in these views than Dickens and Trollope. So why give Darwin an easier time? What makes him worthy of being treated relatively as a saint?

The other odd comment Lawson makes is putting Darwin in the same camp as other humanitarians of his day and relying on Darwin’s abolitionism to do this. That is way off the mark. Darwin was not a humanitarian in the same vein as many of those in the Aborigines’ Protection Society (the example Lawson gives). They subscribed to the motto on the medallion struck by Darwin’s grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, which declared that all men are brothers. In one of his Notebooks, Darwin expressed doubts about this saying. The differences between the races of men spoke to him as contradicting this sentiment. Darwin believed that evolution created these stark differences in the descendants of a primordial ancestor. He was no believer in the idea that all men are brothers. That is not the direction evolution took.

Another truth about Darwin’s life is that in his Diary he expressed no problem with the enslavement of Indians in South America, particularly the children. He did not believe there was anything to complain of in their treatment. Despite the fact that his hero Alexander von Humboldt denounced the slavery of Indians, Darwin could not go along with it. He limited his abolitionism to African slavery. He was not in the same caliber as other humanitarians of his age.

There is no justification for making Darwin more humane that he actually was—except that this is the way almost everyone writes about Darwin. He has become such a saint that no one dares to defy the way mainstream academia has changed the facts of his real beliefs. By giving Darwin’s racism and genocidal ideas permission to go on unchallenged, we open the door to doing this for others as well. We are saying that racism and genocide are acceptable if someone of iconic status promotes them.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer


Thursday, March 29, 2018

PUBLICITY VERSUS TRUTH


Charles Darwin is not the only person in history who has had a great publicity machine working for him, with some of it being self-publicity.  One of the most cynical and true conclusions you can reach from an in-depth study of history is that publicity works. Not only does it succeed in creating a better and undeserved image for certain people, but it also succeeds at erasing the far more deserving people whose existence is a threat to the image created for the heroes we endorse.

Darwin was not a great humanitarian, and he was not the one who came up with evolution, nor was he the first to prove its greater probability. All these descriptions should go to others, but we have so lauded Charles Darwin that we have forgotten who these others were. His contemporaries, Robert Chambers and Georg Gerland, just to name two, did much more for a humane understanding of evolution, and Chambers promoted and proved his case for the probability of evolution 15 years before Darwin published. Darwin had great publicists, the others did not.

But, as I said, Darwin is not the only example of this. Thomas Jefferson comes to mind. Not only was he not the great believer in emancipation of slaves, he was not even the great constitutionalist he is still celebrated as. In one letter, he explained that obeying the law is only one duty of a public official and not the highest. A far greater duty, he thought, was to act for the self-preservation of the country, even if that meant breaking the law. He conceived that acquiring more land for the United States was for the good of the country, and went ahead with the Louisiana Purchase without a constitutional amendment to authorize it, though he thought an amendment was necessary. The Louisiana territory was too good a bargain to pass up or let constitutional niceties interfere with.

Today we would call it using national security to justify government actions. We forget how much Jefferson supported that. But his publicity machine still celebrates him as a man of pure principles. A better example of devotion to constitutional principle would be the first John M. Harlan. He was the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which established the separate but equal doctrine for blacks. Harlan was outraged. The Constitution, he argued, is color blind and does not authorize using laws to sanction race hatred. A few years later in Downes v. Bidwell (1901) he again dissented from a decision that exempted the newly acquired territories, after the Spanish-American War, from constitutional protections. The Constitution, as Harlan argued, does not envision the United States becoming a colonial power. But who remembers Justice Harlan today? He does not have that publicity thing going for him.

There are many more examples one could give, but I will give just one. The King James translators have always had the reputation of having made a great translation of the Bible. In the translators’ introduction to their work, they admitted this was not an original translation, but no one pays attention to that. They are still praised for something they never did (which, interestingly, is how someone once summed up Thomas Jefferson). Nine times out of ten, when the King James New Testament is quoted, it is William Tyndale who is being quoted. His translation was the main source the King James Version relied on. He still gets no credit. Tyndale was executed for his efforts, and the King James was handed all the glory for what was in reality his accomplishment.

The problem for me is not just that one person or group falsely gets all the fame. It is even more that we have been unfair to others and buried some people out of sight who deserve better. And even more, in some cases like that of Charles Darwin, by our unrealistic portrait of them, we implicitly condone some of the bad things they did. In Darwin’s case, by ignoring his racism and support of genocide, we send a message that these things are acceptable as long as the person who practices them is eminent enough. It is a terrible legacy to create.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer