Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Note About The Word "Darwinism"

Sometime in the last decade a piece of folk etymology has become current on the blogs that "Darwinism" is a word that is used almost exclusively by creationists.   I've been told that it began in the ScienceBlogs, Orac of the quite ironically entitled "Respectful Insolence" blog, specifically.

Wherever it started, it is a piece of nonsense that serves mostly to show that the person asserting that has never read much, if anything about the subject.  Darwinism was given its modern meaning by Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin's foremost champion, famously called "Darwin's Bulldog" from the first years after Darwin became famous for On the Origin of Species.   Before he used it in one of his several reviews of On the Origin of Species,  "Darwinist" meant someone who believed in Erasmus Darwin's theory of evolution, something which, I believe, both Huxley and Charles Darwin noted at some time or other.

Darwinists from the first years of Darwin's fame have used the word, in English, in German and in other languages.   In no place I've come across did Charles Darwin ever object to the word.  He is on record as having read and fulsomely appreciated books about Darwinism, in both English and German (Darwinismus).

As I said, the thing you learn from the folk wisdom of the online Darwin Fan Club is that most of them have never read anything about it.  If they had, they would find it being used from Huxley and Haeckel right down to Richard Dawkins.

From what I observe and understand, that bit of pseudo-linguistic erudition is not current in Britain.  I'm not sure if it is confined to places where the ScienceBlogs are most read or if it's mostly North American nonsense.

The point that a decided minority of the Defenders of Darwin online have read so much as one of his books will figure marginally in this series.  It remains a major irritation to anyone who discusses these issues who has gone to that bother.   After wading through comments from those "Darwinists" for the past two weeks, not to mention for the past four years,  I'm done being nice about it and I won't pretend to be respectful about it.

Notice of Intent

Following a long blog brawl at Sandwalk blog, that has extended into two comment threads and more than a week, I'm planning on writing on Charles Darwin's role in inspiring eugenics and Social Darwinism in the English speaking people and Germany.

The current belief common on the left is that Charles Darwin, somehow, had no role in inspiring eugenics and nothing to do with Social Darwinism.   Until about six years ago, it was a belief I shared,  a belief based mostly in my never having read much of the primary source material from Darwin, Francis Galton and others relevant to those issues.   Then, I decided to write on that topic on the blog I was writing for.   I expected to find the documentary record would support that contention of a eugenics-free Darwin who was greatly wronged and sullied by the distortion of his thinking that Social Darwinism represents.  Only, as soon as I started looking at that record,  The Descent of Man  by Charles Darwin,  Memories of My Life by Francis Galton,  that sanitized Charles Darwin began to fall apart.   I found that Galton explicitly credited his cousin Charles Darwin and, specifically,  On the Origin of Species as inspiring  his eugenics.   He published the letter from Darwin, gushing enthusiasm for Galton's book "Hereditary Genius".    In Descent of Man, I found glowing endorsement for Galton's book and other publications,  I found that Darwin, far from disdaining Herbert Spencer, the counterpart of Galton in Social Darwinism, he called him a "great philosopher".   Most disturing of all, I found a lot of similarly glowing endorsements of Ernst Haeckel and his publications, some of which I was somewhat familiar with as they are infamous in the history of German scientific racism and, again, eugenics.

Since that shock I've looked at the record even more, always depending on primary documents, in the words of Charles Darwin, Galton, Haeckel, and others, including, soon after, Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin's son, himself an infamous figure in eugenics and Francis Galton's successor in British eugenics. Leonard Darwin, who seems to be reticient about mentioning his father, leaving that to others, nevertheless, associated his father with his own eugenics and, in a really stunning article, cited his father's role as the independent inspiration of German eugenics.

Early in the effort I realized that in order to overcome those primary documents there would have to be documents from Charles Darwin, himself, or others as closely associated with Charles Darwin as his own children (three other sons and other Darwins were active in eugenics) who distanced him from eugenics.   That is something I've never found, every step of the way I've found only that those who knew Charles Darwin had, personally, associated him with eugenics. Eugenicists who never knew Darwin cited him as part of their inspiration.   I have, yet,  come across no eugenicists who have disassociated Charles Darwin from eugenics.

I have not found any self-defined Darwinists who did that before World War II ended, when, I greatly suspect, the eugenics free Charles Darwin began to be constructed in an effort to rehabilitate him.   Before then, eugenics was controversial but it was also one of the most remarkable and rapid success stories of a new "science" in history.   Eugenics was adopted in intellectual circles, university science departments, textbooks and, most of all, by legislatures and courts.  Before the war, it wasn't uncommon for people opposed to eugenics to be seen as ignorant and backwards, science deniers.

After the Nazis and their allies showed what eugenics really meant when put into practice, after the eugenics programs in the United States and Canada started to come under more scrutiny and their deplorable violations of rights became known,  eugenics went from a success for Darwinism in real life to a mill stone around the neck of evolutionary biology.

Instead of de-eugenicizing (as it were) evolutionary science, for largely ideological reasons unrelated to the science, the science establishment and others with an ideological interest in the reputation of Charles Darwin started to construct a sanitized version of the man and his work.  It was that sanitized Darwin who was presented to me along with other phonied up substitutes for history, such as Inherit the Wind.   I bought pretty much all of it until six years ago when I started doing what I should have done before forming opinions on the subject, reading the actual record left by those who the secondary records and tertiary junk are supposed to be based on.

After that long argument on Sandwalk blog, an argument begun with an attack on me by another participant as I was discussing the topic of the post, I've had enough.   I will be acting as the devil's advocate in the case for the canonization of Charles Darwin in several planned posts.  I'm an internal critic of that, accepting that evolution is a fact, as proven a fact as exists in the biological and, perhaps as Gould contended,  in all of science.   That doesn't mean that I don't expect any of the legion of true believers in the cause of St. Darwin won't lie about that.  But I'm not going to be intimidated into lying about it anymore by those tactics.