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Darwin Versus His Colleagues

This is the second part of a review of The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker. Part one is available here.

An element of the Darwin story that may surprise many readers of Benjamin Wiker’s fine new biography The Darwin Myth is the ultimate disconnect between Darwin and many of his colleagues.

Wiker points out that many of Darwin’s avid supporters, who accepted and helped popularize his theory, rejected Darwin’s materialistic reductionism. They argued, indeed, that the evidence did not support Darwin’s materialistic understanding of evolution.

Biologist Asa Gray at Harvard was Darwin’s strongest champion in America. However, as Wiker tells us, “Gray believed that the human mind could not be explained as the material result of natural selection.” He did not see how mind could arise from instinct. Charles Lyell, Darwin’s friend and an eminent scientist in his own right, and Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer with Darwin of the theory of evolution through natural selection, both believed that the evidence did not show an evolutionary continuum between the mental faculties of apes and man. So-called “savages” (members of tribal and other non-European races) have intellectual capacities that far exceed their survival needs; there is no Darwinian way to account for this.

Darwin would have none of it. Privately, he let these friends and fellow-scientists know his displeasure. In the case of Asa Gray, Wiker writes:

The problem was, of course, that Darwin himself had designed the theory to eliminate any connection to God whatsoever. He disagreed with Gray’s theological spin entirely, and was perhaps peeved by some of Gray’s implicit criticisms of his atheism, and the materialistic foundation of his argument. That is not what he meant the theory to do, and in private letters he politely made his objections known to Gray. Yet—and this was typical of Darwin—he had no qualms about using Gray’s argument if it would smooth the way for acceptance of his theory. Once the theory was accepted, the theistic patina would be ground away by the hard, anti-theistic core of the argument.

According to Wiker, the motive behind Darwin’s endeavors was not to follow the evidence wherever it led. His real motive was to insist that science must embrace only unintelligent material causes. It was not enough that his mechanism explain a great deal. The mechanism must explain everything, so that all intelligent causes could be ruled out.

The repercussions of Darwin’s materialistic understanding of evolution can be seen in his later writings. Wiker’s biography of Darwin is notable in that it examines the ideas of not only The Origin of Species but the companion book The Descent of Man, or, as Wiker describes it, “One Long Argument, Two Long Books.”

Many writers on Darwin pay scant attention to The Descent of Man. Yet it is there where Darwin demonstrates the sweeping way that he applied his theory to human beings and human morality. Darwin makes clear in the book that the noble qualities of his own character, his devotion in marriage, his love for his children, even the compassion that fueled his opposition to slavery have no inherent value in his evolutionary system. If adultery or infanticide or even slavery of the weak by the strong (as practiced by red ants enslaving black ants) promoted the survival of a species, including the human species, then those things would be equally “good” according to the logic of Darwin’s argument, Darwin’s personal misgivings notwithstanding.

Anyone wishing to probe the broader implications of Darwin’s theory, as well as the contradictions of Darwin’s character, will want to read Wiker’s book.