Darwin’s Untruths

A short follow-up to my detailed post on discussions with Dr Mike Sutton, presenting on his “Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.
[Edit note: emphases added.]

Firstly I’m NOT interested in arguing whether Darwin (and his bubble) told any untruths. (Quite possibly, they may have, but it’s irrelevant. Sutton is making no claims against Darwinian evolution itself. There may be evidence of untruth claims, there may not be any worthwhile peer-review of such claims, there are plenty of rebuttals of such claims. All irrelevant.) I’m arguing about whether, even if true, it makes any sense to therefore publicly claim “Darwin was a liar”. Telling an untruth – even with intent to deceive – doesn’t necessarily make you a liar. Do not pass go.

Got that?

OK, so even if Darwin (and his bubble) told untruths (with intent to deceive), the question becomes one of his / their motives and the motives of anyone wanting to promote the “Darwin was a liar” message? (Sutton has not yet responded to the specific points in my original post.)

My best guess at Darwin’s untruths is that

  • (a) he probably did not consciously use Matthew’s work as a source,
  • (b) probably didn’t believe he’d been influenced when he published, and
  • (c) after subsequently corresponding with Matthew and giving acknowledgment in the 3rd edition of The Origin of Species he probably thought the matter closed – so he could get on with the ongoing task of expounding and defending the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection – for which Darwin is rightly recognised.
  • (d) over time he may have realised he may actually have been influenced by Matthew’s work, at first and/or second hand, and was embarrassed, but the bubble needed to defend the project now in progress primarily against the religious establishment at that time.
  • (e) Matthew was possibly seen as a nuisance crank in his personal claims – to various publishers, not just Darwin’s bubble, and
  • (f) an impression reinforced by the fact Matthew was a Chartist, part of a radical socialist campaign against the Victorian establishment.

Motivations were (and still are) largely “politics” (small p) as I said already.

When I said that several times in conversation with Sutton, he denied it initially, assuming I meant (partisan) Politics (capital P). I was pointing out he himself had made a political choice not to include the Chartism angle in his own book. Politically he has made  tactical choices which truths not to include in his own book, given his own strategic aims in publishing. Which I’m questioning: the “so what?” – why make the claim?

Now, however, I’m not so sure the politics is simply tactical, given Sutton’s actual Politics – front and centre in his Twitter bio. I fear Matthew is to be cast as the downtrodden socialist sticking it to the Tory establishment. That context may indeed be real, but it’s not part of the content of the science.

Objective truths have to be valued above all within the processes of science itself. Sci-comm campaigns are of course always full of exaggerations, half- truths and white -lies. Shit happens in the real world, it’s how we get things done. Climate change – and (say) David Attenborough speaking at #COP24 – being the highest profile current example. Galileo as I mentioned, and his relationship with the Catholic church, being another high-profile historical example.

In my repeated experience, people who claim to be defending some narrow definition of truth above all else, tend to be doing so for reason of some extreme agenda. In balanced positions, most people can see that practical truth is usually more complicated. Science, and other topics claiming / wishing scientific qualities, tend to get blurred between use-mention / content-context distinctions, when dealing with this problem. [Many more examples in current dialogues.]

[If you want to respond to anything specifically written in this post please make sure you’ve read the original first, and considered the 4 explicit points summarised as being the questions at issue.]

Was Darwin A Liar And So What If He Was?

Teesside Skeptics in the Pub had a talk from Dr Mike Sutton last night (6th Dec 2018). He presented the gist of his book “Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.” as a simple timeline of events and communications in the development, publication and promotion of “Darwin’s” theory of evolution by natural selection.

Sutton is pretty much rejected by the science establishment because he treats the venerable Darwin as a target of accusations. We’re a sceptical bunch, so he came to the right place. It was a lively discussion.

The Amazon blurb is a good (combative) summary of Sutton’s position. Briefly, it is already well known and acknowledged by those involved in the history of evolutionary science that Patrick Matthew had earlier published a “similar” version of the Theory of Natural Selection for which Darwin is famous. Sutton goes as far as claiming – and citing much objective evidence – that Darwin lied in claiming that he couldn’t have been influenced by Matthew’s prior work.

Rather than a further report on the presentation itself – slides will be made available – the following summarises the key discussion points, and my own conclusions.

There is no doubt Darwin could have been influenced by Matthew (as Matthew was by others). No doubt some of the people in Darwin’s “bubble” had read some of what Matthew had previously published. Whether Darwin or any of these had spotted the significance and relevance of Matthew’s work – and phrasing – to Darwin’s origin of species is moot. As is whether the “full theory” of the processes of natural selection was complete before Darwin put his efforts into developing (and revising) his own full theory already existed in Matthew’s work – as some have claimed – but that’s a level more detailed than we could go into in one talk.

One things is clear is that Darwin himself acknowledged in the 3rd edition of the Origin of Species, as have many evolutionary biologists since, that Matthew had published the essence of – even most of and more – Darwin’s theory earlier. Another thing that is clear is that the “origin” of an idea, the intuition of its significance is never one person one time. It takes time and effort to get any idea promulgated and recognised – tell me about it! – by multiple publications and dialogues, fleshed-out and revised. First to publish carries some institutional weight, but doesn’t trump the fact that science is more than having and publishing an idea – that’s more like patenting for commercial gain, a proprietorial claim.

To me now, as a pan / neo-Darwinist more excited by 21st century developments in Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES), Darwin is simply the most influential name attached to the basic theory, a reward for the effort put into its development and promotion. Origination isn’t really the point as noted above. Science is complicated and dynamic, and history is messy and unscientific. “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea“, to quote (my hero) Dennett, alliterates nicely, but doesn’t idolise Darwin as the sole originator, simply as the most influential name attached to the idea.

Now I’m the first to acknowledge science is hidebound by numerous myths that seriously cramp progress and lead scientists into bad behaviour. That’s mostly what this blog is about in fact, keeping science and humanism honest. Galileo is often positively mythologised in much the way Darwin is. Science and atheism negatively mythologise the irrational nature of religious belief, and so on.

Whether or not Darwin was influenced by Matthew, the real claim is that he and his bubble lied about the significance of his work and about whether he and they could have been influenced.

As ever such debates come back to what we mean by truth and lies, and in fact that is the main myth of scientism – that all truth is about objective facts. And we can further “define” what we mean by lies as knowingly telling untruth with intent to deceive (a la Frankfurter). But this is just first-base, with further loops and Hofstadterian “strange loops” of intent in deception – a la white-lies, less-than-whole-truths and creative claims. As Dennett says – hold your definitions. By all means declare them to clarify discussion, but definitions are your conclusions, not constraints on the dialogue. Definitions – like every other “species” – evolve by natural selection.

Even on that basic Frankfurter definition of lying, I’d still say on the evidence presented, Darwin could have lied, but there was only circumstantial evidence that he might have, with only a couple of exceptions. It is important to note that those examples are in correspondence about the work, after the event, not part of the theory. Ongoing context not content.

For example: “No single person” had / could have actually read Matthew’s work. “No natural scientists” had “apparently” been aware of Matthew’s work. Clearly these are deliberate assertions which are not true in any literal objective sense, and much easier to show with 21st century “big data” technology not available to Darwin at the time. But these are rhetorical statements, they are not part of the scientifically objective content, required to meet basic logical standards of truth and falsehood. That mega-myth I call scientism, that ALL truths must meet the logical objectivity of science itself. Real life, and large parts of social-science and psychology, are not reducible to repeatable scientific paradigms.

In some sense Darwin may have lied, but what do we gain by simply calling him a liar? We certainly get the polarisation response – adoption by conspiracy theorists and enemies, and rejection as a pariah from the establishment. Is that what we want? More noise and heat than light and knowledge.

Obviously we “care” about truth, but standards of truth are contextual. Beyond science we have rhetoric, politics and religion. Politics definitely cares who it “offends” with raw whole truths – pragmatic tactics and strategies prevail. It’s always necessary to predict potential reactions that may get in the way of successfully getting your message out there. Let’s face it, there was plenty of choice-politic in how Darwin and his bubble dealt with the religious climate facing their theory. Maybe he hadn’t been conscious that he had been influenced by Matthew and was embarrassed when he realised he might have been? Maybe he had to lie? Maybe his establishment bubble made him lie? It was necessary to manage the messaging in order to get evolution by natural selection established. None of this “lying” compromised the content of the theory. Even Sutton himself took care not to include truths about Matthew’s position as a Chartist in his own book, in order to remove one distracting line of (spurious) objection to the content of his work. That’s life. No doubt some of Matthew’s difficulty getting more of his own work published and having his own claims rejected, failing to gain any establishment allies at the time, also hinged on him being seen as a dangerous nut-job thanks to his overt politico-religious position.

Anyway, after all the ifs and buts, what would we like to achieve, and what would explicitly calling Darwin a liar add to that?

