Public acceptance of evolution grows in the U.S.

August 24, 2021 • 11:30 am

According to a survey just published in Public Understanding of Science, acceptance of evolution is increasing in the United States. Click on the screenshot below to read the article (it’s free), or access the pdf here.

The survey continued data collected over 35 years, but a lot of the methodology is described in the Supplemental Materials, which are not given in this link nor on the journal page, where I can’t find this article (it’s clearly an early publication).  Now other surveys have found a smaller percentage of Americans who accept evolution (see below), but it’s surely because of the different ways the questions were asked.

Here’s the question this survey posed to Americans:

The following question was used in all of the years in this analysis:

For each statement below, please indicate if you think that it is definitely true, probably true, probably false, or definitely false. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, please check the “not sure” box.

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Acceptance must be the sum of “definitely true and probably true”, while rejection would be the converse.

So the question at hand is simply: evolution or no evolution of humans? And for the first time, acceptance of human evolution, now at 54% , was seen in a majority of those surveyed—an increase of 14% in the last decade. Rejection of evolution (red line) appears to be about 37%, while “don’t know” is about 9%. As the authors note, the increase in acceptance since 2009 or so seems to be due more to those who “don’t know” moving into the acceptance column than to rejectors moving into the acceptance column.

If you look at a similar survey of a Gallup poll over 36 years (below), you see a different pattern, but that’s because they surveyed for more than just acceptance of evolution: they asked whether people accepted human evolution as purely naturalistic (22%), accepted human evolution but with God guiding it (33%), or simply rejected human evolution in favor of Biblical creationism (40%). The figure for rejection is pretty much the same as shown in the figure above, but the difference in “evolution acceptance” is undoubtedly due to the fact that “acceptance” below includes evolution guided by God. If you added that up with the naturalistic acceptors, the Gallup poll would show that 55% of Americans “accepted” human evolution, again close to the data above. But there are two types of evolution being accepted, one involving supernatural intervention. (Intelligent design would qualify, in this way, as “acceptance of evolution.”)

The data, then, are not that disparate between the two polls, but the apparently heartening 54% acceptance of evolution in the poll above seems to conceal the fact that most acceptors see a hand of God guiding evolution. I don’t find a teleological or theistic view of evolution all that heartening, for it still gives credence to divine intervention. And although the authors mention that disparate results of different surveys depend on the questions asked, it would have been nice had they compared the data above with that below.

A few other points. First, among the demographic data (age, gender, education, college science courses, children at home, etc.), the most important factor determining acceptance of evolution is whether the respondent took at least one college science course.

But “demographic data” did not include religion, which, as usual, turns out to be the most important factor determining how one answered the new polls. (The authors play this down in the paper, perhaps because the National Center for Science Education, two of whose members or former members are authors of the survey, have always been accommodationists.)

Nevertheless, when you do a path analysis of how these factors interact, and parse out the individual effects of factors that normally interact (for example, Republicans are more likely to be religious, and therefore to reject evolution), you find that “fundamentalist” religion has by far the biggest effect on evolution acceptance—in a negative direction, of course. (Because I can’t access the supplementary material, I can’t see how they determined whether a religious person was “fundamentalist”.)

Here’s the complicated path analysis and the weight of each factor. Religious fundamentalism has nearly twice the effect, in isolation, of any other factor on whether one accepts or rejects evolution.

Two more points. More men than women accepted evolution (57% vs 51% in 2019, a reduced disparity from 1988, when the data were 52% and 41%, respectively). This is probably because, on average, women are more religious than are men. And in terms of politics, here are the data for its relation to evolution. As you might expect, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to accept evolution, and there is a huge difference between conservative Republicans and Liberal democrats in accepting evolution (34% vs. 83% respectively in 2019).  Republicans just can’t get with the program!

 

There’s one other point I want to mention. The authors claim that it’s really “fundamentalist religion” that’s at odds with evolution, not really other forms of religion, though I’ve maintained otherwise. Here’s what they say:

Religious fundamentalism plays a significant role in the rejection of evolution. The historical explanation of the low rate of acceptance of evolution in the United States involves the central place of the Bible in American Protestantism. In a country settled piecemeal by colonists of varying religious views and without a state church, it was natural for people of faith, especially Protestants who already accepted the principle of sola Scriptura, to privilege the Bible—or their interpretation of it—as the primary source of religious authority and an inerrant source of information about history and science as well as faith and morals. In contrast, religion in European countries is strongly structured by ecclesiastic institutions and the public receptivity to creationism has been limited as a result (Blancke et al., 2014Branch, 2009).

It is thus a particular form of religion that is at the foundation of American anti-evolutionism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not religion in general (see Coyne, 2012, for a dissenting view). Indeed, evolution is routinely taught in Catholic parochial schools in the United States, and mainstream Protestant denominations similarly accept evolution (Martin, 2010). While not all anti-evolutionism originates in Fundamentalism and its inerrantism about the Bible, it largely reflects a conservative form of Protestantism with relatively inflexible and inerrantist religious views (Scott, 2009), which we have been calling fundamentalism.

I would deny the claim that it’s only Protestant fundamentalism that’s at odds with evolution instead of religious belief in general. I say this for two reasons/

First, across the world, where Protestant fundamentalism doesn’t have such sway, you still see a negative correlation between religiosity and evolution. Here are data I published in a paper in 2012. There’s a strong negative correlation between religiosity and acceptance of human evolution across 34 countries, but it’s significant even omitting the U.S.point. Further, the only country lower in evolution acceptance than the US is Turkey, which is a Muslim nation.

More important, here are data taken from the Gallup survey mentioned above. Look at “religion”. Yes, Protestants are more likely to be creationists than are others (note that they don’t subclassify “fundamentalist Protestants”), but the Catholics, touted above as being good for teaching evolution in their schools, are still 34% young-earth creationist! What is taught is not always what is accepted!

No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution. I wish the authors would have mentioned these data as well.

Nevertheless, both surveys show a general acceptance of evolution, though I like the data from the Gallup poll better because it decouples theistic evolution from naturalistic evolution. What I teach is naturalistic evolution, and so I want to know what proportion of Americans accept evolution the way I teach it to students.

When will nearly everyone in America accept evolution, then? When America is like Iceland: a country that is basically atheistic.

Faculty response to Western Washington University’s proposal to cancel the name of T. H. Huxley

August 20, 2021 • 11:30 am

As I reported on August 9, Western Washington University (WWU) is poised to change the name of its well known Huxley College of the Environment, named after “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley and listed as one of the University’s “notable degree programs“. The reason? It’s the usual, detailed in a committee-produced document residing on the website of WWU’s President. One quote:

Even though Thomas Huxley made significant contributions in the field of biology [JAC: none are given], he also had significant contributions to scientific racism. He was a polygenist: someone who is of the belief that all races evolved from different origins instead of coming from one homosapien [sic]. This is not only scientifically disproven, but also a racist mindset, and an argument that one of his “archrivals” at the time called Richard Owen attempted to refute with evidence that we all are the same species that evolved from the same homosapien [sic] thousands of years ago. Huxley won the argument, and it is historian Nicolaas Rupke’s thesis that this argument between Huxley and Owen in which Huxley’s “deeply racist, polygenist viewpoint” won lead to building the scientific racism of the early 20th century.

Huxley’s supposed racism is said to cause “harm” to people, both in furthering racism and making students at Huxley College and WWU uncomfortable—in fact, causing them “harm.” The latter claim is simply ludicrous, while the former misguided.

There’s other bad stuff Huxley’s said to have done or said as well, but all of it, without exception, is either wrong or grossly exaggerated. If you know anything about Huxley, you’ll recognize that painting him as a racist who contributed to the discipline of eugenics which then was implemented in humans is risible. Further, his positive contributions to both science and society were completely neglected in the document, which was produced by people who had no expertise in nineteenth century England or Huxley in particular.

Now, eight academics from the Huxley College, trying to set the record straight, have produced a response to WWU’s proposal (the name of Huxley College is only one of several up for cancellation), and it’s pretty telling. I suggest you read it to see how distorted the original proposal for cancellation was.  It made several blatant errors, is rife with false and exaggerated claims, and draws largely on material produced by young-earth creationists who want to attack evolution by cancelling a school named after evolution’s most famous early defender.

You can see the document by clicking on the link below:

 

A few quotes to give you the tenor of the defense:

Natural Racial and Gender Inequality

Regarding the first claim, that Huxley held views of natural racial and gender inequality, we strongly encourage the Board of Trustees to reread the views of the historians, included in Appendix C. The LRTF’s summary is simply not an accurate reflection of their views, Rupke excepted. The concluding words of Paul White, one of those distinguished historians, presents a more accurate synthesis of those views:

Huxley is described as an abolitionist, he was in fact much more than this. He called for the elimination of all political, legal, and economic prejudices, equal rights and opportunities for people of all races (and sexes). If the staff and students agree to remove Huxley’s name, they should at least do so with a better understanding of his views, and an appreciation for his place in the history of human emancipation and activism.

