The evolution of evolution

Evolution is! Creationism says! … let’s see.

The core concept for this post is that terms and catch-phrases get cemented at a highly specific time and location, then stick around as rhetoric or distorted assumptions long after their originating content is relevant.

So I’m not bothering with mocking bad logic and policies I consider reprehensible. There are plenty of websites calling out Creationist views and activism, which don’t need my help, and my point here is to talk about the real conflicts at hand. Because it’s not the silliness we need to dwell upon, but rather the pertinent question: how did it come to this?

I’ll begin with the larger context: that evolution and “human in nature” topics were in a huge tug-of-war during the mid-19th century, as to what they meant and who, politically speaking, got to claim them. The most important book for content actually wasn’t Darwin’s but a long-run, multi-edition, anonymously-authored (revealed after his death: Robert Chambers), fascinating volume called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The tug-of-war began with establishment rejection of material thinking, in which evolution was notable mainly in that it was French and Revolutionary. In 1859 and the 1860s, Darwin got folded into it via Huxley’s argument with Wilberforce, launching his name, title, and face into the symbolic leadership, specifically as an -ism for which multiple different worldviews and political priorities competed. By the 1880s, evolutionary vocabulary was massaged into various forms for a wide variety of British and American social positions and aims.

Herbert Spencer

The earlier, British transition happened in the mid 1800s as the powerful Anglican (state) church underwent a generational shift and a certain adjustment relative to social organizing. Suffice to say that scary, material, and maybe-Revolutionary evolution was tamed and hitched to the wagon of British imperial power and to the progressives and radicals within that general cultural shadow as well. Evolutionary vocabulary concerning progress into ever-higher forms was embraced into the soft-religious, politically-empowered general society. The central figure in this process is Herbert Spencer, whose review of the Origin was the primary reading for anyone rather than the text itself, and whose terminology was vague and glowy enough to be inserted into every branch of these appropriations. Today’s most-common view of him as a Social Darwinist obscures the history that during his time, his views were most often cited and lauded by progressives (Judson Minot Savage, Francis Power Cobbe, Auguste Comte) and have remained solidly present in that culture, with no modification, ever since, in addition to the more familiar and later appropriation of his “survival of the fittest” by American industrialists. Just about everything currently called “Darwinist” in popular culture, positive or negative, is blatantly Spencerist.

This translated across the water when U.S. policy attached itself to that imperial power in the 1880s, in great part via the the same Church, called Anglican in the former and Episcopalian in the latter, which is way more important in American politics than you thought. This ideology or policy-making culture adopted evolution into American education in a muted, inspiring, glossy way, with much of its content obscured, It included safe little conundrums to wrestle over within the mainstream, not violating that larger imperial context, the most obvious being whether evolution was “for”/”about” progressive social enlightenment or capitalized profiteering.

Read any good books lately?

Darwin’s, Huxley’s or anyone else’s actual scientific work hardly meant a thing to this larger dialogue, the battle over whose societal plans got to be science-y and modern, and especially to claim to represent evolution-in-action. It’s a battle to exert control over what evolution, broadly speaking, means, and Darwin’s name is the figurehead for such control. Crucially, in what appeared to be mainstream “acceptance” of evolutionary theory, serious work on humans as animals was quelled. Darwin the scientist was a pioneer of studying cognition in nonhumans and considering the evolutionary history of humans, but hardly a bit of that work is ever taught. Physiological and medical work was the human priority, and evolutionary content was permitted or valued only insofar as it fed into that. Everything else about being human was split across multiple topics, with evolution present in muted terms at most. This is why it’s OK to say humans come from apes, but not the accurate phrasing, that we are apes, full stop.

All right, click on the image and use it to follow along.

evolution of evolution link

Ernst Mayr

What the chart shows in all but one column is how scientists have framed evolutionary thinking in terms of meaning, or perhaps themes or motifs. The coarsest analysis breaks into pre-Darwin, Darwin’s time, the integration of Darwin’s and Mendel’s ideas into the New Synthesis, and most recently, Evo Devo. Of these, I personally find the late-stage ideas and differences among Darwin, Huxley, and Wallace to be the most interesting, but historically, the New Synthesis is the most significant.

You know it pretty well – it’s what the textbooks say. Its view of natural selection and ecology is more-or-less directly from Wallace, emphasizing environmental niche as the primary driver and the beauty of “matching” of form to habitat. It formally begins with the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium (resolving a perceived Darwin-Mendel contradiction), continues through clinical applications like sickle-cell, is underpinned and “crowned” by the discovery of the double helix, and includes the explanation of speciation as adaptive radiation. Many names are involved, including George Gaylord Simpson, J. B. S. Haldane, and John Maynard Smith, but as I see it the fullest expression is found in Ernst Mayr’s introduction and annotations to the 1963 re-issue of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which are so extensive as to compose the primary text of that volume. It is very likely that if you consider yourself educated in evolutionary thinking, then what you know is the New Synthesis.

The historical problem with the New Synthesis is its distortion into a simplistic, dogmatic (if elegant) view of evolutionary change which was and is fed to students and other biologists, and even treated as a sideline or specialty rather than a founding concept for biology. Therefore the major evolutionary disciplines (systematics and ecology) became arcane and isolated even within biology throughout the New Synthesis period, which is also when our current introductory curricula and textbooks were produced, such that the majority of biologists know mostly talking-points (“the fittest survive,” “species evolve to gain advantage in their environments”), and the general population know only dribs and drabs of even that, not much better than dumb memes, “adapt or die,” that kind of thing.

I will post later about the scientific content of the New Synthesis model of evolutionary change and diversity, as well as its precise points of intellectual challenge. It’s really, really interesting and important, as in, whole-semester’s worth. But my present point is how much fill-in-blanks baggage each of these stages of intellectual development carried, and that the ostensible unity, coherence, and completeness of the New Synthesis unfortunately cemented much of that baggage into educational dogma rather than poked at it to generate new questions. Therefore today, the body of work called evolutionary theory is more disjointed than it should be, with ideas and terms hanging around unconsidered, or invoked in ways that hold more content than they should. With any luck this now provides the context for my postings about adaptation and homology, aimed at this very problem.

Now let’s go down the religion line. Believe whatever you like regarding intrinsic conflict between religion and science, but what we’re looking at here isn’t any such thing. Because the issue isn’t philosophical worldview, i.e., whether you believe (or “believe”) the universe is intentional or not, how old it is, or whether the world is shaped like a sphere or a teakettle, or whatnot. Color me cynical for saying no one really gives a fuck about any of that. It’s about policy among us humans, with the attendant concerns of our communities and our kids, and how human-as-animal has become drowned in those policy battles.

I already mentioned the mainstream, “soft” appropriation of evolution including its religious angle. But the late 1800s also brought the simultaneous hardening and organizing among pockets of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, for which the latter adopted the word “fundamentalist.” All three would become militarized or paramilitarized by the 1930s, and folded into various (and often rebellious) aspects of imperial policy by the 1970s. The topic here concerns these phases of the Christian branch, which at the moment of its explicit efforts and failure to exert political force, appropriated evolution as a symbol of its enemy. I stress that fundamentalist Christian opposition to evolution in the U.S. was a very late addition or expression, and rather than carrying on some ancient or standing conflict between religion and science, a completely new and original American anti-establishment phenomenon given that the British establishment one had been effectively resolved.

William Jennings Bryan

In the mid-late 1800s, evangelical Christianity across what Colin Woodard calls Greater Appalachia was decentralized and extremely various. What you may not know is that its tiny local units were split about 50-50 concerning whether evolution was the Devil or God’s work. In the 1890s, this changed dramatically via the Populist movement, when various leaders needed as much unified fear-based, defiant rhetoric as possible as an organizing device across multiple regions. Evolution served nicely toward that end – particularly regarding local vs. federal education, and by 1900, if your little evangelical church didn’t denounce it, you weren’t in the game any more. The primary text of this entire movement, The Fundamentals, was written after this intellectual/political coup, in the 19-teens.

The conflict in question concerns the post-Civil War shift from these United States to the United States, primarily in organizing urban vs. rural economies, and the related question of whether kids are going to be educated to stay in their home communities to continue in their current economic role, or to leave those communities and seek new ones. Consider too that these are the decades when federal schooling was instituted, including construction, teachers, and curricula – romanticize the little red schoolhouses as you will (and as I tend to do), but many of the regions in question saw them as literally foreign invasion and cultural disruption.

Jerry Falwell

Throughout the 20th century, this marginalized and culturally alienated sector of American society became its war-fodder, factory labor, debt serfs, and radically pro-military and pro-business voting bloc. Now the language of anti-establishment defiance had become patriotic, while retaining complete rejection of evolution as an atheist and immoral creed. There’s a lot to discuss about that, including migrations of this demographic to Southern Cal, the John Birch Society, the new political alliance between the Deep South and Greater Appalachia, and the uneasy relations between black and white Baptist activism. The present point, though, is that by the 1970s, fierce anti-evolutionary rhetoric, although practically devoid of content or even relevance, became infused with the force of anti-communism and patriotism, as well as real money from televangelism and church-centered community organizing, and instead of being perceived as the maunderings of rebel hicks, was now feared and courted as a genuine political force.

This is why the content of evolutionary theory and even the content of anything resembling theology are completely out of the picture, providing only cherry-picked catch-phrases hardly even dignified as talking-points. These rhetorical battles over how to use the terms “evolution,” “Darwinism,” and “natural selection” are embedded semiotics for specific and concrete policy battles, and to no surprise of mine at all, policies concerning whose kids get educated by whom. So, serious point #1: this is an absolutely classic example of religion providing the rhetoric and organizing mechanisms (including community identification) for a policy issue, no need for “belief” or “faith” to be brought into the discussion at all.

It’s also why the allegedly faithful or steadfast fundamentalist anti-evolution position can shift its goalposts so often. The most clever began in the 80s with Intelligent Design, which on paper admits to no named entity or force responsible for its claimed need for or observation of superadded forces, but which can easily be traced to American Christian institutions and financial sources.

Now for the serious point #2, which gets obscured the worst among these policy wars over votes and school boards. That the real content under controversy, what gives the evolutionary vocabulary genuine emotional force, is a much harsher topic. It ain’t teaching about Darwin or evolution or natural selection that really sticks in the craw; those are the figurehead. Even “reading the Bible literally” is a figurehead too. The real problem is us. The human. Who we are, specifically the human animal and the refusal to look at us that way. With all the twists and turns as you work down the column, that’s the one thing which remains in contention. And how it remains in contention is kept most silent of all.

I’m saying that both mainstream “tamed” evolution and radical/rural Christian activism deny talking bluntly about humans, such that the last time anyone really did so was Thomas Huxley’s Evolution & Ethics in the early 1890s. Mainstream evolution is just fine with saying “humans evolved from animals,” “or from apes,” or “yes we’re animals but,” and with treating culture as literally a new (but not really) kind of superadded force. So-called Creationism (their word for it, not a good or descriptive one) simply goes straight for the attack, denouncing such talk as heinous and unthinkable.

This right here

Frankly, I don’t see much difference. It’s just as dishonest to tell students those “froms” and “buts” as it would be to use those beyond-laughable “gee maybe God did it” Intelligent Design textbooks. This doesn’t go back to Charles Darwin in 1859, it goes back to Linnaeus putting humans right into the Systema Naturae in 1740, smack into the Primates, long before “evolution” was a glint in Erasmus Darwin’s eye. Whether it was the Anglican Church having a hairy cow over Lawrence or Chambers or Essays and Reviews, (another book you should know about), or the distortions into social progressivism or imperial profiteering, or the later appropriation-for-an-enemy by the Populist organizers, that’s the crux, the draw – the puncher: humans being animals. Mainstream and marginalized/radical alike,whether they claim to embrace evolution (with about 15% accuracy thereof) or claim to combat and defy it (with even less), they never, ever address the questions that Linnaeus, a guy I’ll write about later named La Mettrie, Lawrence, Darwin, and Huxley almost uniquely brought into the light.

My point: if you mix it up in these policy battles, then more power to you in keeping genuinely stupid material out of the classrooms, but if you elevate this into ZCIENCE! vs. R’LIGION! in your mind, then to my eyes you’re still off there in the Denial Zone. You’re overlooking the fact that you’re acceding the framework of the argument to your opponent. You’re also giving the science itself, pedagogically and professionally, a pass regarding some serious house-cleaning it should do. And you’re keeping ourselves as humans in the closet.

I’ve got a couple more posts planned to keep working on these issues, one on material/vital thinking, another on the anthropology/biology split, and hoo boy you can bet, stuff about human behavioral ecology. This historical framework gets us past some of the nonsense, to set up for those.

Really good books: Adrian Desmond’s The Politics of Evolution, Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, and Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt

Next: It is so difficult to think clearly

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2 thoughts on “The evolution of evolution

  1. From the G+ post share comments, one person asks:

    This sentence is difficult to parse: “The central figure in this process is Herbert Spencer, whose review of the Origin was the primary reading for anyone rather than the text itself, […]”. While I think I understand it, I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing or may be out of order.

    I replied,

    I’m not seeing a basic issue wih the sentence or how it sets up the next, but it may need unpacking.

    The first edition of The Origin of Species (when its title included “On the”) was published in 1859. Two things were really going on: (i) The Vestiges, which I mentioned, had just been re-issued with the author’s first rebuttals to the people who’d flipped out about the earlier versions, and he had successfully remained anonymous; and (ii) a group of Anglican churchmen had just published a collection called Essays and Reviews which was very favorable toward science and evolution, and they had just been charged with heresy. The prosecutor was none other than Samuel Wilberforce. A big new book on evolution was just the thing for everyone to talk about.

    So … some things then happened fast. Huxley published his review of the Origin of Species and coined the word “Darwinism” (not a good idea as it turned out). Spencer published his review of the Origin of Species, and characteristically co-opted it into his ongoing musings about God and Man and the Great Chain of Beings. Then, also nigh-immediately, a discussion broke out after an academic seminar in which Huxley emerged the social victor over WIlberforce in a bravura combination of intellect and the current equivalent of the dozens.

    Since everyone read Spencer, absolutely the dictionary definition of pundit, in order to understand anything … basically, Darwin’s NAME was catapulted to the top of the heap as the first Englishman to be blatantly evolutionary without anonymity or being vulnerable, like Lawrence or the current churchmen, to censure. And the idea of his book as an ISM became way more important than anything he actually wrote. And the presumed contents and much of the vocabulary people used in trying to seize control of the “ism” came from Spencer, who didn’t ever relinquish his grasp and attempted intellectual ownership of natural selection.

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  2. Pingback: Ape, man | Man nor Beast

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