Archive for June 2009

Was Darwin Racist?

June 16, 2009

By today’s standards, sure.  Charles Darwin referred to the Fuegians he encountered while on the Beagle (as well as other non-European peoples) as “savages”.  However, judging Darwin as a racist working from a “modern” perspective is not only bad historical practice, but it is also doing a disservice to Darwin’s views in general.  If one wishes to truly answer the question mentioned in the title of this post, namely “was Darwin racist?”, it is necessary to consider the question in context, alongside the views of other 19th Century Europeans, not alongside the views of today’s racial moderates.  By using today’s standards on race to condemn Darwin as a racist is merely to remind yourself that Darwin lived during the 1800s.  Now let’s take a look at the question in context with the time period in question.

Charles Darwin, born on the same date as Abraham Lincoln, though an ocean away, was vehemently anti-slavery.  His family background, especially on the Wedgewood side, is an abolitionist one.  In fact, it has been recently suggested by Desmond and Moore in their new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (review available here), that a hatred of slavery helped to shape Darwin’s views on evolution. Working with Desmond and Moore’s definitive work, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, it’s easy to find examples of Darwin’s hatred of slavery.  For example, Darwin saw slavery as evil enough to condemn in the final pages of what would become his Voyage of the Beagle (as quoted p. 329 Desmond and Moore):

I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave country.  To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco [Brazil], I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not suspect that some poor slave was being tortured…Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal.  I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean.”

However, while this statement can be rightly taken as a hatred of slavery, a study of Darwin the man suggests a different plausible reading of this statement.  Perhaps Darwin hated the cruelty of slavery, but not the racism behind it.  Darwin was, after all, a gentle man, who described feeling a sense of guilt late in life at having kicked a puppy as a child.  To fully understand Darwin’s position on race, we have to look at situations where Darwin is discussing topics other than the evils of slavery. 

Perhaps the most notable such statement of this type is to be found in the Origin of Species, p.488, first edition, where Darwin (perhaps cryptically to today’s reader) “[l]ight will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” What seems like merely an allusion to the fact that Darwin’s theory would encompass human evolution can be read, in context, as something more.  The fact that Darwin is referring to a single origin of mankind stands as a direct refutation to polygenist schools of thought which argued that the different races of man were different species. Louis Agassiz, the last great Creationist to garner a large amount of scientific prestige, was a member of this school of thought, which was used to justify slavery, among other things. Thus, what is often read as Darwin desanctifying humans by relating them directly to an evolutionary sequence can be read in the reverse direction, with Darwin elevating “savages” and slaves to the same species as white Europeans.  Darwin, while confident that there were different “stages of civilization”, from “savage” to Englishman, took a step against a strain of Victorian racist thought by uniting all humans under the same linaeage. Therefore, while the Origin of Species (rightly so) stands as an important work in the history of popular science, it also serves as a direct refutation to racist attitudes of Darwin’s time. 

Thus, the next time someone accuses Darwin of being openly racist, ask them about his views on race.  Ask perhaps why they feel that way, and by what standard they are judging him.  As demonstrated by Darwin’s views on slavery and the “origin of man,” Darwin was a racial moderate by Victorian standards, not a racist.

Works cited:

Darwin, C.  On the Origin of Species, facsimile of 1st edition.  Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 2003.

Desmond, A. & Moore, J.  Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. W.W. Norton & Company. New York.1994

Kitzmiller v. Dover (pt. 2 of 2)

June 12, 2009

And now for the part everyone thinks of when Kitzmiller v. Dover is mentioned: the legal maelstrom following the events described in Kitzmiller v. Dover (Pt. 1 of 2).  The legal battle that would ensue as a result of the school board’s attempt to challenge the teaching of evolution in Dover, PA included some key players in the evolution-creation struggle, including Kenneth Miller, Kevin Padian, Barbara Forrest, Nick Matske, the NCSE, Steve Fuller, and Michael Behe.  Notably absent from this trial was the Discovery Institute, who had saught to distance themselves from the school board once the board began to stray from legal techniques suggested to Buckingham in a phone conversation (Humes 77, 101). 

