Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a new series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Origin of Species: From Discussion Document to Nihilist Dogma.” This is the second article in the series. Find the full series so far here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).
As Charles Darwin seemed to anticipate, judging from his notably diffident manner of presentation of his material, some contemporaries were (and remained) troubled by some of his more facile conjectures. Those included his “just-so stories” purportedly accounting for sundry natural phenomena as well as his striking omissions and elisions in adumbrating intricate biological chains of development (whose intricacies after the invention of the electron microscope in the 1940s have of course been shown to be far more unfathomable than could have been anticipated by Darwin or any of his scientific peers).
As William Irvine once put it, Darwin was commonly faulted for not “showing his working” when attempting to describe complicated and problematical evolutionary steps:
Darwin has nothing to say about mental factors. He will not discuss the origin of mind, any more than that of life itself. Few theorists on the grand scale have skirted so judiciously such vast regions of the unknown, or been so shrewd in their reticences.1
Where Are the Fossils?
Notoriously, one of the shrewdest of Darwin’s “reticences” concerned the lack of fossil evidence to demonstrate his postulation of evolving body types and (he claimed) new species over vast swathes of time — a lacuna which he attempted to explain away via the exculpatory rhetorical strategy of blaming the poor fossil record for his inability to adduce confirmatory bone remains. Not without reason did Darwin refer to himself as a master “wriggler.” Nevertheless, his wriggling, however masterful, clearly did not have the desired effect with his greatest ally, Thomas Huxley. Somewhat surprisingly, in view of his indefatigable partisanship for Darwin, Huxley could assent only to the phenomenon of evolution (which of course was a pre-Darwinian idea going back to Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus and before him to the ancients), but not to Darwin’s distinctive innovation of natural selection.
What had worried Huxley from the beginning was the dearth of fossil remains to chart the slow evolution and gradual speciation of the natural world that Darwin claimed. “Only the following decades,” stated Huxley (contemplating at least the theoretical possibility of more convincing fossil finds being disinterred in future time), “would enable naturalists to say whether the modifying cause and the selective power which Mr. Darwin has satisfactorily shown to exist in Nature, are competent to produce all the effects he associates to them; or whether, on the other hand, he has been led to over-estimate the value of the principle of Natural Selection as greatly as Lamarck over-estimated his vera causa of modification by exercise” [= utilization of limbs, et al.].2
A Note of Caution
So Huxley would not, he repeated in a speech made as late as 1880, accept the theory of natural selection until — he cautioned — “further palaeontological work had made the proof incontrovertible.” This of course was a courteous get-out formula referring to the elephant in the room: the disquieting dearth of fossils. As Huxley defined matters, the doctrine of natural selection presupposed evolution but evolution most certainly did not entail an acceptance of natural selection.
Next, “The Hamlet of Down House.”
- William Irvine, Apes Angels and Victorians (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1955), p. 94.
- Cited by Bernard Lightman, The Origins of Agnosticism: Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge (Baltimore; Johns Hopkins UP, 1987), p. 157.