Saturday, November 28, 2015


The following is a review of a part of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, published in May of this year, which I recently put up on Amazon.


This is not a review of the whole book. I always limit my reviews. In this book, what concerns me is the section on Darwin and evolution. That is all I feel qualified to comment on. They make too many errors for this to be called accurate history.

They treat Darwin as a hero (always a good sign that we are being confronted more with myth than with history). They try to cover themselves by stating early on that Darwin “was not the true originator of all that he wrote about.” But they contradict that as they continue. In fact, in the very same paragraph they claim that common descent was one of his new ideas and they repeat this later on, claiming common descent was “original to Darwin.”

This is completely false. The idea that species were evolving or descending from previous species, going back to a common origin for all life, preceded Charles Darwin by a long shot. Not only the idea of this, but offering evidence for it was going on long before Darwin. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, proposed that perhaps life had developed from a single living filament and presented enough evidence to make it a reasonable hypothesis to pursue. In his day, it was known as generation (one species generating another species just like the births of individuals). The authors of this book mention Erasmus Darwin only once in connection with some family problems, but never say anything about the work he did to establish evolutionary theory.

They briefly mention Lamarck, who published an important book on this the year Charles Darwin was born, and Robert Chambers whose book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published in 1844 and then nine more editions before Origin of Species appeared. Throughout most of the 19th century, more copies of Vestiges were produced than Origin. It is true that Vestiges had a fifteen year head start, but it took much more than fifteen years for Origin to catch up. In the days of Chambers, evolution was known as the development hypothesis and he presented a mighty strong case for it.

There are two ways people can be erased from history. One is to completely ignore them and the other is to give them brief mention while understating or even suppressing their achievements. Authors Montgomery and Chirot choose to do the latter for Lamarck and Chambers. They completely miss what these two figures accomplished. Chambers presented much of the same evidence for common descent that Darwin would and in fact proved that evolution or development was far more probable than the theory of independent or special creation. Yet he never gets credit for it.

The authors rightly praise Darwin for linking man to the rest of nature, but Chambers did just as good a job and went further. Chambers stressed that human beings were related to all other forms of life and especially to the lower animals (an expression they all used, including Darwin); even in intelligence, there were differences in degree only. Since we are all related, Chambers concluded that we had to respect the rights and feelings of other animals. Darwin would never go that far. When Darwin testified before a Royal Commission Committee on the question of vivisection, he pleaded with them not to ban outright all experiments on living animals, as mankind might derive some benefits from this, but he did object to experiments without anesthesia if they could be done with anesthesia. However, he would never go so far as putting man and animals as sympathetically close together as Chambers did.

Montgomery and Chirot also play down Darwin’s connection to later developments of Social Darwinism and eugenics. I agree with the authors that Darwin would have been horrified at some of the later things that were done with his theory of natural selection, but he would not have been horrified by all of it. Darwin himself stressed that the lower races of human beings would be exterminated by colonialism and suggested that humanity would rise higher because of this. The authors completely fail to say anything about this. They make Darwin appear more humane than he actually was.

The authors mention that Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton initiated eugenics thinking, but they leave out two crucial points. First, Darwin liked his cousin’s book on this. Second, when Galton argued that nature does not care for individuals, but only uses them to make superior races, Darwin only slightly disagreed. He pointed out that there are many extinct species which shows that nature may not care much for species either. But Darwin added that maybe the right way to express all this was that “Nature cares only for the superior individuals and then makes her new and better races” (he framed this in a rhetorical question). Darwin never thought about what it would be like to carry this to a logical conclusion, but we cannot say that Darwin did not supply plenty of grist for the Social Darwinist mill.

The authors present Darwin as a champion for what they call “the final secularization of the living world.” Long ago, Darwin was made into a great hero in the fight between science and religion (ironically, he never approved of this bogus combat and was always happy to see anyone reconcile religion and science), but when anyone is made into a hero, it means other people or their accomplishments have to be erased from history in order that the hero can shine more. It is that falsification of history to which I object.

The key point is this: When people are erased from history, it is usually the humanitarians. Chambers and other evolutionists were more holistic than Darwin who saw nature as a hierarchy of groups subordinate to groups. For Chambers and others, it is the whole that evolves and all the parts, including humanity, need each other in this scheme. Chambers was a more humane evolutionist than Darwin. We have lost a lot by forgetting this part of history.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer