Tuesday, May 30, 2006

 

Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Timothy Birdnow, who famously said that scientists are "trying to blind us with science" and who is the poster child for "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but not nearly as dangerous as no knowledge at all," is at it yet again. Once more braving the Middle Finger Minions, Mr. Birdnow claims he had "been planning to write a lengthy piece (for publication) on the connection between Darwinism, Eugenics, and Nazism." However, we are to be spared what, based on past performance, doubtless would have been a mind-numbingly inane exercise, because Mr. Birdnow has, a little over two years after it was originally published, suddenly discovered the book, Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. Authored by Richard Weikart, a fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, it is an exercise in fallacies such as argument from consequences and guilt by association, rhetorical tricks such as wielding a broad brush and dishonesty by quote mine.

Speaking of all of the above, Birdnow gives us this bit:

For those of you who are unaware, Darwin turned against Christianity after the death of his non-believing father and brother, calling it "a damnable doctrine" because Christian dogma consigned them to hell. He then went on to create a purely mechanistic theory of evolution which could be used as a weapon against the Church. His cousin Francis Galton was one of the founders of the Eugenics movement, a movement which sought to apply Darwinian Evolutionary principles to improve the human breeding stock. Eugenics was the core principle of Nazismsm, and Christian Fundamentalism was born in part as a response to the rise of Eugenics.

For those of you who are unaware, Mr. Birdnow is a real estate manager with a desperate need to pontificate on matters he is utterly ignorant about. The above is an excellent example. Darwin did lose his Christian faith and he did use the phrase "damnable doctrine." But what was the context? In describing the, well, evolution of his beliefs, Darwin wrote the following:

Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (although themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come by this time, i.e. 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, &c., &c., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. The question then continually rose, before my mind and would not be banished, -- is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, he would permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament? This appeared to me utterly incredible.

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, -- and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become, -- that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost uncomprehensible by us, -- that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events, -- that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eyewitnesses; -- by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can be hardly denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.


But I was very unwilling to give up my belief; I feel sure of this, for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans, and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

First of all, Darwin obviously was not calling Christianity a damnable doctrine but only the idea that mere unbelief results in condemnation to hell. And, instead of an implacable enemy of Christianity, his words reveal someone who struggled to maintain his faith in the face of doubt raised by the obvious non-historicity of the Bible.

Amusingly, Darwin's wife, who always was a pious Christian and never lost her faith, asked that the above passage, from "and have never since doubted" up to "damnable doctrine," be omitted from his posthumously published autobiography and the reason she gave was:

I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief -- but very few now wd. call that 'Christianity,' (tho' the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E.D.

In other words, Emma thought that Charles was taking the Bible too literally.

Beyond that, Birdnow is clearly ignorant of the history of Darwin and his theory. Charles' father, Robert Darwin, died in 1848 and his brother, Erasmus Alvey Darwin (named after their famous grandfather), did not die until 1881. Furthermore, it is generally believed by Darwin scholars that the deathblow to his faith was the lingering, painful death of his beloved daughter, Annie, in 1851.

Darwin's theory of natural selection was first formulated in 1838, back when Charles was struggling with his faith but well before he lost it. He had fleshed out his theory in a "sketch" by 1842 and, in 1844, had penned an "essay" to preserve his theory, with instructions to Emma to have it published after his death, should he die before he finished his researches and felt ready to publish it in full.

So Darwin did not "create a purely mechanistic theory of evolution which could be used as a weapon against the Church" after the death of his father and brother. That is clearly demonstrated by the fact that his father was living when Darwin first devised his theory and Darwin's brother lived for two decades after the publication of the Origin of Species. Birdnow's kind of cardboard history is the product of rank ignorance that demeans the perpetrator more than it does the intended victim.

Even worse, though, is the incredible statement that "His cousin Francis Galton was one of the founders of the Eugenics movement, a movement which sought to apply Darwinian Evolutionary principles to improve the human breeding stock." That Galton was Darwin's cousin is the only connection Birdnow can make between Darwin and eugenics and he seems blissfully unaware that guilt by association is a blatant logical fallacy. Worse, the disproof of the contention is right under his nose, but Mr. Birdnow is too clueless to see it. Eugenics was, indeed, an attempt "to improve the human breeding stock." Perhaps Mr. Birdnow is also ignorant of the fact that animal husbandry was around for some little time before Darwin was born. Eugenics owes it aspirations not to Darwin's implacable forces of nature forming new species but to the idea that existing species of plants and animals could be "intelligently designed" for human purposes by modification through breeding by human beings. The attempt to apply breeding techniques to humans goes back at least as far as Sparta in ancient Greece. Trying to lay that at Darwin's door is nothing but dissembling.

