Saturday, April 26, 2008

It’s A Dirty Political Brawl. Adapt or Die. by Anthony McCarthy

With a note about the ScienceBlogs.

I don’t remember when it was that someone broke the news to me that Ben Stein was going to be in an anti-evolution movie to be released this election year. “Oh, jickit”, I said, “Not the damned Darwin wars again, already”. I’m afraid I really did say “jickit”.

But in following up on other blogs and reading things about the current go round on the issue, I think I’ve figured out something that has puzzled me for a long time. How can the side for evolutionary science, the side with all the scientific facts, so consistently lose the political argument. I think it is because they so consistently mistake this for a scientific fight when it is, in fact, a political fight. You can’t fight a political fight expecting the same rules as you use in science, or even in a criminal court. If you try to win the evolution argument using those tools, arrogantly refusing to face the nature of the fight, you will lose and lose badly.

It’s one of the great disabilities found on the left that so many of us take refuge in the comforting myth that our opponents are stupid. Well, unfortunately, they aren’t. They’re dishonest crooks and like all successful crooks they’re smart and they’re crafty. They knew that they could possibly rally an effective part of the religious right during an election year by waving a paper mache head of Darwin on a pike with little cost to themselves. That was the smart part. And they knew that when they dissed Darwin that they could count on a knee jerk reaction from a side they could pin on Democrats and that reaction might, as well, encourage the Republican right to come out and vote. That was the crafty part.

How many times does it take for them to play this kind of trick before the left catches on that they’re not playing by the standard rules printed up, so nice and fair, in Hoyle?

Well, they’ve released the movie and they’ve gotten many knees to twitch in sync. While, I gather, there are other things in the movie, it’s the reputation of Darwin I’ve heard most talked about. The slights against the sacred name of Darwin can always get some of our side going and once they’re started there’s no reasoning with them. It’s a sort of St. Vitus dance of political death. If it was an important issue you might stomach it better. But it’s always something vastly unimportant, like the mythic Darwin, or something unattainable. You can name your pick of those hard fought for futilities.

Knowing from experience that an inoculation attempt* won’t stop the disease from spreading I’m not going into it here again. I’m going to only talk about the politics of it because that is all this is, a matter of politics.

Read the creationists’ websites, the more literate ones, and you’ll see they’ve got scads of material, much of it taken directly from Charles Darwin himself as well as his closest associates. Look up their citations if you think they made it up. You will probably find some are inventions but probably no more than you will find in any blog community dedicated to polemics. They’ve read their Darwin, all of him, not pretending that he stopped writing in 1859 like so many of his most devoted fans seem to believe. And, like everyone, they take what they need and they leave the rest.** The assumption, that in the past 90 years, the side which uses Charles Darwin as the major figure in their war against evolution wouldn’t have gotten around to reading and taking detailed notes on his complete works - as well as on everyone associated with him - only allows you to deceive yourself into complacency. And its surprisingly unobservant of the self-defined, “science side” of things.

One thing you have to understand is that they don’t care about evolution, not at all. They don’t care about your arguments for it and they don’t mind lying about the subject. They certainly don’t intend to observe scientific methods any more than they do basic rules of honesty about the written record. That doesn’t mean that they’ve got nothing they can use when they fight dirty on this issue. Most people either can’t or won’t master the science, but they can understand the historical record quite separately from that. Not knowing what that consists of is a big mistake.

In the arguments I got into on the subject at Orac’s blog this week I got the feeling that many of the staunch defenders of Darwin re eugenics were unaware that Francis Galton, the inventor of the word “eugenics”, who is customarily presented by the Darwin fan club as an evil distorter*** of the great man, was actually a life long colleague, friend, confidant and the cousin of Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin, far from discouraging the path to eugenics, encouraged his cousin’s work at its inception and and cited and lauded it in his own published work. When Darwin died, Galton and Thomas Huxley were the ones who planned his grandiose funeral*. Francis Galton was the first president of the British Eugenics Society and the author of some pretty awful and bigoted junk but he wasn’t the figure from outside the Darwin circle that he’s generally presented to be in modern myth. Galton was a Darwin circle insider as he was building his eugenics and after he first used the word. Galton names Darwin as his great inspiration.

