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Thomas Cudworth on the “Wesleyan Maneuver”: A View from the Pew

As a member of the United Methodist Church, the recent four-part analysis of BioLogos by Thomas Cudworth sparked my interest. I have no special training in theology and certainly no office within the UMC, but common sense and my historical sense of the church prompted me to wonder, is this a legitimate application of Wesleyan theology or is it merely an attempt to gain standing for a Darwinian brand of theistic evolution by invoking the argumentum ad verecundiam? Here’s a view from the pew.

New Book on Alfred Russel Wallace and the ID Connection

    In my new book, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life, I take the reader on a journey from 19-century England, to the wilds of the Amazon River Basin, to the Malay Archipelago, and back to the highly charged scientific climate of Victorian London. Wallace’s story is one of discovery, from shocking Charles Darwin with his own theory of natural selection to his realization that the very principle he used to explain the diversity of biological life itself had limits, limits with profound implications about humankind and nature itself. After years of research across the globe, Wallace came to believe that some intelligence was required to explain the natural world. This intelligent evolution would be explained by Wallace as directed, detectably designed, Read More ›

Some thoughts on the Mohler/Giberson debate

On August 21 Karl Giberson, physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College and one of several engaged in the ever-interesting juggling act of defending “faith and science” by means of a Darwinian apologetic, now has added to his litany of misconceptions a boorish attack on Al Mohler in The Huffington Post, “How Darwin Sustains My Baptist Search for Truth.” Since David Klinghoffer has provided an excellent summary of the issues involved in an earlier post to this site, Karl Giberson v Al Mohler on Darwin: The Grudge Match, they need not be restated here. The point here is to address Giberson’s principal objection, namely, Mohler’s assertion that “Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he Read More ›

Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years, Part 4

Since writing Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Gertrude Himmelfarb has moved on to treat a wide range of topics. Nevertheless, her influence as an especially cogent historian of the man and his theory continues. A few have taken notice. Margaret A. Fay, for example, mentions her “insightful and lucid analysis.”1Philosopher/theologian Edward T. Oakes, S.J., PhD, wrote: “I awoke from my own Darwinian dogmatic slumbers only late in life, when I first read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s tour de force of a biography . . . .”2 M. D. Aeschliman’s Angels, apes, and men praised her “devastating” critique for exposing “the internal inconsistencies and willful obfuscations that have characterized Darwinism from the beginning,” yet noted the conspicuous neglect of her work by those suspiciously interested in promoting the Darwin brand.

Neglected perhaps but not without opportunites for exposition. Four years ago the publication of edited compilations of Darwin’s works, E. O. Wilson’s From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin and James D. Watson’s The Indelible Stamp: The Evolution of an Idea, offered treatments by two of this “tormented” evolutionist’s most adoring fans and the occasion for a reply by Ms. Himmelfarb.

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Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years, Part 3

In this the third installment on Himmelfarb’s analysis of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, its rise to an ideological ism, its social application, and the nature of the so-called “Darwinian revolution” are discussed. Those interested in the earlier posts should refer to 12/14 for part 1 and 12/15 for part 2.

Himmelfarb’s chapter on Darwinism opens by observing that when applied to a variety of social contexts it could have a “free and loose” translation which provided the added advantage of giving it “license to a variety of social gospels” (p. 412). Applied to many social issues, Darwinism was ambiguous. Darwinism, for example, could argue against slavery, the greatest endorsement of which came from Darwin himself who was an outspoken critic of this “peculiar institution.” Recently Adrian Desmond and James Moore elevated this to a motivating factor for Darwin’s theory in their Darwin’s Sacred Cause. The thesis is plausible, after all, Darwin’s Origin was written and published when the slavery controversy (which the British Empire had abolished earlier in 1833) raged in America.  But as Himmelfarb points out the implications of Darwin’s evolutionary theory could be taken in other ways:

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Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years, Part 2

Reissue of the 1962 revised edition of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution
Reissue of the 1962 revised edition of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution

In part 1 it was demonstrated that Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution is the book Darwinists love to hate. In order to understand why a rather detailed examination is required. Of course, this is a big biography and an exhaustive account cannot be given here, but a summary investigation will make the source of the Darwinist’s discomfort obvious.

Darwin is divided into six “books”: 1) “Pre-history of the Hero;” 2) “Emergence of the Hero;” 3) “Emergence of the Theory;” 4) “Reception of the Origin;” 5) “Analysis of the Theory;” and 6) “Darwinism.” The first four books are an interesting read and provide a valuable backdrop to the treatment that follows, but Himmelfarb is weakest on Darwin’s early years. She completely passes over Darwin’s Edinburgh period where he joined the Plinian Society in November of 1826 and attended all but one of the ensuing 19 meetings until April of 1827. According to Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, this was young Charles’ introduction to “seditious science.” While this is crucial in understanding the development of Darwin’s theory, it will not be gleaned from this book.

Also, Himmelfarb believes that Darwin was uninterested in and ill-equipped to appreciate the philosophical implications of his theory. Probably a better suggestion is that Darwin wasn’t so much disinterested in philosophy as he was just a bad philosopher, or at least a very superficial one. She as much as admits Darwin’s anemic reading in the field: “What little reading he did in philosophy was parochial in the extreme. . . . It is difficult to take seriously a discussion that had, as its most frequently cited moralist and philosopher, the historian William Lecky” (p. 375).1 When Darwin appended a list of moral philosophers he had relied upon in preparing his Descent, philosophers he “assured” his readers that they would be familiar with, Himmelfarb notes that 26 were British “and that [they] are today, quite as assuredly, entirely unknown.”

Nevertheless, what Himmelfarb misses in the early years she more than makes up for in the last two books devoted to an analysis of the theory and the ideological ism that it would turn into. Here in these two sections more than anywhere else reside the sources of anger, revilement, and consternation for the Darwinists.

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Darwin and the darwinian revolution

Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years, Part 1

Gertrude Himmelfarb
Gertrude Himmelfarb

A few months ago The Panda’s Thumb used the occasion of Irving Kristol’s death on September 18th to denigrate Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 50 year-old  Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution as a “terrible book . . . demonstrating a lack of understanding of biology and a warped view of Darwin’s influence.” The article, written by Jeffrey Shallit, glibly casts aspersions on the late Kristol’s ethic for reviewing Gertrude Himmelfarb (aka Bea Kristol) in Encounter  and failing to disclose that he was the author’s husband (though this writer could find no evidence of that at least with her Darwin), this without once reflecting on the questionable propriety of turning what should have been either a respectful obituary or complete silence into an opportunity to insult both the deceased and his widow. If that isn’t unethical, it is at least indecent. Shallit’s one-sided, high-toned moralizing aside, as the “Darwin year” draws to a close and given the fact that Himmelfarb’s biography of Darwin itself has just marked its golden anniversary, perhaps a careful reflection upon that effort is in order. What can be said of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution in the dusk of 2009? Is it a terrible book?

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A Frightening Admission?

Peter J. Bowler published an article in Science (Jan. 9, 2009) titled “Darwin’s Originality.” While much of Bowler’s analysis is just plain wrong (e.g., Darwin’s theory being already “in the air” is NOT accurately premised largely upon Wallace co-discovery of natural selection as Bowler suggests but upon much deeper secularizing processes coextensive with skeptics like David Hume and positivists like Auguste Comte, both of whom deeply influenced Darwin, and ideas even predating them), but another of his comments is just plain frightening. Toward the end of his essay Bowler distances Darwinism from the racial hygiene of the Nazis but then writes the following: “But by proposing that evolution worked primarily through the elimination of useless variants, Darwin created an image that could all Read More ›

Horkheimer on Darwinism


Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) in 1930, the year he assumed directorship of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research).
Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) in 1930, the year he assumed directorship of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research).

There is a strange belief abroad that critics of Darwinism are found chiefly among right-wing, ultra-conservative reactionaries and their cadre of uneducated backwoods religious fundamentalists for whom, according to Philip Kitcher, Darwin “serves evangelical Christians as the bogeyman.”1 Keith M. Parsons, writing for Eugenie Scott’s National Center for Science Education (largely an organization devoted to fear-mongering against ID), praised James H. Fetzer in his Review: Render Unto Darwin for effectively tying “creationism to larger political and ideological forces that provide the impetus for creationism as a social movement and prompt wealthy sympathizers to bankroll its organizations.” Parsons further sensationalizes these “elements of the religious right” as “fascist.”

