September 2, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Creationist-Hating Evolutionist Chides Darwin Bulldogs

Steve Jones (Galton Laboratory, University College, London) wrote a book review in Nature this week1, that, while witty, leaves the reader wondering what he really thinks.  One thing is clear: he hates creationists with a vengeance–

In a recent magazine poll, Richard Dawkins, with his trademark hobbit smile, was voted Britain’s top intellectual (a welcome kick in the teeth for the new generation of Creationists in our privately funded schools).
  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

He likens various historical Darwin defenders (bulldogs) to Tolkien characters, but it’s not clear which of the six Darwin bulldogs storied in Marek Kohn’s new book A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the British Imagination (Faber and Faber, 2004) are the good guys.  For one thing, Jones seems ambivalent about the personality cult surrounding Chairman Charles [Darwin]:

What’s this cult of personality in evolutionary biology all about?  There’s the Great Leader, Chairman Charles, of course, and various lesser but substantial figures who are also worthy of the occasional parade.  But why do we need so many?  Experts on chloroplasts or chlorine manage, as far as I know, with living facts, and are not forced to attach them to dead heroes.  But there’s something in evolution that calls for immortals to whom we plebs must defer.

The book review that follows is sprinkled with faint praise and often derogatory references to Alfred Russell Wallace, R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, John Maynard Smith, William Hamilton, Richard Dawkins.  For example:

  • With a single exception [Wallace], the players are toffs [dandies] to a man, products of famous public schools followed by one of the older provincial universities.
  • Each is given a sympathetic hearing, although one senses that Kohn’s patience is tried by the miasma of self-congratulation that surrounded some of the actors in his drama.
  • Fisher claimed that his fundamental theory of natural selection occupied the supreme position among the biological sciences, although others dismissed it as a verbal trick…. His Genetical Theory of Natural Selection became evolution’s equivalent of The Lord of the Rings: full of gnomic and portentous truths with rather a nasty social agenda lurking beneath (Fisher felt it his biological duty to beget eight children).  As Kohn points out, Fisher’s followers, like those of Wagner – composer of a musical on the same theme – are obsessed with the fine detail of what the great begetter meant and are still far from sure.
  • Fisher’s colleague E. B. Ford, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, a silly man in a silly place, did some desultory research and spent his later years bemoaning the presence of women in lectures and waiting for ecological genetics to supplant all that dull molecular stuff.
  • Wallace’s expeditions were followed by a lifetime of devotion to the Great Leader…. He turned, alas, to spiritualism and, as so often when scientists use their knowledge of nature to interpret the world of man, abandoned common sense.
  • Some of his [Wallace’s] successors were also happy to use Arts Faculty sciencesweeping generalizations without the need for facts – when discussing human affairs.
  • Set against the bearded bigot [Fisher], the Gandalf-like figure of Haldane is revealed in a rather better light.  A daring and often reckless experimenter, he was known in the trenches as the Rajah of Bomb and was pursued by the whiff of cordite [smokeless powder] throughout his career.  He stuck with the Communist party long after his colleagues had abandoned it, and Kohn provides a telling account of Haldane’s readiness to support Comrade Lysenko even in the face of powerful evidence against his theories.
  • Haldane’s representative on Earth was, for nearly forty years, John Maynard Smith (who had himself hung the hammer and sickle from his Eton window).
  • The most ambiguous character to emerge from these pages is Hamilton.  He found it hard to make friends and nursed long, Gollum-like resentments in his search for the ring of truth….  Hamilton, sad to say, was also a martyr to political vapourings and lobbied for a cracked eugenical Utopia with Margaret Thatcher as Life President and caesarian births banned.

Jones likes Dawkins best (“not best friends with the Bush regime”), claiming he keeps his politics and science apart (but see 04/23/2003 headline).  He sympathizes with Wallace a little (see 10/10/2002 headline), and respects Hamilton’s “outstanding” biological knowledge and experience (though is left puzzled by this “ambiguous” character– see 03/07/2002 headline).  None of the bulldogs comes out smelling spiffy clean.  Though anti-creationist, Jones knows how to praise God for certain things:

A Reason for Everything is a well-written and carefully researched account of some of the main British players in the world of evolutionEvery evolutionist should read it – as a warning against personality cults, if nothing else.  Kohn makes it clear that giants walked the Earth in those days.  Those days are gone, but after perusing his chapter on the Oxford school of evolutionary biology in the 1950s and 1960s – some geniuses, no doubt, but also a fair sprinkling of prima donnas and right-wing zealotsone can only mutter, through gently clenched teeth, “Thank God!”

So Mr. Jones, what do you really think?

1Steve Jones, “When giants walked the earth: a pedigree of Darwin’s well-bred English bulldogs,” Nature 431, 21 – 22 (02 September 2004); doi:10.1038/431021a.

And, Mr. Jones, to which God are you giving thanks?  If we wanted to be really judgmental, we could rant about Jones’s hate speech and advocacy of violence.  Picture a man kicking another man in the teeth.  Now look how Jones spoke with delight, figuratively, at this being done to Creationists by Dawkins’ being honored.  Nothing in the American political conventions came this close to hate speech; words much milder have been excoriated as mean-spirited attacks.  And who is he to chide Hamilton’s eugenical Utopian dreams, when he himself chooses to work at Galton Laboratory, founded in 1901 as a eugenics institute by Chairman Charlie’s cousin Francis Galton, the father of eugenics?
    Where’s Huxley?  Maybe he was promoted to Doberman.  None of these bulldogs appears like a nice pet to have around.  Which of these bearded bigots, prima donnas, self-congratulators, dandies, verbal tricksters, promoters of nasty social agendas, silly men, disciples obsessed with details but far from sure what their begetters meant, desultory researchers, blind devotees of Great Leaders, gullible interpreters of the world of man but lacking common sense, sweeping generalizers, reckless experimenters, friendless martyrs with Gollum-like resentments, right-wing zealots or doctrinaire communists would you like to invite to tea?  Yes, we must stick to the facts of biology and avoid personality cults, especially with personalities like these.  When evolutionists shoot their own giants, it saves us a lot of work.  Thank God.

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