“Questioning Darwin”: a review

The very last scene of the HBO Documentary “Questioning Darwin,” shows a view sweeping across the floor of Westminster abbey, in soft focus before coming to a stop at the plaque denoting the grave of Charles Robert Darwin.  The narrator, describing Darwin’s funeral, closed with the words of Harvey Goodwin, the Bishop of Carlisle who “told the mourners: ‘There need be no conflict between the study of nature and belief in God.’”

But it is only in these very last two seconds that the idea that there were religious people who didn’t oppose evolution are ever given any mention in the whole of the documentary.  While “Questioning Darwin” offers a personal view the experiences and views of some American antievolutionists, it fails to mention that there are many antievolutionists who are not committed to a young earth, or that there are also large numbers of religious believers who accept evolutionary accounts of human origins.  In the exclusion of these views, the documentary is effectively the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debate done over with human interest angles and better lighting and music.  There’s more to it, (including some problematic aspects to how it presented the history of evolution and religion – although my main concerns with the documentary aren’t about its presentation of history per se.)  The documentary tries for some kind of balance—it doesn’t openly castigate or mock any of the people that it profiles—but in the juxtaposition of people’s views in ways that insinuated greater forms of similarity (or opposition) between views and in the way narration describes those views, the documentary gives a false impression about some of the ideas it describes.

From the very beginning, the documentary makes some subtle distortions of the state of belief in America that give some indication of some of the presumptions that informed the whole piece.  In the very first minute, the narrator tells us that: “For those Christians who believe their Bible is the word of God — the literal truth— one man is held up as the Antichrist, Charles Darwin.”  Leaving aside the movie-trailer quality of the ‘one man’ trope, it’s the first half of the sentence that is troublesome.  There are religious people who accept the Bible is the “Word of God” without holding to a belief in “literal truth” (a concept which less than three minutes later is equated with literal interpretation).  Also in those first four minutes, the narrator informs us that “According to the latest Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe the Genesis account of creation.”  The Gallup poll doesn’t mention ‘Genesis.’  46% in the poll agreed with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  It’s logically possible, though unlikely to suggest that some people agreeing with this statement did so totally independent of the book of Genesis.  But it’s much more likely that some of the 54% who did not agree with that Gallup option would state that they believe in a “Genesis account of creation” (just not a young earth interpretation of Genesis.)  In making both of these distortions, the documentary reinforces the idea that there’s a singular way of understanding the Bible, “the Genesis account of creation.” And that this is what it means to “believe [the] Bible is the word of God.” From the very beginning, it seems that anything like theistic evolution, or even old-earth variants of Christian creationism (or ‘intelligent design’) can’t exist.  This presupposition is further echoed in statements like zoologist Aubrey Manning stating that Darwin is “well aware that he will be attacked by religious people and by other scientists,” (as if religious people and scientists are two mutually exclusive categories.)

The bulk of the documentary alternates between showing interviews and practices of young earth Christian antievolutionists (with a heavy use of video provided by Answers in Genesis and footage shot in their Creation Museum) with a biographical account of Darwin’s life and the personal, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development of Darwin as an individual.  The presentation of Darwin’s life (underscored by interviews with several excellent historians of science) is well done (although some disputes within the “Darwin Industry” are glossed over.)

In a film that refers to “here in the US”, it is somewhat surprising though that especially early on, nearly all the experts used to explicate Darwin’s life and thought are British, and based in the UK.  With the exception of the Australian Ken Ham (CEO of the Creation Museum) all of the voices advocating creationism speak with American accents.  (It’s not until more than two-thirds of the documentary is over that two Americans speak presenting evolution – Jim Secord, who’s based in the UK, and Jason Rosenhouse, who presents some of the history of antievolutionism in the USA.)  Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but since the documentary brought up a claim that William Jennings Bryan thought evolution to be “un-American,” more American voices on evolution might have been a worthwhile inclusion.

More important than the accents, the film’s focus on Darwin personally has the unfortunate effect of completely ignoring the whole of evolutionary science since Darwin, and to presume that Darwin’s own theological naïvete is the best voice for understanding the religious implications of his theory.  Historians have long made the case that it was not belief in evolution, but personal events such as the death of darwin’s daughter Annie that caused Darwin to lose his faith.  James Moore ably recaps this interpretation in the documentary.  But the juxtaposition of Darwin’s grief with the testimonies of Christians talking about the pain of losses that they’ve experienced reduces the whole question of Christianity and evolution to both a dichotomy and to a matter of personal sentiment and feeling—a choice between feelings of depression and consolation.

