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.


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

Bob Richards answers Agustin Fuentes

July 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

A few weeks back, Agustín Fuentes, a biological anthropologist and primatologist at Princeton, wrote an op-ed in Science about Darwin’s racism and sexism as Fuentes’s way of “celebrating” the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s pair of books The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. What Fuentes did was treat Darwin as if he were living at the present time, and then indict him for his retrograde Victorian views on different races and on women—though Darwin was far more enlightened than most Victorian gentlemen of the era (he was, for one thing, an active abolitionist). I suspect that Fuentes himself, had he lived in the mid-nineteenth century, would have been at least as “bad” as Darwin in that respect. Or would Fuentes have been the single Wokest person in Victorian England?

But it’s a mistake to call out people for failing to conform to morality that evolved 150 years after their time. That is a Whiggish view of science, and Fuentes’s Darwin-dissing kicked up a bit of a tempest (see here), prompting multiple letters to Science, including one that I signed. The letters are here, and you can see other squabbling by going here.

One letter just appeared from my Chicago colleague Robert Richards, a historian of science with expertise in biology and evolutionary biology. Bob and I organized the 200th anniversary celebration of Darwin’s birth (and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin) here at the U of C. He knows a ton about Darwin and evolution (I highly recommend his essay “Was Hitler a Darwinian?“), and appears to have been really put off by Fuentes’s Darwin-dissing.

Here’s a letter from Richards that just appeared in Science. I think it’s remarkably level-headed, but of course I agree with him.

The last three sentences are especially good.

Our letter to Science about Agustín Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing

June 21, 2021 • 1:30 pm

On May 21, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a takedown of Darwin in a Science op-ed on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Asserting that Darwin was a racist, a white supremacist, and a man whose ideas justified “colonialism” as well as “genocide,” Fuentes’s piece was over the top: a typical and execrable specimen of holding someone living decades ago responsible for adhering to the moral norms of his time. (Actually, Darwin, an abolitionist, was a far sight better than many of his contemporaries.) In other words, according to Fuentes, Darwin should have known better. But I bet you ten to one that Fuentes, had he been Darwin’s contemporary, would have been even more of a moral reprobate than Charles himself.

I criticized Fuentes’s piece here (and Robert Wright did elsewhere), though Jonathan Marks, a well known anthropological firebrand, sprang to Fuentes’s defense. Several weeks ago, a bunch of us evolutionary biologists got together and wrote a joint letter to Science criticizing Fuentes’s piece.  The journal sat on it, said it wouldn’t appear in print, but have at last put it online. You can see the link to our letter below, but I’ve posted the whole thing, along with our names, addresses, and the references we use.

Click on the screenshot to see our letter (and Marks’s):

What we wrote:

RE: “The Descent of Man”, 150 years on

“The Descent of Man” 150 years on

In this 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1), Science published one article celebrating the progress in human evolutionary science built on Darwin’s foundations (2), along with a second, Editorial article, three quarters of which instead pilloried Darwin for his “racist and sexist view of humanity” (3). Fuentes argues that students should be “taught Darwin as [a] man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience”. We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.

What Darwin wrote was of course shaped by Victorian realities and perspectives on sex and racial differences, some still extant today, but this is not a new revelation [4]. Rather than calmly noting these influences, Fuentes repeatedly puts Darwin in the dock for the Victorian sexist and racist norms within which he presented his explosive thesis that humanity evolved. Fuentes incorrectly suggests that Darwin justified genocide. Darwin was frequently and notably more modern in his thinking than most Victorians. In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz (5). On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329). His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution (1).

Students taught about the historical context for Darwin’s writing should appreciate how revolutionary Darwin’s ideas were, challenging many (but not all) prevailing Victorian perspectives (6). We lament the failure to celebrate the vast impact of those ideas at the expense of the distorting treatment Fuentes offers.

