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Himmelfarb and Her Haters

Gertrude Himmelfarb

Editor’s note: Historian and Darwin skeptic Gertrude Himmelfarb died on Monday, December 30, 2019. While mourning the passing of this great scholar, we are pleased to republish Professor Flannery’s 2009 essay, below. See also Flannery’s tribute, ‘Farewell to Gertrude Himmelfarb, Brutally Honest Historian of the “Darwinian Revolution.’”

“If you have no enemies, it is a sign fortune has forgot you.” — Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732 

Noted physician Thomas Fuller was an expert on “eruptive fevers,” and so it seems fitting to open this essay with his wry but telling observation on enemies in public life, for perhaps no contemporary historian has spawned more “eruptive fever” over an analysis of the reigning secular creation myth demigod, Charles Darwin, than has the present subject of this essay. If Fuller is any judge, fortune has indeed remembered Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Such “fortune” appeared a few months ago when Panda’s Thumb used the occasion of Irving Kristol’s death on September 18 to denigrate Gertrude Himmelfarb’s fifty-year-old Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution as a “terrible book . . . demonstrating a lack of understanding of biology and a warped view of Darwin’s influence.” The article, written by Jeffrey Shallit, glibly casts aspersions on the late Kristol’s ethics for reviewing Gertrude Himmelfarb (aka Bea Kristol) in Encounter and failing to disclose that he was the author’s husband (though this writer could find no evidence of that at least with her Darwin), this without once reflecting on the questionable propriety of turning what should have been either a respectful obituary or complete silence into an opportunity to insult both the deceased and his widow. If that isn’t unethical, it is at least indecent. Shallit’s one-sided, high-toned moralizing aside, as the “Darwin year” draws to a close and given the fact that Himmelfarb’s biography of Darwin itself has just marked its golden anniversary, perhaps a careful reflection upon that effort is in order. What can be said of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution in the dusk of 2009, fifty year after its original publication? Is it a terrible book?

Regardless of what one may think of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work, her preeminent role as an important (albeit controversial) historian cannot be doubted (see Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia). A prolific writer, this professor emeritus of the City University of New York has not shrunk from boldly decrying moral relativism and the so-called “new” history, positions for which she earned widespread praise and condemnation. Never-theless, her serious consideration for the position of Librarian of Congress in 1987 is a measure of her significance as one of America’s leading scholars and intellectuals.

Thus, it would seem worthwhile to probe a bit deeper into Dr. Himmelfarb’s study of Charles Darwin. It is worth mentioning that her Darwin biography was (and obviously is) as controversial as its subject. Given the author’s refusal to duck or dodge tough issues, her attention to modern biology’s paterfamilias was bound to form an explosive catalyst easily discerned in the ensuing reviews.

Upon its publication Charles Gillispie insisted that “one must deplore the interpretation of Darwin and his work that Miss Himmelfarb offers” for its “hostility to science.”1 Similarly, another reviewer dismissed it as a “misrepresentation” that is “dubious in the extreme.”But others saw it differently. J. F. Burnet, for example, praised Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution as “thorough and authoritative,” concluding, “This is an important book for all students of nineteenth-century thought.”3 Another reviewer called it, “a scholarly book, well organized and well written, interesting to the intelligent reader whatever his special field.”

One would think these reviewers had read entirely different books, and perhaps they did. Himmelfarb’s detractors, as witnessed in Shallit’s mean-spirited post, say little about why her book is terrible, presuming the charge alone is sufficient to indict and convict. Interestingly, Shallit provides “evidence” of the author’s failing in a provocative link tagged <lack of understanding of biology>, which sends one to a posting by P.Z. Myers on December 6, 2005 titled “A critique of Himmelfarb’s scientific views.” Now Himmelfarb has been caught! The spuriousness of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution is now laid bare! Well, that’s what The Panda’s Thumb would have you believe anyway.

On closer inspection, however, this “critique” of Himmelfarb’s science is nothing of the kind. In actuality it is a strange diatribe on neo-conservatism with allusions to Leo Strauss, George Will, and (Himmelfarb’s husband again) Irving Kristol, none of which has anything whatsoever to do with her purportedly “terrible” science. Stacking up a series of allegedly damning Himmelfarb quotes, Myers then links them to “creationist claims” as if the mere association were sufficient condemnation. The “critique” concludes with a peculiar discussion of Machiavelli, which not only has nothing to do with Himmelfarb’s science, but indeed nothing to do with neo-conservatism (those interested in following the perfidity of Machiavelli should examine number one of Benjamin Wiker’s list of 10 Books That Screwed Up the World).

