Origin Ch.6: Down the quote mines

This post is part of a series on The Origin Of Species.  It was originally posted on the old blog in feb 2009, during the Darwin 200 celebrations.

Chapter six is where Darwin humbly acknowledges that his work is not entirely watertight, explains some of the problems that have been noticed and objections raised, and then goes on to demonstrate why the objections are all wrong. It’s particularly notable for the passage explaining the evolution of the eye, in which Darwin explains just how moronic the still pervasive creationist argument from apparent design is. That’s why it’s so shocking that some creationists are so pathologically dishonest and tragically incompetent that they quote one line from this anti-creationist passage — “to suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” — as being Darwin’s admittance of defeat in explaining the origin of complex traits.

But as several people have noted, even those readers of The Origin who have a grounding in reality are just getting out of the book whatever they want to get from it. The book was written 150 years ago, in the style of its time, and in a different intellectual context, after all. We are not quote mining, but neither are we really stating the facts as Darwin saw them. We think that we spot ideas that look very prescient of major principles in biology which weren’t developed until after Darwin’s time — but can we be sure that’s not just an invention of our modern informed selves? And, primed with myths from many varied sources, surprise surprise, our reading of the book conforms to those myths. Like my opening remark: Darwin was a humble man?

Simon Conway Morris and Larry Moran suggest that the “doubts” that Darwin raises are a rhetorical trick: he is sarcastically agreeing with his detractors in order to demolish them. Darwin knows very well that his argument is a strong one, and his opponents’ demonstrably flawed. He has no need to lack confidence, and indeed he does not. I can fully believe this theory.

But this does not mean that Darwin was not a humble man. Whether the man knew he was right, and whether he was humble about it, are two very different questions. Darwin did allow himself a rare moment of glory in the closing passage of the book, acknowledging that he had discovered some of the most important principles in science. But he was no Craig Venter.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *