Robert Wright takes apart Agustín Fuentes’s critique of Darwin

May 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

On May 22 I discussed, or rather criticized sharply, a takedown of Darwin published in Science by by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University. This year is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s two-part book: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. And while there was a good article in the same issue of Science by three other researchers , Fuentes’s short takedown, while it did at least note Darwin’s book had some merit, wound up being a misguided and highly woke critique calling out Darwin for racism, sexism and misogyny. My article pointed out some of Fuentes’s errors; I’ll mention just two of them.

First, Fuentes claimed that Darwin’s view of sexual selection in animals and humans involved female passivity and male choice, ergo it was misogynistic, denying females a role in evolution. (There may, however, indeed be cases where females are passive, as when males compete with each other—e.g., elephant seals or deer—and females are constrained to mate with the winner. Is it really useful to say that male-male competition for females is a misogynistic view? But most theories of sexual selection, including Darwin’s, involve both male traits and behaviors and female preferences for those traits and behaviors, so Fuentes didn’t even get his biology right.

The second involves Fuentes’s ridiculous assertion that Darwin’s views justified genocide and colonialism. As I wrote, quoting Fuentes:

Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:

[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others.

Again, Fuentes didn’t do his homework, for he was eager to convince the world that Darwin, who was far more liberal in his views than most of his Victorian peers (he was, for one thing, an abolitionist), was riddled with moral failings.

Here’s one more beef I had before we move on to Robert Wright’s critique. I wrote this:

Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin.

As a friend wrote me:

This kind of anachronistic moralization has been neatly exposed by the philosopher Robbie George – way, way, to the religious right of us, but clever and broad-minded (he’s joined with Cornel West in defending academic freedom). George asked his class whether if they had been antebellum Southerners they would have opposed slavery, and of course all of them—preposterously—claim they would have been abolitionists. A moral version of the Fundamental Attribution Error – people think that people who hold bad beliefs must be bad people.

Likewise, I’m sure that had Fuentes been a contemporary of Darwin, his views would have been at least as misogynistic, racist, and colonialist as Darwin’s. So where does he get off using today’s morality to go after a man of the nineteenth century?

But I digress. Another person who offers a thorough critique of Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing is author Robert Wright. I have often disagreed with Wright, but I’m with him 100% in this article from his Substack site (click on the screenshot):

Like Fuentes did towards Darwin, Wright offers some tepid praise for Fuentes’s hit job:

There are things about this essay I like. For example: I understood it, which distinguishes it from many things written by contemporary anthropologists. Also, it’s hard to argue with its claim that Darwin said things about race and gender that would get a guy canceled today. (As one person put it on Twitter, Darwin, “was 19th century euro upper class. It’d be stranger if he WASN’T ‘problematic’ by today’s standards.”)

That is, Fuentes’s piece is laudable because one can understand it. Not high praise! Also, Darwin’s views on race and gender have been well known for years to clash with modern sensibilities, so that’s not new.

But then Wright swings his hammer, and his concern is pretty much the same as mine: Darwin’s supposed justification of genocide. Wright correctly sees a logical error here:

Here’s the confusion: In reading Darwin, Fuentes fails to distinguish between an explanation of something and a justification of something.

The error:

Here’s the assertion by Fuentes that, so far as I can tell, is flat-out wrong. After (accurately) writing that Darwin “asserted evolutionary differences between races,” he adds: “He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through ‘survival of the fittest.’ ”

I’ve read a fair amount of Darwin, and I don’t remember him defending imperialism or genocide. So I asked Fuentes on Twitter if he could back up that claim by providing actual quotes from The Descent of Man. He didn’t oblige me, but he did direct me to chapter 7. So I pulled my copy of Descent off my bookshelf and took a look.

So Wright contacted Fuentes and asks for evidence that Darwin justified imperialism and genocide. Fuentes doesn’t respond properly, but just points to a chapter in Darwin’s book. Unfortunately for Fuentes, Wright read that chapter and found that while Darwin explains why races supplant each other, he never justifies it. Wright gives several quotes about how tribes drive each other to extinction, but there is nothing even close to the view that Darwin is “justifying genocide” or approving of mass killing.

Wright then goes on to give the well-known evidence that Darwin was often horrified by the damage and pain wrought by natural selection as it eliminates ill-adapted individuals. And, as we know, that Darwin correctly believed in monogenesis: that all “races” and groups of human descended from a single common ancestor.  Here’s a bit from Wright with a very famous quote from Darwin:

Anyone who wants to join Fuentes in arguing that Darwin is trying to justify genocide runs into a couple of problems.

First: Wouldn’t it be odd if, in the very chapter of Descent which argues that all groups of humans have an equal claim to being human, Darwin’s intended message was that wiping some of them out is a good thing?

Second, and more important: Fuentes’s interpretation of chapter 7 is at odds with other evidence about Darwin’s sensibilities. In The Origin of Species, Darwin goes on and on about why some kinds of animals flourish and others don’t and why some animals succeed in killing other animals and how such lethal skills are favored by natural selection. He maintains an air of clinical detachment throughout, as he does in chapter 7 of Descent. Yet we know from his personal correspondence that he was so horrified by the cruelty of nature—the cruelty that is both a product of and an engine of natural selection—that he found it hard to reconcile with religious faith.

He wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

Does that sound like a man who would want to justify the mass suffering of human beings?

On Twitter, I pressed Fuentes on what exactly he meant when he said Darwin had offered a “justification” for imperialism and genocide. He said, “by justification i mean ‘the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.’ ”

I suppose Fuentes could try to wiggle out of my indictment by underscoring the “or” in “right or reasonable” and then insisting he meant “reasonable” in some value-free way. Such as: Darwin was trying to give explanations for group extinction that are “reasonable” just in the sense of being “plausible.” But if that’s what Fuentes meant, then he’s basically saying that by “justify” he didn’t mean “justify.”

Indeed!  Fuentes is conflating what Darwin thought was true in nature (and he may have been wrong) with Darwin’s approval of nature. In other words, Fuentes committed the classic “naturalistic fallacy”: equating what happens in the wild with what is good or worthy of approval.

Wright winds up with one more zinger leveled at Fuentes:

. . . if we don’t understand why bad things happen, it will be harder to prevent their recurrence. So if you’re against imperialism and genocide, maybe you should be careful about casually accusing people of being in favor of them when your only evidence is that they want to understand them.

Good job, Robert!

Although some of us predicted that the Pecksniffs would eventually come after Darwin, other readers said that wouldn’t happen. Well, it did, and perhaps more is in store. But if the best job that can be done is one like Fuentes’s, it’s not a convincing indictment of Darwin as an immoral racist, sexist, and colonialist.

For sure Darwin wasn’t perfect by modern moral lights. But he was more liberal, and more kind, than most Brits in his position, and why should we worry so much about Darwin’s morality when what’s important is his science? The morality of Victorian days is largely gone, but the science remains.

I’d like to think that, in the future, instead of being known as “The man who took down Darwin,” Fuentes will be known as “The Pecksniff who went after Darwin but failed to score a hit.”  The man’s scholarship is shoddy, and his piece looks like an excuse to flaunt Fuentes’s own moral superiority—or the moral superiority of moderns over Victorians. But if you want to hear about moral improvement without the snark and finger-pointing, it’s better to read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. 

h/t: Justin

56 thoughts on “Robert Wright takes apart Agustín Fuentes’s critique of Darwin

  1. This is a great example of the power of free speech. In focusing on one topic, I inadvertently examined some “side” topics like free will, morality, etc. and :

    “… why should we worry so much about Darwin’s morality when what’s important is his science?“

    I always find myself using the Color of the Bikeshed … idiom …(?)….

    Simply put, the science requires homework, but morality – though there is homework – is easy to expound upon at length, untethered to anything but one’s own experience.

  2. I fail to see what morality has to do with nature. Nature stands outside morality. Many people find what nature does repugnant & that is one reason why they try to divorce themselves from it. But the universe is indifferent to human values.

    Fortunately!

    1. Nature stands outside morality.

      Then it needs to go back to school and be forced to comply with contemporary mores.

      But the universe is indifferent to human values.

      Ditto. For, of course, certain values of “human”. And of “values”.

  3. I read Wright’s piece last night, from a convenient link on Andrew Sullivan’s twitter. It’s a very good piece, and highlights the danger of summarizing rather than quoting sources (and the warning sign it should be to readers). One can be sure that if Darwin had said, “Let’s kill all the Abos,” then Fuentes would have quoted him. Instead, there are practically no quotes from Darwin in the Fuentes piece, and none even a full sentence long. Likewise, the use of other, comparative sources of Darwin’s opinions by Wright undercuts the genocidal reading given The Descent of Man by Fuentes.

    1. This is an excellent observation: Beware the woke summarizing someone’s views. Beware people that impute things to other but don’t back it up with quotes and citations.

      1. To me it is simply a form of lying. I’ve little doubt that Fuentes, and similar, know that they are disregarding facts, and they believe that doing so in support of their ideological commitments is just fine. I’ve also little doubt that their sense of righteousness would lead them to vehemently reject any accusation of lying, but that’s what they are doing.

        The only other plausible explanation is sheer stupidity. I don’t know or care which Fuentes, or similar, might find more offensive.

        1. Yes, this is true. It’s lying. It’s phony.

          It’s now rank on NPR, my former go-to news source. (It has become an identity politics engine, rather than a news outlet.) The selective reporting they do now is astonishing. Thou shalt not present facts that are not in support of the CRT/Woke playbook.

          1. Today there was an “All Things Considered” segment on Tennessee (as did NC several years ago) passing certain laws pertaining to transpeople, including the use of restrooms. One transman was briefly quoted, introduced by the reporter mentioning that the transman was the father of a son. Wonderful, but how is that relevant? Of course, I contemplated whether he fathered that child. Nothing was mentioned in that regard. He either did, or he did not. It’s not news, and anymore not all that notable, that transpeople have children.

      2. As I like to say about such people, “Just because you infer it doesn’t mean it was implied.” Sometimes these things are just a figurative Rorschach Test.

    2. A very important point. It’s so critical these days to watch out for such tactics, and for things like weasel words and phrases, connecting disconnected groups to one another, misrepresenting sources as far more reliable than they are, etc. So many stories in the media being with “some say,” “a source believes,” “Palestinian health authorities report,” etc. How many is “some”? You can create an article painting all of your political enemies as insane people who believe in the most bonkers conspiracy theory if you just use the phrase “some believe.” You can pretend that a story has significant credibility if you base it on “a source.” You can present as fact civilian death numbers and the method of their deaths if you call Hamas “Palestinian health authorities.”

  4. No one (no one) is except from the pecksniffs.

    I like to put it this way:

    The Woke religion has a new commandment:

    – Thou shalt seek out the worst word spoken or deed done by every person.
    – Each person shall be marked and shamed with that worst word or deed, forever.
    – No person, by virtue of good works, shall ever rise above their mark of infamy.
    – When the Word of the Woke shall be slavishly and supinely obeyed by all, then shall only the pure, the perfect, the blameless, and unblemished be tolerated: The Perfect Woke, alone, shall be recognized.

    1. What you say is true and even worse is that wokeness is fodder for Republicans. In his column at the NYT, Tom Edsall quotes Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore as saying regarding Republicans: “It allows them and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than as aggressive culture warriors seeking to defend their privileges and reverse social change.” The right-wing is not so stupid as to not capitalize on the follies of the ludicrous left. The right-wing, being much better propagandists than the left, have managed to obscure their many and dangerous misdeeds by focusing on the left’s foolishness. As always, it is a sure thing to bet on the far left to shoot itself in the foot. Their inability to learn is astonishing.

      https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/26/opinion/democrats-republicans-wokeness-cancel-culture.html

  5. The error that Fuentes makes is typical of the Woke. If truth is socially constructed, then it follows that no-one can be arguing for something because it is objectively true (since to them there is no such thing as “objectively true”), and hence someone can only be arguing that way because they want it to be true. Hence any “is” statement is interpreted by the Woke as an “I advocate” statement.

    That is how they think themselves in constructing their own ideology, and so this is how they interpret others.

    This is seen starkly — for example — in the sacking of the university professor who was lamenting (and who was upset by the fact) that students “of color” (after being admitted on lower grades) tended to cluster at the bottom of the class. The Woke interpreted her factual statement as meaning “I like it that they cluster at the bottom of the class”, even though her intent was obviously the opposite.

  6. The funny thing about useful idiots like Fuentes is that, despite their adamant protestations that they would have held the morally “correct” views they do now even 150 years ago, they still refuse to criticize people who continue today to hold the views people like Fuentes supposedly find repugnant. Where is their criticism of the vast majority of the Middle East, guided by their religion to treat women as second-class citizens, kill LGBT people and apostates, fund terrorism, and wage wars based on ethnicity and religion? Where is the criticism from Fuentes and his ilk for African tribes that wage war against each other in which they force children to fight, commit ethnic cleansing, and so on, because they consider other tribes inferior? Where is their criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of Uighurs? And on and on we could go.

    They criticize people from 150 years ago (or even 250 years ago, as with the Founding Fathers, or 600 years ago, as with people like Christopher Columbus), and these people often held views that were ahead of their times, as with Darwin and his abolitionism. But let’s be honest: people like Fuentes are not interested in criticizing people who held the “wrong” views. People like Fuentes are usually only interested in criticizing people who (1) were white, European men, (2) will help advance their own careers by their criticism, and (3) serve their larger agenda of “decolonizing” subjects and discrediting a very specific set of researchers, figures, cultures, and schools of thought

      1. Pinker mentioned a quote attributed to Hobbes, from Leviathan, in his talk at Cambridge – this is probably good but I don’t have Leviathan :

        “Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead.”

        Pinker said – best I can transcribe starting at 22:21 :

        “Competition of praise inclineth towards a reverence toward antiquity for men compete with the living, not the dead.

        [Pinker] to criticize the current state of the world is a backhanded way of criticizing your professional rivals. ”

        Pinker’s talk : https://youtu.be/uq1KK65XJK0

        … that Pinker quoted that on a dime was impressive!

      2. They can, but us unbelievers can’t hear them – I guess we’ll just have to take it on trust…!

        1. D’oh – that was a reply to Robert’s “It’s also easier to criticize dead people, since they can’t respond”. Maybe they’re using WordPress…

    1. I can fully agree, but for Columbus. Even his contemporaries considered him an excessively cruel, bloodthirsty and vain man. He was even thrown in jail for his horrible treatment of the Tainos, but Ferdinand -always greedy for gold- pardoned him after a few weeks.

      1. And the rest of Europe recognized Spain’s supremacy in cruelty to conquered peoples. There may have been some jealously of Spain’s New World gold in that assessment.

  7. This guy was hired, tenured and promoted to full at Princeton??? The most charitable interpretation of that fact is that his brain runs straight biology much better than the mush he seems to be using in coming to his sociopolitical conclusions about ethics. On the other hand, anthropology has over a couple of generations devolved into one of the wokest fields the social, um, `sciences’. So possibly his colleagues have no problem with crap thinking as long as it’s aligned with social justice piety in just the right ways.

    1. I’ve heard before that there has long been a rift in anthropology, with one camp taking a science based approach and the other taking a humanities based approach. Perhaps GBJames (a regular here that, if I remember correctly, had a career in anthropology) will drop by and comment on this. I can say that my personal experience with anthropologists suggests that this could be true. Some seem to work with evidence like scientists while others seem to make up noble just so stories much like bad philosophers.

      1. I earned an MS in anthro and worked in the field for a bit. In my experience, most of the field’s output is tainted by a nonsensical commitment to blank slate interpretations of human behavior and culture—even when its practitioners otherwise accept the notion of a knowable external reality that can be understood with reason and evidence. But that in itself—an appreciation of the special value of reason and evidence as tools for understanding reality—is rare. Many practicing anthropologists tacitly or explicitly endorse some brand of “other ways of knowing” nonsense and reject science as a tool of Western oppression.

        That said, there are still plenty of good scientists who work within the field (Agustin Fuentes is not one of them). They are just the exception to the rule—an alienated subset of scrupulous researchers amid hordes of very silly people who seriously entertain scores of very silly ideas. I doff my cap to those folks. Human evolution, behavior, and culture are worthy of serious scientific study. Doing that as a modern anthropologist takes some real gumption.

        1. It’s really a shame, because given how complex human society and behavior is, and how important the potential understandings could be, we should really want to have our very best minds working in the field. Physics is easy (in a sense), sociology is hard…at least if you do it right.

        2. @ Zane: Back in my day (which is at this point a long way off in the rear view mirror!) you had people doing what was then called ecological systems theory in the field—basically, adopting a materialist causal framework to determine how a range of variables (fertility, carrying capacity of the land, epidemiology, etc.) led to certain ways of organizing work for optimal productivity, and how these factors impinged on kinship and marriage practices and religious/cosmological beliefs and practices. Detailed quantitative models were generated by adherents to this paragidm (I’m thinking of names like Andrew Vayda, Marvin Harris, and of course the great Julian Steward).

          And then, of course, you had the Levi-Straussians….

          What you and Darrelle are saying strongly suggests that not that much has changed!

        3. Thanks for the view from within. I’ve always thought anthropology is a worthwhile and fascinating field of study.

      2. There are ‘cultural anthropologists’ and ‘biological’ or ‘physical’ anthropologists. For some historical reason, people who use standard techniques and theoretical frameworks of mammalogy to study primates get departmentalized with the dogmatic blank-slaters of the cultural variety.

    2. Regarding who is worthy of tenure, there’s a big push for, oposition to, and kerfuffle about Nikole Hannah-Jones becoming a tenured full professor in the school of journalism at the Univ. of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Of course easily-enough found on the web. If memory serves me, her two predecessors were granted full professorships with tenure. I don’t know what their credentials were and are. To view it from a rather narrow perspective, for the sake of consistency, and to preserve the privilege of academic departments to grant tenure, perhaps she should be granted tenure as a full professor. At the same time, the university should be pressed to justify why Ph.D. assistant professors, after years of rigorous training in the STEM fields (vis-a-vis that of Hannah-Jones in the obviously incredibly arduous field of journalism), are not given tenure on day one. I’m reminded that Harvard declined to give Carl Sagan (Univ. of Chicago alum) tenure. I guess he indulged in too much journalism for their taste. How dare Sagan advocate for the public understanding of science.

  8. As Coel points or in post #5, the naturalistic fallacy is the root of most of the censoring zealotry on the woke Left: if anything in the existing world is disapproved, then any discussion of its existence as an objective fact is taboo. Hence the prohibition of mentioning the biological differences between the sexes, or the existence of slavery in every society in history, etc. etc. Ultimately, we can expect the wokies to try to cancel discussion of Darwinian evolution altogether, because natural selection does not follow the dictates of of the university committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

    Coel’s other interesting point is that the attitude stems from the postmodernist delusion that the entire world is “socially constructed”, i.e., made of words rather than things. I am inclined to see this delusion as typical of individuals who deal only with words and never or rarely with physical objects. This superstition of word magic—call it Wordolatry—used to be the core of Theology, and has returned in the form of Critical this or that “Theory” and other doctrines of the Woke. No wonder, given that they worship words as the primary reality, that they sometimes make a huge fuss about the mere pronunciation of a taboo word, or of anything that sounds like one.

      1. Do the Woke not yet have a problem with the spellings of the names of two African countries, Niger and Nigeria?

    1. Nature is (a rather big) part of reality. But the problem is that the wokies appear to believe that reality is just something else that is socially constructed, in which case it’s saturated with morality considerations. The very act of declaring that reality itself has nothing to do with moral assessments is now very close to being declared a cancelable offense…

  9. Many thanks to PCC(E) for continuing to take down the effusions of this pompous pseud, and for posting Robert Wright’s devastating piece. I might add that there is more intellectual heft and content in many of the comments above than Fuentes seems capable of producing in his entire article.

    This post holds particular resonance for me today, because my wife and I have spent a good part of the day visiting Down House, where Darwin lived for 40 years, and which is now open again following the lifting of the lockdown. We had not been there for over 30 years, when we were living in a neighbouring village, and we were just blown away once more. It is inexpressibly moving to witness the place where Darwin lived and worked, to see his personal possessions, and to recall how he and his family grew and flourished. There is also a really good exhibition setting out the genesis of the ‘Origin’ and its reception, including of course due credit to the independent work of Alfred Russel Wallace. I do recommend it to any visitor to the UK – when we’re allowed to welcome you back.

    And afterwards we had lunch in Darwin’s local, and a 5-mile walk through fairly unspoiled countryside less than 25 miles from central London.

  10. The question in my mind is “What was Agustín Fuentes trying to achieve?”

    Was he signalling his virtue? Was he burnishing his publication credentials? Was he trying to undermine scientific anthropology? Was he trying to put the record straight (he did a poor job)? Was he trying to re-instate the Blank Slate? Was he jumping on a passing bandwagon?

    I have no idea.

  11. Fuentes is a Physical Anthropologist? There’s no excuse for this sort of ignorance. Where did he get his degree? What’s happened to my old discipline?

  12. There’s a new word for what this virtue-signaling academic is doing and it is on the tip of my tongue: chrono-someting: chronocentricism maybe?: to judge historical people on today’s mores. Pathetic.

    Soon EVERY-BODY will be cancelled. I bet Beethoven and Martin Luther King Jr didn’t approve of homosexuality for instance. Cancel them also? So idiotic.
    D.A.
    NYC

  13. While Huxley was Darwin’s bulldog, it appears we still need a pack of wild dogs to protect the man and his theory of evolution on several fronts. A Doberman, some rottweilers, a few collies, maybe even some chihuahuas.

  14. Permit me to speculate about motives. I speculate that wokely believers are not going after Darwin for the expressed reasons—as others point out, Dr.Fuentes’ case against Darwin for conventional Victorian views is pretty thin. No, I suspect that, at root, what offends the most pious of the woke is precisely the great discovery made by Darwin and Wallace.

    Natural selection means that some genotypes leave more descendants than others, which is not the woke summum bonum of Equity of outcome—in which all categories should be equally represented. Worse still, selection operates on genetically determined phenotypes—so, there is that dread bugaboo of Biological Determinism, instead of the woke daydream of the perfectly blank slate, on which it is society which inscribes everything. In other words, evolution by natural selection is exactly contrary to two different elements of the woke catechism. Therefore, I suggest that they go after Darwin—as they are also going after Human Genetics—because, at bottom, what they wish to cancel is the natural world in which evolution by natural selection takes place.

    1. “No, I suspect that, at root, what offends the most pious of the woke is precisely the great discovery made by Darwin and Wallace.”

      Big, high value figures, who have made high visibility discoveries or were otherwise famous or well regarded.

      Of course, I don’t pay attention to everything going on – the small potatoes they might dig into.

  15. I don’t really buy the argument that Fuentes has no business criticizing Darwin because he would have been at least as racist as Darwin if he had been in the same social milieu. Even if that is true, why does it mean he can’t criticize Darwin’s racism? You are (as am I) a determinist, so you surely believe that if, say, you had been subject to the exact same influences as, say, David Duke, you would have been as racist as him. The difference between your racism and his is quite plausibly largely attributable to the different environments you experience (although probably there are some genetic factors involved as well). Does that mean you don’t get to criticize Duke’s racism because you would have been just as bad had you been in his position?

    1. There is a relevant difference between the scenarios you present. Both Darwin and David Duke were / are well outside the norms of the societies they lived in. Darwin was ahead of his time, on the positive side, regarding attitudes about race while David Duke is an outlier on the negative side relative to the society he lives in.

      1. I live in an extremely religious country, unfortunately full of people with fundamentalist beliefs. My parents are pretty religious, but much more moderate in their beliefs than the norm for my country. I still think their religious beliefs are worthy of criticism. I hold them to a standard of objective rationality, not rationality relative to their average compatriot.

        1. I don’t think that “objective rationality” can carry the water you want it to. For one, what qualifies as objectively rational at any point in time is dependent on what is known.

          1. Yes! Bayes’ Theorem and likelihood! It is how beliefs get _updated_!

            To borrow an idiom, if your beliefs don’t get updated, you’re kaput!

    2. “I don’t really buy the argument that Fuentes has no business criticizing Darwin because he would have been at least as racist as Darwin if he had been in the same social milieu”

      Please provide the exact quotation being refuted by this argument.

      1. “I’m sure that had Fuentes been a contemporary of Darwin, his views would have been at least as misogynistic, racist, and colonialist as Darwin’s. So where does he get off using today’s morality to go after a man of the nineteenth century?”

        1. OK, thank you.

          FWIW, my impression of the combined meaning of those two sentences does not mean Fuentes “has no business criticizing Darwin” – clearly, he does, it is welcome, anyone is free to do so, and we are good with that, etc.

          I think the jist of two sentences is that extrapolating from our current, ongoing, nascent morals back some 100 years or more is the move that is outrageous. I think a number of comments here point to things that support that idea.

          Technically, the expression “where does he get off” – which I’d have to look up like usual – is clearly not analytical, but colloquial – and, of course, imprecise. Personally, I think the expression was perfect in this case.

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