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Reviewing “A Meaningful World” and “The Darwin Myth”

July 26, 2010 4 comments

I have just finished reviewing A Meaningful World: How the Arts And Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (IVP , 2006) by DI fellows, Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, for Reports of the National Center for Science Education. I’m not going to post the full review until it appears in print, but here is the final paragraph. It more or less clues you in to what I thought of the work.

A Meaningful World is certainly a work that would not have survived review by a mainstream press. In fact, I would say that it would not have survived as an undergraduate thesis. The very fact that it has appeared in print is symptomatic of the ID movement’s ability to find sympathetic pulpits from which to preach to the choir. No one without pre-conceived sympathy is going to be convinced by the arguments presented by Wiker & Witt and, like much ID literature, it serves as a justification of belief rather than a scientific or philosophical investigation. It is notable that the publishers choose not to classify the work as science but as discussing religious aspects of nature and meaning.

Frankly, it took me over three years to review the book. Every time I started writing about it, I got annoyed and had to stop.

I also recently reviewed Wiker’s The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Regnery, 2009) for the Journal of the History of Biology. Here’s the final paragraph of that one:

This is poor history and, frankly, it is also poor polemic. Wiker does not present Darwin fairly but distorts him into a dark figure bent on destroying everything that Wiker apparently holds dear. As such, the book has nothing to recommend it beyond offering a snapshot of how certain groups in America have been unable to deal with scientific ideas.

Full reviews will appear here after they have appeared in print or online. I probably won’t be getting any Christmas cards from Ben Wiker.

(Aside: My wife got offered a position at Franciscan University in Stubbenville, Ohio, ten years ago, when Wiker was apparently the only person teaching history and philosophy of science there. We tried to get a partner hire for me but I was rejected. Probably just as well … I couldn’t see myself fitting in there.)


[Review] Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins.

June 8, 2010 Comments off

The following first appeared in the British Journal for the History of Science (2009).

It is not often that one reads a book that discusses both the sixteenth century Spanish human rights advocate Bartolomé de Las Casas and the twentieth century American neo-Nazi Richard Butler, but David Livingstone’s latest monograph does just that. Livingstone offers a history of pre-adamism – the idea that human beings inhabited the Earth before Adam and that their descendents may still occupy the planet – and its engagement with race, religion and human evolution. In so doing, he covers a millennium of theology, natural philosophy, geography, ethnography and anthropology in an even-handed manner and a reader is doubtlessly going to learn much and come away impressed with Livingstone’s synthesis.

In the 1920’s the Canadian creationist George McCready Price succinctly summarized the centrality of Adam and the issue of human origins for those that hold the account presented in Genesis to be literally true: “No Adam, No Fall; No Fall, No Atonement; No Atonement; No Savior” went his oft-quoted syllogism. Without an historical Adam, there would be no original sin and no reason for the atoning death of Christ. Thus the very foundation of Christianity would be removed. Yet it was obvious to many readers of Genesis that there were problems with the narrative if read literally, one such problem being the question of the origin of Cain’s wife and of why Cain feared for his life after being banished by God. Could it have been that there were humans who were not descendents of Adam? Livingstone begins his account by outlining three further issues that raised problems for the historicity of the Genesis account of creation. The first of these was the increasing availability of non-Judeo-Christian accounts that clearly were of ancient origin yet went against claims made in the canonical texts. The second of these was the presence of “monstrous races” as detailed by Pliny, Strabo & Herodotus and their problematic relationship to humans. If these existed – and few doubted the fact – were they human and therefore should they be baptized? Lastly, and somewhat related, there was the issue of the inhabitants of the New World – if they were human – and thus in need of baptism – how did they fit into a scheme that saw all humans as descendents of Shem, Ham or Japheth? Equally as important, how did they end up at the other side of the world? Indeed the possibility of extra-terrestrial life – as raised by Giordano Bruno and Tomaso Campanella – only exacerbated these problems. These were serious questions that worried the best minds of the early modern period.

A French theologian, Isaac La Peyrère, offered one solution in 1655 in his work, Prae-Adamitae. The works English subtitle gave a clue as to La Peyrère’s methods: “A Discourse Upon the Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Verses of the Fifth Chapter of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Romans. By Which Are Prov’d, That Men were Created before Adam” and he used scriptutal exegesis and non-Christian sources to argue for a polygenism that was not tainted with racial inequality. La Peyrère claims went beyond simple advocacy of plural origins for humans; he furthermore claimed that the Scriptures were fallible human transcriptions, that Moses was not the sole author of the Pentateuch, that the Noachian Flood was localized, and that Adam was only the father of the Jews. Clearly this early form of biblical criticism could not go unpunished and La Peyrère was forced to recant his views. As Livingstone notes, this recantation did not prevent the Pre-Adamite theory having significant impact on future thought in relation to the origin of humans.

