No, Ken Ham, Darwin Was Not A Racist

I was fortunate enough to be able to post this response to one of Ken Ham’s claims during his debate with Bill Nye on God of Evolution. It’s an excellent blog that everyone interested in the science/religion conversation should read regularly. 

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The pottery medallion created by Darwin’s grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, for his anti-slavery campaign.

The debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye the other day surprised me in a number of different ways. I wasn’t expecting much at all and I was bracing for a train wreck. But the debate turned out to be quite civilized and the interactions between the two interlocutors were respectful and well-mannered. In regards to content, they both did quite well presenting their cases. Ken Ham was kind of all over the place, especially towards the end, and in contrast to Bill Nye’s factual and pragmatic case for the scientific superiority of evolution, attempted to build his argument as much on theology and ethics as on science. But while The Science Guy’s easy to understand presentation of science was strong, his comments on religion, especially the Bible, were woefully ignorant. Also, Ken Ham had better PowerPoint.

I doubt any minds were changed by the debate. If you thought any one of the debaters won, you were probably rooting for the guy to begin with.

One thing I’d like to acknowledge, though, was the generally positive nature of Ken Ham’s presentation. Those familiar with creationist arguments — perhaps especially those on the receiving end of said arguments — know well how negative, fear-mongering and demonizing they can be. Ken Ham could easily have resorted to such tactics and scored culture war points with his audience. But he didn’t.

Mostly.

As Ken Ham went through the scientific predictions he argued creationism could make, he claimed that creationism predicted that human beings are all one race (a point related to the “kinds”-argument and microevolution made just before). Since we all can trace our ancestry back to one set of gardening parents, we are all the same race. Which is fair. What was not so fair was his characterization of evolutionary theory as essentially racist.

Some 46 minutes into the debate, Ken Ham makes this claim: Evolution, as expressed by Darwin in his book“The Descent of Man” and later taught to unsuspecting American school children, supplies the logic required to segregate human races according to higher and lower worth. It was only after Craig Venter’s alternativehuman genome project, Ham claims, that secular science found out what biblical creationists had always known: There is only one race — the human race. Ken Ham presents this as going against evolution as expressed by Darwin.

This is wrong.

Darwin was certainly a man of his time: A Victorian gentleman with views about “savages” that would be less than politically correct these days. But despite his ignorance and privilege, Darwin was no racist. He did not teach that there were lower races and higher races, as Ham claims. In fact, the idea that humanity consisted of higher and lower races was precisely what he set out to refute in “The Descent of Man” — the very book Ken Ham mentions! For Darwin, the logic and evidence of the evolutionary process was that all human beings came from a common ancestor. Mankind could be intelligibly classified into different races, groups belonging to the same species having adapted to life in different environments. But all were part of the same species, deserving of the same basic dignity and worth. Darwin dryly observed:

“Now when naturalists observe a close agreement in numerous small details of habits, tastes, and dispositions between two or more domestic races, or between nearly-allied natural forms, they use this fact as an argument that they are descended from a common progenitor who was thus endowed; and consequently that all should be classed under the same species. The same argument may be applied with much force to the races of man.” (Descent, 179)

This was more than a century before Venter.

Furthermore, in their 2009 book, “Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution,” Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that for Darwin, the essential equality of the races was not just a scientific conclusion reached through observation. Rather, it was a moral imperative for him. For all of his life, Darwin was a fierce opponent of the institution of slavery and the cruelty that came with it. Both of his grandfathers — Erasmus Darwinand Josiah Wedgwood — were prominent abolitionists and Charles imbibed their righteous fervor against slavery from an early age. A potter by trade, Wedgwood is remembered for mass producing his “slave medallion,” a cameo depicting a shackled and pleading black slave, with the famous inscription underneath:“Am I not a Man and a Brother?”

Darwin brought this moral indignation with him as a young explorer on his voyage on the Beagle. There he witness the horrible mistreatment and torture faced by slaves in South America. Desmond and Moore argue, somewhat controversially, that it was Darwin’s passion against slavery that lay behind his writing “On the Origin of Species,” and later “The Descent of Man.” Convincingly arguing for and publicizing the theory of evolution was, for him, not merely a scientific pursuit, but a moral and social one as well. In the face of evolution, no one could claim that certain races could lay claim to the title and associated benefits of “humanity” over against another, who they then could enslave.

No matter differences in appearance, common descent unites us all and is the foundation of basic human equality. For Darwin, evolution made slavery impossible.

Christians would want to say more and root human equality, dignity and rights not in common descent, but in the Imago Dei. But we should recognize and celebrate how Darwin viewed his theory and encourage such a helpful interpretation of it.

Obviously, a cursory familiarity with history demonstrates that things haven’t been as simple as Darwin hoped. Evolution was subsequently used by eugenicists and others to support their racist ideas — just as Ken Ham mentioned with his reference to a 1914 biology text book. But such sentiments weren’t based on, as Ham said, “Darwin’s ideas, which were wrong.” Rather, they represented the twisting of Darwin’s ideas. Which is wrong. To project them back unto Darwin himself would be to deeply disrespect the moral character of the gentleman abolitionist. It would be just as unfair as chucking out the Bible because it has been similarly misused by slavery apologists and other racists throughout the centuries.