There’s an understated thesis throughout the documentary that is created by presentation of the personal lives of Christian antievolutionists.  It’s similar to a thesis that I think was made more persuasively in the 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos.  In that earlier film, Randy Olsen made an excellent case that a major factor in the public victories antievolutionism had achieved had to do with personal character, that the antievolutionists were more likable, more charismatic, and less condescending.  There’s no obvious condescension among the evolutionists — indeed there’s very little discussion of the science of evolution or any scientist besides Darwin himself, and Darwin is presented as a largely sympathetic character, not one who intended to cause harm.  But the creationists aren’t merely presented as charismatic or nice (indeed some of them seem a bit offputting.)  But scenes of congregations singing in churches, of church outreach to feeding the homeless, of helping individuals cope with addiction or other personal problems all have the effect of depicting the creationist community as a positive force of society.  The implication is that these  communities, and their good works, are threatened by evolution.  This completely overlooks the fact that many American churches that do good work for society don’t subscribe to young earth creationism, and many non-religious organizations also contribute to public good.  Where are the congregations of theistic evolutionists at prayer?

Moreover, where are the communities of joyful scientists? Absent. Perhaps worse, UCL geneticist Steve Jones is quoted saying: “In order to be a great scientist you have to devote your entire life to science, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  And Darwin did that.” This both perpetuates a ‘great man’ history of science that is grossly out of touch with most scientific practices today, and it also diminishes scientists as human beings.  Most scientists today do pursue their profession in balance with a family and social life.  This vision presents the idea of evolution as inhuman, conceivable only with minds wholly devoted to science, not to community, not to improving the world, and certainly not to religion or moral worldviews.

By presenting the personal lives of people who are identified as creationists, the documentary makes implicit the idea that their emotional fulfillment comes not only from their Christianity, but their creationist Christianity.  It’s emotionally manipulative for the documentary to show a paraplegic girl praying with her family, the reformed prostitute or the drug abuser who found Christ, the cancer patient who has faith in eternal salvation—and then to say that because these people disbelieve evolution, that advocacy of evolution is tantamount to denying the rest of their identity.  Could there not be an example of a person whose life was saved by medical breakthroughs that made use of evolutionary understandings of disease?

There were also a few claims about the history of American antievolutionism that I found irritating but of lesser importance.   The depiction of the Scopes trial was simplified and focused wholly on Bryan, Darrow and science-religion conflict.  (I’m not going to recap  the shortcomings of this interpretation here.)  But more problematic was the idea that creation science was a direct response to the BSCS, which was in turn a direct response to the launch of Sputnik.  For one, the federal initiatives in science education that included the BSCS predated Sputnik.  Moreover, it wasn’t the launch of the BSCS directly that prompted an antievolutionist backlash in the form of creation science so much as the Supreme Court ruling in Epperson v Arkansas (finally putting an end to Scopes-style antievolution laws) that prompted the implementation of creation science as a proposed alternative to evolution science.

The documentary’s greatest redeeming feature is that the people who are portrayed are done so sincerely.  Even though clips from the documentary (such as in this Gawker article) take things out of context in a way that makes the creationists look more ignorant or naive, the documentary itself seems to be respectful to all the people included.  It’s those who were not worthy of inclusion at all who will rightly feel the most slighted.

Creation Debate prop bet odds

‘Big Bang’ mentioned before ‘flood’ 5-3

Nye calls creationism ‘crazy’ 10-1

Audience boos Nye 20-1

Ham calls evolution immoral 2-1

Ham calls Nye ‘Humanist’ 2-3

Nye mentions ‘theistic evolution’ 4-1

debatelive.org crashes 5-1

First points scored on a fumble in the end zone 2-0

‘science’ mentioned, over/under 157½ times.

