Jul 20 2007

More Propaganda, Logical Fallacies, and Rewriting History from the Discovery Institute

I truly hate propaganda – the twisting of facts and logic for a pre-determined ideological goal. It represents the worst of those things in the intellectual realm that I loathe. Yesterday Michael Egnor, the silly surgeon who aspires to be the primary mouthpiece for ID propaganda, has given the world an excellent example of the depths of intellectual dishonesty and shoddy thinking that the Discovery Institute (an ID “think tank”) is willing to sink to spread their nonsense.

The one bright ray I always find when contemplating such a steaming pile of cognitive dung is that at least it makes my job a bit easier. The unifying theme of scientific skepticism is that process and method are what matter – not conclusions or beliefs. So when those arrayed against the skeptical position employ gross logical fallacies and misstatements of fact, it’s a sort of vindication.

Egnor writes about the Scopes trial of 1925 in which John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in violation of the Butler Act, a recent Tennessee law prohibiting such teaching. The trial was contrived by those wishing to test the law, and Scopes volunteered to be the test case. The intention was for Scopes to lose so that the decision could be appealed in higher courts and eventually lead to the challenge of the Butler Act itself (in the US you need a case in order to challenge the constitutionality of a law).

This strategy failed, however, because the lower court’s decision was reversed on appeal over a technicality – the judge gave Scopes a higher fine than the statutes allowed. I never understood why another case was not then immediately trumped up to test the Butler Act, but it wasn’t, and the law remained intact until it was challenged in 1967.

Egnor focuses his piece on the textbook that Scopes used to teach biology, George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (1914). He uses this textbook to dredge up the old smears that creationists have been using against evolution for decades – that evolution is racist and immoral. This is a version of the ad hominem logical fallacy, saying that someone is wrong because of a negative attribute they posses. In this case creationists argue that “Darwinists” (they can’t resist that name) are wrong because they are racists. But, as we will see, this is also a false premise.

The textbook in question did indeed contain racist passages. Egnor quotes the following:

“At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”

Egnor then explains: “The text of A Civic Biology at issue in the Scopes trial taught a doctrine of eugenics and hierarchy of races that was based explicitly on Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

That’s the bit (actually two bits) of propaganda that creationists cannot seem to let go of, no matter how many times the error is pointed out to them (hence my accusation of intellectual dishonesty). Evolution did not create racism or the notion of a hierarchy of races. The Great Chain of Being is a concept that goes back at least to medieval times, in which all of nature (the scala natura) was ordered in a hierarchy.

Long before Darwin published there was a raging debate about whether or not the different races of mankind were in fact different species, but it was generally accepted among whites that they were at the top of this chain and Africans were at the bottom, between the higher orders of man and animals.

History professor Anthony Wohl wrote

“Even before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the old concept of the great chain of being, marking the gradations of mankind, was being subjected to a new scientific racism.”

It doesn’t get more plain than that, and these references, plus many more, are readily available to anyone with a computer. There is no debate among historians about this; the attitudes of pre-Darwinians is well documented.

It is also a childishly simplistic misreading (rewriting) of history. Racism has been endemic to mankind since the beginning of recorded history. Humans have tribal tendencies, we tend to see the world in terms of us vs them and instinctively see those who look similar as “us” and those who look differently as “them.” As science was emerging in the 17th and 18th centuries, scientists of the time brought with them all the biases of their culture. It took time for scientific discovery and social maturity to slowly beat biases and prejudices out of people – and scientists are people.

The Civic biology textbook simply reflected the cultural biases of the time. Egnor would have us believe, however, that the racism implicit in the book was caused by belief in evolution. He also implies that those defending evolution in the Scopes trial were explicitly fighting for the textbook itself, and the racism it contained. He then takes his propaganda a step further. He says, “The eugenic and racist sections of the actual textbook in the Scopes trial are now expunged…” arguing that “Darwinists” are hiding their racist roots as if it were a dirty little secret.

The fact is, rather, that textbook companies were simply changing along with the changing moral sensibilities of their times. Explicit racism was falling out of favor within intellectual circles, so the textbook publisher, in updating the biology text in later editions, took out the politically unacceptable racist sections. They also, by the way, took out references to the word “evolution.” Neither was based on courage or any conviction but rather the desire to avoid controversy. Textbooks were (and by all accounts still are) sanitized to eliminate anything that might shrink the potential market. But Egnor turns this into a conspiracy to hide evolution’s racist past.

It is also worth noting that people take their biases, and specifically their racism, into any institution they inhabit – including religion. The bible was used to justify racism just as the latest scientific theories were. Professor of religious studies, Stephen Haynes argues (as summarized in this review) “By extension, these leaders reasoned, black disorder, which could shame the honor of southern white males, had to be held in check by means of enslavement–this was, after all, God’s command communicated through Noah.”

The southern white supremacy movement was (and is) a Christian movement. Does Egnor think that all of Christianity should be painted with the brush of white supremacy? Well, apparently he thinks that “Darwinism” should be tagged racist because some of those who accepted evolution a century ago were racist by modern standards (when in fact almost everyone alive then was a racist by modern standards, including the most religiously devout).

The eugenics charge is another favorite of creationists. Orac does a thorough job of debunking this creationist propaganda. Basically, the creationists try to poison the well of evolution by invoking the memory of history’s most hated figure – Adolf Hitler. They imply or directly claim whenever the mood strikes them that the Nazi program of eugenics was inspired by Darwinism. But history tells a different story. Hitler never justified his politics or programs with appeals to evolution.

What about social Darwinism? This was an abuse of evolutionary theory, and has nothing to do with evolution itself, or whether or not the science supports evolutionary theory. Again, it was simply a matter of using the prevailing beliefs of the day to justify prejudices. In this case, those in power justified their position by claiming in was the natural order, survival of the fittest. Before Darwin, however, those in power sometimes justified their position by claiming divine right (in some parts of the world this is still the case.)

Egnor’s arguments are beyond absurd. Worse still for him, they are not even original. They are borrowed tired old propaganda from an intellectually bankrupt belief system. But again – that’s a good thing. If ID proponents had even a mildly valid argument to put forward someone might be tempted to take them seriously.

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