Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Nonsense of Pat Buchanan

Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has written a column that, sadly is all too common from conservatives these days. He has rolled into one column nearly every myth and misrepresentation about evolution out there. Let's start at the top:

"You have no notion of the intrigue that goes on in this blessed world of science," wrote Thomas Huxley. "Science is, I fear, no purer than any other region of human activity; though it should be."

As "Darwin's bulldog," Huxley would himself engage in intrigue, deceit and intellectual property theft to make his master's theory gospel truth in Great Britain.

And the support for this allegation is where? Not in this column, that's for sure. No matter. He moves on. Talking about Eugene Windchy's book The End of Darwinism: And How a Flawed and Disastrous Theory Was Stolen and Sold, Buchanan says:

That Darwinism has proven "disastrous theory" is indisputable.

"Karl Marx loved Darwinism," writes Windchy. "To him, survival of the fittest as the source of progress justified violence in bringing about social and political change, in other words, the revolution."

"Darwin suits my purpose," Marx wrote.

Darwin suited Adolf Hitler's purposes, too.

"Although born to a Catholic family, Hitler become a hard-eyed Darwinist who saw life as a constant struggle between the strong and the weak. His Darwinism was so extreme that he thought it would have been better for the world if the Muslims had won the eighth century battle of Tours, which stopped the Arabs' advance into France. Had the Christians lost, (Hitler) reasoned, Germanic people would have acquired a more warlike creed and, because of their natural superiority, would have become the leaders of an Islamic empire."

Charles Darwin also suited the purpose of the eugenicists and Herbert Spencer, who preached a survival-of-the-fittest social Darwinism to robber baron industrialists exploiting 19th-century immigrants.

Some of these are so old, they are getting whiskers. Hitler, once again, did not use natural selection as the underpinnings of his hatred of the Jews. He simply didn't. And to continue to peddle this nonsense only makes Buchanan look foolish. Herbert Spencer's adaptations of Darwin's theory was misapplied, since Darwin never meant his theory to be extrapolated outside of the biological realm. As Derek Freeman wrote for Current Anthropology in 1974:
The disparity between Spencer's "general doctrine of evolution" and Darwin's theory of the origin of species was thus immense. Spencer's doctrine, not having resulted from any kind of sustained empirical enquiry, was explicitly deductive in its structure, and rested on the metaphysical supposition that all evolutionary change was due to the persistence of an immanent "Power" that was (Spencer 1904 [1882], vol 1: 554) both "unknown and unknowable." In marked contrast, Darwin's theory, as he published it in 1859, was authentically scientific, for, without recourse, for all practical purposes, to metaphysics or "final causes," it postulated, on the basis of massive factual evidence, a non-teleological mode of evolutionary change and incorporated a precise definition of the mechanism of natural selection which (as has been conclusively demonstrated) does indeed result in the genetic evolution of populations of living organisms.1
The problem is that Buchanan has no idea what evolution actually is and has confused what Spencer believed with what Darwin empirically showed. Buchanan continues:

Darwin also lied in "The Origin of Species" about believing in a Creator. By 1859, he was a confirmed agnostic and so admitted in his posthumous autobiography, which was censored by his family.

Darwin did not lie about believing in a creator. When his beloved daughter Anne died, it shattered Darwin's belief in a personal, loving God. It is also nonsense that Darwin's family suppressed it. Darwin wrote:
Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.

This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt—can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.

I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

He didn't "lie" about his belief in a creator. That is a simplistic read of Darwin's thoughts on God. Darwin freely admitted he was an agnostic but that is a far cry from lying about it. The real clue that Buchanan has no idea what he was talking about comes toward the end, though, with this:
Darwin's examples of natural selection – such as the giraffe acquiring its long neck to reach ever higher into the trees for the leaves upon which it fed to survive – have been debunked. Giraffes eat grass and bushes. And if, as Darwin claimed, inches meant life or death, how did female giraffes, two or three feet shorter, survive?
What Buchanan is actually recounting here is Lamarckian evolution. Darwin used Lamarck's example of the giraffe to show that Lamarck was wrong. The problem is that Buchanan doesn't know the difference. Darwin showed that the giraffe didn't stretch its neck and pass on the characteristic to its offspring. He showed that the giraffes with longer necks outcompeted those with shorter necks and this trait was passed on to their offspring. Not the same thing. As far as the females not getting any food, he makes it seem as if there was no food at the lower branches. This is nonsense. The giraffes evolved long necks over time because the ones with longer necks could exploit a feeding niche that no other animal could, which ensured their survival. As Buchanan, himself, says, giraffes also eat grass. Plenty of that around. He also trots out this lie:

For 150 years, the fossil record has failed to validate Darwin.

"The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontologists," admitted Stephen J. Gould in 1977. But that fossil record now contains even more species that appear fully developed, with no traceable ancestors.

If Buchanan actually knew anything about the fossil record, he would know that this isn't true. It is also absolutely telling that he uses a quote that is 32 years out-of-date. And it was even a controversial statement when Gould said it then. Furthermore, if Buchanan had done his homework, he would have discovered this quote of Gould's:
"Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists--whether through design or stupidity, I do not know--as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups."2
But that doesn't fit the narrative, so it has to be ignored. Buchanan simply swiped that quote from a stock of misquotes that creationists have been collecting for years. That Buchanan has been marginalized in the GOP is little consolation because this kind of thought keeps showing up in conservative sources. That so little thought, preparation or accuracy is put into such work is a very disturbing.

1Freeman, D. (1974) The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Current Anthropology 15(3): 211

2Gould, Stephen J. (1983) Evolution as Fact and Theory. Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes.Norton, New York.

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  1. You noted: ""The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontologists," admitted Stephen J. Gould in 1977. But that fossil record now contains even more species that appear fully developed, with no traceable ancestors.

    If Buchanan actually knew anything about the fossil record, he would know that this isn't true. "

    So what are the fossil records? What has provided the Transitional evidence of new species since Humans? Or Human evolution itself. What about the implausible probability of DNA by chance argument?

  2. Yes, Darwin once confessed to being a theist, the belief in the existence of a god or gods, in particular the belief that God both created and rules all earthly phenomena. After the publication of the Origin, Darwin charged his original belief in God to the "constant inculcation" (instruction or indoctrination) in a belief in God" during his childhood, which was as difficult to cast down as "for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake."

    With self-assurance, Darwin purposed in his heart that he would no longer retain God in his knowledge, resolving instead to become an "agnostic." The reader is, therefore, cautioned that, whenever reading books and articles about Darwin, most, if not all, biographical authors are predisposed to depict him in a favorable light, oftentimes allowing pro-evolutionist sentiment to prejudice their work.

    The Old Testament did not escape Darwin's inflamed rhetoric; concerning the validity of biblical histories (in particular, the Genesis account of creation), Darwin pointedly declared that "the manifestly false history of the earth....was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos (sic), or the beliefs of any barbarian." Thus, Darwin likened the creation of the first man, Adam (Genesis 2:7-25), to a mere fairy tale. As an alternative to the counterfactual history, he summarily disposed of both creationism and God by declaring in the Origin that, once the reader entertains the "volumne (sic) on the origin of species...light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history," meaning that man and apes diverged from a common ancestor through the agency of evolution without the aid or influence of God—there is no God.

    Read more:

  3. Tom, see these posts: (although keep in mind that this is ten years old and doesn't have the newest finds like the frogamander and the fishapod, not to mention the newest whale precursors.)

    That's for starters. The other thing you could do is pick up a copy of Donald Prothero's Evolution: what the Fossils Say and Why Its Matters for a detailed description of transitional fossils from every time period.

    Make no mistake, there are tons of transitional fossils. Whether or not you choose to explain them by progressive creation (which has its own set of problems) or evolution, they are there. Groups like the ICR and the CRS choose not to accept them as transitional fossils because they define transitional fossils in a way in which none would ever be found. These groups also have a very poor understanding of how evolution works and what it predicts would be found in the fossil record. That help?