Of course it is easy enough (persistent conflations of creationism and ID aside) to discount such stereotyping as itself the product of ignorance and ideological prejudice. A recent Zogby poll, for example, showed that self-identified liberals supported the teaching of evidence both for and against Darwinian evolution by a significant percentage over self-identified conservatives. Quick and easy typecasting does not, it would appear on closer scrutiny, hold up. In fact, critics of Darwinian evolution can be found across the ideologicial spectrum, from the conservative right to the radical left, a fact worthy of further investigation.

Though seldom discussed or analyzed, the left has indeed directed some telling criticisms at Darwinism and none so interesting or instructive as that of Max Horkheimer (1895-1973).  Although Horkheimer is hardly a household name, his assumption of the directorship of the Instutute for Social Research placed him within the center of leftist intellectual circles, and he would exert important influences over Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Jürgen Habermas.

Horkheimer is most notably associated with the Frankfurt School, a group of neo-Marxist philosophers and social critics who championed “critical theory,” a leftist analytic with varying admixtures of Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and Freud. Thus, on one level Horkheimer’s philosophy was an idiosyncratic blend that lent itself well to an overarching pessimism that ultimately wound up as an ineffectual nihilism. For all of Horkheimer’s flaws as a philosopher–and they were many–he refused to rubber-stamp the Communist regimes of the 20th century, accusing the “murderers in the Kremlin” of adopting the fascist tactics they had so recently defeated. Even as Horkheimer retreated from the strident and at times ebullient Marxism of his youth, his leftist transcendentalism offered a spiritualism without spirit, a scathing critique of the Englightenment and modernity with no clear enlightened replacement save for a vague demand for “otherness.”

None of this should suggest a sweeping dismissal of Horkheimer’s views, however. “To acknowledge the latent nihilism in Horkheimer’s thought as a whole . . .,” observes Brian J. Shaw, “is not to deny those real flashes of critical insight which illuminate even the most obscure and wrong-headed regions of his philosophy. That Horkheimer mistakenly poses the alternative to contemporary society in an uncompromising manner does not automatically disqualify the validity of each of his insights into its problematic nature. One does not have to possess the cure to an illness to recognize illness when one sees it.”2 One of the illnesses endemic to contemporary society Horkheimer identified as Darwinism.

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Theist, Agnostic, Atheist: Will the Real Charles Darwin Please Stand Up?

When history imitates game show . . .
When history imitates game show . . .
Those old enough to remember TV in the late 1950s through the 60s will recall a delightful game show, “To Tell the Truth.” As a kid I fondly recall trying to figure out along with the celebrity panelists which of the three contestants was the “real” person to be identified. It was a challenging game; the three contestants would all introduce themselves as “I am Mr./Miss /Mrs. [the generic Ms. hadn’t come along yet] X” and, after the announcer read a brief description of the featured guest, the panelists would begin their questioning. The idea was for the contestants to try and stump the panel as to the which of them was the real X, so the impostors had their ingenuity tested in how well they could manufacture deceptive but plausible lies.  At the end celebrities would cast their vote and then the telling question: “Will the real Mr./Miss/Mrs. X please stand up?” After some pregnant pausing and feinting, the truth would literally emerge.

Somtimes history imitates game show and no more so than when we try to guess at Charles Darwin’s religious beliefs, for surely there are more ideas on Darwin’s convictions (or lack thereof) in this regard than perhaps any figure of the modern era.  Darwin, in his various comments on religion and God, could have been a one-man “To Tell the Truth” stumper on the question of his own beliefs. A brief review of the many conclusions offered in this regard will serve to make the point.