  1. We care about truth, but should we promote a narrow “autistic” conception of absolute objective truth as the only game in town? No.
  2. Darwin is already a pretty successful branding for the basic idea built on so successfully by so many scientists and philosophers in so many (non-biological) fields since. Does it help to confuse that message with unnecessary detail truth and/or denigration of the name most associated with it? No.
  3. Should we give Matthew more credit in public consciousness? Sure, but no doubt other important contributors to the science and to the sci-comms.
  4. Should we educate  the public (and the scientific establishment!) in lessons of how scientific progress is messier and less scientific than science itself? How science is itself trapped in myths that are holding it back? You bet. Philosophy of Science and the History of Philosophy and Science are subjects distinct from science itself. Rhetoric is not a dirty word.

Not sure calling Darwin a liar adds to that.

[Since those 4 points above have not been addressed yet, I have in fact posted  follow-up with additional considerations.]

Partition Walls as Good Fences

Really just a holding-post as a reminder I need to publish a definitive version of the Good Fences piece. It’s been compromised so many times by suggestions of tailoring it to current publishing opportunities, but the generality of it continues to emerge.

This post today from Jon Haidt has given me the nudge:

#GoodFences – The ship bulkheads is a good metaphor. The ship is a complex integrated system, with communications of people, materials, energy and information across all areas, yet the compartmentalisation is crucial to surviving its failure modes. Evolution requires conservation more than it needs mutation. (Silos vs integration – is not a “choice”. Basic taxonomy and mereology.)

Political System Change

Listening to Isabel Hardman et al on BBC R4 Start the Week, getting lots of: “individual politicians and the parties are (generally) good and valuable for their aims and purposes – despite the title of her book – but that there’s lots wrong with the machinery and processes, that need to be changed …. by that machine”. That’s evolution folks.

Here we’re talking constituency & national arrangements, yesterday (and everywhere else) we’re talking national & EU arrangements, but it’s the same issue. How to respond to something that’s broken. Throw the baby out with the bathwater, or fix it with the tool that’s broken?

Same solution from me – the “scrutiny” of systemic issues and problems, and the analysis and creativity needed to draft proposed improvements that can be implemented through the ongoing buzzing, booming confusion of day to day operations. It’s a ship of Theseus. It needs to be delegated to a standing cross-party “constitutional convention”. Not the same people who will have to vote on the motions and amendments and answer to their constituencies and parties. It will have an ongoing task list of issues and ideas being worked on continuously, delegated to specialists where appropriate, but the convention convenes periodically, say twice a year / 8 or 10 times per electoral cycle. (See previous post.) The proposals of the convention are made to legislative voting members through existing party and committee arrangements – but they’ve already been drafted by expert analysis and dedicated effort. It’s not a second level of committee bureaucracy, those remain focussed on issues by topics in their remit. The convention is focussed on cross-topic meta-issues that apply to the system itself.

Brexit End Game

With things reaching fever-pitch in Westminster, and each hour reporting new strategies and predictions for next week’s vote and the consequences for May’s government and the country, the real danger is the get-on-with-it boredom sleepwalking us into a disaster.

It’s been a cock-up – a divisive waste of national time and good will – since Cameron took an election promise literally and walked away from the consequences. Opposition leader Corbyn’s insistence on the immediate invocation of Article-50 on the basis of the split result of an advisory referendum – with no plan of any kind – has ensured the cock-up has matured into a full-scale disaster. As a natural labour / social / liberal democrat myself, I feel only admiration for May’s efforts.

I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that, the Chequers agreement and the negotiated compromise deal as the motion now awaiting debate and a vote in the house is almost certainly as good a deal as any compromise can be. In that, I’m as closely aligned with Rory Stewart MP as any intelligent participant that the deal should be supported as the way to heal politics and move on. But, of course – as in OBVIOUSLY – it will be defeated despite that, because no-one voted for a compromise, and no-one elected by those voters can afford to support such a compromise. It’s a serious political crisis. A coalition of #Brexit and #Remain will vote the deal down, so it is crucial which amendments, like those tabled by Hillary Benn MP, set the right outcome for defeat in its current from.

There is a fairly clear option still on the table, and for that reason I still support May’s line, even though “her” deal will be defeated. All along – as a remainer – my position has been that the missing ingredient is a timescale. Obviously there’s plenty wrong with the EU, worthy of reform in practice. Whether or not the threat of a vote to leave was good leverage in any reform negotiations – even actually leaving with conditions on a possible future return – I can buy the political tactics that might be needed. The problem all along has been the set of instant binary choices reducible to a one-time vote and instant implementation – and the litany of rhetorically lies about what is or is not a problem with the EU and with wishful alternatives and consequences. Reducing them all to numerical choices – people and finance.

In fact changing the EU situation was always going to be a process, and it still can be. A second so-called #PeoplesVote will be just as divisive even if the result is clearer for remain, and even that is surely in doubt. Rory Stewart is right that a second referendum is NOT a solution to rejecting the May deal. Referenda are divisive, full stop.