There is more of this at Birdnow's blog, all of the same value. Here is one last one to close with. Birdnow quotes from a review of Weikart's book by Anne Barbeau Gardiner:

Friedrich Hellwald and Alexander Tille saw evolution as doing away with inherent human rights. Once Darwin made the "biological inequality" of humans a matter of science, some individuals began to be labeled as "less valuable" than others.

Lord knows where these people (if Gardiner, Weikert and/or Birdnow are reporting correctly) got the notion that "Darwin made the 'biological inequality' of humans a matter of science" but, if we are to accept arguments from consequences, what do we do then with the history of Christianity and the sanctioning of slavery and the support for anti-Semitism and the waging of the Crusades and the burning of witches and all the other things people have used Christianity as an excuse for? I'd blame the people who claimed they were Christians while not acting like it and I'm pretty sure Darwin would have too.
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Too bad people like Birdnow and Weikert don't have the moral or intellectual integrity to return the favor.
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Comments:
I hasten to point out that even the premise that Darwin ever turned "against the church" is in error. Oh, Darwin wrote that his faith had decreased, and he wondered if the newly-minted word "agnostic" might apply to him. But Darwin was always careful to avoid offending anyone in the church. He tithed to his death (how many anti-Darwinists do that?), and he personally supported several Sunday school classes out of his own pocket. He worked the local vicar on municipal projects, and maintained not just friendly, but warmly cordial relations with the local church authorities. Darwin never uttered a word against Christianity or the church that has ever been recorded, with the exception of the quote Birdnow distorts.

I would go so far as to say this: Darwin, for all his doubts, was a better Christian in every respect than those who criticize him, especially Timothy Birdnow.

Darwin is interred in Westminster Abbey, by the way. He had a full state funeral, complete with Christian hymns composed just for the occasion.

It must frost Birdnow no end that Darwin was, in truth, such a fine man, great and loving husband, and doting father. It must raise his ire that Darwin was a supporter of the church financially in a way that Birdnow can probably only dream about.

Now, what would drive anyone to speak ill of a great and kind man like Charles Darwin? Birdnow's motives cannot be ascribed to Christian love in any fashion. Who does Birdnow really answer to?
 
Darwin also quite famously (tho' perhaps not famously enough) fell out with Captain Fitzroy over the matter of slavery, Fitzroy believing that slaves were happy with their lot.

Doesn't sound like Darwin had much time for "racial inferiority".
 
Ed, thanks for that excellent summary of the kind of man Darwin really was. I was having so much fun slapping Birdnow around that I neglected the more important truth that people who go about their daily lives with kindness for all and with integrity in everything they do are ultimately above the Birdnows of the world.

And thanks also, nelc. It is ironic that someone who, in so many ways, was ahead of his times in social matters should be blamed for the darkest impulses in human beings, as if they only date back to 1859.
 
john et al:
first visit, much impressed. the simple fact that this idiotic, pointless hatred of a man who was, by all evidence, a gentle, kind, intelligent human being is cheapening our own existence fills me with dread. it's good to know that people are still out there who appreciate greatness.
 
"In other words, Emma thought that Charles was taking the Bible too literally."

Hear! Hear!
 
Came here via PZ's link; thanks for the great post but I'm afraid you may be overthinking this. Alomg with Stephen Colbert, I like to go with my gut on these complicated theories and, when I'm going with my gut, I look to property managers for leadership. (heh)
I would buy a howler t-shirt, though.
-Bruce
 
Doesn't sound like Darwin had much time for "racial inferiority".

Nope. As he says in the Descent of Man,

"The same remark holds good with equal or greater force with respect to the numerous points of mental similarity between the most distinct races of man. The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named; yet I was incessantly struck, whilst living with the Fuegians on board the Beagle, with the many little traits of character, shewing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate."

The aforementioned black guy being a taxidermist who taught Darwin the art when he was young; elsewhere Darwin says he was "very pleasant and intelligent." He also spends half the Voyage of the Beagle deploring slavery and ethnic warfare and talking about all the worthy non-white folks he met. (And, amusingly, about how much less attractive white people look once you get accustomed to seeing other races.) Just about the most "racist" thing he says was that the Tierra del Fuegians had a pretty wretched way of life.

Darwin was really a remarkably nice and friendly guy. He didn't have to be to be a great scientist, it's just icing on the cake. He's about the worst possible biologist to try to character-assassinate.
 
also got here from pz's link. nicely done. property mgrs have a bad enough rep without birdnow. (sez this ex mgr)

that anyone would even begin to take him seriously is a damning comment on the mis-education of our populace.
 
also got here from pz's link. nicely done. property mgrs have a bad enough rep without birdnow. (sez this ex mgr)

that anyone would even begin to take him seriously is a damning comment on the mis-education of our populace.
 
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