Home > Anti-evolution > Some Thoughts on Historians and Contemporary Anti-evolutionism.

Some Thoughts on Historians and Contemporary Anti-evolutionism.

November 6, 2009

The following has appeared in the October edition of the Newsletter of the History of Science Society. It appears here so as to allow comment and discussion on the issues raised.

In a recent book review for The British Journal for the History of Science, Thomas Dixon asks what contribution historians of science can make to the debate about intelligent design (ID). As myself and others noted in a 2008 Isis Focus article, historians have many opportunities to make contributions to this most public of debates, yet our community has largely resisted the Siren’s call of engagement with creationism. In this brief note, I would like to offer some thoughts on current creationist tactics with regards the history of science and hopefully inspire some readers to engage in this significant debate.

The modern ID movement arose in the last two decades of the last century, although to a significant degree its roots were planted in the Young Earth Creationist movement which re-emerged in American in the 1960’s. The Discovery Institute (DI, the leading proponent and funder of ID) disputes this historical fact even in the face of manifest evidence presented in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. While purportedly beginning with the secular purpose of convincing scientists that their adherence to naturalistic explanation was misplaced, the ID movement’s religious motivations became obvious both in private and public writings. Having failed to convince the scientific community – and having been dealt a significant blow by the ruling in Kitzmiller – the movement has recently stepped up its incursions into historical analysis with a series of works that collectively see modern biology, in the guise of an historically uncontextualized “Darwinism,” as both the product of Epicurean (i.e. pagan, anti-Christian) materialism and a cause of many modern ills. Even the briefest examination of some of these works clearly indicates the furrow that the ID movement is attempting to plough.

Political scientist John West clearly outlines these claims in his book, Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. According to West, who echoes a claim previously made by Benjamin Wiker, the pagan materialism of the Greek philosopher Epicurus and the Roman poet Lucretius gave rise to modern scientific naturalism. As West sees it, this influence in turn has lead to the rule of a scientific elite over democracy, utopian idealism, moral relativism, censorship of dissent, and dehumanization.

This theme of dehumanization has become something of an idée fixe for modern anti-evolutionists. Darwin is seen as, if not a causative factor of, then an inspiration for, the totalitarian regimes of the Twentieth century. Darwin’s work, we are told, led to the devaluation of human life, eugenics, the Holocaust, Planned Parenthood, and fetal stem cell research. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in the pro-ID movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed , in which Ben Stein unsubtly portrays Darwin’s writings as leading to the Holocaust and “Darwinists” as waging a campaign of terror against ID proponents. Egregiously, Stein selectively quotes Darwin to make it appear as if he disapproved of measures to aid the sick and infirm. Even more egregiously, in publicity interviews Stein has baldly stated that “science leads you to kill people” and “Darwinism led – in a pretty much straight line – to Nazism and the Holocaust.” While it would be comforting to imagine that Stein’s position was that of a politically motivated crank, it has received support from historian and DI fellow Richard Weikart, who appears onscreen with Stein during an interview conducted at Dachau. Weikart’s published attempts to link Darwin to Hitler have received negative commentary from such historians as Robert Richards, Paul Farber, Sander Gliboff, and Nils Roll-Hansen, yet these ideas have continued to be promulgated by Benjamin Wiker (again, a DI fellow) in his The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, a biography that Gliboff accurately, if caustically, compares with the writings of the journalist Rita Skeeter from the Harry Potter series.

Given the rigorous peer review process required for publication in leading academic journals and presses, it is unsurprising that ID proponents make little attempt to engage with the community of professional historians. Their claims are made in books published largely by conservative (e.g. Regnery, Intercollegiate Studies Institute), religious (e.g. InterVarsity, an outgrowth of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus ministry) or vanity (e.g. Erasmus Press, owned by William Dembski) presses. Unsurprisingly papers are neither presented at conferences nor published in relevant journals and little attempt is made to undergo review by practicing historians with expertise in Darwin, his ideas, and their socio-cultural effects. In short, anti-evolutionist historical scholarship accurately mirrors creationist scientific work in being directed at the true believers rather than the academic community. The temptation may thus be for professional historians to ignore their claims – a temptation that I feel must be rejected. As historians, we have a social duty to correct error and over-simplification where it is foisted on the public by politically and religiously motivated individuals, and this responsibility goes beyond what sociologist and ID sympathizer Steve Fuller has dismissively seen as “catching the errors” of the creationists. There is something far more fundamental at stake. At a time where historians have eschewed Whig or “Great Man” histories, anti-evolutionists are presenting their “Not-So-Great Man” view of Darwin. They misrepresent the very nature of historical enquiry; they manipulate history until it risks becoming a mere shadow of the rich and intricate tapestry that it is.

Our collective research as historians can obviously help disprove claims made by anti-evolutionists regarding both the social effects of scientific ideas and how the scientific community functions. Many of us study scientific change, community formation over time, and the treatment of heretical ideas and controversy. In so doing, we have developed a realistic view of science and its social effects – both positive and negative – along with a clear conceptualization of how evolutionary biology has matured as a field over the past two hundred years. Our research directly opposes the erroneous and simplistic views of the anti-evolutionists, yet it remains largely unknown to the public. While I am not calling for historians to engage in popularization of their work, although that too may have benefits, I do believe that increased public engagement for those of us who have something relevant to say debunking the claims of anti-evolutionists is nothing less than a shared social responsibility. Such engagement is, thankfully, beginning. (For example, Mark Borrello has publicly engaged with John West on the claim that there is a link between Darwin and dehumanization. )

Such public engagement is not, however, without its perils. As detailed in the last issue of this newsletter, Peter Bowler, Sandra Herbert and Janet Browne were not given full disclosure by Fathom Media (an offshoot of the creationist organization Creation Ministries International) when interviewed for the documentary The Voyage That Shook The World. Unaware of the underlying anti-evolutionary agenda of the work, the historians gave interviews that were apparently selectively edited to highlight certain aspects of Darwin’s life. Equally as problematic was the equation of the contributions of historians with those of unqualified non-experts on matters of history. As Bowler et al note, “if academic historians refuse to participate when movements they don’t approve of seek historical information, these historians can hardly complain if less reputable sources are used instead.” When we speak out, we risk being caught between the Scylla of non-engagement and the Charybdis of having our statements misused.

Still, if the past few years are any indicator, it is highly likely that the future will see further creationist manipulation of history within the public sphere, and the only way to combat that trend is active engagement. Public engagement with those communities who seek to misuse history will be frustrating and not without dangers. Yet it also offers us an opportunity to enlighten the public about the nature of historical enquiry and the fertile area that the history of science represents.

<HSS Newsletter>

  1. John Wilkins
    November 6, 2009 at 9:45 am

    Bravo! Hits all the right notes, except the inexplicable failure to mention the history of the species concept…

  2. November 6, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Should have seen that coming …

  3. Mike P
    November 6, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Excellent piece, John. Do you know if there have been any Creationist attempts to alter non-science history books to ascribe historical events like the Holocaust to Darwin and “Darwinism”? Should we expect disclaimer stickers in history textbooks anytime soon?

  4. Wes
    November 6, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Excellent article, John. Part of Fuller’s letter really made me laugh:

    Beyond the critical skills students
    could acquire from any good humanities course,
    this modest benefit turns out to be catching the
    errors of groups like the Discovery Institute who
    use the history of science to promote Intelligent
    Design theory, itself allegedly part of a campaign
    by the religious right to undermine the
    American way of life.

    “Allegedly”? If science education is considered part of the American way of life, then there’s nothing “alleged” about the DI’s religious right agenda to undermine it. It’s about as well documented as a fact can be.

  5. Steve Fuller
    November 6, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    John, I still don’t see how what you’re proposing for historians of science goes much beyond ‘correcting creationist errors’. If Borrello’s response to West is meant to be taken as exemplary, then the reader is simply left with a more complicated story, but not one that is diametrically opposed to West’s. The problem here is that you on the anti-ID/anti-creationist side don’t seem to have a clear alternative narrative line that you want to push. You just seem to want to mess up the stories of guys like West. Is that all you’re about?

  6. November 7, 2009 at 12:10 am

    I’ve deleted some comments here because the thread got derailed into a discussion of Steve Fuller’s hatchet job on Norm Levitt, something that is not germane to the posting at hand.

  7. November 7, 2009 at 12:30 am

    I hate to repeat myself but Steve Fuller apparently didn’t read my original article/post:

    There is something far more fundamental at stake. At a time where historians have eschewed Whig or “Great Man” histories, anti-evolutionists are presenting their “Not-So-Great Man” view of Darwin. They misrepresent the very nature of historical inquiry; they manipulate history until it risks becoming a mere shadow of the rich and intricate tapestry that it is.

    It’s not just about ‘correcting creationist errors’ – it is also about misrepresenting the very nature of historical inquiry. ID proponents has a simplistic and erroneous view of historical causation and narrative. Given Fuller’s sympathies in this matter, I expect him to continue to champion the cause of Stein, Wiker, West and their ilk. So be it.

  8. Steve Fuller
    November 7, 2009 at 3:09 am

    Putting aside your powers of prediction, the very part of the post that you’ve just highlighted is what that I’d like to see you and your friends concentrate on in the future. In other words, start to practice what you preach. In particular, I would like some thoughtful reflection about the relationship between the nature of historical inquiry and the writing of the history of evolution and its various discontents, which seems to be the part of the history of science that most exercises people here. A cynic — not to be confused with me! — might suspect that your appeal to historiography is nothing but a smokescreen for bashing creationists/IDists, etc., and that really you don’t have anything especially interesting to teach us about the how and why of history of science as a discipline. But only a cynic would say that — not me!

  9. Wes
    November 7, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Steve,

    You’re missing the point, and the passage I quoted from your letter above reveals why. The creationists are employing the tools of history as a political tactic, not as an academic discipline. That’s why Sander compared Wiker to Rita Skeeter in his review. That’s why John says that

    While purportedly beginning with the secular purpose of convincing scientists that their adherence to naturalistic explanation was misplaced, the ID movement’s religious motivations became obvious both in private and public writings. Having failed to convince the scientific community – and having been dealt a significant blow by the ruling in Kitzmiller – the movement has recently stepped up its incursions into historical analysis with a series of works that collectively see modern biology, in the guise of an historically uncontextualized “Darwinism,” as both the product of Epicurean (i.e. pagan, anti-Christian) materialism and a cause of many modern ills. Even the briefest examination of some of these works clearly indicates the furrow that the ID movement is attempting to plough.

    The charge here, as I see it, is that Wiker, Stein, etc. are distorting the history in order to score political points by comparing Darwin to Hitler. Pretty much the only way to connect the two is to quote Darwin out of context and ignore the bulk of what the Nazis were about, and then make a highly dubious causal claim about “materialism”.

    You seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the strong (you would say “alleged”) connections between the ID movement and partisans on the religious right. But you’re too close to the movement to claim ignorance on this matter. Surely you’re aware that the DI’s biggest monetary supporter is Howard Ahmanson. Surely you’re aware of the close connections between ID and other politically motivated science-denial movements such as AIDS denial and global warming denial. As the Wedge document clearly demonstrates, the ultimate goal of the DI is to change American politics and culture.

    All of this boils down to the charge that the creationists are trying to make a political point, not a historical point. But it seems to me that you are avoiding this.

  10. Steve Fuller
    November 7, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Wes, I was respondng to John’s HSS Newsletter article as reprinted here, not to your intervention. Look at what I originally wrote. My interest is solely in the larger significance for the history of science profession that John has claimed for correcting creationist histories. I have yet to be told what that is. I am perfectly happy to admit that politically motivated people — not least creationists — are likely to try to turn the history of science to their advantage and commit errors in the process. Why or how this is supposed to be turned into a major issue for the history of science profession has yet to be explained, though John’s post sugggests as much.

  11. November 7, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    I am perfectly happy to admit that politically motivated people — not least creationists — are likely to try to turn the history of science to their advantage and commit errors in the process.