The only substantive example of Himmelfarb’s supposed lapsed science is Myers’ dismissal of her charge that Darwin failed to explain the evolution of the eye by means of natural selection. Quoting from Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is, Myers proclaims the “light-sensitive spot” and the Pax 6 regulatory gene to have solved the problem. “Photosensitive, eyelike organs have developed in the animal series at least 40 times,” declared Salvini and Mayr in 1977, “and all the steps from a light-sensitive to the elaborate eyes of vertebrates . . . are still found in the living species of various taxa.” But 32 years later James Le Fanu (and many others) remain unconvinced. Le Fanu freely admits that “we now know the eye to have emerged independently at least forty times in several different forms,” but this has only served to make Darwin’s evolutionary problem more vexing:

Each different type of eye compounds Darwin’s difficulty further, for then it is necessary to presuppose for each a series of fortuitous “numerous successive slight modifications,” conferring some slight biological advantage to its possessor. It is necessary to presuppose, for, despite much effort, there is not a single empirical discovery in the past 150 years that has substantiated Darwin’s proposal that natural selection, “taking advantage of slight successive variations,” explains the “puzzle of perfection” epitomized by so many different types of eye–which remains yet more puzzling than it was in 1859.5

And Michael Behe notes that the biochemical complexity of vision is not answered by a single regulatory gene, as if a single bolt could explain an automobile. Indeed where might the biochemical evidence lie? Even something as “simple” as a light-sensitive spot is in reality a system requiring a rhodopsin-transducin complex to interact with phosodiesterase along with many other molecular processes. Moreover, there remains no explanation of how these complex interactions could have occurred by Darwinian processes. “The fossil record,” as Behe has so clearly pointed out, “has nothing to tell us about whether the interactions of 11-cis-retinal with rhodopsin, transducin, and phosphodiesterase could have developed step-by step.”6 No, the problem has not been resolved and is, in fact, worse than when Himmelfarb wrote in 1959 and much worse than when Darwin wrote a century before her.

The poor example of eye evolution apparently exhausts Myers’ evidence against Himmelfarb. The rest of his co-called “critique” is, in fact, an ideological rant rather than a sober investigation of her alleged scientific transgressions. Both Shallit’s and Myers’ remaining appeal seems to be an argumentum ad populum as if scientific truth was decided solely on the basis of consensus. Such arguments, of course, vindicate a “noble” line of scientific “facts” in history like phlogiston, globulism, and humoral pathology. Jeffrey Shallit and P.Z. Myers are admittedly high on passion but weak on substance.

But Shallit and Myers aren’t the only ones. Besides the Himmelfarb-bashers already mentioned, Ernst Mayr more than a decade after the appearance of her Darwin complained of its “abyss of ignorance and misunderstanding.”7 Even Cornell’s historian of science L. Pearce Williams appreciated Himmelfarb’s grasp of the historical forces bearing upon Darwin and his times but quickly demurred at her assessment of Darwinian evolution. Calling it “filled with rather serious scientific blunders,” even worse than Shallit and Myers, Williams issued the indictment without giving a single instance of said “blunder.”8

Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution

Why is Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution the book Darwinists love to hate? To find out a detailed examination of the book and its incisive analysis of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is in order. Of course, this is a big biography and an exhaustive account cannot be given here, but a summary investigation will make the source of the Darwinists’ discomfort obvious.

Darwin is divided into six “books”: 1) “Pre-history of the Hero;” 2) “Emergence of the Hero;” 3) “Emergence of the Theory;” 4) “Reception of the Origin;” 5) “Analysis of the Theory;” and 6) “Darwinism.” The first four books are an interesting read and provide a valuable backdrop to the treatment that follows, but Himmelfarb is weakest on Darwin’s early years. She completely passes over Darwin’s Edinburgh period where he joined the Plinian Society in November of 1826 and attended all but one of the ensuing 19 meetings until April of 1827. According to Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, this was young Charles’ introduction to “seditious science.” While this is crucial in understanding the development of Darwin’s theory, it will not be gleaned from this book.

Also, Himmelfarb believes that Darwin was uninterested in and ill-equipped to appreciate the philosophical implications of his theory. Probably a better suggestion is that Darwin wasn’t so much disinterested in philosophy as he was just a bad philosopher, or at least a very superficial one. She as much as admits Darwin’s anemic reading in the field: “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” (p. 375).9 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.”

Nevertheless, what Himmelfarb misses in the early years she more than makes up for in the last two books devoted to an analysis of the theory and the ideological ism that it would turn into. Here in these two sections more than anywhere else reside the sources of anger, revilement, and consternation for the Darwinists.

For Himmelfarb Darwin’s presentation of his theory is most vulnerable not in his marshalling of evidence — that was thin enough — but rather in his means of handling it. “What Darwin was doing, in effect, ” she observes, “was creating a ‘logic of possibility.’ Unlike conventional logic, where the compound of possibilities results not in a greater possibility, or probability, but in a lesser one, the logic of the Origin was one in which possibilities were assumed to add up to probability” (p. 334). Essentially, Himmelfarb accuses Darwin of making an argument from ignorance:

As possibilities were promoted into probabilities, and probabilities into certainties, so ignorance itself was raised to a position only once removed from certain knowledge. When imagination exhausted itself and Darwin could devise no hypothesis to explain away the difficulty, he resorted to the blanket assurance that we were too ignorant of the ways of nature to know why one event occurred rather than another, and hence ignorant of the explanation that would reconcile the facts to his theory. When one botanist argued that his theory was contradicted by the fact that some forms remained unaltered through long periods of time and wide expanse of space, Darwin admitted the objection to be “formidable in appearance, and to a certain extent in reality.” But this did not deter him:

“Does not the difficulty rest much on our silently assuming that we know more than we do? . . . . Certainly a priori we might have anticipated that all the plants anciently introduced into Australia would have undergone some modification; but the fact that they have not been modified does not seem to me a difficulty of weight enough to shake a belief grounded on other arguments.”