A major portion of Livingstone’s account is taken with how individuals – both creationist and evolutionist, believer and infidel – wrestled with pre-adamism and its manifest consequences, and it would be impossible for me to summarize the rich vein that he successfully mines. Despite the idea being favored by atheists and unbelievers who sought to undermine Scripture, pre-adamism would equally become deployed as a means to preserve scriptural reliability when faced with such criticism. Interpretation would allow for two origins of humans as accounted in Genesis, the first being of the human species and the second being of Adam, who was thus seen as father of the Jews (or in certain readings of Caucasians or Aryans). Ethnographers in the nineteenth century were divided between polygenism and monogenism, the latter ultimately receiving support from Darwin’s work. This in turn was opposed by the polygenist Louis Agassiz who himself supported the racist writings of Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott and George Gliddon. Pre-adamism thus fed into the rhetoric of Antebellum America and became as important politically as it was theologically. In opposition to the claims of many modern anti-evolutionists, Livingstone makes it clear that many apologists for slavery (and racial inequality) sought support not in the writings of Darwin but in Scripture, some going as far as to claim that Eve’s sin was one of miscegenation with a black pre-adamite.

The amazing scope of Livingstone’s work lends to its appeal. Having personally written at various times about Agassiz, Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Miller, George Pye Smith, Robert Chambers and St George Jackson Mivart, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter these theologically diverse individuals in this work, often in unexpected contexts. Historians of other eras are likely to have similar encounters. Livingstone’s book is highly recommended both for its sweeping synthesis and the nature of the questions it raises in the mind of the reader.

David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

[Review] 99% Ape: How Evolution Adds Up.

June 6, 2010 1 comment

The following review first appeared in Journal of the History of Biology (2009).

To historians, textbooks can be useful data. Because of their very nature that can act as time capsules for “consensus science” during the period of their publication: cutting-edge science is usually omitted and students are usually only exposed to what is accepted by the majority of the scientific community. This is particularly true of textbooks aimed at secondary-level students. Yet textbooks – due to their pedagogical role – never fully disentangle themselves with the socio-political milieu from which they emerge. A classic example of this is George William Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914) which – along with the accepted science of the day – discussed eugenics, the perceived negative implications of “parasitic” families, and the hoped for future improvement of the human race. Textbooks, in short, can be more than just collections of scientific facts and theories; they are also embedded (and can function) within a socio-political matrix. I will return to this issue presently.

The work under review is the textbook for an entry-level Open University (UK) course titled Darwin and Evolution and as such is aimed at readers with no previous background in the biological sciences. As such, it offers an entry into the current state of evolutionary biology and sacrifices breadth for depth. Throughout the reader is presented with the evidence for evolution as fact (change over time within populations in both the neontological and paleontological realms) and as pathway (hypotheses about what changes into what through deep time). In addition various mechanisms for evolution are briefly discussed, with pride of place being given to Charles Darwin’s two mechanisms of natural and sexual selection. The examples will be familiar to many readers: Galapagos finches, East African cichlids, Hawaiian picture wing flies, the evolution of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) from simian viruses, the transition to land, the evolution of birds and feathered dinosaurs, the evolution of whales, industrial melanism in peppered moths, and of course, human evolution. All are covered relatively briefly using clear text and often stunning illustrations.

Throughout the work genetic and morphological studies unite to offer explanations of organic diversity. Data from fossils are united with genetic studies (both phylogenetic and within the field of evolutionary developmental biology) to present our current understanding of a particular phenomenon. Often these investigations are put with an historical context. A good example of this is the chapter devoted to Darwin’s finches. Beginning with an account of Darwin’s own engagement with the group (and after tipping the hat to the pioneering work of David Lack) the chapter discusses the long-term studies of Peter and Rosemary Grant before culminating in a brief discussion of how the proteins calmodulin (CaM) and bone-modulating protein 4 (bmp4) control beak size and shape, illuminating how changes in the activation of genes controlling the production of these proteins could account for aspects of speciation within Geospiza. These findings are then integrated into a discussion of the geological and environmental history of the Galapagos archipelago. All of this occurs in eleven pages with twelve figures.

