Must Be A Different Darwin

Via Ed Driscoll comes a link to an op-ed about the relationship between Darwin and racism in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Dr. Tony Campolo, a minister and professor of sociology at Eastern University. I find the op-ed interesting because virtually every statement about Darwin in the piece is dead wrong.

Let’s see:

“Those who argue at school board meetings that Darwin should be taught in public schools seldom have taken the time to read him. If they knew the full title of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, they might have gained some inkling of the racism propagated by this controversial theorist.”

Campolo seems unaware that the word “race” has shifted meaning since the mid-1800s. Today, race means “ethnic group” but in Darwin’s day, the words “race”, “breed”, “species” and “subspecies” were often used interchangeably because scientists of the day lacked a modern understanding of genetics. For example, in Origin (p22-23) Darwin writes:

It has often been loosely said that all our races of dogs have been produced by the crossing of a few aboriginal species but by crossing we can only get forms in some degree intermediate between their parents and if we account for our several domestic races by this process we must admit the former existence of the most extreme forms as the Italian greyhound bloodhound bull dog &c in the wild state. Moreover, the possibility of making distinct races by crossing has been greatly exaggerated. Many cases are on record showing that a race may be modified by occasional crosses if aided by the careful selection of the individuals which present the desired character but to obtain a race intermediate between two quite distinct races would be very difficult. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Or, The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life By Charles Darwin [Emphasis added.]

Clearly, in the subtitle Darwin is just using “race” as a synonym for “species” or “breed”. (As a side note, the use of race to mean sub-species really brings home how alien people in the 1800s considered those of another race to be.)

Next Campolo says that:

Had they actually read Origin, they likely would be shocked to learn that among Darwin’s scientifically based proposals was the elimination of “the negro and Australian peoples,” which he considered savage races whose continued survival was hindering the progress of civilization

Had Campolo actually read Origin he would have known that: (1) the quoted phrase, “the negro and Australian peoples,” does not appear anywhere in the book and (2) Darwin intentionally shied away from the entire subject of humanity in Origin because he thought the subject too provocative. Darwin didn’t say anything about either the past or future of human evolution in Origin.

In his next book, The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin ranked races in terms of what he believed was their nearness and likeness to gorillas.

Nope, in fact, Darwin goes out of his way to note that even the most “savage” of humans differers significantly both in anatomy and behavior from apes. (Descent p33) Darwin would have never made such an argument in any case because natural selection theory does not have any concept of “higher” or “lower” evolution. Similarity between gorillas and humans doesn’t imply inferiority from the perspective of natural selection. That concept came out of a competing theory called orthogenesis which Darwin rejected. Darwin argued that most differences between races were trivial and he thought such differences arose from sexual selection. He spent half of the book explaining how sexual selection worked.

Then he went on to propose the extermination of races he “scientifically” defined as inferior. If this were not done, he claimed, those races, with much higher birthrates than “superior” races, would exhaust the resources needed for the survival of better people, eventually dragging down all civilization.

Darwin never argued for the extermination of anyone. Neither did he believe such action necessary. He believed that the “superior” civilized races would overwhelm “savage” races and drive them to extinction. (Descent p193) Such a position seemed to be only common sense for a man who lived in a time when civilized and uncivilized people often collided to the detriment of the uncivilized.

Darwin even argued that advanced societies should not waste time and money on caring for the mentally ill, or those with birth defects. To him, these unfit members of our species ought not to survive.

No, Darwin argued just the opposite. After acknowledging that saving the unfit would weaken the entire species over time, he nevertheless argued:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts but subsequently rendered in the manner previously indicated more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy if so urged by hard reason without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself while performing an operation for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless it could only be for a contingent benefit with a certain and great present evil. Hence, we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage The Descent of man By Charles Darwin [Emphasis added.]

Compolo adds:

Darwin’s ideas were complicit in the rise of Nazi ideas. Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in her insightful essay on Darwin, points out that the German nationalist and anti-Semitic writer Heinrich von Treitschke and the biologist Ernst Haeckel also drew on Darwin’s writings to justify racism, nationalism and harsh policies toward the poor and less privileged.

Ernst Haeckel, the grandfather of Nazi biological mysticism, was actually a Lamarckian who believed that organisms acquired traits through use. He vigorously rejected Darwin’s core idea that evolution began with diversity and variation. For Haeckel, variation represented only degenerative deviation from an ideal form.

