Sunday, 18 January 2009

The Sunday Times Questions Darwin - and Causes a Storm

This Victorian gentleman continues to be a source of fierce debate. Image from Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

Bryan Appleyard asked some hard questions in The Sunday Times about the significance of Charles Darwin's thinking on our lives. He let both Darwin’s supporters and dissenters say what they think about the man.

“Darwinism is what you have once you have denied the existence of God” he quoted Dr. David Menton as saying. Later Appleyard explained:

Darwin divided and still divides the western world. It’s not just a division between scientists and fundamentalists. Science itself is divided. To say nothing of the rest of us, who may accept Darwin in theory but find it hard to look in a mirror and see the descendant of a piece of slime.

This drew the ire of some ultra-evolutionists.

P. Z. Myers responded to Appleyard’s article, using colourful expressions that do not ring very scientific. He seemed to be especially upset about Darwin’s connection to Ernst Haeckel and the German Nazi ideology.

Historians have been writing about the role of Darwinism as an influence behind Hitler’s “Final Solution” for decades but Myers will not have any of this:

Darwin was an egalitarian who opposed slavery and wrote quite a bit about the humanity of the 'primitive' peoples he encountered.

Yet, In The Descent of Man this egalitarian Victorian gentleman wrote,

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time, the anthropomorphous apes. . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla. (vol. 1, p. 201, my emphasis).

While I have probably quoted the one of the calmest portions of Myers’ post, the rest of the text, especially the ad hominem parts, bears every sign of high blood pressure.

Myers claims, for instance, that since Adolf Hitler did not explicitly use the words “genocide” or “Darwin” in Mein Kampf, the Victorian gentleman could not have inspired the mass killings of Jews. Yet, Darwin did use the word “exterminate” and Hitler did believe that the Jews were less evolved that the “pure-bred” Aryans. Myers seems to be skating on thin ice with his views.

Referring to the scathing feedback he received, Appleyard writes in his blog:

Darwinism is one of the ruling ideas of our civilisation. This is why the slightest challenge to its ascendancy, even quotations from people who don't believe it, arouses such anger, such fear. It is a threat to a world view some people find consoling.

Indeed. The issue appears to be extremely emotional, especially for those whose very worldview depends on the premise that there is no God.


Appleyard, Bryan. 2009. For God’s sake, have Charles Darwin’s theories made any difference to our lives? The Sunday Times. 11 January. ""

Appleyard, Bryan. 2009. Darwin for Idiots.

Darwin, Charles, 1871. (republished 1981.) The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Myers, P. Z. 2009. For God’s sake, have Bryan Appleyard’s articles made any difference to our lives?