This is a sad little book, a history of the idea of biological Evolution--mostly Darwinism--which by its end leaves what started out as a grand concept rather tattered. In the too brief first chapters Mr. Larson examines the growth of the idea within the scientific community, which unfortunately underemphasizes the rest of the intellectual milieu, where economists/philosophers like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus were developing the free market capitalist theories that added up to a kind of Social Darwinism. This is important because once this history is filled in it becomes obvious that the sources of Charles Darwin weren't necessarily scientific. To the extent that he borrowed ideas that depended on intelligent decision making--that Social Darwinism led to Darwinism, rather than vice versa--this makes what followed problematic, as we can see when Mr. Larson does touch upon them:
Essential to Darwin's conception was a modern worldview influenced by ideas of utilitarianism, individualism, imperialism, and laissez-faire capitalism. Of course Malthus was a utilitarian-minded political economist who championed the laissez-faire ideal. Darwin also read the writings of Adam Smith and other utilitarian economists who presented individual competition as the driving force of economic progress. Perhaps most important, he lived in a society that embraced this view....That he then lifted these social philosophies wholesale and applied them to the question of evolution must obviously make us leery of whether he was practicing science or philosophy.
The more extensive discussion of Darwin's precursors in biology is interesting though, both because it shows how widely accepted the notion that life had evolved was at the time--in the works of men like Cuvier, Lamarck, Buffon, etc.--and how often their motivations traced to hostility towards Christianity--in the works of men like Diderot, Holbach, etc. The former phenomenon shows us that Evolution, by then a given, just awaited a plausible explanation. The latter shows that how politicized and ideological the discussion of Evolution was from the start. Indeed, Darwin himself would later betray the ideological motivation for adopting his theory:
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, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.The problem of Evil has plagued men for millennia and they've sought any number of ways to deal with it, but anyone who comes to Darwinism seeking science and instead finds a man seeking theological comfort will be disturbed.
The details of Darwin's trip aboard the Beagle and of his observations of nature are well enough known not to need much rehearsal here. Suffice it to say that when he combined what he had seen, with what was known, and with the intellectual climate of the day he proposed a mechanism to drive the process of evolution and called it "natural selection":
Darwin equated the process to the artificial selection methods utilized by plant and animal breeders. These breeders created and sustained highly differentiated varieties by continually selecting for certain desired traits in the breeding stock, such as long ears in basset hounds or creamy milk in Jersey cows. Reasoning by analogy, Darwin saw intraspecies competition for food and mates creating new species within a given environment by continually selecting for traits that contributed to survival and reproduction, such as large, strong beaks for birds in places with hard seeds. "It is a beautiful part of my theory." he noted in late 1838 or early 1839, "that domestic races of organisms are made by precisely [the] same means as species--but [the] latter far more perfectly & infinitely slower."The theory is undeniably eloquent, but also obviously dishonest intellectually. In the first instance, since we're just reasoning by analogy here it would seem equally logical to conclude that the very similarity of the process used for domesticated species and in the wild suggests that intelligence might, or must, guide the latter as well as the former. More importantly, note the intuitive leap that he makes from the observation of how intraspecies change occurs to the statement of faith that the same process could result in speciation. This leap is completely unsupported by the first half of his analogy, where breeders, despite the far greater speed with which they can force the pace of selection, have never produced speciation nor significant morphological change. It's easy enough to see how the elegant nature of Darwinism could have blinded people to these problems initially, but, as Mr. Larson concedes, "Evolutionists lacked a critical experiment or irrefutable observation to prove evolution in a classic Baconian fashion." This should have caused significant skepticism. Instead:
By the 1870s, Darwin was an international celebrity. Even if people did not believe they descended from apes, they talked about it--and about Darwin. And for many of those who did believe, Darwin became a kind of secular prophet or high priest. Secluded in his remote country home at Downe, perpetually ill or supposedly so according to some, Darwin played the part of hermit sage receiving favored guests on his own terms. [...] Surveying the scene, Huxley sent Darwin a sketch of a kneeling supplicant paying homage at the shrine of Pope Darwin. Given their almost visceral contempt for Catholicism, both Huxley and Darwin surely enjoyed the irony.The impartial observer will fail to see much irony here since Darwinism does have such a quality of faith about it, even down to the prophet.
