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Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years, Part 2

Reissue of the 1962 revised edition of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution

Reissue of the 1962 revised edition of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution

In part 1 it was demonstrated that Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution is the book Darwinists love to hate. In order to understand why a rather detailed examination is required. Of course, this is a big biography and an exhaustive account cannot be given here, but a summary investigation will make the source of the Darwinist’s discomfort obvious.

Darwin is divided into six “books”: 1) “Pre-history of the Hero;” 2) “Emergence of the Hero;” 3) “Emergence of the Theory;” 4) “Reception of the Origin;” 5) “Analysis of the Theory;” and 6) “Darwinism.” The first four books are an interesting read and provide a valuable backdrop to the treatment that follows, but Himmelfarb is weakest on Darwin’s early years. She completely passes over Darwin’s Edinburgh period where he joined the Plinian Society in November of 1826 and attended all but one of the ensuing 19 meetings until April of 1827. According to Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, this was young Charles’ introduction to “seditious science.” While this is crucial in understanding the development of Darwin’s theory, it will not be gleaned from this book.

Also, Himmelfarb believes that Darwin was uninterested in and ill-equipped to appreciate the philosophical implications of his theory. Probably a better suggestion is that Darwin wasn’t so much disinterested in philosophy as he was just a bad philosopher, or at least a very superficial one. She as much as admits Darwin’s anemic reading in the field: “What little reading he did in philosophy was parochial in the extreme. . . . It is difficult to take seriously a discussion that had, as its most frequently cited moralist and philosopher, the historian William Lecky” (p. 375).1 When Darwin appended a list of moral philosophers he had relied upon in preparing his Descent, philosophers he “assured” his readers that they would be familiar with, Himmelfarb notes that 26 were British “and that [they] are today, quite as assuredly, entirely unknown.”

Nevertheless, what Himmelfarb misses in the early years she more than makes up for in the last two books devoted to an analysis of the theory and the ideological ism that it would turn into. Here in these two sections more than anywhere else reside the sources of anger, revilement, and consternation for the Darwinists.

For Himmelfarb Darwin’s presentation of his theory is most vulnerable  not in his marshaling of evidence but rather in his means of handling it. “What Darwin was doing, in effect, ” she observes, “was creating a ‘logic of possibility.’ Unlike conventional logic, where the compound of possibilities results not in a greater possibility, or probability, but in a lesser one, the logic of the Origin was one in which possibilities were assumed to add up to probability” (p. 334). Essentially, Himmelfarb accuses Darwin of making an argument from ignorance:

As possibilities were promoted into probabilities, and probabilities into certainties, so ignorance itself was raised to a position only once removed from certain knowledge. When imagination exhausted itself and Darwin could devise no hypothesis to explain away the difficulty, he resorted to the blanket assurance that we were too ignorant of the ways of nature to know why one event occurred rather than another, and hence ignorant of the explanation that would reconcile the facts to his theory. When one botanist argued that his theory was contradicted by the fact that some forms remained unaltered through long periods of time and wide expanse of space, Darwin admitted the objection to be “formidable in appearance, and to a certain extent in reality.” But this did not deter him:

“Does not the difficulty rest much on our silently assuming that we know more than we do? . . . . Certainly a priori we might have anticipated that all the plants anciently introduced into Australia would have undergone some modification; but the fact that they have not been modified does not seem to me a difficulty of weight enough to shake a belief grounded on other arguments.”

Somehow the fact that no adequate explanation suggested itself today seemed a warrant for the belief that such an explanation would suggest itself in the future, and the explanation, moreover, would be bound to vindicate his theory.  Thus the argument from ignorance was made the prelude to a confident affirmation: 

“‘We are far too ignorant, in almost every case, to be enabled to assert that any part or organ is so unimportant for the welfare of a species that modifications in its structure could not have been slowly accumulated by means of natural selection. But we may confidently believe . . . ”

It may be objected, however, that in the logic of science, as in the logic of grammar, three negatives do not normally constitute a positive.

To be sure, a scientific theory that explains equally well a variety of contradictory phenomena may still be true; there are reputable theories that cannot, in this sense, be falsified, and hypothetical reasoning is a legitimate, even necessary, scientific technique. The difficulty with natural selection, however, is that if it explains too much, it also explains too little, and that the more questionable of its hypotheses lie at the heart of its thesis. Posing as a massive deduction from the evidence, it ends up as an ingenious argument from ignorance (pp. 335-336).

This kind of writing infuriates Darwin’s defenders who are not used to such frank talk coming from the likes of a historian. And yet Himmelfarb is not the only one. Many have followed her in questioning Darwin’s logic and his argument (see, for example, William Irwin Thompson, At the Edge of  History, 1971; Robert Henry Peter, “Tautology in Evolution and Ecology,” American Naturalist, 1976, and “Predictable Problems with Tautology in Evolution and Ecology,” American Naturalist, 1978; Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, 1985; Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere, 1986; Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science, 1988;  R. F. Baum, Doctors of Modernity: Darwin, Marx & Freud, 1988; Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 1993; David Stove, Darwinian Fairy Tales, 1995; Didier Maleuvre, “Can We Believe in Darwin?,” Comparative Literature, 2001; James Le Fanu, Why Us?, 2009). Nevertheless, despite skeptics, Darwin’s theory was able to rise as the reigning paradigm in biology and moreover retain that status to the present day. How so?

Himmelfarb offers a couple of reasons, neither of which was based upon the weight of any purported evidence. Quoting a letter from Darwin to Asa Gray on December 21, 1859,  Origin‘s author recommended that the book, released that previous month, be read by “intelligent men, accustomed to scientific argument, though [curiously enough] not naturalists.” But as Himmelfarb notes, “What he [Darwin] did not properly appreciate, however, was that it was less as intelligent men ‘accustomed to scientific argument’ that they judged and approved the Origin than as intelligent men susceptible to philosophical prejudice” (p. 296). More specifically, it was the anfractuous nature of the argument itself that worked mischievously on its behalf:

 It was probably less the weight of the facts than the weight of the argument that was impressive. The reasoning was so subtle and complex as to flatter and disarm all but the most wary intelligence. Only upon close inspection do the faults of the theory emerge. And this close inspection, by the nature of the case, was largely vouchsafed. The points were so intricately argued that to follow them at all required considerable patience and concentration–an expenditure of effort which was itself conducive to acquiescence. Only those determined in advance to be hostile were likely to maintain a vigilant and hence critical attitude. In his rapid volley of expectations, where one might fail, another would hit the mark, and where one line of defense had to be abandoned, another was hastily erected. And there were few to point out that in the strategy of reason, as in the strategy of warfare, the cause was not better served by a succession of feeble defenses than by a single strong one.

More important, however, than any assets which Darwin’s theory might be thought to possess was the bankruptcy of his opponents.  The only serious rival, as a general theory, was creation (pp. 350-351).

Indeed Himmelfarb is right. William Paley’s venerable argument that a watch found in the field suggested a watchmaker was a seemingly powerful analogy for design and teleology in nature. However, at the time he made it in 1802 few details were known about complexity in the natural world. Paley’s apologetic could in many ways be answered by prior skeptics like David Hume. Paley’s waxing eloquent on the divine beauty of his garden looked more like romantic effusion than sober analysis, and he often saw God’s hand in virtually everything in nature raising the question (as Darwin himself did), if God is omniscient and benevolent then whither evil and pain? Paley and the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises insisted that all creation demonstrated God’s manifest “infinite wisdom and power and goodness.” Cornelius G. Hunter is quite correct in his Darwin’s Proof when he notes, “Natural theology was lopsided. Yes, the world is amazing, but the natural theologian’s happy view of nature could hardly be justified in light of the real world. It is easy to see why this version of natural theology supplied a ready source of material  for its opponents” (p. 90).

But there is yet a third reason why Darwin’s Origin was so readily accepted; Himmelfarb has already alluded to it when she suggested that Darwin’s supporters were found among those already philosophically inclined to accept it. This is an important point and one that she concludes with in assessing the nature of the so-called Darwinian revolution. Skeptic and freethinking philosophers had clearly prepared the way for a wholly naturalistic account of creation and biological life.

But what of the theory itself. Once launched, how did Darwin himself handle the responses to and further development of his evolutionary theory? Here Himmelfarb is at her best.  In order to fully appreciate Darwin’s theory as it fully “blossomed” (perhaps metastasized is a better word) the Descent of Man must also be examined.  It is clear that, over time, Darwin demonstrated a discernible retreat from his theory of natural selection, instead turning to two subsidiary but increasingly important notions to address assorted problems: one was pangenesis, the other was sexual selection. Pangenesis proposed that gemmules, “shed” by body cells and containing hereditary information, collect in the reproductive organs and play a key role in inheritance. For Darwin, pangenesis (today thoroughly discredited) explained blended inheritance, reversion to ancestral types, limb re-generation, and even Lamarckian concepts of use and disuse. Of course genetics changed all of this. There is no inheritance of acquired characteristic and inheritance is a discrete mixture not a “blended” process. When Dutch botanist Hugo De Vries tried to create a permanent change of type by the selection of existent variations, he found that he could not. When his ear of corn with an extra row of kernels was no longer subjected to his careful crossing with select specimens, they reverted back to normal. Mutations, it seems, would have done the trick where selection had failed. Thus, natural selection was vindicated over pangenesis and neo-Darwinians were quick to re-frame Darwinian theory by changing “variation” to “mutation.” In effect, natural selection becomes a “court of last appeal” in the process. When it was discovered that favorable mutations are extremely rare in nature, neo-Darwinists then insisted that this simply goes to “prove” the very power of natural selection, which is able to surmount such formidable odds. “The neo-Darwinians, it is apparent,” comments an unconvinced Himmelfarb, “are as adroit as Darwin in making a virtue of necessity and in converting difficulties into assets” (p. 329).

But Darwin also increasingly relied on sexual selection as an adjunct to natural selection, and a considerable portion his Descent was spent laying  out its features. Here Darwin argued that some traits evolved not through interspecies competition but through intraspecies competition, the selection of mates and breeding those traits deemed most desirable into the species.  So while the natural superior strength of the male was obvously derived through natural selection, he attributed the beard to be “an ornament to charm or excite the opposit sex.” For Darwin music and the “sweeter voice” of the female were all explained as accoutrements for sexual attraction. Alfred Russel Wallace thought all this sexual selection talk was nonsense. Wallace, who had spent nearly twelve years with indigenous peoples, from South American natives of the Uaupés River Valley to Dyak headhuntersin Borneo, pointed out to Darwin that tribal women rarely if ever sing and that what an Englishman might value as a “sweeter” voice was  thoroughly uninteresting to the aboriginal peoples he knew. Even if certain cultures could be found where some women did sing, the result would seem to be a zero sum gain for the sexual selection theory and thus no explanation at all. In short, Himmelfrab points out, “Sexual selection has all the faults of natural selection and more:  the suspicious facility with which it can be made to explain anything and everything, the manipulation of evidence for whatever purposes are convenient, and the invocation of ignorance when all else fails. Ignorance is resorted to even in so crucial a matter as the intellectual disparity between man and the apes” (p. 366).

Here again we are treated to a litany of guesses and conjectures. If man is “closely allied to the higher Simiæ,” as Darwin suggested to the Marquis de Saporta, and is, in fact, descended from some primate ancestor then a naturalistic explanation for the development of speech, that uniquely human characteristic, might go a long way in revealing the process of divergence from our animal ancestors. Darwin suggested that speech and language may indeed account for humanity’s great intellectual advance. Here, Darwin suggested, this most distinctive of human attributes probably originated in “the imitation and modification of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries, aided by signs and gestures.” Darwin then leans on sexual selection to invest early man with “true musical cadences, that is in singing” speculating by “a widely spread analogy, that this power would have been especially exerted during courtship of the sexes . . . .”2 Of course, Wallace’s experience among native peoples didn’t bear this out, but Darwin used it and maintained it anyway.

But this forced Darwin into an even more difficult conundrum. How could grunts and groans develop into intelligible speech unless a brain sufficiently advanced to develop it already existed? Darwin merely relied upon some “early progenitors of man,” but wasn’t this precisely what Darwin had called upon speech to explain?  As for other behaviors deemed utterly counter to the good of the group–his shock at the “utter licentiousness” and “unnatural crimes” of many tribal cultures–Darwin simply explained them away as evidence of their “insufficent powers of reasoning.” Given all the foregoing, one is forced to agree with Himmelfarb: “When there are more exceptions to the rule than exemplifications of it, it would seem time to abandon the rule” (p. 373).

