Rich Pickings

This is a guest post I wrote for that bastion of common sense,  The 21st Floor. The response left in the comments to the post has been largely positive, except for when the commenter has misunderstood my point, preferring instead to concentrate on the more vitriolic elements of this case. The debate is ongoing and it would be best to keep all of the commentary in one place, that is why the comments section is turned off here for this post, but please do make you way over to the original post and put your comment there. A copy of that post follows here.

 

Alas, the mudslinging continues as once more Richard Dawkins attracts vitriol and his defenders retaliate, and yet the proverbial barn side remains intact and mud free. The great shame is that when engaging in rational debate, it is no place for hotheaded name calling; arguments have to be securely anchored in truth, there has to be some substance to those mud pies. The evidential documentation is out there, but people seem too ready to write before they read. Darwin would never have condoned such sloppiness.
In his Guardian article Natural selection: give me Darwin over Dawkins any day, Jonathan Jones claims that, “[Charles Darwin] was not self-consciously clever: he never talked down to his readers. His masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, is a modest book” and uses the line to attack Richard Dawkins, whom he slights as just wanting, “to be the cleverest kid in the class”
In so doing, Jones uses Darwin’s apparent legendary shyness and self-doubt to offset Richard Dawkins’ palpable superciliousness and self-importance.
In response, Alan Henness defends Dawkins against Jones’ accusations of arrogance and lack of empirical evidence in his skeptic-based Twenty-First Floor article Being A Dick To Dick?, by drawing comparisons between Victorian sensibility and modern day boldness, thereby casting Dawkins as a latter day champion: “How do you compare Darwin with Dawkins? You don’t. They are different people in different times. The Victorians needed Darwin; we need Dawkins“.
Of course, both Jones and Henness are impaired by their lack of authority: Jones erects a towering straw figure of tolerance and understanding, and Henness fails to knock it down. With the incredible resources that we now have readily available via Darwin Online and The Darwin Correspondence Project, they really have no excuse in not being better informed. Consulting those invaluable resources it is quickly evident that if ever Darwin was a patient man, he clearly becomes less so with age, displaying much acrimony later in life towards having to deal with ignorant corespondents.
Here follows a small selection of examples that illustrate this very point, from the publication of the On the Origin of Species onwards, the modest masterpiece alluded to by Jones. But, please don’t be satisfied with only these, take yourself off to the archives and locate many more.
Meanwhile, picking up the story soon after the first edition, the publisher John Murray was repeatedly asking a nonplussed Darwin for a new edition of The Origin. This was a welcome opportunity for Darwin to make a number of corrections and additions,
in the hopes of making my many rather stupid reviewers at least understand what is meant. I hope & think I shall improve the Book considerably (CD letter to John Murray, 5 December [1860]).
A year later, Darwin writes to Charles Lyell recounting notification via Asa Gray that Frances Bowen (Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University) and Louis Agassiz (Professor of Natural History at Harvard) were opposing Darwin’s ideas on transmutation. Darwin is incredulous,
I cannot understand what Agassiz is driving at. You once spoke, I think, of Prof. Bowen, as a very clever man. I shd have thought him a singularly unobservant & weak man from his writings. If ever he agrees with me on any one point, I shall conclude that I must be in error on that. He never can have seen much of animals or he would seen the difference of old & wise dogs & young ones. His paper about hereditariness beats everything. Tell a breeder that he might pick out his worst individual animals & breed from them & hope to win a prize; & he would think you not a fool, but insane. I believe Bowen is a metaphysician & that I presume accounts for an entire want of common sense (CD letter to Asa Gray, 11 Apr [1861]).
Bowen published two reviews of The Origin in 1860, the second Darwin dismissed as being, “absurd”, “monstrous” and “rubbish” (CD letter to Asa Gray, 26 Nov [1860]).
When Thomas Henry Huxley delivered two lectures at the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, on man’s relation to the lower animals, he received fierce criticism in an article that appeared in the Presbyterian newspaper, the Witness, on 14 January 1862. Huxley sent Darwin a copy of the article. He responded,
I have been much amused at the Witness. Such abuse is as good as praise. What fools these Bigots are (CD letter to T.H. Huxley, 22 Jan [1862]).
Darwin even went on to show that as long as the source of information is trustworthy, a fool is a fool regardless of remoteness; he is openly disparaging of a third party involved in a quarrel that he was not directly involved in,
You have given excellent counsel to Bates & I hope he will follow it; what an old malignant fool Dr Grey is; but I never care an atom for his malignacy; it never makes me angry, & I believe your explanation is right; one gets used to it (CD letter to J.D. Hooker, 15 & 22 May [1863]).
Clearly the form that idiocy and ignorance presented itself was unimportant to Darwin. Being house-bound for long periods, his correspondence was a life-line to the outside world and he expertly choreographed a staggering network of associates. So, when time-wasters presented themselves, he was understandably annoyed by those, “bothering correspondents” who “seem to increase in number and in folly”. However, ever the gentleman, he apparently honored their invitation for social contract, albeit belligerently, moaning afterwards of having “just answered two precious fools” (CD letter to Leonard Darwin, 25 Nov [1874]), and complaining that, “half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions” (CD letter to Reginald Darwin, 8 Apr [1879]).
However, there were particular individuals who came to test his patience to the limit. In fact, the very example that sprung to mind on reading Henness’ response to Jones was Darwin’s explosive exasperation with Frederic William Farrar, originally a schoolteacher and clergyman, who was promoted to public school master and broad churchman, before becoming Canon of Westminster from 1875. Farrar interest in linguistics led him to write a book Chapters on Language that based language development on imitation, a copy of which he sent to Darwin. Farrar’s book also suggested that Darwin’s ideas had not conclusively linked man to animals. Darwin was unimpressed with Farrar’s evident lack of knowledge on the subject, and perhaps more directly than with any other individual, he let his feeling be known. Thus, given their relationship, and Darwin’s thoughts on the man, it is ironic that Farrar was in a position to preach Darwin’s funeral sermon.
Darwin initially acknowledged receipt of Farrar’s book,
Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.
Wed. Oct 11
Dear Sir
I am very much obliged to you for your kind present of your work on Language.
No subject in my opinion can be more interesting, & I hope soon to read your book, but I am not sure that I shall be able as my health is at present weak.
From some of your papers which I have read I feel certain that your opinions on all subjects would be most liberal & fair.
With my best thanks | I remain yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin
(CD letter to F.W. Farrar, 11 Oct [1865])
Later he managed to read it and form a response,
Dear Sir
As I have never studied the science of language it may perhaps be presumptuous, but I cannot resist the pleasure of telling you what interest & pleasure I have derived from hearing read aloud your volume.
I formerly read Max Müller & thought his theory (if it deserves to be called so) both obscure & weak; & now after hearing what you say, I feel sure that this is the case & that your cause will ultimately triumph.
My indirect interest in your book has been increased from Mr Hensleigh Wedgwood, whom you often quote, being my brother in law.
No one could dissent from my views on the modification of species with more courtesy than you do. But from the tenor of your mind I feel an entire & comfortable conviction (& which cannot possibly be disturbed) that if your studies led you to attend much to general questions in Natural History, you wd come to the same conclusions that I have done.
Have you ever read Huxley’s little book of Six Lectures   I wd gladly send you a copy if you think you would read it.
Considering what Geology teaches us, the argument for the supposed [my emphasis] immutability of specific Types seems to me much the same as if, in a nation which had no old writings, some wise old savage was to say that his language had never changed; but my metaphor is too long to fill up.
Pray believe me dear Sir yours very sincerely obliged | Ch. Darwin
(CD letter to F.W. Farrar, 2 Nov [1865])
The “supposed” here, and Darwin’s succint repudiation is scalding of Farrar’s supposition in the absence of evidence. Here Darwin is clearly calling for informed debate by not ‘suffering fools gladly’. Despite this, the most beautiful and telling set of correspondence regarding Darwin’s belief in informed and independent thought, fueled through self-education and reading, comes from a short series of letters as a result of an invitation received from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office.
38, Belgrave Road. S. W.
Nov. 2
Dear Sir