Andrew Whiten1, Walter Bodmer2, Brian Charlesworth3, Deborah Charlesworth3, Jerry Coyne4, Frans de Waal5, Sergey Gavrilets6, Debra Lieberman7, Ruth Mace8, Andrea Bamberg Migliano9, Boguslaw Pawlowski10 and Peter Richerson1

1School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9PE, UK. 2Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DS, UK. 3School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3FL, UK, 4Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 1101 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL60637, USA. 5Psychology Department (PAIS Bldg), Suite 270, 36 Eagle Row, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. 6Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ of Tennessee Knoxville, TN 37922, USA. 7Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA. 8(Editor in Chief, Evolutionary Human Science) Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK. 9Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich, 190 Winterthurerstrasse, Zurich 8057, Switzerland. 10(President, European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association) Department of Human Biology, University of Wroclaw, ul. S. Przybyszewskiego 63, 51-148 Wrocław, Poland. 11Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Corresponding author. Email: a.whiten@st-andrews.ac.uk

1. C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. With an introduction by J. T. Bonner and R. M. May. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1871/1981).
2. P. J. Richerson, S. Gavrilets, F. B. M. de Waal. Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s the Descent of Man. Science 372, 806.
3. A. Fuentes. “The Descent of Man” 150 years on. Science 372, 769.
4. A. J. Desmond, J. R. Moore. Darwin. (Penguin, London, 1992).
5. P. J. Richerson, R. Hames. Busting myths about evolutionary anthropology. Anthropology News, July 18 (2017) doi: 10.1111/AN.510
6. H. E. Gruber. Darwin on Man. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974).

We could have said a lot more, but there is a strict word limit for Science letters.

Will Darwin be canceled?

September 16, 2020 • 10:00 am

Given the scientific and political luminaries who have fallen under the axe, it’s not beyond possibility that Charles Darwin himself may undergo a “reevaluation,” with people discovering what we already knew: Darwin, like many people of the mid-19th century, had some bigoted views of whites (i.e., Brits) as a superior race. Yet Darwin never did anything but write a bit about it in The Voyage of the Beagle and The Descent of Man, and was, to boot, an ardent abolitionist along with his wife’s family, the Wedgewoods. Josiah Wedgewood, Darwin’s grandfather (and also his wife Emma’s), designed this ceramic medallion that was popular among abolitionists as early as 1787. That may be enough to save Charles but, as we know, one misstep can cancel you for keeps. And Darwin made more than one—according to today’s lights.

“Am I not a man and a brother?”

It’s thus possible that Darwin could meet the fate of other scientists who unfortunately didn’t foresee the change in morality in the last century and a half, and his statues and other honorifics could come down. In a piece before the one I’m mentioning today, sociologist Noah Carl (who’s had a bit of tumultuous history, having been canceled himself) wrote in RT about the possibility that Darwin might be canceled because of his views:

In summary, Darwin believed that men were on average more intelligent than women, and that some races were “civilised” whereas others were “savage.” His views on eugenics are not entirely clear (the term was coined one year after Darwin died), but it is obvious from his remarks in The Descent of Man that he believed industrial society could have dysgenic effects. Over the years, many scientists who have expressed views less invidious than these have been defenestrated, and one wonders whether Darwin will now suffer the same fate.

In the piece below from Medium, Carl has gone a bit farther, predicting the impending cancellation of Darwin. I don’t share his fears, mainly because Darwin hedged his bets a bit, was an abolitionist, and I suppose I’m optimistic enough to think that Darwin’s great contribution to biology—indeed, to all humanity—must outweigh any of the minimal conventional bigotry he espoused during his lifetime. But I guess I could have said that about Jefferson, too, and look what happened to him.

Click on the screenshot to read.

Carl’s method is to give quotes that resulted in the “cancellation” of figures like Hume and Linnaeus, and then quote Darwin on the issue of race, with the quotes not being that different in tenor from those of The Canceled.

Here are a few passages from Darwin, all from The Descent of Man (1871):

The taste for the beautiful, at least as far as female beauty is concerned, is not of a special nature in the human mind; for it differs widely in the different races of man, as will hereafter be shewn, and is not quite the same even in the different nations of the same race. Judging from the hideous ornaments and the equally hideous music admired by most savages, it might be urged that their æsthetic faculty was not so highly developed as in certain animals, for instance, in birds. Obviously no animal would be capable of admiring such scenes as the heavens at night, a beautiful landscape, or refined music; but such high tastes, depending as they do on culture and complex associations, are not enjoyed by barbarians or by uneducated persons.

There are passages similar to this throughout the Voyage of the Beagle, with the terms “barbarian” and “savage” used liberally.  Here’s another from The Descent of Man:

Most savages are utterly indifferent to the sufferings of strangers, or even delight in witnessing them. It is well known that the women and children of the North-American Indians aided in torturing their enemies. Some savages take a horrid pleasure in cruelty to animals, and humanity with them is an unknown virtue. Nevertheless, feelings of sympathy and kindness are common, especially during sickness, between the members of the same tribe, and are sometimes extended beyond the limits of the tribe. Mungo Park’s touching account of the kindness of the negro women of the interior to him is well known. Many instances could be given of the noble fidelity of savages towards each other, but not to strangers; common experience justifies the maxim of the Spaniard, “Never, never trust an Indian.”

