Once again, Darwin gets dragged into the muck by the Woke

January 8, 2022 • 11:00 am

Do you want uplifting news or depressing news? I have both. In the interests of having your day improve later, I’ll proffer the depressing news first. That news involves further attempts to drag Darwin down into the mud.

Dan Dennett called Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection a “dangerous idea” because it was like a corrosive acid that ate through and destroyed all ideas of design and a designer as explanations of nature and the way we think about it. Howard University biologist Rui Diogo, however, has a different take. Darwin’s views are “dangerous” because, apparently, they are sexist and racist. And, he adds, this tarnishes his theories and his legacy.

Now I’ve explained in detail, as have others, that yes, Darwin was a man of his time and emitted views that would be considered racist today, though he was ambiguous about even that, as you can see from reading The Voyage of the Beagle (this is part of my Antarctica talk on Darwin and the Fuegians). But there is no doubt that Darwin was far more of an abolitionist than most Brits of his time: his family (the Wedgewoods) had been opposed to slavery since the late 18th century, and Darwin never wavered on his dislike of slavery and support of abolitionism.

So we already know that Darwin wasn’t perfect by modern lights, but he was a damn sight better than most of his peers. I always ask people who like Diogo who tar Darwin with the label of “racist” or “misogynist” if they would have held fully modern and progressive views in the mid 19th century. I doubt it.

Yet the Pecksniffs insist on bringing up Darwin’s racism over and over again, as if we and the public haven’t heard enough about it.  And it’s not just brought up to fill in a historical gap about the man’s views—for we already know that—but to cast aspersions on Darwin’s legacy in biology.

Case in point: the topic of the upcoming lecture noted below. Speaker Rui Diogo‘s talk is billed as “an unflinching look at how the racism and sexism of the Victorian era undermined Darwin’s scientific work and legacy.” (My bold.)  There will be no flinching by Diogo, but there shouldn’t be by anyone.

First, what he’ll say is already well known by evolutionary biologists, historians of science, and any of the public who care to look up Darwin’s views.

More important, Diogo is dead wrong in asserting that Darwin’s biased views “undermine his scientific work and legacy.” Perhaps in Diogo’s eyes, but not in the eyes of most others. Are we supposed to think less of the theory of evolution, or of natural selection, or of Darwin himself, because he held views more liberal than those of his peers, but not up to snuff in the eyes of a Progressive Democrat? The goal of Diogo, it seems, is to tarnish the luster of Darwin. He won’t succeed because, in the main, Darwin got his science right.

But nobody’s perfect, and I highly doubt that if Diogo was an upper-class Englishman in the Victorian era, he’d be waving signs saying “Black Lives Matter.”

If you want to pay $30 to hear this nonsense, be my guest. But remember that this is sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. Click on the screenshot if you want to be fleeced.

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UPDATE: I’ve found that Dr. Diogo seems to be dining out on Darwin. To see a related lecture from last fall, click on the screenshot:

I can’t be arsed to rebut the following summary of this lecture, as probably written by Diogo. Let me just say that yes, there were precursors of Darwin’s ideas before The Origin, including even natural selection by Patrick Mathew. But his greatness was cobbling together a magnificent edifice that has, in the main, stood the test of time. The bolding is mine:

Profs and Pints presents: “The Damage Done by Darwin,” a look at how the acclaimed naturalist’s racism and sexism undermined his work and haunts us to this day, with Rui Diogo, associate professor of anatomy at Howard University’s College of Medicine and resource faculty member at George Washington University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology.

[Under current District of Columbia regulations attendees will be required to wear a mask except while eating or drinking. The Bier Baron will be requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test from the previous 72 hours for entry. It also will be requiring ticketed event attendees to purchase a minimum of two items, which can be food or beverages, including soft drinks.]

Charles Darwin has long been put on a pedestal and idolized as an objective, rational thinker who challenged the theist views of this day and changed how we see the world for the better. The truth, however, is a lot more complicated. Many of Darwin’s ideas were less original than widely believed and, in many cases, repackaged the false assumptions and prejudices of his era as the purported product of scientific observation. They helped buttress racist and sexist worldviews in ways that would do tremendous damage even to this day.

Tremendous damage? HOW? We already know that Hitler was not a Darwinian, so where’s all that harm? Answer: Diogo is making it up.

