I’m Not a Scientist I Just Play One on TV

It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”—Noel Coward

November 24, 2009, was the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Charles Darwin’s controversial book Origin of Species. Around this time I downloaded and listened to a series of podcasts on Darwin’s life from the CBC show Ideas.[1] Darwin is fascinating to me personally mainly because he’s such a polarizing figure—depending what you think going into reading his ideas on evolution it seems you either hate or love the man. The reality is both he and his theories on the origins of life are generally misunderstood.

Within the world of science, Darwin is considered at least as important and revolutionary a thinker as either Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. However, his biological theory of transmutation or “descent through modification” (typically called the theory of evolution) has made Darwin a villain in the minds of many non-scientists. Three years ago I heard a pastor criticize Darwin in front of an assembly. I remember the talk primarily because he raised a copy of Darwin’s Origin declaring in self-righteous indignation “every copy of this book should be burned”. The pastor’s words reminded of the German poet Heinrich Heine’s warning that “where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings”.[2] Darwin doesn’t scare me, people who want to burn books do.

bookburning

Over the past two decades I’ve noticed an increase in the type and nature of attacks on Charles Darwin. The pastor’s comment was admittedly distressing. Fortunately his influence on the assembly was minimal. I’m more concerned about what celebrities like Anne Coulter or Kirk Cameron have to say. They speak with the same ignorance, just to larger audiences. Both Coulter (an articulate and presumably capable lawyer) and Cameron (an actor) have taken issue with the teaching of evolution in schools; yet, they don’t attack evolution, they attack Darwin himself.

Cameron has asserted Charles Darwin helped develop the political philosophy of Social Darwinism.[3] The reality is this pseudo-science formed independently and despite of Darwin. Facts don’t concern the likes of either Cameron or Coulter.  Both use logical fallacies, distortion, etc. to take advantage of the average person’s ignorance about the English naturalist; and in so doing they hope to convince people to reject the theory before giving it an honest hearing. Why do I take issue with this? I don’t take issue with it because I necessarily want to defend evolution; it requires no defence from me. I’m worried because if the narrative surrounding Darwin can be so easily re-written or mis-represented, what’s the next chapter of history to be re-written?[4]


Cameron’s Unlikely Villain
In one of his many innocuous YouTube videos[5], Kirk Cameron claimed Darwin was a racist and hated women. Cameron further attempted to discredit Darwin by associating Adolf Hitler with evolution. I’m not entirely sure what Hitler believing in evolution (which he didn’t, really, as I’ll demonstrate later) has to do with anything; nonetheless, I didn’t get all dressed up for nothing. I’m going to break down Cameron’s claims one by one:

obamafascistConscious or not Cameron is making use of a common logical fallacy called argumentum ad hominem (more commonly known as “attacking the man”). By claiming Darwin is a bad man Cameron hopes to establish the evolution itself is somehow bad.  If you attack the man, you diminish his ideas…well, not really. Although this tactic is childish, it’s surprisingly effective. Consider how successful the far-right in the United States was in convincing a lot of Americans that President Obama wasn’t a Christian but a Muslim, not a democrat but a fascist.[6] There are all sorts of videos/websites dedicated to proving Obama was the anti-Christ, as well. Worse still he might not even be an American! All you have to do is put together a website and claim he’s not American and *poof* his country of origin becomes Kenya.

The reality is that even if Darwin were an unsavoury character (which he was not) he still might have something useful to say. Evolution, like all scientific theories, stands or falls based on the existence of supporting evidence, whether the theory makes accurate predictions, and whether the theory is ultimately falsifiable. Darwin’s theory does not depend upon his good standing at the cricket club for its validity.

