1.5 Dissing Darwin
Darwin was an excellent scientist, but not according to antievolutionists.
Darwin’s solid reputation as one of the most meticulous and respected naturalists of his time certainly contributed to the speed with which the Origin of Species shifted the scientific zeitgeist. Darwin responded to criticism of his developing positions with a healthy mix of skepticism, graciousness and backbone, Dennett (1995, 49), Lahav (1999, 30-31) and Shermer (1997, 21-22). Ernst Mayr (2000) wrote similarly on “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought” for Scientific American, but Mayr (2001a, 11) summed it up most simply: “What made Darwin such a great scientist and intellectual innovator? He was a superb observer, endowed with an insatiable curiosity. He never took anything for granted but always asked how and why.” Jared Diamond (2001) remarked on his generosity, compared to the more divisive Freud, while Stephen Jay Gould picked up on the deeper temperament (which Gould shared in so many ways) concerning how Darwin:
was dogged and relentless, fiercely honest and logical in his thinking. He wrestled with every major difficulty, working and reworking, fretting and fretting again, until he achieved closure or at least understood why a solution eluded him. He often became obsessed with problems (levels of selection, for example) that his supporters either didn’t grasp at all, or didn’t understand as sources of interest or trouble. Gould (2002a, 499).
Scientists react this way to Darwin because as workers in the field themselves, they know how hard it is to do what Darwin did all through his scientific life, just as you can tell how great Louis Armstrong was as a trumpeter by asking the opinion of musicians today (like Winton Marsalis)—or who a skilled bricklayer or plumber is by asking someone who lays bricks or fixes pipes. Niles Eldredge (2005, 17-18, 92): “Darwin was a remarkably original yet methodically encyclopedic thinker, who considered an even greater range of problems and phenomena than he is usually given credit for,” and that “The breadth and depth of Darwin’s firsthand experience with so many disparate fields is indeed breathtaking.” Biographer Janet Browne (2009) also reflected on Darwin as a “superb practical researcher.”
This extends to quite specific topics, such as Matthew Scott (2000, 27, 32-33) quoting Darwin’s awareness of so many developmental issues relevant to evolution, and Fraser & Harland (2000, 42) on Darwin’s prescience in seeing a connection between the lowly sea squirts (tunicates) and the more complex chordates, issues explored in Downard (2003b) and in Chapter 2 of Downard (2004). Darwin was the first to recognize how coral atolls were formed, Van Wyhe (2008, 38-39). His thinking on the impact of invasive species anticipated current ecological views, Ludsin & Wolfe (2001), and his precision manifested even in his last work, a backyard study of earthworm behavior, Korb & Salewski (2011). Darwin also literally wrote the book on barnacles, which may be thought of as his first foray into applied transmutationism, Quammen (2006, 92-104, 107-110) and Van Wyhe (2008, 42-43, 45-46). Not that Darwin was an oracle. He had his hits and misses, surveyed by Deutsch (2009), including some “dreadful blunders.” Some issues are still ongoing: Darwin may have got it wrong when he thought invasive species would stand the best chance to overtake the locals if they are more distantly related to native forms, Park & Potter (2013), though the details of their study elicited quite a few technical caveats: E. Jones et al. (2013), Sol et al. (2014) and Cadotte (2014).
On the other hand, the evolution skeptics have a long tradition of disparaging Darwin’s legitimacy as a scientist, and nonscientists (especially ones with hefty Kulturkampf axes to grind) can be very unimpressed with the Darwin legacy or his proficiency as a naturalist. It began right off the bat with the acrimonious vendetta novelist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) had against Darwin—though Milner (2009, 62-63) indicated Butler was just as snarky about 19th century religion, suggesting that however tight the evolution vs. religion conflict may seem today, skepticism about evolution and religion can be pals. The practice has persisted with scattershot attacks by physicist Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) claiming Darwin’s pre-Wallace theorizing on evolution was “vague” in Hoyle (1983, 30-31), through to Vine Deloria (1999, 45) charging “it is quite possible that Darwin simply stole Wallace’s idea of natural selection and had the right political connections within the English scientific establishment to make good his theft,” based on “new research” culled from the decades-old Beddall (1968) and Brooks (1972).
End Times groupies LaHaye & Noebel (2000, 338) hit marks for historical cluelessness by declaring Darwin wasn’t really a scientist because his degree was in theology (sorry, before the likes of Thomas Huxley got into the fray there were no degrees in science disciplines, so you had to make due with Natural Theology). New Zealand creationist & children’s book author Richard Gunther (2015) first offered that “Darwin was, in a limited way a scientist in a small way,” but after a few pages of breezy cartoon panels dispensed with his undocumented hedging to conclude: “Darwin was a poor scientist, and an even worse theologian.”
Religion was also the hot button for Michael Shaver (2003) at the Alpha Omega Institute, declaring “most of his ideas were plagiarized” and that his grandfather Erasmus Darwin’s “ideas may also be responsible for Charles’ bitterness in life having helped move him away from God.” SABBSA (2010n) offered a similarly glib condensation of Darwin’s motivations:
By 1859 Darwin had published “Origin of Species” not because he suddenly became assured of evolution’s truth, but because two other perceptions pushed him in that direction. First, his young daughter died at age seven leading him to the conclusion that the benevolent God of the bible did not exist. Second, he perceived that Alfred Russell [sic] Wallace was about ready to publish a very similar theory and he would lose his right to the credit for his discovery.
SABBSA did not venture whether the rival Wallace (whose years of direct observation of nature was still well behind Darwin’s meticulous lead) might have been more or less “assured of evolution’s truth” than Darwin supposedly wasn’t, though it was clear to them that “Satan has talked others into believing in theistic evolution for political reasons or due to vanity in the human spirit to believe that we have a more mature understanding.”
Creationist quote miners haven’t been able to resist temptation in this area either. When the English geneticist C. D. Darlington (1903-1981) contributed a rather breezy piece on “The Origin of Darwinism” for Scientific American occasioned by the Origin Centennial in 1959, he offered a tart opinion of Darwin’s contribution that appealed to the apologetic crosshairs of Morris & Morris (1996c, 35-37), who excerpted only the final sentences in this paragraph from Darlington (1959, 66), their quoted part in bold:
In short, it is clear that Darwin’s success was due to several common vices as well as to several uncommon virtues. His gifts as an observer in all fields concerned with the needs of his theory of evolution were extraordinary. His industry and patience in collecting and editing his own observations as well as other people’s were hardly less remarkable. On the other hand, his ideas were not, as he imagined, unusually original. He was able to put his ideas across not so much because of his scientific integrity, but because of his opportunism, his equivocation and his lack of historical sense. Though his admirers will not like to believe it, he accomplished his revolution by personal weakness and strategic talent more than by scientific virtue.
Never mind that Darlington did not offer anything like clear evidence for this opinion, or that Henry and John Morris did not elect to quote the next sentence, where Darlington approved of how “We owe to Origin of Species the overthrow of the myth of Creation.” As Darlington was a mixed bag of anti-authoritarian rationalism that thrived on controversy—he fell out with fellow Brit geneticist J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) over the Soviet embrace of the anti-genetic Marxist “biology” of Lysenkoism—and defended a pungent brand of eugenicist racism, he was perhaps not the wisest of authorities for quoting. The truncated Darlington quote continues to circulate in YEC secondary redactions, of course, such as Foard (1996) and Brace (2010).
Nationalism has played a part in Darwin denial too. Although there were some early French advocates of Darwin, on the whole the French scientific community did not warm to it, Farley (1974) and Browne (2002, 142-144, 260-261). As outlined by Bowler (1983, 107-117), late 19th century French naturalists continued the abstract morphological tradition of Cuvier (characterizing what you could about what something looks like from the sedate comfort of one’s museum office) and were slow to adopt the down and dirty field study approach (where you saw animals interacting in dynamic ecological contexts) exemplified by Darwin and Wallace. There was also a teleological streak to French thinking (a plan and purpose for it all, with or without divine nudging) that conflicted with the (god optional) trial and error focus of orthodox Darwinism. French laboratory biologists like Claude Bernard (1813-1878) and Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) further regarded the history of organisms as a highly speculative enterprise to begin with, which was somewhat easier to do back when there was no microbiological fossil information to go on (we’ll return to Pasteur concerning the “spontaneous generation” controversy in section 1.7).
Evidencing unfamiliarity with this context of French science history, creationist Wayne Jackson (1994) crowed in Reason & Revelation how Darwin was long rejected for membership in the “prestigious French Academy of Sciences” on account of the “evidently fallacious” nature of his arguments. Alas, this may only have represented how peripheral the French had become on the evolutionary scene (just as the Soviets were isolated from genetic theory over Lysenkoism)—and for still more irony, although there was a current of neo-Lamarckianism in French “transformism” (they long resisted adopting the Brit term “evolution”) it was mainly the “American School” of evolutionists who attempted to revive inheritance of acquired characteristics early in the 20th century and temporarily eclipsed Darwinian style evolution.