Worst Science Article of the Week: The "Dark Side" of Darwin

By Andrew Moseman | November 24, 2009 5:02 pm

darwin2009 represents a double-dip of Charles Darwin milestones. A plethora of Darwin stories in the press have marked his 200th birthday. And today, as 80beats has already noted, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, an occasion that sparked another round of Darwin fever.

TIME, however, observed the day by posting a Q&A with British author Dennis Sewell, who is selling a book on “how often — and how easily — Darwin’s big idea has been harnessed for sinister political ends.” Sewell isn’t an evolution denier, but rather among the crowd crowing that Darwin was a racist and responsible for inspiring eugenics.

Sigh. While it’s probably true that Darwin was influenced by the racial attitudes of his time and place—Victorian England–DISCOVER has covered the other side of that coin: that the scientist was an abolitionist and rather progressive for his day. Even Ray Comfort, in his rambling, Darwin-bashing introduction to a “new edition” of Origin that creationists passed around college campuses recently, concedes: “However, after much research, I do concede that you won’t find anything in Darwin’s writings that would indicate that he in any way felt blacks were to be treated as inferior or that his views of them were due to their skin color.” Even if the opposite were true, and Darwin the man was actually a howling racist, Darwin’s theory of evolution would still smash the fallacy that different races belong to different species.

Still, Sewell claims that eugenics is Darwin’s fault because he supposedly believed that the poor were “genetically second-rate.” School shootings, he asserts, are Darwin’s fault because his theory means that human life has no more value than animal life and killers like the Columbine High School shooters latched onto this idea. But blaming Darwin for the fact that dictators twisted his ideas and teenage murderers used those twisted ideas to shoot their classmates a century and a half later is ridiculous at best.

Sewell, asked about Darwin’s status as a scientific luminary, concludes with this gem:

What has the theory of evolution done for the practical benefit of humanity? It’s helped our understanding of ourselves, yet compared to, say, the discovery of penicillin or the invention of the World Wide Web, I wonder why Darwin occupies this position at the pinnacle of esteem. I can only imagine he has been put there by a vast public relations exercise.

Never mind that Sewell gives himself away as a conspiracy theorist with that last bit. Darwin wasn’t perfect—DISCOVER noted one of his great scientific blunders in the November issue. But, as writer Bruno Maddox says, in focusing on the man “we have detracted from the sheer, forehead-slapping obviousness of Darwinism the idea.” TIME‘s Q&A is a good example of just that: While Sewell doesn’t deny the truth of natural selection, his focus on Darwin the man allows him to make misleading statements about Darwin’s ideas.

And, as DISCOVER blogger Carl Zimmer wrote for TIME back in February, isn’t not like the science of natural selection stopped in its tracks when Darwin published his most famous book. Researchers have spent the last 150 years refining Darwin’s big idea and fixing its errors, unraveling the history of life itself in the process. Thanks to their work we know, for example, that the penicillin Sewell touts as the pinnacle of practicality is less effective that it used to be because microorganisms evolve through natural selection.

Anyway, if learning the true history of our species isn’t “practical” enough for Sewell, well, tough. Buy an iPhone.

Related Content:
The Intersection: Ray Comfort’s Anti-Darwinian Travesty
Discoblog: Growing Pains Star Wages War on Darwin, Vandalizes Books
80beats: Darwin Goes Digital for 150th Anniversary of “On the Origin of Species”
DISCOVER: Darwin’s Great Blunder—And Why It Was Good for the World
DISCOVER: DISCOVER Does Darwin: Special Section on Evolution

Image: Wiki Commons

MORE ABOUT: Darwin, eugenics, evolution
  • Bloom

    You are talking nonsense. There is a crucial difference between Darwin’s views on the racial superiority of whites and the casual racism of any ordinary Victorian Englishman. Darwin asserted the white man’s racial superiority as a ‘scientific fact’. He said Caucasians had evolved to a higher level. Only Darwin was really qualified to make such a pronouncement in evolutionary terms. When he did so he established white supremacism as part of scientific orthodoxy for years to come. The fact that he conceded that all were of the same species is no big deal.

    Darwin’s ideas did inspire eugenics. Galton admitted as much.

    It is time for people in the science community to stop being in denial about all this.

  • Flakey

    Bloom “Darwin’s ideas did inspire eugenics.”

    Religion inspired burning at the stake for people that held different views, the Inquisition, and suicide bombers.

    It is not that people deny that he inspired eugenics, it is the fact we hear again and again that either Darwin agreed with eugenics, or he is responsible for eugenics. Just because something is distorted by someone, there is no reason to blame the original idea. Darwin himself in his works clearly states that eugenics is “evil”

  • Tim

    Excellent post! I could not believe TIME would choose to observe the anniversary in this manner. You were right to single out the final paragraph for special scorn as well. As nice as penicillian and the World Wide Web are, they don’t rate as a cornerstone of a major branch of science (biology).

  • Bloom

    Flakey:

    we hear again and again that either Darwin agreed with eugenics, or he is responsible for eugenics.

    Darwin did agree with eugenics.

    He said so in a letter to Galton. He said so in conversation with Russel. He also said so in the Descent of Man:

    There appears to be one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound.

    &

    …. except in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow their worst animals to breed.

    Clearly Darwin approved of the basic analysis underwriting eugenics, although he may have had doubts about how practical a proposition Galton’s positive eugenics scheme was.

    Just because something is distorted by someone, there is no reason to blame the original idea.

    Darwin’s view (cited by Sewell in the TIME article) that different races had evolved to a ‘higher’ level is not accepted by science today. Darwin got it wrong.

    Also the Darwin/Galton view that the germ plasm of the poorer classes was generally inferior to that of the rich (the main driving idea in eugenics) was also wrong. Eugenics is now seen as bad science in a number of ways.

    So why cannot we all admit that Darwin wasn’t infallible …. and that bad things happened as a result of his errors? Then move on.

    All this refusal to allow any criticism of Darwin is foolish.

  • http://www.catholiclab.net Ian

    There IS plenty of evidence to say that Darwinism inspired eugenics. But let’s get one thing clear – let’s distinguish between Darwin the man, and Darwinism. While Darwin would not have agreed with Hitler and the Nazis, Darwinism proved influential in providing the scientific foundation for their racial and eugenic theories. And … there is more to Nazism than just Darwinism. And .. eugenics is not just a Nazi phenomenon.

    Darwin’s Descent of Man talks about the ‘less favoured races’, he identified man as an animal. Eugenics was coined by Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton, and Darwin’s family took a lead in the eugenics movement – his son George Darwin promoted eugenics.

    Margaret Sanger also promoted eugenics.

    A subtitle to Darwin’s book ‘The Origin of Species’ is ‘The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’. Darwin did not call for a mass extermination of the Jews, but he did put forth a theory in which racial extermination is the engine of evolutionary progress.

    For example, “When civilised nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives aid to the native race”, and “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world savage races.” Both quotes form Descent of Man.

  • PaulCan

    IMHO this is an unnecessary, overly defensive and ill-advised blog post by Andrew.

    It seems to me perfectly legitimate to me for TIME to consider some of the unfortunate social and political consequences of the mis-application of Darwin’s ideas.

    Not to do so would be like trumpeting the scientific achievements of the Manhattan Project without mentioning Hiroshima.

    The article makes clear that Sewell accepts the scientific truth of evolution. I see little to quarrel with in anything he says.

    I can even understand why to those not working in a small number of specialist fields, the constant media attention given to Darwin may seem like public relations, or even propaganda. I went through school and college in the 1960s and early 1970s and never heard Darwin mentioned outside of class. The mass media probably didn’t use his name from one year to the next. in those days it was Freud, Freud…and Freud every day on TV and in the newspapers. Then suddenly they stopped ever mentioning Freud and the media caravan moved on.

    Science ideally does not normally need to consider political/moral questions. It is concerned with the dispassionate study of the natural world. But Dawkins et al persist with their foolish campaign against various deities and religions, and this causes all kinds of unnecessary passions and resentments. The hysterical ‘Darwin can do no wrong’ tone of this post is the same. It’s as if Darwin was a god of some sort. He wasn’t.

  • Jeronimus

    Look around America. Don’t we need eugenics? Look at the welfare cheese people have 4 or 5 kids by different babydaddies, while the fit have at most 2, and are too exhausted from working to pay taxes for the unfit to have more children, or to enjoy their lives.

    I used to live in Boston, in so called “mixed income” housing. I had to pay full rent, 1300 a month, while the layabouts didn’t pay anything. I have one child, only been able to afford one, and I take her to all sorts of enriching activities such as music classes, kung fu, and she is even bilingual. These welfare cheese people back in Boston do nothing but watch TV all day and live off us.