An extremely troubling aspect of the LRTF report is that it lifts quotes first mined by creationists to confirm the racism and sexism claims against Huxley, while ignoring Huxley’s writings and other evidence that disprove the claims. Additionally, the report relies on earlier writings of Huxley, but totally ignores the evolution of thought that led him to see the unity and equality in all humanity. To be sure, Huxley’s earlier views reflected the same Victorian-era prejudices and bigotry of his scientific and clerical peers. But the report ignores the fact that Huxley escaped these prejudices to adopt views expressive of full racial and gender equality.

I guess if you engage in Wrongthink, but then come to Righthink later, it’s already too late. You’re in perdition forever.

Another false claim of WWU, one that I attacked in my earlier post:

Human Hierarchy and Scientific Racism

As for the second and third claims, that Huxley promoted a hierarchy of humans and scientific racism, the LRTF again relies on the ideas of Lyndon LaRouche operative Paul Glumaz (but without citation) and Rupke to paint Huxley as a polygenist (someone who accepts the idea that the human “races” evolved from different origins) and as holding that there exists a greater difference among “the races of man” than that between “the lowest Man and the highest Ape.”

First, it is a complete fabrication to claim that Huxley was a polygenist. This is simply another gaslighting distortion that was uncritically accepted by the LRTF. The consensus view in the history of science literature is that Huxley opposed the theistic theory of monogenesis – the idea that humans descended from Adam and Eve. This does not make him a polygenist. What he did support was scientific monogenesis, or the “new monogenism” – that H. sapiens is a single species with a monophyletic (one population) origin followed by diversification through migration and geographic isolation. The “poly-” element to Huxley’s thinking explicitly relates to the diversification through migration and geographic isolation, not to human origin.

Huxley’s view is wholly consistent with current scientific consensus and follows current thinking based on DNA evidence. The claim that Huxley’s views were not monogenist demonstrates fundamental misrepresentation of his views, the basic tenets of evolution, and the seeds of disinformation planted by creationists. Huxley in fact wrote that polygenists “have as yet completely failed to adduce satisfactory positive proof of the specific diversity of mankind.”

And, to make a long report short, the WWU cancellation document completely ignores the many positive contributions Huxley made. He was a big reformer of education and spent much of his later life giving lectures on science to working people. But here’s from the new rebuttal document:

. . . the report utterly ignores the demonstrable benefit and good that Huxley did create in his life work. In reality, the whole thrust of Huxley’s career was to make science, and education, more inclusive. Paul White again:

Huxley devoted a great deal of his career to them in the field of education reform. He campaigned tirelessly for universal education, for the introduction of science and other modern subjects to schools and universities, for a true ‘liberal education’ as well as technical education for the working classes. In doing so, he opposed some of the most entrenched ideological and institutional hierarchies in Britain at the time, those of class.

The LRTF report completely overlooks the concrete evidence of positive impact Huxley made on society generally, and in the lives of its marginalized and underrepresented members in particular. Historians recognize Huxley as “the premier advocate of science in the nineteenth century”. He is also recognized as the single most influential person in the democratization of science and science education, for his role in the founding of the journal Nature, as founder and president of many scientific societies, for his work on the Jamaica Committee, and for his work on ten Royal commissions. He is widely recognized for his leadership in the creation of the field of science education, for devising modern K-12 education curriculum for both the privileged and the masses, for bringing college and vocational opportunities to the working class, for fighting for the admission of women to universities, and as history’s greatest popularizer of science for common people. Lastly, Huxley’s life and work contributed significantly to the secularization of society and secular educational institutions like WWU.

Also not acknowledged in the LRTF report is Huxley’s decades-long battle against the idea of scientific racism, and its chief proponent, James Hunt. He also vehemently opposed Hunt and the Anthropological Society for their support of not only the Confederacy, but for the institution of slavery.

I’ll stop here, but, having read the original de-naming proposal and the rebuttal (yes, of course I’m biased), I have to say that the original proposal is not only ignorant, but unscholarly and, at times, illiterate (“homosapien”??). They didn’t even check their sources about things like Huxley’s supposed polygenism (his view was in fact the opposite), and Huxley’s claim that there was a greater evolutionary distance between the “highest and lowest humans” (races) than between the “lowest” humans and the “highest” apes, like chimps and gorillas. That’s not what Huxley said, and the “law”, mentioned only once in the old literature, isn’t even in the consciousness of modern biologists.

One gets the sense that the de-naming proposal was a rush job, confected from dubious sources, ignoring Huxley’s contributions, and designed to give succor to those individuals who claimed that the name of the school caused them “harm” (I’m sorry, but I have trouble working up empathy for that claim). The cancellation of his name may be a done deal, but if it’s not, this new document should change the mind of any rational person. Of course, it’s dangerous to assume that university administrators are rational, as they’re easily swayed by the quotidian breezes of political change.

***********

The pro-evolution website The Panda’s Thumb has also covered this controversy, defending Huxley in three posts (here, here, and here). They also give two other useful links:

Also, today at 8:50 am PDT, Dr. Wayne Landis and I will be making public comments at the BOT meeting, introducing them to the response document and briefly summarizing it.

You may find documentation for the meeting here. The meeting itself will be audiocast here.

Thomas Henry Huxley

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson osculates religion, arguing that dissing religion impedes accepting science

August 17, 2021 • 9:15 am

Neil deGrasse Tyson prefers not to go after religion very strongly (though he has on rare occasions), believing that if you diss somebody’s religion, it prevents them from accepting the science you want to purvey—especially evolution. And he’s probably right, at least if you try to cover both subjects in a single lecture. The result is that Tyson is soft on faith, as you can see in the video below.

This video was put on YouTube last year, but I don’t know the venue or the title. Tyson shows a ranking of 34 countries and the degree of acceptance of evolution of their inhabitants. It’s well known data, but Tyson cherry-picks it to try to show that “religious” countries can be relatively high in accepting evolution, touting accommodation and giving us “hope in the world”. At least that’s how I understand his aim. Examples he adduces are these:

a). Britain is high in accepting evolution but was the country where the Anglican religion was founded. Tyson said that this shows that Britain was “a quite religious community” but is still “very high in this evolution support.” (That was centuries ago, and Britain is no longer so religious!)
b.) Likewise in Germany, where Protestantism was born under Luther, acceptance of evolution high as well. Ditto with Catholic Italy.
c.) Eastern bloc countries are low on religion, as you might expect as they were largely atheistic countries under communism, but fall in the middle on accepting evolution

Tyson finds this “hard to understand”, presumably because religion is supposed to be inimical to accepting evolution. He gives an anecdote about sending people who question the absence of God in the AMNH’s Big Bang exhibit over to the “human evolution” exhibit, concluding that the AMNH’s evidence for evolution is much stronger than the Big Bang in buttressing acceptance of evolution (he doesn’t mention physics). I grant him that, but so what?

Tyson then boasts about how he bested Dawkins in a panel discussion, showing a video of their verbal fencing. Tyson asks Dawkins whether, though Dawkins wants badly to promote evolution, doesn’t he undercut that purpose—and his role as “Professor of the Understanding of Science”—by being a vociferous anti-theist? Doesn’t criticism of religion dispel the “sensitivity” needed to get people to accept science?

It’s a fair question, and one that I’ve faced. Dawkins responds by saying, “I gratefully accept the rebuke” and then goes on to give his own anecdote. In the meantime, Tyson narrates the video by showing how successful he was in “dissing the dude” (Dawkins). Tyson is clearly showing off, but implicitly arguing that you can’t criticize religion if you want people to accept evolution.

The answer that I give is that you can be both an antitheist and a promoter of evolution—you just don’t do it at the same time. Does Tyson think that Dawkins should simply take off his antitheist hat and never criticize religion at all? That idea neglects the fact that the downside of religion goes far deeper than merely preventing acceptance of evolution. Look at what the Taliban does, for instance, or how Catholicism has led to all kinds of inimical restrictions on sex, to the terrifying of children, and to pedophilia. Look how hyperorthodox Jews turn women into breeding stock.  Religious wars and disputations have led to the death of millions. Next to that, creationism is small potatoes.

So no, Dawkins shouldn’t shut up. After all, The God Delusion was one of the best sellers of our time, moving more than a million copies.  And as the old Dawkins site “Converts Corner” attests, it helped dispel the religiosity of many people.  So Richard’s antitheism was instrumental in helping drive people away from faith and towards rationality—and science. (Note how many people in the Corner link the rejection of religion with the acceptance of science.)

At the same time, with his evolution books like The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, and (my favorite), The Blind Watchmaker, Richard not only educated people about science, but got them to accept evolution and its marvels. How many people have attested that it was Richard’s writings that brought them to accepting evolution and appreciating science?

So while Tyson may be right about dissing religion and selling evolution in the same lecture, Dawkins has been inordinately successful in not only helping drive religion from our world, but in getting people to accept and love science. You can say that without the first activity he would have been more successful at the second, but Dawkins, like me, has more than one goal in his life.

By the way, if you analyze the data Tyson presents in his talk above, it actually provides some support for the incompatibility of science and faith. What I did in the Evolution paper below (click for free access) was to correlate these 34 countries’ acceptance of evolution with their religiosity. And the correlation was negative. (As President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, which publishes the journal, I got the privilege of publishing one article, and I wrote this one. As you can imagine, it took some trouble to get it accepted, but the journal did print it!).

If you take Miller’s data shown in Tyson’s talk, and correlate it with the religiosity of the 34 countries, with each dot representing a country, you see a strong and significant negative correlation: the more religious a country is (moving right on the X axis), the less likely its inhabitants are to accept evolution (moving down on the Y axis). Here is that plot with the caption from my original figure:

Figure 1. The correlation between belief in God and acceptance of human evolution among 34 countries. Acceptance of evolution is based on the survey of Miller et al. (2006), who asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (Original data provided by J. D. Miller.) “Belief in God” comes from the Eurobarometer survey of 2005, except for data for Japan from (Zuckerman 2007) and for the United States from a Gallup Poll (2011b). “US” is the point for the United States. The correlation is −0.608 (P = 0.0001), the equation of the least-squares regression line is y = 81.47 − 0.33x.

Now this shows a correlation, not causation, so it may not show, for example, that belief in God makes people resistant to accepting evolution. Another interpretation is that acceptance of evolution is the causal factor, and that leads people to become atheists (this may be true for some folks). But I think, as I said in the paper, a third factor is in play here that leads to the correlation: human well being. For if you plot either various indices of well being, like the UN’s “Happiness Index” or the “Successful Societies Scale” (a measure of social support) against religiosity, you find out that the happiest people, and the healthiest societies, are the least religious. (See my paper for the evidence) And if you lose your religion because your society, as a healthy and happy one, makes religion superfluous, you naturally begin to accept evolution. (As I always say, “you can have religions without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.”) In support of the idea that low well-being makes one religious, I often cite the full quotation from Marx (most people leave out all but the last sentence):

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

At any rate, I believe Tyson distorts the data by cherry-picking individual points.

Therefore, my explanation for the correlation above, including social causation, is this, written in my Evolution paper:

Creationism in America, then, may be a symptom of religion, but religion in the modern world may itself be a symptom of unhealthy societies. Ultimately, the best strategy to make Americans more receptive to evolution might require loosening the grip of religion on our country. This may sound not only invidious but untenable, yet data from other countries suggest that such secularism is possible and, indeed, is increasing in the United States at this moment. But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.

If you’re interested, read the paper, for it’s written not for professional evolutionary biologists but for the educated layperson.

By the way, the correlation between acceptance of evolution and religiosity also holds strongly for the 50 American states as well. I couldn’t get the data for religiosity of individual states, but in my lecture on the incompatibility of faith and science, I do show a slide in which I there is a bar graph depicting the acceptance of evolution in each state. I found separate data for the ten most religious states (red arrows) and the ten least religious states (blue arrows), and put the arrows next to the states in the bar chart.

As you see below, all the blue arrows are above all the red ones. That is, every one of the ten least religious states has higher acceptance of evolution than all of the most religious states. Why? I think the reason is the same as for the correlation among countries.

 

Thus endeth today’s sermon. Praise Ceiling Cat, and may fleas be upon him. Amen.

Biologist and educator Thomas Henry Huxley about to get canceled

August 9, 2021 • 9:15 am

Over at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, WA, 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley is poised for cancellation, as the administration contemplates (and will probably enact) changing the name of its well known Huxley College of the Environment, listed as one of the Unversity’s “notable degree programs“.

Famously known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his defense of evolutionary theory when Darwin was too shy to appear in public to defend his own ideas, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) is also known to the layperson as the man who defended Darwin against Bishop Wilberforce in the famous 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate, though stories of what really happened in that exchange are elusive.

Like Darwin, Huxley was a “man of his time”, who made some sexist and racist statements that today would be considered intolerable. But Huxley was also a great popularizer of science (he spent man years teaching courses to working people as well as defending Darwinism), an abolitionist, a leader and administrator of British science, and a reformer of schools. Although I’m biased, I’d say his positive contributions of science outweighted his bigoted remarks, and he seems to have had little influence on eugenics, as there was no British movement that led to the practice of eugenics, nor does anyone, as far as I know, cite Huxley in support of eugenics. Eugenics was practiced in Nazi Germany, and not with the excuse of evolution, and to a lesser degree in the U.S., promoted by American scientists.

In a document on the WWU President’s website defending the criticism of Huxley as a racist, this is noted (misspellings and all):

Even though Thomas Huxley made significant contributions in the field of biology, he also had significant contributions to scientific racism. He was a polygenist: someone who is of the belief that all races evolved from different origins instead of coming from one homosapien. This is not only scientifically disproven, but also a racist mindset, and an argument that one of his “archrivals” at the time called Richard Owen attempted to refute with evidence that we all are the same species that evolved from the same homosapien thousands of years ago. Huxley won the argument, and it is historian Nicolaas Rupke’s thesis that this argument between Huxley and Owen in which Huxley’s “deeply racist, polygenist viewpoint” won lead to building the scientific racism of the early 20th century.

It’s not true that Huxley was a “polygenist”; like Darwin, he correctly believed in a single evolutionary origin of humans: both were monogenists.) Huxley believed, correctly, that different ethnic groups (then called “races”) evolved in geographic isolation from one another following migration to new places. But, like Darwin, Huxley also thought that whites were on the top of the racial hierarchy.

An oft-cited example of Huxley’s bigotry is what’s called “Huxley’s Rule,”  which, as the Panda’s Thumb article below explains:

Huxley’s “sin” is to have held many of the same views regarding race as most of his contemporaries. More specifically, according to the historian Nicolaas Rupke, Huxley

formulated what became known as ‘Huxley’s Law’ or ‘Huxley’s Rule,’ which stated that the distance in biological, evolutionary development between the highest and lowest humans is greater than the distance between the lowest humans and the highest apes (chimpanzee, gorilla), thus degrading native peoples across the British Empire.

True, as nearly as I can determine, but the term Huxley’s Law is not in common use and appears to have been coined by Prof. Rupke himself, here. Indeed, the distinguished philosopher of biology, David Hull, has noted in a book review that “nothing today goes by the name of Huxley’s Law.”

Huxley also said, “It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognisant [sic] of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.”  This statement and the “law” above are insupportable, and rightly condemned today. They were ubiquitous sentiments of the time, even among abolitionists like Darwin and Huxley, and it is these things that have led to the call to change the name of Huxley College.

But Darwin was also an abolitionist who also made racist and sexist statements not so different from those of Huxley. If you are going to “cancel” Huxley in this way, then, as Matt Young wrote in the Panda’s Thumb see below), Darwin’s cancellation may be in the offing too—something I predicted a while back but was poo-pooed for saying. Now that doesn’t look so improbable.

To summarize the fracas,  because of “the list of demands of Black students [at WWU]”, the University commissioned a group of university professors and other school members to examine the possibility of changing the name of Huxley College. As the report said, “students of color have repeatedly identified the harm they experience from the name.”  The University report was designed to see if another name would “foster a sense of belonging and inclusion” since “Huxley contributed to upholding values that have made education less inclusive, and his words harm Black, Indigenous, and other students of color at our institution ” The report says virtually nothing about Huxley’s positive accomplishments.

The full report of WWU, which involved the possibility of renaming several WWU units, can be accessed as a pdf here  (see pp 5-13 for the Huxley College of the Environment).  There are some scientific misstatements in this section, including the false claim that genetics research has “disproven the idea that intragroup [intraracial] difference exceeds intergroup differences.” No, that idea was not disproven, but rather supported: variation within groups far exceeds variation between groups [with “groups” being the classic named “races”].

In response, over at the evolution website Panda’s Thumb, Matt Young has a brief dissection and critique of WWU’s report and conclusion.

Young begins by citing another anti-Huxley source:

Ask Thomas Henry Huxley if you do not believe Marc Antony. According to an article in AS Review, Thomas Huxley: Once Respected, Now Rejected, a big brouhaha has erupted over the name of the Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. The issue is important, because if people succeed in “canceling” Huxley, possibly Darwin will be next.

And some of Young’s points:

  • Huxley’s Law, which wasn’t named by Huxley, is no longer mentioned in biology. It’s dead.
  • The scholars evaluating the name weren’t asked about Huxley’s positive accomplishments. Young:

The president’s office at Western Washington University has appointed a task force and solicited comments regarding renaming the College. They asked three questions:

What role did Huxley’s beliefs on race occupy in his intellectual works, his public statements, and his life as a whole? Were they remarkable in the context of the time and place in which he lived?
Did Huxley’s scientific work contribute, either in support or opposition, to the development of scientific racism and Social Darwinism, both during his lifetime and after? What portion of his total work did these contributions occupy, and how significant are those contributions in supporting or refuting the ideology of scientific racism?
What harmful institutional practices, policies, or general practical consequences, if any, can be specifically traced to Huxley’s views?

Consistently with the quotation from Shakespeare, above, they did not ask a single question about Huxley’s many accomplishments, which, I take it, are to be interred with his bones.

  • Most of the academics evaluating Huxley were “generally favorable”, with two even noting, snarkily, that WWU itself was named after a slaveholder. From Young:

I read the submissions by Prof. Rupke, who is a professor of history at Washington and Lee University; Paul White of the Darwin Correspondence Project of the University of Cambridge; Sherrie Lyons of Empire State College; Michael Reidy, Professor of History, Montana State University; and an article in the Seattle Times, Reconsider cancel-culture target at WWU, by Steve Hollenhorst and Wayne Landis, both professors and administrators at Huxley.

The submissions that I read, save that of Prof. Rupke and the AS Review article, seem to me to be generally favorable toward Huxley.

  • Finally, two scientist (granted, members of Huxley College) gave a very favorable evaluation of Huxley. As Young writes:

Cattiness aside, I would like to let Profs. Steve Hollenhorst [Dean of Huxley College] and Wayne Landis [Professor and Director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology] get the last word [this is from their op-ed in The Seattle Times]:

The distinguished historians WWU asked to look at the issue overwhelmingly concluded the claims just don’t hold up. Huxley’s early writings did reflect the prevailing bigotry and prejudice of Victorian society, although even then to a lesser degree than his scientific peers. By the 1860s, he became a vocal abolitionist and by the end of his life called for universal equal rights regardless of race or gender. The beautiful irony of his scientific work on human diversity is [that] it ultimately leads him to see the oneness, and equality, of all humanity.

. . . Huxley later expanded these ideas in his great battles against social Darwinism and religion, which he saw as grounded in the dark forces of authority, bigotry and superstition. He feared they led to social order based on competition, subjugation and inequality. In this he was prescient, for indeed both have been used to justify not only laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism, but also colonialism, eugenics, racism and eventually fascism.

. . . It’s telling he didn’t teach at Cambridge or Oxford, but rather working-class institutions, the Royal School of Mines and later Imperial College, where he brought science and industry together to solve societal problems. He gave hundreds of free public lectures to common folk. As an early advocate for public education, he was elected to the London School Board, where he worked to bring a decent education to ordinary people and implemented the first training for science teachers. In other words, he’d make an exemplary WWU faculty member today.

. . . What would Huxley say about his legacy? First, he’d commend us for interrogating it, especially the brave students, who without power and risking reproach, stood up to raise the issue. But he’d then remind them that “it is not what we believe, but why we believe it. Moral responsibility lies in diligently weighing the evidence.” And to all of us he’d likely say, “learn what is true in order to do what is right.” Now that the question is before us, address it with honesty and integrity.

. . . Don’t be fooled. Huxley’s message isn’t privileged. It isn’t elitist. It isn’t racist. It’s timeless. The values he fought for are at the core of public higher education to this day. Far from causing harm, we are in a better place because of Thomas H. Huxley.

Now of course I’m not completely objective about this, for I don’t want the history of my field erased (and make no mistake, removing Huxley’s name and demonizing him in a report is erasure). Nor do I want the mob to move on to Darwin, whose “sins” are qualitatively the same as Huxley’s. Huxley and Darwin made positive contributions to evolutionary biology, and those should be recognized.

As I’ve said before, when I’m thinking about whether a statue should be removed or a building renamed, or other forms of cancellation contemplated, I look at the answers to two questions.

1.) Is the individual being honored for the positive things he/she did in life?
2.) Do those positive things outweigh the negative things that the individual did?

In the case of Thomas Henry Huxley, I find the answer to both questions to be “yes”. (Remember the diverse areas in which Huxley made advances.) Yes, some students can complain that they are “harmed” by the name of the school, though in this case I find that relatively trivial because offense, real or pretended, doesn’t outweigh Huxley’s positive contributions to science and education. Nor do I think that eliminating the name “Huxley College of the Environment” will do much to foster racial equality in this country. It is a purely performative gesture designed to placate those students who find offense everywhere.

But the die is cast. I know of no case lately in which a name change proposed because someone was bigoted at a time when everyone was bigoted was not enacted. Huxley is pretty much toast. What a shame, and what a blight on WWU!

And if they decide to change the name of the Huxley College of the Environment, they’d damn well better change the name of Western Washington University! After all, Huxley was an abolitionist, but George Washington was an actual slaveholder.

Here’s Huxley:

More mishigas at Scientific American: A claim that opposition to evolution comes from white supremacy, not religion

July 11, 2021 • 10:00 am

As Scientific American continues its inexorable circling of the drain, it’s approaching the drainhole itself. For, from a week ago, we have an op-ed by Allison Hopper asserting that Americans’ rejection of evolution—73% of Americans are either straight-up Biblical creationists (40%) or think God helped guide evolution (33%)—is due not to religion as many suppose, but to white supremacy. It’s all about racism, Jake! (I was not the first to proposed the religion-is-the-main-cause of rejecting-evolution thesis, but laid out the case, with supporting data, in a paper in Evolution in 2012.)

Hopper rejects that thesis in her Sci Am article, saying that the idea that people reject evolution because of religion is a “lie”. To wit:

“I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies. “

Well, she’s dead wrong about her thesis, as I’ll argue below, but also in her claim that evolution denialism “perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies.” It does nothing of the sort! You really have to distort your thinking to claim that people are prone to deny evolution because they’re white supremacists, much less embrace the idea that creationism (which is what I’ll call “evolution denial”, since they’re pretty much equivalent in America) creates “violence against Black bodies”. What kind of violence? Has any black person been harmed in the name of creationism? And what is it with this “black bodies” trope?  That seems to me distinctly unwoke, since the trend in “progressive” language is to emphasize the humanity of oppressed people, i.e., “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves”. Saying “black bodies” instead of “black people” clearly dehumanizes people, and I deplore it.

But I digress. Before we examine Hopper’s arguments, such as they are, here are her bona fides from the article:

Allison Hopper is a filmmaker and designer with a master’s degree in educational design from New York University. Early in her career, she worked on PBS documentaries. More recently, she’s been creating content for young people on the topic of evolution. She has presented on evolution at the Big History Conference in Amsterdam and Chautauqua, among other places.

And here’s her article, which you can read for free by clicking on the screenshot below:

Hopper is trying here to jump on the current bandwagon that everything is about race, including rejection of evolution. And, she implies, once we acquaint people with the fact that creationism is a product not of religion but of white supremacy, they’ll give up their creationism and embrace evolution.

Her argument goes like this:

1.) Many people don’t realize that all humans descend from African ancestors (true).

2.) Those African ancestors had dark skin. (Also true.) However, in their case “black” or “brown” does not equate with “oppressed”, since there were no white people to oppress them. Different species of hominin may have oppressed each other, but that had nothing to do with pigmentation.

3.) Importantly, human culture sprang from dark-skinned ancestors who had religion, language, fire, and tool use. These were the foundations, argues Hopper, for the culture we have today. It’s true that these bases (except, perhaps, for religion and language, about whose origin we know virtually nothing) probably sprang from dark-skinned ancestors. But other features of modern culture evolved in Europe and the Middle East, where natural selection had already been lightening skin color. (This constant emphasis on the overweening importance of skin color repels me.) At any rate, agriculture and its attendant amenities of civilization probably arose about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East among people who were not black (but may have been brown) and further developed by people of all colors, including whites and Asians. But who cares? Only someone obsessed with racism and determined to make it the basis for everything bad.

4.) Hopper cares, for she says that evolution’s truth dispels the Biblical story that Adam and Eve (who were supposedly white) were instrumental in creating black people, who descended from a bad person—Cain—who killed his brother. This “mark of Cain” thesis that supposedly connects creationism with white supremacy, is advanced in several ways by Hopper:

Science education in the U.S. is constantly on the defensive against antievolution activists who want biblical stories to be taught as fact. In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s. Ever since then, entrenched racism and the ban on teaching evolution in the schools have gone hand in hand. In his piece,What We Get Wrong About the Evolution Debate, Adam Shapiro argues that “the history of American controversies over evolution has long been entangled with the history of American educational racism.”

In fact, anybody who looks at the data on creationism sees immediately its connection with the Biblical creation story (not including Cain)—the view that God created everything almost instantaneously, with humans made in His/Her/Their image. Everybody promoting creationism and intelligent design is religious, and all creationist organizations are religious at bottom.

In my life I’ve met hundreds of creationists, and every one of them was religious. (David Berlinski, whom I haven’t met, may be the one exception, but that’s just one person and he may be dissimulating about religion anyway.) They make no bones about their views, either. Yet in none of these people have I heard anything about white supremacy. Sure, there may be racists among creationists—there has to be given the connection between Evangelical Christianity and the South—but you’d have to essentially make things up to argue that creationism comes from white supremacy and that its connection with religion is “a lie.” (At any rate, were Hopper’s story of Cain and Abel true, it still shows a connection between creationism and religion.)

But wait! There’s more:

The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.

There are those “Black bodies” again.  But what are the “lethal” effects? Were black bodies really killed because white bigots and lynchers were motivated by a refusal to accept our ancient ancestry? I doubt it, and I doubt whether they were motivated by religion, either. They were motivated, I believe, by tribalism and the heritage of slavery with its attendant beliefs that blacks were inferior beings.

In fact, when Hopper talks about the dearth of children’s books on evolution, she inadvertently admits that religion (not the story of Cain and Abel!) is tilting kids towards creationism:

If you go on Amazon and look up “children’s books on evolution” you will find about 10–15 relevant titles. This is in contrast to the hundreds of children’s books on other scientific subjects such as chemistry, astronomy and other less controversial subjects. I found only one book on evolution for preschoolers, called Grandmother Fish. The author had to self-fund the book through Kickstarter.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of children’s books available on Amazon that focus on biblical origin stories. Science deniers are pumping money into a well-funded antievolution machine. In 2007, the creationists built their own Bible-themed museum and amusement park. What they understand is that to reach young children you need music, colorful characters and celebration.

Kids get their religion long before they learn evolution, and by the time they’re presented with Darwin and his successors, they’ve had at least a decade of indoctrination in the Bible, with many being Biblical literalists. They are effectively immunized against evolution. Racism is a separate issue.

In the end, Hopper argues that if we can just tell the story of evolution properly, including that we all came from Africa and our earliest ancestors were dark-skinned, creationism would go away:

. . . even in the current literature about human origins that we do have, the end point of evolution is often depicted as a white man carrying a spear. This image not only eliminates our African heritage but also erases women and children from the picture. Because evolution is foundational knowledge, we need the story to be told in many different ways, by many different voices.

As we move forward to undo systemic racism in every aspect of business, society, academia and life, let’s be sure to do so in science education as well. Embracing humanity’s dark-skinned ancestors with love and respect is key to changing our relationship to the past, and to creating racial equity in the present. These ancient people made the rest of us possible. Opening our hearts to them and embracing them as heroic, fully human and worthy of our respect is part of the process of healing from our racist history.

I wasn’t aware that the teaching of evolution was systemically racist; do teachers really deny that our ancestors were African? And does Hopper really believe that accepting that will get rid of racism? Really? Even Darwin was a monogenist, saying that all groups of humans arose from a single ancestor who probably lived in Africa. Did that get rid of racism? I don’t think so, though some people think Darwin’s monogenism was part of a strategy to combat racism.

(I can’t get over my gag reflex when hearing that we need to embrace our ancestors with “love and respect”, since I don’t know that they were either lovable or respectable)

Okay, now what’s the evidence against Hopper’s thesis? It’s strong:

a.) Ask people why they think evolution didn’t happen. Many will say because they believe the Bible or the Qur’an. Nobody will say because it shows that white people are superior. (Of course, you can say they won’t admit their bigotry.)

b.) Every creationist organization from Answers in Genesis to the Discovery Institute is based on religion, while we find no creationist organizations whose platform is white supremacy. As I said, the two are tangentially connected because of the religious and white-supremacist nature of the American South, but this is a matter of correlation, not causation.

c.) Most telling: several surveys, listed and summarized in this paper, show that blacks and Hispanics deny evolution more than do whites. This is the opposite of what Hopper predicts, but makes sense under the “religion-first” hypothesis, since blacks and Hispanics tend to be more religious than whites in general.

d.) There is a highly statistically significant negative correlation between the religiosity of 34 European countries and their acceptance of evolution, as I noted in my Evolution paper. Most of these countries are nearly all white, save France and Germany, which have high acceptance of evolution (and more black people than, say, Iceland or Demark). The US is near the bottom in accepting evolution (I’ll give the data in a minute), not because the U.S. has a higher percentage of whites than most European countries—it doesn’t—but because the U.S. is far more religious then Europe.

Here’s the correlation I found. The U.S., labeled, is next to last in accepting evolution, while below us lies only Turkey: a Muslim country that, by the way, happens to comprise many “people of color”. Note that the most religious countries, to the right, are the least accepting of evolution. I discuss issues with these data (nonindependence, etc.) in the Evolution paper.

And here are the data from Miller and Scott (2006) that I used to make the plot for my own paper:

The religiosity of these countries, which appears in the graph above, came from other sources given in my Evolution paper.

The thing to note is that virtually all these countries are white, and yet the correlation holds across them all. As I said, the countries with the highest proportion of evolution rejectors (those at the bottom)—are not only the most religious, but also probably contain the highest proportion of people of color. This is what the religious hypothesis proposes, but it goes counter to Hopper’s thesis, which predicts that the whitest countries should be the least accepting of evolution, for rejection of evolution is a sign of white supremacy. (Of course, you could argue that white supremacy will be manifested only in countries with a substantial proportion of black people, but that’s pushing it.) In fact, Hopper’s argument is a post facto confection to support anti-racism, and appears to make no predictions that seem to stand up to scrutiny.

It seems to me that Hopper is not only deeply misguided, but also motivated by ideology, tying creationism directly to white supremacy, and almost completely dismissing its connection to religion. As I always say, “You can have religion without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.” Hopper seems to have deliberately ignored data inimical to her hypothesis, which of course is what one does when afflicted with the kind of confirmation bias that comes with wokeness.

And it’s just another sign that whoever’s in charge of Scientific American is letting through ill-informed and erroneous material.  What has happened to that once-respectable magazine? Is there no longer an audience for the lively yet informative articles they used to publish? Are they becoming the Evergreen State of popular science magazines?

h/t: Eli

A discussion on genetics, evolution, and information with Richard Dawkins

June 30, 2021 • 10:30 am

Reader Luke sent a recently filmed 48-minute discussion between Richard Dawkins and Jon Perry. Luke says “Perry does the excellent Stated Clearly YouTube channel. This was posted on his ‘personal’ site.”

Luke added this, too:
It’s a good conversation. It mostly focuses on River Out Of Eden and the ideas within that book. I know Richard has a new book out, but it’s refreshing here that he takes a deep dive into his past writings. While he touches upon atheist arguments, most of the conversation concerns Darwin, evolution, the genetic code, information theory, computers and function. This, I think, is where Dawkins is at his finest — talking about evolution. There’s a great moment when Dawkins is talking about the genetic code and machine code and Perry pulls out a strip of computer tape! [JAC: this happens at 12:48.] A great illustration of the ideas discussed!
It’s clear Perry is very much inspired by Dawkins, and it’s good to see. His YouTube channel is one of the best and most consistent.

Because of my past as a working biologist, I found the discussion of biology (sexual selection, brood parasitism, etc.) more interesting than the long discussion of code, the genetic code, information, and so on.

I enjoyed the section about whether animal signals evolve via genes that improve “cooperation.”  Whether you answer this “yes” or “no” depends on how you conceive of “cooperation”.  If you mean that cooperative signals evolve even though they reduce the fitness of the replicators within populations (i.e. cooperation as pure altruism), there’s no way that cooperation can evolve by individual selection (more accurately, by differential replication of genes among individuals in a population). Remember, you have to include kin and reciprocity when dealing with the evolution of cooperation within a population.

Most biologists think that the vast bulk of cooperation in animals evolves in a way that increases the fitness of the cooperators in a population. It confers an individual advantage to cooperate. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, ergo you give excess food to your fellows so long as they remember to give excess food to you when you need it. Lions in a pride can gain advantages by cooperating in a hunt by being able to get more per capita food by being able to bring down larger prey or by being more successful at catching prey.

If you want a general increase in cooperation that does not enhance the fitness of individuals, you’ll have to posit forms of group selection.

I know of no examples of cooperation in animals—including any evolved cooperation in primates like ourselves—that cannot be seen as having evolved by individual (or genic) selection. Such examples, to be convincing, would have to show that while they may increase the longevity or “splittability” of a group, would have to reduce the fitness of the cooperators themselves, even when you include their kin. Some aspects of social insect behavior might conform to a group selection model, but recent work refuting such suggestions by Martin Nowak and his colleagues suggests this isn’t the case. At this point we can say that evolutionists know of know adaptations in organisms that must have evolved by group rather than “individual” selection. In the last chapter of my book on Speciation with Allen Orr, however, we describe how some evolutionary trends might be due to a form of group selection, but these are not features or behaviors of individuals.

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

REFERENCES
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.

Punctuated equilibrium is dead; long live the Modern Synthesis

June 13, 2021 • 9:30 am

“If [Ernst] Mayr’s characterization of the synthetic theory [of evolution] is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy”.—Gould, 1980

“If Steve Gould’s characterization of punctuated equilibrium involves the evolutionary mechanisms that he and Niles Eldredge proposed, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence in Gould’s writings.”—Coyne, this post

Punctuated equilibrium (PE) was first proposed in a paper by Niles Eldredge and Steve Gould (“E&G”; reference below) in 1972, the year before I entered graduate school. When I entered Harvard in 1973  it was a huge deal, heavily promoted by Gould, a professor in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, as a replacement for the view of evolution most people held (“neo-Darwinism).  Not a little of the theory’s popularity came from Gould’s nonstop promotion of it as well as his extraordinary ability to write popular science.

At first the theory was largely about the pace of evolution. Instead of imperceptibly gradual change in a species over time (the view Darwin proposed, though Darwin did note in the Origin that evolution could also be rapid), Eldredge and Gould proposed that the pace of evolution was jerky, with big changes occurring relatively rapidly over evolutionary time little evolution happening the rest of the time. (This of course concerned only morphology, and was tested largely using hard parts—the parts most often preserved in fossils.)

Most of us microevolutionists were willing to go with the data, and some fossil data did seem to show an episodic pattern of morphological change. But of course there was argument about this, for what constitutes “big” versus “small” change in fossils? Further, the fossil record is often incomplete, so missing strata can make a gradual change look like a near-instantaneous big change.

Nevertheless, the theory that the pace of evolution could vary widely sat comfortably within the neo-Darwinian paradigm, which predicts that change will be rapid when natural selection is strong, and small when selection is weak or nonexistent. I remain open about the prevalence of the pattern, for I don’t know all the data.

But, over time, PE became more than a hypothesis about the relative rate of evolutionary change in fossil lineages. It morphed into a theory of evolutionary process—a theory that was pretty much “non-neo-Darwinian” and also much more controversial. And while the pattern may be right, the processes proposed by E&G are so wrong that I’d call them “definitively falsified”.

Over time, the following six assertions became part of Gould and Eldredge’s theory, and were proposed by the pair themselves:

a.) The claimed observation that most of the times species in the fossil record didn’t change (i.e., exhibited “stasis”) was not due to weak selection or an absence of selection, nor was it due to “stabilizing selection”: the kind of selection in which the average character in a population is the most fit, and extremes are selected against. That is the classic explanation for a lack of evolutionary change over time. These explanation were rejected by E&G in favor of two other explanations:

1.) Organisms have “developmental constraints”: there may be selection, say, to make individuals of a species bigger, but the species doesn’t get bigger because it either lacked genetic variation for bigger size or, alternatively, attaining a bigger size would have negative effects on the average fitness of the species (for example, if food is scarce, getting bigger might lead to faster starvation).

2.) Gene flow among populations of a species means that no population could change in response to local selection pressures because there was a constant influx of genes from other populations that didn’t experience such selection. This constant mixing of genes from populations undergoing different forms of selection averaged out to no net change in the appearance of a fossil species.

b.) Punctuated change in morphology can occur only when the genome is somehow “shaken up”, and this shake-up occurs during speciation events—when one lineage branches into two or more lineages. Absent such splitting events, a species stays static.

c.) The genomic discombobulation that somehow releases a species from its stasis—that is, loosens the developmental constraints—occurs when, as supposedly happens during most speciation events—a small peripheral population undergoes a form of “genetic revolution”, a kind of speciation in which reproductive barriers arise during an interaction between natural selection and genetic drift (random changes in the proportion of gene variants that are most prevalent in small populations.) At the time of this theory, several evolutionists, including Sewall Wright and Hampton Carson, had proposed that some types of evolutionary change require genetic drift in small populations. Without those population “bottlenecks”, these proponents said, species don’t change much. E&G drew on these ideas to buttress the episodic nature of evolution. One problem here is that there was and is little evidence that this kind of drift-associated change occurs, and almost no evidence that it’s ever associated with the appearance of a new species. Evolutionists have repeatedly put species through extreme bottlenecks—as few as two individuals—and have never seen that lead to even the beginning of reproductive isolation. (Reproductive isolation is the sine qua non of speciation to evolutionists.)

d). These claims all combine in the following way to lead to a punctuated evolutionary pattern. A big, widespread species is resistant to evolutionary change for the reasons mentioned above. Then, a small peripheral isolate population, cut off from the rest of the species, forms. Being small, it undergoes genetic drift, which releases the evolutionary constraints and allows the isolate to undergo rapid and substantial evolution.  Eventually, the isolate rejoins the main population, but by that time it’s evolved reproductive isolation from the other populations and is thus a new species. For reasons unexplained, the isolate quickly replaces the other populations. And voilà!—one sees a big change in the fossil record as the small and changed population supplants its ancestral species.

e.) But there’s another way that big morphological change can occur rapidly, too—one that was promoted by Gould: macromutation. This is the notion that changes in an animal’s appearance, behavior, physiology, and so on, don’t need to occur in small, incremental steps (the “Darwinian” pattern) but can occur via mutations that make big jumps, creating “hopeful monsters” (“saltations”). This idea was popularized by Richard Goldschmidt in the 1930s, and was revived by Gould in PE. Gould, for example, said this in a 1982 paper in Science.

 I envisage a potential saltational origin for the essential features of key adaptations. Why may we not imagine that gill arch bones of an ancestral agnathan moved forward in one step to surround the mouth and form proto-jaws? (Gould, 1980)

When called out for the absence of adaptations based on such huge mutations, Eldredge and Gould backtracked, claiming that PE was “never meant as a saltational theory”.  As you see, and this is true of other parts of PE, Gould in particular waffled about what the mechanisms of episodic fossil change really were.

f.) One of the most important parts of PE, worked out largely by Gould, was the claim that major features of adaptive evolution, and evolutionary trends in general, like the increase in body size in many lineages (“Cope’s Rule”) was due to species selection. This is a process of differential speciation and extinction that is said to occur not within species (that’s just classical Darwinism), but among species.  A further claim was that the changes within species had little to do with selection itself (they may have resulted from drift)—or at least little to do with the process of differential speciation and extinction.

So, for example, an increase in body size among a group of mammals over time would be explained by species selection this way: each species attains its average body size either by drift or by forms of selection that have no relationship with the persistence, speciation rate, or extinction of species. But it may happen that, for other reasons, the biggest species either speciate faster or go extinct more slowly. Over time, then, we’d see a pattern among lineages of an increase in body size, but this has nothing to do with classical Darwinian selection on gene forms.

The problem with this is that species selection cannot account for complex adaptations like jaws so easily. Each feature of an adaptation would have to evolve by a process of differential extinction or speciation, and evolving a complex adaptation would take a gazillion years.  That’s because species selection is much slower than individual Darwinian selection since the former relies on replacement of species over evolutionary time, while the latter relies on the rapid replacement of gene forms within a species, which can occur over a few thousand generations or fewer. Further, the evidence for species selection as a general explanation of evolutionary trends is very thin. In his last big book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, a 1400-page, poorly written monster that I actually read (and wish I hadn’t), Gould winds up admitting that he can’t adduce a single good example of species selection. However, in the last chapter of my book with Allen Orr, Speciation, we do make a case that a limited form of species selection may operate in nature and can explain evolutionary trends but not adaptations themselves. Species selection is just not as ubiquitous as Gould thought.

******

So apart from a) and the presence of genetic drift, virtually every part of PE is “non-neo-Darwinian”: processes that aren’t considered widely as part of the modern evolutionary synthesis. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, but when examined closely, the evidence for these ancillary assertions is virtually nonexistent. Although to G&E, PE represented a Kuhnian “paradigm shift”, closer examination shows that these components (peak shifts, connection of morphological change with speciation, restriction of response to selection by developmental constraints, saltation, widespread species selection etc., etc.) are individually not common, and in tandem seem impossible to form the basis of a convincing theory. Despite that, Gould claimed that PE put neo-Darwinism to rest (see his quote at the top of the article).

Now I could write in detail why the assertions above are dubious, and why PE as a mechanism of evolutionary change is almost certainly wrong, bu that case has already been made. It was first made by three of my colleagues, Brian Charlesworth, Russ Lande, and Monty Slatkin, in a 1982 paper in Evolution that pretty much put the mechanism of PE to rest. You can read that paper below; it’s a classic not of modern evolutionary genetics, and also a paradigm of close examination and debunking of a popular theory (click on screenshot for the pdf). The debunking involved a massive mustering of evidence from genetics, population-genetic theory, laboratory experiments, field experiments, artificial selection, and geology. The last bit of their conclusions says this:

We have also demonstrated, as has Orzack (1981), that punctuationists have often severely distorted the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Punctuationists are mainly criticizing oversimplified versions of neo-Darwinism (which are currently popular in some fields) rather than the original statements of this theory and the evidence which has been used to support it. Furthermore, some of the genetic mechanisms that have been proposed to explain the abrupt appearance and prolonged stasis of many fossil species are conspicuously lacking in empirical support. Thus, we do not feel logically compelled to abandon neo-Darwinism in favor of the theory of punctuated equilibria.

This paper of Charlesworth et al. was expanded and brought up to date by the new “Perspectives” paper of Hancock et al. in Evolution (reference below, pdf here).


And here is the abstract, supporting the conclusions of Charlesworth et al. (my emphasis)

The Modern Synthesis (or “Neo-Darwinism”), which arose out of the reconciliation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s research on genetics, remains the foundation of evolutionary theory. However, since its inception, it has been a lightning rod for criticism, which has ranged from minor quibbles to complete dismissal. Among the most famous of the critics was Stephen Jay Gould, who, in 1980, proclaimed that the Modern Synthesis was “effectively dead.” Gould and others claimed that the action of natural selection on random mutations was insufficient on its own to explain patterns of macroevolutionary diversity and divergence, and that new processes were required to explain findings from the fossil record. In 1982, Charlesworth, Lande, and Slatkin published a response to this critique in Evolution, in which they argued that Neo-Darwinism was indeed sufficient to explain macroevolutionary patterns. In this Perspective for the 75th Anniversary of the Society for the Study of Evolution, we review Charlesworth et al. in its historical context and provide modern support for their arguments. We emphasize the importance of microevolutionary processes in the study of macroevolutionary patterns. Ultimately, we conclude that punctuated equilibrium did not represent a major revolution in evolutionary biology – although debate on this point stimulated significant research and furthered the field – and that Neo-Darwinism is alive and well.

So the best you can say about the mechanism of PE, a claim I’ve heard many times, was that it furthered the field of paleobiology—brought paleontology to the “high table of evolutionary biology”, as someone asserted. Well, while it did stimulate debate about the relative frequency of rapid versus gradual change in the fossil record, the falsity of its claims about mechanism was already known to evolutionary geneticists when PE was first proposed! Charleworth et al. simply collected all the theoretical and empirical work that showed the falsity of the mechanism.

I remember debating this issue with Steve Gould in our conference room at Harvard, asking him to explain the details of PE’s mechanism. Gould got more and more exercised, and wound up tarring me by telling me that I was just a “hidebound gradualist.”  I still wear that label with pride.

Later, Brian Charlesworth and I had several exchanges criticizing PE in the journal Science (see Coyne and Charlesworth references below).

It apparently wasn’t enough for E&G to point out a pattern in the fossil record that might have been real (I still don’t know how ubiquitous “jerky” evolution is). No, they wanted to go further—to be Kuhnians and tear down the wall of evolutionary theory, erecting the new paradigm of PE in its place. Well, such an endeavor is fine, but the new paradigm hasn’t worn well, and in fact was stillborn when first proposed.

I’m not sure whether paleobiologists still teach punctuated equilibrium as a viable theory, but if you hear that claim, remember this: PE as a pattern in the fossil record may well be correct, but as a mechanism of evolutionary change is “not even wrong.”

Addendum: I don’t want to go through the Charlesworth et al. and Hancock et al. papers in detail, as you can read them for yourselves. But if you have specific questions about the mechanism of PE that I can answer briefly, put them in the comments.

Stephen Jay Gould (left) and Niles Eldredge (right) flanking their mentor, Norman D. Newell (seated) on the occasion of Dr. Newell’s 90th birthday celebration at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in February, 1999. Photo by Gillian Newell. Source.

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Charlesworth, B.R. Lande, and M. Slatkin1982 A Neo-Darwinian commentary on macroevolutionEvolution 36474– 498.

Coyne, J. A. and B. Charlesworth.  1996.  Mechanisms of punctuated evolution (technical comment). Science 274:1748-1749. (includes response by Elena et al.)

Coyne, J. A. and B. Charlesworth. 1997.  Punctuated equilibria (technical comment).  Science 276:338-340.

Eldredge, N. and S. J. Gould. 1972. Punctuated equilibria:  An alternative to phyletic gradualism. Pp. 82-115 in T. J. M. Schopf, ed. Models in Paleobiology. Freeman, Cooper, San Francisco.

Gould, S. J. 1980. Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?. Paleobiology 6 119-130.

Hancock, Z.B., Lehmberg, E.S. and Bradburd, G.S. (2021), Neo-darwinism still haunts evolutionary theory: A modern perspective on Charlesworth, Lande, and Slatkin (1982). Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.14268

Response by Brian Charlesworth to the latest episode of Darwin-dissing

June 9, 2021 • 9:30 am

My friend, colleague, and former chair Brian Charlesworth, a well known evolutionary geneticist, had some thoughts about Agustín Fuentes’s op-ed critique of Charles Darwin recently published in Science. (See my own posts about Fuentes here, here, and here.)  As you’ll see, he feels that Fuentes distorted Darwin’s views; Brian attempts a longer and more objective summary.

Fuentes’s thesis was not just that Darwin himself was, on the subject of human evolution, often sexist, racist, and bigoted, but that his views were injurious, justifying “empire and colonialism” as well as “genocide” to those who adopted the thesis of “survival of the fittest.” As I’ve argued before, Fuentes grossly exaggerates Darwin’s bigotry, for although the man shared some of the prejudices of his time, he was far more liberal than the average English gentleman. (For one thing, Darwin was an ardent abolitionist.) Also, Darwin is not responsible, and in fact rejected, the “social darwinism” that justified oppression and conflict by saying it was “natural”.

Brian’s collection of thoughts on Fuentes’s piece is below.  Statements by Darwin himself are indented in normal type, while Fuentes’s statements are indented and italicized.  But first, here’s Brian’s explanation of why he put together the notes; I’ve added a photo of Brian to the bottom of this post.

Why did I compile these notes on Agustín Fuentes’ Science editorial on The Descent of Man, where he accused Charles Darwin of justifying genocide on the basis of the ‘survival of the fittest’? I had previously been a co-author of a paper (Bodmer, W.F. et al. 2021 Heredity ; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6) that described the views on eugenics and race of the great statistician and geneticist, R.A. Fisher. This prompted a good deal of criticism, including attempts by an anti-racist group at the University of Edinburgh to have the paper suppressed, on the grounds that it was a “defence of the geneticist R.A. Fisher’s abhorrent views on race and eugenics” (https://twitter.com/UoEREN/status/1374408913861308431). This attracted the attention of the UK national press, with the Daily Mail newspaper asserting that Fisher advocated “sterilisation of people from races he considered ‘mentally inferior’ ” (University of Edinburgh in free speech row over article praising scientist who advocated eugenics | Daily Mail Online).

Both this episode and the Fuentes article raise two issues. First, while I strongly support removing social and racial injustices, I feel that it is important that we examine the context of opinions expressed in past times, and arrive at a judgement of how positive achievements can be recognised, even when some beliefs are expressed that are obnoxious to people today. Conducting such an examination should not be viewed as defending views that are today regarded as abhorrent, as happened to the paper about Fisher. Enormous benefits have accrued to humanity from Fisher’s statistical innovations and from Darwin’s biological discoveries. This contrasts with slave traders, slave owners, segregationists and Nazis, who did nothing but harm. Second, we must get the facts right. Darwin never justified genocide (indeed, he had a lifelong hatred of cruelty in any form); Fisher never referred to ‘inferior races’ or advocated their sterilization.

My notes on the Fuentes article represent an attempt to give a clearer picture of what Darwin actually wrote and thought than was conveyed by the article itself.

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Some Notes on A. Fuentes’ Science Editorial about Darwin’s The Descent of Man

(Science 2021, 372: 769 DOI: 10.1126/science.abj4606)

Brian Charlesworth, Institute of Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh

First, it should be recognized that modern readers of the Descent will find a number of statements and wordings objectionable, notably the use of the terms “lower races” and “savages”. This was, however regrettable, the language commonly used by Victorian writers. It does not shed a flattering light on the prejudices of that age, but it should be recognized that Darwin’s general views on social issues, such as his hatred of slavery and child labour, were among the most enlightened of his time. For example, he was a member of the 1864 committee that urged the prosecution of Governor Eyre of Jamaica for his brutal suppression of protests by the black population.

This aspect of Darwin is barely acknowledged by Fuentes, who remarks that:

“Descent” is often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious. Darwin thought he was relying on data, objectivity, and scientific thinking in describing human evolutionary outcomes. But for much of the book, he was not. “Descent,” like so many of the scientific tomes of Darwin’s day, offers a racist and sexist view of humanity.

This gives a distorted view of the book as a whole. Including Selection in Relation to Sex, there are 954 text pages in the 1874 second edition (John Murray version; the pagination varies among versions), and pp. 319-845 are devoted to animals, not humans. On my reading, the other 45% of the book includes seven passages that express what appear to be racist and sexist views. The most obnoxious of these (p.213) was not written by Darwin himself, but is a lengthy quotation from a Mr Greg concerning competition between Saxons and Celts (the latter being held to be inferior).

[From Fuentes’s piece]:

Darwin portrayed Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia as less than Europeans in capacity and behavior. Peoples of the African continent were consistently referred to as cognitively depauperate, less capable, and of a lower rank than other races.

There is only a handful of references to the mental abilities of Africans in the book; contrary to the impression given by Fuentes. Darwin’s statements about mental differences between the races are ambiguous and fluctuating, and many of them are very enlightened compared with remarks by his contemporaries such as T.H. Huxley, Karl Marx and Walt Whitman. For example, on p.276 he says:

“ .. they [races] are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these are of so unimportant or of so singular a nature that it is extremely improbable that they should have independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races. The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named, yet I was incessantly struck while living with the Fuegians on board the “Beagle”, with the many little traits of character, shewing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate.”

Furthermore, in Darwin’s diary of the voyage of the Beagle (July 3, 1832), he describes the black men of Brazil in complimentary terms:

“I cannot help believing they will ultimately be the rulers. I judge of it from their numbers, from their fine athletic figures … & from clearly seeing their intellects have been much underrated; they are the efficient workmen in all necessary trades.”

It should be remembered that Darwin (and his contemporaries) had no clear grasp of the distinction between genotype and phenotype that is at the core of modern genetics, and he attached considerable significance to the inheritance of acquired characters in the Descent. Therefore, when he referred to race or sex differences in mental traits, it is often unclear whether he thought they were purely cultural in origin, or were innate; but several passages make it clear that Darwin attached considerable importance to cultural factors. When comparing the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand and Tahiti, he remarked on the effects of education by missionaries on “teaching them the arts of civilization” on the former and the “kind, simple manners” of the latter (Letter to Caroline Darwin, 27 December 1835).

At the end of Chapter 7, Darwin argued forcefully that civilized societies have comparatively recently emerged from barbarian societies and (p.223) noted that:

“The Tahitians when first visited had advanced in many respects beyond the inhabitants of most of the other Polynesian islands. There are no just grounds for the belief that the high culture of the native Peruvians and Mexicans was derived from abroad.”

Fuentes goes on to say:

These assertions are confounding because in “Descent” Darwin offered refutation of natural selection as the process differentiating races, noting that traits used to characterize them appeared nonfunctional relative to capacity for success. As a scientist this should have given him pause, yet he still, baselessly, asserted evolutionary differences between races.

Darwin appealed to sexual selection as a process in differentiating human populations; this is simply a sub-class of natural selection as far as evolutionary mechanisms are concerned.

Fuentes’s statement seems to suggest that he thinks that there are no genetic differences between human populations and that natural selection has nothing to do with them. This is in contradiction with many findings of human population geneticists concerning the action of selection on important traits, such as resistance to malaria, the ability to resist anoxia in high altitude populations, and lactose tolerance in populations that consume milk products. Even without selection, genetic differences between populations in selectively neutral characters can evolve by random genetic drift – subtle differences in the frequencies of large numbers of DNA sequence variants have been revealed even within the population of the British Isles.

Accepting the evidence for genetic differences between human populations carries no implication of believing in racial purity or superiority, or the related pseudo-scientific justifications for discrimination with which we are all too familiar. For quantitatively varying traits, which are subject to both environmental and genetic influences, differences between populations are statistical, in the sense that there is much variability within populations (as Darwin himself noted in relation to human races), which is often greater than any between-population variation. Without complete standardisation of the environment, it is impossible to determine whether observed differences in the mean values of a trait between populations has a genetic basis (this is the basis for the classic “common garden” experiments of plant evolutionary geneticists).

He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” 

There is no evidence Darwin use his science to justify “empire and colonialism, and genocide”. It is true that, like most Victorians, he took a favourable view of British colonization of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, as shown by some of his statements. But his discussion of the extinction of indigenous populations in Chapter 7 of the Descent emphasised the role of disease and demoralisation, and it is unjust to suggest that he thought that such extinctions were to be applauded.

For example, in his Beagle Diary (4th-7th of September 1833), he exclaims with horror about the massacres of Indians in Patagonia:

“Who would believe in this age in a Christian, civilised country that such atrocities were committed?  … The country will be in the hands of white Gaucho savages instead of copper coloured Indians. The former being little superior in civilisation, as they are inferior in every moral virtue”.

Fuentes also says:

In “Descent,” Darwin identified women as less capable than (White) men, often akin to the “lower races.” He described man as more courageous, energetic, inventive, and intelligent, invoking natural and sexual selection as justification, despite the lack of concrete data and biological assessment. His adamant assertions about the centrality of male agency and the passivity of the female in evolutionary processes, for humans and across the animal world, resonate with both Victorian and contemporary misogyny.

This presumably refers to the following passage on p.858 of the Descent:

“It is generally admitted that with women the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least of these, are characteristic of the lower races and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”

This was followed by (pp.859-860):

“These latter faculties [various mental traits] … will have been developed in man, partly through sexual selection… and partly through natural selection… Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman. It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of equal transmission of characters to both sexes prevails with mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.”

This certainly shows that Darwin believed in the mental inferiority of women, and that this had, at least in part, an innate rather than cultural basis. This was the prevalent view at his time, which persisted until very recently (Fuentes’ institution, Princeton University, did not admit women until 1969, and my old Cambridge college only allowed the entry of female students in 1983).

However, Darwin strongly emphasized the importance of female choice in the evolution of sexual dimorphism in animals, so that Fuentes’ characterization of his views of the role of females in evolution is inaccurate. Darwin even extended it to humans (pp.914-915):

“Preference on the part of the women, steadily acting in any one direction, would ultimately affect the character of the tribe; for the women would generally choose not merely the handsomest, according to their standard of taste, but those who were at the same time best able to defend and support them. Such well-endowed pairs would commonly rear a larger number of offspring than the less favoured.”

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was not well received, partly because of the emphasis on female choice, and (apart from R. A. Fisher’s advocacy in 1930), it did not start to receive serious attention from biologists until the late 1950s. Today, of course, it is recognized as a major factor in evolution, illustrating Darwin’s originality when he was able to free himself from prejudice.

Fuentes alleges that:

Racists, sexists, and white supremacists, some of them academics, use concepts and statements “validated” by their presence in “Descent” as support for erroneous beliefs, and the public accepts much of it uncritically.

I doubt that characters like Governor George Wallace and Sheriff Clark were much influenced by reading The Descent; in any case, most US racists probably do not believe in evolution.

Darwin scholars have discussed in great detail how a variety of ideologues of very different political persuasions have appealed to Darwin’s writings. Social Darwinism is, of course, notorious. On the other hand, Robert Richards, in his 1986 book (p.526), described how August Bebel, the 19th century leader of the German Social Democrats, thought that “capitalism put artificial restraints on the action of natural selection, so that the idiot son of the factory owner had the advantage over the talented son of the factory worker.” Bebel believed that “the natural forces of progressive evolution would produce a classless society in which property would cease to exist and women would not longer suffer political and sexual subjugation”. Other German thinkers, such as Ernst Haeckel, drew entirely opposite political conclusions; as Richards states (p.533), these contributed to the rise of Nazi ideology. But Richards adds that “The Nazi elite resisted evolutionary theory, despite its scientific charms. After all, could the Aryan race have descended from a tribe of baboons?”.

It seems that, unless you are an out-and-out creationist, you can interpret Darwin to justify almost any a priori belief.

Fuentes concludes by asserting that:

In the end, learning from “Descent” illuminates the highest and most interesting problem for human evolutionary studies today: moving toward an evolutionary science of humans instead of “man.”

First, “man” as used in the title of the Descent is a gender-neutral term referring to “humans”, as was common English language usage until recently.

Second, the last phrase suggests (perhaps unintentionally) that the modern evolutionary biology of humans has hardly moved on since Darwin’s day, and is still burdened with racial and sexist prejudices. This is a misleading caricature; while evolutionary biologists respect Darwin’s towering achievements in founding their field, they recognise that he (inevitably) was wrong about many things, most notably the mechanism of inheritance. There is a damaging confusion here between the views on certain issues of individuals who pioneered a branch of science, and the content of the science as it is currently practised and taught.

Brian Charlesworth

I get email

May 24, 2021 • 11:15 am

This email, which arrived this morning, is a real corker. I have redacted the name of the writer. Nothing else, including spelling and grammar, has been changed.

Here you go:

Foremost thank you for your time and patience. It’s a lot to take in but hope I can help you in a the smallest way possible.

Hi Jerry A Coyne I have read threw Why Evolution Is True for 3 years now. I came up with the conclusion , if we Did came from a species of apes , Do does species of apes come from a entirely diffirent species of apes ancestors . Why because the ape was not a chimpanzee or gorila ,etc
7 billion years is a long time giving for evolution to take place where we are here in the present moment. So evolution is very true in math.
DNA will only be diffident through he’s off spring from (DNA research the DNA change through the parents health condition good choices or bad choices health choices,)
Evolution takes place In both the mother and the father but did Darwin’s child plants ever create a new species of plants without a cross breathing without another species of plant.

I’ll stop there by
NAME REDACTED

Despite my arduous effort in a hard-to-brain situation, I find it impossible to make out what the writer is asking. It’s certain that there is a chain of primate ancestry in our history, and that different moieties of the primate lineage would be given different species names. I guess the guy (assuming we have a male) does realize that we are not descended from modern gorillas or chimps.

As far as the 7 billion years, well, Earth is only 4.5 billion years old, and evolution probably started around 3.5 billion years ago with the last universal common ancestor (LUCA). I don’t know what he means by saying “evolution is very true in math”.

I love the fact that DNA is “diffident”, which it more or less is, but of course that’s not what he means.

The rest is a mystery; evolution occurs in populations, not individuals, and although I don’t think Darwin created new species of plants, biologists have: by making auto- and allopolyploids.

At any rate, this is just one example of the mishigas that regularly tumbles into my inbox. Did the writer “help me in the smallest way possible”? I’m sorry, but NO.