Dreams and nightmares of the genetic age

April 24, 2022 • 9:24 am

by Matthew Cobb

This is a talk I gave at the Royal Institution in London in March, as an award from the Genetics Society of the UK – the J B S Haldane lecture, which is given in honour of a scientist’s work in popularising genetics.

I chose to give the talk on the subject of my forthcoming book, which will be published this autumn, under different titles on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK, it will be known as THE GENETIC AGE: OUR PERILOUS QUEST TO EDIT LIFE, while in the USA it will be called: AS GODS: A MORAL HISTORY OF THE GENETIC AGE. You can have your own views about which title you prefer. My first book equally had different titles in the UK and the US, and as a result The Lancet reviewed the book twice, not realising it was the same work (both reviews were very positive).

You can watch the talk here, and pre-order the book, should you so wish, from your local bookstore or bookshop.org. I think Jeff Bezos has enough money already.

The RI edited out the musical break from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark I used in the middle of the lecture, to avoid copyright issues. You can listen to the track I played here:

Or you could choose to watch this song by X-Ray Spex, equally called Genetic Engineering, which came out eight years earlier. Spot the difference between the outlooks of the two songs – this reflected the shift in attitudes to genetic engineering I describe in the first part of the talk:

Condolence letters to Darwin’s family released on the 140th anniversary of his death

April 21, 2022 • 2:00 pm

April 19 was the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, and the wonderful “Darwin Online” project, which presents virtually everything the man ever wrote, has released a bunch of messages received by the Darwin family after his death.  Kudos to John van Wyhe, who curates this project and sent out a notice that this material has been released.

Below is the site’s introduction to the many letters, of which I reproduce but a few (via links) below:

2022, 04.19

On the occasion of the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, we are providing the Darwin family’s collection of letters and telegrams from his relatives, friends, contemporaries and institutions at home and abroad upon the news of his death in 1882. The messages, addressed to the Darwin family, expressed grief and sorrow, offered condolences, reminiscences and tributes to the scientific figure who had transformed our understanding of the world forever. Over ninety of these letters reveal intimate and personal sentiments felt by the sender. These have been transcribed for the first time, only on Darwin Online.

Click on the link below to access them all.

Here are some notable letters from Darwin’s friends and colleagues, as well as people whom he influenced (with links):

Galton, Francis. 1882.04.20. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.7h

Haeckel, Ernst. 1882.04.24. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.8a

Huxley Thomas Henry. 1882.04.21. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10k

Huxley, T. H. 1882.04.22. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.6c

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1882.04.21. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10i

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1882.04.29. Letter to William Erasmus and George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10j

Murray, John. [1882].04.24. Letter to William Erasmus Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10p

Murray was Darwin’s publisher, which included the various editions of On the Origin of Species

Papé, Charlotte. 1882.04.21. Letter to [Francis] Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.7k

Romanes, George John. 1882.04.22. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.8e

Gray, Asa. 1882.04.23. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10h 

Students, Agricultural Academy in Petrovsky, Moscow. 1882.04.24. Telegram to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.12l

Vries, Hugo de. 1882.04.25. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.9i

Moscow University Geological Department. 1882.04.28. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.11o


Celebrating Dick Lewontin

April 11, 2022 • 1:15 pm

by Greg Mayer

As regular readers of WEIT know, Jerry’s major professor, Dick Lewontin, died last July at the age of 92. On March 29, 2022, which would have been Dick’s 93rd birthday, a memorial event was held virtually (see website here) to celebrate his life and work. Over 150 of Dick’s family, friends, students, and colleagues attended; a video of the event has been posted on Youtube.

During the event, which was hosted by Andrew Berry, sixteen speakers, representing only a sampling of the diverse facets of Dick’s life, each gave a brief reminiscence. The speakers were Stephen Lewontin (family), Ian Franklin (CSIRO Australia), Doug Futuyma (Stonybrook U), Dan MacArthur (Marlboro, Vt), Marc Feldman (Stanford U), David and Kathy Rosner (Columbia U), Lenard Diggins (Mass. General Hospital), Deborah Gordon (Stanford U), Peter Neufeld (Innocence Project), Dan Hartl (Harvard U), Peg Riley (U Mass Amherst), Einar Árnason (U Iceland), Sally Otto (U British Columbia), Michael Dietrich (U Pittsburgh), Diane Paul (U Mass Boston), and Dan Weinreich (Brown U). Ian Franklin’s remarks, because of the time difference, were taped.