I was encouraged by the new views (Darwin’s) to pursue many inquiries which had long interested me, and which clustered round the central topics of Heredity and the possible improvement of the Human Race.

How are you going to say Galton was wrong about who inspired him? Read Chapter XX in his memoir (found at this site), it’s mandatory reading for those wanting to understand the political issue. Especially notice Darwin’s glowing letter to Galton about "Hereditary Genius" and then look at "The Descent of Man" to see that Darwin didn’t change his mind about it.

To complicate things for the effort to beat the eugenics rap, when Galton stepped down from the presidency of the British Eugenics Society his place was taken by Leonard Darwin, Charles’ son. How can you beat the charge that Leonard Darwin followed his father’s legacy in his eugenics? I mean how can you beat it so as to be politically effective, not how to take the twists, gyrations and turns necessary to support the incredible claim that he didn’t understand his own father as well as you, who have never met or talked with him. You would need contemporary condemnations from people closer to Darwin for eugenics to counter the political weight that this unpleasant fact has.

There are letters and documents from and to Leonard Darwin that make some very disturbing reading including communications with the infamous Charles Davenport, but I am not going to go into those here. Believe me, the creationists already know about them.

A lot of people who believe themselves to be on the left who are taking umbrage over Ben Stein’s lies, distort history as much in defense of what they mistakenly believe to be the truth. Well, surprise, Ben Stein is a big liar, a Dick Morris who can fake gravitas, and so is annoying. But hearing people distort and deny the historical record in a refutation attempt can be kind of grating too. Most aggravating of all, though, is to see them falling for the bait yet another time and risk getting us hooked into a transparent election year set-up job.

It would be nice if this was not a potentially effective political tool for the Republican right because I’d really rather deal with things that were important, like global warming, nutrition programs, universal health care and the neo-imperialist wars the Republicans are waging and planning to wage. But enough leftists might fall for the bait for this to be a political issue for us during a crucial election. All the Republicans need to successfully use this distraction is to get out a small number of religious-right voters who would have stayed home to come out and vote. They don’t need to covert the entire population to creationism. We are not their intended marks.

Charles Darwin has been dead for well over a hundred years. His importance in evolutionary science now is dwarfed by the scientific work that has happened in those years, he is only a brand name today. As a brand name he is used by those who sell fish pins and the such but he is also a trademark of the anti-evolution industry. And he’s worked a lot better for them than for the Darwin fish peddlers. The effort to protect his reputation has failed politically.

Claiming that they haven’t got a smoking gun won’t help. The evidence doesn’t support the defense on a standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Insisting on that hasn’t worked for most of a century, it’s not going to work in the future. Even lesser standards of evidence in the trial of the mythic Charles Darwin won’t help because the creationists have pretty well demolished that for a majority of the population. Getting all arrogant and condescending about The People being stupid and ignorant isn’t going to do much but help the creationists increase their majority in the opinion polls.

You would think that looking at the political environment that the ultra-Darwinists would be the first to understand that their choice is to adapt to the real, political environment they work in or face extinction. If they want to save the teaching of evolution in the public schools and the funding of the science, they are going to have to give up the “one great man of evolution” story that the public promotion of evolution has relied so heavily on up till now. The mythic Darwin that PR campaign depends on has been a political failure, it was always condescending. The public relations of evolution should have relied on the hard science of evolution and not on myths of the melding of evolution with the muck of the social sciences. That’s just Social Darwinism in modern dress.

The promotion of evolution should have moved on with the science and left Charles Darwin as increasingly less common footnotes in little read books. The real Charles Darwin, as seen in his writing and the writings of those around him, was always going to be a public relations problem. And the record was there to be seen as the social and political climate changed and the more appalling parts of those dealing with gender, ethnicity and class stood out. That record will always be there to cause problems, it hasn’t decisively won the case for evolution after a hundred years of effort, it has been a millstone around the neck of science. Evolution in 2008 doesn’t need the Charles Darwin of myth, it’s going to have to deal with the Charles Darwin of fact. That is if promoting evolution was their real priority.

