Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), who served as director of Paris’s Musee d’Histoire Naturelle, held that there was an unknown biological “formative impulse,” an organizational principle of some kind, that directed the formation of diverse kinds of life. It is such an idea that James Le Fanu seeks to revive in his excellent new book, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (Pantheon). It does appear that something is guiding life’s evolution toward intelligible ends. Dr. Le Fanu, in appreciation of whom I am writing this series, urges us to be comfortable with saying science does and perhaps cannot know the nature or source of that impulse.
Darwin, of course, sought to identify the principle or law behind evolution as mindless, unguided natural selection. But among the delights of Le Fanu’s book is his utterly apology-free take down of Darwin.
Long before today’s modern Darwin Lobby perfected the polemical art of the false dilemma — wherein you are either a Biblical creationist or a full communicant in the Church of Darwin, for there can be no other alternative — Darwin himself “portray[ed] those who might dispute his explanation as being Biblical creationists.” That included even Cuvier, about whose thinking on natural history Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species: “Nothing can be more hopeless than to explain this similarity of pattern [in body plans by supposing] it has pleased the Creator to construct all the animals in each great class on a uniform plan.”
If Darwin wished to attribute na�ve religious prejudice to Cuvier, we can play that game too. For Le Fanu points out the Enlightenment prejudice that Darwin himself served — that of naturalism, where “nature was perceived as a closed system of causes and effects governed by its own internal laws that were immune to divine intervention — thus precluding the possibility of miracles, whether ‘natural’ or otherwise.”
The world to which the Enlightenment had given birth by the middle of the 19th century was primed and ready to embrace Darwin’s theory. Yet doubts emerged immediately and never went away. There was the “‘inconceivably great’ number of transitional fossils” that were supposed to be in the ground but weren’t, and the “‘puzzle of perfection,’ the impossibility of demonstrating how a blind, ‘trial and error,’ random process can give rise to ‘organs of extreme perfection.'”
In ultimately setting aside such difficulties, Darwin abandoned the scientific method. Science is supposed to be about observation from which theories are generated. In describing microevolution, trivial things like the finch’s beak, Darwin was on scientific secure ground. But when he extrapolated from this, developing the theory of macroevolution, he was forced to interpret his observations based on the pre-existing theory. Le Fanu: “Now all observations” — whether of the fossil record or organs like the eye — “had to be tailored to fit the presumed evolutionary mechanism — no matter how contradictory or improbable it might seem.”
Darwin’s, then, became the ultimate Teflon Theory, invulnerable ever to being falsified, with “skeptics [being] seen off with the charge that they are closet creationists, while [the theory’s] many faults are accommodated on the grounds of there being no better alternative.”
Le Fanu reminds us, “The greatest obstacle to scientific progress…is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” That illusion was further shattered when the mystery of DNA and the Double Helix was finally elucidated. More on that tomorrow.