Darwin in the East

Nature has started a series of essays called “Global Darwin” on the way that Darwin’s theory influenced non-Western scientific and political traditions. The first entry, by Marwa Elshakry, puts forward a claim about the reaction of some adherents of Eastern and Islamic traditions to Darwin in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries:

Yet the main reason for the worldwide success of Darwin's ideas was the ease with which they were assimilated into local traditions of thought as the example of the Jewish attempt to reconcile science with scripture hints. Although Darwin himself may have found such reconciliation surprising, it was certainly not as unusual as he might have imagined. Scholars from Calcutta to Tokyo and Beijing constructed their own lineage for the theory of evolution by natural selection, tracing it to older and more familiar schools of thought and claiming ownership of what they saw as the precursors to these ideas. Although some, particularly in Europe, saw Darwin as a weapon beating down religious beliefs, around the world he was as much a force for religious resurgence and revivification as for religious scepticism. Even nineteenth-century Muslim thinkers reconciled Darwinian ideas with their own past religious and philosophical texts; which may seem ironic, given the rise of Muslim creationists today.

I didn’t find the whole of this essay to be very satisfying. It does provide a few interesting examples of individuals making statements about Darwinism in integrative ways. But the essay does not look at the integration of Darwinism into the biology or naturalist traditions of non-Western cultures. I think that a close examination would be necessary to separate the political overtones of Darwinism – broadly, an argument in favor of progress – from the actual reception to the theory by people in a position to understand it.

As it is, Elshakry shows that some reformers favored a “Darwinian” approach to social change, as a bulwark against more revolutionary ideas. Such arguments did exist, but I think it’s worth remembering that Marxism was based on its own evolutionary theory – elevated to quasi-Darwinian status by some social thinkers – and was broadly a defense of violent overthrow of the existing order. At the same time, Darwin’s theory was part of the Western intellectual tradition that threatened to impose hegemony over non-Western cultures, so a resistance to Darwinism was a possible avenue of nationalism. Certainly that plays a role in the late twentieth-century resurgence of creationism in the Islamic world, as well as the rejection of Darwin/Mendelian inheritance by Stalin’s USSR. It would be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out in other contexts.

My point: many have deliberately confused aspects of biological theories (including evolution) with social change, which is an error. Giving a list of interesting errors might make for a great essay, but mixing them with the general theme of “assimilation” apparently didn’t.

References:

Elshakry M. 2009. Global Darwin: Eastern enchantment. Nature 426:1200-1201. doi:10.1038/4611200a