The scientist's reputation is looking under threat
Last year, I asked whether the woke mob was coming for Charles Darwin. With other eminent persons of the 18th and 19th centuries under attack e.g. David Hume and William Gladstone, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that Darwin might get cancelled too.
Then last week, Science — a prestigious journal — published an editorial attacking Darwin as an “English man with injurious and unfounded prejudices”. The author, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, says that we “must push against [Darwin’s] unfounded and harmful assertions.”
As I made clear in my own article, Darwin did indeed have some horrible opinions. But what exactly does Fuentes mean by “push back”? This seems to be the nub of it: “the scientific community,” he says, “can reject the legacy of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences by … making inclusive practices central to evolutionary inquiry.”
Yes, let’s be inclusive. However, the only thing that should be central to all scientific inquiry is the scientific method. After all, that’s how the things that Darwin got scientifically wrong have been exposed.
At the same time, we need to distinguish his scientific errors from his moral ones. They’re not completely unrelated, of course, but fusing them completely provides a basis on which to get Darwin cancelled, and perhaps evolutionary biology itself. So far, the Science editorial has done more to stir up the opponents of cancel culture than its practitioners, but if a cancellation were afoot, these would be the signs to look out for:
Firstly, and most obviously, symbolic actions. Concerted calls to remove statues of Charles Darwin, or rename things named in his honour, would be an immediate cause for concern. All the more so if universities, museums and other institutions comply.
Secondly, the injection of politics into science. As long as it isn’t used as an excuse for indoctrination, it’s legitimate to bring political analysis into studies of the history of science. However, the study of science itself should be about science and science alone. If we allow facts and experimentation to be crowded out by opinion and ideology then we’re in serious trouble.
Thirdly, the ‘de-centring’ of evolution within biology. Sometimes subtle attacks are the most deadly. An overtly political assault on Darwin and Darwinism is, for the moment, likely to backfire. But to achieve a stealth cancellation of Darwin or Darwinism you don’t need to add politics to the scientific curriculum, rather subtract the science you don’t like.
I don’t mean removing all mention of natural selection (too unsubtle), but rather ‘centring’ Darwinism by emphasising other biological mechanisms — especially those that involve cooperation instead of competition between organisms (right now, underground fungal networks are super-trendy). It’s not that these mechanisms don’t exist, but that their potential as symbols are easily abused by ideologues for whom everything is political.
So, to use another biological metaphor, watch the curriculum like a hawk.