Ken Ham is absolutely correct in pointing out that creationism is anti-racist. But his insinuation that evolution is racist is a grave misunderstanding of both the theory and its implications, in addition to being a defamation of Darwin himself — who fought actively against slavery all of his life and argued that, fundamentally, all men are equal.

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Some Thoughts on “Evolution Vs. God”

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I must admit I’ve been putting this off for a couple of weeks. It’s been almost a month since Ray Comfort’s new anti-evolution film, Evolution Vs. God, came out and I’ve been dreading the moment where I had to endure a sit through it. But this morning I sat down on the sofa, took a deep breath and pressed play.

Here are my thoughts.

First of all, the film is quite well made. The graphics are nice and the editing is effective. Manipulative (we’ll get to that later), but effective. Ray Comfort deserves recognition too, because, agree with him or not, he has an abundant amount of charisma and charm. You don’t even see him on screen until the last minutes of the film, but he has you captivated all the way through. So he’s certainly good at his job.

But that’s where the praise must stop, I’m afraid.

As a Christian and as an evolutionist, I’m stuck right in the middle of dichotomy assumed by the film between evolution and God. I’m convinced that there’s nothing anti-God about evolution, nor is there anything anti-evolution about God. Certainly, evolution can be interpreted in ways that exclude God, just as well as God and the doctrine of creation specifically can be interpreted in ways that make the acceptance of evolution impossible. But neither of these interpretations are necessary nor are they, in my opinion, correct. The Christian doctrine of creation grants ontological integrity to nature and so demands that science, as the study of nature, be taken very seriously indeed. Theology and science, therefore, must be integrated. They cannot be pitted against each other, as everyone in this film seems to be doing.

(Which raises a minor point in regards to the chosen protagonists of the Evolution Vs. God story: Where were the Christian evolutionists?)

As someone who takes science very seriously (because I take theology very seriously), I was disturbed by the fundamental disregard the film had for science and scientists. Throughout the entire film, the scientific method is undermined, the results of a century and a half of scientific research dismissed and the integrity, intelligence and motives of evolutionary scientists called in to question. In the second half of the film Comfort claims that not only do those who accept evolution, scientists and lay people alike, do so despite their intuitive knowledge that God created the world, but they do so in order to justify their own sinful lifestyles. “Evolution gets rid of moral accountability,” he claims. Attributing such ulterior motives to strangers and assuming such a position of superiority over them is both uncharitable and offensive.

But Ray Comfort has never been afraid of offence, has he? As anyone familiar with his previous work, especially with The Way of the Master, might expect, his ten commandments witnessing spiel inevitably makes its way into the film. I admire Comfort’s zeal and he seems genuinely concerned about people’s souls. But rhetorically cornering people into the Kingdom of God? That makes me very uneasy. It might work every once in a while, but mostly it’ll just confirm the widely held prejudice that Christians are hypocritical assholes who jump through hoops to avoid their so-called master’s command of love. The thing they call love is just condescending rudeness.

While we’re on the subject of Comfort’s interview technique, I must say that the longer I watched the film, the more disturbed I was by how manipulative his use of street interviews was. His use of apparently stumped experts is one, somewhat dishonest thing. But using regular folk off the street as mere props, asking them leading questions and selectively editing their responses in order to further your agenda – that’s not nice. It’s not charitable. It takes neither people nor the task of telling the truth seriously. And I really think it fails to live up to the love for one’s neighbour Christians are supposed to have.

Here’s another thing I don’t understand. Say you’re a creationist. Say you want to argue against evolution. How might you go about it? You know that certain evolutionists, like Richard Dawkins, hate religion. Why, calling evolution a religion – that’s a clever idea! “Do you believe in evolution?”, you ask your friendly neighbourhood evolutionist. “Yes, I do,” he replies. “Hah! You have faith! You’re just as clueless as I am!”

Right? Because isn’t that the logical implication of the evolution-as-religion critique so often levelled by anti-evolutionists? That evolutionists believe something just as baselessly as religious people and are thus just as stupid?

And here I thought faith was a virtue.

The problem with this rhetorical apologetic device, beyond the obvious foot-shooting, is that it plays into the hands of those atheists who portray faith as nothing but the cognitive acceptance of propositions without evidence (or, perhaps, despite the evidence). That is not what faith is – according to Christianity, at least. Believing is not the same as accepting something as factually correct. Faith is not the same as trust in experts. Saving faith in Christ is the deep existential orientation of your whole person towards the God witnessed to in the Bible and proclaimed by the church. The acceptance of a number of proposition is part of that, but arguably a relatively small part. Loving God and neighbour is infinitely more important (see 1st Corinthians 13, for example).

So, not only does this characterisation of faith quite unhelpfully play into the hands of atheological apologists, but it shortchanges true Christian faith as well.

Stop doing that, creationists. Please!

In conclusion, Evolution Vs. God is not a serious documentary film. It doesn’t attempt to weigh the evidence for evolution fairly and objectively. It doesn’t even mention any alleged evidence against evolution! It’s simply a highly problematic piece of creationist propaganda. It equivocates, it manipulates and it fails to live up to a basic standard of truth-telling. The choir will undoubtedly love what it preaches, but fair-minded viewers will be put off by its dishonest tactics.

Watch the film for free here.

 

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