Why did Darwin retreat from natural selection into subsidiary notions of pangenesis and sexual selection? Was Darwin simply adrift in theories? Himmelfarb keenly explains:

It was not, however, without cause that he [Darwin] abandoned natural selection. What forced his hand was the realization that natural selection was untenable as the main explanation either for the development of man from the animals or for distinctions of race and sex. Natural selection assumed that beneficial variations alone would be preserved. The difficulty was that “the races of man differ from each other and from their nearest allies amongst the lower animals, in certain characters which are of no service to them in their ordinary habits of life.” The advantage of sexual selection was that it did not have to prove utility. . . . More and more, the Lamarckian principle of the inherited effects of use and disuse came to replace natural selection” (pp. 366-367).

This too would define Wallace’s break with Darwin. For Wallace, sexual selection and pangenesis were unnecessary. Instead, he (in true orginal Darwinian fashion!) stuck with the original formulation: natural selection was guided and directed by the naturalistic principle of utility. But the very thing which defined it also limited it for Wallace. How could one satisfactorily account for the mind of man? For that matter, what explains the origin of life before there was a principle of utility in operation? For Wallace, the answer was to be found in a teleological universe directed by an “Overruling Intelligence.” For Darwin, of course, this was unacceptable. But, as Himmelfarb’s cogent analysis demonstrated, neither were Darwin’s wholly naturalistic ones.

In the next post the social applications of Darwinian evolution as it moved from theory to ideology, from “science” to ism, will be discussed . Also examined will be Himmelfarb’s assessment of the so-called Darwinian Revolution. Stay tuned . . .


1All page references are to the 1962 revised edition reissued as an “Elephant Paperback” by Ivan R. Dee, 1996. ISBN: 1-56663-106-8.

2Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, and Selection in Its Relation to Sex (1871; reprinted, Barnes & Noble, 2004), pp. 71-72.

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2 Responses to Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years, Part 2

  1. Perhaps Charles Darwin was no more and no less than a child of his times.

    Was Charles Darwin an idealist? Did his arguments incorporate the same structure as the philosophers of his time?

    What is interesting about Himmelfarb, is that she points out from Darwin’s own arguments just what it is that his theory explains.

    Need an explanation for perfection?
    Darwin supplies it.

    Need an explanation for imperfection? Darwin supplies it.

    Need an explanation for why imperfections aren’t moving towards perfection? Darwin supplies it.

  2. Very good post.

    In one sense, Darwin knew exactly what he was about—he wanted to get God out of nature. But at the same time, he was also blind to the philosophical consequences of his own initiative. He thought that he had identified a power in nature that was leading to enlightenment and happiness without the help of God and was oblivious to the fact that removing God from nature would lead to the darkness and despair seen in Modernism.

    Why his glowing reception among the elites? Simple—he was their tool. Just as they embraced Einstein not because of the elegance of his mathematics or the truthfulness of his theory but because “relativity” overthrew Transcendentalism with its twin pillars of Space and Time, so they embraced Darwin because Natural Selection appeared to render Transcendentalism obsolete.

    Nihilism was ascendent in Darwin’s day. Philosophers like Nietzsche, Marx and Freud wanted to go “beyond” Transcendentalism and start something radical and new by claiming that God was dead. Darwin’s theory gave them the scientific justification they needed. None of them were equipped to make objective judgments about Darwin’s theory as science—nor did they care. Darwin was convincing and convenient, and they were glad to lift him up on their shoulders.

    “Sexual Selection” became increasingly prominent in the Descent because Darwin realized that “Natural Selection” is value-neutral. There is no logical reason for Natural Selection per se to lead to qualitative improvements in nature—to produce, for example, the highly defined species, or the great beauty of the butterflies that he loved to rave about. Sexual Selection seemed different, however. All of the sudden butterflies had a motive for getting beautiful.

    Sexual Selection was a perfect storm of a phrase for the budding Modern age. Sex was one of the primary weapons the Nihilists used in their assault upon God, and Darwin’s phrase made sex seem almost Godlike itself—a shaper of better things. In short, Sexual Selection was perfectly attuned to the Zeitgeist. Whether Darwin was consciously aware of this is an open question, but what cannot be questioned is that he had an uncanny aptitude for putting his finger in the wind.

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