Who Cares About Darwin?
There is an odd rearguard action to undermine evolution taking place that I don't quite understand.
Rather than critique evolution for its inability to explain the bacterial flagellum, or the origin of life, or how the leopard got its spots, or any of the other countless things that presently challenge evolution, this movement seeks to undermine evolution by making Charles Darwin into a sinister, lying purveyor of evil social policies, like eugenics and genocide.
I recently taped a radio show with one of the leaders of this movement whose new book, The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, repeats the odd argument that Darwin was largely responsible for the holocaust. A cover blurb says the book "brilliantly demonstrates that Darwinism has deeply corrupted our civilization." The book joins several others that have appeared in the past few years making exactly the same argument. The show aired yesterday on KSEV Houston and will be available online by next Monday.
This is not entirely new. The anti-evolutionary literature has been forever smearing evolution and, to a lesser degree, Darwin. Organizations like the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis have long maintained that evolution is responsible for most, if not all, of society's ills, from rampant pornography and abortion, to euthanasia and teenage promiscuity. But these claims are easy to dismiss; the people making them are professional evolution bashers, trained in science, not intellectual history, and largely preaching to sympathetic choirs.
The focus on smearing Darwin is fascinating. The primary goal is to connect Darwin to Hitler, via the social applications of evolution, and have some of the latter's sinister stench rub off on him. Nobody smells worse than Hitler, of course, so giving Darwin some of this offensive odor is sure to turn off some people.
This exercise puzzles me for several reasons. In the first place, scientists, in their day-to-day work, don't care one whit about what somebody in their field might have done hundreds of years ago. Nobody has ever taken a poll, but I would put money on the fact that virtually no biologists have ever even read a biography of Darwin, much less give a hoot about any historical controversies presently animating the biographers. It is simply not relevant to evolution as it is understood today.
Even if Darwin could be shown to be a fictional character, like Ebenezer Scrooge, there are no consequences for the vitality of evolutionary theory. None. It is a part of the culture of science to be constantly cutting off the historical branch on which it sits. Evolution is widely accepted by scientists today not because Darwin is revered as an authority, but because recent work in the field continues to confirm it. Darwin, for scientists, is a footnote at most.
This peculiar opposition to evolution is so different than opposition to other scientific ideas. French Cartesians opposed Newton's theory of gravity, but they did not do this by smearing Newton for being socially weird or Unitarian. Einstein argued aggressively against Quantum Indeterminacy, but never assaulted Niels Bohr for being pompous or living in the mansion of a beer magnate. Why in the world is anti-evolutionary fervor directed at poor deceased Darwin, rather than his theory, which is alive and well?
This "Darwin is bad" argument also rests on a most basic philosophical error, namely, the production of ethical directives from facts. This maxim is often summarized, "You cannot get 'ought' from 'is.'" No matter how well evolutionary theorists may establish that history reveals that the "fittest do survive" there is simply no path from that observation to the ethical directive that the "fittest should exterminate the less fit." And when I say "no path" I mean "no path," in exactly the same sense that there is "no ladder" from my house to the moon. It is not that the argument is tortuous, complex, and requires degrees in philosophy to follow. There is no more a path from evolution to eugenics or genocide than there is a path from gravity to death by hanging as an appropriate capital punishment.
These anti-Darwin pundits point out that Darwin appears to have supported social applications of his theory--applications that, in a mutated, hyperbolic form, were invoked by the Nazis. This may very well be true--or not. I will leave this controversy to the historians because it doesn't matter scientifically. If Darwin himself inferred moral (or immoral) directives from his theory that reveals one thing, and one thing only about the great scientist--he was capable of making foolish philosophical blunders. It does not indicate that such directives are somehow "intrinsic" to his theory.
And finally, if there is this strong connection between Darwin and Hitler, it is interesting that Hitler's biographers all seem to have missed it. Experts on the deranged architect of the holocaust have spent countless hours tracing the origins of Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism and none of them have discovered this link to Darwin.
As we have consistently argued in these blogs, we need to make our peace--not with a dead 19th century naturalist who may or may not have inspired Hitler--but with a theory that has been confirmed countless times over and now stands as a compelling account of the history of life on this planet.
Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.