Andrew managed to get all the speakers in during the allotted two hours. (I marveled at how deftly he handled so many speakers, getting them to run smoothly and on time, later remarking to him that he would make a first class cat-wrangler! ) He also showed a few clips of interviews with Dick and a selection of photos. He also read a couple of excerpts from written remembrances, including Jerry’s account of when he ran into Dick and his wife Mary Jane at the Harvard Square Theater, and they went up to the balcony to hold hands. After the main program, attendees broke out into various subsections for continued reminiscing and virtual reunions.
Vt Christmas. Photo: Nora Lewontin-Rojas.

Among the things I learned about Dick were two that came as a bit of a surprise. First, Dick enjoyed the birds in Vermont. He always seemed fairly indifferent to natural history, so I was glad to learn that he at least appreciated it around his home. Second, he was a great devotee of full Christmas celebrations with his grandkids, including all the corny details, like leaving something out for Santa to eat, and then eating it so it would be gone when the grandkids got up in the morning. It wasn’t a surprise that he indulged his grandkids– Dick always liked kids– but rather that a secular Jewish atheist would choose a traditional Christmas as the way to do it!

The Celebrating Dick Lewontin website has quite a bit beyond the video, including pages with Stories, thoughts, memories; In print: obituaries and more; Lab (and more) photos (including albums from various time periods, with photos of Jerry and yours truly); and Photos of RCL (with various albums, including some Christmas photos).

The organizing committee consisted of Andrew Berry, Diane Paul, Hamish Spencer, Deborah Gordon, Joe Felsenstein, Mike Dietrich, Elliott Sober, Brian Charlesworth, Rama Singh, Einar Árnarson, and Dan Weinreich, with the first four forming the core committee. My thanks to Andrew and all of them for a job well done.

A small victory: Thomas Henry Huxley not “cancelled” but “contextualized” at Imperial College

February 25, 2022 • 12:15 pm

Over the last few months I’ve reported on misguided attempts to “cancel” the famous biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who despite making a few statements about race that would considered offensive in today’s world (though some of his “racist” statements actually quote-mined), spent the bulk of his career not only defending Darwinism, but promulgating educational reform, especially for women and those of the working class. He repudiated any racism in the latter part of his life.

Two institutions were engaged in the task of “reevaluating” Huxley’s historic and scientific legacy, a legacy summarized in a scholarly and masterful piece by Nick Matzke at Panda’s Thumb. Matzke’s conclusion is that there is no way in hell that Huxley should be debased, erased, or deplatformed.

Yet he was at one college: Western Washington University (WWU; see my posts here and here). As NIck wrote:

WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment may be renamed after a bizarre report uncritically plagiarising far-right creationist & conspiracist materials gets Thomas Henry Huxley exactly backwards on racism.

And, indeed, after some weaselly waffling, Huxley College of the Environment has been renamed and given the boring name of “College of the Environment“.

But the movement jumped the Atlantic as well, for Imperial College in London (a college which might ponder the rectitude of its own name!) engaged in an investigation of Huxley for the same reasons: his early statements which would be seen as racist today, though Huxley was even more anti-racist than Darwin and was an abolitionist was well.  Well, IMPERIAL College not only harbors a Huxley Building, but a bust of Huxley, and both of those came perilously close to being “canceled”. As I reported last October:, quoting the Torygraph:

Imperial College London has been told to remove a bust of slavery abolitionist Thomas Henry Huxley because he “might now be called racist”, following a review into colonial links.

An independent history group for the Russell Group university has recommended that a bust of the renowned 19th century biologist, dubbed “Darwin’s bulldog”, be taken down and the Huxley Building on campus renamed.

The group of 21 academics was launched in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last year to address Imperial’s “links to the British Empire” and build a “fully inclusive organisation”.

Its final report, published on Tuesday, said that three buildings and lecture rooms named after influential figures should be changed, along with the removal or redesign of two statues.

One is the Huxley building and a sculpture honouring the anthropologist Huxley, who helped form Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and first suggested that birds may be closely related to dinosaurs.

Huxley was a vocal slave abolitionist, but the Imperial report said his paper, Emancipation – Black and White, “espouses a racial hierarchy of intelligence” which helped feed ideas around eugenics, which “falls far short of Imperial’s modern values”.

A group of scientists (many from Imperial), cognizant of the unfair treatment that Huxley was getting at Imperial, wrote a letter to Nature organized by Armand Leroi, objecting to the proposed cancellation. (I was one of the signers.) Nature rejected it, but it was published in full, with all the signers, in the Torygraph. (The introductory Torygraph article is still up for free; the letter has disappeared, but you can find in on the first link in this paragraph.

