Damning Darwin: The Perils of Myth-making in the History of Science

There are very few things less enticing to the British public than the sight of CJ in the bath. While occasionally Marmalade the lunatic kitten comes to balance  precariously on the edge of the bath tub, and watch the great pink hippo wallowing in the foaming waters, human beings seem to find the mere prospect revolting. So I apologise in advance for calling this scene to your minds, and hope you have not recently eaten.

It was Wednesday evening: I was sitting in the bath, reading a book on Biblical Archaeology, and rather wishing I wasn’t, when I began  to ponder what to write about for the RD.net Science Writing contest. And then – Eureka! I leapt foaming from the bath, hurtled excitedly out in to the kitchen, skidded across the lino and hearing someone in the living room frantically hid my modesty behind a bemused Cuddles-cat. Not an easy task, I can assure you…

The Bathtub Fallacy

And in that moment of inspiration in deciding what to write about, I perfectly illustrate the first of the perils of myth-making in the writing of  History of Science;  what I shall call the Bathtub Fallacy. I am sure many readers have heard of Archimedes supposed moment of revelation inthe bathtub, how he leapt out cying Eureka, and excitedly solved a problem. Reading the history of Science mere mortals like I can feel inspired – will I dream of a snake eating it’s tail, and work out the structure of Benzene tonight? (bit late!) Perhaps in a flash I will work out an elegant solution to the world’s energy needs? And this is the Bathtub Fallacy – the belief perpetuated by the anecdotes by which we make the process of discovery and science understandable, the human interest bits, that genius and a moment of sudden insight alone solves scientific problems.  If it did we would spend all out time in the baths. I could of course have called this the Apple Concussion Fallacy – the well known story about Newton and a n apple falling on his head, but as my street is singularly lacking in apples, and I have never been nearly brained by anything heavier than a stray conker from a tree, I didn’t, and you all have to live with the thought of me in the bath instead.

CJ in the bath

Me in the bath with the maddest hair yet: for the sake of your sanity I have my shirt on!

The danger of the Bathtub Fallacy is that there is an element of truth to it: yes, insights do arrive like this. What is often not made plain by historians is the vast struggle, the endless hard work, and the single minded devotion to the problem which occupied the genius for maybe months or years before the answer came in a creative flash. Trust me, I have spent many years laying on my bed, sitting in the bath or staring blankly out of the window waiting for my Nobel Prize winning insight. Sadly, it seems you need more – work, dedication, study, and perhaps a little obsession. The bathtub fallacy is not a myth as such: these things happen– but the inference pure luck, the will of the gods, or sitting in the bathtub is what counts is very dangerous to the would be scientist, and I think when reading the history of science one should not emphasize these serendipitous moments, but concentrate more on how the heroine or hero prepared for their ‘revelation from on high’.

The Persecution Complex

My title, aimed at a little free controversy, was Damning Darwin. Why? Have I suddenly become a member of the Buttplugg, Arizona, First Church of Flanders, and adopted Young Earth Creationism? Nope. Long term readers of this forum will know that I have argued passionately that the response of many 19th century Christians to Darwin’s work was one of polite interest, enthusiasm, or overwhelming support. (You can say the same about Copernicus actually.)

Evolution was pioneered in America by the devout Evangelical Asa Grey, writing Darwinia (1876) which reconciles his Evangelical beliefs with orthodox Darwinism, and indeed being the only non-British member of the Darwin circle who saw Origin of the Species (1859) prior to publication. He dedicated much of his life to publicising and popularising Darwinian Evolution.  A large number of Evangelicals were already evolutionist and many of the objections raised to Darwin’s ideas (like those of Soapy Sam Wilberforce) were primarily scientific not theological. The Evangelicals response was extremely positive.  John Van Wyhe (Historian of Science, Cambridge University, leader of the Darwin Online Project)  published a very interesting article in BBC History magazine — January 2009 – Volume 10 in which he exposes ye olde myth.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Now, who accepted evolution in those first years? It’s a who’s who of Evangelicals  — BB Warfierld, AH Strong, Van Dyke, Landey Patton, AA Hodge, WT Shedd, James McCosh — all hard core Evangelical leaders.  Let us not forget Frederick Farrar, James Orr, Charles Kingsley and Henry Drummond, who Henry Morris castigates for misleading Christians – the father of YEC loudly denounced the dreadful treachery of his Evangelical forebears in accepting Darwinism or other forms of Evolutionary theory.  These Evangelicals critique the science from time to time, but accepted fully its theological compatibility with their Evangelical beliefs. Others like Rev.Macloskie, JD Dana, GF Wright, JW Hulke etc were evangelicals who fought hard for the scientific NOT just the theological acceptance of evolution – one could go on, but many historians of science and religion have already surveyed this territory and found that on both sides of the Atlantic works in favour of Darwin in Christian circles far outnumbered the minority opposition of Darwin. So who damned Darwin? It was not the Church of his day. One of those famous stories everybody know is the debate between Bishop Soapy Sam and TH Huxley – which of course is nothing like what people believe it was.  The myths were already building fast even by then, indeed before the end of the 19th century, one of the most famous being about the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce over the On the Origin of the Species. There is a superb essay on the history of this by JR Lucas here, — http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html