In the absence of scientific proof of Darwinism, adherents had to find other things to cling too, and so tangential finds came to be claimed as supporting evidence. The expanding fossil record was a favorite source, though the most famous and important find, Piltdown Man, proved to be a hoax and though using historic evidence of evolution, which no one disputed was a fact, to argue for Natural Selection, which was the issue at hand, was kind of like Heinrich Schliemann excavating the tell at Hissarlik and claiming that each successive layer of settlement proved his theory that he'd found Troy, rather than simply that the location was ancient and had evolved through various stages. As Stephen Jay Gould put it:
The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils.The emergence of genetics was another boon, though all it did was fill in a gap in Darwinism, showing the mechanics of how it is that physical traits are handed down generation to generation. Evidence of actual changes to species proved more elusive. The infamous peppered moth seemed an answer to Darwinist prayers, the species having changed from predominantly light colored to predominantly darker in apparent reaction to industrial pollution. But when the population drifted back towards lighter coloring as pollution was reduced it became apparent that no evolution had occurred, that predators had likely just been eating more of whichever were easier to see, and when investigations revealed that the studies of the moths had been fiddled to yield desired results it all came a cropper. Today the Darwinists mainly cite the same finches of Galapagos that Darwin himself studied, but all they show is a range of beak sizes and a conspicuous failure to speciate. Nonetheless, as Mr. Larson writes, "[D]arwin's finches joined the peppered moth as mascots for the modern synthesis." These are certainly the saddest mascots since the Montreal Expos' Youppi.
As if all these travails weren't bad enough, Mr. Larson honestly discusses the range of horrific crimes against humanity that trace back to Darwinism, from eugenics in the U.S. to the German militarism of WWII and exterminationism of WWII. So, it must be asked, what could it be that makes the faith in Darwinism of so many secular intellectuals so unshakable. The answer to that likely lies in an episode to which Mr. Larson, besides the treatment here, has devoted a whole book, the Scopes Trial. As the rise of Christian fundamentalism was fueled not just by the scientific threat to Creationism but by the moral implications of Darwinism and the crimes it spawned, battle lines were drawn between the religious and the secular and the turf on which they fought most dramatically was the teaching of Evolution in American public schools. From that point on Darwinism seems to have become a totem as much as a scientific theory with supporters as little interested in its truth or falsehood as its opponents. Rational inquiry became impossible for either side since to express doubt would be to yield a portion of the battlefield to a hated foe.
What then are we left with at the end of the book? Here's how Mr. Larson describes the current theory:
Despite challenges, the naturalistic modern synthesis stands at the heart of current evolutionary science. Genetic mutations and recombinations, this view maintains, cause organisms to vary. The fittest of these various individuals survive to pass along their genes. Change builds incrementally, without discrete breaks. As synthetic botanists have asserted all along, hybrid crosses between nearly related species add to the gene flow that causes individuals to vary. Recent research suggests that (much as happens in genetic engineering) viruses and bacteria can invade the cells of other organisms and implant their own genes or genes from other organisms into the host's DNA. Again, variation can result. Natural hybridization and gene acquisition join mutation and recombination as the genetic fodder for natural selection to sift and winnow in evolving the diversity of life.More simply put; Organisms vary. Note that, whether intentionally or not, there is no claim here that such variety ever results in speciation. Darwinism, though grandiose in theory, has, in practice, only yielded exactly the kind of intraspecies breeding that the great man's original analogy suggested it would. We're no closer to understanding speciation and morphological change than we were when Mr. Darwin set sail on the Beagle.
