From the Inbox: Did Stephen Jay Gould fabricate evidence of Louis Agassiz’s racism?

This one is from an e-mail sent to me via my neglected website over at commondescent.net regarding a page I have there that is mostly a bunch of quotes from Charles Darwin on the subject of race and slavery. The point of the page (that I originally created over a decade ago) was to counterbalance creationists’ never-ending demonization of Darwin as some sort of rabid racist—who was somehow responsible for racism and genocide—by the use of selective quotation of his writings (for example, Bergman 1997).

Anyway, someone going by “ML” writes:

ML: Why do Atheists get so upset when a Theist speaks about Darwin being Racist?

Atheism or theism does not enter into this, at least not inherently. I would think that anyone, theist or atheist, who interested in science and history would be upset by how professional creationists use invalid reasoning and false or misleading historical narratives to attack both evolutionary theory and historical figures involved in its development.

In the case of the claims that Darwin was somehow particularly racist, creationists are attempting to poison the well against evolution by claiming that the founder of evolutionary biology had some objectionable and/or erroneous views. They are arguing, in essence, that since Darwin was a racist evolutionary theory is suspect.  This is form of an ad hominem fallacy*.

Whether or not Darwin was a racist is completely irrelevant to the question of evolutionary theory’s validity. It stands or falls on its own merits regardless of what Darwin thought—for example, Isaac Newton believed in alchemy but this in and of itself does nothing to cast doubt on his laws of motion.

Logical fallacies aside the creationists’ treatment of Darwin on this subject is also simplistic and disingenuous in both the way they exaggerate Darwin’s supposed racism relative to his peers—well-to-do white men of the early to mid-nineteenth century—and in how they conveniently ignore clear cases of racism in their own camp (more on this shortly).  

[*Side note: creationists typically go further and attempt to argue that evolutionary theory itself is inherently racist or must logically lead to racism. That however that topic is for another time.]

ML: Racism is simply thinking you are superior to another race. One does not have to wish another race harm to be a Racist.

Why don’t you stop confusing the issue and trying to downplay the reality that Darwin was in fact racist.  He thought that whites were superior in many ways to blacks. That is RACISM.

I am not attempting to downplay the reality of anything. I am trying to be both factually and historically accurate. My personal opinion is that from a modern perspective Darwin probably was somewhat racist; however this is judgment that has to be inferred from a number of conflicting things he wrote on the subject. Some things he wrote—especially if they are taken out context of both history and his larger writings—seem to be racist in nature. However, he also wrote many things about race that were very egalitarian particularly in comparison with views of many of his contemporaries.

Given this, I think it is unfair and dishonest to single Darwin out for special criticism in this regard, especially if those doing so leave out evidence of more clear-cut racism on the part of their own intellectual predecessors.

ML: One also does not have to believe slavery is right or wrong to be a Racist.

That is true, one would have to look at the reasons an individual gives for why they condemned slavery. Some opposed slavery on the basis that the institution of slavery had negative effects on slave owners and white society in general. Others did so out of a concern for those enslaved (and of course many opposed slavery for both reasons).

I think it is fair to say that while someone who opposed slavery largely out of concern for those enslaved might still be a racist, they are probably not as racist as someone who either opposed it primarily out of concern for slaver owners or who did not oppose it at all (even arguing in its favor).

ML: Your article is so biased its pathetic.

Insults, that’s nice. You are going to have to do better than that ML. However, I will admit that the page could probably do with some expansion and updating.

ML: Quoting Louis Agassiz in a letter to his mother (1846), quoted in Gould, Stephen The Mismeasure of Man (1981) p. 44-45,

Stephen Gould IS AN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST AND AN ATHEIST!! What a source you got there!

A Letter that no one knows it really existed because it just so happens the only person who ever heard of it happens to be an ATHEIST.

Here we have yet another ad hominem fallacy, i.e., the source is an evolutionary biologist and an atheist, therefore it cannot be trusted.

