Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Popular Misunderstanding of the Huxley - Wilberforce Debate: Summer Rerun On a Terrible Tuesday Originally posted August 27, 2012

Evolution is a retrospective science,  looking for information about things that happened in the past over a period of billions of years.   In the generalizations made from those, it can be lost that evolution was made of actual organisms and their lives that actually happened and left a lasting result in the entire history of life up to now.   That real past can't be known from making up scenarios out of theories, whatever can be known with any reliability about that real past is in the real, physical evidence that is left of it.  Fossils, of course, structural comparisons based on those in consultation with observations of living organisms, survivals of sequences in organic molecules, shared within living organisms and what can be recovered from those already long dead. 

In concentrating on aspects of the enormous number of details of this most complex and gigantic of scientific studies, in which the subtlest of details can be of crucial importance, the simple fact that you're talking about plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, viruses, etc. which really lived, survived, left descendants etc. all in environments and habitats and in interaction with other living beings is often forgotten.  Evolution is made of events as every day and actual as our immediate lives and the lives we read about in the newspaper.

You'd think that, of all scientists, evolutionary biologists would be the most appreciative of the fact that historical accuracy is crucial to knowing the truth.   But the opposite is the case, especially these days.  Historical fiction is wildly inserted into biology and from there to other sciences, real and so-called, and it's considered to be just as good as the truth because, you see, it's solidly based in natural selection.  This assumption that you can make up anything in the absence of evidence and make it true by coming up with some assertion of natural selection is the original sin of Darwinism, something that began almost immediately, as the historical and "scientific" record proves.  Darwin engaged in it, himself, and promoted it.  Darwin used generalized narratives when he didn't have evidence.   That is also clear from reading  The Descent of Man.

Evolution consists of a continual stream of events in the lives of organisms.  Those events and organisms were as real, the events as actual and specific as anything in your daily experience.  As real as reality.  More real than fiction, which has no real part in evolution.  Not as science, in any ideal case, though that too often isn't science in reality.  

Today one is supposed to look at the earliest opponents of Darwinism and see them as ignorant, religious, yahoos.  That some of them were among the most accomplished scientists of their day, whose work is still used, such as Rudolph Virchow, is seldom presented.   In the cases I've looked at, much of the scientific opposition to Darwinism was based in its lack of a mechanism of inheritance and the propensity of  people like Haeckel, those who presented Darwinism "boldly", as Darwin put it, to make stuff up when there was no evidence.  Considering how soon the Darwinists were using Darwinism ideologically and even politically, to assert some truly horrible things, the citation of its deficiencies was anything but unenlightened.  It does the truth a disservice to lie about the legitimate concerns of those who expressed opposition to Darwinism within science.  Considering what the Darwinists, themselves were saying about the political, social and ideological revolution that Darwinism incited and the subsequent political use of it, those citing the deficiencies in Darwinism in the early decades can seem prophetic, even if they were also wrong about some aspects of evolution.  Every single person writing on the topic in the 19th century seems to have gotten something wrong about it.

That lack of evidence in the 1860s plays an important part in one of the mainstays of the Darwin mythology, the smack down of Bishop Wilberforce by Darwin's bull dog, Thomas Huxley. 

Just as most people seem to know what they think they know about the Scopes trial from watching Inherit the Wind,  many people think they know the story of how Thomas Huxley struck the decisive blow for Darwinism when he put the uppity, arrogant Bishop Wilberforce in his place.   Exactly how he did that might get lost in the BBC costume* drama that likely constitutes their entire knowledge of the events and issues but they'll know how they're supposed to feel about it.   I figured that account was how it happened until I read J. R. Lucas's article looking at the historical pedigree of the tale as it comes down to us and as the British educated class loves to repeat in a growing number of TV shows and movies about Darwin as a mascot of atheism.   I will just leave it at recommending that if you think you know all about it, you'll find out you don't from reading Lucas.   Pretty much the entire narrative, as first published decades after it happened, as you're likely to have heard it is a complete lie. 

Do read Lucas, and don't miss the other things he wrote  that are relevant to his article.   His proof that, despite what they seem to want everyone to believe, mathematical logicians don't get to have free will while depriving everyone else of it, makes me smile.

* "The Voyage of Charles Darwin," from the late 1970s comes to mind with the death of Neil Armstrong, who introduced it on TV  in the United States.   The  Wilberforce episode was handled very shortly and entirely according to the myth, leaving out,  that Wilberforce was not an ignorant cleric but someone who Darwin said had found all of the weak points in the first edition of On the Origin of Species, in  the Bishop's review of it.   Wilberforce was a fellow of the Royal Society, after all.   Part of Thomas Huxley's motivation in attacking Wilberforce was that he hated the presence of clergymen in science, as he pretty much hated religious folk, in general, that is as obvious as reading him on the topic of religion, especially Judaism and Christianity. Darwin took Wilberforce seriously enough that he addressed some of his points in future editions of On the Origin of Species,  as I said elsewhere,  Haeckel seems to have chided Darwin for doing so, believing he made his case weaker.  

I should add, I've seen photos from the period.  Darwin and Huxley did not look like Malcolm Stoddard and Joseph Blatchley did in the late 70s.  They were, seriously, trolls.  Wilberforce was too, just to be fair.

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