Thursday, November 26, 2009

Darwin Week: The Darwin Myth

This book has an unintentionally accurate title, since the version of Darwin's life presented in this book is mostly mythological. The Darwin Myth was written by Benjamin Wiker, who holds senior fellowships with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Discovery Institute, according to the book jacket. Of course, the book jacket's accuracy is open to question. It also raves that the book "casts aside Darwinism's politically correct veneer and offers a critical, scientific analysis of Darwin's life and his history-changing theory." Scientific? Not even close.

The book suffers from a basic lack of evidence. It's a lot like Davies's The Darwin Conspiracy in that regard, inflating a story in the missing pieces of Darwin's life (to be fair to Wiker, this book does not repeat the "Darwin is a plagiarist" myth). Wiker's Darwin differs from the real Darwin in two significant ways:

(1) Wiker's Darwin is an evolutionist from the start, thanks to the influence of Lamarck, Grant, and Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia. The problem is that there is no evidence for this. There's certainly reason to believe that Darwin was acquainted with the basic idea of the development of species, but the earliest comment we have from Darwin that could possibly be construed as sympathetic to the view is from his ornithological notes. Darwin wrote these notes near the end of the Beagle voyage, and in the passage in question he discussed the mockingbirds of Galapagos:
In each Isld. each kind is exclusively found: habits of all are indistinguishable. When I recollect, the fact that the form of the body, shape of scales & general size, the Spaniards can at once pronounce, from which Island any Tortoise may have been brought. When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & [but del.] possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware, is the constant asserted difference - between the wolf-like Fox of East & West Falkland Islds.
- If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks the zoology of Archipelagoes - will be well worth examining; for such facts [would inserted] undermine the stability of Species. (Darwin Online)
According to Darwin's diary, his interest in species transmutation began with pondering South American fossils and Galapagos animals in March, 1837. That's it. That's all we know about what Darwin thought about species before he began his transmutation notebooks. Much later, Darwin claimed that he knew about other evolutionary ideas but that they made no impression on him. The evidence from his notes, correspondence, and diary supports this. I suppose Wiker's interpretation is possible, but given the facts as we know them, I seriously doubt he is correct. At the very least, I see no reason to accept Wiker's interpretation.

(2) Wiker's Darwin insisted on creating "an entirely godless account of evolution" (p. xi). This seems to be Wiker's main theme and main complaint. Here's a few passages from the book that illustrate that theme:
  • "Evolution was a family affair, yet it was to be his theory, profoundly materialistic and curiously designed not to let a divine foot in the door." (p. 63)

  • "... he didn't shudder, like Lyell, at the entirely godless mechanism of natural selection. In fact, he was very proud of it because it so neatly eliminated the necessity for God." (p. 98)

  • "... something about the way Darwin approached things led him to define science against belief in God." (p. 120)

  • "Darwin's theory did not prove that there was no Creator God; it began from the assumption that God did not exist, and so his theory was contructed and expressed in such a way as to dismiss the possibility without seriously engaging it." (p. 125)

  • "Insofar as Darwinism has swallowed up all of evolution into itself, the evolutionary theory partakes of the deep anti-theistic bias that Darwin built into it. It in fact does lead to atheism because it was designed to do so." (p. 166)
I'm going to let Darwin speak to this himself, in a letter to Asa Gray from 1860 (Letter 2814):
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. - I am bewildered. - I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. ... On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. - Let each man hope & believe what he can. -

Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. ... I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.

According to Wiker, this passage is an example of one of Darwin's lies that he told himself (p. 136: "we have found Darwin to be disingenuous, even with himself"). That's a staggeringly arrogant position to take. Darwin himself confesses that he did not intend his work to be understood as anti-God, Origin focuses its arguments on the origin of species (not life), and all of Darwin's biographers agree that his position on religion was complex to say the least. Should we therefore disregard the evidence from Darwin's own hand and accept Wiker's speculative dismissal of that evidence to favor his own antitheistic Darwin? I think not.

As I said above, this book is not based on evidence but on Wiker's speculation about Darwin's life. In fact, as I perused the 167 endnotes, I saw lots of secondary sources (Browne's biographies with 29 citations seem to be his main source of information about Darwin), but citations of, e.g., Darwin's correspondence (seven citations) or notebooks (six citations) are infrequent. Wiker is fond of using Darwin's autobiography (21 citations), and some of Darwin's other published works (Voyage of the Beagle, Origin, Descent of Man) are referenced. Call me crazy, but if I were going to write a radical reinvention of someone's life, I would want to reference it to the hilt from primary sources. As it is, this book just asks us to take Wiker's word for it. Well, I'm sorry, but that's just not enough.

This book is not recommended. This is not the real Charles Darwin. This is nothing more than a Darwin Myth. Please don't fall for it.

(It seems to me that this theme of Darwin's alleged atheistic intentions is worthy of further attention. Stay tuned.)