Sorry but the fact that someone has delusional beliefs regarding the relative honesty of either evolutionary biologists (a category that includes a number of Christians btw) or atheists, does not constitute Prima facie evidence that there is any reason to doubt the veracity of the quote as given by Gould.

What’s more, while many—including myself—have taken issue with Gould on any number of subjects, I am unaware of any serious critic ever having suggested that Gould fabricated evidence whole cloth to support his views.  So even on an individual level, there is no reason to take seriously the suggestion that Gould was in the habit of perpetrating fraud.

Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I cannot leave it at that (let’s see, where did I leave my BFG 9000).

These accusations of fraud ML is making regard a quote from the 19th century paleontologist Louis Agassiz that I gave as an example of unambiguous racism on the part of one of Darwin’s creationist contemporaries. Here is the quote in question, which comes from a letter Agassiz wrote to his mother:

It was in Philadelphia that I first found myself in prolonged contact with Negroes; all the domestics in my hotel were men of color. I can scarcely express to you the painful impression that I received, especially since the feeling that they inspired in me is contrary to all our ideas about the confraternity of the human type (genre) and the unique origin of our species. But truth before all. Nevertheless, I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, and their lot inspired compassion in me in thinking that they were really men. Nonetheless, it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay far away. And when they advanced that hideous hand towards my plate in order to serve me, I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere, rather than dine with such service. What unhappiness for the white race ―to have tied their existence so closely with that of Negroes in certain countries! God preserve us from such a contact.” (Agassiz, 1846, Emphasis mine)

ML states that no one knows if the letter Gould claims to be quoting from even exists, implying that Gould may have made this quote up. Is there anyway for us to discern whether or not this might be the case, or are we forever lost in perpetual doubt?

Well we could start by seeing what Gould says about the source of this quote:

Agassiz had never seen a black person in Europe. When he first met blacks as servants at his Philadelphia hotel in 1846, he experienced a pronounced visceral revulsion. This jarring experience, coupled with his sexual fears about miscegenation, apparently established his conviction that blacks are a separate species. In a remarkably candid passage, he wrote to his mother from America: […quote given above – TB…] The standard Life and Letters, compiled by Agassiz wife, omits these lines in presenting an expurgated version of this famous letter. Other historians have paraphrased them or passed them by. I recovered this passage from the original manuscript in Harvard’s Houghton Library and have translated it, verbatim, for the first time so far as I know. (Gould 1981, p. 44-45)

Uh oh, “other historians”, “original manuscripts” at Harvard; it is starting to look bad for ML’s fraud hypothesis.

OK, let’s take a look at what historian Edward Lurie’s biography of Agassiz might contain:

After observing Negroes for the first time during a visit to Philadelphia late in 1846, Agassiz confided to his mother:

I hardly dare to tell you the painful impression I received, so much are the feelings they [Negroes] gave me contrary to all our ideas of the brotherhood of man and unique origin of our species. But truth before all. The more pity I felt at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, the more . . . impossible it becomes for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as we are. (Lurie 1960, pp. 256-257)

While not identical, it seems clear that this quote, by Lurie given in 1960, is from the same source as Gould’s twenty-one years later.

Lurie give as a source as: “Agassiz to Rose Agassiz, December 2, 1846, Agassiz Papers, Houghton Library”, which means that both he and Gould claim their source is an 1846 letter from Agassiz to his mother.

Now at this point I figured I would have to stop and argue that this was sufficient evidence to refute ML’s insinuation since I do not live in the vicinity of Harvard and so could not go there and check their collection for the letter.

However, this is the age of the internet and after some poking around I discovered that Harvard’s Houghton Library not only lists the material in their Agassiz collection they also have scans of the original documents including…

 Wait for it…

 The letter from Agassiz to his mother dated December 2 1846.