Cameron also makes use of another logical fallacy in argumentation called “poisoning the well”. For example, Cameron asserted Hitler believed in evolution.[7] Hitler also killed a gazillion people.[8] Therefore, people who accept evolution (like you or the biology teacher at the local public school) are also bad people. If someone has ever asked you the standard anti-evolution question, “If evolution is true then why do monkeys still exist?” you’ve got first-hand experience with the well being poisoned.[9] By equating genocide with acceptance of evolution Cameron hopes to pressure us into rejecting Darwin’s theory outright. Regrettably for Cameron though is we have these things called books that we can read to confirm or disprove his assertions.


Darwin a Racist?
According to Cameron, Charles Darwin was a racist. What is Cameron’s proof? Cameron, a person who couldn’t pass the entrance requirements for kindergarten—like my ad hominem attack there?—connects Darwin the man to a grotesque mis-application of his theory called Social Darwinism. Throughout history Social Darwinists have used Darwin’s ideas to “scientifically” justify racism. The regrettable thing here, really, is the juxtaposition of Darwin’s name on to Social Darwinism; it’s misleading.

For instance, Darwin used the phrase “natural selection” to describe how some creatures are selected by nature to live while some die. Creatures that survive live long enough to reproduce pass on their genes to the next generation. However, less fortunate creatures are selected by nature to die; and since the dead do not reproduce their genes do not get passed on to the next generation. Thus, over time a general increase in the frequency of the successful creatures’ genes shapes the entire specie with a resultant change in overall morphology (or appearance) of that species. Evolution, in fact, is all a reflection of gene frequencies and general populations; the theory is so simple a three year old should be able to understand it (my three year old son Alec was proof of just that).

Darwin did not regard natural selection as a directed process—it was, as David Hume might say, just a brute fact. In reality, the majority of evolutionary biologists today view natural selection as a mechanism akin to trial and error. There’s no ultimate purpose or meaning to it. In fact, if you were to start the whole process of life evolving all over again there’s no guarantee human beings would necessarily evolve again, i.e. Richard Lenski’s work with e. coli.[10]

Social Darwinists (SD), on the other hand, believe wrongly natural selection is somehow driven by purpose or providence. One of the more notorious SD proponents, George Vacher de Pouge, believed natural selection could be helped along so as to purify or make the human race stronger. I remember coming across one of his more peculiar arguments while taking a history of ideas class from Professors Stewart and Grogin at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1990s. De Pouge insisted the government of France should give free alcohol to all the poor people. The idea was to turn the poor into a bunch of homicidal drunks who would kill one another thereby thinning the herd making more room for those that were more fit to live (like, say, the wealthy or the ones who were creating and believing in SD). According to Cameron, therefore, Darwin was a man who prescribed to such principles as racial purity, master races, institutionalized slavery, even genocide.

The problem with Cameron’s claim is Darwin didn’t actually develop the philosophy of Social Darwinism—Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckl, de Pouge, H. S. Chamberlain and a handful of other likeminded racists did.

spencerHerbert Spencer (1820-1903 AD) was an English journalist who believed evolutionary theory could be properly applied to solve various problems like unemployment, disease, and poverty, etc. then confronting Victorian England. Spencer conceived of society as one large organism best improved through natural selection; and it was he (not Darwin) who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”.[11]

I see no reason to believe Darwin would’ve disagreed with Spencer’s famous phrase so much as with the journalist’s interpretation; that is, Spencer used evolution to add a veneer of scientific legitimacy to pre-existing beliefs in the superiority of white Europeans; moreover, Spencer was attempting to justify the class system then (and still) in place in England. Spencer might say something like, “The poor ought not to be helped in any way because doing so would only encourage the survival of the weak; and this hurts the overall fitness and strength of the human race”. Darwin, I assure you, would not have agreed with this interpretation of natural selection.

