We like to think that ancient peoples were mired in myths and that we have evolved beyond that. But if anyone were to list all the myths we still believe in, it would fill more than one volume. I am not concerned with all myths. Just the ones about Darwin and the history of science are my main concern. These myths are so firmly ingrained. You cannot read any article or book about Darwin or that relates to Darwin in some way without being bombarded with sheer ignorance about this history.
On January 19, 2014, in the Sunday Times Book Review, there was a review of a book about how species spread around the globe. The reviewer, Jonathan Weiner, wrote that in Darwin’s day, “the reigning explanation was supernatural: God put them there. Darwin’s thinking was more mundane.” Everyone wants to believe that 1859, when The Origin of Species was published, inaugurated a revolution in biological thinking. That is about as far from truth as one can get.
Long before Origin, other scientists were thinking mundane, as Weiner might put it. Robert Chambers made his points in public fifteen years before. He was as critical of the idea of special creation by God as an explanation of anything as Darwin was. His book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) was exceedingly popular. Darwin’s book did not overtake Vestiges in sales until the 20th century. Darwin was not influenced by Chambers. He was making the same points privately in his unpublished essays of 1842 and 1844. But what has to be remembered is that Chambers was preparing the public for mundane thinking. There were ten editions of his book before Origin. The public and many fledgling scientists were gobbling it up. They were impressed for a good reason. Chambers did a good job.
By the time 1859 rolled around, special creation was no longer the reigning explanation. Herbert Spencer had also previously joined in the attack (in an 1852 essay which was republished in an 1858 book). Special creation may not have been quite knocked out of contention, but there was more doubt and confusion than there had been in 1844. It was more the case that Darwin’s book took advantage of the changing times than that he started something new. Credit also has to go to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the French naturalist who was arguing for the evolution of human beings from apes, and the evolution of all living things, in 1809, the year Darwin was born. Darwin would not talk about human evolution until 1871 in The Descent of Man.
I was also startled to see some odd comments in an article on new ideas about plants in a recent issue of The New Yorker (Dec. 23 & 30, 2013) by Michael Pollan. Here too Darwin is a revolutionary. This time, the revolution is the idea that man is continuous with the rest of nature and Darwin is the man who singlehandedly started it. “Since ‘The Origin of Species,’ we have understood, at least intellectually, the continuities among life’s kingdoms—that we are all cut from the same fabric of nature.” Darwin, Pollan says, “brought the humbling news that we are the product of the same natural laws that created animals.” These are quite the overstatements. There were many others who had pressed for this understanding and while it is true that Darwin also promoted this, his main effort lay elsewhere.
What Darwin emphasized was that there is a hierarchy in nature, groups subordinate to groups, some weaker, some more dominant and stronger, with man at the summit as he tells us at the end of Descent. Even in Origin, also at the end, he takes the view that evolution has been leading to “the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving … the higher animals.”
Everybody put man at the top. Robert Chambers did it too, just like Darwin. Well, we all do, if we are honest. But with Chambers, there is a profound difference. Chambers brought the truly humbling news that every place in nature, even the highest place occupied by man, is just one part of the whole and the whole is more important than any one piece, no matter how high it may be. Lamarck too stressed the whole of nature over individuals. Darwin stressed dominance and weakness and individuals in fierce competition.
Darwin and Chambers both believed that human and animal intelligence were different in degree only—yes, others fought for the idea of gradations and made the public aware of it; Darwin was no sort of lone knight—but Chambers drew a conclusion that Darwin never would. Because of our close relationship to animals, “We are bound to respect the rights of animals … even their feelings.” Darwin would never say that. “LIFE is everywhere ONE” is what evolution meant to Chambers and from this he concluded that this new view of nature, as he called it, “extends the principle of humanity to the meaner creatures also.” It is Chambers we have to thank for this kind of thinking, not Darwin. (Brevity forces me to omit how much Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck contributed to holistic thinking. Not to mention more obscure personalities who thought about what was sometimes called ‘network theory’, and all this before Charles Darwin put his two cents in. His two shillings?)
It is true that Darwin hated cruelty towards animals, but he was not prepared to go as far as Chambers did in his remarks. In 1875, Darwin testified before a Royal Commission investigating experimentation on live animals. At the end of his testimony, he made his feelings clear about experiments done without anesthesia if was not absolutely necessary to do so. But the whole purpose of his testimony was to plead with the Commission not to ban such experiments altogether. Darwin stated, “I am fully convinced that physiology can progress only by the aid of experiments on living animals.” It would be “a very great evil,” he said, to prohibit them altogether. In a letter to a professor that was later published in the London Times, he called the prohibition of these experiments a crime against mankind. Respecting the rights and feelings of animals was not the way he would have expressed himself.
So why all this mythologizing of Darwin? And why the misrepresentation of all that evolutionists accomplished before Darwin? Since this post is getting quite long, I will try to answer these questions in the next one.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer