Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Logical Fallacies vs. Life's Work: Which is more important?

Is using out-of-context quotations and selective opinion pieces a reasonable means of determining an person's overall viewpoint and opinion, or is it better to evaluate an author's entire body of work and acheivements? And should a person's accomplishments and successes be undermined or discarded because some of their views and statements are hateful and offensive?

This has been a topic of discussion in several threads on the KC Freethought Forum, and it made me wonder why anyone would try to use such an obviously flawed argument to try and demean and de-legitimatize the prodigious works of a man like Charles Darwin. In the case of Charles Darwin, one of the frequent posters to that site, Will Graham, linked to several sites that take only a few dozen sentences from his massive volume of professional and personal writings, and those are often mischaracterized or misinterpreted as being "racist" or "sexist".

I have no problem recognizing that compared to today's more "enlightened" culture, his overall views would be seen as bigoted and prejudicial -- but in the context of his timeperiod and culture, he was without doubt a very liberal abolitionist. On particular example of this is the attempt by creationists to use the sub-title of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, to imply that he was racist. And yet, although the term "races" appears on the cover, it is clear from historical conventional usage at the time, as well as the full context of the book itself, that he was referring not to human cultural races, but to subspecies and breeds of species. That is blatant misquoting and purposeful misinformation, and should be condemned by all as unethical behavior.

Darwin is the subject of a very recent book, Darwin's Sacred Cause, which explores the abolitionist spirit and values of the man, and how his ideas and opinions drove him to understand and appreciate the value and interconnectedness of all humanity, and that the cultural definitions of race were a false construct of man, not an actual biological phenomenon.

Contrast that to someone like Martin Luther. While he gets great credit for challenging the archaic, bloated and hypocritical megalithic Catholic church, there is also little debate about his virulent antisemetic views. And in contrast to Darwin, whose views on race became much more enlightened and abolitionist over his lifetime, Luther became more and more antisemetic and hatefilled as he got older. Not only that, but he wrote entire books about the subject of how to demean, destroy and dismantle Jewish property, synogogues, homes and families in order to "purge" them from the face of the earth.

Luther on the Jews

More Luther

Even More from Martin Luther on Jews

In comparing the two, Darwin and Luther, we see that one grows over the course of his life more tolerant, more forgiving and more understanding of the connections between all humans and life, while the other grows harder, more intolerant and far more virulent as he ages. But neither the fact that their views changed, nor the fact that either or both were racist, antisemetic or otherwise bigoted, has anything to do with the overall contribution to human society that they both had and are rightly recognized for.

Luther helped overthrow a tyrannical, overbearing, overindulgent and corrupt church. Darwin gave a comprehensive and overarching explanation for why life is so diverse and yet so similar. So why is it that we often see attempts by those opposed to one or the other use the out-of-context quotes of Darwin, or the irrelevant-to-the-issue antisemetic views of Luther to attempt to poison the well of discussion? Rather than actually addressing the achievements of these great men, people who use such tactics are trying to avoid addressing the actual issue of their accomplishments.

So my question is, given that Darwin Day was just last week, why is it that creationists continually try to use out-of-context quotes from Darwin on race and sex? And why do they not actually address any of the challenges to the use of such logic when I applied those same techniques to Luther's writings? If using such logic works to invalidate all the successes and accolades of Darwin, then it should likewise work to invalidate the achievements of Luther.

And if anything, based on a reasonable comparison of the two men's writings, Luther has far more to answer for, and far more to lose. So if we're going to throw out evolution because Darwin was supposedly a racist, why shouldn't we also throw out the Protestant Reformation because Luther was a self-affirmed antisemite?

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