Saturday, October 10, 2009

with some degree of annoyance

Here is my response to creationist Carl's latest attempt to convert me.

Hello Carl

If you are so interested in the truth, as you say, I have to wonder why you're so keen to describe Darwin as a racist, and to use your organisation to promote [or demote?] him as such. The theory of natural selection from random variation, properly understood, has no clear racial implications. It has also been the most productive theory in the history of biology - in fact modern biology is unthinkable without it. It has dominated our understanding of everything from the successful mutations of viruses to the overarching complexity and sensitivity of our planetary ecosystem.

Since you mention Stephen Jay Gould, I would strongly urge you to read his essay, 'The Moral State of Tahiti - and of Darwin', in his book Eight Little Piggies, which is a measured and thoughtful treatment of Darwin's views on race. Perhaps you could use your organisation to promote the essay, in the name of the truth you so cherish? Perhaps you could also recommend that people read Darwin's work for themselves, with no 'helpful' commentary from your truth-seeking organisation?

Needless to say, Gould didn't share Peter Bowler's assessment. Here is one quote from the essay: 'I don't think Darwin ever substantially revised his anthropological views. His basic attitude remained: 'They' are inferior but redeemable.' Gould goes on to conclude: 'Darwin was a meliorist in the paternalistic tradition, not a believer in biologically fixed and ineradicable inequality....The meliorist may wish to eliminate cultural practices, and may be vicious and uncompromising in his lack of sympathy for differences, but he does view savages [Darwin's word] as 'primitive' by social circumstance and biologically capable of 'improvement' [read 'Westernization'].

In short, Darwin was a creature of his time - and his class. He was a scion of the aristocracy and a member of the Establishment in a nation which, in his time, possessed the most powerful empire on the globe.It's not surprising that eugenics first arose in Britain [the term was coined and legitimized by Darwin's own cousin, Francis Galton]. It's probably true that the 'scientific' legitimization of a 'hierarchy of races' was given a fillip by particularinterpretations of the Origins of Species, but it was a habit of the period to use science in this self-serving way, to make permanent and 'natural' the political order of the day. This helps to explain why eugenics became so popular in America in the twenties. By that time America had eclipsed Britain as the most powerful nation. And of course in the thirties, Nazi Germany aspired to master race status. Interestingly, Japan, too had a master race complex, without being much infected by 'Darwinism'. But, hey, I'm sure you can find a way to prove that the Japanese worshipped Darwin as a god!

The theory of natural selection is no more a belief system than is the theory of relativity. Nor is it any kind of end game. It has been built upon and developed in ways that would amaze Darwin himself. For example the modern study of population genetics has virtually dealt the death blow to the nineteenth century notion of race, as we have learned that human genetic diversity is less than half of that found in chimpanzees. Race remains a complex and controversial issue, but modern biological science has definitely contributed as much as human experience to the demolition of eugenics as a force in society. And it continues to be informed and directed by the theory of natural selection.

Your claim that this theory caused the holocaust is offensive and ridiculous. Still, when I hear you swear that you're made of truth, I do believe you, though I know you lie.



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