    As you do yourself, it appears, with regards Newton, Lamarck, Cuvier, Agassiz, Galton, the history of biology … the list goes on.

    It would be difficult to expect you to be interested in historical accuracy since you display such a disregard for it in your own writings.

  12. Wes
    November 7, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Wes, I was respondng to John’s HSS Newsletter article as reprinted here, not to your intervention.

    And I was highlighting an aspect of John’s article which you avoided.

    Look at what I originally wrote. My interest is solely in the larger significance for the history of science profession that John has claimed for correcting creationist histories.

    If history of science is evaluated as a discipline, and the creationist histories are perceived as an abuse of the tools of that discipline, how is this not significant for the history of science profession? Regardless of whether or not you agree with John’s conclusions, it’s silly to ask why he thinks it’s significant to history of science. He states very plainly why he thinks it’s significant.

    I have yet to be told what that is. I am perfectly happy to admit that politically motivated people — not least creationists — are likely to try to turn the history of science to their advantage and commit errors in the process. Why or how this is supposed to be turned into a major issue for the history of science profession has yet to be explained, though John’s post sugggests as much.

    They aren’t just “try[img] to turn the history of science to their advantage and commit[ing] errors in the process.” They are distorting the history and using the tools of history to advance political agendas, not history. John’s article doesn’t claim that they merely have an agenda and make mistakes. He’s claiming that they are abusing history for a political purpose. That’s very different.

    You are attempting to portray this as a non-issue, but in doing so you are ignoring the actual issue which John brought up. You still haven’t engaged with one of John’s central points: That books like “From Darwin to Hitler” and movies like “Expelled” are propaganda pieces, not legitimate historical work, and that historians need to find some way to counteract this abuse of the discipline.

    If you disagree that these are abuses of the discipline, then provide an argument for why they’re legitimate. But don’t accuse John of raising a non-issue when you haven’t even addressed the real point he’s making. John isn’t saying that creationists make mistakes and historians need to correct these (as you keep trying to construe him). He’s claiming that creationists are misusing the tools of historical analysis in order to achieve goals which have nothing to do with history.

  13. Steve Fuller
    November 7, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    You people are being way too thin-skinned about this. You already know my basic view, namely, that history is a resource for anyone to use, and the question for professional historians is the extent to which they should worry about this fact. After all, there is more to doing the history of science than simply checking the historical accuracy of other people’s politically motivated statements. At the moment, there are many narratives out there, many – if not most – of which have an axe to grind. And here I include not only the creationist-inspired narratives but also the ones favoured by mainstream science popularizers and textbook writers. All of them strip down the actual history and give it a particular spin. Yes, you can fact-check these accounts to death. But at the end of his statement, John seemed to be suggesting that the discipline should also be in the business of providing its own canonical narrative account of Darwin and his aftermath.

    Perhaps you are all taking for granted something that is by no means obvious to me – namely, that once you correct the errors of the creationist accounts, you’ll be left with accounts of the history of evolution that conform to how evolutionary scientists understand their own history.

    As for Sarkar’s review of my book, I would suggest you read my reply, if you are at all interested in the fairness of his criticism: http://www.uncommondescent.com/education/in-the-face-of-an-aspiring-baboon/. However, I am here not to defend myself. I am here to see if there is anything positive in what John is proposing or if it’s just a politically motivated attempt to enroll HSS in the cause of creationism-bashing. The latter is quite boring, and if that’s all you’re about, I’ll happily leave this forum.

  14. November 7, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    After all, there is more to doing the history of science than simply checking the historical accuracy of other people’s politically motivated statements.

    The irony of you lecturing on how to do history given your track record with basic accuracy should give any reader of these comments reason for pause. I mean seriously, you defend your claim regarding Lamarck by admitting that he never said what you said he did, but some others whom you claim to be Lamarckian over 100 years later did, so that’s the same as Lamarck having said it. You mention Pierre de Chardin but he was not a Lamarckian. Lamarck never believed that “lower organisms literally strove to become higher organisms” and to claim so is to exhibit ignorance that if a student made the claim, they’d be rightly failed. Unable to admit your error, you conflate it at a venue (Uncommon Descent) where you are unlikely to get corrected by the sycophants.

