To quote-mine or not to quote-mine…

“It is interesting to contemplate a supporter of intelligent design, clothed with errors of many kinds, with misquotes gracing their writings, with various misrepresentations here and there, and with ignorance showing from their mouths, and to reflect that these in-elaborately constructed forms, so like each other, and dependent on each other because everyone else thinks they are ridiculous, have all been – unfortunately – produced by laws acting around us.” – Charles Darwin, 1859

In this post by ID-sympathizer and Darwin-to-Hitler historian Richard Weikart, a review of a new biography of Darwin by Paul Johnson, these words are actually strung together: “While some of his discussion about social Darwinism makes sense, he overplays his hand, damaging his credibility. While he correctly argues that Darwin was a bona fide social Darwinist, he mistakenly insists that Darwin opposed vaccinations and other medical interventions that allowed the weak and sickly to reproduce. This is a widespread myth among anti-Darwinists that has been propagated by quoting Darwin out of context. It is true that in Descent of Man Darwin mentioned that vaccinations (and other public health measures) could promote the reproduction of the weak, but Darwin immediately added that because of our social instincts, ‘we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.’” (emphasis mine)

Weikart, a Professor of History at California State University, Stanislaus and author of two books linking Darwin to Hitler (which are widely criticized by Darwin historians, notably Robert J. Richards), is a Fellow of the Discovery Institute, the definitive intelligent design organization, AKA ” the quoting Darwin out of context”-generator. Weikart appeared in the DI’s film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, talking with Ben Stein about Darwin and Hitler:

Following that bit in the “documentary,” you will see this scene:

Here are the words of Darwin that Stein gives us from The Descent of Man (1871):

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

This surely sounds like Darwin is supportive of eugenics. However, as many were quick to show just after the film was released, this is a pathetic attempt to misquote Darwin to those who didn’t know better – the intended audience for the film. All one has to do is look up where the passage came from in Darwin’s book (and this day in age it is so simple a task). From pages 168-169 in the first edition of The Descent of Man, published by John Murray in London in 1871:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.

Oh, Darwin was not advocating for eugenics at all. How dishonest of the filmmakers. I find it ironic that Weikart, having appeared in this film in a scene adjacent to probably the most public instance of Darwin misquoting for the benefit of antievolutionism, himself is criticizing another historian for quoting Darwin out of context. Oh, Darwin-haters, you’re so hard to understand!

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8 thoughts on “To quote-mine or not to quote-mine…

  1. That full quote from The Descent of Man shows Darwin had a sense of morality that was a century ahead of its time. Rather than being attacked, Darwin should be acknowledged as a forerunner of the kind of tolerance we see today. In his day, I dare say there were plenty that wouldn’t have been as gracious as he was.

  2. Oh, it certainly is, Michael. One can extract phrases to the heart’s content from The Bible if you are willing to play the same game as the Creationists.

  3. Pingback: On Giants Shoulders #54: A Sleigh Load of History « Contagions

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