On Jan 7th last an informal conference was held at Lambeth Palace of Scientific men; the Archibishop of Canterbury in the Chair, when it was resolved unanimously, “That it is desirable that those Scientific men who believe in the truths of Religion should take every opportunity of stating that belief; and that the following be appointed a Committee with power to add to their number, for the purpose of maintaining communication among those desirous of promoting this object: His Grace the Archibishop of Canterbury, Prof[ess]or Stokes Prof[ess]or Balfour Stewart, Dr Sorby, Dr Gladstone, Prof[ess]or Rollestone and Prof[ess]or McKendrick, Hon. Sec Mr Walter Browne”. The Committee have lately been able to take advantage of an offer, kindly made to them by the proprietors of the “Contemporary Review’, who propose to publish a series of articles dealing with the present state of the various Sciences. It is proposed to consider how far the theories in each science, without any reference to Christianity, rest on fully proved & verified laws, & how far on hypotheses, conjectures more or less probable; in other words how far each science has advanced [...] I am requested by the Committee to inquire whether you would kindly undertake to prepare an article of this character on the Science of Comparative Anatomy. The points which it is suggested, should be specially dealt with, are the evidence on the Theory of Evolution; but of course, much would be left to your own discretion in this matter. It is proposed that the series should commence as early next year as possible and I may add that Dr Gladstone, Dr Sorby & Prof[ess]or Balfour Stewart have already consented to take part in this. The honorarium for each article will be £1 per page & the article should run to about twenty pages. It is hope that the series may be subsequently published in a volume.
Hoping for an early & favourable reply | I remain | Yours truly | Walter R Browne | Hon. Sec
(W.R. Browne letter to CD, Nov [1880]).
Darwin tactfully responded,
Sir
The state of my health will not allow me to attend the meeting at Lambeth Palace, though I should feel it an honour to meet there so many distinguished men. It would, however, not be sincere on my part to assign want of strength as the sole reason for not attending, in as much as I can see no prospect of any benefit arising from the proposed conference.
I beg leave to remain, Sir, | Your obedient servant | Charles Darwin
(CD letter to W.R. Browne, 18 Dec [1880]).
But Browne pursued the now-famous naturalist for any input possible,
Dear Sir,
I regret to learn that your health will in any case prevent your attending the proposed Conference at Lambeth: but to prevent your having any misconception as to its objects, I venture to enclose a proof of the Proceeding as at present sketched out. I know the [Archbishop] is anxious to obtain expressions of opinion, even from those who do not see the desirability of holding such a meeting; & that he wd particularly value such an expression from you. I am sure therefore he wd be obliged if, in returning the paper, you could kindly make any remarks either on particular points, or on the subject in general.
Yours truly | Walter R Browne
(W.R. Browne letter to CD, 21 Dec [1880]).
To which Darwin quickly replies, proposing that every one has the capacity and right to study the evidence, and form their own conclusions.
Down, | Beckenham, Kent. | (Railway Station | Orpington. S.E.R.)
Dec 22 1880
Dear Sir
I am much obliged for your very courteous note. I regret that it wd be impossible for me to explain the causes of my disbelief in any good being derived from the conference, without treating the subject at inordinate length. I will only add that in my opinion, a man who wishes to form a judgment on this subject, must weigh the evidence for himself; & he ought not to be influenced by being told that a considerable number of scientific men can reconcile the results of science with revealed or or natural religion, whilst others cannot do so.
I beg leave to remain | Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Charles Darwin
(CD letter to W.R. Browne, 22 Dec [1880]).
It is clear from his correspondence and autobiographical pieces that Charles Darwin set his own standards for study; he sought the evidence that he required to form informed opinion. But, importantly, if others wished to engage in debate with him, then he also expected the same of them. This is the same requirement that Dawkins and other skeptics, rationalists, atheists and neo-Darwinists, should be requesting, and typically do so; in contrast, it is the notable lack of evidence why psychics are so easily debunked, the arguments of religious apologists are fatuous, and Intelligent Design advocates are finding no footing in scientific debate. Moreover, it is sad to see that even people nowadays discussing Darwin himself, his character and attitudes, and doing so in high profile public fora, are also failing to live up to Darwin’s expectations.

About JFDerry

Writer. Darwin, science & more. 4 books: Piospheres, Darwin in Scotland, Serial Killers. Current project is THE DISSENT OF MAN. Born near London, raised near Primrose Hill and in Lincolnshire, and studied at the Universities of Bangor, York and Edinburgh for degrees in Biochemistry, Bioelectronics and Biological Computation, and a PhD in African Ecology. Mainly working in British and African universities, but also in Spain, Brussels, Mongolia and Australia, to date, publication history is mostly in academic journals, on aspects of computational biology, pastoralism and on Charles Darwin and evolution. However, also written for several national newspapers, various governments, several major record labels and independent book publishers. Fiction has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and poetry is at the Human Genre Project. Lives in Edinburgh, with partner and their two daughters.
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