Darwin — Bad Scholar, Good Salesman

This is about a new kind of attack on Darwin from the Discovery Institute. Usually, they blame his theory for allegedly inspiring communism, Hitler, and an ark-load of other evils, including atheism — all of which are false and depraved accusations. But this time they’re attacking his scholarship.

The Discoveroids’ latest assault is in this essay: Was Darwin a Scholar or a Pitchman?, written by Michael Flannery, a Discoveroid “fellow.” He’s some kind of librarian at the University of Alabama, and he’s also an adjunct instructor of history and sociology — splendid qualifications for critiquing Darwin’s scholarship. A previous post of his inspired us to write Beyond Despicable, in which he blamed Darwin for the atrocities of Stalin.

Flannery also plays the Hitler card — see Discovery Institute: Hitler, Hitler, Hitler, Part VI. But that’s not all. He engages in one of the most contemptible of creationist techniques, quote mining — see More Discoveroid Quote Mining by Michael Flannery. Further, he wrote a biography of Alfred Wallace, which was published by — who else? — the Discovery Institute Press.

Okay, you know what we’re dealing with. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

You read a great deal about Darwin’s scientific method and meticulousness as a student of nature, but that’s not exactly scholarship. Good scholarship demonstrates the ability to put all aspects of one’s research into a broader context. This usually involves a familiarity with the discipline, its literature, and its historiography, as well as its implications in other areas. … On the few occasions that Darwin’s “scholarship” is mentioned, usually with hyperbolic effusions as to his “genius,” specific examples are often conspicuously absent. His weaknesses as a scholar, in fact, are seen in a couple of key areas.

The Deluge of Drool begins:

Darwin’s total lack of facility with theological questions — his seeming lack of knowledge (or at least glaringly facile knowledge) of Scripture — is surprising enough to make one wonder how low the bar of biblical studies was for the typical Cambridge students of 1828 to 1831, when he attended. His philosophical and theological musings seem quite amateurish. This is not to suggest that Darwin was in any sense stupid, but he doesn’t seem particularly “well read.”

Harsh criticism indeed! Let’s read on:

On top of that, he seems incapable of seeing the implications of his own arguments or, more tellingly, the implications of other people’s arguments. Four examples may be given here.

We won’t give you all four examples, but here’s one of them:

The second example comes from Darwin’s own argument from domesticated breeds. For Darwin, the fact that man could breed a fancy pigeon or an especially fast race horse or a unique dog indicated evolution “in action.” But, as Wallace pointed out to him, when left in the wild, these fancy breeds either perish or revert to their original type. Besides, domestic breeding of animals requires the very thing Darwin sought to avoid — careful thought and pre-selection. In effect, it requires a breeding plan and design. This is clearly not random and purposeless, wholly natural causes operating to produce speciation. Darwin never saw that logical flaw in his own theory … .

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Darwin understood the situation perfectly. In Origin of Species, after discussing Variation Under Domestication in Chapter 1, and Variation Under Nature in Chapter 2, in Chapter 4 – Natural Selection he said:

Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.

[…]

Slow though the process of selection may be, if feeble man can do much by his powers of artificial selection, I can see no limit to the amount of change, to the beauty and infinite complexity of the coadaptations between all organic beings, one with another and with their physical conditions of life, which may be effected in the long course of time by nature’s power of selection.

Darwin said much more, of course, but if there is any “logical flaw” in his work, it is apparent only to Flannery. Skipping over some nonsense, he continues:

If Darwin was so weak a scholar, how can his immense success be explained? Darwin’s Origin and Descent do not inspire the reader with their flashes of brilliance so much as they display the rhetorical flourishes of the accomplished pitchman.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Here’s more:

By and large, the scientists of his day were not much impressed with Darwin’s theory. John Herschel called natural selection “the law of higgledy-piggledy,” and William Whewell thought the theory consisted of “speculations” that were “quite unproved by facts,” so much so that he refused to put the book on the shelves of the Trinity College Library. Rather, it was the reading elite of London that was captivated with Darwin’s theory. “Freethinking” bohemians and assorted society trendsetters grabbed up copies of the Origin and later Descent. The secular creation myth they had long been looking for was finally in hand. The argument easily lent itself to belief, and even conviction.

Flannery has used that “higgledy-piggledy” remark before. John Herschel was the son of William Herschel (who discovered Uranus), and apparently he did say that about Darwin’s work. So what? Flannery would have us believe that the “real” intellectuals unanimously rejected Darwin and only the mindless hippies of his day approved of his work.

This is from Flannery’s final paragraph:

In the end, it was Darwin’s rhetorical salesmanship that won the day.Darwin’s theory allowed the stench of secularism to be masked as a perfume of “refinement.” This wasn’t achieved by Darwin’s prodigious scholarship. It was accomplished by his sheer presentation. It was a pitch easily made because it “sold” a product the intellectual elites had long been waiting for, a theory of life in which God was superfluous and irrelevant. As everyone in retail knows, you’ve got to have the right product at the right time. Darwin had both.

So there you are. According to Flannery, Darwin was a terrible scholar who shamelessly “sold” his blasphemous theory to those were willing to be hoodwinked. And now it’s the noble task of the Discoveroids — the good scholars — to set the record straight.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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37 responses to “Darwin — Bad Scholar, Good Salesman

  1. This is something I did not think possible: a new low for the Discoveroids.

    It is factually in error at just about every point, starting from the total ignorance about the amount of theology was required of Cambridge students in Darwin’s day (young Darwin even considered taking holy orders). And the article descends from there into even sillier nonsense.

    Reclusive Darwin a consumate salesman!??? That claim is just…breathtaking!

  2. This is an example of accusing the opponent of one’s own faults.

    Intelligent Design is an empty sales pitch. In particular, in a negative political campaign. Does this article suggest an alternative for evolution in an account for the variety of life? Of course not.

    And, let us suppose that everything that he says about Darwin were true. Would that make a bit of difference for the validity of today’s evolutionary biology? Of course not.

    Evolutionary biology stands on the merit of the evidence, experimentation, predictions, reasoning and productivity. No one “believes” in the science on the basis of the personality of the discoverers.

    It seems that the intent is to distract the reader’s attention from the substance, the overwhelming evidence for evolutionary biology today, to a relatively important issue, Darwin’s personality. Make the most ridiculous claims about the 19th century, claims which attract refutation, and maybe it will be forgotten that evolutionary biology occupies a central position in the science of life. It would be as if one were to make attacks on the histories of Newton and Galileo as a way of weaking the support for physics and astronomy.

  3. Is it just me, or is the DI becoming more and more like AIG? Have the years of selection against badthink actually dumbed down the organization itself, or are they just dragging the bait across the bottom of the pond in search of those who feed there?

  4. Derek Freyberg

    No citations, could be complete invention by Flannery, who will be forgotten by the world soon after his demise (maybe even before it), while Darwin will be remembered whenever the topic of evolution is discussed.

  5. Oh please!!!
    These morons are challenging Darwin’s genius. I think there are hundreds of thousands of biologists over the years that would disagree with their inane comments.

  6. Flannery writes: ““Darwin’s total lack of facility with theological questions — his seeming lack of knowledge (or at least glaringly facile knowledge) of Scripture… His philosophical and theological musings seem quite amateurish.”

    The implied argument here is a wondrous creationist oldie rehashed in pretty new language. What is it you ask?

    Darwin was wrong because he wasn’t a creationist!

  7. michaelfugate

    So if I write a scientific paper about anything and don’t include God, then I am selling the stench of secularism? implying that God is superfluous and irrelevant?

    What a tiny little mind on display.

  8. Please, don’t fall for the bait.
    They are trying to make it appear as if the support for evolutionary biology depends upon the personality of Darwin. If one rises to the attack on Darwin by defending him, it is a distraction from the basis of the support for evolutionary biology – that evolution has become the important concept in 21st century biology by providing an explanation for so much in biology, to the extent that no one has even hinted at an alternative. So much so that even those who hate evolution cannot bring themselves to speak of biology without bringing up the topic of evolution; “whatever happens (and they don’t suggest an alternative) it better not involve evolution”.
    Yes, Darwin was a clever scientist. We know that because evolution turns out to provide such a productive solution to so much in bioogy that would otherwise be puzzling. Not the other way around, as if one were to say Evolution is right because a clever man said so.
    I hope that the responses make that clear: We recognize today’s evidence and reasoning as overwhelming reasons for accepting today’s evolutionary biology. If anti-evolutionists want to concede that point, and prefer to talk about the 19th century, let it be made clear that they have nothing to offer with regards to today’s biology. And only then, those who are interested in the 19th century – a topic of some interest, to be sure – can talk about the 19th century.

