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Review: Darwin in Scotland: Edinburgh, Evolution, and Enlightenment
Do not judge this book by its cover. Despite the claims made there and in the forewords (by AC Grayling and Stuart Munro, no less), no strong case is made here for the assertion that his time in Edinburgh had any major influence on Darwin. There are references to Darwin’s study of taxidermy and to his membership of the Plinian Society, and a paragraph from his autobiography that describes how hearing Robert Grant’s views on evolution could have influenced him later, but nothing more on the ostensive central theme. A later two-page description of Darwin’s 1838 visit to Scotland and his incorrect analysis of the parallel roads of Glen Roy adds nothing of substance to the more scientifically detailed account in his autobiography.
The book sometimes reads as if aimed at a very restricted audience: those who have personal acquaintance with Edinburgh’s High Street (“So, the next time you are passing by his [David Hume’s] statue ...”). The chronology is, to put it politely, confusing, with no sense of historical perspective. There is a two-page inventory of sources for Darwin’s own writings, and a ten-page list of recommended readings, but the vast majority of these are not taken up in the text. Meantime, almost all of the many excerpts used in the text are presented with little more than the author’s or speaker’s name.
There is no great emphasis on purely Scottish aspects of the response to Darwin. The threepage chapter on “Scottish Geology” starts with James Hutton’s uniformitarianism, and credits him with the discovery in the West of the concept of “deep time,” as if Robert Hooke, Nicholas Steno, Benoît de Maillet, and the Comte de Buffon had never existed. There is only one brief reference in this chapter to Charles Lyell, who should surely qualify for more extended treatment, not only because of his long friendship with Darwin, but because he was, after all, a Scot. We have a paragraph on William Thomson’s (Lord Kelvin’s) thermodynamic objection to uniformitarianism, backed up with a well-chosen quotation, but on this occasion the failure to give an exact reference is more than a trivial annoyance. The passage quoted originally came from Thomson’s address to the annual meeting of the Christian Evidence Society in May 1889. This context is highly relevant to Thomson’s beliefs, as is the date to the detailed evolution of his arguments, but you will not learn that here. Nor will you learn that Thomson’s publication campaign against uniformitarianism in general, and the deep time required for unguided evolution in particular, began as early as 1862, and that Darwin himself described Thomson as an “odious spectre” and among his sorest troubles.
The major part of the book is actually taken up with interviews by the author of an impressive array of people, many of them based in Scotland, or whom he managed to interview while they were passing through. The list of contributors is impressive, twentyfour in all, from Noam Chomsky, Daniel C Dennett, and Richard Dawkins through Michael Behe and William Dembski to Ken Ham, and supplemented by a useful collection of brief biographies. Again, I would have been glad to know the dates of these interviews, and indeed in some cases whether we are dealing with interviews as such or with excerpts from other materials, such as Web postings. The contributors are encouraged to expound their ideas by gentle questioning, although at times I wished the author, himself a biologist, could have brought himself to ask more elementary questions. Despite this, I found these interviews highly informative. My own perspective was shifted on a number of scientific matters, while a damningly self-revelatory interview with Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis and Creation Museum fame) gave me insights into a way of thinking that I could not even have imagined.
A chapter devoted to the teaching of evolution, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, is totally unsatisfactory. Confusing cause with effect, the author attributes the opposition to introducing “intelligent design” (ID) in American schools to vigilance over the First Amendment, and fails to understand why the creationists are so eager to market their products as “science”. He also describes the ruling in Kitzmiller as a rejection of ID’s attacks on evolution. True, but the real point is that the school board lost, not because ID is wrong, but because it is an expression of religion. He incorrectly states that Truth in Science (which he associates with ID, although its young-earth creationist and biblical literalist roots are well-known) was “blocked by the UK government from disseminating Discovery Institute material.” This is not what happened. The UK government did not and could not stop TiS from sending materials to schools; what it can do, and did do, was reiterate its view that ID and creationism are not scientific theories.
The author is rightly concerned that the “faith schools” set up under the (recently displaced) Labour administration would be sympathetic to creationism, but fails to mention that this problem has already arisen in the most acute form in independent statesupported academies (as documented, several years before this book was completed, in Dawkins’s The God Delusion [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], p 331–7). He does not explain the fundamental problem in the UK, which is that as long as schools teach the scientific curriculum to the required standard, they can, and some do, also teach creationism, or even tell their students that the account required for national examination purposes is false.
One further theme is the relationship between evolution and religion. Here the author falls into the trap of presuming a dichotomy, saying in his preface, “The other role for Darwinian evolution puts it at the heart of the science-religion debate, as a counterpoint to contemporary Creationism and Intelligent Design” (p xiv). The mainstream biologists interviewed have no chance to comment on this assertion, since in the main they are asked only about science, while the creationists have space to expound their full range of objections to naturalism. No mention is made of theologies that embrace evolution or the movement represented by Evolution Weekend. It is only at the very end of the book’s epilog that we are shown a scientist contemplating the notion that evolution itself might be the work of a creator. That scientist is Charles Darwin.