Lies generally don’t stand alone. They breed, they multiply. Getting away with it once seems like a piece of cake and that should be the end of it. But every lie needs a cover-up and that means more lies. Ironically, the proliferation ultimately makes it easier to undo the whole mess—that is, assuming anybody cares about what is going on.
If someone told a lie about Charles Darwin and it was just limited to him, I could understand the argument that he should be let off the hook. So what if Darwin was not exactly like the lie would have it? So what if there is some racism in his work and some tolerance for genocide? He was just like everyone else in his time in this respect (there’s another lie right there). He also did a lot of good work and we should let that erase the bad parts. Darwin was a great man and great men are entitled to the myths we create about them. Myths like that do more good than harm.
It sounds like a reasonable, even a humane, argument. But that argument has a lie at its heart. No lie is ever self-limiting. This isn’t just about Darwin. This is about so many other lies that go beyond (and before) Darwin. If scholars pass off some erroneous information about one man, they are bound to get it wrong about so many other people in this history. They are obligated to keep up the falsehoods so that the first one is never discovered.
There are scholars who try to portray Darwin’s science as kinder and gentler than it really was, but there is some harshness there, so who to blame that on? They will pin it on Thomas Robert Malthus or Herbert Spencer. There has been some good work on the fact that Social Darwinism can be found in Darwin himself. It is more likely Spencer came by his stern views because of Darwin’s influence than the other way around. I will reserve that for another time. I will instead say a few words here about Malthus.
If there was a supposedly kinder and gentler Darwin before Malthus, then Malthus must be the one to blame for Darwin’s turn for the worse. We forget, or erase the fact, that Malthus warned his readers not to apply his population principle to human beings in the same severe way that it applies in nature. We forget that he believed both extreme poverty and extreme wealth were bad for society. We forget that Malthus pointed out the inhumanity of exterminating native populations, he found it unthinkable, whereas Darwin found it quite acceptable. Suppressing the humane side of Malthus is an injustice, but it is necessary in order to create that kinder Darwin.
The accomplishments of the evolutionists before Darwin also have to be erased to make Darwin’s achievement seem all the greater. Darwin is often credited with being the first to prove evolution—not so, it was actually Robert Chambers who first made the case that evolution was more probable than special creation.
More significantly, Darwin’s theory is presented as one that makes the whole world a web of organic creatures, binding us all together. Darwin did not really do that. He emphasized a hierarchy of species in which some are dominant and others subordinate. Ranking groups was his thing. The living web of creatures was really the point of evolutionists like Erasmus Darwin and Chambers. Their great achievement has to be eliminated and given to Charles Darwin so that the myth can be maintained.
Natural scientists like Erasmus Darwin and Chambers more openly avowed a purposeful and progressive system than did Charles Darwin (there is purpose for him too, if more hidden), but these previous evolutionists held the whole to be more important than any one part. Chambers was emphatic that the highest place in the system was still only one place and had only one part to play in the whole. Erasmus Darwin celebrated ants and worms as our sisters and brothers. Chambers said the whole system and our relationship to other creatures mean we have to respect the rights and feelings of lower animals. Charles Darwin would never go this far. It is easy to forget his place in the history of evolutionary thought if we erase the work of those who went before him.
Charles Darwin usually gets credit for putting evolutionary theory on the map and making it a respectable scientific doctrine. But how many evolutionists before Darwin should get the credit for that? We have almost completely forgotten that a few months before Robert Chambers’ book came out in 1844, Emma Martin was in the streets, passing out one of her pamphlets (4,000 copies) arguing for evolution, and after the Chambers book appeared, she was going around giving lectures on it. So many people made evolutionary theory respectable, but we have to lie about that so that one man can be elevated above the rest. Ah, there’s justice for you.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer