One response to Agustín Fuentes’s Darwin-dissing

June 5, 2021 • 12:45 pm

On May 21 the anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a tirade in Science against Darwin for being racist, sexist, and white supremacist—the inevitable takedown of a man who was far more liberal than his Victorian contemporaries (Darwin was, for one thing, an ardent abolitionist). And yes, Darwin did entertain some views that were racist and sexist, and thought that the white “race” would eventually supplant other groups. But admitting that is only to admit that he was a man of his time, better than most. (I strongly doubt, for example, that Dr. Fuentes, had he lived at that time, would hardly appear to us today as a paragon of morality!). It’s ludicrous to assert that Darwin should have known better and become a saint among his peers.

At any rate, I pointed out the ideological biases and misapprehensions in Fuentes’s article, Robert Wright did an even better job, and several people have submitted letters to Science criticizing Fuentes’s views.  As Wright wrote, Fuentes confused Darwin’s attempts to understand phenomena like group ranking with approval of group ranking; as Wright said: “Here’s the confusion: In reading Darwin, Fuentes fails to distinguish between an explanation of something and a justification of something.” Darwin did not justify colonialism, white supremacy, or slavery, much less genocide (yes, Fuentes accused Darwin of promoting genocide as well), but was exploring the consequences of possible differences between groups in mentation and ability. That is not to say that Darwin didn’t adhere to some ideas we’d consider unacceptable today, but if you read him, you’ll find precious little of that, and much less than you’d find in many others writing in Darwin’s time. 

Now comes another anthropologist, Jonathan Marks, to defend Fuentes and point out Darwin’s “toxic ideas”, as well as criticizing Darwin’s “cult-like” followers. (What is it with anthropologists, anyway?)

As for the “cult”, everybody who knows anything about Darwin knows that his morality did not jibe 100% with modern morality (whose did in the mid 19th century?). Those of us who admire him do so not because he was morally perfect, but because he proposed, in one huge go, a theory that gave pretty much dispositive evidence that organisms evolved, did so slowly, that lineages split, creating a common ancestry between all species, and that the mechanism of adaptive change was natural selection. Those are four or five huge theories, and all have, with time, been shown to be correct. At one go, in one huge book (supplemented by a spate of other ones, including The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex), Darwin rid the world of centuries of incorrect creationist thought and gave rise to a fertile new field with a million new questions to explore. Now that is an accomplishment worth celebrating!

Marks, however, creates a different confusion: between science on the one hand and scientists on the other. Science is the amoral set of tools we use to find out what seems to be true about nature. Scientists are the imperfect human practitioners of science, and have sometimes bent science to bad or harmful ends (but of course they also created vaccines, all kinds of public health measures, and innumerable practical advances as well as improvements in our understanding of the cosmos).

Yet Marks’s letter, which I reproduce below, analogizes Darwin to other “morally dubious scientists” like Viktor Frankenstein.  Marks’s letter would be vastly improved if every time he wrote “science” he wrote “scientists”. Click on the screenshot to go to the letter.

So, are genocide, white superiority, and misogyny really embedded within modern science? Nope. There may be some bigoted scientists, but in my experience they’re rare.

Is science amoral? Yes, but scientists themselves are not. Science is as amoral as is architecture and chemistry, but architects and chemists themselves created gas chambers, biological weapons, and horrible prisons. Let us indict the men who did those bad things, not science itself.

Does “the modern science of human origins and diversity explicitly reject older values like racism, sexism and colonialism”? No, that is part of the morality held by most scientists, but is not part of science itself.  Nor does the modern science of architecture reject racism and genocide.

Does science train its practitioners to recognize and reject those values? No, or at least it shouldn’t, though increasingly science departments get involved in social engineering.  Racism, sexism, and colonialism are moral views, though of course if some people claim that they are supported by scientific evidence, one can examine those claims. But such claims were rejected ages ago.  The few who hold them, like Jim Watson, are universally ostracized.

Does Darwin seem more real now? Not if you know anything about Darwin. He was a human being subject to the prejudices of his age, and not very deeply imbued with those prejudices. I keep wondering why people like Fuentes and Marks keep pointing out what we already know, but pointing it out in exaggerated and sometimes logically fallacious ways (see Wright).

But we know why: it is the Woke Era, and every “hero” must now be scrutinized closely for moral failings. In many cases we do learn unsavory stuff, and can do things like take down statues, but Darwin is not of that ilk. You’ll have to pry my copy of The Descent of Man out of my cold, dead hands.

As for science itself, it remains amoral: it is a set of tools for studying reality. Let us at least be sentient enough to recognize the difference between a toolkit and the carpenter who might use a wrench when he should be using a screwdriver.

15 thoughts on “One response to Agustín Fuentes’s Darwin-dissing

  1. Question:

    What other time/civilization that has undergone the kind of reckoning with its past now going on in the anglophone world, especially the US and UK? And by reckoning, I don’t mean just racial issues….but what I see as an effort to nullify its epistemology, and reality itself.

    BTW, Is Anthropology considered to be among the sciences or humanities?

  2. Mr.Marks’ conception of the “axis of good/evil” comes into direct conflict with “the axis of accurate/inaccurate” in many, typical woke pronouncements like this one:
    This practice has lived on in global health through the racist belief that those same colonial powers possess medical knowledge that is superior to that of the cultures they denigrated. Consequently, global health is built on a foundation that, at its core, is antithetical to the principle of shared human dignity and respect. Affirming our commitment to anti-racism also affirms our commitment to being anti-colonial.
    Thus, if scientists were trained to reject the improper values identified in this quote, they would refuse to say that antibiotics cure infectious diseases more effectively than medicine drumming or sacrificing a chicken.

  3. Now comes another anthropologist, Jonathan Marks, to defend Fuentes and point out Darwin’s “toxic ideas”, as well as criticizing Darwin’s “cult-like” followers. (What is it with anthropologists, anyway?)

    In my opinion *some* people project their own failings on others.

  4. My initial thought was that one could easily pick out horrible statements of morality made by people idealized by the woketivists. Then I realized that one, the woke are impervious to realizations on their own hypocrisy, two, they don’t know history, they only know Wikipedia, and three, they will rationalize anything said about their precious idols by claiming only “white” people can be racists and to suggest otherwise is “punching down”. It’s all a bit like trying to argue with the right wingers who think that if you don’t wear a flag lapel pin then you hate America but somehow storming the nation’s Capitol building, looting it of sensitive computers and documents, and trying to kill members of congress and even their own VP is perfectly patriotic. There is no dialogue to be had here. They do not seek one, either. People like this are so certain that they have the special knowledge, the golden plates that only they can decipher, that nothing could possibly convince them otherwise.

  5. These buggers should be supermarket shelf packers it might of helped then get over there urges to label everything. The system where you place your store favourite product (best sellers) at eye level.

  6. The greatest derived idea from Darwin is that the human species is related to all forms of life and is a product of the evolutionary process in which there is no such thing as a Higher or Lower Form. This
    awareness enabled some humans (not enough) to commit themselves to protecting and preserving not only other species but the evolutionary processes that support all species. I doubt there is anything more “moral” than this understanding and commitment. And I doubt there is anything more dangerous than shredding those processes.

  7. According to one source, anthropology reacted to post modernism with “self flagellation.” Now it’s everyone else’s turn. There’s a nice book titled “Reclaiming a scientific anthropology.”

    1. Thanks for pointing us to this book, which was written by Lawrence Kuznar. In college, I took several anthropology courses, including cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and archaeology, and they were all taught as science. At that time, about 40 years ago, there was the strong force of what was called multiculturalism making cracks in the science, into which cracks it appears postmodernism and political correctness have seeped. I loved my anthropology courses and my anthropology professors as well. I’m excited about reading this book and meditating on how anthropology can regain its scientific footing. Thanks again!

  8. You must never forget when making a sandwich the evil ways that knives have been used. Or that some people can’t affort the 7 grain bread you are using. And the butter you are using is the product of a beef/grain industry that is methane-ing the planet to death. Margarine? Uh petroleum industry death disease blah blah blah.

  9. I am trying hard to see what the point of all this is, but the best I can get is this is a proxy for a battle of power in this day and age. It should be trivial to say “person X held views that are considered abhorred now” and move on with the relative merits of their ideas or actions, as we do when it comes to matters of fact. We don’t look at Newton’s theory of gravity through the lens of his views on theology or alchemy, nor would it make much sense to.

    I think this is more evidence of the all-subsuming nature of moral thought. After decades of creationist attacks on Darwin and Darwinists for their ethical failings, the message has been driven home to me that errors in fact don’t matter as much as errors in moral thinking. The latter is intolerable because it’s what we do as people that counts, so to push views that are against the prevailing morality cannot be abided.

    It’s unfortunate that 19th century thinkers are judged unworthy against 21st left-wing politics. Unfortunate not because it’s trivially true that people are products of their time, but unfortunate because ideas are always beyond any individual – even those who are integral to their development. This sort of move serves no purpose other than to proclaim the moral superiority of today’s left over the thinkers of the past as a way of diagnosing the inherited cultural ills that still inflict us.

  10. Society moves forward in fits and starts. Like science. Should we laugh at Newton because he did not know quantum mechanics and relativity? He’s stupid, me smart? Newton said if he saw further than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of the giants before him. We stand on the shoulders of Darwin, of the (some slave-owning) writers of the US Constitution, and so forth. And move forward because of them. For that I thank them.

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