We have the privilege, sometimes, of having Rod Dreher sitting on the editorial board of our local newspaper, The Dallas Morning News.
Is it a privilege today? You be the judge: Dreher’s column in the “Points” section today, “When science meets pop culture: Darwin’s example shows that scientists can’t do much to stop the public from abusing their work.”
In contrast to Dreher’s previous defenses of intelligent design and other sciency woo, in this piece he mostly gets Darwin correct — which, alas, means he doesn’t talk much about what Darwin actually said. That makes the errors more glaring, to me. But, what do you think?
For example: Dreher discusses abuses of Darwin:
Take Charles Darwin. In 1859, the publication of his On the Origin of Species was an event so earth-shaking that 150 years later, the trembling still reverberates. In their recent book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that the Darwin family’s deep roots in the British anti-slavery movement caused young Charles to start asking questions about the common origins of humanity. “It is the key to explain why such a gentleman of wealth and standing should risk all to develop his bestial ‘monkey-man’ image of our ancestry in the first place,” they write.
The authors make a case that Darwin, who was never himself a social activist, undermined racial prejudice with his discoveries. That is true – to a point.It is also true that Darwin’s work on evolution and natural selection, as it became popularized, inspired scientists and laymen to take more interest in racial differences, an intellectual passion that would have sinister consequences in the science of eugenics – founded in the late 19th century by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton.
Did Dreher read Desmond and Moore? Did they get the events right? Britain’s abolishment of slavery occurred when Darwin was a young man. It was a hot controversy while he was asea aboard the Beagle. Was it that controversy that caused Darwin to ask whether humans have a common origin? At the same time, Darwin was quizzing “Jeremy Button,” a dark-skinned native of the area around Tierra del Fuego, who had been essentially kidnapped on a previous voyage of the ship, and who was being returned home on the voyage Darwin was part of. As I’ve read Darwin, I see that he finds hard evidence of evolution in plants, in sea creatures, in other animals — and then wonders how humans could have been exempt from such actions. I don’t see Darwin starting from slavery and reasoning backwards.
But second, I still wait for someone to point me to any clear indication that eugenics advocates were particularly inspired by Darwin, or that eugenics was related in any serious way to the genocides of Europe in the early 20th century. Hitler didn’t think he was improving any race, but was instead getting rid of people he didn’t like. The link from Darwin to genocide gets particularly strained for the genocide of the Armenians in 1915 (regardless the cause). When asked to justify genocide against German Jews, Hitler didn’t refer to Darwin, but instead asked who remembered the Armenians, 25 years later. The question wasn’t, “Is this the thing to do to improve the race,” but was instead, “Can we get away with it?”
It makes me lament again the DMN’s having killed their once-great science section. A newspaper that doesn’t do enough reporting on a subject never feels compelled not to comment on it, but such commentary always suffers from its reading audience having little background in the topic. Full of sound and fury, as Shakespeare wrote.