Noah Carl: I fear CHARLES DARWIN might not survive this purge of science & history
A question that naturally arises at the beginning of any such period of upheaval is, “Who will survive the purge, and who won’t?” I fear that even Charles Darwin might not be safe.
Activists with a penchant for iconoclasm have set their sights not only on monarchs, imperialists and slave traders, but on scientists too. Earlier this year, University College London published the final report of its “Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL.” Among the report’s recommendations were that the Pearson Building, the Galton Chair and the Galton Lecture Theatre “should lose their current names as soon as possible (de-named).”
The Pearson building is named after Karl Pearson, a statistician who invented many tools that are still in use today, such as Pearson’s correlation coefficient. The other two items are named after Sir Francis Galton, a polymath who did pioneering work in statistics, psychometrics, geography and anthropology. In support of its recommendation to “de-name” Pearson and Galton, the UCL report cites various statements of theirs advocating eugenics, referring to “higher” and “lower” races, and describing other ethnic groups in extremely crude terms.
Another British scientist who has recently been targeted for defenestration is Sir Ronald Fisher, who made foundational contributions to both statistics and genetics. Like Pearson and Galton, he stands accused of supporting eugenics, and also of asserting that “groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development.” Fisher, who died in 1962, is currently the subject of two separate petitions: one calling for a window commemorating him in a Cambridge College to be removed; and one calling for a prestigious lectureship named after him to be renamed.
Which brings me to the subject of this article. Will Darwin survive the purge? Few if any British scientists have been commemorated as extensively as Charles Darwin. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, which is perhaps the highest honour that can be bestowed on a British subject. In a 2002 poll to find the greatest Briton of all time (which garnered more than a million votes) Darwin finished fourth. There is a College in Cambridge named after him. There is a university in Australia named after him. There are two mountains, two islands and more than 200 animal species named after him. There is even an international Darwin Day, held on 12 February (the man’s birthday).
Up until now, Darwin has been considered something of a hero on the political left, due to the religious right’s opposition to the teaching of evolution in schools (or at least, their insistence that one should “teach the controversy” that supposedly surrounds evolution and creationism). However, it is quite possible there will soon be a reckoning. For Darwin’s writings contain ample statements that would put him far beyond the pale of what is now considered acceptable.
First, differences between the sexes. In The Descent of Man, Darwin states that “the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.” And in an 1882 letter, he states that “women though generally superior to men to moral qualities are inferior intellectually,” and that “there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance… in their becoming the intellectual equals of man.” He also observes in The Descent of Man that “the male sex is more variable in structure than the female.” This observation has since become known as the greater male variability hypothesis, and has been applied to a variety of human traits including, most controversially, intelligence.
Second, differences between the races. Referring to some natives he encountered in South America during the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin observes, “one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures.” He dedicates a whole chapter of The Descent of Man, to his study of “the races of man.” In that chapter he states, “There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other… Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual faculties.” And in an earlier chapter of the book, he contrasts the “civilised races of man” with “the savage races,” noting that the former will “almost certainly exterminate, and replace” the latter.
Third, eugenics. In The Descent of Man, Darwin states, “We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination… Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind.” He then observes, “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.” However, he also notes, “Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature… We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.”
In summary, Darwin believed that men were on average more intelligent than women, and that some races were “civilised” whereas others were “savage.” His views on eugenics are not entirely clear (the term was coined one year after Darwin died), but it is obvious from his remarks in The Descent of Man that he believed industrial society could have dysgenic effects. Over the years, many scientists who have expressed views less invidious than these have been defenestrated, and one wonders whether Darwin will now suffer the same fate.
It is sometimes argued that Darwin’s stalwart abolitionism will protect him. And one hopes that his enormous contributions to science will be given due consideration too. But based on the zeal of today’s iconoclasts, I wouldn’t be so sure.
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