Darwin knew Mr. Spencer personally. They corresponded. For his part the English naturalist considered Spencer remarkably intelligent. However, there was something about the journalist Darwin did not like. In particular, Darwin did not like Spencer’s tendency to mistake his own personal (a priori) conclusions on matters like evolution for scientific fact. In his autobiography, Darwin provided the following description of Mr. Spencer:

…Spencer`s conversation seemed to me very interesting but I did not like him particularly, and did not feel that I could easily have become intimate with him. I think that he was extremely egotistical. After reading any of his books, I generally feel enthusiastic admiration for his transcendent talents, and have often wondered whether in the distant future he would rank with such great men as Descartes, Leibniz, etc., about whom, however, I know very little. Nevertheless I am not conscious of having profited in my own work by Spencer’s writings. His deductive manner of treating every subject is wholly opposed to my frame of mind. His conclusions never convince me: and over and over again I have said to myself, after reading one of his discussions,—fundamental generalizations (which have been compared in importance by some persons with Newton’s laws!)—which I daresay may be very valuable under a philosophical [my emphasis] point of view, are of such a nature that they do not seem to me to be of any strictly scientific [again my emphasis] use. They partake more of the nature of definitions than of laws of nature. They do not aid one in predicting what will happen in any particular case. Anyhow they have not been of any use to me.[12]

To put it simply, Darwin did not believe in making claims going beyond what the scientific method—when properly exercised—could establish. Though undoubtedly a learned man in his own right, Spencer committed an error many intelligent people do: they mistakenly believe their personal genius is alone sufficient enough a thing to accurately interpret science, reality and history.


Darwin & Slavery
In 1861, Charles Darwin sent a letter to the American botanist and slavery-abolitionist Asa Gray. Gray (1810-1888), like Darwin, opposed and found slavery completely repellant. In the 1860s, the United States still had slavery in the southern states like Mississippi and Alabama. In 1861, the American Civil War broke out between the North and the South. The North (states like Vermont, New York) fought for several reasons one of which was to end slavery. The South (states like Florida, Georgia) fought for many different reasons one of which was to preserve slavery. Darwin came clearly down on the side of the North. He hated the idea of any man—regardless of color—being enslaved to any other man. Here’s an excerpt from one his letters to Mr. Gray:

I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting. North America does not do England justice [the historical record clearly shows that England officially supported the South in order to weaken the United States] I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, and I am one, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply be repaid in the cause of humanity. What wonderful times we live in…Great God how I should like to see the greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished.[13]

Strike one for the former child star establishing Mr. Darwin as a racist. In fact, one of Darwin’s purposes for the publication of Origin of Species was to establish that all people—regardless of race—shared common ancestry. If it could be scientifically proven black, white, yellow, red and people of all colours in between, shared a common ancestor the philosophies and ideas supporting the slavery (and by extension racism) would collapse. Darwin established exactly that through his theory of common descent.


Slavery: The Real Story
Pro-slavery states justified the continuance of slavery not on the basis of Darwin’s ideas but upon a good old-fashioned mixture of religious conviction and racism. In the 21st century, most (though not all) reasonable people would acknowledge Christianity is incompatible with slavery; however, in 1810 it would be an entirely different matter altogether: neither Jesus nor Paul or Peter (or anyone else of any significance in either the Torah or New Testament) said slavery should be abolished. Actually, both St. Peter and the Apostle Paul are quoted as saying “slaves be obedient to your masters” (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22). Instead of finding passages opposed to slavery, you’ll find passages where slavery is justified by pre-19th century Christian theology. In particular, Genesis 9:25-27 where Noah says “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers”. He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave”. Canaan was believed to be a dark-skinned person who lived in Africa; therefore, enslaving Africans was religiously justifiable.[14]

If you’re of the mind slavery contradicts the spirit of Jesus’ teachings you’re probably right. Abolitionists were mainly Christians who appealed to such statements made by the Apostle Paul like there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor freeman (Galatians 3:28). Also Jesus’ obvious affinity for the down-trodden and the outcasts of society is well-documented (Mark 2:16, Luke 19:9).[15]