Now the scans aren’t great and the letter is in French (differing interpretations of which accounts for the minor differences between Lurie and Gould’s quotations) but they are there for anyone, ML included, to read for themselves.

I did, and despite the fact that my French is extremely limited I was able to find the passage in question starting bottom third or so of page 13 and ending on page 14 (you gotta love the interwebs).

Given this, I am sure we can expect a retraction from ML regarding this libel against Gould.

References

Agassiz, Louis (1846) A letter to Rose M. Agassiz, quoted in Gould, Stephen (1981) The Mismeasure of Man, W.W. Norton & Company, NY,  p. 44-45

Bergman, Jerry (1997) “Evolution and the Origins of the Biological Race Theory“, Journal of Creation, 7(2):155–168

Gould, Stephen Jay (1981) The Mismeasure of Man, W.W. Norton & Company, NY

Lurie, Edward (1960) Louis Agassiz: A life in science, Johns Hopkins University Press (1988)

In which I yell at everyone on the interwebs

A Facebook friend posted a link to a YouTube video titled “Top Ten Creationist Arguments” by The Thinking Atheist. I had seen it before, it’s slickly produced and OK as far as it goes (though I would have a different list of 10 creationists arguments) but that’s not what got me going. In the video TTA gives a quote from the late Stephen Jay Gould:

This caught my eye because I have been researching stuff to do with philosophy of science, i.e. the testability of evolutionary theory and the difference between the so called experimental sciences and historical sciences. In particular I thought I had remembered reading a essay by Gould on the subject and I thought this quote might give me a lead on it. The problem is TTA doesn’t give a source for the quote. “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll just Google it and it should be a snap to find the source.” Bzzzt! Wrong. Oh if you Google the quote you’ll get a gillion links but none* of them give the source of the quote!

After a half and hour or so of Google mining I finally found a site that gave the source as Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995), but it provided no page number! So I pulled my copy off the shelf, blew the dust off the top  (damn dust) and checked the index for references to creationism.

There were a couple and while Gould did say something like this in one part of the book referenced, it wasn’t an exact quote. Finally I went to Amazon.com and found that they allowed one to search the contents of the book, and at last I got the information I was looking for.

The quote appears on page 397 (of the 1st hardback edition) and is not one of the places listed in the index for the term creationism. Here it is with some context:

One tangential point before I leave this elegant study [a genetic study of certain crabs, see below – T.B.]. Creationists critics often charge that evolution cannot be tested, and therefore cannot be viewed as a properly scientific subject at all (see the next essay for a fuller discussion of this important issue). This claim is rhetorical nonsense. How could one ask for a better test, based on a very risky prediction, than this? The counterintuitive link between king and hermit crabs was postulated on the basis of classical evidence from morphology (the arguments detailed previously in this essay as points 1-3). This prediction was then tested by the completely independent data set of DNA sequence comparisons — and confirmed in spades, with even closer propinquity than suspected between king crab and hermit crab lines.

I regard this story of king and hermit crabs as one of the most elegant I have learned of late in evolutionary biology–a lovely combination of a fascinating and counterintuitive tale; a multifaceted, rigorous and convincing pile of supporting data; and a lesson of intriguing generality  (the difference between genealogical propinquity and any functional meaning of similarity–and the overriding importance of propinquity). (Gould 1995, p. 397, emphasis mine)

Great, curiosity satisfied!

So please, please, please, people, don’t just throw quote around willy-nilly. Give proper references. [I’ll make an exception for T-shirts, but that’s it!]

OK, I got that out of my system, end pedantic rant.

[* I didn’t look at every single Google result so this is a rhetorical “none”.]

Reference

Gould, Stephen Jay (1995) Dinosaur in a Haystack, Harmony Books, NY, 1st hardback edition

One more time with Biele

Creationist Arthur Biele responded to my response, to his response of my critique of something he wrote on horse evolution [inhales abruptly].