Somehow the fact that no adequate explanation suggested itself today seemed a warrant for the belief that such an explanation would suggest itself in the future, and the explanation, moreover, would be bound to vindicate his theory. Thus the argument from ignorance was made the prelude to a confident affirmation:

“We are far too ignorant, in almost every case, to be enabled to assert that any part or organ is so unimportant for the welfare of a species that modifications in its structure could not have been slowly accumulated by means of natural selection. But we may confidently believe . . . ”

It may be objected, however, that in the logic of science, as in the logic of grammar, three negatives do not normally constitute a positive.

To be sure, a scientific theory that explains equally well a variety of contradictory phenomena may still be true; there are reputable theories that cannot, in this sense, be falsified, and hypothetical reasoning is a legitimate, even necessary, scientific technique. The difficulty with natural selection, however, is that if it explains too much, it also explains too little, and that the more questionable of its hypotheses lie at the heart of its thesis. Posing as a massive deduction from the evidence, it ends up as an ingenious argument from ignorance (pp. 335-336).

This kind of writing infuriates Darwin’s defenders who are not used to such frank talk coming from the likes of a historian. And yet Himmelfarb is not the only one. Many have followed her in questioning Darwin’s logic and his argument (see, for example, Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, 1941; William Irwin Thompson, At the Edge of History, 1971; Robert Henry Peter, “Tautology in Evolution and Ecology,” American Naturalist, 1976, and “Predictable Problems with Tautology in Evolution and Ecology,” American Naturalist, 1978; Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, 1985; Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere, 1986; Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science, 1988; R. F. Baum, Doctors of Modernity: Darwin, Marx & Freud, 1988; Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 1993; David Stove, Darwinian Fairy Tales, 1995; Didier Maleuvre, “Can We Believe in Darwin?,” Comparative Literature, 2001; James Le Fanu, Why Us?, 2009). Nevertheless, despite skeptics, Darwin’s theory was able to rise as the reigning paradigm in biology and moreover retain that status to the present day. How so?

Himmelfarb offers a couple of reasons, neither of which was based upon the weight of any purported evidence. Quoting a letter from Darwin to Asa Gray on December 21, 1859, Origin’s author recommended that the book, released that previous month, be read by “intelligent men, accustomed to scientific argument, though [curiously enough] not naturalists.” But as Himmelfarb notes, “What he [Darwin] did not properly appreciate, however, was that it was less as intelligent men ‘accustomed to scientific argument’ that they judged and approved the Origin than as intelligent men susceptible to philosophical prejudice” (p. 296). More specifically, it was the anfractuous nature of the argument itself that worked mischievously on its behalf:

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 inspection do the faults of the theory emerge. And this close inspection, by the nature of the case, was largely 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. Only those determined in advance to be hostile were likely to maintain a vigilant and hence critical attitude. In his rapid volley of expectations, where one might fail, another would hit the mark, and where one line of defense had to be abandoned, another was hastily erected. And there were few to point out that in the strategy of reason, as in the strategy of warfare, the cause was not better served by a succession of feeble defenses than by a single strong one.

More important, however, than any assets which Darwin’s theory might be thought to possess was the bankruptcy of his opponents. The only serious rival, as a general theory, was creation (pp. 350-351).

Himmelfarb is right. William Paley’s venerable argument that a watch found in a field suggested a watchmaker was powerful analogous argument for design and teleology in nature. However, at the time he made it in 1802 few details were known about complexity in the natural world. Paley’s apologetic could in many ways be answered by prior skeptics like David Hume. Paley’s waxing eloquent on the divine beauty of his garden looked more like romantic effusion than sober analysis, and he often saw God’s hand in virtually everything in nature raising the question (as Darwin himself did), if God is omniscient and benevolent then whither evil and pain? Paley and the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises insisted that all creation demonstrated God’s manifest “infinite wisdom and power and goodness.” Cornelius G. Hunter is quite correct in his Darwin’s Proof  when he notes, “Natural theology was lopsided. Yes, the world is amazing, but the natural theologian’s happy view of nature could hardly be justified in light of the real world. It is easy to see why this version of natural theology supplied a ready source of material for its opponents” (p. 90).