So why this conflict myth, which I will dub the Persecution Complex? It was not actually created by the Fundies, the nut-jobs and the loonies. It was created by serious historians of science with an axe to grind. The fact it is a steaming pile of poodle jism has done nothing to stop it becoming accepted uncritically, and the myth has inevitably created a backlash of Christian fundies who think they are defending Biblical Truth, and who are managing to actually be far less theologically sophisticated than their 19th century forebears. Henry Morris created a lot if it in the 1960’s — and we all have to live with it today, but the myth started long before.. Two men gave us it — John William Draper wrote the History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874), the second Andrew Dickson White, with The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).  Draper was alarmed by the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1875; White was responding to the criticism he received from conservative Christians on his secular appointment to a University position. Neither condemned all religion – Draper was concerned only with Roman Catholicism, White’s target was Protestant fundamentalists, but this is often overlooked. The books were dismissed by scholars as flawed and filled with canards, but a myth had been born.  This one is more dangerous than most – it gave us YEC…

Ya Canna’ Change the Laws of Physics!

Darwin of course attracted a lot of sympathy and support for his brilliant work right from the start: geology had already demonstrated the Earth to be many millions of years old (though limited by Kelvin’s calculations on the sun which gave the Earth an age of not more than 25 million years – which led to his and many other physicists rejection of Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection as physically impossible. The debate between physicists and geologists over the age of the Earth was ongoing, until the understanding of the actual processes involved in the sun (fusion not combustion)  showed the geologists were right. Physicists however probably were greater opponents of Darwinism in the early years (as pseudo-science that defied our understanding of physical law) than Evangelicals. I think we can call this the Wicked Stupid Opponents fallacy, where people who raised objections to the ideas of the genius are seen as mere muppets who were just being awkward for the sake of it. I fear Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift has made this even more of a threat – those who resist fringe scientific ideas today are seen as hidebound reactionaries, like the men who laughed at Einstein.   Unless that is the new scientific ideas resisted involve little grey men having abducting rural farmers for a quick probing session: then you are OK to doubt, and I’m with you as it happens.

Lord Kelvin

Lord Kelvin, critic of Darwin

Yet time and time again we are reminded of the sad story Alfred Wegener and Continental Drift, and how his ideas were rejected by a hidebound geological establishment. Sure they were, ‘cos until the 1950’s or 1960’s other theories explained the data just as well if not better!  There is no ‘sin’ in doubting some new radical claim (or an old one) and we should respect Kelvin for his common sense objections, not belittle him (Darwin wasn’t keen on him – he refers to him as “that pale spectre”.)  The historians of science often work in a world where ‘history is written by the winners’ – watch out for this…

The Myth of the Lone Gunman

And this I think brings me back to my problem with last year’s celebrations of Darwin. No look, I’m a fan. I own several standard lives, Darwin’s books, have read through the Darwin Correspondence archive and have enthusiastically supported a number of Darwin related projects. Yet increasingly I find myself frustrated that Darwin is misunderstood, misrepresented, or just a caricature. And really, I think the ultimate problem is that Darwin is not all that important.

If I asked someone on the street in Britain why Charles Darwin was important they might well say “he discovered Evolution”, completely oblivious to the fact that Evolution was widely known, and to some extent accepted, before Charles. I could point to Lamarck, Buffon, Charles’s grandfather Erasmus or probably the greatest popularizer of the theory, the Scottish writer Robert Chambers.

A few people might say more accurately “he invented the idea of Natural Selection” – except of course he did not, and the idea can be found back as far as the Ancient Greeks, and especially in some of the pre-Socratics. He did however introduce the phrase, retaining it too the 5th edition where he uses Spencer’s “survival of the fittest.” A curious circle here: from the political economics of Thomas Malthus, who inspired Darwin, to Darwin to Herbert Spencer and his “social Darwinism” of political economics again.

What Darwin did, and his importance, is that alongside Alfred Russel Wallace he collected so much evidence for the idea of Natural Selection that it, in spite of grave objections from the physicists of the day – for it was in violation of the known natural laws of physics which dictated a younger Earth, but so was Uniformitarianism in Geology, so something had to give – anyway what he did was make the first reputable evidentially solid case for the hypothesis of Evolution by Natural Selection.  That was clearly a work of great importance, and worthy of our respect.