The process needed is to recognise the split decision – split on  many complex axes and timescales – in the immediate leave vote, and to establish an ongoing plan, a process to address all its gory detail. The status quo is we are currently members of an unsatisfactory arrangement, so let’s revoke Art-50, and simply give notice that we are mandated to work on a reform and/or leave project. We can’t simply cherry pick, each choice has interconnected consequences and responsibilities.

Let’s face it, the EU is not our only current concern with a democratic deficits. Broken democracies and populism everywhere, privatised national interests, regulation of international standards, failures of supra-national arrangements and globalised business powers, what we need is an ongoing project, a permanent “constitutional convention”. #Brexit is simply the latest tangible reason to invoke it. Local-National-International democratic arrangements can never be a cast-in-stone in a written-once-and-for-all constitution. It must always evolve, and time is the missing evolutionary ingredient in any binary referendum. The EU, like the UN or a rose by any other name, is a journey not a destination. Voting out was like asking the world to stop so we can get off. The journey is not optional and there is no option to start from somewhere else, so the best strategy is to optimise the steering arrangements, dealing with the status-quo.

Reject the May compromise deal, but not because it’s not the best compromise. Replace it with a parliamentary decision to set-up a standing cross-party constitutional convention, proceeding from the reality of the current status quo. First business is a phased reform of UK-EU arrangements. There is no reason to perpetuate the political division.

(The full remit of a constitutional convention is the subject of a further post, but this is not a new idea, it has arisen before in many local-regional-national constituency and voting re-arrangements.)

Two Week Catch-Up

Over two weeks since I blogged, and even social media interaction has been low in that time. I’ve been focussing on a couple of domestic and business projects, though distractions mean even those haven’t been as productive as they could have been. Above all else, I have one room to finish decorating before Christmas!

Saw Don DeLillo’s Love Lies Bleeding last weekend – great cast, great performances and a great staging in a very-old-and-in-need-of-a-little-TLC theatre of The Print Room at The Coronet in Notting Hill Gate. Staging involved a large part of the auditorium being taken over by a movable board-walk and sandy terrain extending in front and around the stage. Also, with a “Pepper’s Ghost” glass screen in front of a separate elevated stage to the rear, so that all aspects of the end-of-life memories, death and ghosts could be illuminated into the plot of a family dealing with the decision of aiding the death of the old artist patriarch in a “permanent vegetative state”. Frankly however, the script, dialogue and fluid sequencing of scenes made the plot too confusing to follow and maintain interest, so despite great marks for the production, it was ultimately an unsatisfactory experience, with only the author to blame.

This Times review has it about right: “The cast take a creditable stab at animating the moribund writing, but this thesis on the morality of mercy killing is a soporific slog.”

A lot of promise and efforts but a great pity.

Upcoming cultural highlights are Divine Comedy as the Gateshead Sage on New Year’s Eve, and Russian State Ballet of Siberia production of Giselle at the Darlington Hippodrome in January.

Meantime, all else is ….. #Brexit.
(See next post.)

Sacred Scepticism

An interesting edition of The Sacred Podcast with @TheosElizabeth inteviewing @SethAnzisca about his book “Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo

Tweeted a few responses as I listened – it resonated with so many of my own agenda items. This one merges the opening and closing thoughts:

When I heard the initial remark I mentally added the qualifier in parenthesis, which I had to take as a given in the task of reducing to a single word what one holds sacred – Skepticism in his case.

I would have the same trouble picking one from a word-cloud of Humanism, Atheism, Skepticism, Rationalism – each would risk too narrow standalone connotations. “I’m a rationalist, humanist atheist.” is what I ended-up with in the Worldview section of my Manifesto.

Mashing those concluding thoughts into the opening remark adds that balance of humanity to the stark choice of one word.

Interestingly this thought too:

Actually summarises my “Timeline” approach to the work of all authors whose thoughts seem significant. Where was the author coming from when they wrote this was the whole motivation behind my Pirsig Pages for example. No-one, no history, is truly neutral in any objective sense. “All identity is politics” is a recurring mantra of mine too – all identifying of or with a group involves the implicit agenda of that group. All conversations (should) involve understanding before drawing any other conclusions or actions.

If I had to reduce my own word-salad to a single word it would probably have to be Duty. The duty to respect the other when engaging skeptically in free-discourse about overt differences and the responsibility to follow-up any offence and misunderstanding. Where coincidentally I already quoted @TheosElizabeth.

Interestingly neither my thoughts nor Anzisca’s sacred word concern the Israeli-Palestine content explicitly. It’s all meta. Worth a listen. [Coincidentally my immediate previous post does in fact involve a significant contribution to the mid-east content!]