Note: I’ve decided to stop laying out the fact of my accepting evolution in posts about these subjects from now on. It’s demeaning to have to keep doing it and it will be ignored by those who don’t like what is said, anyway. Anyone who is interested can read the archive at Echidne’s or my blog to see what I believe on the subject.

* You will remember the inoculation attempt earlier this year.

** Call it “quote mining” if that makes you feel any better about it, though the charge won’t keep them from doing it and it will not prevent those quotations from being politically effective. It’s certainly worked for them, so far.

I’m kind of tired of hearing “quote mining” in this debate. Show me someone on any side who doesn’t choose those quotes that are most useful to their arguments and to de-emphasize those they don’t care for. No side in the Darwin dialectic is innocent of it, neither side is honest about it.

*** Herbert Spenser too. Unfortunately, Charles Darwin called him “Our great philosopher, Herbert Spencer” as he cited him favorably in his work in The Descent of Man. Clearly the distance between Darwin and Spenser is a lot less than today’s myth presents. Please understand, there was a time not too long ago when both eugenics and “Social Darwinism” were respectable and people didn’t automatically assume that these connections didn’t exist.

**** A rather grandiose one for Darwin, who the romantics think was some kind of shunned radical figure in Victorian times. Odd, for a radical instigating a “spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities “ (as Galton said) overturning the very firmament of the establishment. How many geographic features, towns, etc. got named after him?

It’s just as odd how quickly eugenics took off, became an established part of university curricula, organizations, public policy and even Supreme Court law. Only it’s not odd since eugenics complimented the most powerful elites, especially the Anglo-Saxon elite, and that its costs were borne entirely by the underclass and powerless ethnic groups. Eugenics “science”, flowing from the Darwin circle, was tailor made for popularity with a self-interested elite. Also not odd was that it was born and nurtured within that privileged elite which just about all of its figures were part of.

I’ve been looking for the contemporary fans of Darwin who tried to distance him from eugenics in the period before the Second World War became inevitable and am not having much success. If anyone knows of Darwinists, from the period when eugenics was still reputable science, without the quotes around science, who successfully made the case that the eugenics movement, including Darwin’s own son, were distorting his work, I’d love to have citations.

This is politically important only because the other side has already got the goods eugenicswise. I’m afraid that to be politically effective, you’ll have to present citations from associates as intimate as Francis Galton and Leonard Darwin, who, unlike anyone alive today, had access to the private, certainly more candid, Charles Darwin. Otherwise, I’m afraid that they are going to be accepted as more reliable authorities in the matter of his inspiration for their own eugenics. You going to prove they didn’t know who they relied on, themselves?

Post Script: There are bloggers who post at the ScienceBlogs who I like, though I seldom go over there. I don’t like the coercive Sci-jocks who infest the comment threads, enforcing a rigid set of orthodox boundaries beyond which no one is allowed to speak. I resent it when they bleed over into the generally better informed and more realistic leftist political blogs and try to enforce their thought code on us.

It was especially infuriating this week to see one of the more realistic Science Bloggers, Chris Mooney, the author of one of our most important books about the Republican suppression of science, viciously attacked for just pointing out that Stein’s movie wasn’t doing a bad business at the box office. It was, pardon the expression, ScienceBlog McCarthyism at its worst.

As I mentioned indirectly here last week, I had one of the readers of the ScienceBlogs tell me that even though I’d made a strong argument, with citations, in this area that I shouldn’t talk about it because it would be “bad for the promotion of the institution of science”. Science that relies on the suppression of evidence. If you thought you’d heard it all before.

I never agreed to follow the Sci-jock’s Index of Prohibited Thoughts and if they don’t like that they can go get jamped.