Some Thoughts on Historians and Contemporary Anti-evolutionism.

In a recent book review for The British Journal for the History of Science, Thomas Dixon asks what contribution historians of science can make to the debate about intelligent design (ID). As myself and others noted in a 2008 Isis Focus article, historians have many opportunities to make contributions to this most public of debates, yet our community has largely resisted the Siren’s call of engagement with creationism. In this brief note, I would like to offer some thoughts on current creationist tactics with regards the history of science and hopefully inspire some readers to engage in this significant debate.

The modern ID movement arose in the last two decades of the last century, although to a significant degree its roots were planted in the Young Earth Creationist movement which re-emerged in American in the 1960’s. The Discovery Institute (DI, the leading proponent and funder of ID) disputes this historical fact even in the face of manifest evidence presented in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. While purportedly beginning with the secular purpose of convincing scientists that their adherence to naturalistic explanation was misplaced, the ID movement’s religious motivations became obvious both in private and public writings. Having failed to convince the scientific community – and having been dealt a significant blow by the ruling in Kitzmiller – the movement has recently stepped up its incursions into historical analysis with a series of works that collectively see modern biology, in the guise of an historically uncontextualized “Darwinism,” as both the product of Epicurean (i.e. pagan, anti-Christian) materialism and a cause of many modern ills. Even the briefest examination of some of these works clearly indicates the furrow that the ID movement is attempting to plough.

Political scientist John West clearly outlines these claims in his book, Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. According to West, who echoes a claim previously made by Benjamin Wiker, the pagan materialism of the Greek philosopher Epicurus and the Roman poet Lucretius gave rise to modern scientific naturalism. As West sees it, this influence in turn has lead to the rule of a scientific elite over democracy, utopian idealism, moral relativism, censorship of dissent, and dehumanization.

This theme of dehumanization has become something of an idée fixe for modern anti-evolutionists. Darwin is seen as, if not a causative factor of, then an inspiration for, the totalitarian regimes of the Twentieth century. Darwin’s work, we are told, led to the devaluation of human life, eugenics, the Holocaust, Planned Parenthood, and fetal stem cell research. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in the pro-ID movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed , in which Ben Stein unsubtly portrays Darwin’s writings as leading to the Holocaust and “Darwinists” as waging a campaign of terror against ID proponents. Egregiously, Stein selectively quotes Darwin to make it appear as if he disapproved of measures to aid the sick and infirm. Even more egregiously, in publicity interviews Stein has baldly stated that “science leads you to kill people” and “Darwinism led – in a pretty much straight line – to Nazism and the Holocaust.” While it would be comforting to imagine that Stein’s position was that of a politically motivated crank, it has received support from historian and DI fellow Richard Weikart, who appears onscreen with Stein during an interview conducted at Dachau. Weikart’s published attempts to link Darwin to Hitler have received negative commentary from such historians as Robert Richards, Paul Farber, Sander Gliboff, and Nils Roll-Hansen, yet these ideas have continued to be promulgated by Benjamin Wiker (again, a DI fellow) in his The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, a biography that Gliboff accurately, if caustically, compares with the writings of the journalist Rita Skeeter from the Harry Potter series. [My own review of Wiker’s work is here.]

Given the rigorous peer review process required for publication in leading academic journals and presses, it is unsurprising that ID proponents make little attempt to engage with the community of professional historians. Their claims are made in books published largely by conservative (e.g. Regnery, Intercollegiate Studies Institute), religious (e.g. InterVarsity, an outgrowth of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus ministry) or vanity (e.g. Erasmus Press, owned by William Dembski) presses. Unsurprisingly papers are neither presented at conferences nor published in relevant journals and little attempt is made to undergo review by practicing historians with expertise in Darwin, his ideas, and their socio-cultural effects. In short, anti-evolutionist historical scholarship accurately mirrors creationist scientific work in being directed at the true believers rather than the academic community. The temptation may thus be for professional historians to ignore their claims – a temptation that I feel must be rejected. As historians, we have a social duty to correct error and over-simplification where it is foisted on the public by politically and religiously motivated individuals, and this responsibility goes beyond what sociologist and ID sympathizer Steve Fuller has dismissively seen as “catching the errors” of the creationists. There is something far more fundamental at stake. At a time where historians have eschewed Whig or “Great Man” histories, anti-evolutionists are presenting their “Not-So-Great Man” view of Darwin. They misrepresent the very nature of historical enquiry; they manipulate history until it risks becoming a mere shadow of the rich and intricate tapestry that it is.

Our collective research as historians can obviously help disprove claims made by anti-evolutionists regarding both the social effects of scientific ideas and how the scientific community functions. Many of us study scientific change, community formation over time, and the treatment of heretical ideas and controversy. In so doing, we have developed a realistic view of science and its social effects – both positive and negative – along with a clear conceptualization of how evolutionary biology has matured as a field over the past two hundred years. Our research directly opposes the erroneous and simplistic views of the anti-evolutionists, yet it remains largely unknown to the public. While I am not calling for historians to engage in popularization of their work, although that too may have benefits, I do believe that increased public engagement for those of us who have something relevant to say debunking the claims of anti-evolutionists is nothing less than a shared social responsibility. Such engagement is, thankfully, beginning. (For example, Mark Borrello has publicly engaged with John West on the claim that there is a link between Darwin and dehumanization. )

Such public engagement is not, however, without its perils. As detailed in the last issue of this newsletter, Peter Bowler, Sandra Herbert and Janet Browne were not given full disclosure by Fathom Media (an offshoot of the creationist organization Creation Ministries International) when interviewed for the documentary The Voyage That Shook The World. Unaware of the underlying anti-evolutionary agenda of the work, the historians gave interviews that were apparently selectively edited to highlight certain aspects of Darwin’s life. Equally as problematic was the equation of the contributions of historians with those of unqualified non-experts on matters of history. As Bowler et al note, “if academic historians refuse to participate when movements they don’t approve of seek historical information, these historians can hardly complain if less reputable sources are used instead.” When we speak out, we risk being caught between the Scylla of non-engagement and the Charybdis of having our statements misused. [A review by Jim Lippard and I of the CMU docu-drama is here].

Still, if the past few years are any indicator, it is highly likely that the future will see further creationist manipulation of history within the public sphere, and the only way to combat that trend is active engagement. Public engagement with those communities who seek to misuse history will be frustrating and not without dangers. Yet it also offers us an opportunity to enlighten the public about the nature of historical enquiry and the fertile area that the history of science represents.

The above appeared in the October 2009 edition of the Newsletter of the History of Science Society and I posted it on my own blog then.  It appears here so as to allow comment and discussion by our community on the issues raised. I will note that Richard Weikart offered a response here

About John M. Lynch

teacher, historian, biologist, beer snob. not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in History, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Some Thoughts on Historians and Contemporary Anti-evolutionism.

  1. Eventually, this issue will be settled, once and for all. It will require patience. This is one issue that won’t be, put to rest, in this world. When we saw a new mountain range a mile high, rise up off the coast of Sumatra in 4 minutes, 24 seconds, that is Creation. Even Darwin learned to pray when the ground shook so hard that he couldn’t stand on his feet.

  2. In this age, when Congress is weighing a bill that would eliminate the NSF’s directorate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences and California has implemented 20% cuts in their once-stellar state university systems, I think historians have a duty–both to the public that supports us and to our colleagues–to reach out and become relevant to wider audiences than their immediate peers. It’s that or die, professionally.

  3. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    “As historians, we have a social duty to correct error and over-simplification where it is foisted on the public by politically and religiously motivated individuals…”. Indeed.

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