    [O]nce you correct the errors of the creationist accounts, you’ll be left with accounts of the history of evolution that conform to how evolutionary scientists understand their own history.

    Quite the leap of logic there in imagining that is what we take for granted, eh? There is no reason why that should be the case and if you actually think that is either our assumption or something we’d find desirable then you are even more confused about history than you appear to be.

    Stick to defending your “social epistemology” because you are on very slippery ground when trying to defend your ideas on history. I don’t expect to see any historians of science rallying to your defense … then again, you would no doubt attribute that to us being fascist Darwinists (as your ID fellow travelers do).

  15. Wes
    November 7, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I said (with a couple of unfortunate typos):

    They aren’t just “try[img] to turn the history of science to their advantage and commit[ing] errors in the process.” They are distorting the history and using the tools of history to advance political agendas, not history. John’s article doesn’t claim that they merely have an agenda and make mistakes. He’s claiming that they are abusing history for a political purpose. That’s very different.

    Steve replies:

    Yes, you can fact-check these accounts to death. But at the end of his statement, John seemed to be suggesting that the discipline should also be in the business of providing its own canonical narrative account of Darwin and his aftermath.

    Perhaps you are all taking for granted something that is by no means obvious to me – namely, that once you correct the errors of the creationist accounts, you’ll be left with accounts of the history of evolution that conform to how evolutionary scientists understand their own history.

    You are still avoiding the central point here. This is not about merely fact-checking and correcting errors. No one here is claiming that the creationists have an axe to grind and are merely mistaken. People have been saying this over and over.

    Wiker, Stein and the others are being deliberately disingenuous and distorting history to their own purposes. To anyone who isn’t completely blinded by postmodernist argle-bargle, this is very different from merely having a “different narrative”.

  16. Steve Fuller
    November 8, 2009 at 12:41 am

    Well, John, I guess I don’t understand where you and your friends are coming from — at least what epistemological basis it might have. I can see that creationists greatly bother you, and you think they’re being ‘deliberately disingenuous’ with history. So, is this simply about getting a court order to ban them from representing what they do as ‘history’, perhaps in the spirit of protecting a trademark?

    As for my attitudes towards historical accuracy, well, I’d like you to apply that same sense of rigour vis-a-vis my use of ‘Lamarckian’ to the use that others make of ‘Darwinian’ (and I don’t mean just creationist uses — most philosophers of science, including ones you’d like, use the term pretty liberally as well). The question in both cases is whether there is anything deeper at stake than correcting ‘student errors’. One admits the errors, when they are genuine, but more often than not it’s still possible to reformulate one’s main claim with the corrections in place.

    For example, one reason I’m not very impressed by what Borrello has done to West’s text is that West can still score his points even in amended form. So, even just to show that a significant number of Darwinians were eugenicists is likely to appear pretty damning to West’s target audience and help make his overall argument. The fact that not all Darwinists were eugenicists, or that their views on eugenics varied, etc., is not likely to matter much.

    My point here is that historical accuracy matters, depending on what it is you’re trying to do in your text. If you claim to be writing a professional historian’s account of who exactly was and was not a eugenicist in the first half of the 20th century, then West’s account would certainly fail. However, if you are writing a polemical treatise about the overall influence of a train of thought in politics and society, then a reader can spot inaccuracies but that would not necessarily affect the basic argument.

    I’m sorry for being obtuse here, but I am really trying to figure out where you guys are coming from. Saying that you’re ‘pro-science’ isn’t particularly helpful because even creationists/IDists say they are ‘pro-science’. It might be that you believe that simply by pointing out historical inaccuracies, you are able to cast doubt on their motives. As it were, you believe that creationists are so committed to their point of view that they are ‘blind to the facts’. That would be an epistemologically interesting claim — certainly recognisable but one I find far-fetched. However, if you want to pursue that claim, then you need to establish a standard of accuracy for historical work, below which it cannot be counted as history. Otherwise, your targeting of guys like West looks arbitrary, as well as the standard to which you’re holding him accountable.

  17. Pierce R. Butler
    November 10, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Creationism (including ID) is a relatively minor component of the larger crusade loosely known as the “religious right”. Historians should consider the dishonest campaigns exemplified by Weikart, Stein, West, et al, in the light of, and as a part of, comparable disinformation spread in the “America Is a Christian Nation” movement and the smears against Margaret Sanger (just for starters).

  18. Tyler DiPietro
    November 11, 2009 at 9:17 am

    “However, if you are writing a polemical treatise about the overall influence of a train of thought in politics and society, then a reader can spot inaccuracies but that would not necessarily affect the basic argument.”

    You seem to be claiming that a theory can be established independently of the facts used to support it. Call me a positivist, but I doubt that’s the case.

  19. Steve Fuller
    November 15, 2009 at 6:38 am

    I see not much interesting happening here. So it looks like I was right that there is nothing more at stake vis-a-vis the historiography of science than correcting creationist errors.

    As for Tyler, I agree that a theory cannot be established independent of the facts used to support it. Why you’d think I would hold otherwise is a mystery, especially if you put the quote back in context. It’s times like this that I think the cut-and-paste function has induced mass attention deficit disorder.

  20. November 15, 2009 at 11:45 am

    One admits the errors, when they are genuine,

    So you are claiming that your errors are not genuine, since you refuse to admit them. Once again you show what a nonchalant attitude to accuracy you have.

    My point here is that historical accuracy matters, depending on what it is you’re trying to do in your text … if you are writing a polemical treatise about the overall influence of a train of thought in politics and society, then a reader can spot inaccuracies but that would not necessarily affect the basic argument.

    You state that accuracy can be jettisoned depending on the goal of a text and that we historians should let this happen when the likes of West do so because the “evidence” he presents is not essential to his “basic argument”. Even if we grant that his readers would not care whether his “basic argument” is simplistic and erroneous, what you fail to see is that he is claiming to do historical analysis. Since it is apparent that you don’t particularly care about such analysis in theory or practice, it is clear that this exchange can – and will – go nowhere.

  21. Steve Fuller
    November 15, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    No, John. I’m not jettisoning accuracy. I’m saying that claims of accuracy only make sense relative to the nature of the target. (Think about what the word ‘accuracy’ means.) A polemicist may overstate his case, yet even once corrected for errors, his point may still stand because the errors don’t undermine the basic claim. Is that so hard for you to understand? For example, if further historical investigation reduces the numbers murdered in the Holocaust from 6 to 2 million, it’s still a Holocaust. (This is why Holocaust deniers typically ratchet the numbers down very low — to, say, 50,000.) I don’t see Borello doing anything more than reducing some of West’s numbers. He’s not offering a counter-narrative or anything historiographically interesting. West should simply thank Borello for the correction and revise his account in the next edition of his book.

    Frankly, you had better hope you don’t get what you wish for here. I doubt that any gung-ho Darwinism of the sort displayed by you and your pals would survive the kind of complex accounts of evolution that professional historians tend to give. This is why they generally shy away from the public debates that you’re drawing attention to. The very nature of public debates about science is to take forward certain aspects of the history but not others. To historians that’s always bound to look ‘simplistic’. The problem with you and your pals is that you’re really polemicists in historian’s drag.

    (You can thank me for outing you later.)

    Again, you too do that cut-and-paste thing which gets rid of part of what I said that puts my claim in context. I hope you do this deliberately to score cheap points rather than unwittingly because of ADD.

  22. November 15, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    As I said above, it is clear that this exchange can – and will – go nowhere.

    I’m leaving this thread open as per my statement on the HSS site but see little point in any further engagement along the lines of the current discussion.

    Life is too short to be spent engaging with a someone who fails to see that historical inaccuracy does undermine claims being made, just as factual inaccuracy undermines any scientific claims about reality. This viewpoint is unsurprising given Fuller’s advocated rhetorical method and his published record of inaccuracy in the call of polemic.

    No doubt Fuller will declare some sort of victory in his mind. So be it.

  23. Steve Fuller
    November 16, 2009 at 2:55 am

    Go ahead, John, preach to the choir, and Godspeed!

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