Power goes out 25,000-1

Ham concedes 100,000-1

Nye concedes 100,000-1

God smites debate 1,000,000-1

History of Misreading – And Scopes is still not a Racist

One of the processes I’m most interested in as a historian is what I often refer to as the genealogy of misreading.  One person writes something, another person quotes it, or misquotes it,  or reacts to its conclusions and misunderstands the reasoning behind those.  Over the course of several iterations, the errors accrue until the original view has been almost totally obscured.  My new article just published online this week examines this phenomenon for William Paley’s Natural Theology.  (Conclusion, one thing both sides of the current debate get wrong is in claiming that modern ID is philosophically similar to Paley’s arguments for a designer.)

I mention this because an extraordinary example of misreading, with a traceable genealogy, has been unfolding this past month.  This began with Jerry Coyne’s post about visiting John Scopes grave, and a response by Discovery Institute fellow Michael Egnor’s criticizing of Coyne for embracing Scopes.  Egnor (and David Klinghoffer) essentially accused Scopes of being a racist for teaching from George W. Hunter’s 1914 textbook A Civic Biology.  I wrote about some of the historical problems with this in an earlier post on December 14.

A couple days later, Jerry Coyne responded with another post, which largely cites mine against Egnor and Klinghoffer (and is quite gracious in accepting a point of correction I’d raised to something he’d written earlier.)

The next day (December 18), Egnor responded with another post, in which he calls “Bullfeathers” on Coyne (and implicitly me).

There’s some misreading going on.  Some of which may be intentional.

From Egnor’s post:

Image

One misreading which I think was unintentional resulted in Coyne’s use of the word “genetics.” I had said that eugenics was treated more as a primary application of the biological concept of heredity as opposed to evolution (later on I’ll show exactly how this happens in George Hunter’s textbook).  Hunter didn’t use the word “genetics” even though he did mention Mendel’s theories.  I think it’s understandable why someone who’s a practicing biologist working in the field of evolutionary biology might use the word “genetics” when he reads the word “heredity,” even though in this instance it’s anachronistic.

Egnor justifies his claim of “bullfeathers” by pointing out that “The word ‘genetics’ wasn’t coined until 1905, by Bateson.”  Eugenics, of course predates this.  This is itself a completely valid response to the historical argument that eugenics was an application of genetics.  But it also reveals that either Egnor didn’t read the rest of Coyne’s post (or my post from which Coyne cites) or that Egnor was deliberately looking for something he could take out of context.  Because this claim of anachronism is utterly useless in responding to the historical claim that eugenics was considered an application of the biological concept of heredity.  Of course, if Egnor wanted to rebut that claim, he probably wouldn’t have mentioned in his very next sentence: “The science of eugenics began in 1869, when Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, published his landmark Hereditary Genius.”  The first word of the title of that book might be a bit of a giveaway that Egnor’s historical analysis is flawed.

Egnor then gives a somewhat selective history of British and American eugenics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pointing out that some of these eugenicists were supporters of Darwin! Egnor takes note that  “The Center for Experimental Evolution — the center for eugenics, that is — opened in Cold Spring Harbor in 1904. The word “genetics” was coined in 1905.”  This seeming gotcha moment is actually pretty well discredited by the History page on Cold Spring Harbor’s own website:

1904: Genetics research begins

Soon, another mission was established: research in genetics. This grew out of two events: the appointment, in 1898, of Charles Davenport, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, as director of the Laboratory, and the rediscovery in 1900 of Gregor Mendel’s work, carried out 35 years earlier. Mendel’s Laws provided explanations for the variability that underlies evolution, and his work opened new possibilities for experimentation in biology.

Davenport approached the Carnegie Institute of Washington and proposed that it establish a genetics research program at the Cold Spring Harbor site. In June 1904, the Carnegie Institute’s Station for Experimental Evolution, later renamed the Department of Genetics, was formally opened with a commerative speech given by Hugo de Vries, one of the three re-discoverers of Mendel’s work.

From its founding in the 1890s, Cold Spring Harbor was a place where “biologists and naturalists of that time worked out the consequences of Darwin’s theory of evolution.”  However, in 1904, Davenport was brought there for “another mission”  First called the “Center for Experimental Evolution” it began some of the research that led to the coinage of the word “genetics.”  What Egnor’s actually pointed us to is the fact that whatever eugenics was in Galton’s day (an extension of heredity) by the middle of the first decade of the 20th century: it was applied genetics.  More interesting, it was seen as distinct enough from “Darwin’s theory of evolution” that it required the founding of a separate center.

