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Friday, May 29, 2009
Discovery Dishonestly Demonizes Darwin

Update: I made a video about this.

When I write publicly about challenges to the teaching of REAL science, I always try to rise above name-calling. It may just be that I am conflict avoidant, but I do not think that name-calling is particularly useful for advancing any sort of constructive dialogue about the issues.

In my opinion, name-calling that descends to the level of personal insult is especially uncalled for and unwelcome in this debate. But sometimes the name-calling doesn't single out anyone in particular. For instance, I can think of a certain staff member of the Discovery Institute (DI) who claims to be against name-calling while consistently referring to supporters of evolution as "Darwinists" or the "evolution lobby." In addition, there are others who consistently refer to the DI as the "Dishonesty Institute."

I am writing this post to publicly admit that my heretofore refusal to resort to name-calling has reached a serious tipping point.

If you want to find out why, keep reading.

I just visited the home page of the Discovery Institute's new faith + evolution website for the first time and was struck by the blatant dishonesty of their introductory video.

The video opens with the following text:

The viewer then immediately hears a deep male voice with a British accent recite the following sentence:

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Meanwhile, this is the image that is displayed:

Clearly, the viewer is being led to believe that those were Charles Darwin's words.

But are they?

Sadly, no. Darwin never wrote anything of the sort. The DI has misattributed to Darwin a quotation from one of Richard Dawkins's books:

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."
Richard Dawkins
River Out of Eden

(Note also that a significant portion of the quotation - "no evil and no good" - has also been silently removed.)

The blatant misattribution of this quote to Darwin is obviously an attempt to portray the man as a dismal pessimist whose ideas about evolution led him to a life of despair and despondency. However, based on his own writings, this negative portrayal of Darwin is completely inaccurate.

What follows are some authentic quotes from the conclusion of Darwin's The Origin of Species. I think they give a much more accurate representation of the way in which Darwin's ideas about evolution shaped his view of the world:

"I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one. It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Leibnitz, 'as subversive of natural, and inferentially of revealed, religion.' A celebrated author and divine has written to me that 'he has gradually learned to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.'"


"Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled."


"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Charles Darwin
The Origin of Species
6th Edition, 1872

There is no doubt that Darwin's understanding of the evolutionary history of life influenced his personal religious views. But Darwin's understanding of evolution did not turn him into a nihilist, as the DI would apparently like for their visitors to believe. This truth can be seen in this excerpt from Darwin's complete autobiography:

"A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.--As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow creatures. My sole and poor excuse is much ill-health and my mental constitution, which makes it extremely difficult for me to turn from one subject or occupation to another. I can imagine with high satisfaction giving up my whole time to philanthropy, but not a portion of it; though this would have been a far better Line of conduct."

I'm not usually this blunt, but I can no longer sugarcoat my words:

The misattribution of this quote to Darwin is a lie. In their twisted attempt to defend themselves against what they see as a threat to their version of Christianity, the Discovery Institute is lying to the people who visit their "faith + evolution" website.

I'm beginning to think that calling them the "Dishonesty Institute" is too mild. People who habitually tell lies are rightfully called "liars."

There, I said it.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

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