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Public Darwin myths slammed by science historian

Here’s how Cambridge’s Jim Enderby’s review of some recent Darwin books begins:

On the morning of November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species made its first appearance and the world changed forever. An age of faith was plunged into profound religious doubt, and believers of every kind rose to pronounce anathema on Darwin’s godless tract, sparking a fresh battle in the long-running war between science and religion. But while the reactionaries raged, the scientific community soon came to accept natural selection, and the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work in 1900 (which marked the founding of modern genetics) set the seal on Darwin’s triumph by providing the missing piece to his puzzle – a scientific understanding of just how inheritance works.

Unfortunately, everything in the previous paragraph is nonsense, apart from the Origin’s publication date (and even that is wrong in Morse Peckham’s recently reissued variorum edition, which claims it was November 26).

Well, there’s not only mythmaking, there is ridiculous hagiography, and more to come with the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth coming up. So it’s good to see some books exploring the reality that contradicts the spin and nonsense.

By the way, I have put up a bunch of new stuff at  the Post-Darwinist and at the Mindful Hack.

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12 Responses to Public Darwin myths slammed by science historian

  1. I am not seeing the ID relevance of this article. Though the portion of the article snipped implies that the author may make a statement that is significant to the ID case, reading the entire article does not bring one to the conclusion that the author is in any way doing so.

  2. One of the things I have picked up in the last couple months is that the fossil findings were only starting to be found in large quantities just prior to Darwin’s book. Also the cellular basis of plants and animals were established only a relatively short time before the Origin, in the late 1820′s. So Darwin’s book was written at a time of great transitions in terms of the understanding of life sciences.

    The other interesting thing that seemed to play a large part in Darwin’s theory was the theodicy issue. While Darwin was clearly influenced by what he saw was the imperfections in life he also was apparently affected by the many negative aspects of life. So he thought life must be formed by disinterested natural laws rather than shaped by the hand of God. This explained why such horrible things could happen as the lost of his daughter and the many afflictions which affected both human and other animals alike. We seem to lose sight of just what were the pressures that led to his book.

    We tend to focus on its shortcomings. It is interesting that Enderby criticizes Darwin’s book not because his basic ideas were flawed but because the science was not yet available to flesh out his theory. So Enderby is another critic of Darwin but not of naturalistic processes causing change. It is amazing that he too cites the Finches which shows just how little is available to justify the theory. If there was anything more substantial, he would certainly use it.

    Also I never saw anyone who analyzed the differences between the first and last editions of Darwin’s book. Just what did he change over time? Anything major? If anyone knows a source for this I would be interested.

  3. Jerry, the following just so story appeared in the first edition of Origins and was dropped later:

    “In North America the black bear was seen . . . swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching, like a whale, insects in the water. Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of insects were constant, and if better adapted competitors did not already exist in the country, I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered . . . more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.

  4. Denyse,
    I was trying to leave a comment on your Mindful Hack site but my computer ignorance conflicted with the complexity of the login process. Are you using a different strategy for comments in that site than in this one? Thanks.

  5. BarryA,

    That is a great “just so”story. Someone should make a list of all the just so stories. I am just starting to listen to the “Origin of Species” so maybe I will start making a list.

    One thing that never seemed to bother anyone including Darwin is the lack of any current “just so” sequences in nature. They all conveniently happened in the past and left no evidence. Could you imagine the gloating if just one existed in today’s world.

  6. Jerry,
    That list will be massive, since evolutionary religionists are very imaginative.

  7. Mats,

    I think if we limited it to the main players such as Darwin and Dawkins or other like Mayr and what might be in textbooks then it might be doable and constructive.

    Maybe we could have a contest here for favorite “just so” stories.

  8. I suppose the opening sentences dramatise the events surrounding the release of origin of species, but the interpretation is somewhat justified, if the population at large believed they we descended from Adam and Eve, and not an ape ancestor!
    Perhaps the views express is correct? What would be a good way to confirm?

  9. jerry: “Just what did [Darwin] change over time? Anything major?”

    A couple of critical changes:

    Darwin stopped referring to variations as “accidental” after the first edition:

    Further we must suppose that there is a power always intently watching each slight accidental alteration…and carefully selecting each alteration which…

    And, of course, after the first edition he added the words I have put in bold:

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one…

    Oops.

    Comparative studies of the various editions of the OOS have definitely been done.

  10. j,

    Do you know where any of those comparative studies are?

  11. How about

    The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Morse Peckham. (“The purpose of this book is to present in systematic order the many variations in the text of the six editions of The Origin of Species”)

    or

    “The six editions of the ‘Origin of Species’. A comparative study,” Helen P. Liepman

  12. j,

    Thank you. I just noticed this.

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