A scathing takedown of a ham-handed attempt to rename “Huxley College”

October 7, 2021 • 11:15 am

Here we have a fairly short but scholarly and passionate piece by Nick Matzke, whose name may be familiar to you—he used to work at the National Center for Science Education and posted often on the Panda’s Thumb website. As you see from the article’s screenshot below (click on the image to see the piece or get a pdf), Nick now teaches biology and does research at The University of Auckland.

The backstory, which I’ve written about three times (here, here, and here) involves a wokeish but completely misguided attempt to rename the well known Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, Washington. Huxley College is noted by Wikipedia as one the University’s “notable degree programs“, and it was “the first College dedicated to the study of environmental science and policy in the nation.”

Why the renaming? Because, as I’ve explained in my previous posts, the College’s namesake, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), was supposed to be a racist and a eugenicist. (If you know your history of evolutionary biology, you’ll remember Huxley as “Darwin’s bulldog”, a staunch defender of his friend Charles, who was too timorous to defend his own theory set forth in The Origin.) But Huxley did a lot more than that. He was actually an anti-racist, an opponent of slavery, and a friend of women and workingmen (he campaigned for suffrage half a century before British women got the vote, and gave free lectures on science to poor working people).  All of these facts, in particular Huxley’s antiracism, are explained in Nick’s piece, which is infinitely better than the “case for denaming” put on the WWU President’s website. The latter piece is embarrassingly bad and even, in parts, illiterate.

Click below to read Matzke’s vigorous nine-page defense of keeping the name. Another benefit of reading it is that you’re going to learn a lot about Thomas Henry Huxley, and, I hope, will be appalled at how WWU distorted and degraded his legacy to make him look like he was an ardent racist. (Nick has also posted the essay in full at The Panda’s Thumb.)

Now let it be admitted that Huxley, like Darwin, did make sporadic statements that, by today’s lights, would be considered unacceptably racist. All of them come from a single essay he wrote in 1865.  But that was early in his career, and by its end he’d established himself as one of the rare progressives in Victorian England, favoring the abolition of slavery, the establishment of women’s rights, and acting out of concern for the “lower” classes.  A few other points in Nick’s report:

a.) Several of the important assertions in the President’s report are simply dead wrong—in fact, the opposite of what Huxley said or what genetics says.

b.) Some of these errors were taken straight from the creationist literature. It appears that WWU leaned on the creationist denigration of Huxley that they’ve used for years to impugn all of evolutionary biology (“See?” they say, “Evolutionary biology is racist.”)

c.) Huxley engaged in three separate anti-racist campaigns that, in fact, made him anathema to the real British racists of his time.

d.) The report tries to tar Huxley by dissing his grandson, Julian Huxley, for being a racist eugenicist. While Julian had some views that could be interpreted as “reform eugenics”, he was an anti-racist. As Matzke notes:

Julian was also the founding director of UNESCO in 1946, and helped draft UNESCO’s famous anti-racism declarations in 1950 and 1952. The Encyclopedia of Evolution says, “largely due to his efforts, the UNESCO statement on race reported that race was a cultural, not a scientific, concept, and that any attempts to find scientific evidence of the superiority of one race over another were invalid.”

But it’s madness to conflate Julian with his grandfather, and mentioning Julian, no matter what his views, was completely irrelevant.

I’ll give one quote from Nick, but you should read his piece:

How does it serve justice to treat T.H. Huxley as if he were [the vicious British racists] James Hunt or Governor Eyre, when he actually was their vehement opponent?  Removing Huxley’s name from the College would in fact be removing the name of a pioneer for educational inclusion, a key figure in scientifically establishing that all humans are one species, and undermining the concept of biological “race.” Doing so while relying on propaganda deriving from fundamentalist creationists and other right-wing provocateurs would be falling into the exact trap arranged by these provocateurs: namely, to drive a wedge between science and the causes of social and racial justice. Helping to drive this wedge deeper cannot help increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in science. Imagine creationists, for the next several decades, going to legislatures and state school boards with a line like: “Evolution is a racist theory. After all, Western Washington University acknowledged this when they removed the name ‘Huxley’ from their College of the Environment.”

WWU hasn’t decided formally on the renaming, but, as I noted, they appear to have put it off until December so it would look like it wasn’t a rush to judgment.  Look at this duplicity! (bolding is mine)

. . . One Board member suggested voting at the October meeting. The president suggested it would be better to do so at the December meeting, or it will look like it was all worked out in advance. Several others concurred and suggested that the October meeting focus on communicating the rationale for the denaming.

It was worked out in advance, and what we have here is the appearance of due diligence without the diligence itself. It’s a case once again of a university truckling to a mob who knows virtually nothing about the salient issues.

By my own standards, in which a name should be kept if two criteria are met, Huxley College should definitely NOT be renamed. But tell that to the administration, who must meet the demands of WWU’s Black Students Organization as well as many other students.  I venture to guess that almost none of those calling for Huxley’s cancellation knows anything about the man or what he really did.

My criteria for keeping a name or a statue:

1.) Does the name or statue honor the good things that the person did?

2.) Was the person’s life a net good, making a positive difference in the world?

For Thomas Henry Huxley, the answer to both questions is, “Hell, yes!”  Huxley College should not be renamed. But I’d bet big bucks it will, for you know how these campaigns go.


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


Bob Richards answers Agustin Fuentes

July 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

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

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

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

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

The last three sentences are especially good.

Some thoughts on Dick Lewontin’s obituary in the New York Times

July 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

Both the online and paper editions of today’s New York Times feature fairly long obituary of The Boss: my Ph.D advisor Dick Lewontin. It was written by science correspondent Natalie Angier, and you can access it by clicking on the screenshot below.

As he headline implies, and much of the text confirms (“a gleeful gadfly”, “Not everyone was enamored of Dr. Lewontin”, etc.), the “hook” used in the piece is Lewontin’s contrarianism: his opposition to stuff like genetic determinism, IQ studies, adaptationism, and sociobiology. To my taste, it makes him seem a bit more of an academic curmudgeon than he really was, but remember that I basically lived in his lab for six years. Yes, he was captious about science, but that was great for his students, who imbibed the essentially critical attitude needed for good science. But I never saw the man get angry, nor do I think he was, as described in the first paragraph of the piece, a “caustic writer”. In my view he was not caustic, but critical. He could take you down to size, though!

But in general it’s a very good summary of his life, concentrating (as these pieces must) on his contributions to science. Angier, after all, won a Pulitzer Prize for her science reporting.  I believe some of the material came from my own more personal memorial to Dick posted the other day, like his working-class attire and his holding hands with his wife in the movies. That’s fine with me.

A few corrections and comments (quotes from the piece are indented)

Dr. Lewontin first won scientific fame in the mid-1960s for research he conducted with John Hubby at the University of Chicago that revealed far greater genetic diversity among members of the same species than anybody had suspected.

That work upended existing notions that most genetic mutations are rare, harmful and soon swept from the breeding pool. The two men’s findings showed that, to the contrary, many different forms, or alleles, of the same genes can coexist indefinitely in wild populations of organisms, be they fruit flies, zebra finches, earthworms or zebras.

It would have been useful to mention that the work with Hubby on “members of the same species” was the fruit fly species Drosophila pseudoobscura. More important, Lewontin and Hubby did experimental work only on fruit flies, and didn’t show anything about “the degree of genetic variation in zebra finches, earthworms, or zebras”. Other people did that work much later. Lewontin and Hubby’s work (and that of Harry Harris in England) did inspire that later work, though.

Going on:

He was no fan of the massive federal Human Genome Project, which set out to map the entire sequence of human DNA, and he strongly objected to the notion that DNA is the “blueprint” for a human being. He considered the perpetual debate over race, I.Q. and heritability to be an irritating scam, a recrudescence of Nazi-inflected notions of eugenics and master races.

Even to begin to figure out how big a role genes played in intellectual life, he said, would require a large number of newborn infants to be raised in tightly controlled circumstances by caretakers who had no idea where the babies came from. “We should not be surprised that such a study has not been done,” he added.

Lewontin’s opposition to the Human Genome Project was, in retrospect, a big mistake. No, it won’t answer every question we have, but already knowing the genes we have has been of immense value in medicine, in paleoanthropology, and in evolutionary genetics of humans. As for IQ (I think that’s what the article means by “how big a role genes played in intellectual life”), we now have a pretty good idea that within human populations, about 75% of the variation among adult individuals is due to variation in their genes—that is, the “heritability” of IQ within a give population is about 0.75, or 75%. We have various ways of estimating that figure and they generally are close to each other. But one shouldn’t misinterpret heritability, as I pointed out in detail in a previous post. There are a number of ways a high heritability is misused, the most invidious being to assume that high values within a population imply that difference among populations also rest on genic differences. That’s a logical and scientific error.

Lewontin’s feud with Ed Wilson over sociobiology is described in detail, and is generally accurate. Lewontin couldn’t stand Wilson. Wilson had a more charitable attitude, though he felt blindsided by Lewontin and Gould’s attacks. I lived through that period at Harvard. I was Dick’s student but also taught Ed’s Bio 1 class twice and was friends with Wilson’s collaborators, students, and postdocs. I thus shuttled between warring labs from time to time. In the end, I think, Lewontin lost that debate, as evolutionary psychology, despite some flaws, has proven to be a useful and vital field, and friendly with Wilson himself. And of course sociobiology, applied to animals in general, is well ensconced as part of organismal biology.
Part of this bit, however, seems inaccurate:

It was Dr. Lewontin’s break with another old friend, Dr. Wilson, that proved the more harrowing and long-lasting. Dr. Lewontin in 1975 attacked Dr. Wilson’s 700-page blockbuster, “Sociobiology: A New Synthesis,” as the work of a modern, industrial Western “ideologue.” Inspired by this and similar critiques, a group of demonstrators at a 1978 scientific meeting dumped a bucket of water over Dr. Wilson’s head.

The ill will persisted for many years, but friends said the two men had recently reconciled with a handshake, calling each other worthy adversaries.

I’d love to hear about that handshake, as I know nothing about it. (I assume it’s true.) As for the bucket-of-water incident, though, I believe that’s inaccurate: the stories seem to have settled on one radical science person approaching Wilson, who was sitting at a dais in a lecture room, and tossing cup of water on Wilson while saying, “Wilson, you’re all wet!” The “pitcher of ice water” poured over Wilson may well be an apocryphal tale that persists widely. I cannot be sure.

UPDATE: In a comment below, Ira Flatow says he was there and it was indeed a pitcher of water. I stand corrected.

Finally, I liked the fact that Natalie emphasized Dick’s refusal to put his name on his students’ papers:

He had habits of dress: “Khaki pants, work boots, work shirt — in solidarity with workers,” Dr. Coyne said. He had habits of principle, notably of authorship: Many senior scientists are listed as authors on research reports done entirely by their students, but Dr. Lewontin would have none of it. If you didn’t do any of the work, he insisted, you don’t get to take any of the credit.

It’s telling that at his faux-retirement dinner, when asked to say a few words, Dick talked almost entirely about how none of us, his students and colleagues, should take credit for work that we didn’t do—or didn’t do much of. That came from his egalitarianism, his spirit of fairness, and his desire to see young folk get the credit they needed to advance in science. As Sara Hrdy says in the article when criticizing Dick for being “unfair” to E. O. Wilson, “Dick was a complicated man.” I’m not sure I’d use the adjective “complicated”, for while he was a polymath and multitalented, he wasn’t that hard to figure out, even if none of us could come close to him in intellect and achievement. I’d say a “great” man, but of course I’m one of those whom Angier describes in the first sentence of this paragraph:

Many of his students and colleagues regarded him with an awe that tipped toward reverence, describing him as equally gifted at abstruse quantitative research, popular writing and public speaking; a Renaissance scholar who spoke fluent French, wrote treatises in Italian, worked with Buckminster Fuller on his geodesic domes and played chamber music on the clarinet with his pianist wife, Mary Jane. He was also a volunteer firefighter and a self-described Marxist who chopped his own wood.

In the end, Angier did a very good job, and the only reason I have quibbles is because I was so close to her subject.

To close, here are three pictures that limn the man’s life. First, two photos of a very young Lewontin; these were taken at the Cold Spring Harbor population-genetics meetings in 1955, when Dick would have been 26. I never saw him wear a bowtie, and rarely a tie.

This is a picture that all his students knew about and got a huge kick from. Cold Spring Harbor labels it “Richard Lewontin; E. B. Ford (eating clams at Neptune’s Cave)”. Ford, of course, was a famous British ecological geneticist.

And a photo I’ve shown before: Lewontin on his 90th birthday in 2019. It was taken by Andrew Berry:


Robert Wright takes apart Agustín Fuentes’s critique of Darwin

May 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a friend wrote me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The error:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wright winds up with one more zinger leveled at Fuentes:

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

Good job, Robert!

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

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

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

h/t: Justin

A Pecksniffian anthropologist takes down Darwin for being a man of his time

May 22, 2021 • 11:30 am

It’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man (people often forget that it’s paired with another book, Selection in Relation to Sex), and the journal Science has celebrated the year in two ways. The first is an article pointing out, tiresomely, erroneously, and not for the first time, that Darwin was a sexist, racist, colonialist, and oppressor whose theories supposedly harmed many people. That is the first note below (click on screenshot), written by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece:

The piece isn’t totally bad, but it’s bad enough that I want to register a few plaints. The main ones are that Fuentes is not saying anything that hasn’t been said before: Darwin indeed had some racist, sexist, colonialist, and white-supremacist views that were expressed in his works, especially in The Descent of Man (Fuentes repeatedly confuses the two books, as some of the views he criticizes appear in Selection in Relation to Sex).

To be fair, Fuentes does credit Darwin with his insight and his durable and correct theory of evolution. But as he gives with one hand, he takes with the other:

 But despite these ideal frames and some innovative inferences, “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.

Yes, the tired old Bucephalus of critical theory: “it’s problematic.”

And then we get the usual litany: Darwin believed that whites were superior to blacks and other non-Europeans; he thought women were inferior to men, opined that eventually the white “race” would supplant other groups, and so on. This much we’ve all known for a long time, and many of us, including me, have taught it to our students.

But, despite Fuentes’ admission of Darwin’s strong abolitionism, he seems to forget that Darwin was a man of his time, not of our time. Is it fair to judge Darwin against an enlightened modern liberal? I don’t think so: the proper judgment is to see whether Darwin was palpably morally worse than most other Victorian Englishmen.  And I don’t think he was. I’ll explain a bit more below, but I have a very hard time thinking of someone of Darwin’s stature in Europe who was much better than he on the issue of women, or, for that matter, slavery. (Read Marx and Engels on the Irish if you want real bigotry.) Yes, Darwin saw some South Americans as “savages”, but he also perceived their common humanity with us, and his theory affirmed our common ancestry. And yes, he saw women as the inferior sex; but how many Victorian men were far more enlightened than he?

Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin. After all, we eat meat, and in the future we may learn more about the suffering of animals in ways that would brand us moderns as horrible barbarians. The judgment of celebrating Darwin should rest on a). “is he being celebrated for the good things he did?” (answer: yes), and b). “did the good he did in his life outweigh the bad?” (answer: also yes).

Now, onto what I see as Fuentes’s missteps. Here’s one about selection and racial differentiation:

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. 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.

. . . 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.

The first part of this is fine, but the second, about how “races” and sexes come to differ from one another morphologically, is not. Darwin saw sexual selection (a subset of natural selection, by the way) as the process whereby different ethnic groups come to differ in appearance. He may well have been right about this. And clearly, there are evolutionary differences between the appearance of ethnic groups. These are certainly genetic, and the morphological homogeneity within groups compared to the palpable differences between groups suggest an evolutionary origin.

What kind of evolution was it? As I said, Darwin’s view was that groups of humans (as well as males versus females) are affected by sexual selection based on either male-male competition or “choice”. The choice, according to Darwin, was made by females preferring arbitrary but aesthetically appealing male traits: song, ornaments, plumage, and so on. (For humans, Darwin sometimes intimated that the “choice” was made by males, but by females in other animal species.) This “beauty matters” hypothesis has its biggest exponent in Richard Prum, and though I am not convinced by his arguments, it’s mainly because we lack data, not because Prum is known to be wrong. Here’s Prum in a paper discussing Darwin’s views:

Darwin was explicit, repeated and adamant in maintaining that the evolution of secondary sexual characters by mate choice was an aesthetic mechanism of evolution. For example, he wrote:

With the great majority of animals, however, the taste for the beautiful is confined to the attractions of the opposite sex.* The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love, are certainly admired by the females … If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety by the latter in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this is impossible to admit. [, p. 61]; * sentence added in second edition)

On the whole, birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have. [, p. 466]

[Male birds] charm the female by vocal and instrumental music of the most varied kinds. [, p. 466]

It is important to establish what Darwin’s language meant in modern terms. Darwin lacked our modern sensitivity to avoiding anthropomorphizing his subjects. Rather, he was actively engaged in reducing the distinctions between humans and animals. But Darwin was not trying to shock his readers. He used these aesthetic terms as ordinary language without any special semantic or cultural implications. Darwin was specifically proposing that animals (mostly females) were making sensory and cognitive evaluations of display traits, and making mate choices based on those evaluations. Darwin used ‘taste for the beautiful’ to refer to differential behavioural response to a secondary sexual sensory stimulus. While this aspect of Darwin’s opinion was highly controversial at the time [], it is mainstream now. If that were the only issue, there would be no need for us to revive Darwin’s use of aesthetic language. Our contemporary terms cover this meaning.

While I doubt Prum’s views as a general explanation of sexual dimorphism (I’m more inclined to see differences between human ethnic groups as a “beauty matters” issue), he may be right in some cases, and at any rate note that the agency here is exercised by females, not males. In what sense, then, are Fuentes’s females “passive” if they are choosing among males competing for their attentions? Darwin makes the females quite active!

Speaking of stuff that Darwin got wrong, his biggest whopper was his erroneous theory of genetics, in which he thought that hereditary “mutations” were invoked by environmental change, a “Lamarckian” view. We know now that Darwin was wrong, but fortunately his theory didn’t depend on a correct mechanism of genetics, but only on the fact that there was genetic variation in populations that could be passed on, and affected survival and reproduction. The fact that Fuentes omits this biggest whopper in favor of moral indictments shows that he has an explicitly ideological aim, which he reveals in the last paragraph of his article (see below).

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

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

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others. In fact, I cannot think of what direct harm Darwin really caused to anyone, save his buttressing the views of English men and women of his time. I always maintain that if Darwin lived today, he would likely decry misogyny, racism, and white supremacy, and would be a liberal English guy. It’s unfair, again, to tar him for adhering to the moral standards of his time—indeed, in having higher standards.

Finally, Fuentes neglects that Darwin did do some backsliding about the hegemony of natural selection as an explanation for everything. Here’s a quote from The Descent of Man: (h/t Nick Matzke)

. . . . but I now admit, after reading the essay by Nägeli on plants, and the remarks by various authors with respect to animals, more especially those recently made by Professor Broca, that in the earlier editions of my ‘Origin of Species’ I probably attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest. I have altered the fifth edition of the Origin so as to confine my remarks to adaptive changes of structure. I had not formerly sufficiently considered the existence of many structures which appear to be, as far as we can judge, neither beneficial nor injurious; and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work. I may be permitted to say as some excuse, that I had two distinct objects in view, firstly, to shew that species had not been separately created, and secondly, that natural selection had been the chief agent of change, though largely aided by the inherited effects of habit, and slightly by the direct action of the surrounding conditions. Nevertheless I was not able to annul the influence of my former belief, then widely prevalent, that each species had been purposely created; and this led to my tacitly assuming that every detail of structure, excepting rudiments, was of some special, though unrecognised, service. Any one with this assumption in his mind would naturally extend the action of natural selection, either during past or present times, too far.

Yes, Darwin went back and altered the fifth edition of The Origin to reflect this change of views.

In Fuentes’s last paragraph, he reveals his aim: to increase inclusion and diversity (presumably racial and gender diversity) among evolutionists in hope that this will it easier to catch Darwin’s moral errors as well as those of other evolutionary biologists.


Reflecting on “Descent” today one can look to data demonstrating unequivocally that race is not a valid description of human biological variation, that there is no biological coherence to “male” and “female” brains or any simplicity in biological patterns related to gender and sex, and that “survival of the fittest” does not accurately represent the dynamics of evolutionary processes. The scientific community can reject the legacy of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences by recognizing, and acting on, the need for diverse voices and making inclusive practices central to evolutionary inquiry. 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.”

Re the first part: yes, scientists have long rejected the simplistic view of “races” as easily demarcated groups of people that differ genetically in profound ways, but we still recognize clustered ethnic groupings. As for “no biological coherence to male and female brains”, I believe that this is a matter of debate (see here) and, at any rate, I do believe that evolution has differentiated male and female brains in terms of the tendencies it has given the sexes to behave differently or possess different preferences (there is of course considerable overlap). One example is the male-female difference in sexual behavior, similar to that of many other animals.  This must be coded somehow in the brain. As far as “survival of the fittest” not accurately representing the dynamics of the evolutionary process, well, duhhh. For 30 years I’ve told my classes that “reproduction of the fittER” is a more accurate characterization of how natural selection works, and an even more accurate representation would be that “the genes that become more numerous over evolutionary time are those that leave more copies of themselves.” The latter idea is hard to convey to undergraduates, though!

While I do believe that some of our unrecognized prejudices can be addressed by broadening the types of people we want to attract to evolutionary biology (I think the emphasis on female preference in sexual selection was promoted to some extent by women biologists), I really don’t think that making diversity and inclusion the central focus of “evolutionary inquiry” will lead to profound breakthroughs. This presumes that there are race- or gender-based ways of thinking about evolution, and while this may be true to some extent, I don’t think it’s true to an appreciable or important extent. What we need is to start turning on kids to evolution at a young age; that is, we should “widen the pipeline”, attracting the best thinkers from all groups. It is deeply patronizing to try to hire minorities so they can help us “reject the legacy of of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences.”

To counterbalance the tut-tutting of Fuentes, though, we have a longer article in the same issue which talks about Darwin’s book, shows its contributions, and steers well clear of morality. Click on screenshot to read the article:

And its summary:

Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man was published in 1871. Ever since, it has been the foundation stone of human evolutionary studies. Richerson et al. reviewed how modern studies of human biological and cultural evolution reflect the ideas in Darwin’s work. They emphasize how cooperation, social learning, and cumulative culture in the ancestors of modern humans were key to our evolution and were enhanced during the environmental upheavals of the Pleistocene. The evolutionary perspective has come to permeate not just human biology but also the social sciences, vindicating Darwin’s insights.

The ideology and the “I’m better than Darwin was” attitude can be left for classes in the history and philosophy of science.


h/t: Nick Matzke, Andrew Berry, Brian Charlesworth, and Matthew Cobb for discussion.

“Hooker’s Arch”: A post by Andrew Berry

May 21, 2021 • 1:00 pm

My friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer and advisor at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, sent me a nice email that I asked him to turn into a post for me. He kindly obliged. Darwin’s Arch, which recently collapsed in the Galápagos Islands, was described in a NYT article. Here’s the original landmark

. . . and after its collapse on May 17:

Andrew knew a bit of a parallel, which he describes below. Andrew’s words are indented.

by Andrew Berry

I saw your mention of the recent collapse of ‘Darwin’s Arch’ in the Galápagos.

Here’s a nice parallel.  One of Darwin’s key offsiders was Joseph Dalton Hooker (the middle name serves to distinguish him from the US Civil War general—definitely not a Darwin confidant). Hooker was one the era’s leading botanists, and was for many years the director of Kew Gardens.  In 1844, Darwin chose to confide in Hooker about his heretical ideas. This, for Darwin, was a big deal: he had been quietly and privately nurturing his evolutionary schemes more or less since the return of the Beagle in 1836 and he felt in need of a scientific sounding board.  He was still a long way from being ready to go public: it wasn’t until 1858, 14 years later, that A. R. Wallace’s intervention forced his hand on this.  Darwin’s famous letter to Hooker states, “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable”.


One of the reasons Darwin picked Hooker for this role was that, like Darwin, Hooker had considerable expedition experience.  They both accordingly had a global perspective on biogeography.  Specifically, Hooker had gone on the James Clark Ross Erebus/Terror expedition (1839-43) that established a key early benchmark for the exploration of Antarctica. Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian polar explorer (who beat Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911) pulled no punches about the expedition’s significance:

“Few people of the present day are capable of rightly appreciating this heroic deed, this brilliant proof of human courage and energy. With two ponderous craft – regular “tubs” according to our ideas – these men sailed right into the heart of the pack [ice], which all previous explorers had regarded as certain death … These men were heroes – heroes in the highest sense of the word.”

En route to Antarctica, the expedition’s first major port of call was Kerguelen Island, which is about as far from anywhere as you can get on planet Earth — central far south Indian Ocean.

Arriving in May 1840, the expedition spent two and a half months there before heading on to Tasmania, and, from there, Antarctica.  Kerguelen was thus the first place in which the young Hooker (he was 22 at the time) got to analyze and describe a previously largely undescribed flora.  That things turned out this way is a truly remarkable coincidence.  Late in life, Hooker recalled being raised as a boy on tales from James Cook’s voyages.  In particular, little Hooker had been impressed by this image from Cook’s 1776 visit to Kerguelen (the islands were formally discovered four years previously by a Frenchman, Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec). Note the impressive natural arch on the horizon at the far left of the image.

Here’s what Hooker wrote:

“When still a child, I was very fond of Voyages and Travels; and my great delight was to sit on my grandfather’s knee and look at the pictures in Cook’s ‘Voyages.’ The one that took my fancy most was the plate of Christmas Harbour, Kerguelen Land, with the arched rock standing out to sea, and the sailors killing penguins; and I thought I should be the happiest boy alive if ever I would see that wonderful arched rock, and knock penguins on the head. [JAC: Hooker should be canceled for thinking that!] By a singular coincidence, Christmas Harbour, Kerguelen Land, was one of the very first places of interest visited by me, in the Antarctic Expedition under Sir James Ross.”

What is the relevance of all this? Because, some time between 1908 and 1913, the arch on Kerguelen that so thrilled Hooker went the way of Darwin’s Arch.  Happily the ideas of both Darwin and Hooker have proved more resilient than the landmarks they’re associated with.

Torygraph exaggerates Darwin’s evil in trying to smear Sheffield’s “decolonized” biology curriculum; and a bonus guest take by Andrew Berry

May 10, 2021 • 9:15 am

The article below appeared in the Torygraph two days ago, and, although there is some truth in what it says about Darwin’s views, the gap between the Torygraph’s rhetoric and the reality is substantial.  Click on the screenshot to read it; and if it’s paywalled just make a judicious inquiry. I’m not sure, not being a reader of this paper, whether they are impugning Sheffield University, Darwin’s theories, or both.

You can read for yourself the claim that Darwin’s theory justified white male superiority (yes, he believed in male superiority and in the hegemony of whites, but it was the paternalistic racism of Victorian times, and note that Darwin was also an ardent (and rare) abolitionist). At any rate, here’s a brief excerpt of the Torygraph article, which summarizes a University of Sheffield handbook on “decolonizing biology”:

Charles Darwin is among “highly celebrated scientific figures” who “held racist views” because he used his theory of natural selection to justify white male superiority, according to a new university’s handbook for teaching and research.

The renowned naturalist is on a list of 11 feted scientists whose views “influenced the type of research they carried out and how they interpreted their data”, according to Sheffield University’s guide drawn up to decolonise the biology curriculum.

This is despite Darwin’s fervent support for the abolition of slavery, which he called a “sacred cause”, unlike many of his contemporaries. He said of slavery that “it makes one’s blood boil”.

The handbook, seen by The Telegraph, tells students and lecturers that he must be historically caveated when lecturers teach his seminal theory of evolution.

Historians told The Telegraph that Sheffield’s guidelines were “unhistorical and misleading” and “authoritarian”.

The Russell Group university has also told science students and lecturers in the guidance to drop the terms “founding father”, “idols” and “geniuses” to avoid “hero worshipping” scientific figures.

This practice treats them as “white saviours” and erases less privileged scholars, it explains. Drawn up by lecturers in the Animal and Plant Sciences faculty, the guide says “whiteness and Eurocentrism of our science” must be dismantled.

“It is clear that science cannot be objective and apolitical,” it adds, and “the curriculum we teach must acknowledge how colonialism has shaped the field of evolutionary biology and how evolutionary biologists think today”.

. . . . According to Sheffield’s decolonised curriculum, Mr Darwin “believed that his renowned theory of natural selection justified the view that the white race was superior to others, and used his theory of sexual selection to justify why women were clearly inferior to men.”

It says his voyage on HMS Beagle, when he collected plant and animal samples, was to map colonies.

Some of the “colonialism” refers to the two voyages of the Beagle, but those voyages were not meant “colonize” or map nonexistent British colonies, but to map the coast of South America for trading purposes and for ship re-stocking, including making diagrams of the ports.

If you’ve read The Voyage of the Beagle and the Descent of Man, you will realize that yes, Darwin had racist tendencies that would be seen as insupportable today, but then it’s doubtful, to me at least, that Darwin would be a racist if he lived in modern times. And his fight for abolitionism must surely be taken into account. You can have racist ideas and be an abolitionist at the same time: humans are multidimensional. To impugn Darwin’s theory because of his views, as the Torygraph seems to be doing, is surely to engage in an ad hominem argument, placing Darwin in company with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others shown on the cover of this creationist book by the Turkish liar (and now criminal) Adnan Oktar (pseudonym Harun Yahya). (h/t: Andrew Berry)

To be sure, the article does quote real Darwin scholars who think that this “decolonization” was ridiculous:

But Prof James Moore, a biographer of Darwin and historian of science, told The Telegraph: “Almost everyone in Darwin’s day was ‘racist’ in 21st century terms, not only scientists and naturalists but even anti-slavery campaigners and abolitionists.

“What set his ‘racism’ apart – and makes him more like us today – was his profound conviction that all the human races are ‘family’, sisters and brothers.

“Darwin’s wokeness was most obvious in his maintaining the full common humanity and unity of the races in the face of a rising anthropology that insisted the races were in fact separately originated and unrelated species, thus offering justification of atrocities that Darwin is now blamed for.”

Prof Nigel Biggar, an Oxford historian, added: “During Darwin’s lifetime the British Empire was busy emancipating slaves across the world.

“The ‘decolonising’ assumption that ‘colonial mapping’ was all about oppression is false, and the judgement that Darwin should be damned by association is morally stupid.

“Before propagating this ideology, did Sheffield University secure the consent of academic staff, and does it now allow for conscientious objection? If not, its conduct is authoritarian and arguably a violation of academic freedom.”

After some effort, I managed to locate the handbook that Sheffield University uses as its “decolonization guide”. You can download it here, and yes, it does make some statements similar to what the Torygraph says.  Here are two excerpts; I won’t bother to analyze them here:

This sentence is palpably ridiculous:

Many prominent evolutionary biologists and geneticists who helped establish the field were racists and eugenists, including JBS Haldane, Francis Galton, James Watson and many more. Their theories served as justification for slavery and mass slaughter.

Haldane was not a racist, Galton, who advocated class-based eugenics (based on encouragement of breeding), had no influence in affecting eugenics or “slavery and mass slaughter”, and Watson, who is a racist, has had no influence on slavery, white supremacy, or “mass slaughter.” How cold he have? He’s still alive. He is in fact disgraced and was removed from his position at Cold Spring Harbor.

And there’s an analysis of the malefactors of evolutionary biology, like this one:

So the Torygraph doesn’t have it all wrong, but it clearly implies that Darwin’s theories, which indeed were used by others to justify oppression and white superiority, are in themselves deficient because of how they were employed. But the misuse of a theory doesn’t mean it’s wrong—only that others bent it to suit their ideology, as Adnan Oktar did. Few biologists (and those would be creationists) doubt the immense power of the theory Darwin suggested in 1858 and published in 1859.

I myself would not teach evolution along the lines of the University of Sheffield, which gives the whole thing a political slant, ignoring the tremendous advances that Darwin forged in our thinking. How relevant are Darwin’s views to teaching evolution, anyway? Was any Victorian Englishman perfect by modern lights? And must we always bring in people’s moral views which, perhaps conventional in their times, are now odious in ours? These are questions we’ve discussed before, and will discuss again—perhaps today—but rather than sling mud at Darwin, I want to give a measured take on Darwin and the Torygraph piece by my friend and colleague Andrew Berry, a lecturer and adviser in evolutionary biology at Harvard. So voilà, and many thanks to Dr. Berry for allow me to twist his arm:

Guest comments by Andrew Berry

Rather than pushing back reflexively on Sheffield University’s statements on Darwin (as reported by The Daily Telegraph), I think it’s worth taking a serious look at the suggestions being made.

  1.  Darwin 

Darwin comes up short, no question, in any retroactive 21st century assessment of his views on human race and gender.  He was, by today’s standards, a racist and a misogynist. But of course his views were a product of where and when he lived; his opinions on race and gender were derived from the upper-class white world he inhabited.   That he was actually downright progressive — he was a fervent abolitionist, for example — by the standards of this world is irrelevant. We have to ask whether his scientific ideas — his legacy — are in some way tainted by his thinking in these areas.  Is the theory of evolution by natural selection inherently racist or sexist?  In some of their attempts to characterize their objections as being based on more than religion, some creationists insist that it is.  And it’s certainly true that plenty of dubious figures have hijacked Darwin to provide a veneer of scientific respectability to their prejudices.  But the theory itself?  It’s essentially based on two observations: the capacity of populations to undergo exponential growth, and the occurrence of mutation — error — in the transmission of genetic information from generation to generation.  Exponential growth in a world of finite resources results in competition, with that competition being won by, on average, the genetically best endowed members of the population.  I for one don’t see racism or sexism embedded in these assertions.

There is no question that Darwin’s thinking was inspired by the milieu in which he lived — Malthus’s ideas were au courant, and Victorian Britain was an early experiment in laissez-faire capitalism — but Darwin’s identification of a mechanism of evolutionary change should absolutely not be taken as an endorsement on his part of the kind of social darwinism that some of his supposed heirs came to embrace.  To assume that the processes we observe in the natural world somehow offer a prescription for how we should live our lives is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. 

  1.  History of Science

Historians of science have long objected to popular simplifications of the scientific process.  Newton encounters a falling apple, and — bingo! — the theory of gravitation is born.  This tendency to embrace simplifications has two consequences: a focus on the individual (the scientific “genius” responsible for the breakthrough), and, correspondingly, a failure to take into account the underlying factors — social, or otherwise — involved in the development of innovations.  This simplified discourse is promoted by institutions like the Nobel Prize.  The lab head gets the prize.  What about all those post-docs, colleagues, grad students who contributed?  Science, in reality, is a complex, messy business that does not lend itself to handy Eureka! moment narratives.  In short, all Sheffield University’s guidelines are stating is that we should move on from the Nobel/Eureka! model of understanding the scientific process and become instead better informed historians of science.  Let’s therefore think about the unsung heroes and about the non-scientific factors that together conspired to make a previously inaccessible idea accessible.

Curiously, Darwin and evolution offer a wonderful case study.  Evolution by natural selection is a simple and powerful idea that explains features of the natural world — design in nature, biological diversity, us — that every society has sought to understand (typically through its own set of creation myths), and yet it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the idea was finally formalized.  And it was formalized by two people, not one.  A R Wallace does not get anywhere close to the air time that Darwin gets [had the Nobel Prize existed in their day, Darwin would have received the Prize, Wallace a gentlemanly shout-out in Darwin’s acceptance speech], but the original publication of the theory (1858) took the form of two separate statements of the same idea — one by Darwin and one by Wallace.  Maybe Wallace isn’t the best example of the scientific also-rans that Sheffield University is asking us to note — he was white and male, after all — but his story illustrates the point well, and some part of his eclipse by Darwin in our histories of the theory is attributable to his relative poverty and lack of connections.

The Darwin-Wallace story is an instance of London bus syndrome: you wait and wait in the rain for one to come, and then, suddenly, two arrive.  Darwin and Wallace discovered the same idea independently and (more or less) simultaneously.

How on earth did that happen?  Darwin and Wallace were subject to the same set of socio-cultural influences. These gave them special opportunities and shaped their ideas in particular ways (relative to earlier thinkers in the same area).  Some of those influences/opportunities: Malthusian thinking, which was often invoked as Victorian Britain pondered creating a societal safety net; laissez-faire economics, which enshrines the improvement-through-competition essence of natural selection; natural theology, which invited empirical scientific research (with a view to understanding the ways of the creator); the industrial revolution, which suggested that living things may be nothing more than very complex machines; British imperialism, which allowed both Darwin and Wallace to travel the world and to see biological diversity in situ.  All these factors — and more — lie behind that 1858 joint paper.  My point: to understand the development of these ideas, the focus should not be on Darwin and Wallace, but, rather, on these other factors.

I don’t think that Sheffield University’s guidelines warrant The Daily Telegraph‘s outrage.

A.) We should indeed review our scientific ideas to ensure that elements of past pernicious thinking have not been woven into the fabric of those ideas

B.) We should of course condemn corruptions of scientific ideas that are used to motivate injustice.  Social darwinism is not an inevitable corollary of the theory of evolution by natural selection

C.) We should indeed try to reduce our reliance on the ‘Great Man’ narrative in history of science.  Scientific discovery is a complex business, and, for sure, the history of science is littered with Rosalind Franklins who have received less credit than they deserve

And from PCC(E), here’s a photo of Andrew on top of Mount Darwin in California, about to place a copy of Why Evolution is True, autographed by yours truly, at the summit for future generations to find. . .

Assessing Ronald Fisher: should we take his name off everything because he espoused eugenics?

January 18, 2021 • 11:00 am

Many consider Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) one of the greatest biologists—and probably the greatest geneticist—of the 20th century, for he was a polymath who made hugely important contributions in many areas. He’s considered the father of modern statistics, developing methods like analysis of variance and chi-square tests still used widely in science and social science. His pathbreaking work on theoretical population genetics, embodied in the influential book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, included establishing that Mendelian genetics could explain the patterns of correlation among relatives for various traits, and helped bring about the reconciliation of genetics and natural history that constituted the “modern synthesis” of evolution. His theoretical work presaged the famous “neutral theory” of molecular evolution and established the efficacy of natural selection—the one part of Darwin’s theory that wasn’t widely accepted in the early 20th century.

Fisher also made advances important to medicine, like working out the genetics of Rh incompatibility, once an important cause of infant death. His statistical analyses are regularly used in modern medical studies, especially partitioning out the contributors to maladies and in analyzing control versus experimental groups (they were surely used in testing the efficacy of Covid vaccines).  As the authors of a new paper on Fisher say, “The widespread applications of Fisher’s statistical developments have undoubtedly contributed to the saving of many millions of lives and to improvements in the quality of life. Anyone who has done even a most elementary course in statistics will have come across many of the concepts and tests that Fisher pioneered.”

That is indeed the case, for statistical methods don’t go out of fashion very easily, especially when they’re correct!

Unfortunately, Fisher was also an exponent of eugenics, and for this he’s recently starting to get canceled. Various organizations, like the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Statistical Association, have taken his name off awards, and Fisher’s old University of Cambridge college, Gonville and  Caius, removed their “Fisher window” (a stained glass window honoring Fisher’s statistical achievements) from their Hall last year.  Further disapprobation is in store as well.

This article in Heredity by a panoply of accomplished British statisticians and geneticists (Bodmer was one of Fisher’s last Ph.D. students) attempts an overall evaluation of Fisher’s work, balancing the positive benefits against his work and views on eugenics. If you are a biologist, or know something about Fisher, you’ll want to read it (click on the screenshot below, get the pdf here, and see the reference at the bottom.)

The authors make no attempt to gloss over Fisher’s distasteful and odious eugenics views, but do clarify what he favored. These included a form of positive eugenics, promoting the intermarriage of accomplished (high IQ) people, as well as negative eugenics: sterilization of the “feeble minded.” The latter was, however, always seen by Fisher as a voluntary measure, never forced. While one may ask how someone who is mentally deficient can give informed consent, Fisher favored “consent” of a parent or guardian (and concurrence of two physicians) before sterilization—if the patients themselves weren’t competent. But is that really “consent”? Negative eugenics on the population kind (not the selective abortion of fetuses carrying fatal disease, which people do every day) is something that’s seen today as immoral.

Further, Fisher’s views were based on his calculations that the lower classes outbred the higher ones, which, he thought, would lead to an inevitable evolutionary degeneration of society. But he was wrong: oddly, he didn’t do his sums right, as was pointed out much later by Carl Bajema. When you do them right, there’s no difference between the reproductive output of “higher” and “lower” classes.

Contrary to the statements of those who have canceled Fisher, though, he wasn’t a racist eugenist, although he did think that there were behavioral and intelligence differences between human groups, which is likely to be true on average but is a taboo topic—and irrelevant for reforming society. Fisher’s eugenics was largely based on intelligence and class, not race. Fisher was also clueless about the Nazis, though there is no evidence that he or his work contributed to the Nazi eugenics program.

In fact, none of Fisher’s recommendations or views were ever adopted by his own government, which repeatedly rejected his recommendations for positive and negative eugenics. Nor were they taken up in America, where they did practice negative eugenics, sterilizing people without their consent. But American eugenics was largely promoted by American scientists.

My go-to procedure for assessing whether someone should be “canceled”—having their statues removed or buildings renamed and so on—involves two criteria. First, was the honorific meant to honor admirable aspects of the person—the good he or she did? Statues of Confederate soldiers don’t pass even this first test. Second, did the good that a person accomplish outweigh the bad? If the answer to both questions is “yes”, then I don’t see the usefulness of trying to erase someone’s contributions.

On both counts, then, I don’t think it’s fair for scientific societies or Cambridge University to demote Fisher, cancel prizes named after him, and so on. He held views that were common in his time (and were adhered to by liberal geneticists like A. H. Sturtevant and H. J. Muller), and his views, now seen properly as bigoted and odious, were never translated into action.

Of course the spread of wokeness means that balanced assessments like this one are rare; usually just the idea that someone espoused eugenics is enough to get them canceled and their honors removed.  It saddens me, having already known about Fisher and his views, that what I considered my “own” professional society—the Society for the Study of Evolution—and a society of which I was President, is now marinated in wokeness, cancelling Fisher, hiring “diversity” experts to police the annual meeting at great cost, and making the ludicrous assertion—especially ludicrous for an evolution society—that sex in humans is not binary (read my post on this at the link). The SSE’s motivations are good; their execution is embarrassing. I am ashamed of my own intellectual home, and of the imminent name change for the Fisher Prize, for which the Society even apologized. Much of the following “explanation” is cant, especially the part about students being put off applying for the prize:

This award was originally named to highlight Fisher’s foundational contributions to evolutionary biology. However, we realize that we cannot, in recognizing and honoring these contributions, isolate them from his racist views and promotion of eugenics–which were relentless, harmful, and unsupported by scientific evidence. We further recognize and deeply regret that graduate students, who could have been recipients of this award, may have hesitated to apply given the connotations. For this, we are truly sorry.

His promotion of genetics was not relentless, wasn’t harmful (at least in being translated into eugenics, as opposed to being simply “offensive”), and of course scientific evidence shows that you could change almost every characteristic of humans by selective breeding (eugenics). But we don’t think that’s a moral thing to do. And yes, you can separate the good someone does from their reprehensible ideas. Martin Luther King was a serial adulterer and philanderer. Yet today we are celebrating his good legacy, which far outweighs his missteps.

But I digress. I’ll leave you with the assessment of a bunch of liberals who nevertheless use Fisher’s work every day: the authors of the new paper.

The Fisher Memorial Trust, of which the authors are trustees, exists because of Fisher’s foundational contributions to genetical and statistical research. It honours these and the man who made them. Recent criticism of R. A. Fisher concentrates, as we have extensively discussed, on very limited aspects of his work and focusses attention on some of his views, both in terms of science and advocacy. This is entirely appropriate, but in re-assessing his many contributions to society, it is important to consider all aspects, and to respond in a responsible way—we should not forget any negative aspects, but equally not allow the negatives to completely overshadow the substantial benefits to modern scientific research. To deny honour to an individual because they were not perfect, and more importantly were not perfect as assessed from the perspective of hindsight, must be problematic. As Bryan Stevenson (Stevenson 2014) said “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

In one of Fisher’s last papers celebrating the centenary of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and commenting on the early Mendelian geneticists’ refusal to accept the evidence for evolution by natural selection he said, “More attention to the History of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this should mean a deliberate attempt to understand the thoughts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning track or stopped short of the right” (Fisher 1959). Here, then, there is a lesson for us. Rather than dishonouring Fisher for his eugenic ideas, which we believe do not outweigh his enormous contributions to science and through that to humanity, however much we might not now agree with them, it is surely more important to learn from the history of the development of ideas on race and eugenics, including Fisher’s own scientific work in this area, how we might be more effective in attacking the still widely prevalent racial biases in our society.


Below: Ronald Alymer Fisher, in India in 1937 (as the authors note, Fisher was feted by a colleague for his “incalculable contribution to the research of literally hundreds of individuals, in the ideas, guidance, ans assistance he so generously gave, irrespective of nationality, colour, class, or creed.” Unless that’s an arrant lie, that should also go toward assessing what the man actually did rather than what he thought.

Fisher in the company of Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Mrs. Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis in India in 1940. Courtesy of the P.C. Mahalanobis Memorial Museum and Archives, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Adelaide Library.

h/t: Matthew Cobb for making me aware of the paper.


Bodmer, W., R. A. Bailey, B. Charlesworth, A. Eyre-Walker, V. Farewell, A. Mead, and S. Senn. 2021. The outstanding scientist, R.A. Fisher: his views on eugenics and race. Heredity. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6


Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”: a post by Andrew Berry

October 9, 2020 • 12:30 pm

JAC:  When I wrote my post two days ago about supposed Arab precursors to Darwin, I had some email and phone exchanges with my friend Andrew Berry, an instructor and advisor at Harvard who knows a ton about the history of evolutionary biology.  After a recent exchange in which he sent me an informative email, I asked him to flesh it out a bit, as I thought it would make a nice standalone post. Right now there seems to be a resurgence of the claim that many people before Darwin anticipated his ideas in surprising detail. My view is no, they did not: they anticipated the notion of evolution, but nowhere near in as much detail as did Darwin in The Origin; nor did they provide supporting detail to make their theory credible. Finally, nobody (save the Scot Patrick Matthew and, of course, A. R. Wallace) even came close to the mechanism of adaptive evolution—natural selection. I believe, in the essay below, Andrew agrees with that.

But I digress. Here are Andrew’s thoughts on the issue of The Harbingers of Darwinism. He begins by mentioning two errors in my earlier post, which have now been corrected.


Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”

by Andrew Berry

Jerry’s piece in response to a VICE article on several early Arab thinkers whose ideas presaged the theory of evolution raised a number of interesting points.

First off, a couple of utterly trivial things: 1. Patrick Matthew was Scottish, not English.  (Maybe an apparently minor distinction when viewed from the US side of the Atlantic, but not when viewed from the UK side, especially in this era of Brexit and Johnsonian perfidy).  2. Erasmus Darwin did not write a book about evolution.  He merely mentioned it in a number of places in his writings, often in verse (his preferred format).  In fact, he is responsible for what is surely the best statement ever made of the Descent with Modification component of his grandson’s theory (from Temple of Nature 1803):

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Put that on a T-shirt!

I just wanted to add a general observation: that the VICE piece, and the academic articles it is based on, are part of a long tradition of finding hints of evolutionary thinking in a whole range of pre-Darwin writers.  As Jerry mentioned, Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts (2012) is an excellent recent exploration of this area.  As scholarship shifts away from a Western focus, my prediction is that Stott will have to produce another edition, with added thinkers from traditions that have not typically been regarded as relevant to what we might call pre-Darwinan studies.

As Stott recounts, many of these thinkers, western or non-western, took significant risks in challenging the reigning orthodoxy (usually religious ideas on origins).  My favourite is a Frenchman, de Maillet, who took out a threefold insurance policy against suffering the consequences of heresy for his evolutionary thinking.  First, he published his ideas posthumously (the book appeared in 1748, ten years after he died); second, he arranged for the manuscript to be edited by a Catholic priest to make sure his ideas were not too directly antithetical to church doctrine (the problem being that the resulting publication was deprived of de Maillet’s assertiveness), and, most creatively, third, he claimed that his ideas were not his own but were imparted to missionaries by an Indian sage called Telliamed. But de Maillet wasn’t willing to write himself entirely out of the story: Telliamed is ‘de Maillet’ backwards.

Darwin himself provided, in the later editions of the Origin, what he called ‘An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’, as a preface to the Origin.  This was an account of previous evolutionary ideas.  This was not included in the first edition of the Origin and is typically supposed to have been included in later editions as a response by Darwin to criticism post-First Edition that he had ignored the giants whose shoulders he was standing upon.  The Origin, remember, was rushed out in response to Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1858 letter.  Darwin had been quietly working away on what he called his “big species book” when Wallace intruded, sending a manuscript which laid out, in outline, the very idea that Darwin had been gestating over the previous 20 years.  Darwin’s response?  To rush out the Origin.

As the students who are required to read it in my courses will tell you, the Origin, at around 500 pages, is a hefty tome.  However, for Darwin, it was merely a preliminary statement—a quick and dirty synopsis of his argument.  He wanted the word “Abstract” in the title to indicate that this wasn’t his theory in its entirety, but, rather, just a summary.  It was his publisher John Murray who persuaded him that 500 pages and “abstract” don’t really go well together.  As a result of the rush to print, the Origin has a breathlessness about it: there are no references or citations.

It was not only the references that got cut from the project.  We know from Darwin’s correspondence that, as a part of the big book project, he had been working on that Historical Sketch—a review of previous ideas on evolution.  However, he chose not to include this in the first edition.  As he explained in a letter shortly after the Origin came out in November 1859, “My health was so poor, whilst I wrote the Book, that I was unwilling to add in the least to my labour; therefore I attempted no history of the subject; nor do I think that I was bound to do so.”  I think, in fact, he is being a little disingenuous here.  The rush to publish the Origin, after all, was all about establishing precedence, declaring that the theory was his (not, implicitly, Wallace’s).  I suspect that Darwin’s neglect of prior authorities was, at least in part, deliberate.  Wallace is mentioned just four times in the first edition of Origin. And, in his autobiography, Darwin downplayed the influence of his grandfather even though surely his wonderful lilting evolutionary speculations were both historically significant and a prominent part of his family’s lore.  Darwin, I suggest, wasn’t above a little modest self-promotion.

Critics, however, were quick to take Darwin to task for trying, by oversight, to suggest that all the ideas in the Origin were entirely his own.  And it was presumably in part as a response to these critics that Darwin took to adding the Historical Sketch preface in later editions.  The critic most often cited in this regard is Baden Powell (father of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting; curiously, Baden Powell’s widow, upon his death in 1860, renamed their children to have his full name, Baden Powell, be their surnames, with a hyphen).

This from: The Preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species: The Curious History of the “Historical Sketch” Author(s): Curtis N. Johnson Source: Journal of the History of Biology , Sep., 2007, Vol. 40 pp. 529-556 [JAC: free download at the link]:

“Shortly after the Origin originally appeared in November, 1859, Darwin received a letter from Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford (1827-60), apparently suggesting (from what may be inferred from Darwin’s response – the Powell letter unfortunately has not been found) – that Darwin’s “theory” had been at minimum anticipated well prior to Darwin’s publication, and perhaps, more strongly, that Darwin had been scooped altogether, by Powell and perhaps by others. In the first letter of response to Powell Darwin asserts that not even the “most ignorant [educated person]” could possibly suppose that Darwin “meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created,” and that “if I have taken anything from you, I assure you it has been unconsciously” – words that sound very much as though directed to someone who had suggested some unacknowledged borrowing.”

From 1861, Darwin made sure that his ‘An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’ prefaced every edition of the Origin.

Darwin, naturally, sees his list of precursors as evidence of longstanding interest in the topic but not as evidence of a lack of originality on his part.  Stott’s book falls in the same tradition: she is pointing out that there was a great deal of interesting pre-Darwinian thought on evolution, but she does not see this as diminishing the significance of Darwin’s contributions.

There is, however, another strand of analysis of pre-Darwinian thought that insists that, by rights, these thinkers should displace Darwin: Darwin, by implication, was either a plagiarist or, at best, willfully ignorant of other thinkers’ work.  Or, even more damning, Darwin is wrong, having misinterpreted key components of this prior thinking.  Perhaps the fullest expression of this perspective appeared shortly before Darwin died: Samuel Butler’s Evolution Old & New (1879).  In it, Butler argues that Darwin’s ideas can all be found in a careful reading of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, of Erasmus Darwin, of Patrick Matthew, of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and, regardless, some of these ideas are in fact superior to Darwin’s.

Appropriately enough, Alfred Russel Wallace was the one who took up the book review cudgel against Butler in the pages of the then relatively youthful science magazine, Nature: “the main object of the book is to show that all these [pre-Darwinian] authors have been right, while Mr. Charles Darwin is altogether wrong; and that the works of the former contain a more philosophical, more accurate, and altogether superior view of the nature and causes of evolution in the organic world than those of the latter.”

Reading over both Darwin’s Historical Sketch and the new Arab additions to the list of pre-Darwinian evolutionists, I am reminded of a comment by historian Peter Bowler in his Evolution, History of an Idea (2009).  In recounting the proto-evolutionary conjectures of the Greeks, he notes that, with the benefit of hindsight, we tend, anachronistically, to see ancient thought as presaging modern ideas when perhaps the connection is not really there.  Bowler writes that, “Ancient thought is cut and stretched to fit a Procrustean bed defined by our modern categories of analysis.”  In our search for pre-Darwinian hints of evolution, I think we keep Procrustes busy.

But as Jerry points out, the single lesson we learn from analyses of pre-Darwinian thought, is that, though interesting and tantalizing, these shards are just parts of something that only became fully realized in the hands of Darwin and Wallace.  After all, the very reason Darwin (perhaps reluctantly) added his Historical Sketch preface was to point out that curious evolution-related speculations do not a theory of evolution make.