Historians of evolutionary biology are not likely to learn much new from this work and its value will be to us as teachers, providing as it does a brief and visually appealing introduction to modern evolutionary biology, one which can be recommended to students with little or no background in the sciences. That said the seven co-authors, all biologists, work hard to include historical information within the individual chapters. The work is richly illustrated with many images that historians will recognize and quotes abound from Darwin’s notebooks, Origin, and the Journal of Researches. Yet Darwin is not the only historical figure one encounters – Thomas Henry Huxley, William Paley, Samuel Wilberforce, and Louis Agassiz are (somewhat predictably) mentioned. There are however some surprises. The chapter on whale evolution introduces the reader to the relatively little known anatomist, William H. Flower, who in 1883 proposed – based on multiple lines of evidence – that whales evolved from artiodactyls. This idea received little support until the late 1980’s when new fossil finds and genetic studies overthrew the prevailing view that whales were related to a carnivorous group known as mesonychids. In time it has become clear that the closest living relative to whales are in fact hippopotami. The book commemorates Flower’s bold claim with a full-page picture and an extensive quotation that is worth repeating here (in an abbreviated form):

“We may conclude by picturing to ourselves some primitive generalized, marsh-haunting animals with scanty covering of hair like the modern hippopotamus, but with broad swimming tails and short limbs, omnivorous in their mode of feeding … gradually becoming more and more adapted to fill the void place ready for them on the aquatic side of the borderland on which they dwelt, and so by degrees being modified into dolphin-like creatures inhabiting lakes and rivers and ultimately finding their way into the ocean.” (p. 93).

As I mentioned above, textbooks function within a socio-political matrix. Here in the United States that matrix is distinguished by the fact that over 50% of the population apparently believes that “the development of life was guided by intelligent design” (Zogby Poll, June 2009) and while traditionally an American problem, such anti-evolutionism has manifested itself in Europe and Australia. Chapter 18 distinguishes the “science of evolution” from the non-science of creationism and rightly identifies the modern Intelligent Design (ID) movement as a manifestation of the latter. Indeed, much of the evidence discussed in 99% Ape is precisely that dismissed by proponents of ID (such as Jonathan Wells) as flawed “icons of evolution”. Perusal of this book will show how strong the evidence for evolution (as fact, pathway & mechanism) is. Noting that there are no constitutional barriers (as there are in the US) to the teaching of creationism in British schools, the authors implicitly set their volume as a bulwark against future creationist incursions. For all of us – whether British or not – the book can serve as a primer of forceful examples to use whenever one needs to illustrate the evidence for evolution to a skeptical audience.

Jonathan Silverton, ed., “99% Ape: How Evolution Adds Up” (London, Natural History Museum, 2008; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009), 224 pp., £14.99, $26.00 (paper).

[Review] The Evolution-Creation Struggle

June 3, 2010 Comments off

51J86J7T0DL._SL160_.jpg[The following appeared in Nature Reviews Genetics in 2005 under the title "The Secular Religion of Evolution(ism)". As such it appeared before the tendency of New Atheists to throw out the epithet  "appeaser" or "accomodationist" (and their general vehement detestation of Ruse). While in a different venue (or indeed five years later), I may have written a different review of the book, here is what I wrote back then.]

As an undergraduate in Ireland in the mid-80’s I ran across a copy of Ashley Montagu’s book Science and Creationism. Frankly, I felt that I was reading some kind of parody – could there actually be people in a technologically literate country like the United States who denied both the fact of evolution and the hypothesis that natural selection was a mechanism for such change? Such opposition was not an issue in Ireland and I could not see why it should be in America. Subsequent experience has taught me that this is sadly the case, and indeed that anti-evolutionists often have understandable reasons for their opposition to Darwinian evolution.

The Montagu volume contained an article by the philosopher and historian Michael Ruse describing his experiences during the 1981 Arkansas “Scopes II” trial in which he provided Judge William Overton with a somewhat controversial definition of “science” and thus the basis of the decision to ban “creation science” from Arkansas public schools. This decision, along with the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v Aguilard, marked a sea-change for the anti-evolution movement in America. As a result, creationism itself was forced to evolve and indeed, the resurgence of intelligent design (ID) is a clear indication that anti-evolutionism has not died in the United States. With ongoing creationist action at the state and local level in many states in America, the struggle between supporters of evolution and creation is not likely to disappear soon, and indeed ID appears to be making some inroads into Europe.

