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Well founded iconoclasm is fine, but personal politics have no place in a reference work
on 20 June 2013
At first glance, I thought this book might be a useful and entertaining reference work for me and my children. Then I read the article on Evolution, and was dumbfounded by the spite, political bigotry, class prejudice and outright factual untruths presented about one of the great scientists of history.
There are two things going on in the article: the first is the iconoclastic denigration of Darwin's contribution to science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular; the second is the building up of Wallace into the new icon. I have little problem with the second - Wallace was a fascinating character, a brilliant scientist, a passionate social campaigner and much more. He has been unjustly overlooked and he deserves greater recognition in his own right, and indeed part of the purpose of this book is to bring forward such people.
This article should, however, have presented a balanced and honest appraisal of the Darwin-Wallace relationship, and explained how it often arises in science that great originality comes from one person condensing others' observations and theories across multiple diverse fields; "invention" can therefore seldom be wholly credited to one individual, but one individual is often the catalyst and the one who most fully explores the corollaries of a great hypothesis (Newton "standing on the shoulders of giants" is a classic example). That is why Darwin has the position he does.
Instead, what we have in this article is an absolute disgrace, especially in a book which will be used as a reference work by children. Darwin is discredited for "only spending five years on the Beagle" whereas Wallace spent his life "living in the swamps" (so by implication Darwin had no field experience worth talking about and his observations are clearly of no merit in comparison - never mind his notebooks which reveal him as one of the greatest observers and recorders). Darwin was a "gentleman" of "independent" means, whereas Wallace was a poor struggling socialist (again by implication Darwin's ideas can therefore have no merit - how can someone born with with a silver spoon have ever done anything useful?). It is claimed that Darwin got an easy ride only because of his position and influence (the fact he earned these by being an outstanding scientist, collating observations and theories across diverse fields for several decades seems to escape the author). And the accusations of lying and cheating leveled against Darwin are not worthy of further discussion.
What can one make of such prejudice and dishonesty? Well-founded iconoclasm, supported by a balanced view, is good and necessary; misleading rubbish like this is not.