What Today’s Fighters Against Fake News Can Learn from Darwin’s Apostles
Dr. Abby Hafer
August 9, 2020
Dr. Abby Hafer has her doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and currently teaches at Curry College. She has authored the book Unintelligent Design, among others, and claims to be famous for testicles. (Not her own; see below.) Her talk was about what today’s fighters against fake news can learn from Darwin’s apostles.
She started by suggesting that pre-Trump we could not have imagined an American president establishing a bizarre, counter-factual, evidence-free narrative, yet succeeding in gulling much of the population. But “Welcome to my world,” Hafer said – every evolutionary biologist has always had to deal with such an environment of factual denialism. “Objective reality exists”; she insisted, steadfastly disregarding all the evidence to the contrary.
The Darwin apostles Hafer discussed were scientists who fought, against powerful entrenched interests, to gain acceptance for his theory of evolution by natural selection. After a long hard campaign they succeeded to a great degree (despite pockets of resistance, notably including a high proportion of Americans). But meantime Hafer noted publication, in 1889, of a book, Lux Mundi, in which notables in the Church of England dilated upon reconciling their faith with evolution – which they already assumed was true.
John William Draper was a scientist who authored History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874. The lesson Hafer took from his efforts: don’t quail from battling fundamentalist religion, but work with religious people wherever it’s possible.
Alfred Russel Wallace was of course the guy who figured out evolution at about the same time as Darwin. Darwin had been afraid publishing would cause a big backlash. But Wallace, Hafer said, struck a different kind of terror into Darwin: not getting credit. So he finally got his book finished quickly enough to pip Wallace.
Joseph Hooker was one scientist who had long actually fought against the idea of biological evolution. But ultimately, he said, the conviction was “forced upon an unwilling convert.” He couldn’t fight the facts. That was intellectual integrity.
Darwin’s greatest proponent was Thomas Henry Huxley. Hafer discussed his lengthy battle with Richard Owen, who maintained that brain differences ruled out any close connection between humans and apes. Huxley showed Owen was just wrong on the anatomical facts: “Before I have done with that mendacious humbug I will nail him out like a kite to a barn door, an example to all evil doers.”
Huxley was indefatigable, working the “social media of his day” – newspapers. Letters to the editor, and replies, were a very big thing.
One audience member remarked that many people who most need to hear such messages refuse to listen. Hafer acknowledged this, and how a lot of these issues have become politicized. But she held that persistent efforts to debate such issues, vigorously battling error, in the public sphere, can have an effect. And Americans are actually leaving evangelical Christianity in droves, indeed angry because they feel they’ve been lied to.
A point she emphasized was that to overcome biases you have to tailor the message to engage people. Mention was made of Galileo’s experiments with the motions of balls, illustrating his points in a visually unarguable way. Hafer also pointed to her own work on how the human body actually shows un-intelligent design. A prime example is testicles, hanging vulnerably outside the body cavity, whereas many other animals have them safely inside. It’s because human testicles have to be kept cooler. (I asked whether there was any connection between testicles and Galileo’s balls and she gave me a straight-faced answer.) Anyhow, the point was that when you start talking about testicles, people sit up and listen.
She also said the current pandemic is a golden opportunity to make people grasp the importance of being serious toward science. A further point was that the virus, of course, evolved. If it weren’t for evolution, there’d never be any new diseases.
Hafer avowed that we are struggling today not only for the soul of this nation – but for its brain. Its integrity. Scientists are on the front lines of this battle. And their latter-day apostles are us.
She paraphrased Martin Niemoller: First they came for the evolutionary biologists . . . .