Much Darwin believed was wrong – his notion of how inheritance worked was nonsensical, and not to my mind really that far from Lamarck’s, though Lamarck gets a bad press, why I know not really – sure I know about the tragedy of Lysenkoism, but it may be more understandable than those unfamiliar with plant breeding believe – anyway – Darwin’s & Wallace’s idea would have gone nowhere without Mendel’s breakthrough – genetics.

So what is the fallacy of the Lone Gunman? Simple – the over-praising of Darwin obscures the actual history of the idea, and how a scientific hypothesis was refined, developed across a number of research communities, and slowly advanced against a series of seemingly fatal objections; how an idea, Evolution by Natural Selection, that was very ancient –and fairly obvious.  If you could not infer something of the sort from animal husbandry and breeding stock, well poor old Johnny Ray  and the Linnean system had pretty much classified the Animal Kingdom in a way that shouted “look, lifeforms are diversifying”.

We have lost sight of the history of Evolution as an idea, have allowed myths about a supposed widespread conflict between religion and science to obscure the actual truth of what happened back then, and all too often imposed our own ideological nonsense on the history of science. We have made it all one man, elevating him to a saintly role, and creating pious hagiographies, that espouse the myth of the Eureka moment, of a man who revolutionized science – and ignoring the quiet dedicated work of the many who worked before, were contemporary with, or the tens of thousands who have developed our knowledge of morphology and evolutionary biology since.

Darwin is Dead - Science Lives!

Darwin is Dead - Science Lives!

We need a poster of Darwin with a safety pin through the nose, Sex Pistol’s cover style. We need to metaphorically defecate on his grave, to drag him from the ridiculous pedestal where he stands taunted by Creationists, who unfairly understand Evolution =Darwin: because we implied it was so! We need more New Scientist headlines saying “Darwin Was Wrong!” not less, more real understanding of the history of science, and more realization that science is a progress done by women and men, not just bearded geniuses of another age.  No lone gunman, no bearded genius from a far away country gave us modern science: it was built on the work of thousands of anonymous hardworking men and women, and geniuses are justthe pop stars of the science worlkd – the ones who we all remember.  Maybe next time you pick up a history of Science book, and get very excited by the hero’s amazing successes and triumph over adversity, it is worth remebering that for that one great thinker, a thousand more dedicated researchers worked quietly building the framework for thei rbreakthrough.

We all stand upon the shoulders of giants: but we see further when we are supported by a human pyramid of dedicated scientists we never get to read books about too:  it’s good to be reminded of that fact.  The Hollywood Myth of the maverick who takes on the system and wins is endearing and sells books; but in the end the mountains of journal articles, the decades collecting specimens, and the humble assistance of the  millions who selflessly dedicate their lives to increasing human knowledge counts for more.

Essay won the Richard Dawkins Forum Science Writing Contest, January 2010

Richard Dawkins Forum Science Writing Contest damns Darwin! 😉


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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8 Responses to Damning Darwin: The Perils of Myth-making in the History of Science

  1. paul cornell says:

    not quite sure my ‘i’ve been up all night to a Take That- what am i saying but yes it is catchy’ tune brain can digest some weighty matters sufficiently to evoke a reasoned worthy response but i do love th smashing orangey Scotty bit in the middle’ enjoyable if appealing to the intellectual minority who ranks today I wait outside of selling roses, snowshoes and suitably worded obituaries to their greatness…………………

  2. paul cornell says:

    after i reached the summit of my lyrical greatness ghostwriting David Brent’s poetry and who can forget the effervescent sublime irony of my finest line “I stabbed my cock in her lake”…. i moved away from the spotlight to a quiet corner to focus on somthing that is lost but cannot be found….. i emerge, freshly vacerated and onerously upright, such are age’s bedfellows, “i stab again into the homemade rice pudding coated with honey, adorned with oat cakes, the burning fire shooting through the edifice is all consuming, i succumb…” reference to DT’s wallpost today is purely coincidental…..

  3. paul cornell says:

    A serious piece on Darwin to David Brent’s cock…. who is responsible? i’ll have his head on a platter with 4 x large fries, 4 sides and a 1.5 l bottle of pure poison….

  4. Mo says:

    Terrific post CJ, very interesting and thought-provoking! I guess I should maybe take more baths instead of showers.

  5. Pingback: Bad Religion? « DaveD's Blog

  6. DaveD says:

    How did that happen? All I did was post a link to this article on my blog! If I’d known it was going to show up as a comment here, I’d have tried to be more erudite!

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