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Was Darwin a Scholar or a Pitchman?

Michael Flannery

Darwin's Study.jpg

You read a great deal about Darwin’s scientific method and meticulousness as a student of nature, but that’s not exactly scholarship. Good scholarship demonstrates the ability to put all aspects of one’s research into a broader context. This usually involves a familiarity with the discipline, its literature, and its historiography, as well as its implications in other areas.

While Darwin was certainly a master rhetorician (see John Angus Campbell’s “Theism, Naturalism, and Persuasive Design: A Rhetorical Analysis of Darwin’s Origin“), his scholarship seems more suspect. On the few occasions that Darwin’s “scholarship” is mentioned, usually with hyperbolic effusions as to his “genius,” specific examples are often conspicuously absent. His weaknesses as a scholar, in fact, are seen in a couple of key areas.

Overall, Darwin seemed to have had rather limited reading interests. Gertrude Himmelfarb notes, “What little reading he did in philosophy was parochial in the extreme. . . It is difficult to take seriously a discussion that had, as its most frequently cited moralist and philosopher, the historian William Lecky.” Furthermore, she writes, “When Darwin appended a list of moral philosophers he had relied upon in preparing his Descent, philosophers he ‘assured’ his readers they would be familiar with,” Himmelfarb notes that 26 were British “and that [they] are today, quite as assuredly, entirely unknown.”

Darwin’s total lack of facility with theological questions — his seeming lack of knowledge (or at least glaringly facile knowledge) of Scripture — is surprising enough to make one wonder how low the bar of biblical studies was for the typical Cambridge students of 1828 to 1831, when he attended. His philosophical and theological musings seem quite amateurish. This is not to suggest that Darwin was in any sense stupid, but he doesn’t seem particularly “well read.”

On top of that, he seems incapable of seeing the implications of his own arguments or, more tellingly, the implications of other people’s arguments. Four examples may be given here.

First, when Alfred Russel Wallace published his Sarawak Law paper in 1856, he became the first British naturalist to suggest common ancestry and evolutionary descent into species diversification. Charles Lyell appreciated its implications immediately, and he warned Darwin that Wallace was on his heels. Similarly, Edward Blyth, curator of the Museum of the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta, suggested that Darwin read the paper carefully. Darwin largely ignored both of them — it was his work that was important, not some unknown explorer tramping about on an obscure spice island.

The second example comes from Darwin’s own argument from domesticated breeds. For Darwin, the fact that man could breed a fancy pigeon or an especially fast race horse or a unique dog indicated evolution “in action.” But, as Wallace pointed out to him, when left in the wild, these fancy breeds either perish or revert to their original type. Besides, domestic breeding of animals requires the very thing Darwin sought to avoid — careful thought and pre-selection. In effect, it requires a breeding plan and design. This is clearly not random and purposeless, wholly natural causes operating to produce speciation. Darwin never saw that logical flaw in his own theory, yet it was obvious to naturalist Wallace, zoologist Pierre Grass�, historian Jacques Barzun, and many others.

Third, when Wallace read his paper on “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of Natural Selection” on March 1, 1864, he presented an argument that set mankind apart from the animals by freeing his physical body from natural selection through his powerful mind.

It wouldn’t be long before this special status of mankind would itself require an Overruling Intelligence, in Wallace phrase, to explain it. Darwin seemed incapable of seeing Wallace’s intellectual trajectory, calling Wallace’s paper one of the best ever given at the Anthropological Society. But when Wallace took this to its logical conclusion a few years later — the human mind could only be explained by some Overruling Intelligence — Darwin seemed shocked and appalled. He never saw it coming.

Finally, Darwin had little aptitude as an anthropologist, a serious deficit in one who claimed to know so much about the alleged evolutionary origins and attributes of human beings. Paul Johnson is quite right in pointing out that Darwin jumped to hasty conclusions and accepted gossip as gospel when it came to assessing indigenous peoples. Most of his assertions simply wind up repeating common Victorian prejudices about “inferior” cultures and peoples.

If Darwin was so weak a scholar, how can his immense success be explained? Darwin’s Origin and Descent do not inspire the reader with their flashes of brilliance so much as they display the rhetorical flourishes of the accomplished pitchman.

Again, Himmelfarb offers a likely explanation:

It was probably less the weight of the facts than the weight of the argument that was impressive. The reasoning was so subtle and complex as to flatter and disarm all but the most wary intelligence. Only upon close reading do the faults of the theory emerge. And this close inspection, by the nature of the case, was rarely vouchsafed. The points were so intricately argued that to follow them at all required considerable patience and concentration — an expenditure of effort which was itself conducive to acquiescence.

By and large, the scientists of his day were not much impressed with Darwin’s theory. John Herschel called natural selection “the law of higgledy-piggledy,” and William Whewell thought the theory consisted of “speculations” that were “quite unproved by facts,” so much so that he refused to put the book on the shelves of the Trinity College Library.

Rather, it was the reading elite of London that was captivated with Darwin’s theory. “Freethinking” bohemians and assorted society trendsetters grabbed up copies of the Origin and later Descent. The secular creation myth they had long been looking for was finally in hand. The argument easily lent itself to belief, and even conviction.

As radical feminists like Harriet Martineau in England and Cl�mence Royer in France were swooning over the theory, a more restrained and subdued but nonetheless powerful, tightly knit group of well-heeled swells helped the rapid transmission of Darwin’s ideas across the genteel drawing rooms of London. Thomas F. Glick believes the theory roamed about comfortably within a small circle of “affinity groups” where everyone knew everyone else, producing a “hyperconductivity of ideas.” One might even say Darwinism took on the attributes of a fad.

In the end, it was Darwin’s rhetorical salesmanship that won the day. It’s not so much, as some have claimed, that evolutionism was already “in the air” in Victorian England. Rather, Darwin’s theory allowed the stench of secularism to be masked as a perfume of “refinement.” This wasn’t achieved by Darwin’s prodigious scholarship. It was accomplished by his sheer presentation. It was a pitch easily made because it “sold” a product the intellectual elites had long been waiting for, a theory of life in which God was superfluous and irrelevant. As everyone in retail knows, you’ve got to have the right product at the right time. Darwin had both.

Image: Charles Darwin’s study, courtesy of Wellcome Trust, [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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.