    We need to get over our fears of “being like Nazis” or something, and start sterilizing the useless eaters who are swamping us. Also, we need to subsidize the reproduction and raising of evolutionarily fit children.

  • Flakey

    @bloom
    “except in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow their worst animals to breed.”

    As usual you cut off the quote fron Darwin’s work without including the very next line from it

    “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. “

  • http://www.other-worlds-cafe.com/news/blog/ Chip

    @PaulCan
    >>
    It seems to me perfectly legitimate to me for TIME to consider some of the unfortunate social and political consequences of the mis-application of Darwin’s ideas.

    Not to do so would be like trumpeting the scientific achievements of the Manhattan Project without mentioning Hiroshima.
    <<

    The difference is that the TIME article (and many similar articles) conflates Darwin's scientific theories with whatever Darwin's own social views happened to be. We hear Creationists all the time claiming that Darwinism is EEEEvil, because the idea of evolution undermines their Young Earth religious beliefs. Pointing to eugenics programs is an attempt to discredit evolutionary theory, but misapplying a theory for evil purposes doesn't make the theory itself evil.

    So the situation here is more analogous to saying that Germ Theory has led to governments stockpiling smallpox for biological warfare, therefore we should abandon it entirely and go back to teaching that disease is caused by an imbalance of humours.

  • Bloom

    @ Flakey

    The line you add does nothing to show Darwin was against eugenics. It does establish that Darwin was against leaving the poor to starve or the sick to to die as some others so-called Social Darwinists argued.

    Darwin endorses eugenics as a milder option to the survival of the fittest in its raw form.

  • BadLiberal

    Jeronimus, we do NOT need to get over our fear of “being Nazis” exactly because of people like you. Get over yourself and quit your wining.

  • PaulCan

    Chip

    the TIME article … conflates Darwin’s scientific theories with whatever Darwin’s own social views happened to be.

    Where does it do that? It seems to me (and I’ve read it twice now) that it homes in on two things Darwin held to be scientific facts, but which more recent scientific work has shown to be fallacious.

    Pointing to eugenics programs is an attempt to discredit evolutionary theory

    How so? The TIME article nowhere suggests that evolutionary theory is false. On the contrary, it says the interviewee accepts that evolution is ‘scientifically undeniable’.

    It seems to me that science has a big enough job on its hands countering creationist propaganda without picking unnecessary fights with TIME magazine or authors who are saying perfectly reasonable (and explicitly non-creationist) things.

    Your argument that just because creationists make similar points, this article is wrong is just plain illogical. Some creationists are in favour of motherhood and apple pie. That doesn’t make those things wrong.

    My Manhattan Project analogy is actually quite sensible and apt. Your ‘imbalance of humours’ parody is just childish and flip.

  • cb

    I’m very happy to see I’m not the only one to spot this absurdity. With all the books out there, I’m surprised TIME would pick Dennis Sewell’s. I haven’t read the book, but based on the article, Sewell’s premises are flawed. Can we fault individuals for being influenced in some way by the pervading conventions of their time – even if they made great strides to advance human knowledge and understanding of the world? By Sewell’s logic, we would need to indict Martin Luther for the rise of the Third Reich; Einstein for the Bomb; and even Jesus of Nazareth for the myriad of atrocities committed by the Christian Church. Sewell’s is a misreading of Darwin that at the very least fails to take into account historical context. Timed to capitalize on the anniversary of Species, is this an example of accuracy of argument sacrificed for motivation of profit – or perhaps just evidence of Sewell’s miscomprehension of Darwin?

  • http://www.other-worlds-cafe.com/news/blog/ Chip

    PaulCan
    >>
    it homes in on two things Darwin held to be scientific facts, but which more recent scientific work has shown to be fallacious.
    <>
    How so? The TIME article nowhere suggests that evolutionary theory is false.
    <>
    It seems to me that science has a big enough job on its hands countering creationist propaganda without picking unnecessary fights with TIME magazine or authors who are saying perfectly reasonable (and explicitly non-creationist) things.
    <
    >
    My Manhattan Project analogy is actually quite sensible and apt. Your ‘imbalance of humours’ parody is just childish and flip.
    <<
    Arrogant much? I agree that it's not proper to sweep the downside of Darwinism or any other theory under the rug, but also think that my analogy is closer to what creationists are trying to do with evolution. They're not trying to just point out that the theory can be misused, they're trying to discredit it entirely. To continue with your Manhattan Project analogy, they're trying to say that since Hiroshima was bombed we should not only cease all nuclear research, we should also pretend that fission just doesn't work that way.

