A bad debate tactic I’ve noticed that science denialists like to employ is to point out all the bad things a particular scientist believed as a way of discrediting the scientist and the science to which he or she contributed.
It’s really nothing more than an ad hominem attack.
For example, how many times does one come across the statement that Charles Darwin was a racist?
It’s very common.
Let’s keep in mind that Darwin’s views on race are not instrumental to his theory of evolution through natural selection.
He could have been the most racially tolerant man in the history of the world, but it wouldn’t mean anything about his ideas.
For the record, Charles Darwin was actually quite opposed to slavery, which had been a major source for his nation’s prosperity.
However, he was a white, upper class Anglo-Saxon living at the height of the British Empire.
He could not have existed without some of the racialist zeitgeist rubbing off on him.
But that still doesn’t tell us whether his ideas about evolution through natural selection were valid.
Calling him a racist is a distraction from the issues at hand.
Similarly, pointing out that one of the founders of ethology, Konrad Lorenz, had been a devoted Nazi is also a distraction.
Lorenz was wrong about many things.
I’ve pointed them out on this blog. In my critique of the dominance model for dog behavior, I have demonstrated that a lot of dog and wolf science was unfortunately distorted through Lorenz’s work. The notion that domestication dulled the intelligence of dogs is one that can be traced to Lorenz.
And it’s not necessarily because Lorenz was once a Nazi scientist. Romanticism had deeply influenced the intelligentsia of the German-speaking world, going all the way back to the early nineteenth century.
The Germans saw themselves as wild forest people whose exact natural proclivities and genius were being destroyed by civilization.
If one applies those same framework to dogs and wolves, it sees the dog as being a degenerate wolf, a creature that can never return to its wildness and genius.
Lorenz is notable because he added another framework to the mix. Wolves are native to Germany, just as the “German race” is, but he contended that most dogs were derived from golden jackals, which are native South Asia, North and East Africa, and the Middle East.
It has been argued that Lorenz created this dichotomy through his association with National Socialism. Lorenz preferred dogs that were of this wolfish heritage. It has been suggested that the aureus dogs are a mirror of the Semitic people with whom we know that the Nazis hated with such a venomous and pathological passion.
Now one can denounce Lorenz all you want.
I don’t see how this helps the discussion.
Yes. He was Nazi, but he later did all he could atone for his associations.
He was very active in Austria’s Green Party, and he worked very hard to make amends with Niko Tinbergen. who was actually held as a prisoner of war when the Nazis took over the Netherlands. Tinbergen was one of the men who would share the Nobel with Lorenz, but as a Dutch citizen who was vehemently opposed to the Nazi occupation of his homeland, it would take many years before the two became reconciled.
Tinbergen’s methodology has wound up being a lot more significant than that of Lorenz. His “Four questions” have played a major role in ethology and the emerging field of sociobiology.
But Tinbergen was no more a prophet than either Lorenz or Darwin.
All of these men were trapped in the time and society in which they lived.
Scientists are not religious prophets. They can only contribute knowledge within the paradigms in which they exist.
Religious prophets are supposed to infallible, but no scientist regards any other scientist, whether from the past or present, as being without error.
Science is really about correcting error.
Lorenz was quite wrong about aureus and lupus dogs, but if one reads Man Meets Dog, he was definitely picking up on something else.
Lorenz’s understanding of dogs included large numbers of Western improved breeds, which had definitely been selected for biddability and docility. He didn’t have much exposure to Non-Western breeds, and in the early twentieth century, chow chows are quite exotic animals. Chow chows were not bred to be biddable or docile animals in their homeland. They were meant to be hunters of a variety of game, and they were also meant to be used as a food source. They were also expected to be fierce guard dogs to protect their owners’ properties.
Lorenz saw in this relatively unimproved breed a lot of wolfish characteristics. They were quite one-mannish. They were not demonstrative. They were very different from all the Western dogs that he would have known in Central Europe at that time.
And we do know there are pretty extreme differences in behavior between Western and Non-Western dog breeds. Shiba inus and basenjis are quite different from golden retrievers and papillons.
Today, we would say that selective breeding within their respective cultures has produced such different temperaments in different breeds.
But in Lorenz’s day, it was worth postulating that some dogs were derived from a different species.
Of course, Lorenz later rejected these theories when he began to look at the literature that compared wolf and jackal vocalizations with those of domestic dogs.
Dogs produce sounds that are very similar to those of a wolf.
Further, the genetic evidence shows that the wolf i the primary– if not sole–ancestor of the domestic dog. There might be some genes from other species in there, but the dog is genetically so similar to Eurasian wolves that it is no longer valid to consider them a separate species from the wolf.
Lorenz accepted all of these findings, just as he accepted that Nazism was an unmitigated evil.
Scientists change their minds with the evidence.
Science is built upon what we already know, even if what we already know comes through the distorted prisms of culture and prejudice.
Eventually, science can correct the error.
That’s what’s so beautiful about it.