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The Defenders Darwin Wouldn’t Claim

Michael Flannery

David Klinghoffer recently authored a thoughtful article in the Washington Post titled “How Evolutionary Theory’s Other Discoverer Could Heal the Darwin Divide,” an article that drew the predictable responses from Darwin’s defenders demonstrating the usual lack of civility, faulty logic, and historical errors. Nevertheless, the fact that these comments are so predictable and typical is worth a response if only because they are exemplary in exposing their utter vacuousness.
There is little point in responding to the cruder sophomoric egestions that disgraced some of these “commentators,” but along the way a few substantive points were attempted that bear answering. In so doing the spurious nature of this species of discourse will be exposed. A sampling follows:

The article [by Klinghoffer] ignores a few significant facts. First, in his original work, Wallace did not shy away from claiming that humans, as well as all other species, were subject to natural selection. Darwin did not directly address this issue in his first publications because he realized that 1) it followed naturally from the other premises of the theory, and 2) he wanted to give society time to adjust its thinking before tackling human evolution, which he did in a later work. Wallace, on the other hand, became increasingly interested in spirituality – consulting mediums, etc. – and also seems to have become enchanted by the work of Herbert Spencer, who was largely responsible for the confusion of social and political philosophy and biological evolution. It is this trend, rather than Darwin’s – who was always skeptical about the extent to which the theory could be extended to human society – that contributed to the rise of eugenics. It is absolutely false to claim that Darwin’s work was responsible for eugenic thinking, which is based on a complete misunderstanding of heredity and genetics; it’s even more false to claim that Darwin was more responsible than Wallace. Modern science has continually confirmed that the biology of humans and their brains have undergone – and are still undergoing – evolution, along the same principles as animals. So while David’s article has a sort of subtle charm, its history is flawed, and the agenda behind it is not conciliatory. Accepting his conclusions would require a leap of faith that, sadly, undermines the basic premises of the theory. Wallace is a fascinating figure; however, he committed the same mistake.