I also want to caution against taking the evolution-or-heredity idea to an impossibly absurd extreme. It’s not as though you had to accept one but not the other.  But I also want to get back to the original issue at hand: which was not the claim that eugenics was not primarily an application of human evolution (as opposed to heredity.)  It’s the claim that this Evolution-to-Eugenics-to-Racism combination exists in George W. Hunter’s 1914 textbook, A Civic Biology.  Let’s actually look at the textbook.  (It’s a textbook I know pretty well, having written extensively about its post-Scopes trial revision in my own book.)

A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems by George W. Hunter (American Book Company, 1914) is out of copyright and is digitized online.  The archive.org link should work everywhere, but the Google books full text seems to only be available in the US.  i’m going to direct-link pages from Google books, but i’ll include page references for everyone who can’t access those but can download the pdf from archive.org.

Where is Evolution and Where is Eugenics?

The main sections discussing evolution are from pages 193-196.  If you look at the Table of Contents, you’ll see that these are in the last part of a chapter titled: “Division of Labor, the Various Forms of Plants and Animals.”

Eugenics is detailed on pages 261-265, the last sections of the chapter “Heredity, Variation, Plant and Animal breeding.”  Evolution is mentioned once in this chapter (page 253) but only to say that heredity is a force which is partly responsible for evolution (which was itself discussed earlier.)  This is a few chapters after the chapter which mentions evolution in detail.  It seems pretty clear from the placement alone that eugenics was seen as an application of heredity moreso than evolution.

How is Eugenics Discussed?

Eugenics was considered part of sexual health, good breeding, including the belief that certain diseases could cause congenital deformity or could cause harm to offspring.  Eugenics, at least as Hunter’s book defines it, concerns the transmission of “germ diseases.”  (page 261)  In this section, Hunter doesn’t mention “race” at all, but as I said in my earlier post, there’s quite a lot of class issues in this discussion.  On page 263:

Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society.  They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually cared for by the state out of public money.  Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist.  They take from society, but they give nothing in return.  They are true parasites.

I agree that both the tone and content of this passage is offensive.  But it isn’t at all about race.  (And it bears a striking resemblance to some of the recent rhetoric from the political right that seems to castigate those who (they claim) “take from society, but … give nothing in return.”  In the political rhetoric that claims that the impoverished are undeserving of protection from their government is the free market eugenics of the twenty-first century.)

In the section of eugenics, Hunter continues: “we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or in other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” But it’s clear from the context that Hunter isn’t talking about racial intermarriage, and that he’s using “race” to describe the people (of any color, ethnicity, or background) who are degenerately inferior.  In all instances where the word “race” is used in the eugenics section, Hunter uses it in the singular (as in a human race, not distinct races of humanity.)

There’s been a lot of misreading going on.  Some of it seems to be encouraged through deliberate rhetorical tactics.  In my previous post, I pointed out that Egnor often made claims that were false on several levels, with the seeming strategy of encouraging people to object to the last of these and slipping the others by unquestioned.  He began his new post doing the same thing.  He says nothing in response to the very true fact repeated by Coyne that Scopes wasn’t the regular biology teacher, and “almost certainly didn’t teach the eugenics part of the book.”  But he mentions it along with the second claim in the hope that we won’t notice that his effort to link this alleged racism via eugenics via Civic Biology all the way back to Scopes still has this additional missing link.  I am wary of attributing intentions to authors, but it seems to me that this can’t be as honest a distortion as, say, Coyne’s substitution of “genetics” for “heredity” is.  At least, I don’t think that Coyne threw in an anachronistic word in order to trick Egnor into writing a refutation that missed the point entirely.

The Great Summer Research Road Trip

I’ve thought it churlish to complain about living in London – particularly as a historian.  But I have discovered that one of the main challenges of being a historian of America based in London is the difficulty of sources.  Of course my university and other library affiliations here give me access to a lot of the major journals in American history – but we’re understandably not a place of high demand for the publications of state and county historical societies.

