“Will science survive politics?
Whether something is politically convenient or not doesn’t affect whether it’s true
By Tom Chivers
May 11, 2021
No one really cares about creationists any more. Instead, the row is over whether Darwin – and his theory, or its implications – is racist, or sexist. And the people passionately defending him are often right-wingers, while his critics are on the Left.
The latest incarnation is a by-the-numbers fighting-the-culture-war piece in the Telegraph about a guide to “Applying a decolonial framework to teaching and research in ecology and evolution” published by some plant scientists in the University of Sheffield. In the guide, science lecturers are told to contextualise Darwin by making it clear how his worldview was shaped by colonialism and racism.
I also rather wish that the Sheffield academics had mentioned whether or not they think Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true or not. There’s an awful lot of talk about power imbalances, Eurocentric viewpoints, and the legacy of colonialism, and how science “cannot be objective and apolitical” – but regardless of whether or not Darwin was racist, was he right? Maybe that’s taken for granted.
The sad, forgotten creationists aside, most of us gladly accept that dragonflies’ wings and wombats’ toenails or whatever have evolved; that those ancestors which had versions of those organs more suited to their environment tended to have more offspring.
But when Darwin’s idea gets applied to behaviour, it becomes more controversial. The field of science that tries to do this is called sociobiology; it was controversial enough when it arose in the Seventies, pioneered by EO Wilson. It caused a furore – protesters poured water over Wilson’s head during a conference talk, chanting “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” Wilson’s work was mainly about ants.
When Darwinian ideas are applied to the human brain, and human behaviour, it is called evolutionary psychology, and that is more controversial still.
Which, on the face of it, is strange. Evolutionary psychology is, at its heart, the idea that the brain (and therefore the mind, and human behaviour and psychology in general) is the product of evolution, just like every other animal organ. As Richard Dawkins wrote in the 2005 foreword to The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, that is so obviously true as to be almost not worth saying: “The central claim [of evolutionary psychology] is not an extraordinary one,” he wrote. “It amounts to the exceedingly modest claim that minds are on the same footing as bodies where Darwinian natural selection is concerned. Given that feet, livers, ears, wings, shells, eyes, crests, ligaments, antennae, hearts and feathers are shaped by natural selection … why on earth should the same not be true of brains[?]”
The idea that the mind is evolved goes back to Darwin himself, but it was Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, a wife-and-husband team of academics, who really developed the field in The Adapted Mind, a book of essays they edited in 1992.
Charles Darwin, the historical figure, is interesting to study, and it’s worth remembering that he was a man of his time. But Darwinism, the great insight of evolution by natural selection, is separate. It is true (or false) regardless of Darwin’s own views, and so are the many insights which have followed it. We can go back and forth over whether he was a racist, but the more interesting question is: was he right?”