[Review] Wiker, “The Darwin Myth”

Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Washington DC: Regnery, 2009), xii + 196 pp., $27.95.

[The following appeared in Journal of the History of Biology, 43: 609-611. I have added some hyperlinks and corrected some minor errors.]

When the promotional material for a book screams out ‘‘WHY CAN’T SCIENTISTS BELIEVE IN GOD? Book Exposes Charles Darwin as The Man Who Separated God From Science’’ you know you are in for a rough read. By the time you read the claim that seeing humans as animals has dire consequences which include cannibalism (‘‘If you think cannibalism too distant a possibility, then you do not understand the dark spirit behind embryonic stem cell research,’’ (p. 170)), you realize that any historically nuanced – or for that matter, rational – attempt at an examination of Darwin’s life and legacy has long disappeared.

Benjamin Wiker holds the Ph.D. in Theological Ethics and is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute (DI), a neo-creationist organization that has been responsible for much of the sound and fury that has surrounded teaching evolution in American public schools over the past quarter of a century. During this time, the DI has funded anti-evolutionists who have in turn produced books and opinion pieces that have blamed ‘‘Darwinism’’ for many perceived ills in modern culture. Wiker, for his part, previously authored Moral Darwinism: How We All Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press, 2006), a tendentious work that attempted to see modern evolutionary thought as little more than a warmed-up version of Epicureanism. The work under review, while completed when Wiker was a DI Fellow, was funded by the tothesource Foundation, a group that seeks to challenge ‘‘hardcore secularism’’ and provides a ‘‘forum for integrating thinking and action within a Judeo-Christian moral framework.’’ Given this background, regular observers of American anti-evolutionism will know what to expect before beginning reading The Darwin Myth.

Wiker begins by telling us ‘‘[i]t is high time we understood who Darwin really was, and what he really did’’ (p. ix). To Wiker, Darwin was a serial liar and cheat whose ‘‘triumph has been to set ideological atheism as the default position of science’’ (p. xi). Darwin apparently lied about the motives for his investigations, the evidence for his theory, and the originality of his ideas. He was engaged in a long-term plot to remove God from Victorian science and culture and lied about his own religious belief. In making this last claim, Wiker is unwilling to offer a sympathetic or nuanced reading of what Darwin himself wrote throughout his life and how these views changed. For Wiker, Darwin was always functionally an atheist, even before he departed on HMS Beagle. One is left wondering whether there was anything that Darwin did not lie or cheat about and how Emma Darwin ever managed to win a game of backgammon against her husband!

Wiker’s work is entirely secondary and (selectively) derivative of the fine biographies produced by Janet Browne, Adrian Desmond and James Moore. He uses their work but accuses these historians of distorting the picture of Darwin that they present. Yet this is precisely what Wiker himself does. Chapter 1 briefly discusses Darwin’s youth and sees him as an unhandsome slacker who was resistant to change. No mention is made of the social milieu in which he lived. We are told that John Stevens Henslow’s ‘‘machinations’’ (p. 24) diverted Darwin from the path to being a curate and onto the Beagle, the voyage of which is shallowly covered in Chapter 3. This discussion almost completely ignores Darwin’s fossil discoveries and their significance, and does not mention his extensive geological work. Indeed, Wiker seems obsessed with Darwin’s anthropological observations, to a degree that greatly skews the reader’s impression of the effect that the voyage had on the young Darwin as a developing scientist.

Chapter 4 is titled ‘‘Hatching the Evolutionary Plot’’ and offers no substantive discussion of Darwin’s work between 1835 and 1859. There is neither mention of why he rose to prominence in scientific circles, nor of his various geological and biological studies (particularly his award-winning and meticulous work on barnacles). One can only wonder whether these omissions are necessary to solidify Wiker’s depiction of Darwin as a slacker with little scientific talent but an overarching plan to remove God from sight. The following chapter glosses Origin and Descent without providing any discussion of the arguments and evidence contained therein. No mention is made of sexual selection and how the theory was related to Darwin’s observations of aboriginal groups while on the Beagle. Chapter 6 presents St George Jackson Mivart’s objections to descent with modification through natural selection. Little mention is made of how Darwin himself dealt with those objections in the sixth edition of Origin. In his ongoing attempt to diminish Darwin, Wiker sees Mivart as ‘‘a distinguished scientist who had every right to claim to be at least Darwin’s equal if not his superior’’ (p. 128). Like Darwin, Mivart received no formal training as a scientist and the claim that he was Darwin’s equal or superior is ludicrous and belied by their publications. (I write this, by the way, as someone sympathetic to how Mivart has been treated by historians and who has been engaged in an examination of his anatomical and philosophical writings for some time now.)

But all of this serves as a mere 134 page prelude to the real argument that Wiker wishes to make. Three chapters (‘‘What to Make of It All,’’ ‘‘Darwin and Hitler,’’ ‘‘Christianity and Evolution’’) repeat a series of creationist canards. Natural selection is a tautology. Darwin lied to himself when he felt that morality and natural selection could co-exist. Darwin’s ideas led to, or supported, eugenics, Nazism, abortion, euthanasia, sex education and contraceptives for the poor, and pornography. Indeed, apparently, Darwinism can be used to justify cannibalism.

This is poor history and, frankly, it is also a 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.


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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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)

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:

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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.