-Edward J. Larson (Richard B. Russell Professor of American History and Talmadge Professor of Law, University of Georgia)
-BOOKNOTES: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion by Edward Larson (C-SPAN, June 28, 1998)
-BOOK SITE: Evolution : The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (Modern Library Chronicles) (Random House)
-BOOK SITE: Summer for the Gods (Harvard University Press)
-EXCERPT: CHAPTER 1: Bursting the Limits of Time from Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory
-EXCERPT: from Summer for the Gods: How conservative Christians coalesced against the teaching of Darwin
-ESSAY: Scientific Semi-Belief: Scientists Still Keeping the Faith: Comparing Scientists in 1916 and 1996. (Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, 12/30/1999, Belief Net)
-ESSAY: Science as a Threat to Freedom in Modern Society (Edward J. Larson, University of Georgia and Discovery Institute)
-INTERVIEW: Inherit the Monkey Trial: Scopes-trial historian Ed Larson explains why Christians should be taught evolution. (Karl Giberson & Donald Yerxa, 5/23/00, Christianity Today)
-INTERVIEW: The Great Debate: In our continuing series of dialogues with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, Edward Larson discusses his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, April 20, 1998)
-INTERVIEW: A Real Trial of the Century: The real history of the Scopes trial is even more fascinating than the myth. (Ron Hogan, Amazon.com)
-INTERVIEW: A voyage to the origin of species: Edward Larson talks to Tim Radford about the draw of the Galapagos islands and the mighty influence of Charles Darwin (Tim Radford, March 2, 2002, The Guardian)
-AUDIO: : Edward Larson's 'Evolution' (Talk of the Nation Science Friday, May 21, 2004)
-PROFILE: UGA'S Pulitzer Prize Winner Professor of Ideas: His mind works overtime, although he can't quite comprehend his newfound fame. (Jill Vejnoska, April 27, 1998, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution)
-REVIEW: of Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson (Carol Iannone, First Things)
-REVIEW: of Summer for the Gods (Rodney A. Smolla, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Summer for the Gods (Edward McGlynn Gaffney Jr., LA Times)
-REVIEW: of Summer for the Gods (Emily S. Epstein, Law and History Review)
-REVIEW: of Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion' by Edward J. Larson (Kirsten Birkett, Kategoria)
-REVIEW: of Summer for the Gods (Carl Wieland, Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal )
-REVIEW: of Evolution (Marco Antonio Flota, Kirkus Reviews)
-REVIEW: of Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands by Edward J. Larson (Gregg Easterbrook, Washington Monthly)
-REVIEW: of Evolution's Workshop (Anne Matthews, Washington Post)
-REVIEW: of Evolution's Workshop (Paul Raeburn, Business Week)
Book-related and General Links:
-REVIEW: The Extinction of Darwinism: a Review of Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck by David M. Raup (Phillip E. Johnson, February 1992, The Atlantic)
-ESSAY: The Origin of Specious: And why reductionists are winning the Darwin wars (Harvey Blume, 9.23.02, American Prospect)
-BLOG POST: DARWINISTS--LIKE MOTHS TO A FLAME (Brothers Judd, 1/10/04)
-ESSAY: What is a Species, and What is Not?: I analyze a number of widespread misconceptions concerning species. The species category, defined by a concept, denotes the rank of a species taxon in the Linnaean hierarchy. Biological species are reproducing isolated from each other, which protects the integrity of their genotypes. Degree of morphological difference is not an appropriate species definition. Unequal rates of evolution of different characters and lack of information on the mating potential of isolated populations are the major difficulties in the demarcation of species taxa. (Ernst Mayr, June 1996, Philosophy of Science)
- The rise and fall of Piltdown Man, a 20th-century hoax (Guy Gugliotta, November 9, 2003, Washington Post)
-ESSAY: Adaptive Radiation of Darwin's Finches: Recent data help explain how this famous group of Galapagos birds evolved, although gaps in our understanding remain (Peter R. Grant, B. Rosemary Grant, American Scientist)
-ESSAY: Behavior and Speciation Mechanisms (Barry Sinervo, 1997)
Cultural Inheritance of Song and Speciation in Darwin's Finches
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd