Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Note about Documentary Evidence and Primary Sources

Having written several posts on Darwin's place in the history of eugenics, Social Darwinism and related matters during the past six years, one of the most common dodges his champions will make is that you've provided "no evidence".  That, even as entire paragraphs and sections of books, citations and links to books and letters BY CHARLES DARWIN, the same from Galton, Haeckel, Leonard Darwin, Francis Darwin, and others are right there on the post attached to where the automatic dodge of "no evidence" is made.  That, along with the recently invented phrase "quote mining" are the first line of defense of the Darwin myth among those who can't argue his record*.

As I mention in my response to that charge in the comments this morning,  documentary evidence is not the same as the physical evidence that science is based on.  That difference isn't because the evidence of science is superior, in some ways documentary evidence could be considered better.  One of the most important of those ways is that documentary evidence of the kind I'm using has little of the ambiguity of physical evidence.   A written document is made to transmit information, it is made intentionally to inform the reader of what the writer intended to say.  That is not something that can be said about physical evidence which must be interpreted to achieve even part of that level of meaning.

That Charles Darwin said something in a book or letter can be known to within the range of absolute certainty.  That he said it more than once can be as well and that magnifies the level of certainty that what was said was what he meant.  And there is a very good reason to go farther than that.   That he said so in scientific citations in a book he intended to be taken as having the reliability of science is about as strong a proof as possible that he agrees with what is said, especially when he cited it with gushing enthusiasm, as he did with both Galton and Haeckel.  A scientist, speaking as a scientist,  must be accountable for an even greater level of certainty.  That must be held as the price for the, at times inflated, reputation science  and scientists enjoy**.   That Charles Darwin said those things and that his approval is approval, is known to within a much narrower range of possible error than almost anything that he ever used to support natural selection.

What Darwin said constitutes the primary record about his career and his thinking.  What Galton said, what Schallmeyer and Haeckel said about their work is the primary source information relevant to knowing what they said, what they wrote and what they thought and, most importantly, advocated through those texts.  Anything honest said about that will have to be based, at the first instance, on their own words.  Secondary material doesn't carry the same evidentiary power as the primary material and, in this matter, it is frequently polluted with ideological and professional twisting and, I strongly suspect, the knowledge that whenever Charles Darwin's eugenics, racism, class consciousness, sexism etc. are mentioned the Darwin Industry machine will attack.

That said, I don't think historians are nearly assertive enough in supporting the validity of their best work, the work in which they report with as little bias as possible, what the documentary record shows.   I think the best of history has to stand as at least as good as the best of science in the representation of reality.  That history deals with an entirely more complicated range of  life and phenomena than science makes it extremely important, especially in regard to human conduct, individually and collectively.  That makes history extremely important.  Something I think historians should remember in their relationship with science, which is not able to address the same range of things.  Especially with arrogant scientists.  I don't think historians need to be cowed by the prestige of science.  The entirely reputation of science is based in its ability to, sometimes, give us information of great reliability about the physical universe.   But history can produce at least the same level of reliability.   There are things in the historical record that can be settled to a certainty rare in science.  If historians are met with scientific arrogance, that should be their answer.

It is absolutely certain that Darwin said what he said in The Descent of Man, taking account changing material in different editions.  He is responsible for the editions of his work that were made under his care, he said what he said in them, he said what he said in letters that exist in his hand.  When he says something more than once, the primary record confirms itself.  When Darwin said something and he didn't retract it, it stays said for as long as anyone can read what he said.

* The traditional practice of objecting to dishonest and incomplete quotation used to be fought by presenting fuller quotes or a large context.  That, though, requires familiarity with the subject matter being disputed.  Habitually reciting the term "quote mining" as is done on so many science blogs, should be seen for what it is, a lazy, ill informed shortcut that as easily distorts the  actual record as it does even identifying an actual act of dishonest quotation.   After having seen how it is used I never see or hear it without suspecting the person saying it is too ignorant to be discussing the topic.  As I noted in my post linked to at the beginning of this piece, it is something that Darwin seems to have done, himself and that the Wikipedia article on "quote mining", itself, contains a major instance of it.

** Anyone who is held to be a representative of the truth, anyone who takes that on as a profession, must be held to that level of honesty and sincerity.  Judges, prosecutors, clergy.... all of them should be held to that standard of honesty because they present their positions as being that honest.

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