In this relatively short and readable book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Ruse sets out his vision of this ongoing struggle between evolution and creation. Following a broad historical narrative beginning with the Enlightenment and discussing the development of evolutionary biology as a fully-fledged professional science, Ruse is careful to distinguish between evolution and evolutionism. The former is a professionalized field within biology that deals with facts and observations, the latter, a secular religion of evolutionary philosophical naturalism that smuggles values into evolution. Ruse notes that evolutionism is practiced – if not preached – by many of the most skillful popularizers of evolutionary biology; Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, William D. Hamilton, Jerry Coyne, and William Provine are all offered as exemplars. These supporters of evolutionism, Ruse claims, exhibit a worldview that is ultimately optimistic and supports progress. In fact, he sees such individuals as essentially post-millennial, that is believing that humans can work towards a better future. This is in opposition to pre-millennialists (including advocates of creationism and intelligent design) who, believing in Christian providentialism, hold that human action alone cannot and will not make the world a better place. Ruse thus shifts the “struggle” from (the traditionally accepted) one of evolution versus creation to one of differing visions of the future of humanity.

It would be tempting – and easy – to misread Ruse as saying that evolution is a religion, and I expect creationists will, if past history is any guide, misquote portions of this work. Ruse clearly states that evolution is a mature, professional science exhibiting “[p]rediction, consilience, consistency, and fertility”. Indeed, Ruse denies these very characteristics to intelligent design, stating “we find no empirical or conceptual reason whatsoever to think of intelligent design theory as genuine science … [T]here are no results. And there are no new predictions leading to new and unexpected discoveries”. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Ruse.

He also believes that Darwinism – or any other form of evolution – does not entail the secular theology of evolutionism, and that Christianity itself does not entail any form of anti-evolutionism. In short, one can be a Darwinian and a Christian – an observation backed up in the writings of theologian John F. Haught or biologist Kenneth R. Miller. Thus, Ruse sees it as a fatal flaw for supporters of evolution not to realize that there are deeply religious individuals who support evolution yet dismiss evolutionism, and he states that evolutionists need to “start thinking about working together … rather than apart” with such individuals .

Ruse’s point is clear; “Those of us who love science must do more than simply restate our positions or criticize the opposition. We must understand our own assumptions and, equally, find out why others have (often) legitimate concerns. This is not a plea for weak-kneed compromise but a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues. First understanding, and then some strategic moves”. The evolution-creation struggle has generated more heat than light in the quarter century since the Arkansas trial, and it shows no sign of letting up. Whether Ruse’s analysis is ultimately accurate or not, he is correct in claiming that, as educators and evolutionists, we need to be aware of the potential perils of evolutionism.

Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Harvard University Press, 2005

Birding and Disaster Relief

June 2, 2010 Comments off

This is interesting. The authors of The Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Princeton University Press) have created a $5 iPhone app that features images and songs from 58 of the 300 birds from their guide. All proceeds from sales will be donated to Habitat for Humanity and Partners in Health to support the continued disaster relief efforts in Haiti. More details here. Now if only I had an iPhone …

A Time Line of Mivart (and Darwin)

January 4, 2010 1 comment

Screen shot 2010-01-04 at 2.27.39 PM.png

WorldCat has a nice feature by which you can generate a timeline of publications by, and about, a given author. Above is the timeline for St George Jackson Mivart, the English anatomist and anti-Darwinian whom I have been studying for some years now (and finally beginning to write about). The initial cluster of publications are Mivart’s own works which later get reprinted starting in 1977 (red blocks). The final red block is my own reprint of On the Genesis of Species as part of a series on the reception of natural selection between 1859 & 1871 (Thoemmes, 2001). Of note is the lone publication that forms the first book about Mivart since his death in 1900 – Jacob Gruber’s A Conscience in Conflict (1960), the sole biography of Mivart. Apart from a single PhD dissertation from 1996, Mivart has been largely ignored by historians of science. That is the niche I hope to fill. After finishing a few papers on Mivart as anatomist, philosopher & anti-Darwinian, I hope to write an updated biography.

For comparison, here’s the timeline for Darwin:

Screen shot 2010-01-04 at 2.40.16 PM.png

Clearly, there’s a lot more being written about Darwin! Of note is the peak in publications about Darwin that occurs about three-quarters along the time line. That marks 1959 – the centenary of Origin.

[Review] The Genius of Erasmus Darwin

December 4, 2009 1 comment

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The following review appeared in Journal of the History of Biology 41(4): 766 – 768.

C.U.M. Smith & Robert Arnott, eds. The Genius of Erasmus Darwin , Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2005, xvii + 416 pp., illus, $130.

As we approach the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth we can reflect on how scholarship on the man and his ideas has changed even in the fifty years since 1959. The “Darwin Industry” has over that half a century produced increasingly sophisticated analyses of the history of evolutionary thought, the milieu within which Darwin operated, the genesis of his theory of natural selection, and lastly its subsequent fate. Put simply, we have come a long way from the Whig narratives of earlier times. The year 2002 saw a lesser known Darwin bicentennial – that of the death of Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, and the prohibitively expensive volume under review offers papers from a conference (unselfconsciously described as an “Act of Pilgrimage,” p. 1) held in Lichfield, Derbyshire, in that year. As I will argue below, the volume represents a form of scholarship similar to that exercised on the younger Darwin in past times.