There were a few notable aspects of this trial.  First, it offered the first true legal test of Intelligent Design in a classroom setting.  However, perhaps more notable is the Creationist heritage of the textbook supplement Of Pandas to People that came to light during the trial.  As described by Barbara Forrest and discovered by Nick Matzke, Of Pandas and People is nothing less than a creationist book with all references to “creationism” changed to “intelligent design” after McLean v. Arkansas declared the teaching of “Creation Science” unConstitutional (see here).  The transitional form “Cdesign Proponentsists”, a failed edit in an unpublished draft of Of Pandas and People helps to confirm this linaeage (although this transitional fossil was not used in the trial; Forrest and Gross 329). It is worth noting that on September 6th, 2005, the defense in Kitzmiller v. Dover attempted to have Forrest barred as a witness.  However, this move failed (Forrest and Gross 327), and would go on to establish a religious basis for Intelligent Design.  In reference to Of Pandas and People:

“Forrest used charts [here] showing the continuity between creation science and ID.  Her Pandas analysis centered on early drafts that FTE [the book’s publisher) had amazingly kept.  There were at least five: (1) Creation Biology Textbook Supplement (1983); (2) Biology and Creation (1986); (3) Biology and Origins, (1987), and (4) two 1987  drafts entitled Of Pandas and People. Pandas was published in 1989, followed by the current 1993 edition” (Forrest and Gross 329)

Forrest’s testimony, combined with that of Kevin Padian and Kenneth Miller, established both the religious undertones of Intelligent Design and also the strength of evolutionary theory (Padian’s powerpoint slidesand testimony, available here,  offer a detailed analysis of the strength of evolutionary theory, and the weaknesses of ID). It is worth noting Kevin Padian’s blunt yet honest assessment of the disclaimer leading to Kitzmiller v. Dover, namely that “Padian bluntly and effectively stated that in confusing students about science generally and evolution in particular, the disclaimer makes students ‘stupid”  (quoted from Memorandum Opinion in previous link).

Perhaps as striking as the testimony of Padian and Forrest is that of Michael Behe. As acknowledged by Behe, if the definition of science were altered to include Intelligent Design as a scientific theory, then astrology would become a scientific theory as well:

Q In fact, your definition of scientific theory is synonymous with hypothesis, correct?

A Partly — it can be synonymous with hypothesis, it can also include the National Academy’s definition. But in fact, the scientific community uses the word “theory” in many times as synonymous with the word “hypothesis,” other times it uses the word as a synonym for the definition reached by the National Academy, and at other times it uses it in other ways.

Q But the way you are using it is synonymous with the definition of hypothesis?

A No, I would disagree. It can be used to cover hypotheses, but it can also include ideas that are in fact well substantiated and so on. So while it does include ideas that are synonymous or in fact are hypotheses, it also includes stronger senses of that term.

Q And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?

A Yes.

Q Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?

A Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that — which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other — many other theories as well.” (from cross-examination of Behe, available here)

As a result of the information presented here, legal precedent, and the rest of the data presented during the trial, Judge John E. Jones III had enough information to strike down the motion to read a disclaimer questioning the strength of evolutionary theory and referring students to copies of Of Pandas and People.  As exposed during the trial, the text has a distinctly Creationist heritage.  As accepted by Behe, to alter science to include Intelligent Design as a scientific theory would also deem astrology a valid scientific theory.  While testimony illustrating the religious motives of board members such as Alan Bonsell and Bill Buckingham exposed the religious nature of Dover’s anti-evolution movement, expert testimony also illustrated weaknesses with Intelligent Design as a whole.  Thus, while Judge John E. Jones III struck down the school board’s attempt to challenge evolution in Dover, expert testimony within the trial can provide some framework for future attempts to incorporate Intelligent Design into the American science classroom.

