1 November 2012
- Yesterday, we noted how quickly the New York Times got round to disparaging in its obituary on Jacques Barzun (1907–2012), Barzun’s critique of Darwinism. Science historian Michael Flannery, an expert in the life of Darwin’s co-theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, writes to point out that another honest critic of the Darwin cult, leading scholar of Victorian studies Gertrude Himmelfarb, is still with us:
Honest and sound 20th-century scholarship hasn’t died with Barzun. We should be aware of another historian and social commentator cut from very similar intellectual cloth as Barzun: Gertrude Himmelfarb. At 90 years of age she remains one of the few of her generation willing and able to write a bold and stinging account of Darwin and his theory. Her Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959, revised 1962) in many ways expands on Barzun’s critique and with meticulous research and stunningly bold prose bares many truths regarding Darwin and his theory.
Readers who do not care one way or the other about critiques of Darwin might pause to reflect on this: In decadent times, cultural historians cannot get a serious discussion going about elite cult figures. That is precisely the contemporary discussion most needed at any time.
Today, Darwin can’t be critiqued for a reason that should be embarrassing: because he is still a man about whom British science broadcaster David Attenborough could say in a bicentennial documentary (2009),
Two hundred years ago, a man was born who was to explain this astonishing diversity of life. In doing so he revolutionized the way in which we see the world and our place in it. His name was Charles Darwin.
The style makes clear that Darwin is the prophet of a new secular religion, precisely as envisioned by Julian Huxley, founding director of UNESCO, in Religion without Revelation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979).
Inability to honestly critique Darwin may be due to implicit adherence to a belief system for which his theory is the creation story. And Darwin has huge numbers of adherents among the fashionable, as agnostic Australian philosopher Hiram Caton’s collection of uncritical hagiography demonstrates:
We learn that the Origin is the “greatest scientific book of all time” that “fully explained” the struggle for existence (Wilson). The Voyage of the Beagle “is today regarded as intellectually the most important travel book of all time” (Wilson). Darwin “demonstrated without a shadow of doubt that life evolved”; “no idea in science has shaken society so much as evolution”; “Darwin did more to secularise the Western world than any other single thinker” (Eldredge).
The sanctification continues: Darwin revolutionised the biology of his day; he fashioned a new concept of humankind; he challenged basic philosophical and religious ideas about the nature and meaning of life; so profound was his insight that his thought remains relevant to contemporary biology. These surpassing achievements brought a “revolution” equal in importance to the Copernican revolution. Smitten with reverence, my eye falls on the dust jacket to contemplate the photo of the dignified aged Darwin: yes, he looks like a prophet!
In short, there was never any hope that a reasonable academic or scientific assessment of Darwin would be treated with anything other than the scorn and pity that a true believer feels for the inferior, unbelieving masses.
Flannery has written a short piece, “Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years,” noting,
I have little doubt that the media elite will treat this mighty intellect with similar disdain and selective dismissal. When the Darwinian paradigm finally collapses (and I believe that it will – sooner rather than later) its demise will rest on the substantial intellectual shoulders of Barzun and Himmelfarb.
Yes, and the critical question is, how to NOT replace such a paradigm in science.
Resources on Gertrude Himmelfarb:
—Her National Endowment for the Humanities Awards citation.
—Some of her essays in The New Criterion.
Note: Himmelfarb is also known as Bea Kristol (because she was married to the late Irving Kristol).
See also: Michael Flannery’s edition of Wallace’s World of Life.
Denyse O’Leary is a journalist, author, and blogger, and co-author of The Spiritual Brain.