Has Andrew Sullivan Read Darwin?
Sullivan's invocation of a towering biologist doesn't make a lot of sense.
On April 18, Andrew Sullivan had an exchange with a pseudonymous interlocutor who wrote: “It's tremendously easy to find multiple locations of you being a racial hereditarian Andrew. The truth is an absolute defense against defamation. If you'd like to retract your racial hereditarian claim here I'd be happy to accommodate.”
Sullivan responded: “Race IS inherited to a great extent. Are we at the point where you are denying that two white parents will have white children? I mean please. Have you read any Darwin?”
I was a bit puzzled by Sullivans invocation of Darwin here. After all, while Darwin is a giant in the history of biology, he lived long before principles of Mendelian inheritance were widely accepted let alone the discovery of DNA and the ability to map out the genome. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what Darwin’s ideas of inheritance would be relevant to a modern discussion.
To get some guidance, I wrote to my friend Ian Hesketh, who teaches at the University of Queensland, where he is an ARC Future Fellow in the in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. Ian’s published widely on Darwin and the debates around him.
I asked Ian what he thought of Sullivan’s comments:
That's an interesting exchange. You're right to be skeptical of Sullivan invoking Darwin here. But I'd want to make a slightly different point. Darwin DID write quite a bit about race (largely in Descent of Man, and it's pretty shockingly odious. So referring to Darwin's theory of racial inheritance as evidence for anything is kind of appalling. Unless Sullivan actually thinks that there is an inherent hierarchy among the races and that they were established at an early history thanks to the process of sexual selection (which posited that the development different aesthetic senses led to creation of diverse physical, intellectual, and moral traits...i.e. races). It's true that Darwin sought to reduce the distinctions between humans and non-human animals but he ironically sought to widen the divisions between the races in Descent of Man. And by races Darwin was really only concerned with explaining the distinctions between civilised (white, European, colonial) and savage (black and indigenous societies).
Darwinians don't like to talk too much about what Darwin actually had to say about humans because he didn't think his theory of natural selection could account for the distinction between the races, so he relied instead on his theory of sexual selection to explain it.
Oh, I should also mention that Darwin did have a theory of heredity that he called pangenesis. He wrote about it in Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), which came out 3 years before Descent of Man. It was a theory of blended inheritance that posited that the body is filled with cellular atoms that throw off 'gemmules'. These gemmules contain traits that then get passed on to the offspring. It's also something Darwinians want to ignore because it actually tries to account for how characters that are acquired during the lifetime of the individual can be passed down to later generations.
In other words, it's Lamarckian.
I suggested that Sullivan seemed glib. Ian responded:
Yeah really glib. Because the counter to Sullivan is to ask: Have YOU (ie Sullivan) read Darwin on race?
Ian’s question is a good one.