by Denyse O'Leary
Just today, I received a most interesting note from a retired Australian poli sci professor Hiram Caton, late of Griffiths University, noting that the Darwin exhibition, developed at the American Museum of Natural History, is hitting the road, and may stop at a museum near you.
You are well aware of my former colleague Dave Stove's critique of Darwinism. We are alike in that we have no religious affiliation; also in that we do not believe that Darwinism can provide a basis for ethics or for 'conservative' politics, in the manner of Larry Arnhart.
At his site, Caton offers a most useful anti-docent, "Getting Our History Right: Six Errors about Darwin and His Influence," documenting the following six errors:
1. The publication of the Origin was not a sudden (â€œrevolutionaryâ€) interruption of Victorian societyâ€™s confident belief in the traditional theological world-view. Instead, it was another step, albeit a big one, toward a popularly understandable scientific naturalism, including the idea of our primate origins, that was well in place by 1850.
Caton notes, among other things,
The implication of [the Exhibition's] ill-wrought claim is denial that evolutionary theory was extensively developed before Darwin embarked on his Beagle voyage (1831). Not so. Notable contributors were Louis-Constant PrÃ©vost, Louis-Melchior Patrin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Julien-Joseph Virey, Jean-Baptiste-Julien dâ€™Omalius dâ€™Halloy, Bory de Saint-Vincent, Ducrotoy de Blainville, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Corsi, 1988b). Most of these scientists argued for the key â€œDarwinianâ€ theses of common descent from an initial few organisms, gradual modification and extinction over great ages driven in part by the struggle for existence, geological uniformitarianism, and the primate origin of the human species. Some, notably the physicist Patrin, argued that life originated abiotically. Darwinâ€™s library aboard the Beagle included Bory de Saint-Vincentâ€™s influential seventeen volume Dictionnaire classique dâ€™historie naturelle (1822-1831).
2. The Origin did not â€œrevolutionizeâ€ the biological sciences by removing the creationist premise or introducing new principles. On the contrary, Origin had little effect on the hard biological sciences because they were already mechanistic and experimental. Darwinâ€™s naturalist investigations did not contribute significantly to the experimental biology of his day.
Darwin discovered a stunning profusion of adaptations, and made many suggestions about phylogenetic relations (Leach and Mayo, 2005), but he did not prove a single phylogeny or prove a single case of speciation by natural selection. Indeed, by 1900 the only fossil-based phylogeny generally accepted was the evolution of the horse (Gayon, 1998). These facts are ignored. The Exhibition also ignores the Pangenesis theory and its influence on Darwinâ€™s shift to substantial Lamarckian explanation in the 5th and 6th editions of Origin. Indeed, it implicitly denies Darwinâ€™s Lamarckism by baldly stating that â€œCharles Darwin offered the world a single, simple scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth : evolution by natural selectionâ€ (www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/evolution/) [bold face in original].
3. The Origin did not â€œrevolutionizeâ€ Victorian public opinion. Public perception considered Darwinâ€™s message to be about the same as Herbert Spencerâ€™s, known today as â€œSocial Darwinismâ€, which, though fashionable, never achieved dominance.
4. Many leading naturalists and biologists made significant criticisms of Darwinâ€™s work. This includes Gregor Mendel, who believed that his discoveries refuted Darwinâ€™s premises about the heritability of traits, and Thomas Huxley, who rejected natural selection.
(By contrast, Caton notes, the Exhibition promotes "an extreme version of the triumphalist legend".)
5. Darwin made little or no contribution to the renovation of theology. His public statements on Providence were inconsistent and the liberal reform of theology, including rejection of the divinity of Christ, was well advanced by 1850.
Although the corrosive influence of Darwinism on conventional religious belief is widely claimed to be its most novel and potent cultural influence, the facts speak overwhelmingly against it.
[ ... ]
However, "The Exhibition triumphantly proclaims that Darwinâ€™s â€œrevolutionary theory changed the course of science and societyâ€. Which society? What changes? Rather than attending to Darwinâ€™s contribution to secularization, as I have done, the Exhibition offers a video of half dozen biologists who simply assert the compatibility of religion with Darwinian evolution. Not all religion, however: Intelligent Design is firmly, if politely, dismissed. My response to this gambit was surprise verging on astonishment. If contemporary opinion is relevant, how can todayâ€™s atheist crescendo be ignored? Is it to avoid shocking the religious among the visitors? "
6. The Darwinian Revolution was, at the public opinion level, the fashion of free trade economics backed by the perception that Darwin and Spencer had extended that paradigm to all of living nature. This fashion enjoyed prominence in much of Europe and the United States, but began to fade around 1900. It was in no sense analogous to the Copernican revolution, with which it is often compared.
Caton begins his reply,
A soothing aphorism circulates today declaring that â€œthe only thing Darwinism has in common with Social Darwinism is the nameâ€. The Exhibition expresses this view, maintaining that Social Darwinism is a misuse of a â€œpurely scientific theory for a completely unscientific purposeâ€ and that Darwin was â€œpassionately opposed to social injustice and oppressionâ€. This is a drastic distortion of historical fact.
Caton's article apparently appeared in Evolutionary Psychology, â€“ 2007. 5(1): 52-69. It must be a kind of unusual article for them to publish. Glad they did.
Read the whole thing. Print it out and take it with you. Try not to disturb people by snorting and laughing in the middle of the Exhibition when a local hagiographer starts retelling the Darwin legend. Remember, when you are at the Darwin exhibition, you are in a house of worship!
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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