    It's certainly true that Darwinism can be misused. But given the assault that evolution is under in the U.S. these days, it's simply a pity to give the other side any more ammunition than necessary.

  • 4theFacts

    It is disappointing that as facts are presented they are just swept under the rug and adolescent name calling ensues. Present the facts not inference that leads to fact by majority hypothesis and theory. It is a sad time for science when the facts are tossed aside and critics attempt to ostracize opponents rather than look at factual data.

  • Cat

    @PaulCan

    IMHO this is an unnecessary, overly defensive and ill-advised blog post by Andrew.

    I agree

    @cb

    Can we fault individuals for being influenced in some way by the pervading conventions of their time –

    Its seems to me that it’s not Sewell’s premises that are flawed here, but your own. This article just doesn’t fault Darwin because of the prevailing racism of his century. It faults Darwin for specific scientific errors (as other commenters have pointed out above). That’s a very different thing.

    By Sewell’s logic, we would need to indict Martin Luther for the rise of the Third Reich

    Only if Martin Luther had said that it was a theological fact that Jewish people were inferior and deserved to be gassed. I don’t know much about Lutheranism, but I don’t think he ever said that. Darwin, however, DID say that it was a scientific fact that black people were less highly evolved than white people and that it would be no bad thing if the superior whites exterminated the savage races.

  • J Law

    Chip writes:

    “it also strongly implies that Darwin’s “writings” are directly responsible for all sorts of atrocities in the 20th century, such as Pekka-Eric Auvinen’s view of murder”

    When some crazy guy says it was reading the Koran that made him fly a plane into the Twin Towers, we believe him. Or, at least, we believe that was part of what made him do it.

    So when another crazy guy says it was reading Darwin that led him to shoot his school friends, why shouldn’t we believe him too?

    The wise person would surely go to the Koran and ask themselves “is there anything in this book that might have pushed this guy towards mass murder?”. Equally, we should look at Darwin’s work and ask the same sort of question.

    Unfortunately, in both cases there is some pretty questionable stuff.

    Charles Benedict Davenport, for instance, wasn’t some crazy schoolkid. He was the most eminent biology professor of his day. He was also a committed racist and eugenicist. He declared he came to these positions directly from reading Darwin and Galton.

    People often say (e.g. this TIME article) that Darwin’s ideas were ‘abused’ or ‘harnessed’ or ‘hi-jacked’ by racists. But what about the people who were made racists by reading Darwin’s account of how races were differentially evolved? Maybe Davenport would not have been a racist if he had not believed/accepted what Darwin had taught him. Maybe he would have grown up a civil-rights activist. We can never know.

  • clayton

    It’s kinda hard to believe that one thing alone (a book) would be what caused someone to be racist or murder people. A persons belief system is a culmination of environmental factors, personal choices, and events that have occured through out their life and when someone says “this is what made me do it” , that’s them using an influential or well known idea or book or whatever to not have to explain how messed up they are.

    I just feel like sometimes people have some crazy ideas rattling around in their skull and when they find ideas and texts that they can bend to their liking, they use it as a crutch to carry forward with something that maybe just isn’t quite right.

    People will always find avenues to further their ideas. If Darwins ideas hadn’t “inspired” eugenics, someone elses would have. The thoeries are always there. It’s just a question of who reads what that leads to this at some time. Darwin was wrong in a lot of ways and right in many more. No need to canonize nor crucify.

  • Brian Too

    Victorian Englishmen certainly didn’t need Charles Darwin to justify their view of their own superiority. I might be wrong but I suspect that the concept of the “White Man’s Burden” had little to do with Darwin and evolution.

    For that matter some in our time might learn something about hubris by examining Victorian England. They look silly now but that’s with 150 years of comfortable distance and the certain knowledge that the power structure of that time is truly gone.

    All of this is just self-congratulatory smugness. The only thing that matters is: Did Darwin advance our understanding of the world? Did he contribute? Did he overcome great obstacles in making that contribution?

    The answers to those questions, I submit, are Evolution, On the Origin of Species, and the Church. I just saw a documentary and the fight he got into with the Church of England was epic. Notably he feared just such a contest and went ahead anyway (after a long delay). Therefore he displayed courage as well as intellect.

  • http://www-websitetraffic.com Lyda Opher

    This is one of the best and informative blogs I have ever found , I am confident other readers would agree with me as well, keep it up.

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