Sunday, September 27, 2009

Smite the Amalekites

Intriguing little article here about former child star Kirk Cameron (later of the Left Behind movies) joining the campaign against Darwin and evolution. I liked this bit:
The 50-page intro [to the selections from Darwin's Origin of Species], written by evangelist author Ray Comfort, will present a "balanced view of Creationism with information from scientists who actually believe God created the universe." Those scientists include Albert Einstein and a host of thinkers whose lives predated 'The Origin of Species,' such as Isaac Newton and Nicolaus Copernicus.
It's open to question whether Einstein actually believed that "God created the universe" -- Einstein's concept of God was that of Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated from the Amsterdam synagogue for his heretical views. "In [his later philosophical] works, Spinoza denies the immortality of the soul; strongly rejects the notion of a providential God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and claims that the Law was neither literally given by God nor any longer binding on Jews. Can there be any mystery as to why one of history's boldest and most radical thinkers was sanctioned by an orthodox Jewish community?" I think Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort would side with the synagogue rather than with Spinoza or Einstein.

It's also well-established by now, thanks to James R. Moore's The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge, 1979) and David Livingstone's Darwin's Forgotten Defenders (Eerdman, 1987), that the initial Christian response to The Origin of Species was often quite positive, and that among the Christians who embraced Darwin's theory were such exemplars of conservative evangelical thought as Benjamin Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary. (The Theopedia article on Warfield, significantly, forgets to mention Warfield's embrace of Natural Selection.)

Comfort's introduction "paints Darwin as both racist and misogynistic and explicitly highlights 'Adolph Hitler's undeniable connection to the theory.'" This is a hot-button topic, of course: it's okay for evangelists and teabaggers to play the Hitler card, but not for anyone else, and Comfort's historical sloppiness about Einstein should warn the public to be skeptical about anything else he says. The Hitler connection is tricky, and of course contemporary Darwinists will reflexively deny it. In a new English translation of his 2001 book The Pure Society from Darwin to Hitler (Verso Books, 2009), the historian of science Andre Pichot undermines the denial, though not in a way that will give any comfort to today's Creationists or Intelligent Designers. (Thanks to Richard Seymour at Lenin's Tomb for bringing Pichot to my attention with this post.)

The eugenic laws that were enacted by Hitler and his regime didn't derive directly from Darwin, but they were endorsed by many if not most Darwinian biologists of the early 20th century, who connected them to Darwinian theory. It's important to remember that forced sterilization of the "unfit" and "inferior" began not in Hitler's Germany but in the United States -- the first such law was passed in Indiana in 1907. As Pichot writes (page 179),
It is probable, therefore, that even without the Nazis, Germany would at some point or other have adopted and put into effect legislation of this kind. Besides, it was only the Catholic Church that made any institutional protest, particularly in the person of the bishop of M√ľnster, Clemens August Graf von Galen – whom we shall meet again later on, and who condemned eugenic sterilization in a pastoral declaration of 29 January 1937.
Comfort's guilt-by-association doesn't work very well in any case. Pichot reminds us that eugenic research in the US and Germany was supported by
fairly characteristic individuals and groups: Krupp (steel and armaments), Harriman (railways), Carnegie (steel), Rockefeller (petrol), Wickliffe Draper (textiles), to list only the names already encountered. The mildest comment would be that these fairy godparents who watched over the cradle of eugenics made a mistake in their philanthropic aim, and that the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding of Nazi biology is at the very least a sign of a certain blindness – comparable to that of the Carnegie Institution, which did not put an end to the eugenic activity at Cold Spring Harbor until 1940, when the laboratory was drifting into becoming a centre of Nazi propaganda. ... [185]