Thankfully he respected my wishes that he not post another book length set of arguments in the comments to my post. He has of course taken this as a blanket refusal on my part to allow him to respond:

Biele: Since you refuse me a full response to your article…

Mr. Biele, I only asked that you not post another extremely lengthy response, in the comments section of my blog and indeed this is a rule of mine, one not restricted to you. If you look at my comments policy you’ll see that this is a  request I make of everyone who comments on my blog. Still, I welcomed you to respond to one or two specific points, which we could then discuss further; something which I think would be a more productive way to continue our debate.  And I also specifically mentioned other options you could take if you wanted to respond at length.

Once again, you are free to start your own blog (they’re free) or web page and post as long a response to me as you like. Alternatively you could post your comments to the Talk Origins Newsgroup (or some other similar open forum), and simply leave a link in my comments as to where your response could be found (and then I might respond further here).

So it is really your choice.

Now, despite your complaints, you did in fact make a comment of a limited nature about punctuated equilibrium which I am happy to respond to.

Biele: …the PE’s views that theory is not at all complementary to Darwinisn evolution, but was meant to replace it.

Yes, I am aware that this is the caricature of punctuated equilibrium that antievolutionists like you believe in; the problem is it is a caricature, not reality. You see, Mr. Biele, for someone who has some understanding of both the neo-Darwinian synthesis and PE (and who has read the relevant literature), your portrayal of the situation is nonsensical.

Biele: In the plaeontologists views, evidence for Darwin’s gradualistic theory of evolution is refuted by the fossil record.

In some paleontologists’ views, the evidence for what Eldredge and Gould referred to as “phyletic gradualism” is refuted by the fossil record. Not Darwinian evolution as a whole, just what they termed its supposed phyletic gradualism. Furthermore, there are many, including myself, that think that Eldredge and Gould fashioned a bit of a straw-man in their characterization of the main-line synthetic theory.

Biele: The PE theory was a means to save The General Theory of Evolution by proposing a new means by which evolution occurs. Of course that theory of evolution also has its’ critical faults too.

[Sigh] I’m sorry Mr. Biele, but this is simply nonsense. Once again, Stephen Jay Gould:

Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists continually rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim.  If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am – for I have become a major target of these practices.

I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, change of pace.  In 1972, my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium.  We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record —geologically “sudden” origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis) — reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years.  This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond.  It represents much less than one percent of the average lifespan for a fossil invertebrate species – more than 10 million years.  Large, widespread, and well-established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much.  We believe that the inertia of large populations explains the stasis of most fossil species over millions of years.

We proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium largely to provide a different explanation for pervasive trends in the fossil record.  Trends, we argued, cannot be attributed to gradual transformation within lineages, but must arise from the differential success of certain kinds of species.  A trend, we argued, is more like climbing a flight of stairs (punctuations and stasis) than rolling up an inclined plane

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.  Yet a pamphlet entitled: “Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution Is a Hoax” states: “The facts of punctuated equilibrium which Gould and Eldredge . . . are forcing Darwinists to swallow fit the picture that Bryan insisted on, and which God has revealed to us in the Bible.” – Gould (1983) “Evolution As Fact And Theory” in Hen’s Teeth and Horses Toes, pp.253-262, (Emphasis mine)

And now, 27 years later, Arthur Biele continues the distortion.

Biele: I was preparing a reply in my mind as I read each of your arguments and noting the many sophistical defenses you used in your long awaited reply. A long reply deserves an equal response, And it would have taken me a few days due to my busy schedule. But as you told me what amounts to be ‘take a hike’, that your site is reserved for your own views and accolades, I will honor your wishes. I indeed do plan to actually ‘take a hike’ as it would be good for my health.

As I said it’s your choice. You have several options open to you to give as long a response as you might like to my previous post, and of course you are welcome to respond on the more limited issue of PE discussed here in the comments below, just keep it concise.

If not, it’s no sand off my beach.