But there is yet a third reason why Darwin’s Origin was so readily accepted; Himmelfarb has already alluded to it when she suggested that Darwin’s supporters were found among those already philosophically inclined to accept it. This is an important point and one that she concludes with in assessing the nature of the so-called Darwinian revolution. Skeptic and freethinking philosophers had clearly prepared the way for a wholly naturalistic account of creation and biological life.

But what of the theory itself? Once launched, how did Darwin himself handle the responses to and further development of his evolutionary theory? Here Himmelfarb is at her best. In order to fully appreciate Darwin’s theory as it “blossomed” (perhaps metastasized is a better word) the Descent of Man must also be examined. It is clear that, over time, Darwin demonstrated a discernable retreat from his theory of natural selection, instead turning to two subsidiary but increasingly important notions to address assorted problems: one was pangenesis, the other was sexual selection. Pangenesis proposed that gemmules, “shed” by body cells and containing hereditary information, collect in the reproductive organs and play a key role in inheritance. For Darwin, pangenesis (today thoroughly discredited) explained blended inheritance, reversion to ancestral types, limb regeneration, and even Lamarckian concepts of use and disuse. Of course genetics changed all of this. There is no inheritance of acquired characteristic. When Dutch botanist Hugo De Vries tried to create a permanent change of type by the selection of existent variations, he found that he could not. When his ear of corn with an extra row of kernels was no longer subjected to his careful crossing with select specimens, they reverted back to normal. Mutations, it seems, would have done the trick where selection had failed. Thus, natural selection was vindicated over pangenesis and neo-Darwinians were quick to recast Darwinian theory by changing “variation” to “mutation.” In effect, notes Himmelfarb, natural selection becomes a “court of last appeal” in the process. When it was discovered that favorable mutations are extremely rare in nature, neo-Darwinists then insisted that this simply goes to “prove” the very power of natural selection, which is able to surmount such formidable odds. “The neo-Darwinians, it is apparent,” comments a skeptical Himmelfarb, “are as adroit as Darwin in making a virtue of necessity and in converting difficulties into assets” (p. 329).

But Darwin also increasingly relied on sexual selection as an adjunct to natural selection, and a considerable portion his Descent was spent laying out its features. Here Darwin argued that some traits evolved not through interspecies competition but through intraspecies competition, the selection of mates and breeding those traits deemed most desirable into the species. So while the natural superior strength of the male was obviously derived through natural selection, he attributed the beard to be “an ornament to charm or excite the opposite sex.” For Darwin music and the “sweeter voice” of the female were all explained as accoutrements for sexual attraction. Alfred Russel Wallace thought all this sexual selection talk was nonsense. Wallace, who had spent nearly twelve years with indigenous peoples, from South American natives of the Uaupés River Valley to Dyak headhunters in Borneo, pointed out to Darwin that tribal women rarely if ever sing and that what an Englishman might value as a “sweeter” voice was thoroughly uninteresting to the aboriginal peoples he knew. Even if certain cultures could be found where some women did sing, the result would seem to be a zero sum gain for the sexual selection theory and thus no explanation at all. Wallace further pointed out that Darwin’s suggestion that elaborate plumage in birds gave evidence of sexual selection was, in fact, merely “signs of sexual maturity and vigour” and that to ascribe the elaborate coloration in butterflies, which is “strikingly similar to birds,” to female choice “unthinkable” (see his The World of Life). In short, Himmelfarb points out, “Sexual selection has all the faults of natural selection and more: the suspicious facility with which it can be made to explain anything and everything, the manipulation of evidence for whatever purposes are convenient, and the invocation of ignorance when all else fails. Ignorance is resorted to even in so crucial a matter as the intellectual disparity between man and the apes” (p. 366).

Here again we are treated to a litany of guesses and conjectures. If man is “closely allied to the higher Simiæ,” as Darwin openly suggested to the Marquis de Saporta, and is, in fact, descended from some primate ancestor then a naturalistic explanation for the development of speech, that uniquely human characteristic, might go a long way in revealing the process of divergence from our alleged animal ancestors. Darwin suggested that speech and language may indeed account for humanity’s great intellectual advance. Here, Darwin suggested, this most distinctive of human attributes probably originated in “the imitation and modification of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries, aided by signs and gestures.” Darwin then leans on sexual selection to invest early man with “true musical cadences, that is in singing” speculating by “a widely spread analogy, that this power would have been especially exerted during courtship of the sexes . . . .”10 Of course, Wallace’s experience among native peoples didn’t bear this out, but Darwin used it and maintained it anyway.

But this forced Darwin into an even more difficult conundrum. How could grunts and groans develop into intelligible speech unless a brain sufficiently advanced to develop it already existed? Darwin merely relied upon some “early progenitors of man,” but wasn’t this precisely what Darwin had called upon speech to explain? As for other behaviors deemed utterly counter to the good of the group — his shock at the “utter licentiousness” and “unnatural crimes” of many tribal cultures — Darwin simply explained them away as evidence of their “insufficient powers of reasoning.” Given all the foregoing, one is forced to agree with Himmelfarb: “When there are more exceptions to the rule than exemplifications of it, it would seem time to abandon the rule” (p. 373).

