How should we act when others don’t share our heroes? It’s an old question, but it’s relevant these days. I don’t think we’ve gotten any better at answering it. Writing something critical about someone widely admired remains a good way of getting smart people to say stupid things.
This phenomenon was recently on display in the response to Agustín Fuentes’ Science retrospective on Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Fuentes’ editorial highlighted sections of Descent where Darwin wrote prejudiced and incorrect things about Indigenous people. These were Darwin’s worst ideas, in a book that already had a tarnished legacy. Nonetheless, a number of very senior academics felt that the letter demanded immediate censure.
“Fuentes [does not] recognize Darwin’s admiration for the courage of the Patagonian Indians as opposed to the timidity of the Spanish gauchos, who were trying to exterminate them,” replied University of Chicago’s Robert Richards, as if there were passages in Darwin’s work that could somehow prove he was a good person. True to form, his colleague Jerry Coyne—easily the most embarrassing person in evolutionary biology—couldn’t resist the opportunity to be a bully. “I bet you ten to one that Fuentes, had he been Darwin’s contemporary, would have been even more of a moral reprobate than Charles himself,” he wrote on his popular blog, Why Evolution Is True.
Simultaneously, the Sierra Club has been roiling with an internecine dispute over a blog post its (now departed) Executive Director Michael Brune published last year. The dynamics here are more complicated and I am reluctant to wade into them. But the core of the conflict is similar; the same misconception that there is a winnable argument about a historical figure’s character on display. “Muir specifically noted how Native peoples interacted with the landscape while living in harmony with wild nature,” wrote dissenting Sierra Club Board members Aaron Mair, Chad Hanson, and Mary Ann Nelson in Earth Island Journal. Yes, and…
I am sure both Darwin and Muir’s defenders would say they are pushing back against overly narrow caricatures of complicated people, which is subjective and not worth debating here. What is worth questioning is their shared assertion that holding historical figures up to scrutiny is a threat to their professions. “[I]naccurate and unfounded information…could create damaging divisions among the conservation movement” write Mair, Hanson, and Nelson. “Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists”, write Coyne and his colleagues. Are these claims true? Are conservation and evolutionary biology really so fragile? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not.
A friend of mine likes to talk about why it’s important to separate the art from the artist, so to speak. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think it’s useful here: I am as confident that we will still be teaching John Muir and Charles Darwin in 100 years as I am that we will still be teaching Nabokov. This is because their work has already changed the world, and despite occasional dalliances elsewhere, the world is what the academy is concerned with studying.
The problem with these spats is not that the stakes are low—they clearly aren’t, at least symbolically—but that their impact reveals weaknesses in the structures of science and advocacy that can be hard to stomach. In an ideal universe, twelve of the brightest biologists working today wouldn’t feel compelled to write a petulant letter in response to some mild criticism of someone who has been dead 139 years, itself penned by another secure academic at Princeton. In an ideal universe, the Sierra Club’s bottom line and impact wouldn’t be threatened by how their president portrayed their founder in a blog post.
We don’t live in an ideal universe, of course, and we all have our Muirs and Darwins; I wrote and then deleted an unnecessary response to an essay that lightly questioned aspects of Peter Matthiessen’s writing just last week. That doesn’t mean we can’t interrogate where our strongest reactions come from, or try and build systems that make these strong reactions beside the point. “Descent” is a text from which to learn, but not to venerate,” writes Fuentes. Who could argue with that? The ground moves beneath us, too. We will also deserve the grace of being allowed to have been wrong.