That alone should be enough to do in Darwin. Why couldn’t he have anticipated the greater enlightenment of 20th-century Europeans. But wait! There’s more!

The belief that there exists in man some close relation between the size of the brain and the development of the intellectual faculties is supported by the comparison of the skulls of savage and civilised races, of ancient and modern people, and by the analogy of the whole vertebrate series. Dr. J. Barnard Davis has proved by many careful measurements, that the mean internal capacity of the skull in Europeans is 92·3 cubic inches; in Americans 87·5; in Asiatics 87·1; and in Australians only 81·9 inches.

You could even make the case that Darwin favored eugenics, but you’d have to do so by taking one of his quotes out of context. (That’s no problem for the Cancel Culture, as we saw from the attack on Steve Pinker.) Here Darwin analogizes humans with artificially selected animals, and suggests that scientific advances have actually led to the hereditary degeneration of humans (this is also from The Descent of Man):

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

That last sentence is alone sufficient ammunition to cancel poor Charles.

But if you ever see this quote used against Darwin, be aware that although it’s true that medical care has allowed the preservation of genes that would be injurious “in the wild”, Darwin adheres to our own view of what we should do about this—nothing. On the same page he says this:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature […] Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage.

Carl concludes that if there’s a valid case for dethroning people like Hume, Galton, Fisher, and Linnaeus for their “retrograde” views on race and white superiority, then you can make an equally compelling case against Darwin. Well, in principle you could, especially if you’re not overly fastidious about viewing the entirety of his views and actions. But I don’t think this will happen.

Carl also concludes—and I agree—that the “defenestration” of figures like those mentioned above is not warranted unless you’re willing to cancel Darwin as well. As we discussed yesterday, morality advances, and if your views were the “received wisdom” of those in an earlier time, you become much less culpable than if you expressed them now.

h/t: Ben

Bret Weinstein goes awry when claiming that neo-Darwinian theory is missing an important part

September 20, 2019 • 10:45 am

After Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying resigned from The Evergreen State College under trying circumstances, Bret started a Patreon site and a YouTube channel in which he discusses evolutionary biology. As I mentioned in a post yesterday, Weinstein has been claiming in some of his onstage conversations that modern evolutionary theory has made no progress since the publication of Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene in 1976. And I discussed why I didn’t think that was a fair criticism, suggesting that Weinstein might be unaware of the progress that’s been made in the three areas he singled out as stagnant: speciation, sexual selection, and the correlation of diversity with latitude.

In this 9-minute video, Bret argues not only that evolutionary biology is stagnant, but its central paradigm—evolution via natural selection—is lacking a very important part.

As he argues, “The most important unanswered question, at least in evolutionary biology, has to do with where the power of evolution comes from.” He claims that the standard story that random mutations (mostly bad but occasionally good), winnowed by selection, doesn’t come “anywhere close to explaining how a shrewlike animal becomes a batlike animal by having membranes and bones extended in its hands, that become wings”.  He says that “There’s a flaw in the story that surrounds the question, ‘How do mutations alter the morphology of one creature so that it can take on a different ecological role?'”

Listen to Bret’s answer.

Bret’s answer to the question that he sees as heretofore unanswered is the evolution of “explorer modes,” which he defines as “mechanisms in which an evolved clade [related group of organisms] explores design space, so they can discover opportunities that it would not find by accident.”

What does this mean? He argues that an “explorer mode” gives natural selection a way to create new types of organisms in a way “that would not be discovered by accident”. I presume he means here that there are many organisms in which a combination geographic isolation “by accident”—e.g., via haphazard colonization of a new area such as an island, or separation of populations by geographic barriers or continental drift—followed by random mutation and selection, is a combination simply inadequate to explain evolution.

But why not? Bret argues that mutation and selection are “not powerful enough to account for the vast array of niches that have been discovered by species over the history of life.” But he gives no calculations to show this; he’s merely hazarding a guess, a guess without any empirical support. In other words, he’s making up a problem that hasn’t been shown to be a problem.

So what Weinstein is positing is not that animals invade new niches by accident and then evolved new species and morphologies, but that there are evolved “explorer modes” built into organisms by natural selection that help them find new niches.

He gives two examples of this. The first is Pacific salmon, which home to their natal streams, returning to fresh water from the sea every couple of years to breed. Very rarely, a salmon might invade a new stream, and, if that stream was devoid of other salmon, it would find a bonanza: lots of food and empty space. The descendants of that first explorer would thrive, and eventually, perhaps, become sufficiently genetically different that they’d constitute a new species.

The invasion of a new stream by a few stray individuals surely must have happened in evolution, but Weinstein insists that this is not an accident—a case of wayward salmon losing their way—but that they have evolved to explore. And that evolution was prompted by a form of selection that, while risky, has big payoffs: finding a new stream. He sees this form of selection as general, and essential to account for Earth’s diversity.

But there are big problems with this scenario. First, it applies only to changes in behavior: migration or wandering behavior. It does not and cannot explain the difference in morphology between a bat and its ancestor, or any differences between species in morphology, physiology, and so on. Those still require random mutation and selection. Even if his mechanism operates—and I don’t think it does in the way he posits—it only explains how an animal finds a new habitat in which garden-variety mutation and selection then proceed to work, and to create new morphology. The morphological differences evolve by same-old same-old.

But are “explorer modules” even plausible? Perhaps occasionally, but surely the cost of leaving your habitat and finding another one must frequently exceed the chance of finding a new, open niche in which you can thrive. At present, for instance, Pacific streams are pretty much tapped out for salmon residents, so invading a new stream would have no payoff. In other words, even if “explorer modules” were advantageous, they are self-defeating. Selection would favor not exploring.

Weinstein, then, hasn’t shown that the payoff from an explorer mode would generally exceed the costs. Yes, an individual could hit the jackpot, but what about all those individuals that don’t? If the average cost of exploring exceeds the benefit of a rare payoff, then exploring won’t evolve.

Further, and importantly, if these modules were favored by selection, you would see many more animals exhibiting them than do. If all salmon had evolved explorer modes, then you’d see many, many salmon leaving their streams and trying to find new ones. You don’t see that: migration is rare. This supports the idea that, in salmon, colonization of new streams is an accident: a bug rather than a feature. Weinstein has failed to explain the infrequency of exploring.

It’s clear that Bret thinks that “explorer mode” is something that is selected for. As he says, “It stands to reason, then, that selection would discover a mechanism that searched design space, rather than finding opportunities in design space haphazardly.” That’s clearly a claim that exploring is somehow built into an organism’s genes. Further, he says, it creates new morphologies faster than the conventional scenario. But we don’t know that the conventional scenario—wandering followed by the conventional mutation + selection—is too slow to create life’s diversity.

Now there are animals in which “exploration” is ubiquitous and a general phenomenon. One is the ballooning of spiders, in which spiderlings, when hatched, throw out a thread of silk to waft them away on the wind. Another is, of course, the dispersal of dandelion seeds via their fluff. Still another is the migration of young male lions away from their pride.

But these phenomena aren’t what Bret means by “explorer mode”, as they are ubiquitous in the species, and have evolved because finding a new habitat is essential if you are to avoid competition and thus leave your genes.  And even in these cases, the difference between species in morphology—why a tiger is striped but leopards are spotted—evolves by conventional natural selection.  Yes, a different habitat may be involved in creating that selection, but there are many ways that animals can find themselves in different geographic areas by accident. I don’t think that finches colonized the Galápagos island because they were showing their evolved tendency to explore. Most finches heading out over the Pacific, or blown over the ocean, would perish.

The other example Bret uses is human consciousness. We evolved consciousness, he says, so we can explore new ways of life. But this is not at all analogous to a salmon evolving “wandering behavior” because that kind of behavior helps you invade an empty niche. True, consciousness helped us invade a “cognitive niche”, and that may have had ramifications for the evolution of other parts of our body, like our brains or our hands, but you don’t need to invoke a new type of evolution to see how consciousness (or big brains) might have evolved. They could have evolved simply because they give individuals a reproductive advantage. There was no real “exploring” here analogous to Weinstein’s scenario of salmon taking risks because they could have big payoffs, as there was no risk involved in acquiring a mutation that made you more conscious. So I’ll ignore that scenario.

In general, I think Bret advances a thesis here that a.) isn’t needed, because there isn’t really a question that needs answering (nobody is worrying, “Hey, evolution was faster than mutation and selection could create”), b.) has its own problems, as payoffs have to be greater on average than the costs of exploring, c.) fails to explain why exploring is so infrequent, and d.) completely fails to account for the morphological differences between species that, he says, prompted this theory.

I think Weinstein’s explanation, then, is misleading: certainly so if it’s a general one intended to fill an important lacuna in evolutionary theory. Weinstein hasn’t shown that such a lacuna exists. And if there’s no need for such a theory because neo-Darwinism hasn’t been shown to be insufficient to explain diversity, then invoking “explorer modes” is an exercise without a motivation.



An open letter to Charlotte Allen, an ignorant, evolution-dissing writer

January 22, 2018 • 12:15 pm

Dear Ms. Allen,

I have become aware of your recent article, “St. Charles Darwin“, in First Things (“America’s most influential journal of religion and public life”). The point of your article appears to be twofold: to defend A. N. Wilson’s execrable hit-piece that masquerades as a book-length biography of Darwin (I reviewed his book here), and, second, to question the truth of evolution itself.  But, by your own admission, you have no expertise to do either of these things.

First, you admit that you know nothing about Darwin’s life:

I have no idea myself whether Charles Darwin was a “self-effacing” and “endearing” beetlemaniac—a Mahatma Gandhi of biology, so to speak—as his fans claim, or a cat-killing, digestive tract-obsessed egotist and plagiarist, as Wilson seems to think.

Perhaps you should read some of the Darwin scholarship by historians of science, like Janet Browne, and then you might get an idea of what the man was really like. And if you did that, you’d see that the critiques of Wilson’s biography by myself, John van Wyhe, and Adrian Woolfson—critiques that you find “hilarious”—rest on Wilson’s blatant misrepresentation of the biographical facts. Wilson simply distorted and lied about Darwin’s life (did you see that I caught him in a blatant lie about Darwin’s supposed plagiarism?).

Your claim that our criticisms of Wilson’s book stem from the fact that he is an atheist turned Christian, and that his religiosity is why his book has “gotten under the skin of people who make at least part of their living promoting Darwin”, is ludicrous. The book would remain dreadful even if Wilson had remained an atheist.

After I read Wilson’s book, I was puzzled that an apparently smart man could do such a terrible job criticizing not just Darwin, but his theory of evolution. It was then that I realized that Wilson was probably a creationist, or at least acted like one, and that suggested a plausible motivation for his execrable scholarship. But his scholarship remains bad regardless of his religion.

Further, you clearly know almost nothing about evolution, either, as seen in this paragraph:

It’s not surprising that Wilson, in his Darwin biography, finds the master’s theories wanting. Evolution, particularly evolutionary psychology, can be a useful heuristic in reminding us how similar we are to other animals, our kin, but when you go hunting through the fossil record for hard evolutionary evidence, you always come up . . . a little short. Yes, there seem to have been dinosaurs with feathers (presumably bird ancestors), but paleontologists continue to classify the extinct creatures as reptiles. There’s a “transitional” fish from the Devonian period, which artists like to draw with little legs like on the atheist bumper sticker—but the actual fossils, recovered in Nunavut, Canada, in 2004, are only of the fish’s head, whose bone structure seemed adapted to taking in air on shallow mud flats.

“Useful heuristic”? Do you know anything about evolution beyond what you’ve taken from Wilson’s book or the creationist literature? No the fossil record does not come up short. Those dinosaurs with feathers are exactly what we expect for transitional forms: they have a largely dinosaurian skeleton but birdlike feathers, and, moreover, appear well after theropod dinosaurs (the presumed ancestor) were already around—but before modern birds appeared. Further, the fossils become less dinosaurian and more birdlike as one gets to more recent strata. Whether one calls these “birds” or “dinosaurs” is a matter of taste; the important fact is that they are exactly the transitional forms we expect, and they appear at exactly the time they should have if dinosaurs evolved into birds.

And surely you know that the truth of evolution doesn’t rest solely on fossils—in fact, there was not much of a fossil record in Darwin’s time. His evidence for evolution derived from other areas like embryology, comparative morphology, vestigial organs, and biogeography. Now, of course, we do have fossil records of many transitional forms: not just those from reptiles to birds, but from reptiles to mammals, amphibians to reptiles, terrestrial mammals to whales, and—brace yourself, as you’re going to hate this!—from early hominins that had small brains, big teeth, and lived in the trees to the more cerebral and gracile species of Homo. All of these, and newer evidence from genetics as well, attest to the truth of evolution.

Your comment about Tiktaalik shows your further ignorance. It’s not just the fish’s head that we have, for crying out loud, but a substantial part of the postcranial skeleton, including its shoulder and front fins. Let me remind you by showing you the photos of the fossil:

The bony fins that might have evolved into legs:

And, as Greg Mayer reported on this site four years ago, we also have a pelvis and a partial hindlimb.

To see the significance of this fossil as the kind of “fish” that could have evolved into tetrapod amphibians, I suggest that you read Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish. Did you have a look at it? I didn’t think so.

At the end, I wondered how you—even more ignorant about Darwin and evolution than was Wilson—could do such a terrible job in your article. And I conclude that, like Wilson, you have been conditioned by your religious beliefs to attack Darwin and his ideas. I implore you to do some reading about science before you further mislead the readers of First Things. For, without doing your journalistic homework, you’ll do nothing to keep that magazine “an influential journal of religion and public life.”

Do you really want to cast in your lot with creationists? Enlightened believers accepted evolution a long time ago.  Surely you don’t want First Things to become Worst Things!

Yours sincerely,
Jerry Coyne


I’ve posted the link to this piece as a comment after Allen’s piece. We’ll see if it appears.

New reviews of A. N. Wilson’s debunking biography of Darwin

September 2, 2017 • 12:00 pm

The reviews are starting to come in for A. N. Wilson’s new Darwin-debunking book, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (out on September 7 in the UK, December in the U.S.),which I mentioned here. The book not only trashes Darwin as a white supremacist, careerist, and purloiner of other people’s ideas, but also goes after evolution itself, which Wilson says is now a “religion” and that “Most of its central contentions, such as the idea that everything in nature always evolves gradually, are now disbelieved by scientists, and the science of genetics has made much of it seem merely quaint.”  Well, I’ll have more to say about this when I’ve read the whole book.

Most of the reviews, especially by those who know something about evolution and Darwin’s life, are negative, but there are at least two that are either glowing or at best neutral. The glowing one was mentioned by geneticist, author, and broadcaster Adam Rutherford in this tw**t (h/t Matthew Cobb); it quotes a review in the Times, which previously published an inflammatory excerpt from Wilson’s book:

And yes, that quote is accurate. The Times review, by Daisy Goodwin, a television producer and novelist, says things like this:

Wilson’s book has inevitably stirred up a storm of criticism. How can a man who is not a scientist claim that Darwin is wrong? I am not an evolutionary biologist so I cannot judge whether Wilson is right or whether he is simply teasing one of the last sacred cows. But as a historian trying to put Darwin in the context of his time, there is surely no better biographer than Wilson. The author of numerous books including The Victorians and a biography of Victoria, he understands the Victorian period better than most.

This is a deliberately provocative book that argues that Darwinism is not scientific fact but a belief system. “The idea that he was alone responsible for the scales falling from the eyes of the human race is a piece of mythology as implausible as many of the more ancient mythologies which his disciples believed themselves to have demolished.” While Wilson’s scientific judgments are disputable, he will have done a service if the “survival of the fittest” political credo that has attached itself to the theory of evolution goes the way of “other cranky Victorian fads — the belief in mesmerism or in phrenology”.

Why on earth would the Times choose a reviewer who “cannot judge whether Wilson is right”? At the very least we’d want a reviewer who knew something about evolutionary biology, yet much of the media has chosen reviewers who aren’t even scientists to evaluate a book that trashes the most compelling theory in biology. I’ve noticed that recently the media is turning to science journalists, or even non-scientists, to evaluate science trade books. Yet there is no dearth of scientists who write well and are qualified to produce such evaluations.

As for “a historian trying to put Darwin in the context of his times,” I’d recommend the magisterial two-volume biography of Darwin by Janet Browne, which Goodwin doesn’t seem to know. An understanding of “the Victorian period” doesn’t qualify one to judge Darwin’s personal history or, especially, his science.

On this morning’s BBC Radio 4, Stephen McGann interviews Wilson on his book (go here and start at 1:13:30; it ends at 1:24:00). Wilson imputes the terrible reviews he’s gotten to the self-interest of scientists who are sworn to push back against any Darwin criticism.

For another non-critical review by someone who doesn’t deal with Darwin’s science, see the Spectator piece by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.