Tuesday, May 26, 2009

For God's sake!

We have just reviewed a book by CE Cosans, called Owen's Ape & Darwin's Bulldog: Beyond Darwinism and Creationism (Indiana Univ Press, 2009). It's an interesting discussion of the famous debate between Darwin's public (pugilistic) advocate, TH Huxley, and Darwin's opponent Richard Owen (founder of the British Natural History Museum). The question was whether humans have distinct anatomical characters compared to apes (genes were not known at the time).

The brain, naturally, was the organ of interest. Huxley claimed that there were only quantitative differences between the anatomy of ape and human brains. Owen claimed distinct differences, including a structure called the hippocampus minor. The debate was long, public, and bitter. In the end, because Darwinism won the nature-of-life debate, Huxley is treated as the winner of this debate, too. But Cosans provides good evidence that, considering their worldviews and what they actually said, Owen's interpretation was perhaps closer to the anatomical truth. Cosans analyzes the history in terms of theories about science and its relationship to the empirical world and our interpretations of it.

The analysis of this history is fine, but Cosans also delves into what Darwin, Huxley, and Owen believed about God (and hence his subtitle). This is only peripherally relevant to the main event, the debate about anatomy. It makes a saleable subtitle, and we guess that these days nobody can simply leave the religion vs 'creationism' fight alone.

The point here, however, is not who believes what and why in that regard, but that the religion debate provides a distraction, that we constantly see these days, away from the merits of the various scientific cases. In particular, we should no longer be concerned as scientists about what Darwin's or Huxley's personal religious views were. Darwin's writing is of interest to history, certainly, but not as a sacred text (though one to be revered, to be sure!).

What we think today about biology and its nature needs to be evaluated in terms of what we know and what we can testably speculate about. The gravitational pull of gossipy food-fights is natural, since even scientists are human. We have enough trouble being objective about the science itself, such as the relative roles of natural selection, population structure, environmental change, and chance in the nature of life. But too often we relate these discussions to irrelevant, but often highly emotive, sideshows.

We don't need that in order to struggle with truly fascinating questions such as what makes humans seem so different from other animals, despite great similarities in our genomes!


Sam said...

Bravo! And for the Huxley/Owen debate part it sounds like this book will make it to my already too long Victorian Science reading list.

Anne Buchanan said...

Sam, what we didn't say much about in this post is that Cosans's point is that a scientist's argument cannot be understood out of historical, philosophical and economic context. He describes how Huxley's scientific materialism and racist views led him to do the kind of rather crude anatomy that he did, and to interpret his observations as he did, and how Owen's neo Kantian belief in the influence of one's philosophy on one's science led him to be more nuanced and sophisticated in his attention to anatomical variation.

Cosans believes that Huxley ran roughshod over Owen's careful science, and won the debate by being loudest, not by doing the best work. It's a bit of a rambling tale in terms of constructing a coherent history, but interesting, though perhaps not essential reading if you've already done a lot of reading on the subject.

Sam said...

Wait, I'm confused. Does "the first monkey that comes to hand" have a hippocampus minor or not? I was under the impression that it did, but I'm no brain anatomist. If so, I'm not sure I see how Huxley's loudness is relevant or how Cosans can argue that Owen was "closer to the anatomical truth".

Ken Weiss said...

That quote was Huxley's dismissive way of treating Owen's claim that the 'hippotomus minor' (as Kingsley called it in a children's novel) was routine in primates and not unique to humans.

Did you get that quote from Cosans, or from Huxley....or from my column in Evolutionary Anthropology in 2007? In that, I was trying to deal with the search for what makes us uniquely human. I think the search is rather problematic, since any two individuals, or species, would have many systematic differences. I doubt there's only a few major ones, but rather that it's a combination of many small differences that, in aggregate, enable our unique traits. Of course, that could be wrong, and if so somebody will find what the biggies are...but it won't be foxp2!

Anne Buchanan said...

Cosans says that Owen actually acknowledged that non-human primates have a hippocampus minor, albeit smaller than humans, but that Huxley ignored this admission, making the debate less nuanced than Owen would have had it.

Cosans is unhappy with Huxley standardizing all his drawings to a single size, for example, and dealing primarily with extremes, while he says that Owen had a sophisticated approach to anatomical observation which included statistical treatment of normal variation.

Of course, Cosans, arguing from his own prior assumptions, is keen to point out that these men's interpretations were largely informed by their prior social and philosophical assumptions.

Sam said...

Ken, I got the quote from your C&Q, which, by the way, is the first hit if you google "hippocampus minor chimp".

Anne, well I'm still intriqued by the book, but it seems a very strange argument and probably I'm missing the point. I don't think even Huxley would have claimed to do better anatomy than Owen. His point was that any hack could see that humans and other primates have all the same bits. Thus, Owen's careful, sophisticated anatomy was being colored by his preconceived ideas about our relationship to the beasts. Or, and I think this is what Huxley thought, Owen was just flat out lying, making up differences because he could see the evolutionary writing on the wall, but just didn't like it (is that what neo-Kantian means?).

Ken Weiss said...

I basically agree with Sam's comments. As I recall (I haven't had the time to check) in Man's Place in Nature, Huxley basically accuses Owen of knowingly making false statements. The extensive biography of Huxley would have a lot on that, too, though I haven't rechecked that either (and Cosans goes after Desmond on that score--he uses his book as a vehicle for engaging in a spat with him).

However, even if Huxley would have acceded to Owen's skills and also pointed out that his greater point was more important than the details, he (Huxley) was a strong polemicist and this was not an emotionally neutral dispute. So we have to try to keep things in balance. 'What makes us human?' is a valid and interesting question, but one we're hardly ever going to be able to be neutral about (especially when there are news media hungering for simplistic answers, and many books and articles--and blogs--to hash it all out)

Anne Buchanan said...

I agree with you too, Sam, though you know more about the Huxley history than I (and you look great in his beard!). I think Cosans would not agree that Owen was lying, but that indeed he had a preconceived notion (man's place above nature) that he was doing everything he could to support.