This rambling passage makes six claims: 1) Wallace originally claimed that humans were subject to natural selection; 2) Wallace’s movement away from this view was due to his increasing “interest in spirituality”; 3) Herbert Spencer and not Darwin was responsible for the most odious aspects of social Darwinism and eugenics; 4) Wallace was “enchanted by the work of Herbert Spencer” and therefore “more responsible” for eugenics than Darwin; 5) science has “confirmed” that “humans and their brains” have undergone evolutionary changes the same as animals; and 6) concluding that certain features of the natural world give evidence of intelligent design requires a “leap of faith.” Now the first of these claims is trivial and the rest are simply false. Here’s why (in order).
Claim #1. So what? A lot of scientists begin with beliefs they later discover to be false. In fact, that is the hallmark of scientific discovery itself. Darwin himself originally claimed to believe in the fixity of species and even special creation. It’s not where an investigator begins but where he or she ends that matters.
Claim #2. This is false. While it is true that Wallace–like psychologist William James, physicist William Crookes, mathematician Oliver Joseph Lodge, and Nobel laureates Lord Rayleigh and Charles Richet–was a convert to spiritualism who believed psychic phenomena warranted serious study, Wallace limited the operations of natural selection because he believed that Darwin’s own principle of utility (central to natural selection) failed to account for the higher capabilities of the human mind, sentience in animals, or the origin of life. Wallace’s interest in spiritualism is irrelevant.
Claim #3. This is false. The mere fact that Spencer was a great advocate of social Darwinism doesn’t get Darwin off the hook for its origins and its consequences. The most egregious form of social Darwinism–eugenics–was founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton based upon his reading of Darwin’s Origin of Species. In his Hereditary Genius (1869) Galton was emboldened to develop his ideas “inasmuch as what I then wrote was sufficient to earn the acceptance of Mr. Darwin (“Domestication of Species,” ii, 7), the increased amount of evidence submitted in the present volume is not likely to be gainsaid.” (p. 2) Darwin himself may have recoiled at the prospect, but his Descent of Man (1871) would prove Galton’s assessment essentially correct. Indeed the “complete misunderstanding of heredity” attributable to eugenics was promoted by Darwin as pangenesis, a notion that Galton himself championed. Even otherwise sympathetic biographers like Adrian Desmond and James Moore admit, “‘Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwin corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start–‘Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society.” (Darwin, p. xxi) Their more recent effort at a mea culpa retraction, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, in the end merely affirms the above statement.
Claim #4. This is patently false! It’s true that Wallace was indeed “enchanted” with some of Spencer’s early work (especially his defense of human liberties in Social Statics of 1851), but the two increasingly grew apart. Wallace absolutely rejected Spencer’s reductionist explanation for human morality. Spencer’s strident individualism and “survival of the fittest” brand of social ordering annoyed Wallace as did Spencer’s refusal to consider the ideas of political economist Henry George, who at least in part led Wallace to support land nationalization. In the words of Ross A. Slotten, “Social Darwinism, a term he [Wallace] never used, was repugnant to him. Spencer’s ideas held no weight either, since, as August Weismann had demonstrated, qualities acquired after birth could not be inherited.” (The Heretic in Darwin’s Court, p. 437) When Spencer tried to enlist Wallace’s support against Lord Salisbury’s teleological interpretation of natural selection delivered to the British Society for the Advancement of Science in 1894, Wallace angered Spencer with his silence. “Wallace idolized the author of Social Statics,” notes Slotten, “not the man who now pleaded the case for Darwin.” (p. 446)
Furthermore, Wallace voiced his complete disgust with eugenics loudly and often. He referred to eugenics as “simply the meddlesome interference of an arrogant scientific priestcraft.” Wallace was skeptical of Galton’s positive eugenics that encouraged “proper” marriage. “This may, perhaps,” he observed, “not do much harm, but it would certainly do very little good.” More serious were calls for “segregation of the feeble-minded” and “sterilization of the unfit” which might, Wallace feared, be extended to infanticide of the malformed. Wallace called such measures “in every way dangerous and detestable” and protested against any interference with marriage as “not only totally unnecessary, but would be a much greater source of danger to morals and to the well-being of humanity than the temporary evils it seeks to cure. I trust,” he pleaded, “that all my readers will oppose any legislation on this subject by a chance body of elected persons who are totally unfitted to deal with far less complex problems than this one, and as to which they are sure to bungle disastrously.” (Social Environment and Moral Progress, pp. 142-144) It’s hard to know how Wallace could have been more forceful or prescient!
Claim #5. This claim is thoroughly unsubstantiated. There is no definitive evidence to suggest that the human mind and animal minds derive from the same evolutionary process. Efforts to associate human and primate behaviors and cognitive functions have, as Bolhuis and Wynne recently noted in their “Can Evolution Explain How Minds Work?” (Nature, 19 April 2009), failed; all two decades of research have yielded is “a furry of anthropomorphic overinterpretation.” Armed with an array of new neurological techniques and the Human Genome Project, the 1990s were ebullient in the hope that the mysteries of the human mind could finally be unlocked. But the “Decade of the Brain,” as James Le Fanu has pointed out in Why Us?, produced disappointing results. John Maddox, editor of Nature, despaired, “We seem as far from understanding [the brain] as we were a century ago.” Even those sympathetic to Darwin, like Chris Smith, admit that “qualia, that is phenomenal or sensory consciousness, we are no nearer understanding than Darwin was a century ago.” (J. Hist. Neurosciences, 8 April 2010: 119) It appears that the alleged commonalities of human and animal brain function “continually confirmed” have yet to reach the entire scientific community! At best claim #5 merely expresses a wishful opinion, not an established fact.
Claim #6. Here the “faith” is misplaced. The real “leap of faith” is to believe that random processes of chance and blind necessity can produce the complexity of integrated information systems required for biological life, much less the complexity of the human brain. In any other circumstance, the idea that specified complexity required some intelligent agency would be presumed and unremarkable. “Experience teaches that whenever large amounts of specified complexity or information are present in an artifact or entity whose causal story is known,” observes Stephen Meyer, “invariably intelligence–intelligent design–played a role in the origin of the entity. Thus, when we encounter such information in the large biological molecules needed for life, we may infer–based on our knowledge of established cause-and-effect relationships–that an intelligent cause operated in the past to produce the specified information necessary to the origin of life.” (Signature in the Cell, pp. 376-377) The nature of that intelligence is an altogether separate question albeit with profound implications, but that some intelligence is required is simply a logical inference required of the phenomena at hand.
So the conclusion seems obvious: if there are “flaws” with respect to Klinghoffer’s Washington Post article they reside in the glib, superficial, and ill-founded assertions of those who malign otherwise intelligent and thoughtful authors in order to privilege their own wishful thinking. The tools of their trade are the ad hominem attack and a constructed reality that wavers somewhere between the half-truth and the delusional. Darwin, who maintained a consistent but nonetheless cordial disagreement with Wallace for more than a decade, would have been ashamed of this kind of “support.” They are most surely defenders Darwin wouldn’t claim.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.