And to the extent that this work involved reputable scientists rather than mere fantasists, there was no reason why Rockefeller should not fund it. After all, a journal as prestigious as Nature published in 1936 an article signed E. W. M. (perhaps E. W. MacBride), which proposed to resolve social problems by way of social sterilization, with a view to punishing people who appealed to state aid for raising their children [188].
Worse still for the Creationists, some of the same wealthy philanthropists who funded the eugenic research that Hitler used as a springboard for the Final Solution, also funded and supported "end-time prophecy" work in the US. Paul Boyer wrote in And Time Shall Be No More (Harvard, 1992, page 100):
Nor did premillennialism in the 1865-1920 years appeal solely to the poor and disaffected; it also found support among the middle classes, the well-to-do, and even the elite. The signers of an 1891 memorial to President Benjamin Harrison written by premillennialist William Blackstone and urging support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine included Cyrus McCormick, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Two Los Angeles oilmen, Lyman and Milton Stewart, financed the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals. Chicago department-store owner John Pirie hosted Cyrus Scofield's annual Bible conferences at Sea Cliff, Pirie's estate on Long Island. The head of the Quaker Oats Company, Henry Crowell, chaired the board of trustees of the Moody Bible Institute. Large middle-class Baptist and Presbyterian churches in New York, St. Louis, Boston, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and many other cities were bastions of premillennialism in these years. As Ian Rennie has written, dispensationalism attracted some of the most outstanding evangelicals of the day – and some of the wealthiest. Whatever else may be said of, belief in an imminent Second Coming, in punishment of the wicked, and in a Millennium when the injustices of the present age will be set right, cannot be dismissed -- in the Middle Ages, in the pre- World War I, era, or in the late twentieth century -- as merely the desperate creed of the disinherited.
And why not? As Boyer also points out (page 95), "Some interpreters even saw union-made labels as the Mark of the Beast."

B. B. Warfield, the Calvinist divine who embraced Darwin's theory, was anti-racist and used evolutionary theory to argue for the unity of the human species. (See Livingstone's Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, page 120-1.) Proto-creationists like the geologist and paleontologist Louis Agassiz, on the other hand, were often explicitly racist; Agassiz defended slavery, and his writings were used by slaveowners to justify their lifestyle. (It wasn't until 1995 that the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 when the SBC seceded from the mainstream Baptists, repudiated its original defense of slavery and racism.)

Pichot doesn't mention misogyny in connection with Darwin, but though it wouldn't surprise me, it should be a point in his favor where conservative Christians are concerned. Pichot says that like his contemporary and co-inventor of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Wallace, "Darwin himself shows an astonishing (and very Victorian) mixture of religious moralism and intellectual poverty, along with a colonialist racism quite lacking in soul" (85). As for racism, Pichot quotes (63) Darwin from The Descent of Man (689 in the 2004 Penguin edition):
The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that man is descended from some lowly organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many … For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
Again, this is not the kind of racism that most conservative Christians, either in Darwin's day or the present, would object to. Considering what Christian English and American society were like then, or now, complaints about savages torturing their enemies, offering up bloody sacrifices (read the history of European war for the bloody sacrifice of millions of human lives in the cause of Christianity and democracy), subjecting their women, knowing no decency, or haunted by gross superstitions obviously boomerang on Darwin. And on today's Christian Right: has Cameron or Comfort had anything to say about the use of torture by the Bush administration, for example?

Coming from American Christians, complaints about Darwin's racism ring especially false. The Protestants who colonized the English colonies were quite happy to equate the original inhabitants of the land they claimed with the Canaanites and Amalekites, to be exterminated without compunction or mercy, and their present-day successors haven't really repudiated that view, preferring at most to try to ignore it. Pichot also quotes Wallace from his Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (Macmillan, 1875, 318-319), which he says Darwin praised in The Descent of Man:
It is the same great law of “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life”, which leads to the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations with which Europeans come into contact. The red Indian in North America, and in Brazil; the Tasmanian, Australian, and New Zealander in the southern hemisphere, die out, not from any one special cause, but from the inevitable effects of an unequal mental and physical struggle. The intellectual and moral, as well as the physical, qualities of the European are superior; the same powers and capacities which have made him rise in a few centuries from the condition of the wandering savage with a scanty and stationary population, to his present state of culture and advancement, with a greater average longevity, a greater average strength, and a capacity of more rapid increase, -- enable him when in contact with the savage man, to conquer him in the struggle for existence, and to increase at his expense, just as the better adapted, increase at the expense of the less adapted varieties in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, -- just as the weeds of Europe overrun North America and Australia, extinguishing native productions by the inherent vigour of their organization, and by their greater capacity for existence and multiplication.
Pichot comments acidly, "We might of course remind Wallace that many American and African plants were introduced to Europe and prospered (which is more than people from these lands ever did), but the suspicion is that the purpose of the botanical comparison is simply to naturalize the extermination of indigenous Americans and Australians, reducing this to as natural a phenomenon as the disappearance of a plant in a habitat colonized by another" (56). The trouble with Wallace and Darwin, then, is not that they broke with Christianity, but they didn't break with it decisively enough. But given the divisions on race among both Darwinians and anti-Darwinians, it's clear that Pichot is right to say (page 266) that "As we have already seen in the case of eugenics, Darwinian genetic theories were an inexhaustible sophistry, on the basis of which anything and everything could be justified." You could say the same thing about Christianity.