At any rate, the good news is that Imperial has rethought its plans, and it’s now going to keep the Huxley Building and the Huxley bust. However, it will “contextualize” them, the first by adding another name to the Huxley Building—a scientist from a minority group—and the second by putting some verbiage on a placard near the Huxley bust. Here’s the article from the Imperial College news site; click to read.

The short take:

The College will consider a joint name for its Huxley Building – named after biologist Thomas Henry Huxley – with the aim of adding the name of a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background. While the name and bust of Huxley will be retained, it will be clearly put into a fuller context in order to provide everyone with a more complete understanding of Huxley’s complex character and achievements as well as his flaws, including his racially prejudiced writings. Historical context will also be provided for any person whose name is added jointly.

. . .The names of key buildings, including those named after Thomas Henry Huxley or Alfred and Otto Beit, will be retained, but the College will launch an ambitious project to put these figures into context and clarify their histories, the Board concluded.

The College will find new, prominent ways of ensuring that their complexities are fully understood alongside the College’s modern values. This will include acknowledging both their positive contributions to science and to Imperial in parallel with the ways in which they have furthered historic injustice or hampered progress towards racial equality.

I’ll take that as a victory despite the “contextualization”. I just hope they don’t make Huxley look like an out-and-out racist or slaveholder, which he wasn’t. And it seems a wee bit patronizing to pair Huxley’s name with that of a “Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic background.” I’m not sure what that pairing will accomplish. If the name “Huxley” was harmful because he was a racist, well, that name is still there, and will the harm be palliated by pairing a “racist” with a marginalized person?

At any rate, this is better news than it could have been. But there are skirmishes to come. As Armand noted “Nothing was said about the fate of the Hamilton building at Silwood Park or the Fisher and Haldane lecture theatres. A committee has been appointed to implement these changes.” All of these are part of Imperial College, and none of them deserve to be renamed. The names at issue are the evolutionists W. D. Hamilton, J. B. S. Haldane, and Ronald Fisher (Fisher was also the “father of statistics”). 

Here’s the Huxley Building at Imperial College. As I recall, I gave the annual lecture to the British Humanists in this building:

On the origin of the specious: Jesuit magazine says that Darwin was both an evolutionist and an advocate of “intelligent design”

February 23, 2022 • 10:45 am

The article below (click on screenshot), is from the magazine America, a “Jesuit Review”. and it’s by Christopher Sandford, a writer who, while he may be religious, is certainly no padre. Here’s his bio from MacMillan:

Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Imran Khan, Harold Macmillan, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, and Roman Polanski. He is also the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over 20 years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him “the pre-eminent author in his field today.” Sandford divides his time between Seattle and London.

But the article below, with its provocative title, suggests expertise in the history of science. Sadly, little is evident in the piece, as Sandford is setting up a straw man and then burning it down.

Click on the screenshot to read:

What he means by saying that we’re reading Darwin “all wrong” is that we read Darwin as an icon of atheism, a man who had no truck with any species of the divine, and deliberately designed his works to demolish the idea of God. As I’ll show below, that’s not true. Darwin simply didn’t care much about God so long as he could explain biological design by a theory that didn’t invoke God.

Sandford also states that, after writing the Origin, Darwin had two ideas in his head at the same time: a materialistic evolution but also one mixed with some intelligent design.  This is not true. Insofar as Darwin thought of “intelligent design,” he merely suggested in passing that perhaps the “laws of the universe” were designed. He rejected the idea of God held by his contemporaries (see below). We know this because Darwin told us this. He was at best an agnostic.

But he was also canny: he knew very well the implications of evolution for the religious—the implications of giving a purely materialistic explanation for phenomena that for several millennia had been seen as the strongest evidence for God: design in nature. This is why Darwin devoted only a single weaselly sentence to human evolution in The Origin: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

But then he put his cards on the table in 1871 with the publication of The Descent of Man.  But his continuing reluctance to discuss the theological implications of his theory is simply because he wanted his theory to be accepted, and accepted by people who were Bible-believing Christians. This reluctance has been interpreted by some as equivocation, but is seen by Sandford is seen as Darwin believing both in evolution and “intelligent design.”

Sandford’s thesis is summed up in a paragraph near the end (my bolding):

For many people today, Darwin has become a sort of secular deity, an icon for atheism who at a stroke swept away the antediluvian superstitions of his age and ushered in an invigorating new era of scientific logic and rationalism. A close reading of On the Origin of Species, however, strongly suggests that the work was not only an argument against the concept of miraculous creation but also a theist’s case for the presence of intelligent design, broadly in keeping with Albert Einstein’s subsequent aphorism that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Well, those who see Darwin as an icon for atheism have some justification, for he is an icon for atheism by having replaced divine explanations with materialistic ones. But the last sentence, implying that there was intelligent design in the universe, is not justified by Darwin’s writings. He rejected the idea of a personal God, and as for a Higher Power who created the laws of Nature, Darwin was pretty mute. This letter to Asa Gray in 1860 shows that while Darwin rejected a beneficent God, he just didn’t know if there was any higher power. Bolding in the quote below is mine:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd 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 with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Now one could, as Sandford apparently does, take the words “designed laws” as evidence for a higher power who designed those laws. I’m not so sure, for in the next sentence Darwin famously punts, saying that he gives up on the whole subject as “too profound for the human intellect”—”a dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton   . . ”  (That’s an excellent sentence!) I think Darwin just didn’t want to discuss the theological underpinnings of his theory because he wasn’t interested in theology and couldn’t come to any answers about gods.  In that sense, he was a true agnostic, and it’s proper to read him as such.

And, as we see below, while Darwin still believed in “laws” towards the end of his life, the idea that they were “designed” laws seems to have disappeared.

Yet Sandford makes several game tries to show that Darwin was more than just a straight-up agnostic. For example, Sandford says this:

To take another example: Charles Darwin himself would almost certainly not have endorsed the views of many of his spiritual heirs today that the biblical story of creation and the evolution of the physical universe are mutually exclusive rather than twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation.

Note Sandford’s claim that Darwin wouldn’t have seen “the biblical story of creation” and the “evolution of the physical universe” as mutually exclusive. That’s almost certainly wrong: Darwin’s Origin was “one long argument” against the biblical story of creation. Time after time he compares what one would expect to see in the biological world if biblical creationism be true, and he shows that you don’t see that: you see what you’d expect if evolution be true.

As for “twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation,” I don’t know what that means. Either the Biblical story is true or it’s not. It’s not, and, as far as we know, Darwin’s theory of evolution was true. And how did “a possibly divine origin of the laws of physics” suddenly turn into an acceptance of “the biblical story of creation”?

Sandford also, for some reason, lays at Darwin’s feet the use of his theory by eugenicists, particularly Hitler:

“With savages,” Darwin wrote, in perhaps the most striking passage in the text,

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

This passage is not perhaps what most modern adherents of Darwinian thought have in mind when extolling their hero’s rigorously materialist approach to evolutionary biology. Nor, to be fair, is it entirely representative of 1871’s The Descent of Man as a whole. Even so, this was the partial reading of Darwin’s theory seized upon by Adolf Hitler and his like-minded crew of genocidal fanatics in their quasi-scientific musings on the evolutionary process.

Here is Hitler, for instance, speaking at Nuremberg in 1933: “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.”

Nope. Hitler rejected Darwinism, and his views on Jews, genocide, and the superiority of Aryans were derived from elsewhere—certainly not from Darwin! To see an expert refutation of this claim, read my colleague Bob Richards’s definitive article, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” And here’s Richards’s answer:

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Sanford mentions that Darwin had a quote in the frontispiece of The Origin that was sympathetic to religion. Well, actually, there are two quotes in that frontispiece that are both sympathetic to religion:

. . . [Darwin] acknowledged the intellectual debt himself by opening On the Origin of Species with a quote from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise about the consistency of scientific evolutionary theory with a natural theology of a supreme creator establishing laws:

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

Indeed. And there’s another religion-friendly quote there, too!:

“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

BACONAdvancement of Learning.

Knowing Darwin’s own views at this time, it’s nearly impossible to believe that these quotes are there because Darwin really thought there was not only a divine creator establishing laws—that’s a dog speculating on the mind of Newton—but that one should also diligently study “the book of God’s word” or “the book of God’s works” (does he mean biological works?).  I suspect, and I’m not alone in this, that Darwin knew perfectly well that the book following these opening quotes would hit Christians in the solar plexus, and these quotes are there to leaven his arguments—to make people think that Darwin saw the Bible was the word of God, and that world showed the Works of the Word.

Here’s one last passage from Darwin’s Autobiography showing, over his life, how his disbelief in the conventional idea of God increased (again, my bolding):

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;—I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.1

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. 

1 Mrs. Darwin annotated this passage (from “and have never since doubted”…. to “damnable doctrine”) in her own handwriting. She writes:—”I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E. D.” Oct. 1882. This was written six months after her husband’s death, in a second copy of the Autobiography in Francis’s handwriting. The passage was not published. See Introduction.—N. B. [Nora Barlow, the editor]

Note that in the last sentence the “fixed laws” are NOT imputed to God. So, at the end, we have no indication that even the “fixed laws” were of God’s devising. Note as well that the Autobiography was published five years after Darwin’s death. We can take it, then, as the cumulation of his views.

In the end, we are reading Darwin right so long as we realize that:

a.) He did not believe in the Christian personal God, a good God, that was prevalent in his day.

b.) He did not accept the Biblical story of creation. The “design” he saw in nature, which his predecessor Paley thought was strong evidence for God, came instead from evolution by natural selection.

c.) He was not an antitheist, nor an atheist in the sense of one who says “the evidence for a divine being is almost nonexistent”.  He was an agnostic who thought, “I don’t know if there’s a divine power and it’s beyond my ken to figure this out.” (Some people would call this atheism, but I don’t.


d.) Darwin’s views may have been coopted by eugenicists, but not by Hitler, and few people fault Darwin for eugenics laws and acts after his time. Darwin, of course, wasn’t responsible for the misuse of his ideas.

Sandford’s claim that “we’ve been reading Darwin all wrong” is, in the end, a strawman argument. It depends, of course, on who “we” represents. Most people have never read a word of Darwin, and get what they know about him from rumor, so they can’t have been “reading Darwin all wrong.”They might have been getting Darwin wrong, but that’s not Sandford’s argument, which seems to be directed at scientifically-minded laypeople.

For those who do read Darwin, those familiar with his books and letters could never conclude that he saw harmony between his theory of evolution and any form of “intelligent design”. For even if you accept (and I don’t) that Darwin thought that only the laws of nature were designed, he still saw the evolution of life as the result of deterministic processes operating on material protoplasm. By and large, the views that most modern people have about Darwin, and I refer to people who have read Darwin, are correct.


h/t: Karl, Andrew Berry

Sabine Hossenfelder on the most epic fights between scientists

February 14, 2022 • 11:00 am

Here’s a 16-minute video by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder that was forwarded to me by reader Steve, who added this

Sabine leads with the contretemps between E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. I found the whole video edifying, with my admiration for Thomas Edison taken down several notches.

Indeed! You will never look at Edison the same way again, especially if you go on the Internet and look for the video of the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant, promoted by Edison.

The six fights:

1.) Richard Dawkins’s scathing review of E. O. Wilson’s 2012 book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which pushed a group-selectionist origin of human behavior. (I too reviewed that book for TLS and will send a copy on request).

2.) Wilson’s riposte that Dawkins was a “journalist.” Ouch!

3.) Leibniz vs. Newton’s debate about who first developed differential calculus. Newton got discovery precedence, but was slow to publish, so both men’s work appeared about the same time. A fight ensued, with Newton beefing to the Royal Society about credit. Newton won that fight, but there were a lot of bad feelings and mutual criticism. Leibniz also cheated by changing the dates of some of his manuscripts to try establishing precedence

4.) Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla over whether electric current should be delivered as direct (DC_ or alternating (AC). Edison, an advocate of DC, electrocuted animals (including Topsy the elephant, one of the most heinous acts imaginable) to show that AC was dangerous.

5.) The paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope versus Othniel Marsh, a conflict described in Wikipedia as “The Bone Wars”:

The Bone Wars, also known as the Great Dinosaur Rush, was a period of intense and ruthlessly competitive fossil hunting and discovery during the Gilded Age of American history, marked by a heated rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope (of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) and Othniel Charles Marsh (of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale). Each of the two paleontologists used underhanded methods to try to outdo the other in the field, resorting to bribery, theft, and the destruction of bones. Each scientist also sought to ruin his rival’s reputation and cut off his funding, using attacks in scientific publications.

6.)  Fred Hoyle versus the world! Willy Fowler, Hoyle’s collaborator, got a Nobel Prize (with Chandrasekhar) in 1983. Both Hoyle and Fowler collaborated on how nuclear reactions work in stars. Why was Hoyle overlooked? Hossenfelder gives several possible explanations.

Hossenfelder’s lesson is that “competition is a good thing, but is best enjoyed in small doses”.  I’m not sure I agree, as the more competition there is in science, the faster we get to the truth. Yes, it’s unpleasant to see big guns acting petty, but in the end science is the beneficiary.

Hossenfelder also mentions that the conflicts show that scientists are human, but we already know that. There aren’t really lessons here beyond those in the history of science, but there’s a lot of intriguing history in this short video

Two books on Darwin

February 12, 2022 • 5:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

For Darwin’s birthday, I thought I’d mention two books about Darwin, both by the noted Darwin scholar John van Wyhe, whom Jerry and I have both had the pleasure of meeting, and who we’ve had occasion to mention here on WEIT a number of times. As anyone with more than a passing interest in Darwin should know, John is the editor of the indispensable Darwin Online.

The first is Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (Andre Deutsch, London, 2018). Although I hadn’t planned it that way, very fittingly I finished reading it this morning. This is a reissue of a book first published in 2008 in anticipation of the Darwin bicentennial. The first issue was published in the US and the UK with different subtitles, and slightly later (2009) in the US.

I can highly recommend this as a very well-illustrated capsule summary of Darwin’s life. It begins with one of the best summaries of the state of knowledge and inquiry into natural history in the early 19th century I’ve ever read, then takes up Darwin’s life from birth, to university, to the four corners of the Earth in the Beagle, then to his return to England. Succeeding sections (there are no numbered chapters) are mostly structured around Darwin’s major works, tracing his life and contributions through a chronological sequence of those works.

The text covers at most half of the pages of this 160 page book, the rest being given over to illustrations. Almost all are contemporary, either illustrations from scientific papers and monographs, or of people and places in Darwin’s life. There are also quite a few reproductions of pages from Darwin’s published works and manuscripts. (Pages 120-123, a reproduction of several pages from the Darwin-Wallace Linnean Society paper of 1858, is labeled, incorrectly, as an extract from one of Darwin’s unpublished MS from 1857.) The illustrations are a great plus. In the original issue of 2008, the selection of illustrations was somewhat different (there were more of them), and they were larger, some being fold out; in the current issue the size may be a bit of a problem in seeing detail in some of them.

My own copy is the UK issue of 2018. A US reissue has a 2022 copyright date, but the UK one of 2018 is available in the US. (The larger format issue of 2008 [2009 in the US] can also still be found.) To learn all about Darwin’s life, read Janet Browne’s 2-volume masterpiece. But until you do, read this book, and have it alongside for the illustrations when you read Browne.

The other book, Darwin: A Companion, by Paul van Helvert and van Wyhe (World Scientific, Singapore, 2021) came out last year. I have not seen it yet, though I have seen the earlier edition (1978) by Robert Freeman on which it is based.

Unlike the previous book, which is a great entry point for the tyro, this book is for the more serious student of Darwin. The Companion is an encyclopedic collection of virtually everything known to be connected to Darwin the man. The new edition is 50% again as large as the first, and has added several dozen illustrations. This is not really a book to be read, but rather consulted or browsed (in the nutritive sense); Darwin completists will need a copy. As Janet Browne wrote in her blurb for the new edition, “There is more here than even Darwin would have known about himself.”

What did the Galileo affair say about science vs. religion?

December 26, 2021 • 11:30 am

Several readers sent me a link to this post by Patrick Casey on the Heterodox Academy blogs because I’m mentioned in it (and in good company too!). It’s an example of what historians of religion (who are often religious) write about all the time. Casey, like other accommodationists, most notably Ronald Numbers, maintains that:

1.) Religion and science are not continually at war with one another (a view called the “conflict hypothesis”), and

2.) The Galileo affair was not an example of the conflict hypothesis. A “nuanced” and complete analysis shows, says Casey, that other factors were involved, including history and philosophy.  This stance is often used to tout accommodationism: the view that science and religion are actually compatible. And it’s often held by people who want to make nice to religion.

I didn’t know of the author, Patrick J. Casey, but he is an assistant professor of philosophy at Holy Family University, a private Roman Catholic University in Philadelphia.  I can’t find him in the faculty directory, but I won’t worry about that; and I have no idea whether, even though he teaches at a religious school, he’s religious. But I won’t psychologize his motivations, I’ll just mention his arguments.

Now I don’t embrace the “simplistic” conflict hypothesis, characterized as arguing that science is continuously at war with religion(see below). Some people like Andrew Dickson and William Draper at the turn of the 20th century did pretty much embrace the “conflict hypothesis,” and I discuss this in Chapter 1 of Faith Versus Fact (p. 5):

The truth lies between Draper and White on one hand and their critics on the other. While it’s undeniable that religion was important in opposing some scientific advances like the theory of evolution and the use of anesthesia, others, like smallpox vaccination, were both opposed and promoted on biblical grounds. On the other hand, it’s a self-serving distortion to say that religion was not an important issue in the persecutions of Galileo and John Scopes. Nevertheless, since not all religions are opposed to science, and much science is accepted by believers, the view that science and faith are perpetually locked in battle is untrue. If that’s how one sees the “conflict thesis,” then that hypothesis is wrong.

But my view is not that religion and science have always been implacable enemies, with the former always hindering the latter. Instead, I see them as making overlapping claims, each arguing that they can identify truths about the universe. As I’ll show in the next chapter, the incompatibility rests on differences in the methodology and philosophy used in determining those truths, and in the outcomes of their searches. In their eagerness to debunk the claims of Draper and White, their critics missed the underlying theme of both books: the failure of religion to find truth about anything—be it gods themselves or more worldly matters like the causes of disease.

As I wrote on Christmas Eve:

My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.

Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and can use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.

So when Casey says that I am one of the promulgators of the “conflict hypothesis”, as below, he’s just wrong. Is he familiar with my writings?  I’ve put the statement in bold below because I’m chuffed to be lumped together with such thoughtful men.

But simplistic narratives like the conflict thesis aren’t innocuous — they can warp our understanding of history (for example, here and here the historians of science Stephen Snobelen and Seb Falk address the myth of the “Medieval Gap,” which is grounded in the conflict thesis, as promulgated by writers like Carl Sagan, Jerry Coyne, and A.C. Grayling).

Nor do I think that Sagan promulgated the simplistic narrative of the “conflict thesis”, and I’m not sure that Grayling ever did (he’s too smart to think that). For this is how Casey defines the “conflict thesis”:

Yet anecdotes about religion suppressing science are part of a broader cultural narrative of conflict where science and religion have been locked in a zero-sum struggle — when science advances, religion is forced to beat a hasty retreat. This view of the historical relationship between science and religion is called “the conflict thesis” (see hereherehere).

Note that all of these videos were made by believers, including the DoSER wing of the AAAS (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion), headed by evangelical Christian Jennifer Wiseman and designed to “to facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities.”

Now, the argument by Casey is that the Galileo affair involves politics and philosophy and religion, and is not as simple as the Pope accepting a Biblically-based geocentric solar system, Galileo touting a heliocentric one, and Galileo going on trial for contradicting the Bible and then being sentenced to lifelong house arrest. Galileo was not tortured, but none of us believe that anyway; he was threatened with torture if he didn’t recant. And of course Galileo insulted the pope by putting the geocentric arguments in the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which surely pissed off the Pope.

Here’s the most important “nuance” that Casey adds to the argument

The Pope was a better scientist than Galileo, for he realized that there were arguments against Galileo’s hypothesis, and he just wanted Galileo to do good science and not assert he had “proof” of heliocentrism. 

I quote Dr. Casey (my emphasis):

In addition to a reasonable desire to keep with the Church’s previous ruling, the pope had a fairly sophisticated philosophical justification for his instruction — one that foreshadows what is now called “the underdetermination thesis” in the philosophy of science. The pope argued that whatever evidence Galileo may have had for heliocentrism, it couldn’t amount to a demonstration or proof of its physical truth, since it is possible for God to bring about whatever was observed through means other than heliocentrism. At the time, an obvious example would have been Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric system, which readily accounted for Galileo’s new observational evidence without needing the objectionable hypothesis of a moving Earth.

In taking this position, the pope was standing in a long tradition in natural philosophy that maintained that the job of astronomers was not to determine what the world was physically like but only to provide useful models for predicting the motions of planets. Stated charitably, the pope was instructing Galileo not to go beyond his evidence.

I love that last sentence: it’s more than charitable; it borders on dissimulation. And it’s FUNNY. And the tradition that astronomers are just supposed to make models and not find truth has long fallen by the wayside.

But Casey goes on.

Unfortunately, when Galileo published his Dialogue, he argued adamantly for the physical truth of heliocentrism, “clearly, though not explicitly” (in the words of Peter Machamer and David Marshall Miller), while sometimes making his opponents seem like idiots. To make matters worse, Galileo foolishly put the pope’s argument about the difficulty of ascertaining final scientific truth into the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which many have taken to be an insult to the pope. The pope was enraged by Galileo’s apparent deceit in defending the physical truth of heliocentrism as an established matter of fact, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to stand trial.

But Casey does admit that there was a conflict between Catholicism and Galileo’s arguments:

For better or worse, the trial of 1633 was not the site of a renewed debate about the status of heliocentrism. Rather, the trial focused on whether Galileo had violated the Church’s instruction not to argue for the physical truth of heliocentrism. In the end, Galileo was forced to recant and sentenced to house arrest at his villa in Florence for the rest of his life.

Is that not a conflict between science and religion? Galileo argued for a physical truth that the Pope didn’t want to hear, ergo he was found guilty.

Casey’s last resort is to deny that the conflict hypothesis predicts eternal enmity and war between religion and science. But that’s a straw man:

Third, and most important, even if this were a clear case of conflict, one incident wouldn’t by itself justify the grand cultural narrative of inexorable conflict between science and religion. Historians of the era have repeatedly pointed out that the Galileo affair was not representative of the norm.

But in the last 80 years or so, nobody said that this kind of conflict was the “norm”. Rather, people like Sagan and I argue that the method of finding truth in science is incompatible with the method of finding “truth” in religion, and this occasionally leads to clashes. The church doesn’t argue against the existence of electrons, or claim that benzene doesn’t have six carbon atoms, or argue against most of science in general, because most of science isn’t relevant to the Bible.

But there’s one important part that is: the story of creation. In particular, the first two chapters of Genesis, which 40% of Americans take literally—with another 33% thinking that God guided evolution. (Total percentage of those thinking God helped create life: 73%.) Only a measly 22% of Americans accept naturalistic evolution (including of humans) the way that we teach it in college. That’s about one in five.

And all modern creationism is, at bottom, rooted in religion: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as other creationist faiths, including Hindusim. There is no creationist or Intelligent Design organization that is not based on religion. And I know of only a single creationist who isn’t religious—David Berlinski (and I have my suspicions about him).  Is this not, then, a palpable conflict between science and religion? Of course it is! I look forward to Dr. Casey’s explanation of why the battle between creationism and evolution in American is much more nuanced than the simplistic narrative that evolution contradicts the Qur’an or the Old Testament.

Why do people like Casey feel compelled to repeat the same old narrative about Galileo? Well, they’re partly right: more than science is involved and lots of misconceptions (e.g., the Church tortured Galileo) litter the field. But I also think that this kind of accommodationism often comes from religious people who admire science, and fear that the “conflict hypothesis” will drive people out of religion since they feel they’re being forced to choose between science and religion.

That’s not the way it works, though.

If you talk to former creationists who became atheists because of science, it’s not because a scientist told them that “they had to choose.” No, you hear that they were curious about science and evolution in particular (often because the subjects were banned), and learned about it. They finally realized that evolution is true and Genesis is false, and, like Samson, this brought down the edifice of their faith. Plus they realized that there’s simply no good evidence for God—far less evidence than we have for the existence of atoms or the fact that infectious diseases are caused by microbes.

“Jeopardy” shows that the Woke have won

December 16, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I received an email from reader Paul Topping, and I thought it was both amusing and sad. I have his permission to post it, so I’ll give it to you just as I got it:

My wife and I watch “Jeopardy!” regularly. This last Tuesday, they had an answer and question that might amuse you. This week and last they are doing their “Professors Tournament” which, obviously, features college professors. This question/answer was the “Daily double” in the first (single) Jeopardy part of the show.


     Biologist T.H. Huxley was a renowned defender of this theory & in 1893 famously lectured on it ‘& Ethics’

Contestant (English Prof from Penn State U, Hester Blum):

     What is eugenics?


    Sorry, the question is “What is evolution?”

I don’t think this contestant was well-informed on science. She laughed out loud when the subject for Final Jeopardy was introduced: Physics.

When I wrote Paul that this was both sad and funny, he responded:

t’s interesting but not surprising that someone would know just enough science to name scientists to cancel but not much beyond that. If it’s any consolation, she lost the contest.

It would be an English professor, wouldn’t it? (Or a sociologist or cultural anthropologist!)

I’ve written about T. H. Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) several times, and about how his reputation has been unfairly besmirched. Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, for instance, has been renamed because the University deemed Huxley a racist. Now T. H. seems to be more associated with eugenics than with biology, abolitionism, or science education. And he was NEVER a proponent of eugenics!

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.