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Ken Miller in Birmingham

Noted Brown University biologist and slayer of windmills, Kenneth Miller, came to Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday November 5. The room was packed with what seemed to be about 200 (mostly students and some faculty). Overall, Miller displayed the affable but subliminally arrogant attitude I’ve come to expect in some academics. Miller began by giving a long list of his publications interspersed along with some obligatory self-deprecating humor, the apparent take-home message being “look at what a smart and prolific boy I am.” He then launched into Kitzmiller v. Dover and said (whether out of genuine misinformation or outright disingenuousness I cannot say) that the Discovery Institute “put them [the school board] up to it.” After giving a wholly inaccurate definition of ID as the idea that “design in the form of outside intelligent intervention is required to account for the origin of living things,” he launched into the bulk of his lecture most of which simply gave examples of common descent as “proof” of Darwinian evolution.  I must say that I was surprised by the degree to which Miller absolutely savaged ID. It’s not that he simply disagrees with ID, the substance of his message was that ID is a creationist group (no one was mentioned by name) with the Discovery Institute as its front organization working (in his words) “against scientific rationality.” The thrust of his ID comments were wholly denigrating and dismissive.  Miller later admitted that evolution was the product of “design in nature” in search of “adaptive spaces.” His discussion of design was frankly bizarre; at times he almost sounded like a Gaia proponent—I couldn’t figure out if by design he meant just some sort of unfolding or self-direction or if “design” was somehow synonymous with natural selection. The entire presentation in this regard was quite fuzzy.  There was a lot of conflation of concepts—my personal favorite being his conflation of evolution, genetics, and Gregor Mendel. Anyone listening to Miller on this would have thought that Mendel was simply carrying Darwin’s ideas forward; he did not, of course, point out that Darwin’s adherence to pangenesis and the notion of inheritance of acquired characteristics was quite different from that of Mendel. The rest was pretty predictable.

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Understanding the Origin of Life: What Has History Taught Us?

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)--"Darwin's Bulldog"--Caricature by "Ape" in Vanity Fair, July 24, 1869.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)--"Darwin's Bulldog"--Caricature by "Ape" in Vanity Fair, July 24, 1869.

Reading through some of Huxley’s writings caused me to pause and ask a question: After more than a century of study, trial-and-error, and free-wheeling speculation, what has history taught us about the origin of life? For an exhaustive review of this question, see Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. But the specific question was prompted by the following passage from Huxley’s Discourses Biological and Geological: Essays (1894):

But though I cannot express this conviction of mine too strongly, I must carefully guard against the supposition that I intend to suggest that no such thing as Abiogenesis  ever has taken place in the past, or ever will take place in the future. With organic chemistry, molecular physics, and physiology yet in their infancy, and every day making prodigious strides, I think it would be the height of presumption for any man to say that the conditions under which matter assumes the properties we call “vital” may not, some day, be artificially brought together. All I feel justified in affirming is, that I see no reason for believing that the feat has been performed yet.

And looking back through the prodigious vista of the past, I find no record of commencement of life, and therefore I am devoid of any means of forming a definite conclusion as to the conditions of its appearance. Belief, in the scientific sense of the word, is a serious matter, and needs strong foundations. To say, therefore, in the admitted absence of evidence, that I have any belief as to the mode in which the existing forms of life have originated, would be using words in a wrong sense. But expectation is permissible where belief is not; and if it were given me to look beyond the abyss of geologically recorded time to the still more remote period when the earth was passing through physical and chemical conditions, which it can no more see again than man can recall his infancy, I should expect to be a witness of the evolution of living protoplasm from not living matter. I should expect to see it appear under forms of great simplicity, endowed, like existing fungi, with the power of determining the formation of new protoplasm from such matters as ammonium carbonates, oxalates and tartrates, alkaline and earthy phosphates, and water, without aid of light. That is the expectation to which analogical reasoning leads me; but I beg you once more to recollect that I have no right to call my opinion anything but an act of philosophical faith (pp. 255-257).

Now more than a century later, research into the origin of life has largely proceeded on this basis. Convinced that some form of abiogenesis must be true, its primary motivation has indeed not been “scientific” but rather has proceeded as an “expectation,” an act of philosophical faith. Where, it seems reasonable to ask, has this brand of philosophical faith gotten us?
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Wallace and Intelligent Design: A Response to John M. Lynch

"Cirripedia" from Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Art Froms of Nature), 1904
"Cirripedia" from Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature), 1904

“Puttering with barnacles”

Over a month ago John M. Lynch posted (on his aptly titled blog “a simple prop”–need I say more) a rant against my book, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution, making a number of charges that warrant reply. Since his promised part 2 has never materialized, I’ll remain silent no longer lest he delude himself into thinking that no answer implies anything close to a concession.    Therefore, I begin with what I have–his ramblings part 1.

