March 21, 2007

Dembski, Descent and discrimination

It's not news that what we get from William Dembski these days seldom amounts to more than childish sarcasm and ridicule. In the latest installment of his bitter resentments he quotes a passage from Darwin's Descent of Man, then offers his observations:
"Every now and again when I want to feel good about our shared humanity, I curl up with Darwin’s DESCENT OF MAN and read passages like the following:
The reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members. Or as Mr. Greg puts the case: “The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts—and in a dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five-sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sixth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal ’struggle for existence,’ it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed—and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults.” – Charles Robert Darwin, The Descent of Man, Great Minds Edition, 123
What a great mind, indeed. What a wonderful human being. What a marvelous vision of the human family."
What a tool.

Dembski's indulgence here in cartoon creationism's "evilution" style of argumentation is, of course, predictably shallow and sophomoric. There is no doubt that Darwin cited this passage from William Greg with approbation, but it is part of a larger context. This context includes Darwin's concern that natural selection, which he did appear to consider capable of producing progress and improvement in nascent man, was no longer able to weed out the less fit in a modern age where we do all we can to alleviate suffering and ameliorate disease and disfunction.

In other words, Darwin foresaw unsettling trends in his society:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment...Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. (Descent, 159)
Perhaps it is hard for some, in this day, to understand the clinical aspect of these thoughts. We are used to such things being couched in scientific or demographical jargon. It's important to remember that Darwin is making observations here, not recommending actions. And these observations have been repeated by contemporary pundits. But this point is of little consequence. There is no denying that Darwin believed some things that today we consider anathema. Darwin did see racial divisions of man as being representative of innate capacity in some cases, and Darwin did have some sympathy for ideas we associate with eugenics.

The usual defense when these facts are used to promote Darwin's iniquity is that he was a product of his times, as are we all. This is such a reasonable, obvious point it seems one should not have to make it. But we are dealing with irrational individuals (ID proponents) with an agenda to advance.

However, I'd like to take the point and extend it. We all harbor ideas that, when viewed from distance (time or space) may fairly be considered unworthy. I, for instance, live in southern California where there is ever-bubbling sentiment against illegal immigrants. These arguments are intertwined with perspectives on Mexicans as a people and bigotry inevitably plays a role in the arguments. I try very hard to separate these notions but I have noticed, as I drive the streets or watch the news, that sometimes my darker instincts have been kindled.

In a similar example (with perhaps less willingness for self-examination), I would suggest it is likely that Dembski and most (all?) of his ilk consider homosexuality a perversion. As with my unwanted bigotry, there are reasons people develop such detestable beliefs. In their case it is obeisance to a particular Faith that causes them to devalue some segment of humanity. In both of our cases I'm confident posterity will view our respective prejudices as primitive and unconstructive.

But would it view us as malicious - as Dembski implies, and many of his cohorts openly assert, of Darwin? Not necessarily. Malice, or "evil" if you will, enters the equation when we attempt to act on our bigotry. It is one thing to hold a prejudiced view of a people (indigent, Mexican, homosexual) but it is quite another to turn that prejudice into active intolerance. To the degree I support legislation against immigration based upon ethnicity (I don't) I would be advancing a malicious position. To the degree Dembski and his pals actively campaign against gay rights, or support legislation limiting those rights, they are advancing "evil."

So what, then, was Darwin's position regarding the consequences of his arguments about the "weak"? How would he have acted upon them? Well, just a few pages earlier than where Dembski came across his smarmy bit of confirmation bias we find this:
The surgeon may harden himself while performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. (Descent 159-160)
Maybe Dembski slept through that part.


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