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Publicly financed Darwin industry: Is the Darwin Carnival coming your way?


Just today, I received a most interesting note from a retired Australian poli sci professor Hiram Caton, late of Griffiths University, noting that the Darwin exhibition, developed at the American Museum of Natural History, is hitting the road, and may stop at a museum near you.

Caton explains,

You are well aware of my former colleague Dave Stove’s critique of Darwinism. We are alike in that we have no religious affiliation; also in that we do not believe that Darwinism can provide a basis for ethics or for ‘conservative’ politics, in the manner of Larry Arnhart.

At his site, Caton offers a most useful anti-docent, “Getting Our History Right: Six Errors about Darwin and His Influence,” documenting the following six errors:

1. The publication of the Origin was not a sudden (“revolutionary”) interruption of Victorian society’s confident belief in the traditional theological world-view. Instead, it was another step, albeit a big one, toward a popularly understandable scientific naturalism, including the idea of our primate origins, that was well in place by 1850.

Caton notes, among other things,

The implication of [the Exhibition’s] ill-wrought claim is denial that evolutionary theory was extensively developed before Darwin embarked on his Beagle voyage (1831). Not so. Notable contributors were Louis-Constant Prévost, Louis-Melchior Patrin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Julien-Joseph Virey, Jean-Baptiste-Julien d’Omalius d’Halloy, Bory de Saint-Vincent, Ducrotoy de Blainville, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Corsi, 1988b). Most of these scientists argued for the key “Darwinian” theses of common descent from an initial few organisms, gradual modification and extinction over great ages driven in part by the struggle for existence, geological uniformitarianism, and the primate origin of the human species. Some, notably the physicist Patrin, argued that life originated abiotically. Darwin’s library aboard the Beagle included Bory de Saint-Vincent’s influential seventeen volume Dictionnaire classique d’historie naturelle (1822-1831).

2. The Origin did not “revolutionize” the biological sciences by removing the creationist premise or introducing new principles. On the contrary, Origin had little effect on the hard biological sciences because they were already mechanistic and experimental. Darwin’s naturalist investigations did not contribute significantly to the experimental biology of his day.


Darwin discovered a stunning profusion of adaptations, and made many suggestions about phylogenetic relations (Leach and Mayo, 2005), but he did not prove a single phylogeny or prove a single case of speciation by natural selection. Indeed, by 1900 the only fossil-based phylogeny generally accepted was the evolution of the horse (Gayon, 1998). These facts are ignored. The Exhibition also ignores the Pangenesis theory and its influence on Darwin’s shift to substantial Lamarckian explanation in the 5th and 6th editions of Origin. Indeed, it implicitly denies Darwin’s Lamarckism by baldly stating that “Charles Darwin offered the world a single, simple scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth : evolution by natural selection” [bold face in original].

3. The Origin did not “revolutionize” Victorian public opinion. Public perception considered Darwin’s message to be about the same as Herbert Spencer’s, known today as “Social Darwinism”, which, though fashionable, never achieved dominance.

4. Many leading naturalists and biologists made significant criticisms of Darwin’s work. This includes Gregor Mendel, who believed that his discoveries refuted Darwin’s premises about the heritability of traits, and Thomas Huxley, who rejected natural selection.

(By contrast, Caton notes, the Exhibition promotes “an extreme version of the triumphalist legend”.)

5. Darwin made little or no contribution to the renovation of theology. His public statements on Providence were inconsistent and the liberal reform of theology, including rejection of the divinity of Christ, was well advanced by 1850.

Caton offers,

Although the corrosive influence of Darwinism on conventional religious belief is widely claimed to be its most novel and potent cultural influence, the facts speak overwhelmingly against it.

[ … ]

However, “The Exhibition triumphantly proclaims that Darwin’s “revolutionary theory changed the course of science and society”. Which society? What changes? Rather than attending to Darwin’s contribution to secularization, as I have done, the Exhibition offers a video of half dozen biologists who simply assert the compatibility of religion with Darwinian evolution. Not all religion, however: Intelligent Design is firmly, if politely, dismissed. My response to this gambit was surprise verging on astonishment. If contemporary opinion is relevant, how can today’s atheist crescendo be ignored? Is it to avoid shocking the religious among the visitors? “

6. The Darwinian Revolution was, at the public opinion level, the fashion of free trade economics backed by the perception that Darwin and Spencer had extended that paradigm to all of living nature. This fashion enjoyed prominence in much of Europe and the United States, but began to fade around 1900. It was in no sense analogous to the Copernican revolution, with which it is often compared.

Caton begins his reply,

A soothing aphorism circulates today declaring that “the only thing Darwinism has in common with Social Darwinism is the name”. The Exhibition expresses this view, maintaining that Social Darwinism is a misuse of a “purely scientific theory for a completely unscientific purpose” and that Darwin was “passionately opposed to social injustice and oppression”. This is a drastic distortion of historical fact.

Caton’s article apparently appeared in Evolutionary Psychology, – 2007. 5(1): 52-69. It must be a kind of unusual article for them to publish. Glad they did.

Read the whole thing. Print it out and take it with you. Try not to disturb people by snorting and laughing in the middle of the Exhibition when a local hagiographer starts retelling the Darwin legend. Remember, when you are at the Darwin exhibition, you are in a house of worship!

By the way, yes, Caton is the prof who documented a good deal of the ridiculous Darwin hagiography. But there’s more here.

Remember, when you are at the Darwin exhibition, you are in a house of worship! Hence, Huxley saw the need to found his own church, and evolution was the ideal cornerstone. It offered a story of origins, one that (thanks to progress) puts humans at the center and top and that could even provide moral messages. The philosopher Herbert Spencer was a great help here. He was ever ready to urge his fellow Victorians that the way to true virtue lies through progress, which comes from promoting a struggle in society as well as in biology--a laissez-faire socioeconomic philosophy. Thus, evolution had its commandments no less than did Christianity. And so Huxley preached evolution-as-world-view at working men's clubs, from the podia during presidential addresses, and in debates with clerics--notably Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. He even aided the founding of new cathedrals of evolution, stuffed with displays of dinosaurs newly discovered in the American West. Except, of course, these halls of worship were better known as natural history museums. ~ Michael Ruse bevets
A couple things. I couldn't find on the internet just where the Exhibition schedule was. I know it closed in Boston recently but didn't know where it was headed from there. Anyone know? For Denyse and others interested in the history of evolutionary thought. There is a long review of the state of evolution theory as of 1909 on the internet. In looking up the connection between various religions and evolution I found one from a Catholic site and the article is quite long (almost 16,000 words) and from 1909 by a German named Muckerman. The title is Evolution (History and Scientific Foundation) The conclusions are based on what was know 100 years ago and just after Mendel was re-discovered: The most important general conclusions to be noted are as follows: The origin of life is unknown to science. The origin of the main organic types and their principal subdivisions are likewise unknown to science. There is no evidence in favour of an ascending evolution of organic forms. There is no trace of even a merely probable argument in favour of the animal origin of man. The earliest human fossils and the most ancient traces of culture refer to a true Homo sapiens as we know him today. Most of the so-called systematic species and genera were certainly not created as such, but originated by a process of either gradual or saltatory evolution. Changes which extend beyond the range of variation observed in the human species have thus far not been strictly demonstrated, either experimentally or historically. There is very little known as to the causes of evolution. The greatest difficulty is to explain the origin and constancy of "new" characters and the teleology of the process. Darwin's "natural selection" is a negative factor only. The moulding influence of the environment cannot be doubted; but at present we are unable to ascertain how far that influence may extend. Lamarck's "inheritance of acquired characters" is not yet exactly proved, nor is it evident that really new forms can arise by "mutation". In our opinion the principle of "Mendelian segregation", together with Darwin's natural selection and the moulding influence of environment, will probably be some of the chief constituents of future evolutionary theories. jerry
"Darwin" Exhibition has already landed in Brazil last May 4th. I plan to visit, and write a historical critique taht will go against 'Darwinian mainstream historiagraphy' as someone tried to intimidate me. Enezio E. De Almeida Filho

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