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Is History Bunk?

This semester, with a colleague at the University of Chicago, I have been co-running a course on Charles Darwin. We are doing it as part of a bigger project that will see the two of us writing a book on Darwin, wherein we express our very different understandings of Darwin, his background, and his influence. I think that Darwin was the quintessential British mechanist, a man who brought the machine metaphor into biology 200 years after it had conquered the physical sciences, and that the reason he did this was because he was a child of the British 18th-century Industrial Revolution. I agree with Karl Marx who wrote to Friedrich Engels in 1862:

I’m amused that Darwin, at whom I’ve been taking another look, should say that he also applies the ‘Malthusian’ theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr Malthus’s case the whole thing didn’t lie in its not being applied to plants and animals, but only — with its geometric progression — to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’.

My colleague and very good friend, Robert J. Richards, disagrees entirely. He sees Darwin as a product of the German Romantic movement at the beginning of the 19th century. He sees this in Darwin’s style, in his method of argument, and also in his influence, especially in Germany on the great evolutionist Ernst Haeckel.

Obviously with such differences, Bob and I could hardly write a book together, so we are writing two separate (but coordinated) 30,000 word essays, and then exchanging and writing 10,000 word follow ups. In the course we have been running, we have had outside speakers, but a couple of weeks ago we ourselves performed, giving our respective views. It is now up on the Internet and I invite you to look at it. Though I say it as shouldn’t (to quote one of my favorite fictional characters, John Buchan’s Dick Hannay), it is pretty good. We do show our stark differences. I win of course, although frankly I could use losing a few pounds.

At a kind of meta-level, our debate has got me thinking. If two experts in the field can differ so violently about just about everything Darwinian, what does that say for history? Is it anything more than just subjective opinion? There is no truth, just what makes you feel good? And if this is so, is this not yet one more nail in the coffin of the humanities. I have been drawing attention to the fact that, in slagging off the humanities, empirical scientists seem to be falling over themselves to do the work of the Tea Party. To philosophy and religion and more can we now add history?

Perhaps so, but before you rush to judgment, can I point out that in respects we historians are not always that different from the scientists. About thirty years ago, there was a huge debate among evolutionists about the applicability of the theory to social behavior, particularly to human social behavior. Arrayed on one side were a number of scientists, including our own David Barash. They argued that using Darwinian Theory casts considerable light on human behavior and society. Arrayed on the other side were many other scientists, including the late Stephen Jay Gould. They argued that Darwinian Theory does nothing but uphold the status quo – capitalist, racist, sexist. At least Bob and I like each other and respect each other. Barash versus Gould put one a bit in mind of American politics. And I am not sure that ultimately they were (or would be now) any closer to settling their differences.

I am not now arguing that all opinion is subjective. I take it as given that Charles Darwin started reading the sixth edition of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population on September 28, 1838, and that this was the spark that led him to natural selection. I take it as given that the DNA molecule is a double helix and that along its back are molecules in a “code” that carries the information used to build organisms. But after that it seems to me that an awful lot is up for grabs.

Of course you might argue that evolutionary theory is a bit of a weak sibling and that these differences don’t occur in the real sciences like physics. And that even in evolutionary theory in the end the truth will out. This never occurs in history – or philosophy or religion or other areas of the humanities. We are still arguing about the decline of the Roman Empire and we are still arguing about the mind-body problem.

Again, perhaps this is so, although I am not absolutely convinced. It seems to me that some issues in science just go on indefinitely. And of course, I am not about to accept uncritically the slipped-in assumption that because people differ this means everything is unrestrained opinion – bunk, in fact. Sometimes in life – politics, religion, philosophy, history – you have different opinions. In one way, it makes life a lot richer. Bob and I are having a huge amount of fun arguing our differences. In another way, it means that you are always having to think and rethink your own position. Bob’s criticisms have taught me a huge amount about my own position. In a third way, perhaps Nietzsche was right: there is no fixed absolute truth and what truth there is emerges from the clash of perspectives.

Vive la différence!

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