If others misused Darwin’s ideas to perpetrate bigotry, that’s not Darwin’s fault. But wait! There’s more!

Join Rui Diogo, an evolutionary biologist who has extensively reviewed Darwin’s books, diaries, notebooks, and letters, for an unflinching examination of Darwin’s life, thinking, and impact.

Professor Diogo will look at how almost none of the grand ideas attributed to Darwin—including the theory of natural selection—truly originated with him. He’ll discuss how Darwin stated as “fact” inaccurate constructions based on Victorian biases and stereotypes. And he’ll explore how Darwin’s assertions, and their warm reception, were very much a reflection of a broader ideological war that had left England’s wealthy Victorian elite eager to find new justifications for their relative privilege in the face of feared revolution.

Many scientists involved in similar research during Darwin’s time were not nearly as racist or sexist in their thinking. But Darwin was more skilled than most in packaging his ideas in ways that made them accessible and appealing to the general public. As a result, his writings became easy ammunition for generations of colonialists, white supremacists, and others seeking to defend social hierarchies, discrimination, and oppression.

Here is a man who doesn’t understand what Darwin actually accomplished.

h/t: Anthony

30 thoughts on “Once again, Darwin gets dragged into the muck by the Woke

    1. Ramesh 2.125% Denisovan/Neanderthal :

      ‘Darwin’s Racism’ : This is a problem of linguistics at its core. Namely, how some words need to evolve to better describe issues of social science. The current English word ‘racism’ cannot carry the burden of the manifold contemporary notions and idioms enfolded into it. Better to think of the noun ‘racism’ as a linguistic piñata desirous to be smashed to reveal its constituents; or a superset in a Venn diagram that contains discrete subsets.

      We now use dozens of different, defined terms for the geologically-derived black sticky stuff & vapour that releases energy through combustion — crude oil, Brent crude, Texas Intermediate, petrochemicals, diesel, ‘gas’ [ gasoline ], natural gas, tar, pitch, aromatics etc. The word ‘racism’ is now used so frequently in both colloquial and more rigorous senses that it has been semantically bleached, and now needs to be fractionated into several dozen terms in the same manner. This is not overkill, but semantically necessary for the 21st century’s multi-ethnic and multicultural nation-states.

      Many years ago I studied the 19th C/early 20th C era of European ‘scientific racism’ at London’s Wellcome Institute. I wrote a paper about this for my supervisor, the historian Roy Porter, which proposed Darwin and his ideas would shortly be termed ‘racist’ by self-styled social progressivists. I proposed ‘Victorian Eurocentricism’ as a general term ( with implicit male-bias ) for the establishment British-European ideas of the middle to last third of the 19th century, if they needed to be classified in a historical context.

      Therefore, Darwin’s social ideas and notions would generally hew to the progressive side of Victorian Eurocentricism, as probably did Charles Dickens, while the novelist George Eliot would be an example of proto-feminist Victorian Eurocentricism. Leo Tolstoi would be an exemplar of conservative Victorian Eurocentricism, at least in his middle to later years, and Chekhov as very liberal. My supervisor agreed with my suggestion, but felt the idea of a term called ‘Victorian Eurocentricism’ was not yet needed at the time, which was the early 1990s. So, at the current historical moment a sentence which is structured as ‘X is a Y Racist’ where X = ‘revered personage of the 19th century’, and Y is an adjective eg ‘filthy’, ‘unrepentant’ etc serves as a dogwhistle whose only purpose is to draw attention. It proposes to ‘uncover a hidden truth’ which was never hidden, except perhaps from the mind of the person who wrote the sentence, and this person’s credulous audience.

    2. JezGrove
      I sense strawmanning here, an unfair and underhand tactic. Wikipedia’s threshold for notability is irrelevant to this topic. I want to be clear; I’m not defending his position on Darwin (I’m strongly opposed to it), just pointing out the personal attack as irrelevant.

  1. I love this typo, or perhaps Coyneage®: “Progressive Democrt”. Astute, someone who demos, showcases or flaunts their CR`T, and which is mainstream Democrat at once (not the Left, remember that Sanders guy?)

    Other than that:

    If others misused Darwin’s Marx’s ideas to perpetrate bigotry, that’s not Darwin’s Marx’s fault. — Jerry Coyne

  2. Of one thing we can be certain: Rui Diogo’s contributions to science, if any, are miniscule compared to Darwin’s.

  3. Needless to say, Darwin is not the only past scientific giant whose ideas are
    “problematic”. There is the entire field of Genetics, or, as it was described not so long ago, “Weismannism-Morganism – bourgeois pseudoscience, designed to justify capitalism”. Its defect was that the concepts of genotype and phenotype implied that some things in Biology were independent of the Vanguard Party’s power to engineer universal social justice. Or, in modern language, some things are independent of the Vice-Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Mentioning such problematic ideas constitutes a microaggression—it might make hypothetical students feel unsafe—and will
    soon be subject to anonymous complaints to the DEI Committees.

    1. “…bourgeois pseudoscience, designed to justify capitalism”.

      As if we didn’t have the example of Lysenko before us to show what can happen when we subvert science to political theory!

      1. I’m betting many of these cancel-creeps don’t even know who Lysenko was—they’re ignorant of history and doomed to repeat it.

    1. ” . . . even cite one source arguing Darwin may have taken those ideas to develop his theory.”

      ” . . . may have taken . . . .” What such statement/claim can’t be uttered (a la the New York Times and its ilk) so long as “may” (or “might” or “can” or “could”) is included?

      I want to know if Darwin ACTUALLY did thusly take those ideas. Otherwise, spare me the conjecture.

      Otherwise, who is to deny that Darwin “may” actually have been an extra-terrestrial from the Andromeda galaxy?

  4. This is sort of taking this on a tangent. If it strays too far off topic, Dr. Coyne is welcome to delete it.

    The attempt to take down Darwin, and Mayr, and Wilson, and eventually every other significant figure in this and other fields has the same motivations as the desire to tear down all the statues, to foment racial animus, to put trans women in the position to win all the awards, and to ensure that little girls in school are shown as many pictures of erect penises as possible.

    I was reading in “New Discourses” https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-queer-theory/
    The subject was queer theory, but the implications are universal. The following passage stood out-
    “many people mistakenly understand queer Theory as somehow relevant to LGBT civil rights and acceptance – – including most queer Theorists – – but this is not at all the case. Queer Theory has nothing positive to say about lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rights except to the degree that those can be made useful for breaking societal norms, and it has no interest in lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender acceptance at all, as that would make them fall within the reach of acceptable societal norms (i.e., normal) and thus a necessary location for disruptive and subversive queer activism. That is, while it seems because of its name that queer Theory is activism on behalf of LGBT rights, it is actually not; it is actually about destroying normalcy in all its forms, including for LGBT people, most of whom don’t like or want this. Queer Theory elevates only one identity as authentic: the queer identity, which ceases to be queer the moment it is accepted or even able to be categorized.”

    I think the point is valid. In the case of scientific authorities and innovators, their ultimate goal is not a better, kinder science. The individuals denouncing Darwin or the others my also be motivated by personal gain or praise, but the larger goal of the movement is disruption and subversion.

    Isaac Kriegman was recently fired from Reuters for using the available statistics to evaluate how BLM is helping Black Communities in particular and the larger issue of racial harmony. It is worth a read-
    https://kriegman.substack.com/p/post-leading-to-termination-blm-falsehoods.

    My conclusion is that the larger goal of those steering these movements is not the betterment of the people or organizations they purport to defend. That becomes relevant when you try to rebut their claims or engage them in discourse.

    1. What IS the motivation of the Woke demolishers? Envy and resentment motivates. My guess is that envying and resenting elders they seek to tear down and make way. They can, so they do, a reign of terror and demolition aimed at advancing themselves.

  5. Diego is looking for cheap fame as so many of these idiots are. Are they incapable of doing anything positive?

  6. Diogo’s screed seems to boil down to “Darwin’s ideas were dangerous—but wait, they’ weren’t Darwin’s ideas.”

    Whatever one thinks of Darwin, every now and then we would do well to remind ourselves of the words of Aldous Huxley: “One of the great achievements of science is to have developed a method which works almost independently of the people by whom it is operated.” Science is the fruit of good method, not of good men.