Although communist, fascist and various lesser authoritarians claimed to embrace Darwin and natural selection, in reality they merely used the general idea of naturalistic origins of humanity as a crude ideological cudgel with which to attack traditional religion-based social orders. Otherwise, they rejected or ignored the actual functional details of how Darwin argued that natural selection worked. They could not have done otherwise, because natural selection is driven by variation between individuals and by individual success or failure in fitting into the immediate environment. The theory inherently clashes with authoritarian models that seek to enforce uniformity and suppress free experimentation and which claim an eternal and ultimate truth.

A lot of people projected their own desires and needs onto the general idea of evolution just as many projected their desires and needs onto the tenets of various religions. Darwin is not responsible for or associated with such projections anymore than the historical Jesus is responsible for the Crusades or pre-Enlightenment anti-Semitic mass murders.

Campolo got everything wrong. Worse, he got things wrong which he could have gotten right with just a little honest research. For someone who claims to be both a minister and a professor, Campolo seems uninterested in fulfilling the basic responsibilities of either vocation.

11 thoughts on “Must Be A Different Darwin”

  1. Campolo is trying to build a bridge between evangelical liberals and social conservatives. He obviously doesn’t care how sloppy the argument is, only that the Left begin to somehow accrue support from antievolutionists.

    This is, indeed, a first-class rebuttal, and I hope it will be widely linked and read.

  2. Well done. Darwin is usually misunderstood, but rarely this badly. I think that you are correct in suggesting that Dr. Campolo didn’t read the book.

    Have you submitted this tothe Enquirer as an Op-Ed piece? Or at least a letter to the editor?

  3. Your defense of Darwin is correct. OTOH, evolutionists are not free of guilt for some ultimately nasty intellectual trends in the 19th century.

    Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who invented regression analysis and fingerprinting, also founded eugenics which in turn gave rise to a lot of crackpot racial theorizing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Neither Galton nor Darwin bears any imputation of illiberalism, but ideas of great power can be mis-used.

  4. I’m not sure “guilt” is meaningful here; relativity theory and the uncertainty principle, to name only the first two examples that occur to me, have been used by any number of (shameless link-pimping alert!) Type N’s to buttress all manner of vicious nonsense. It would be absurd to blame Einstein and Heisenberg.

  5. I like your Type M/Type N explanation.

    It reminds me of something my daughter said once when she was in middle school. My daughter used to bring me letters from her teachers and her principal with the spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors edited by her before I ever saw them. What she said was “Commas: You get ’em or you don’t.” I agreed.

    A person I know who always struck me as being very smart told me last fall that it’s her understanding that in 5 years, Wisconsin’s climate will be identical to that enjoyed by Arkansas right now. Madison has just broken its record for winter snowfall, and the winter isn’t over yet. I think it’s going to have to put forth some effort pretty quick to reach that 5-year goal.

    Back to topic: I’d be interested to know where Campolo got his misinformation. Either he made all that up out of whole cloth (why? since he should know it would be found out) or he got it from some source he trusted not to make an abject fool of him. I wonder who that would be.

    Also, Jay, what you said about “can’t we all just get along” – that puzzles me about this whole issue. Both sides are blasting past each other. No effort to reach any kind of consensus. It’s like people LIKE the hostility and conflict. Beats me.

  6. Laura,

    Back to topic: I’d be interested to know where Campolo got his misinformation.

    I haven’t been able to find any references to the phrase online that are not related to Campolo. I imagine that he got it from creationist hardcopy.

  7. So possibly Campolo trusted someone he shouldn’t have. That kind of thing is why I’m more irritated when “my” side acts stupid than when the other side does. I don’t want to look like an idiot by quoting misinformation, or like a person with no class by being grouped with somebody who acts like a jackass. Creationism actually bothers me less than “we’re going to teach evolution and anybody who questions that is an irrelevant ignoramus”. Most of the people I’ve met who are uncomfortable with evolution aren’t stupid. But like anybody else, they’re not going to settle down to reach consensus with anyone who starts a conversation with “you dummy”. That is human nature 101.

  8. Laura – Thanks for the compliment, but the Type M/N dichotomy was definitely not my idea; I just happened to read the book it appeared in.

    More broadly, what’s going on here is political maneuvering with very little regard for the truth. My heretofore high respect for Campolo has taken a serious hit from this. It’s classic pandering for votes.

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