Why did Darwin retreat from natural selection into subsidiary notions of pangenesis and sexual selection? Was Darwin simply adrift in theories? Himmelfarb keenly explains:

It was not, however, without cause that he [Darwin] abandoned natural selection. What forced his hand was the realization that natural selection was untenable as the main explanation either for the development of man from the animals or for distinctions of race and sex. Natural selection assumed that beneficial variations alone would be preserved. The difficulty was that “the races of man differ from each other and from their nearest allies amongst the lower animals, in certain characters which are of no service to them in their ordinary habits of life.” The advantage of sexual selection was that it did not have to prove utility. . . . More and more, the Lamarckian principle of the inherited effects of use and disuse came to replace natural selection” (pp. 366-367).

This too would define Wallace’s break with Darwin. For Wallace, sexual selection and pangenesis were unnecessary. Instead, he (in true original Darwinian fashion!) stuck with the original formulation: natural selection was guided and directed by the naturalistic principle of utility. But the very thing which defined it also limited it for Wallace. How could one satisfactorily account for the mind of man? For that matter, what explains the origin of life before there was a principle of utility in operation? For Wallace, the answer was to be found in a teleological universe directed by an “Overruling Intelligence.” For Darwin, of course, this was unacceptable. But, as Himmelfarb’s cogent analysis demonstrated, neither were Darwin’s wholly naturalistic ones.

How do we explain the origin of man? There are really just three options: invoke some form of teleology (by far the general consensus worldwide past and present has been some form of theistic teleology); leave the question unanswered (and some, like philosopher Thomas Nagle, have done precisely that); or rely upon some wholly naturalistic explanation, most commonly Darwinian evolution (a position held by an elite minority only over the past few hundred years). While the first option has usually had an ameliorating effect on the harsh consequences of competition and rivalry and infused society with needed altruism and the second merely provides external critique of proffered explanations, the third has had a dubious history, especially when a theory becomes itself an ideology in the hands of passionate ideologues.

From Idea to Ideology and Revolution?

Himmelfarb’s chapter on Darwinism opens by observing that when applied to a variety of social contexts it could have a “free and loose” translation which provided the added advantage of giving it “license to a variety of social gospels” (p. 412). Applied to many social issues, Darwinism was ambiguous. Darwinism, for example, could argue against slavery, the greatest endorsement of which came from Darwin himself who was an outspoken critic of this “peculiar institution.” Recently Adrian Desmond and James Moore elevated this to a motivating factor for Darwin’s theory in their Darwin’s Sacred Cause (see review). The thesis is plausible, after all, Darwin’s Origin was written and published when the slavery controversy (which the British Empire had abolished earlier in 1833) raged in America. But as Himmelfarb points out the implications of Darwin’s evolutionary theory could be taken in other ways:

It was not necessary . . . to confute the Origin in order to justify the South. It was only necessary to re-interpret it. For there were features of Darwin’s theory that could easily give comfort to the proponents of slavery and racism. Although Darwin derived all races, like all species, from a single historic ancestor, he by no means denied the reality of separate races and species in the present. . . . Nor did he deny that under certain conditions it was desirable to maintain, as far as possible, the purity of races. The Origin did declare that crosses between varieties tended to increase the number, size, and vigor of the offspring. But this was true only in special cases: where, for example, the crossed varieties had previously been exposed to fluctuating conditions and thus were especially hardy. Otherwise, such a cross might prove fatal to both varieties.

It was this argument against the crossing of races that first impressed itself upon some of the readers of the Origin. One month after its publication, on the occasion of John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, the Times gave warning that the abolitionists would turn the population of the South into a “mixed race.” The lesson of modern times, it said, was that such a mixture of races “tends not to the elevation of the black, but to the degradation of the white man.” Reading this, a secretary at the American legation in London observed: “This is bold doctrine for an English journal and is one of the results of reflection on mixed races, aided by light from Mr. Darwin’s book, and his theory of ‘Natural Selection’.”

The subtitle of the Origin also made a convenient motto for racists: “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Darwin, of course, took “races” to mean varieties or species; but it was no violation of his meaning to extend it to human races, these being as much subject to the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest as plant and animal varieties. Darwin himself, in spite of his aversion to slavery, was not averse to the idea that some races were more fit than others and that this fitness was demonstrated in human history (pp. 415-416).

Indeed even Desmond and Moore admit as much. When Darwin’s friend Charles Kingsley, whose family had been financially ruined when West Indies slaves were emancipated under British law, suggested that the “lowly races” were doomed and that the white race was destined to domination he was expressing common belief in Victorian England. “Even Darwin,” confess Desmond and Moore, “agreed to the gruesome prospect: ‘It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, will have spread & exterminated whole nations.’ There was a fatalism to the statement. While slavery demanded one’s active participation,” they add, “racial genocide was now normalized by natural selection and rationalized as nature’s way of producing ’superior’ races. Darwin ended up calibrating human ‘rank’ no differently from the rest of his society” (Darwin’s Sacred Cause, p. 318). So much for Darwin’s “sacred cause”!