  9. michaelfugate

    Flannery’s profile in Encyclopedia of American Loons

  10. Stephen Kennedy

    Why does the proposer of theory about natural science have to even consider, let alone address, the philosophical and theological implications of his theory? Philosophy and theology have no relevance to natural science.

  11. We must remember and give credit where it is due, and that is what little is due. Creationists obviously are eminently qualified to speak and criticize on subjects, personalities and events about which they know absolutely nothing at all, e.g., Flannery, Westie, Klinghoffer, et. al, their credentials being beyond credulity. They are the dregs of society.

  12. What kind of mind imagines that such radically dishonest claims will go unchallenged? I’m constantly seeing statements/behavior from the D.I. and other creationism supporters that don’t fit into any other category besides what one would expect of sociopaths.

  13. Clearly written by someone who is not a scientist and has no understanding of science. Perhaps a salesman.

  14. Dean asks: “What kind of mind imagines that such radically dishonest claims will go unchallenged?”

    They don’t care. All they need to do is keep their generous patrons happy, and stuff like this seems to do the job.

  15. michaelfugate

    How does someone who is a university research librarian write this:

    Darwin’s total lack of facility with theological questions — his seeming lack of knowledge (or at least glaringly facile knowledge) of Scripture — is surprising enough to make one wonder how low the bar of biblical studies was for the typical Cambridge students of 1828 to 1831, when he attended. His philosophical and theological musings seem quite amateurish. This is not to suggest that Darwin was in any sense stupid, but he doesn’t seem particularly “well read.”

    If Flannery were competent, he could easily find what courses Darwin took, who taught them, and what books he read, but instead he resorts to speculation and slander. I would bet that Darwin was better read in theology, philosophy and science than is Flannery.

  16. Flannery says:

    “Good scholarship demonstrates the ability to put all aspects of one’s research into a broader context. This usually involves a familiarity with the discipline, its literature, and its historiography, as well as its implications in other areas. “

    Oh the blinkered irony in this accusation. It is pure projection.

    There isn’t one leader/scientist-wannabe in the ID/creationist movement that can articulate a research program and follow through doing any actual research that extends scientific knowledge that others can follow up on.

    The typical ID/creationist can’t get scientific concepts right at even the high school level; having spent their entire lives bending, breaking, and mangling science to fit sectarian dogma. Their resulting pseudoscience has nothing to do with reality; and its only purpose is to form the pillars of their sectarian religion in a lame attempt to make their religion look “scientifically and rationally” compelling.

  17. TomS:
    “And, let us suppose that everything that he says about Darwin were true. Would that make a bit of difference for the validity of today’s evolutionary biology? Of course not.

    Evolutionary biology stands on the merit of the evidence, experimentation, predictions, reasoning and productivity. No one “believes” in the science on the basis of the personality of the discoverers.”

    Tom, you took the words right out of my mouth. The only thing I would add would the following after your last sentence quoted above — (“No one “believes” in the science on the basis of the personality of the discoverers.”) That only happens in religion, politics, and perhaps sociology.

  18. Rikki_Tikki_Taalik

    Darwin didn’t even consider the theodicy of the Muslims or even the Hindus !

    All Science So Far !

  19. Indeed the accusations of Flannery are not only wrong, they are irrelevant. Origin of Species is not about theology any more than Einstein’s paper on Relativity.

  20. Darwin’s Autobiography states very plainly his knowledge of, and initial deep regard for, Paley’s “natural theology”. As for his relations with Whewell, see this, from Wikipedia:

    BEGIN Whewell was one of the Cambridge dons whom Charles Darwin met during his education there, and when Darwin returned from the Beagle voyage he was directly influenced by Whewell, who persuaded Darwin to become secretary of the Geological Society of London. The title pages of On the Origin of Species open with a quotation from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise about science founded on a natural theology of a creator establishing laws:

    “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.” END

    Darwin also explicitly praises Whewell in his Autobiography.

  21. re: ‘Darwin’s theory allowed the stench of secularism to be masked as a perfume of “refinement.”’

    I believe the metaphor should be expressed: “…masked with a perfume…”.

    Theologians have been trying for centuries to mask the lack of evidence with the alluring (to some) but cheap perfume of faith.

    lyrics of Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey:
    …smell of wine and cheap perfume…

  22. michaelfugate

    For ID not being about God, Flannery’s post is all about God.

  23. Matt Foley:
    “Theologians have been trying for centuries to mask the lack of evidence with the alluring (to some) but cheap perfume of faith.”

    Nice!

  24. Rikki_Tikki_Taalik

    @michaelfugate

    For ID not being about God, Flannery’s post is all about God.

    That will happen when you are more of salesman than a scholar.

  25. The whole truth

    Flannery’s sermonical diatribe just adds more evidence to the fact that IDiot-creationists are insanely jealous of Darwin and that ‘ID’ is a thoroughly religious-theocratic agenda. It also adds more evidence to the fact that IDiot-creationists are lying every time they claim that their ‘ID’ motives are scientific.

  26. michaelfugate

    From this paper by historian John van Wyhe

    Darwin’s final examination for the B.A. degree, which consisted of three days of written papers, occurred between 14-20 January 1831. Darwin was a poll candidate. The poll (an abbreviation of the Greek ‘Hoi Polloi’ for the crowd) consisted of those students who took an ordinary pass degree rather than an honours degree. The examination consisted of six parts: Homer, Virgil, Euclid, arithmetic and algebra, Paley’s Evidences of Christianity and Principles of moral and political philosophy, and Locke’s An essay concerning human understanding.

    Darwin apparently finished 10th out of 178 candidates for the poll exam.

  27. Once it has been made abundantly clear that the present status of any understanding of things, especially science, and in particular evolutionary biology, does not depend upon the personality of any of its proponents, or the history of its development, or what happened more than a century ago,
    what next to say?

    Should one then go on to point out the overwhelming consensus of those today in support of evolutionary explanations? Perhaps including the fact that no one has suggested an alternative; to the extent that even those who claim to have fatal objections can not bring themselves to talk for long without being reduced to saying only that there has to be someting wrong with evolutionary biology.

    Or should then point out that today’s fear of evolution is today tainted by the charge of not being scholarly and not taking account of today’s understanding of the Bible – attempting to understand the Bible as it was created in an Ancient Near Eastern culture (rather than as if it were addressing issues which only arose one or two millenia later)?

    Or should one then point out that actually Darwin was well educated by the standards of the day, and recognized by being elected to membership in the Royal Society and being awarded its Gold Medal – before publishing “On the Origin of Species”. And was honored in death by internment in Westminster Abbey.

    Or should one once again point out the basic soundness of the arguments adduced by Darwin which have mostly stood the test of time? While recognizing the weaknesses in some of the arguments, and ignorance of such developments as genetics. How, for example, the sparse paleontological record of his day as been massively supplemented. How taxonomy has been shown more solidly in accord with common descent with modification. How geology has grown with 20th century techniques of chronology and the theory of plate tectonics, supporting “deep time” and biogeography.

    Or should one just ignore the whole thing as irrelevant today?

  28. Darwin’s total lack of facility with theological questions — his seeming lack of knowledge (or at least glaringly facile knowledge) of Scripture — is surprising enough to make one wonder how low the bar of biblical studies was for the typical Cambridge students of 1828 to 1831, when he attended. His philosophical and theological musings seem quite amateurish.

    As has already been discussed, any shortcomings in the breadth of Darwin’s knowledge of fields outside of biology are largely irrelevant. Yet if Ken Ham insists on raising the subject, I will express my surprise every time I’m reminded of Ham’s ignorance of theology, philosophy, science, and even the basics of Biblical hermeneutics. Darwin never claimed to be an authority on those various topics—but Ham regularly pretends to be an authority on the scriptures and the mind of God. So I regularly wonder: What is Ham’s excuse for his remarkable ignorance in far more academic fields than Darwin?