More importantly, living an ocean away really changes the way that I need to plan for research at archives.  It is obvious that my work in the US requires more time and money than my colleagues whose source materials reside here in London or elsewhere in Britain – or even in Europe.  But whilst a research trip to a major American city or a single other location might not be too onerous even from here, the archives that I need to work with are not only scattered, but often in locations that aren’t so easily accessible.  The only solution — the efficient solution it seemed, was to put as much as possible into a single summer-long road trip.  Fly out.  Drive.  Research. And on.

The result (after a month in New York) was a two month, 18 archive, 6 state (plus DC and one Canadian province) trip that put us (me, my partner and our baby) on the road from the east coast as far west as Denver, and from there a flight to Vancouver.

There were some strange moments and some fun ones.  I might have been the only person doing research in Gettysburg, PA who wasn’t working on the Civil War at all.  I had a few frustrating moments when I discovered that most of the books that were donated to a university archive had likely been discarded (the archive kept the papers and correspondence.)  In New York and Nebraska I had got to see several fossils and other artifacts, although I’m not quite sure I knew how to make any sense of what I was seeing.  There was also a few moments of reminding myself that I’m not supposed to dance for joy in the archives when I find something super useful that I didn’t think even existed.  We went to the Nebraska State Fair on our way from Lincoln to the Panhandle.  In David City, Nebraska, a local historian/journalist helped orient me with the archives, and also wrote about our trip in the local paper. We even had time to meet a bunch of interesting people while we were staying in Lincoln for a week, or Laramie for a few days.  When we got to Denver, it was the first time we’d hit traffic in thousands of miles.

In the continued theme of efficiency, I had planned on doing the research for two projects while I was in the US.  Many of the sources for my work on the 1924 Nebraska evolution trial and the history of the Hesperopithecus discovery were in the same place—or at least nearby.  On paper, this seemed like  great idea, especially when I was applying for grants to help fund this summer trip.  Funding bodies like efficiency right? They like knowing that the money they’re awarding will not be wasted, and that they’re giving it to people who know how to put it to use.  I’ll show them! I’m not just going to write one book set in Nebraska, I’m going to write two!

In practice, this initially proved more difficult than I anticipated.  Mentally, it was hard to go from thinking about how one project was going, and finding a lot of brand new material that I had to make sense of, and by the afternoon, trying to keep in mind all the things that were important for the other project.  The Nebraska trial and Hesperopithecus are only tangentially related— I think the discovery of Hesperopithecus may have triggered one of the events that was then brought up in the trial, but I don’t think it figured directly into the trial itself.  But I figured that if I was looking at material from Nebraska in the 1920s anyway, I could do them.

Then came the big discovery.  I had spent several days in Lincoln looking at the archives of the Paleontology department at the University of Nebraska, particularly the papers of Erwin Barbour, founder of the state museum, and father-in-law of the discoverer of the Hesperopithecus fossil.  I found quite a lot of useful material, but with about half an hour to go before the end of the day that Friday (my last day in Lincoln, I decided that I ought to see if any of the people from the trial happened to write to Barbour (the correspondence was partly indexed and arranged alphabetically within each year, and the archivist had permitted me to go through the files as I liked.)  Suddenly I discovered that D.S. Domer, the teacher from the Nebraska trial and Barbour had a correspondence going back almost ten years.  Moreover, Barbour knew about the trial, and Domer write to him about it after the fact.  This last letter is an incredible piece of evidence, the first thing I’ve seen that directly gives me Domer’s reaction to the trial.  And yet I never would have found i if I hadn’t been looking in Barbour’s files because I was also looking at Hesperopithecus.

So — grant justified! (And a small amount of dancing in the archive.)

Of course, we also got to spend some time in the US seeing friends and family and bringing the baby to meet everyone.  The only way this research trip worked was because he’s been much much better tempered than we have any right to expect.  And my wife also did a lot of driving, and spent several days in places where there was little to do while I was digging in old papers.  When the baby let her, she also helped go through papers. (She recommends the museum of Agrarian Art if you’re in David City.)

And now I get to spend the next nine months in London writing this up.  Hopefully, I’ll get this manuscript mostly done without needed to go back on the road, or that by the time I do need to go back, it’s all for final tweaks.

And of course, now that I’m back in London, it’s also time to teach again.  And I’m going to spend most of this year learning about the other great challenge of being a US historian in London – teaching American history to students who have had almost no prior exposure to it in high school.  (But that’s a subject for another time.)