Unfortunately, any person can take any philosophy and make it say whatever he/she/child actor wants it to say. This is one of the reasons I love science: science, unlike other ways of knowing, is a self-correcting way of knowing basing its claims fully upon observable phenomena, evidence, logic, proof, reason, and testability. Certainly there are times when individual scientists err. Nevertheless, in the end the scientific method makes sure we get the facts (at least as we understand them at the time) right. If you make a false claim it gets weeded out; and no matter how rich or powerful you are you cannot establish a claim as true unless it’s supported by the evidence. In the end, truth cannot be bought; it exists independently of belief; a claim does not become true if you have repeated it more than once or if you have yelled it really, really loud over your opponent’s protests.

So what is evolution exactly if it isn’t giving poor people alcohol so they might kill one another in drunken fits of rage? I’ll take a direct quote from evolutionary biologist Ken Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God for a brief description (by the way Miller is a theist and accepts evolution, too):

At its heart, evolution is a modest idea, a minimal concept, just two points, really. First, the roots of the present [life forms] are found in the past; and second, natural processes, observable today, fully explain the biological connections between past and present. On purely scientific terms, these two points leave very little to argue about.[16]

That’s it. It’s a simple theory. Elegant even. It is a theory asserting life/biological systems are changing over an enormous period of time. Nowhere in the Origin of Species are you going to find phrases like “master race” or “racial purity”.  To be honest Hitler didn’t need Darwin to justify the hatred of Jews. Social Darwinism wasn’t the only pseudo-science to come out of the mis-use of evolution: two other pseudo-sciences emerged—ethnology (study of ethnic groups and ancestry) and eugenics (study of racial purity).

Darwin developed no concept of racial purity. In reality, his theory implies every creature on the planet has in fact evolved over an equally long time span; there’s no validity to saying cats are more evolved than corn. They’ve simply taken different paths. Viewed in its own right racial purity is not expressly a scientific idea, in that, you cannot test “purity” because it is a judgement of value and therefore unscientific. You cannot objectively determine one race is overall better than another. You absolutely can measure objective differences between the races comparing the DNA of black to white, red to yellow people, etc. Yet, any assertion that the round eye of the European is superior to the slanted eye of the Asian is not only irrational but stupid.[17]


My Struggle Reading Hitler’s Book
Drawing concrete parallels between Adolf Hitler’s weltenshauung (“world-view”) and Darwin’s work is absurd. Hitler was a power hungry man, a Social Darwinist, a “man of prey” in the Nietzschean sense.[18] He was a rabid racist and nationalist. He lacked objectivity and possessed at best a confused view of history. Hitler saw providence (God) giving him a divine task (to rebuild and bring glory to the German master race). Based on all of this Hitler had more in common with Spencer and Pouge than he did with Darwin. The following is an excerpt from Hitler’s book Mein Kampff (“My Struggle”):

“The undermining of the existence of human culture by the destruction of its bearer in the eyes of a folkish philosophy the most execrable crime. Anyone who dares to lay hands on the highest image of the Lord commits sacrilege against the benevolent Creator of this miracle and contributes to the expulsion from paradise”.[19]

I’ve taken the liberty of translating Hitler’s nonsense here as best I could to make it readable. Contrary to what popular culture asserts Hitler was not in fact a genius, definitely not a literary one. He was passionate certainly, a true believer in his own greatness obviously, but a muddle-headed man at the best of times.[20] Now for the translation: “Allowing any inferior people (like the Jews for instance) to dilute and hold back the only people (Germans) capable of creating culture is a crime. Anybody who dares attempt to hold back or diminish the Lord’s greatest creation (Germans) commits a crime against God and will be cast out of paradise.”

Here are a few additional quotes from Herr Hitler the so-called “atheist” and evolutionist:

  • What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people…so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe.[21]
  • Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew [he apparently didn’t get the irony that Jesus was a Jew or he didn’t get the memo], I am fighting for the work of the Lord.[22]

The Nazi Party actually black-listed and banned Darwin’s Origin of Species.[23] Darwin’s Origin, Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Hellen Keller’s Miracle Worker, etc. were all banned based on the following law:

All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk [German people].

