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Stealing Down the Road to Perdition

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Stealing Down the Road to Perdition
Author(s): 
Brian Regal
Volume: 
30
Issue: 
1–2
Year: 
2010
Date: 
January–April
Page(s): 
19–20
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

In grammar school the nuns made a point of telling us that stealing constituted a terrible sin. Taking what belonged to others and claiming it belonged to you was distinctly frowned upon, would upset Jesus, would get you smacked with a ruler, and could start you down the road to Hell. I learned these lessons in the context of a religious tradition that Comfort would deny has any validity; and yet his "true" religious tradition did not seem to deter him from this unethical — some might say sinful — behavior.

As an historian of science whose work focuses on the history of evolutionary thought and its influences on popular culture, religion, and politics, I read Comfort's introduction to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species on-line last spring. I had reviewed Comfort's preposterously silly board game Intelligent Design versus Evolution for the British magazine Endeavour the summer before, so I looked forward to more whacky hijinks. As I read I could not help but get a sense of déjà vu and the feeling that the writing was a bit too good. Making my way further into the text, I encountered the type of ham-handed and clumsy syntax, pseudo-literary flourishes, convoluted logic, and superficial attempts at sounding intelligent more in line with what I expected. While most of it was drivel, the beginning of Comfort's text sounded suspiciously like the introduction for the Barnes & Noble edition of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin that I wrote in 2005. Other duties occupied my time so I could not go through it carefully. It was the end of the semester and I was preparing to go to the United Kingdom for a round of conferences as well as the big Darwinopalooza at Cambridge, so I put Comfort aside, planning on returning to him when I wasn't doing something more important like staring at the ceiling. Throughout the summer, however, I began receiving e-mails from eagleeyed readers who also noticed that I had been plagiarized. Others pointed out that Stan Guffey of the University of Tennessee as well as the Darwin Foundation had their work pilfered and insulted too. And now Comfort and his pal in blinkered intellectual vandalism and strange views on fruit, Kirk Cameron, planned on giving away free copies of this thing.

While the plagiarism is telling, what is more so, I think, is the sources Comfort choose to steal from. Along with so many other things, Comfort's introduction shows simple laziness in that he went on-line and grabbed the first few easy sites he found for his sources. He engaged in the same kind of research tactics common among eighth-graders, but for which I would fail one of my university students. Guffey's short biography of Darwin and my own piece for the Autobiography are, with all due respect, not exactly deeply analytic or penetrating scholarly works. They are meant for audiences new to the material, which has been digested and simplified. Had Comfort been serious in his intent to engage in a discourse on the impact of Darwin's work he should have stolen from Adrian Desmond and James Moore's Darwin's Sacred Cause, or Peter Bowler's The Eclipse of Darwinism, John Van Whye, or a host of other world-class Darwin scholars rather than from me. He could have stolen bits from my Human Evolution: A Guide to the Debates; if nothing else I'd get some royalties. Had he done a little actual research and thoughtful reading, he would have seen that there is a vast literature tackling tough questions on Darwin's life and work as well as the role played by science in Nazi ideology. This in turn would have shown Comfort that far from Darwin, the work that most profoundly inspired Hitler came from eugenicists, political conservatives, and Christian fundamentalists, none of whom accepted Darwin's actual writings. He would have seen that Hitler's belief that he was divinely anointed and that God had destined the German people and the Nazi party for greatness made his vision of the world far closer to today's "intelligent design" theory than natural selection. Comfort could at least have corrected the misspelling of Alfred Russel Wallace's name. (I am also waiting for Ray Comfort or Kirk Cameron or any of their ilk to explain why if evolution causes so much death and destruction, the most violent and hate-filled groups in America, like the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and religious cults, all reject evolution and claim to embrace Christ and why a guy has never walked into a restaurant and shot up the place, saying Darwin made him do it? They always blame it on Jesus.) But that level of subtle analysis is beyond Comfort's abilities. Besides we wouldn't want him to behave like one of those socalled scholars he and others like him detest: the ones who "professing themselves to be wise become fools." So he went for the kid's versions instead of the ones for grownups with all the big words and the complex ideas.

Even without the plagiarism, Ray Comfort's work shows an astonishing lack of knowledge of basic history or science, his attitude toward other religions is intolerant, and his sophomoric pontificating never rises above the level of a bumper sticker. He thus insults genuinely religious people as well as those he loves to call atheists: which is anyone who doesn't believe exactly as he does. He seems confused by the "intelligent design" theory he embraces so warmly, failing to see how it undermines the young-earth creationism his followers take as a rigid core belief. His now legendary discourse on banana morphology and his references to child murder in the Origin's introduction are creepy and humorous for all the wrong reasons. His fast-talking flim-flam sounds more like that of a used car salesman than someone who speaks for the Lord.

Like all demagogues, Comfort uses self-conscious underdog rhetoric designed to elicit donations from followers and denunciations from opponents which he uses to generate more donations (although I wonder how anyone can be on God's team and still be an underdog). This formula ensures that Comfort will continue his antics, get rich, and gather followers. He delights in explicating the horrors that await sinners, exhorts them to atone for their sins, and claims to know what God wants and does it with the giddy selfassuredness of the self-righteous. Ironically, as an added bonus he includes a little flying rubber band toy with the signed copies of the Origin he has given out. On it are printed the questions "Have you kept His Command-ments? Ever lied? Stolen?"

REGAL AND COMFORT

The following quotations are from Brian Regal's introduction to The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005) and from Ray Comfort's "special introduction" to his edition of On the Origin of Species (Alachua [FL]: Bridge Logos Foundation, 2009).

Regal

Comfort

Darwin's father and grandfather were both doctors; his mother belonged to the Wedgwood family of pottery fame. His father and grandfather were both doctors, and his mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, of pottery fame.
Darwin's parents expected him to go into medicine, and although he entered Edinburgh University to pursue a medical degree, for various reasons, including squeamishness, he left without graduating. Darwin's father expected him to go into medicine, and although he entered Edinburgh University to pursue a medical degree, he found he couldn't stand the sight of blood and left after two years.
As a clergyman, he would have the free time to follow his real intellectual love: natural history. As a clergyman, he would have the free time to follow his real intellectual love: natural history.
Darwin was a passionate student of nature, and while still in school he had amassed a considerable beetle collection as well as other specimens. Darwin was a passionate student of nature, and while in school he amassed a considerable beetle collection as well as other specimens.

There are two important issues in investigating plagiarism. One is whether phrases or sentences are simply copied without attribution from one source to another. This is the case in the boldface text in the table above.

The second has to do with how the reference material is used. It is considered plagiarism if an author uses the original sentence structure from the reference, merely substituting synonyms or near-synonyms: for example, the change from "parents" to "father" in the second quotation above would not exonerate Comfort from the charge of plagiarism.

Using phrases or expressions that are unique to the original author is also considered plagiarism. In this example, phrases such as "of pottery fame", and "to pursue a medical degree" would satisfy the criteria for plagiarism.

An extended discussion of plagiarism with examples of appropriate and inappropriate usage can be found at http://www.usp.edu/writing/plagrsm.shtml.

About the Author(s): 

Brian Regal
Department of History
Kean University
Union NJ 07083
bregal@kean.edu

Brian Regal is Assistant Professor for the History of Science at Kean University. His latest book is Pseudoscience: A Critical Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara [CA]: Greenwood Press, 2009).