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Darwin: evidence is everything

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Three great scholars are generally associated with the second half of the 19th century - Darwin, Freud and Marx. There were many more, of course, but those three are all household names and devised theories that have had far reaching effects. Of those three Charles Darwin is the only one whose reputation has survived intact. With his 200th birthday being celebrated recently, it is worth considering why his fame has grown since his death and the theories of the other two have been discarded.

In the process we can gain some inkling of the extraordinary nonsense that can distort public and scientific debate.

This is not to entirely dismiss either Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud. Both men kicked off whole new ways of looking at subjects. Freud started the new idea of treating a patient with a mental illness by talking to the patient. Talking helped, it was found. The problem was that he devised theories about what was going on inside the patient’s mind which were wrong.


Before Karl Marx the study of history was mostly military history. After him, historians began to think in terms of economics and classes. Again, the problem is that although he brought a whole new perspective to economics and history, (almost) everyone can now agree that the theories he devised concerning collectivisation of property and the various stages through which a society must pass are of little use.

So what was the difference between those two and Darwin? Marx essentially invented his theories, taking his inspiration from the dreadful squalor of industrial slums around him, and his own poverty. He did not bother, though, to even talk to the workers, let alone systematically interview them or devise time indexes of wages, or try to objectively measure the gap between rich or poor over time, or anything else that might be considered original research. Instead, he read extensively in the British Museum - some of his reading may have been relevant, but most of it was not - in part because no one at that time was exploring the questions he wanted answered. If they had - if say the British museum of the time had contained the recently published book A Farewell to Alms by American academic Gregory Clark - Marx would have rejected it. Clark points out that the processes occurring in Marx’s time amounted to a clean break with all previous economic history, with one major result being a massive boost in the wages of unskilled labour. This well-researched work would not have fitted Marx’s preconceptions, therefore he would have considered it to be wrong.

Freud’s work was one step closer to reality in that his ideas arose out of the treatment of his patients. Later examination of his case notes suggest that he distorted much of what he saw in patients to fit his theories but, in any case, he never subjected any of his theories to objective tests or trials. Not for him would there be any double blind trials of different treatments to see if they had any effect. He simply presented his theories as reality and, amazingly, they were accepted enthusiastically.

In contrast, Darwin devised his theories as a means of explaining his observations while on the long voyage of HMS Beagle, and spent many years collecting and analysing evidence before going to press. He collected so much that his argument was half won before it was started. He was not the first man to propose evolution, but he was among the first to suggest the mechanism, and certainly the one to produce the most evidence. Also, perhaps crucially, he did not object to vigorous debate over the theory. His original ideas have been modified mainly thanks to developments, made most notably in genetics, of which Darwin knew nothing. But there is no indication he would have minded changes being made.

In contrast, both Marx and Freud fought bitterly against any changes to their original ideas. They were right because they had stated them. They had stated them, therefore they were right.

So there you have it, the evidence is everything. But not quite. Although the vast part of the ideas of both Marx and Freud were wrong the influence of both has been immense. For example, we keep hearing of people who call themselves socialists or communists even today - decades after every country where citizens have been allowed to make a choice, have returned to some form of capitalism. The present crisis will make no difference to this basic reality. However, the ideology of the people who call themselves socialists is now only distantly related to anything written by Marx.


As for Freud, the man keeps on popping up everywhere. When the psychiatric profession largely discarded the talking therapies (they are still used in limited circumstances), those treatments were taken up by another group of professionals who called themselves therapists. One result was the so-called recovered memory syndrome, where the patients “recovered” supposedly buried memories of horrific sexual abuse. None of these claims were found to have any basis.

The cult of therapy seems to have taken deep root in America, incidentally, where plenty of therapists make a comfortable living listening to others rave on. (These professionals may appear to be psychiatrists but they may be considered more akin to life coaches.)

Bear in mind that it helps to have someone to talk to, irrespective of whether the listener knows any theory or not.

Some scholars have claimed that recent advances in neuroscience bear out parts of Freud’s theories, but this is more likely due to wishful thinking on their part, or simple coincidence, rather than to any insight by Freud.

One advantage that both Freud and Marx had, which seems to have inspired considerable loyalty among the intelligensia, is that the theories of both men could be described as “deep”. This is another way of saying that they were not outlined in plain language, were occasionally contradictory and certainly open to interpretation. That meant trained academics were required to interpret. In other words, they kept the academics in work so who cared if they were right or not. A part of the persistence of Freud’s ideas has also been cynically attributed to the fact that his therapies require many hours of expensive consultation with trained professionals.

Darwin should have ditched evolution in favour of making up medical therapies. He would have gained a lot more money, and even more fame.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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