Darwin was banned because evolution provided a challenge to creationism and traditional religion/morality; it also established common descent making any “master race” hypothesis dead in the water. Freud’s work was banned because he was a Jew promoting pacifism, liberalism, and scientific materialism. Thomas Mann (a German author) was banded for writing books with themes empathizing with the weak and questioning the wisdom of war; and Hellen Keller’s work was sent to the flames because she was an “imperfect,” deaf and blind woman promoting understanding, universalism, and love of everyone (not just people who belong to your particular tribe/nation).

I wonder: would Anne Coulter or Kirk Cameron like it if I were to make an argument like the following: you believe in God? What?! Hitler believed in God! You’re a bad person! Nobody in their right mind would think this argument would have any validity; however, it is precisely this line of faulty reasoning Coulter and Cameron utilize in an attempt to diminish Charles Darwin and his theory. They “poison the well” launching childish ad hominem attacks to discourage people from undertaking an honest examination of Darwin’s thinking. In closing, and for those who have a real problem with Mr. Darwin, I’ll invoke some advice from Aristotle: it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. You can study Darwin and scripture. You can accept evolution and believe in God. Admittedly, evolution poses some challenges to traditional beliefs and doctrines; however, if I might invoke Aristotle’s form to fashion my own recommendation: it is the mark of a genuinely faithful person not to mistake blind dogmatism for conviction.

 

[1] http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1515861114

[2] Henrich Heine, Alamaron (play), published 1821.

[3] Social Darwinism is a pseudo-scientific ideology based upon a narrow (and incorrect) interpretation of evolution’s significance. Racist thinkers like Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) and Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909 AD) appealed to Darwin’s theory in order to scientifically validate the idea of superior or inferior peoples. They argued one was born a criminal and that certain people should not be allowed to breed. Hans Frank, the Minister of Justice for the Third Reich in 1938, declared as much in a speech: “National Socialism regards degeneracy as an immensely important source of criminal activity…in an individual, degeneracy signifies exclusion form the normal “genus” of the decent nation. This state of being degenerate or egenerate, this different or alien quality, tends to be rooted in miscegenation between a decent representative of his race and an individual of inferior racial stock. To us National Socialists, criminal biology, or the theory of congenital criminality, connotes a link between racial decadence and criminal manifestations.” Darwin rejected any notion that evolution implied any particular race was better than the next. The reality is one of the main reason he undertook to study life’s origins was in fact to scientifically establish the opposite: people of every race are descended from a single, shared ancestor and that racial variation doesn’t imply either superiority or inferiority; it implies variety (and that’s it). Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration, p.27-28.

[4] Will we re-write history by officially accepting the assertion that the Holocaust never happened? James Keegstra, a teacher of dubious intention and quality, taught Holocaust denial for ten years in a Red Deer, Alberta, history classroom. Teachers are required to teach consensus views in history and science. Journalists, lawyers, and former child stars apparently have no such constriction.

[5] The video has since been removed; however, you can see some similar arguments if you go to the following link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzJtwieiMwE). Cameron was part of an effort to debunk evolution by publishing an edition of Origin of Species with a 50 page preface explaining all the problems with Darwin’s thinking. There’s nothing wrong with criticising the theory, yet there are problems with this edition, in that, Darwin’s views on women, race, etc. are misrepresented and the preface’s authors conflate Darwin with Nazism. What Darwin’s critics don’t articulate in this preface is that the Nazis actually burned copies of Origin of Species during one of their book burning rallies in 1934 Nuremberg.

[6] If you look closely at the image conflating Obama and fascism, you’ll notice three historical figures in the background (none of whom were fascists), e.g. from left to right Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao-tse-tung, etc. all of whom were communists. Fascism and communism are categorically different ideologies in terms of aims and purposes.

