More than ever, I am struck almost weekly by the myths about Darwin that are continued in popular writing. These are not just myths about Darwin. They are myths about the history of science. A recent article by James Ryerson, reviewing three new books about human nature, in The New York Times Book Review (Mar. 12), provides another example.
The first sentence of his article is this: “Ever since Darwin came up with the theory of natural selection, there has been a question—in some quarters, a worry—about whether human beings remain in any meaningful sense unique creatures.” Ryerson goes on to say that “Darwin’s theory suggests” that there are “merely differences of degree” between humans and other animals. There is so much wrong with this way of once again elevating Darwin to unique status.
First of all, it was not originally the theory of natural selection that suggested these things. The general theory of evolution (species gradually descending from previous species, whatever the cause may be), which was never Darwin’s private property, suggests this gradual progression from animals to humans. Secondly, it is not that we have lived with this idea “Ever since Darwin”. This is false history. Many people before Darwin had written about this. Robert Chambers had expressed this 15 years before Darwin’s Origin of Species.
In 1844, in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Chambers wrote, “The difference between mind in the lower animals and in man is a difference in degree only.” He also stressed, “Bound up as we thus are by an identity in the character of our mental organization with the lower animals ...” and drew more radical conclusions from this than Darwin would. Chambers believed we had to respect the rights and feelings of animals. Darwin never went that far.
The idea is even older than Chambers. The whole idea of the great chain of being is that all life on this planet, including human beings, is linked together by the most minute differences from creature to creature. In the late 18th century, Soame Jenyns, in a brief essay on the chain of being, explained, “this animal life rises from this low beginning in the shell-fish.” He tells his readers that God has so arranged creation that all the parts “are so blended together, and shaded off into each other, that no line of difference is anywhere to be seen”; and “… the links … are so minute, and so finely wrought, that they are quite imperceptible to our eyes … invisible to the most inquisitive eye.” Even intelligence exists in slight degrees of variation: “this animal life rises from this low beginning in the shell-fish, thro’ innumerable species of insects, fishes, birds, and beasts to the confines of reason, where, in the dog, the monkey, and chimpanzè, it unites so closely with the lowest degree of that quality in man, that they cannot easily be distinguished from each other.”
Many other examples could be given, but I think Jenyns and Chambers are enough for the moment.
Charles Darwin may be more famous than other authors, but that is not because he gave us new, unheard of ideas. The idea of a gradation of intelligence throughout the forms of life was definitely not new. The reasons for Darwin’s fame have more to do with a quest for power by academics. This quest results in erasing anyone from history who gets in the way of academic mythmaking.
© 2017 Leon Zitzer