    1. Very important point. In science and philosophy, we should criticize ideas, not the people who proposed them. That’s why it’s mistaken to “cancel” Jefferson and Madison. Even though they were slaveowners, they laid out the principles of modern secular democracies that we must learn in order to keep our freedom. The same can be said for Darwin.

  7. I went to Rui Diogo’s Twitter page and had a good laugh. He describes himself as a “multi-awarded researcher, speaker & writer renowned worldwide for addressing broader scientific and societal issues using multidisciplinary data”. He has recently released a book attacking Dawkins for defending atheism and Pinker for defending the facts of human progress. Nothing new to see here.

  8. Comment #7: ” The individuals denouncing Darwin or the others may also be motivated by personal gain or praise, but the larger goal of the movement is disruption and subversion.” Is it useful, or even meaningful, to look for a “larger goal of the movement”? An alternative is to view the “movement” as no more than the aggregate of all the individual actions undertaken for personal gain or praise. The claimed goals vary from century to century—Godliness, the eternal struggle with Satan and his agents, Marxism-Leninism, racial purity, equity, queer theory, indigenous ways of knowing, Progress, sparing hypothetical students from “unsafe” feelings, etc. etc.—but
    the sociology is invariant, and is succinctly described in Comment #4.

  9. “his writings became easy ammunition for generations of colonialists, white supremacists, and others seeking to defend social hierarchies, discrimination, and oppression.”

    This is simply not true? And it’s surprising that this is coming from a biologist.

    Racial supremacists don’t understand Darwin’s theory of biological evolution and they don’t want to understand it because they don’t like to be a descendant and a close relative of an ape.
    Darwin’s theory of biological evolution is actually ammunition against white supremacists, social hierarchies, discrimination.

    From a scientific point of view, humans and cockroaches are just yet another variation on a living thing; all qualitative differences we might experience are just illusions, just like beauty only exists in the eye of the beholder. Only quantitative differences between living things are real because these we can actually observe.

    Biological hierarchies visualize (continuously changing) diversity, not superiority.

    1. “..it’s surprising that this is coming from a biologist”

      Perhaps it is overgenerous to use “biologist” here.

      There are many examples in which recipients of degrees become a severe embarrassment to the institutions which awarded those degrees.

      So I suppose I’ve here joined Mr. Diogo as a “nattering nabob of negativity”.

  10. Based on his own experiences on the Beagle – particularly with the Fuegians – it is reasonable that Darwin thought there was a difference between “civilised” races and those more primitive. The picture one gets of Jemmy Button does not lend credibility to a scene where they discuss the latest volume of Lyell under a star-studded tropical night as they cross the Pacific.

    At least by modern standards a legitimate criticism of Darwin is the different treatment of his sons and daughters. The boys were generally sent away to school and received an academic education – most had distinguished careers. But even though Cheltenham Ladies College was available, as far as I know there is no indication that the girls’ academic education away from home was under consideration. Of course it is possible that it was Emma who opposed sending the girls away.

  11. One question for the good professor: In what ways can you demonstrate that Darwin’s of-his-times views on sex and race undermine the general scientific soundness of his work?

  12. I always ask people who like Diogo who tar Darwin with the label of “racist” or “misogynist” if they would have held fully modern and progressive views in the mid 19th century.

    No, they will almost certainly not have had this view.

    If I start from myself and my family background, then I probably would not have been a convinced democrat in the Weimar Republic either, but would have faced the government system with apathy and distrust due to the chaos of those years and supported anti-republican parties.

    1. Let’s remember that it was student activism very similar in method (but not aims) to current activism that pushed out the remaining German Jewish university professors left in place by the Nazi’s anti-Jewish laws. War veterans were allowed to retain their posts, a mob of “awakened” (in the sense of “Deutschland, erwache!”) students didn’t like it and protested and invaded their lectures and kept them from speaking. The public burning of books.”against un-German ideas” was also a student initiative, not ordered from above. Being Nazi was new and modern and edgy and an in thing among young people then, and young people tend to be particularly susceptible to propaganda.

  13. Here is a man who doesn’t understand what Darwin actually accomplished.

    Nor, I think, the history of evolution which is taught at basic classes as having many ancestors. The Wikipedia article has a long list, starting from “some of the first pre-Socratic Greek philosophers”.

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