It was rationalized in another context as well: “From [Darwin’s] . . . ‘preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,’ it was a short step,” Himmelfarb points out, “to the preservation of favored individuals, classes, or nations — from their preservation to their glorification” (p. 416). And conversely even from the “most favored’s” preservation to the least favored’s elimination. “Recent [Himmelfarb is writing in 1959] expressions of this philosophy, such as Mein Kampf, are, unhappily, too familiar to require exposition here. And it is by an obvious process of analogy and deduction that they are said to derive from Darwinism” (p. 417). (More recently historian Richard Weikart has thoroughly explicated the connection in From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler’s Ethic).

While the Nazi program to eliminate the “unfit” is an indelible stain on human history, it should be remembered that it was but a specific (albeit especially horrific) exercise of eugenics being applied less dramatically elsewhere, and nowhere more enthusiastically than in the U.S. Described by its leading American apostle Charles Davenport as “the science of the improve-ment of the human race by better breeding,” eugenics could be applied (as this definition implies) “positively” by encouraging “better” marriages and family unions but also negatively as in the culling of the “unfit.” It was on this basis that more than 65,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized in the early decades of the 20th century. With Indiana passing the first sterilization law in 1907, California’s law of 1909 surpassed all others in efficiency, sterilizing more than 2,500 in ten years and in the next ten years accelerating the effort against the “unfit” to sterilize an additional 3,500 more. Following World War I, more than twenty states passed sterilization legislation, many modeled on the Indiana and California examples. (For details see Harry Bruinius, Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity, 2006. For a more complete and explicit connection between Darwinism and the American eugenics movement see John G. West’s Darwin Day in America.)

The champions of American eugenics were Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin. Davenport devoted himself to “natural science” and became committed to the ideas of Francis Galton. It was Davenport who convinced the wealthy widow Mrs. E. H. Harriman to fund the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. In October of that year a Missouri schoolteacher, Harry Laughlin, accepted Davenport’s invitation to become superintendant of the ERO. In a program described by Bruinius as “stunningly ambitious,” Laughlin compiled information on existing sterilization laws with the hopes of coordinating a more centralized national legislative plan. A champion of social Darwinism, Laughlin insisted, “To purify the breeding stock of the race at all costs is the slogan of eugenics. . . . It is at once evident that, unless this complementary agency, compulsory sterilization of certain degenerates, is made nation-wide in its application, and is consistently followed by most states, it cannot greatly reduce, with the ultimate end of practically cutting off the great mass of defectives now endangering the conservation of our best human stock . . . ” (quoted in Better for All the World, p. 212).

In either case — whether in Germany or America — the connection with Darwinism is clear. Darwin insisted in his Descent of Man that humankind differed from animals in degree not in kind. If species are directed by the blind forces of natural selection, then why not give nature a “helping hand” by moving it along a “better” and perhaps more direct path to improvement? Many eugenicists reasoned that Darwin’s own examples of pigeon breeders merely proved the point. Such ideas were promulgated by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. He coined the very term eugenics, meaning eu (good or well in Greek) genes (born or birth). Nevertheless, as indicated above, it was not England that would adopt these ideas programatically. With America leading the way under the missionary zeal of Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin as mentioned earlier, Hitler need go no further than Laughlin’s “Model Law” as an example in framing his “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” in which more than 150,000 Germans were sterilized as “unfit.” No wonder then that the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary doctorate for his pioneer work in “racial hygiene” in 1936.

How different was the view of natural selection’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace! Wallace was adamantly opposed to eugenics. In the last book that he would write, Social Environment and Moral Progress (1913), Wallace referred to eugenic proposals for the “segregation of the feeble-minded,” “sterilization of the unfit,” and “destruction of deformed infants,” suggestions “in every way dangerous and detestable,” and efforts to interfere “with the freedom of marriage . . . not only totally unnecessary, but . . . a much greater source of danger to morals and to the well-being of humanity than the mere temporary evils it seeks to cure” (pp. 142-143). Wallace further explained (as indeed he had in his World of Life, [1910]) that natural selection, which determined with law-like severity the brutal struggle of species, was no longer applicable to man:

From the moment when the first skin was used as a covering, when the first rude spear was formed to assist him in the chase, when fire was first used to cook his food, when the first seed was sown or shoot planted, a grand revolution was effected in Nature — a revolution which in all previous ages of the earth’s history had had no parallel. A being had arisen who was no longer subject to bodily change with changes of the physical universe — a being who was in some degree superior to Nature, inasmuch as he knew how to control and regulate her action, and could keep himself in harmony with her. Not through any change in his body, but by means of his vast superiority of mind (Social Environment and Moral Progress, p. 110).

How this happened Wallace termed “the Divine influx,” a point in time when by purposeful action “some portion of the spirit of the Deity, man became a ‘living soul’” (p. 102). By limiting natural selection to the principle of utility first enunciated by Darwin himself, Wallace was able to discern discrete examples of intentional design in nature (the most stunning being the human mind) to counter Darwin’s naturalistically bound biological processes to incorporate genuine theism in a teleologically liberated intelligent evolution (for details see Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution).

This idea was completely rejected by Darwin and his followers. Instead, as seen earlier, Darwin and his disciples speculated on theories of pangenesis and sexual selection. Darwinians will plead that Mendel rescued their evolutionary theory, a curious position given the fact that, whatever the respective merits of the two men’s ideas, Mendel himself opposed it and specifically argued against Darwin’s Origin.11 So what are we to make of Darwin’s contribution to the broad history of ideas and to society at large? Himmelfarb concludes her study with a review of the Darwinian revolution. Some, like Ernst Mayr (see his “Darwin’s Impact on Modern Thought”) and more recently Peter Bowler (see his “Darwin’s Originality”) believe Darwin to have effected a thorough and sweeping revolution of historic proportions. If one is to measure it by the effect it has had on ethics, morality, and the general secularizing of society it’s revolutionary impacts seem undeniable. But revolutions don’t necessarily imply progress and advance. Here Himmelfarb points out that Darwin was the leader of a distinctly conservative revolution. Oswald Spengler thought the Origin “reeked of the atmosphere of the British factory” (p. 418). The modernity to which Darwin brought the world was built upon foundations long preceding him. Surely the ideas of René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes had cleared the ground for the scientistic edifice that Darwin erected — after all, Darwinian theory is if nothing else the gospel of bellum omnium contra omnes — “the war of all against all” —  that epitomized Hobbes’ characterization of human existence. And we know that Darwin was familiar with the skepticism of David Hume and the positivism of Auguste Comte. In this sense Himmelfarb is quite correct: “Darwin, dramatizing and bringing to a climax the ideas, sentiments, and conjectures of his age, may be thought of as a hero of a conservative revolution” (p. 447).

In the end, Gertrude Himmelfarb presents a complete and honest portrayal of Darwin and his theory, and her points are compelling:

  • Darwin’s “logic of possibility” stood logic on its head by turning conjectural possibilities into alleged scientific probabilities.
  • In meeting objections to his evolutionary theory by suggesting we simply didn’t know enough about the operations of nature, Darwin really developed little more than an argument from ignorance.
  • Darwin’s natural selection proved, even for him, inadequate to explain the most important features of human evolution.
  • Darwin attempted to fill in the gaps by increasing reliance upon two subsidiary theories: pangenesis and sexual selection (both of which have been subsequently shown to be without scientific merit).
  • Because Darwinian evolution attempted to explain virtually everything, it could be given a wide range of social applications; its role in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century is unmistakable.
  • Darwin effected a revolution, but a distinctly conservative one that built upon previous secular and humanistic ideas and one that ratified England’s industrial revolution “red in tooth and claw.”

If the Darwinian faithful cannot abide the less than ideal portrait that emerges they have only their Down House hero to blame.

The Post-Darwin Himmelfarb

Since writing Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Gertrude Himmelfarb has moved on to treat a wide range of topics. Nevertheless, her influence as an especially cogent historian of the man and his theory continues. A few have taken notice. Margaret A. Faye, for example, mentions her “insightful and lucid analysis.”12 Philosopher/theologian Edward T. Oakes, S.J., PhD, wrote: “I awoke from my own Darwinian dogmatic slumbers only late in life, when I first read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s tour de force of a biography . . . .”13 M. D. Aeschliman’s Angels, apes, and men praised her “devastating” critique for exposing “the internal inconsistencies and willful obfuscations that have characterized Darwinism from the beginning,” yet noted the conspicuous neglect of her work by those suspiciously interested in promoting the Darwin brand.

Neglected perhaps but not without opportunities for exposition. Four years ago the publication of edited compilations of Darwin’s works, E. O. Wilson’s From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin and James D. Watson’s The Indelible Stamp: The Evolution of an Idea, offered treatments by two of this “tormented” evolutionist’s most adoring fans and the occasion for a reply by Ms. Himmelfarb.

It appeared as an essay review titled “Monkeys and Morals” in The New Republic on December 12, 2005. Pointing out that natural selection rather than evolution was Darwin’s “claim to fame,” Himmelfarb states that, interestingly enough, it was secularists who voiced concerns about the theory as much if not more than the religious community. Citing no less than John Stuart Mill, she notes his admission that the theory was impressive enough but that even as late as 1870 he confessed it to be “problematical.” Instead, Mill concluded that the evidence suggested “creation by intelligence”:

“Creation by intelligence” — this by Mill, hardly a religious dogmatist. Today one may hear echoes of those words in the theory of “intelligent design,” which is derided by most scientists (including the editors [Wilson and Watson] of the present volumes) as a euphemism for creation and thus a denial of evolution. And so it is, for some of its proponents. Yet others, themselves scientists, insist that their quarrel is not with evolution itself but rather with natural selection conceived as a purely mechanistic and entirely sufficient explanation for evolution. For them, intelligent design is nothing more or less than teleology, the recognition of a purposiveness or direction in nature, with or without a Creator in the orthodox sense of God (p. 35).

