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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.

It appeared as an essay review titled “Monkeys and Morals” in The New Republic on December 12, 2005. Pointing out that natural selection rather than evolution was Darwin’s “claim to fame,” Himmelfarb states that interestingly enough it was secularists who voiced concerns about the theory as much if not more than the religious community. Citing no less than John Stuart Mill, she notes his acknowledged admission that the theory was impressive enough but that even as late as 1870 he confessed it to be “problematical.” Instead, Mill concluded that the evidence suggested “creation by intelligence”:

“Creation by intelligence”–this by Mill, hardly a religious dogmatist. Today one may hear echoes of those words in the theory of “intelligent design,” which is derided by most scientists (including the editors [Wilson and Watson] of the present volumes) as a euphemism for creation and thus a denial of evolution. And so it is, for some of its proponents. Yet others, themselves scientists, insist that their quarrel is not with evolution itself but rather with natural selection conceived as a purely mechanistic and entirely sufficient explanation for evolution. For them, intelligent design is nothing more or less than teleology, the recognition of a purposiveness or direction in nature, with or without a Creator in the orthodox sense of God (p. 35).

Julian Huxley, Thomas Henry’s grandson, thought the modern evolutionary synthesis solved all of Darwin’s problems. But, as Himmelfarb observes, “Not-withstanding Julian Huxley, nothing has been settled. And notwithstanding the editors of these volumes, too, who sometimes sound as dogmatic as the creationists they deride–not only in respect to evolution (the “blind force,” as Wilson puts it, that created animals and man) but in respect to all human behavior” (p. 36). The intransigent scientism of both Wilson and Watson is duly noted too, and the lessons of their “enormous achievements” are countered in perhaps greater measure only by their hubris.

Himmelfarb ends by bemoaning the polarizing effects of both sides of this controversy, though as expected, this seasoned historian casts a far more wary eye on those (like Wilson and Watson) who hold the present positions of power in the debate. If she registers distress over the renewed warfare, a war incorrectly drawn between science and religion by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the Victorian era with attempted truces more recently proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Ronald Numbers, it would do well for everyone to realize that the battle is not between science and religion but within science itself.

The problem with those willing to "bury the hatchet" is that they are willing only to bury it into the heads of their opponents.
The problem with those willing to "bury the hatchet" is that they are willing only to bury it into the heads of their opponents.

Is methodological naturalism the only appropriate avenue of scientific inquiry? Are we to believe in a uniformity of natural causes in a completely closed system? Is human intellectual endeavor easily, and more importantly, properly divided into Non-Overlapping Magisteria? Is the human intellect reducible itself to purely naturalistic ex-planations so that our neurons and synapse are who we are? The problem with the truces of Gould and Numbers ( and indeed with a wide variety of so-called “well-intentioned” theistic evolutionists like Ken Miller, Karl Giberson, and others) is that they would “bury the hatchet” only by burying it into the heads of those proposing intelligent design. After all, answering all these questions in the affirmative without substantively engaging in meaningful dialogue winds up merely ratifying the reigning Darwinian paradigm. But the very nature of the ques-tions themselves bespeak the limitation of giving positivistic answers like those attempted by Wilson, Watson, Gould, or Numbers. While Himmelfarb yearns for peace, her suggestion that there need not be any inherent opposition between  theism and evolution is a sound one. But it cannot be an evolution hidebound to a conception of science that a priori  precludes it.

Nevertheless, in providing a bold and brave historical analysis to the question of Darwinian evolution, Himmelfarb has rendered invaluable service. Her incredulity over those who continue to insist that Darwinism is the only received truth remains a mark of her constancy on behalf of reason and free and open inquiry. Her willingness to swim against the tide of nodding acquiescence  is the measure of a scholar genuinely committed to following the evidence wherever it may lead.

I am happy to report that Professor Himmelfarb remains active and intellectually vibrant and appeared recently on Book TV discussing her work on Edmund Burke. While her historical acumen has moved on to treat other subjects, she has indeed made an enduring contribution to our understanding of the figure of Charles Darwin and the modern cultural paradigm of Darwinism. If she suggests that the man should become less iconic or that the theory should be more modest, it is only the counsel of a historian reminding us, as Herbert Butterfield did long ago, that in matters of history as well as in science we should all be a bit less Whiggish in their pursuit.


1Margaret A. Faye, “Did Marx Offer to Dedicate Capital to Darwin?: A Reassessment of the Evidence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 39.1 (Jan.-Mar. 1978): 133-146, 141.

2Quoted in David Berlinski, The Deniable Darwin (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2009), p. 89.

A hundred years from now, five hundred years from now, biology will have moved beyond the work of Charles Darwin just as physics has moved beyond that of Isaac Newton.
Is that because the Newtonian physics is false?
A hundred years from now, five hundred years from now, biology will have moved beyond the work of Charles Darwin just as physics has moved beyond that of Isaac Newton.
Is that because Darwinism is false? Mung
If we recognize that science is simply conclusions drawn from observations of nature, whether in controlled settings or not, and that truth transcends science hence it is impossible for science to be the arbiter of it, everything would work out just fine. The problem is that society now has been conditioned to accept contemporary (and temporary) scientific opinion as truth even to the point of accepting truth to be conditional rather than absolute. tribune7
A hundred years from now, five hundred years from now, biology will have moved beyond the work of Charles Darwin just as physics has moved beyond that of Isaac Newton. Yet I believe the contributions both have made to their respective disciplines will be remembered and honored long after the the complaints of partisan historians have been forgotten. Seversky
The long view of the historian tends to bring balance to the enthusiasms of the moment. Ultimately, Darwin and especially Darwinism (in its modern manifestation) will be seen as just another puzzling intellectual enthusiasm of the 20th and early 21st century. Anton

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