[7] Hitler was as selective in his understanding of evolution as he was in his understanding of history.

[8] So many people makes use of the “Hitler argument” to poison the well it has been given its own logical fallacy name, e.g. Reductio ad Hitlerum.

[9] I confess it took me a while to figure out exactly what critics were asking by the question “If evolution is true then why do monkeys still exist?” From what I can tell critics imply evolution demands the following: human beings evolved from monkeys; therefore, monkeys must disappear and be replaced entirely by people. People who think along these lines are grossly misinformed, i.e. evolution doesn’t posit we come from monkeys but rather we share an ancestor in common; that is, at some point in the distant past monkeys went one way and the ancestors of modern humans branched off and went another. In 2005 a scientific paper confirmed the “common ancestor” hypothesis, i.e. Chimpanzees have 48 chromosomes and humans 46. If we’re related, we should have the same total number of chromosomes. The study established that this is the case: one of our chromosomes is actually two chromosomes fused together; this fusion dropped our total number from 48 to 46 (while preserving the original primate information). The paper states: “Chromosome 2 is unique to the human lineage of evolution, having emerged as the result of head-to-head fusion of two chromosomes that remained separate in other primates.” In fact, the molecular evidence for the fusion point is so strong that we can actually identify the exact region where the two chromosome tips were combined, where the two primate chromosomes were pasted together. Human chromosome 2 does indeed contain telomere DNA at its middle, at the fusion point, and it carries two centromere sequences corresponding to the centromeres from chimpanzee chromosomes 12 and 13. Furthermore, the genes on human chromosome 2 are arranged in an almost exact match for the patterns of corresponding genes on the two chimp chromosomes. So clear is the match, in fact, scientists working on the chimpanzee genome have now changed the numbering of chimp chromosomes 12 and 13 to chromosomes 2A and 2B, to match the human chromosome to which they correspond. The forensic case of the missing chromosome is settled beyond any doubt. Ken Miller, Only a Theory, p.105-107.

[10] http://myxo.css.msu.edu/ecoli/

[11] Spencer’s use of survival of the fittest implies an aggressive, inescapable intention to selection whereas Darwin saw selection as a non-directed force of trial and error. Thus, a Social Darwinist like Hitler helping natural selection along through the use of gas chambers absolutely contradicted Darwin’s own understanding of the concept.

[12] Charles Darwin, Autobiography of Charles Darwin, p.90.

[13] Ricardo Brown, Until Darwin, Science, Human Variety and the Origins of Race, p.144-145.

[14] You can read about this in detail at the following site: http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_slav1.htm.

[15] When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

[16] Ken Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, p.174.

[17] Liberals would have us believe race doesn’t exist at all. This would be an over-simplification. When it comes to medical interventions race certainly is considered an important factor. For example, individuals descended from east African populations may carry a gene making it difficult for their blood to clot. Thus, it makes sense for a doctor to consider an individual’s genetic make-up when it comes to prescribing certain medications or undertaking certain procedures. Author Dr. Steven Novella discusses this nuance to race on the podcast Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (episode 577): http://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcast/sgu/577.

[18] The thinking of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900 AD) was often used by men like Hitler to justify Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism. Nietzsche actually abhorred the idea of anti-Semitism and would have been critical of Hitler’s blind nationalism. See the following course: Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, “Nietzsche’s Top Ten” (The Great Courses).

[19] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampff, p.383.

[20] Prime Minister Winston Churchill observed on more than one occasion how useful of an ally Hitler was because the German dictator frequently interfered in making decisions in areas he clearly had no understanding, e.g. economics and military tactics in particular.

[21] Adolf Hitler, p.214.

[22] Adolf Hitler, p.65.

[23] Additional pearls of wisdom from Hitler can be found here: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA006_1.html.

 

Advertisements