In our last article, we discussed Darwin’s intellectual journey from faith in God to faith in chance and the uncaring force of natural selection. In this article we will look at some of the evidences that Darwin presented for this theory and how the initial storm of controversy in the scientific community gradually died down to the point where the theory was no longer questioned publicly. (Note: Much of the material for this article is found in Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.)
Darwin presented no hard, empirical evidence for either theory of evolution, such as a sequence of fossil links showing a line of small changes between one species and another. Most of the arguments for evolution for the general theory were circumstantial, and not empirical. For example:
- Comparative anatomy is “suggestive” of evolution – the same basic bone structures are used in the hand of a man, the leg of a horse, the paddle of a porpoise, and the wing of a bat. This “homology” suggests that they all descended from a common ancestor.
- Rudimentary organs are “suggestive” of evolution – males possess rudimentary mammae, snakes possess a rudimentary lung lobe, some whales possess teeth as youth, but not as adults, some calves possess teeth which never cut through the gums. In short “God wouldn’t have done it this way, but natural selection would have.”
- The fossil record is “suggestive” of evolution because in general the older fossils are of simpler organisms which grow in complexity and specialization.
Examples of the lack of empirical evidence include:
- No evidence was presented of either a living animal or of a fossil that could clearly be shown as intermediate between two species. Darwin argued that this was because of the “extreme imperfection” of the fossil record, but the argument is circular because the only reason the fossil record was imperfect was that it did not contain any intermediate fossils. Instead of pointing to actual fossils, he speculated that they must exist. For example: “Although no graduated links of structure, fitted for gliding through the air now connect the Galeopithecus (flying lemur) with the other Insectivora, yet there is no difficulty in supposing that such links formerly existed …”
- Darwin had difficulty even imagining the hypothetical evolutionary paths which could have been taken between two species: “it is no doubt difficult to conjecture by what gradations many structures have been perfected…”
- Darwin had difficulty in describing how evolution could have resulted in “organs of extreme perfection” such as the eye: “Although the belief that an organ so perfect as the eye could have been formed by natural selection, is enough to stagger any one…” – when it comes down to the details, he offers no explanation “How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us than how life itself originated …”
- Darwin did not present any quantitative calculations that could be tested – such as the rate of variations, the size of the population, the number of variations that would be required to perfect an organ, or the time required to evolve an organ.
To Darwin’s credit, he did not attempt to hide the difficulties with his theory and, although convinced of the truth of the theory, he was never dogmatic or fanatical about it as some of his followers were.
How did the theory go from its “highly speculative” origins to the “established fact” that it is today? The atmosphere of Victorian England played a big part. The new scientific method proposed by Bacon and Descartes aimed to give natural causes for all physical phenomena. The air of the “inevitability of progress” was evident in the success of Newtonian physics having triumphed over mediaeval naivety. Lyell’s uniformitarian geology had become widely accepted, and natural selection was a logical extension. Darwin had brought biology out of the realm of theology and into the realm of “science”. As one evolutionist stated in 1874, “The basis of the doctrine of evolution consists, not in an experimental demonstration – for the subject is hardly accessible to this mode of proof – but in its general harmony with scientific thought”. In short, there was no scientific alternative to the theory – if nature was fundamentally discontinuous, no scientific explanation could be offered to explain the diversity of life on earth. Finally, it is interesting to note the rise of the free market economy in Victorian England. Survival of the fittest presented a ready analogy to the way the business world worked. After 1859, it became “intellectually fashionable” to re-interpret facts into an evolutionary framework – in classification charts, “archetypes” were replaced with “common ancestor” The theory became more and more consolidated into dogma until the discontinuities of nature could no longer be seen. Consequently, the debate slacked and there was less need to justify the idea of evolution by reference to the facts.
Fast forward 100 years to a quote from Julian Huxley in 1959: “the first point to make about Darwin’s theory is that it is no longer a theory but a fact… Darwinianism has come of age so to speak. We are no longer having to bother about having to establish the fact of evolution”. In response, Michael Denton wrote, “now of course such claims are simply nonsense. For Darwin’s model of evolution is still very much a theory and still very much in doubt when it comes to macroevolutionary phenomena…his general theory that all life on earth had originated and evolved by gradual successive accumulation of fortuitous mutations, is still, as it was in Darwin’s time, a highly speculative hypothesis entirely without direct factual support and very far from the self-evident axiom that some of its most aggressive advocates would have us believe.” Although many scientists have stopped questioning Darwinism, we have learned a great deal more about biology, the earth, and the cosmos in the last 145 years. Some of the assumptions that underpin Darwinism have been found to be false, many of the expectations that Darwinism predicted have not panned out, and much of what is taught about Darwinism today is based on outdated information. These are all topics that we will address in upcoming articles.