Sunday, August 10, 2014

Darwinism and Darwin: "A Dull Plodder"

Terry Scambray, in "A Genius for Destructive Change" New Oxford Review (May, 2014), reviewed Paul Johnson's Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. Interesting review.

In response to Scambray, Laszlo Bencze writes the following letter to the editor, "A Dull Plodder," in the current issue (July-August 2014):
As Terry Scambray makes clear in his review of Paul Johnson’s Darwin: Portrait of a Genius (May), Charles Darwin was hardly the scientific giant of present-day adulation. In fact, flattery of Darwin has reached its apogee now that he is often called the greatest scientist of all time, the man who had the “best idea” in the history of mankind.

Yet the truth, as Scambray points out, is that Darwin was very much a man of his time — and a dull plodder at that. He spent eight years writing a four-volume study of barnacles. Yet, oddly enough, barnacles are never mentioned in The Origin of Species. Why? Was it impossible to discern evolutionary evidence in these complex and obscure creatures he knew so well? Instead, he devoted almost every bit of his magnum opus to tedious examples of artificial selection in domestic animals. He brushed away the glaring advantage of artificial over natural selection with rhetoric along the lines of “I see no reason why” natural selection might not have fashioned the eye or any other organ or living thing. For such schoolboy ineptitude he was roundly criticized by his contemporaries, all of whom are now consigned to history’s dustbin, regardless of their skills and biological competency.

As for Darwin having honestly formulated his theory based on slowly accumulating evidence, his own private notebooks reveal that as early as 1844 he proclaimed that he would “transform the ‘whole [of] metaphysics.’” We will not find such words in the works of Newton, Pasteur, or Einstein. Perhaps they were not genius enough.

Scambray wisely warns against laying “yet another coat of bronze to the iconic figure of Darwin.” It’s too bad Paul Johnson felt he had to take on the role of literary foundry man.
Needless to say, defenders of the reigning orthodoxy, like Arthur M. Shapiro (in the same issue), were not happy.


Ralph Roister-Doister


What is the best study of the critical reception of Darwin by his contemporaries? I am not looking for any particular point of view, either knocking or canonizing him. Just what knowledgable people of the time and of all stripes thought about him. Is there such a thing?

Pertinacious Papist


That's a very good but difficult question. While there are numerous critics and admirers of Darwin among his contemporaries, their focus isn't on critical reception so much as simply criticism or adulation. As far as the sources each side adduces for support, each is so comfortably ensconced in its set of patent biases that it would be hard to make any judgment as to which is "best" (the hardest question, because it assumes a perspective transcending the debate).

The most thorough analyses of the critical reception of Darwin seem to me to be the later ones, our own contemporaries, although they don't escape the vice-like clutches of bias either. I'm thinking of the likes of David L. Hull, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (1973), Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991), and (notably) Eve-Marie Engels and Thomas F. Glick, eds., The Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe (2008), although these all tend to uncritically assume a positivist view of science and to therefore embrace Darwin likewise somewhat uncritically.

Among his contemporaries, I can't vouch for any "critical-reception" studies, as such; but the most interesting parties to the debates of the time would have to include Joseph Hooker (whom T. Huxley called "Darwin's bulldog") and the Samuel Wilberforce, the Anglican bishop of Oxford, famously known as "Soapy Sam" for being characterized by Disraeli as "unctious, oleaginous, and saponaceous."

The problem with asking what is "best" in evolutionist studies can be illustrated by reading Amazon reviews about books on any side. Reviews are never uniformly 100% enthusiasts or uniformly 100% critics. But the critics or enthusiasts all tend to be 100% certain of their own conclusions.

So far, except for Wilberforce, I haven't mentioned relatively contemporary books that I would recommend consulting for more critical evaluations of Darwin. I would include the book cited in the NOR review in my post, Stephen C. Meyer's Darwin's Doubt (2014), Mortimer J. Adler's The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (1968), as well as Adler's remarks on evolution in What Man Has Made of Man (1957), and Morris Goldman's essay "A Critical Review of Evolution" (A Science and Torah Reader, 1970, pp. 51-58), Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (2006), Thomas Woodward's Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (2007), Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (2002), and Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (2010). Not all of these books are by Christians, Jews, or even theists; but they're all critical of Darwinian theory.