Julian Huxley, Thomas Henry’s grandson, thought the modern evolutionary synthesis solved all of Darwin’s problems. But, as Himmelfarb observes, “Notwithstanding Julian Huxley, nothing has been settled. And notwithstanding the editors of these volumes, too, who sometimes sound as dogmatic as the creationists they deride — not only in respect to evolution (the ‘blind force,’ as Wilson puts it, that created animals and man) but in respect to all human behavior” (p. 36). The intransigent scientism of both Wilson and Watson is duly noted too, and the lessons of their “enormous achievements” are countered in perhaps greater measure only by their hubris.

Himmelfarb ends by bemoaning the polarizing effects of both sides of this controversy, though as expected, this seasoned historian casts a far more wary eye on those (like Wilson and Watson) who hold the present positions of power in the debate. If she registers distress over the renewed warfare, a war incorrectly drawn between science and religion by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the Victorian era with attempted truces more recently proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Ronald Numbers, it would do well for everyone to realize that the battle is not between science and religion but within science itself.

Is methodological naturalism the only appropriate avenue of scientific inquiry? Are we to believe in a uniformity of natural causes in a completely closed systemIs human intellectual endeavor easily, and more importantly, properly divided into Non-Overlapping Magisteria? Is the human intellect reducible itself to purely naturalistic explanations so that our neurons and synapse are who we are? The problem with the truces of Gould and Numbers ( and indeed with a wide variety of so-called “well-intentioned” theistic evolutionists like Ken Miller, Karl Giberson, and others) is that they would “bury the hatchet” only by burying it into the heads of those proposing intelligent design. After all, answering all these questions in the affirmative without substantively engaging in meaningful dialogue winds up merely ratifying the reigning Darwinian paradigm. But the very nature of the questions themselves bespeak the limitation of giving positivistic answers like those attempted by Wilson, Watson, Gould, or Numbers. While Himmelfarb yearns for peace, her suggestion that there need not be any inherent opposition between theism and evolution is a sound one. But it cannot be an evolution hidebound to a conception of science that a priori precludes it.

Nevertheless, in providing a bold and brave historical analysis to the question of Darwinian evolution, Himmelfarb has rendered invaluable service. Her incredulity over those who continue to insist that Darwinism is the only received truth remains a mark of her constancy on behalf of reason and free and open inquiry. Her willingness to swim against the tide of nodding acquiescence is the measure of a scholar genuinely committed to following the evidence wherever it may lead.

I am happy to report that Professor Himmelfarb remains active and intellectually vibrant and appeared recently on Book TV discussing her work on Edmund Burke. While her historical acumen has moved on to treat other subjects, she has indeed made an enduring contribution to our understanding of the figure of Charles Darwin and the modern cultural paradigm of Darwinism. If she suggests that the man should become less iconic or that the theory should be more modest, it is only the counsel of a historian reminding us, as Herbert Butterfield did long ago, that in matters of history as well as in science we should all be a bit less Whiggish in their pursuit.


  1. Review by Charles C. Gillispie in Isis 51.2 (June 1960): 216.
  2. Review by Charles F. Mullet in The Journal of Modern History 32.2 (June 1969): 179-180.
  3. Review by J. F. Burnet in The English Historical Review 76.298 (Jan. 1961): 173-174.
  4. Review by Francis G. Townsend in The English Journal 48.9 (Dec. 1959): 554.
  5. James Le Fanu, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), pp. 94-95.
  6. Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 22.
  7. Ernst Mayr, “The Nature of the Darwinian Revolution,” Science (new series) v. 176.4038 (June 2, 1972): 981-989, 987.
  8. L. Pearce Williams, “The Historiography of Victorian Science,” Victorian Studies 9.3 (March 1966): 197-204, 202.
  9. All page references are to the 1962 revised edition reissued as an “Elephant Paperback” by Ivan R. Dee, 1996. ISBN: 1-56663-106-8.
  10. Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, and Selection in Its Relation to Sex (1871; reprinted, Barnes & Noble, 2004), pp. 71-72.
  11. For details see the instructive article by B. E. Bishop, “Mendel’s Opposition to Evolution and Darwin,” Journal of Heredity 87.3 (1996): 205-213.
  12. Margaret A. Faye, “Did Marx Offer to Dedicate Capital to Darwin?: A Reassessment of the Evidence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 39.1 (Jan.-Mar. 1978): 133-146, 141.
  13. Quoted in David Berlinski, The Deniable Darwin (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2009), p. 89.

Photo credit: National Science and Media Museum, via Flickr.