  29. @michaelfugate-
    What struck me was how elementary was the test on mathematics. Euclid, arithmetic and algebra. That they even mentioned arithmetic, for one thing. Geometry being equated with Euclid, which suggests no alebraic geometry or trigonometry. Algebra suggests no calculus or statistics and probability. Of course set theory, mathematical logic, group theory, etc. had not yet been invented.

  30. michaelfugate

    @TomS, that doesn’t surprise me – calculus and statistics weren’t required of most biology majors until the 1960s-70s. My father was an undergrad in the 1950s and took nothing higher than trigonometry.

  31. Quite simply, Flannery doesn’t know what he’s talking about – on any subject. He’s not an historian. He’s a librarian (not to disparage librarians), not an historian. Flannery has authored equally bad essays about Alfred Wallace, the Disco Tute’s patron saint, chock full of historically unsupported, opinionated bafflegab. So, it’s not surprising that Flannery would pen the following amusing bit:

    “Good scholarship demonstrates the ability to put all aspects of one’s research into a broader context. This usually involves a familiarity with the discipline, its literature, and its historiography, as well as its implications in other areas. “

    No trace of irony whatsoever. If anything, the god-soaked nit-wits at the Disco Tute have developed a severe case of irony deficiency.

  32. michaelfugate

    Flannery does have a MA in History from California State Dominguez Hills with the thesis title State and nation in a cultural context: The rise and fall of Kentucky in American history. That’s a long way from Darwin and Wallace.

    I would also add that there is no evidence that he is an adjunct professor in either the History or Sociology departments at UAB. The History department lists adjuncts and he is no where to be found.

  33. michaelfugate says: “I would also add that there is no evidence that he is an adjunct professor in either the History or Sociology departments at UAB.”

    I got that from the Discoveroids’ biographical info on him: Michael Flannery.

  34. michaelfugate

    SC, I saw that on the DI site too – he shows up in the UAB libraries, but not any academic department on the campus. I wonder if this is fantasy on his part or if he taught a course once in the past. The DI is pretty loose with credentials using them freely to “enhance” standing.

  35. Incendiary remarks to follow, in keeping with the tenor of above comments.

    Regarding Darwin’s rhetorical genius, its strategic victory obviously cannot surpass the thinly veiled political messages which constitute the Christian Gospels. Jesus Christ was a trickster, and he still has the Christians tricked. For instance, “Get behind me, Satan,” is an early example of Christ’s homosexuality, or possibly just another gay joke told by a teenage boy.

    Honestly, there is nothing in my scientific charter that says rhetoric cannot be used to clarify and extend a viable paradigm. Experiment either continues to affirm and clarify the existing theory, as in Darwin’s case, or else it quickly eliminates non-viable contenders like Lamarck. Perhaps we shall one day have to apologize to the latter, but God help me if I allow Christians to misinterpret the Gospels AND The Origin of Species. I would rather be named Dr. Frank Lamarck!

  36. They don’t care. All they need to do is keep their generous patrons happy, and stuff like this seems to do the job.

    I think you hit the nail on the head and this is a common thread among neo-cons regarding circling the wagons and driving donations. Libs do the same thing with their cherished causes but they’re not as big into science denial as the neo-cons. The rubes just eat this garbage up like they do with Fox Entertainment and Rush. The good news is that they’ll mostly be dead within ten years.

  37. In the end, it was Darwin’s rhetorical salesmanship that won the day. … Darwin’s theory allowed the stench of secularism to be masked as a perfume of “refinement.”

    The, ah, “stench of secularism”?

    Darwin’s total lack of facility with theological questions — his seeming lack of knowledge (or at least glaringly facile knowledge) of Scripture — is surprising enough to make one wonder how low the bar of biblical studies was for the typical Cambridge students of 1828 to 1831, when he attended. His philosophical and theological musings seem quite amateurish. This is not to suggest that Darwin was in any sense stupid, but he doesn’t seem particularly “well read.”

    So because Darwin was not a theologian, nothing he ever said or wrote is worth anything. Ah, yes, I see . . . it’s all so clear now.