Works cited:

Forrest, B. & Gross, PR.  Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007

Humes, E. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul. HarperCollins.  New York. 2007

Kitzmiller V. Dover (pt. 1 of 2)

June 12, 2009

And now for my first deep consideration of legal fights in the Creation-Evolution struggle.  I’ll discuss Kitzmiller v. Dover here, and then delve into other key trials in future posts.  Kitzmiller v. Dover, fought over a Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s decision to read a disclaimer in classrooms in the school district claiming that evolutionary theory “has gaps” and referring students to copies of the textbook supplement Of Pandas and People to learn about intelligent design, which is proposed as an alternate theory to Darwinian evolution.  The text of the disclaimer is as follows:

“The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolutionand eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact.  Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence.  A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. 

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.  The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. 

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families.  As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.” (in Kitzmiller v. Dover memorandum opinion, p. 1-2.  for link, click here).

The adoption of this disclaimer followed a 6-3 vote in which it was decided that:

“Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught” (Kitzmiller v. Dover memorandum Opinion p. 1).

These statements set up the controversy.  Here, we have a school district deciding to challenge the teaching of evolution.  With the development of the classroom disclaimer,we have a strategy.  However, there is more to Dover than the adoption of standards challenging evolution.  In this instance, we have the documentation to provide a good look at the forces governing this decision.

The decision to challenge evolution in Dover’s classrooms was pushed heavily by schoolboard member Bill Buckingham and fellow board member Alan Bonsell (as described in detail in Lebo 2008, Chapman 2008, and Humes 2007). Buckingham, during the course of debating the teaching of evolution, is quoted as stating “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross.  Can’t someone take a stand for him?” (Numbers p. 392).  This statement, by a leader of the push to challenge evolution in Dover’s classroom suggests a religious rationale for this challenge.  Other sources of information (for example, the fact that the Thomas More Law Center, the self-declared “sword and shield  for people of faith” offered legal protection if the school board were to challenge evolution around July 2004; the vote to challenge evolution passed October 18, 2004, and the disclaimer was published November 19th 2004 (see here for general background)) confirm this suggestion.

However, the Dover school board was not unanimous in their decision to challenge evolution, as suggested by the 6-3 vote over changing the district’s standards.  Following this vote, the three board members who moved against the measure  (Jeff Brown, Casey Brown, and Noel Wenrich) resigned (Humes 98-99).  Casey Brown’s resignation statement can shed some more light on the religious tensions present on the Dover school board in 2004:

“Sometimes in order to fulfill the requirements of our office, we must put aside our personal feelings and beliefs.  It is not always an easy thing to do—but it is what we must do in order to properly perform the duties and responsibilities of our office.

In the past year, regretfully, there seems to have been a shift in the attitudes and direction of this board.  There has been a slow but steady marginalization of some board members.  Our opinions are no longer valued or listened to.  Our contributions have been minimized or not acknowledged at all.  A measure of that is the fact that I myself have been twice asked within the past year if I was “born again.:  No one has, nor should have the right, to ask that of a fellow board member.  An individual’s religious beliefs should have no impact on his or her ability to serve as a school board director, nor should a person’s beliefs be used as a yardstick to measure the value of that service.  However, it has become increasingly evident that is the direction the board has now chosen to go, holding a certain religious belief is of paramount importance.

Because of this, it is quite clear that I can no longer effectively function as a member of this board…” (quoted in Humes 99)

This statement confirms the importance of religious belief with regards to the operation of the board. Ironically, had the school board not been taken to court, it is entirely possible that social studies curriculae in the district would have been altered to challenge the separation between Church in State in America (Humes 100, Lebo 60).  Largely as a result of this separation, the Dover School Board lost Kitzmiller v. Dover.

Following the passage of the anti-evolution measure, with teachers refusing to read the statement and parents such as Tammy Kitzmiller unwilling to have their children’s education compromised (Lebo 48-53), in cooperation with the National Center for Science Education, the ACLU, attorney Eric Rothschild, and others, filed suit… 

Works Cited:

Chapman, M.  40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, oxyContin, and other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania.  Collins.  New York. 2008

 Humes, E. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul. HarperCollins.  New York. 2007

Lebo, L.  The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America.The New Press, New York, 2008

Numbers, RL.  The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006