Erasmus Darwin was born in 1731 and in many ways represents the archetype of the English polymath of the late Eighteenth century. A medical man by training, he and the members of the Lunar Society met to discuss, among other things, advances in science and technology, thus forming a clear exemplar of the Enlightenment belief in the “practical pursuit of Progress” (p. 17). Darwin himself made contributions not only to medicine but also to technology, chemistry, physics, and meteorology. Whether he was in fact a “genius,” as the volume’s title declares, is an open claim and one that is never adequately proved. He is nonetheless best remembered for two extended poems: The Botanic Garden (1789 & 1792) and The Temple of Nature (published posthumously in 1803), the later work expressing in poetic form some of the highly speculative ideas on evolution contained in his Zoonomia of 1793, a work read by his grandson “without producing any effect”. Such writings led Samuel Taylor Coleridge to coin the phrase “Darwinising” to describe the sort of wild speculation without empirical evidence that Darwin engaged in and that would be the antithesis of his grandson’s modus operandi.

Twenty one eclectic papers examine aspects of Darwin’s contribution to education, technology, environmental studies, literature, medicine, and biology. The latter section (comprising four papers) is obviously that of the most interest to readers of this journal. Yet here an historian of biology is likely to be somewhat disappointed. The first paper – by John Pern – discusses the Australian scent myrtles assigned to the genus Darwinia by Edward Rudge in 1815 perhaps in memory of Darwin’s botanical contributions. The connection delineated by Pern between Darwin and the myrtles is somewhat general – their “speciation and their variety of form mirror the fundamental themes of evolution, as espoused by Erasmus Darwin himself” (p. 108). One is left wondering how Pern’s contribution works towards enlightening us regarding Darwin. In the second paper, Philip Wilson argues that Darwin supported a “deistic vitalism.” This paper – and a subsequent one by C.U.M. Smith – also argues that Darwin attempted to synthesize the spiritual and material aspects of the natural world. The final paper in this section sees Raffaella Simili discuss how Darwin believed in the importance of “animal electricity” and saw its relationship to “ordinary electricity” as providing a bridge between the organic and inorganic realms. Given these papers, I will leave it up to the reader to decide if Darwin’s “genius” is apparent within the limited field of biology.

And this indeed is the major problem with the volume. Darwin’s genius is asserted often but the work provides no sustained argument (comparative or otherwise) to support that assertion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the prolog provided by Desmond King-Hele whom in the past has written both a biography of Darwin and an extended study of his relationship with the Romantic poets. King-Hele struggles to make a strong case for Darwin’s preeminence within the field of evolutionary thought and certainly fails to back up his claim that Erasmus Darwin was the “originator of modern biology” (p. 23). Indeed, relying on scholarship from 1959 (!), he states that “most people thought evolution was absurd, and its advocates convinced scarcely anyone (until after 1859)” (p. 22). He fails too at demonstrating that the elder Darwin pre-empted his grandson’s mechanism of natural selection in claiming that that Darwin’s statement that when males combat for females “the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved” (Zoonomia I, p. 507) expresses the “essence of natural selection” (p. 20). King-Hele’s view can be neatly summarized by his affirmative answer to his own question: “what about the idea that Erasmus Darwin’s achievement is the greatest imaginative construct in the history of the world, because he was the first person to arrive at and fully express and expound a nearly correct view of the development of life on Earth?” (emphasis mine, p. 26). His evidence for this extraordinary claim? The results of the Human Genome Project. Indeed, he goes so far to claim that the grandson Charles had “more limited achievements” than his grandfather (p. 24). This is not historical writing, this is Whiggish hero-worship.

The above aside, the volume under review is to be welcomed for providing information that goes beyond available works such as King-Hele’s Doctor of Revolution (Faber & Faber, 1977) and the popular account of the Lunar group provided in Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (Faber, 2002). If one ignores the hagiography, it remains a useful albeit disunited introduction to the elder Darwin and the breadth of his ideas. What is missing, however, is a clear sustained examination of the origin of, nature of, and putative evidence for Darwin’s evolutionary thinking. There is therefore clearly much that remains to be done. One can still hope that the years up to 2052 will see the development of a richer and more nuanced portrait of this interesting figure, a portrait more like the one we have today of his grandson.


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