With an eagerness reminiscent of Barney Fife’s effort to display his prowess at marksmanship, Lynch begins by getting the bullet out of his pocket and firing an impetuous “gottcha” at William Dembski. Claiming that Dembski’s foreword “doesn’t start off well,” his vapid reading takes issue with the fact that when a shocked Darwin received Wallace’s Ternate letter outlining natural selection in 1858, the Down House dawdler was prompted into action to release his long-labored production Origin and could no longer (in Dembski’s words) “putter with barnacles.” Darwin “hadn’t ‘puttered’ with them in over four years,” Lynch wails. Like Barney’s errant proficiency with firearms and overly enthusiastic commitment to the letter of the law, Lynch’s shot falls wide of the mark as does his misguided application of historical accuracy. Here’s why. Read More ›

The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker is a Must Read!

Benjamin Wiker’s   The Darwin Myth  was first available on Amazon.com on June 2; my book on natural selection’s co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace, titled Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution, first appeared on Amazon on February 16. My aim in pointing this out is only to say that had Dr. Wiker been well ahead of me instead of a little behind, I might have saved perhaps one-third of the 114 references in my work. In other words, in order to give Wallace some historical context it was absolutely essential to at least give a general assessment of Charles Darwin, the man who utterly eclipsed the younger naturalist.  How did Darwin develop his theory? What did it contribute? How are we to assess the man (Darwin) in relation to his theory (evolution)? How was Darwin’s theory unique and different from all others?  How do answers to these questions impact the current evolutionary debate today?  I tackled these same questions in my own work but found that they had to be answered from multiple sources (from several contemporary biographies and from primary resources available in Darwin’s published notebooks, his Autobiography [used with extreme caution!], and others). Search after search yielded no one-volume source that handled Darwin with the frank perspicacity that biology’s paterfamilias deserved.  With Wiker’s new book it has finally arrived!

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Darwin’s “Sacred” Cause: How Opposing Slavery Could Still Enslave

darwin-as-ape3Those who follow the Darwin industry are very familiar with Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. In that biography they were one of the few biographers to highlight young Charles’ Edinburgh years (October 1825 to April 1827) and show the powerful influences that experience had on the teenager. Here too in Desmond and Moore’s new Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Edinburgh becomes the substantive starting point. This is as it should be since the freethinkers he would be exposed to in the radical Plinian Society (a largely student-based group Darwin seemed to relish given his attendance at all but one of its 19 meetings during his stay there) would have a profund influence on his thinking for the rest of his life. Desmond and Moore correctly acknowledge this, observing that this period “helped condition his life’s work on the deepest social — and scientific — issues” (17). Indeed the Plinians would steep Charles in a radical materialism that the present biographers admit was “mirrored” in his work a decade later (35).

All well and good so far. But not quite.  This is a book with its own cause. From the outset the authors explain frankly that , “We show the humanitarian roots that nourished Darwin’s most controversial and contested work on human ancestry” (xviii). And those “humanitarian roots,” we are told again and  again throughout its 376 narrative pages was Darwin’s passionate and unwavering hatred of slavery.  “No one has appreciated the source of that moral fire that fuelled his strange, out-of-character obsession with human origins. Understand that,” they insist, “and Darwin can be radically reassessed” (xix).  And what is that reassessment?  The reader is not left waiting:  “Ours is a book about a caring, compassionate man who was affected for life by the scream of a tortured slave” (xx).

At issue, of course, isn’t the horrific abomination of slavery nor Darwin’s abhorrence of it (this has long been known and acknowledged by historians) but rather the purported impact that Desmond and Moore claim his abolitionism had on his theory’s development and purpose.  In short, the question is, does the anti-slavery Darwin necessarily make for a “kinder, gentler” Darwin? An affirmative answer must rest upon two supports, one conceptual and the other factual. The remainder of this essay will examine both to answer this question.

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