Friday, December 30, 2005

Himmelfarb in The New Republic

The December 12 issue of The New Republic featured a lengthy review of two new anthologies of Darwin's work. The anthologies are significant mostly for the fact that one features an introduction by E.O. Wilson while the other features an introduction by James Watson. The article is not freely available online.

The review was written by Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. I have never read any of her work, but she has a very bad reputation among evolutionists. I've been told that in the past she has bought into some of the hoariest anti-evolution cliches. That didn't make me optimistic about this review, and I was right not to get my hopes up.

The review really has very little to say at all. Mostly it's just tediously building up to the final paragraphs, in which Wilson and Watson are chided for their alleged “scientism.” Not very original.

The frustrating part of the review is that in many places it becomes clear that Himmelfarb doesn't really understand what she is talking about. Consider the opening two pargaraphs:

In 1958, at a cocktail party in London, I was introduced to Sir Julian Huxley, one of England's most eminent scientists. (He had just been knighted). My hostess, seeking, in good English fashon, to esptablish some common denominator between her two guests, told him that I was writing a book on Darwin, and then, perhaps to provoke him, went on to say that the book might put evolution in a new light. “New!” Huxley protested. “There is nothing new to say about evolution. Everything that needs saying has already been said. The theory is incontrovertible.” That was the end of that conversation, Huxley promptly going off to find a more congenial drawing-room partner.

I have had occasion to be reminded often of that remark in the almost half-century since, as scientists discovered many new things about fossils, mutations, and genetics, all of which have prompted some adaptation of Darwinism, in token of which the doctrine is now known as “The Modern Synthesis.” Julian Huxley would no doubt have been pleased with most of these findings.

Ahem. The term “Modern Synthesis” comes from a book published in 1942 with the title Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. The author of that book? Julian Huxley.

So here we have a supposed scholar of Darwin and his work who apparently believes that the Modern Synthesis was based on developments occurring after 1958. On top of that, she is unaware that it was Huxley himself who coined the term. Yet she is allowed to discourse at length on the significance of evolution in high-brow venues like The New Republic. Lovely.

Here's another one:

Both editors are eminent scientists: Edward O. Wilson is best known as the proponent of sociobiology, and James D. Watson as the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule.

Watson and Crick, of course, did not discover the DNA molecule. Everyone knew long before 1953 that our genes were made of the stuff. Actually, their accomplishment was to elucidate the physcial structure of that molecule: the famous double helix.

Edward O. Wilson, meanwhile, is not the proponent of sociobiology. He is a proponent of the subject. Sociobiology is nowadays a perfectly mainstream branch of biology that has shed a lot of light on the behavior of a lot of different critters. Wilson gets credit for coining the term and for being the first to assemble a large quantity of data in support of its importance. His main contribution was to see connections across broad swaths of biology and unite them into one discipline. His study of the famously social ants led him to some of these insights. Curiously, his role in the development of sociobiology is similar to Julian Huxley's role with respect to the Modern Synthesis.

I'm sorry if this seems petty, but when you're writing about science it's important to be precise. Somehow Himmelfarb's sloppiness here reminds me of a story my older brother told me about his eighth grade science class. It seems the teacher described Einstein's famous equation e=mc^2 by saying that energy is equal to mass times light squared. My brother raised an eyebrow and pointed out that light is not the sort of thing that can be squared, and that surely she meant the speed of light squared. No, the teacher insisted. It was the light itself that got squared.

One more:

Natural selection, then, not evolution, was Darwin's claim to fame, evolution having achieved scientific status, so to speak, only by virtue of the mechanism that brought it about. This was how it appeared to Darwin and to his contemporaries - his critics as well as his admirers.

Total nonsense. As Himmelfarb described previously in the essay, other people throughout history had suggested that species were not immutable. But prior to Darwin, very few people really believed it. Darwin's great success in the Origin was to amass overwhelming evidence for the reality that species had evolved through time, tracing out a branching tree as they did so. The evidence he presented was sufficient to convince just about everyone that evolution had, indeed, occurred. But his proposal of natural selection as its mechanism was not well-received at the time or for decades afterwards. Indeed, it was the Modern Synthesis that represented Darwin's vindication on this count.

Anyway, the essay meanders on in this vein. At every turn Himmelfarb reveals that she does not really care about the fine points of the science, she is just concerned to remind everyone that science isn't everything. Fine. I just wish she had said that at the beginning instead of making us wade through her rambling and incoherent precis of this subject.


At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Andre said...

Himmelfarbs crazy anti-evolution quotes were quoted at the Pandas Thumb, complete with links to the index of creationist claims, and even picked up by James Wolcott.

At 11:57 PM, Blogger Jasen M aka The Staple said...

E.O. wilson was an atheist, and many evolutionary biologists contridict his findings.

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

E. O. Wilson is still very much alive. And please list the prominent evolutionary biologists, at least those not associated with the Discovery Institute, who contradict the findings of Dr. Wilson in any important respect.


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