darwin’s folly – review of: the origin of species by charles darwin

The Origin of SpeciesThe Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” promises a lot. A back cover blurb says, “Next to the Bible no work has been quite as influential….” I’m not a scientist, but with a build up like that I had to give it a try after enjoying “The Voyage of the Beagle” (reviewed 9/5/13).

It is a slog of a read, yet Darwin’s enthusiasm for his subject, the excitement he conveys in outlining the work of his lifetime and popularizing a scientific movement, are palpable. Ironically, Darwin was not a scientist himself, but a “naturalist,” whose first job in the field – to be the Beagle’s naturalist-on-board – was a bit of a lark, suggested by friends, after his prior path to becoming an Anglican pastor (his father’s preference) came to naught.

His insights – not entirely original, as he really consolidated lines of thinking going on for several generations – stemmed not only from his visit to the Galapagos Islands on the Beagle, but from observing man-driven selection in the breeding of domesticated animals.

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. But the expression…Survival of the Fittest is more accurate…” (p.61)

Yet the problems start right away. As Creationist Kent Hovind has pointed out, the assumption that natural selection causes evolution is problematic, for “natural selection” never creates, it only selects. Furthermore, “survival of the fittest” is a tautology, for by definition the fit survive and the survivors are fit. As Hovind points out, natural selection might be more clearly called differential reproduction, that is, some reproduce more than others.

And what drove Darwin to this line of thinking? It turns out he was a Malthusian, the Chicken Little of his time:

It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage. Although some species may be now increasing, more or less rapidly, in numbers, all cannot do so, for the world would not hold them. (p. 63)

The implication being, for some to live, others must die. Death, then, turns out to be the selection method of the Universe, in the never-ending struggle to survive. Or, as he succinctly states, “Thus, extinction and natural selection go hand in hand.” (p.161)

Sensing how grim his outlook might appear, Darwin tries to pre-empt:

When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply. (p.75)

Call it the theory of Happy Death then, one of many assertions that don’t ring true. No fear is felt? Death is generally prompt? Well, then, bring on more of this necessary (per Malthus) and creative force!

Elevating nature to a Capitalized Power, Darwin characterizes it as less selfish than we: “Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends.” (p.79)

Around this part of the book came the first of many mentions (that I noticed) of the phrase “scale of nature,” which of course is a direct descendent of Plato’s and Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, showing a direct link to the pagan concept of a hierarchy of development that was transformed into the the Great Chain of Being by the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

This pagan belief in a hierarcy of more and less developed beings may have influenced Darwin’s unfortunate choice of sub-title: “By Means of Natural Selection of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” It is difficult to find a modern edition of the book that hasn’t scrubbed clean this evidence of Darwin’s easy racism. (Only in my 150th Anniversary Edition, from Signet Classics in 2003, could I find the sub-title in any edition on-line – tucked away in a title page inside.) One can see why Darwin’s boosters try to re-write history, for the sub-title’s “favoured races” helps explain how Social Darwinism – only disavowed by evolution’s supporters after the horrors of WWII – created so much havoc in the 20th century. (Marx and Stalin were nominally Christian before reading Darwin; both Stalin and Hitler appropriated Darwin for their perverted, murderous philosophies.)

In terms of other influences, Darwin often refers to Charles Lyell and his (literally) ground-breaking “Principles of Geology” which, by positing long geological ages, gave breathing room for Darwin’s theory of numerous “slight variations” to evolve, of minuscule improvements multiplied over unimaginably many iterations.

He goes so far as to warn skeptical readers:

He who can read Sir Charles Lyell’s grand work on the Principles of Geology…and yet does not admit how vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume. (p. 316)

If you are detecting a certain stridency, you are not alone.

And what was it that excited Darwin so much to dedicate his life to? Simply stated, it is the mechanism by which modifications occur within a species in response to environmental pressures. The same way that man could take the primordial wolf and encourage endless variations into hundreds of dog breeds, so could evolution (in what we would call today, micro-evolution) encourage those famous finches of Galapagos Islands to vary in beak sizes in adaptation to micro-environments.

But Darwin wishes to go much further than that. In fact, he seems to indulge in frequent straw man arguments, saying that “special creation” would have no explanation for the facts he marshals, as though his critics assert dogs could only have been independently created at the beginning of time.

Perhaps something like this was the prevailing wisdom at the time – that no species, or what we might call sub-species today, could develop into another. Yet, to contemporary ears, he doth protest too much.

In fact, he takes his valuable insights and then extrapolates them to incredible lengths. (The theory of evolution remains just that, a theory, rather than the supreme law as treated by so many moderns.) His animation takes wing with passages such as this:

It is a truly wonderful fact – the wonder of which we are apt to overlook from familiarity – that all animal and all plants throughout all time and space should be related to each other… (p. 126)

After long dancing around the controversial bush of his own creation, by book’s end he admits, “I believe that animals are descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or less number.” (p.502) But even here he prevaricates, for in the book’s last paragraph he triumphs, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator [Nature?] into a few forms or into one…” (p.507) So which is it? Four or five or just one “form”? Either way, now we are really talking about Macro Evolution!

Yet, sadly, not one concrete example – that has then or since been confirmed as a proven fact – is given of one species evolving into a wholly new one. (In fact, from our more modern understanding of mutations and how DNA works, mutations never allow for a gain in information, only its loss, which makes evolving from the simple ameoba to the incredibly complex human being patently impossible, the stuff of pure fantasy.)

To his credit, Darwin brings up (what were at the time) the objections most “fatal,” or potentially fatal, to his theory. One was related to the fossil record, the other to how evolution could possibly explain for extremely complex organs which would have been useless when only partially created and, under the logic of the theory, would have been eradicated by natural selection long before completion.

Let’s take the critical area of fossil evidence, or complete lack of it. Darwin readily admits there should be countless examples of intermediary forms (for example, showing how a reptile grew wings to become a bird), and asks:

Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely-graduated organic chain, and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory. (p.314)

The reason, he answers back in 1859, is “that the geological record, viewed as a whole, is extremely imperfect” (p.327), that is, we hadn’t dug up enough fossils yet.

Jump ahead over 150 years, with numberless excavations and bones found all over the world, and there are still no such fossils. While there have been numerous hoaxes, including Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man, an the Archaeoraptor, or “dino-bird” – such is modern man’s obsession with trying to prove evolution – the lack of fossil record is a real brain-twister for evolutionists. As Colin Patterson, the late senior paleotogologist of the British Museum of Natural History, admitted, “there is not one such fossil for which one could make a watertight argument.” (1979 letter to Luther D. Sutherland, cited in his “Darwin’s Enigma: Ebbing the Tide of Naturalism,” 1988, p. 89)

The other big strike against evolution, forwarded by Darwin himself, was the feasibility of countless small evolutionary steps creating a complex organ which is all but worthless until whole.

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberation, could have been formed by natural selection seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. (p.172)

His stab at explaining away the problem, as absurd as those by current apoligists, such as Richard Dawkins, is to find the tiniest benefit from even 100th of an eye which, multiplied over eons, brings us the remarkable present. For, “if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though unsuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.” (p.172) So something “unsuperable by our imagination’ should not be subversive to the theory?

Yet, to my layman’s eyes, Darwin makes relatively few such categorical errors. Although DNA’s molecular structure would only be discovered nearly a century after the book’s launch, he rightly conjectures the inter-relatedness of all life, saying “that community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking…” (p.437) as “the one known cause of close similarity in organic beings…” (p.432). Yes, it turns out all organisms were created with the same basic genetic code or language, known today as DNA.

But he takes his conjectures to overwrought degrees, using morphology (the study of form and structure of organic beings) to imply all animals descend from the same ancestor (or two) and embryology to claim our ancient forms are revealed in early embryonic development. Among the many hoaxes used to try to confirm Darwin’s work, embryology as proof of evolution has, perhaps, the longest legs. Remember the Intro Biology chart which shows how the earliest human fetus has fish-like “gill slits” which proves that among our ancestors are dead fish? Or the one which supposedly demonstrates how all vertebrates look nearly identical soon after conception? Despite the drawings, originally from one Ernst Haeckel in 1874, having over a century ago been revealed as fakes, they still grace many biology textbooks.

Much has changed since Darwin’s book was published, so we shouldn’t be too harsh on the man. You have to wonder, though, if Darwin were alive today and realized that fossil evidence still did not exist, would he be consistent and admit he went too far? (Today’s evolutionists have tried to explain away the lack of fossil record with a new theory, called punctuated equilibrium, or vast periods of no change followed by sudden and great leaps – hence the scarcity of fossils – but Darwin himself argues against it. (p.187))

Darwin also believed in only a simple structure at the atom level, facilitating the idea that man could evolve from, say, an ameoba. But DNA has proven the opposite, that the number of genes within one human body of over 100 trillion equals the number of stars in 1,000 galaxies (of 100 billion stars each). We also now know that in mutations, the supposed engine of evolution,
information is always lost and never gained.

Knowing what we know today, would Darwin still believe in Darwinism?

While his excitement in synthesizing a ground-breaking theory is palpable, did Darwin really need to macro-itize the obvious truth (in retrospect) of micro-evolution? It makes you wonder if there can be too much of a good thing. I recently read a review in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Ship of the Imagination” while pondering Darwin’s work. Rather breathlessly, the reviewer exults, “[the author] tracks other scientific efforts to achieve the apparently miraculous, including mind reading, the search for immortality, love potions, and the creation of demi-gods – or at least superhumans.” (Michael Saler, WSJ, 12/18/15) Could too much imagination be a bad thing?

Since Darwin, science has become increasingly untethered from ethical considerations. Interestingly, as Vishal Mangalwadi pointed out in his magisterial “The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization,” no major new scientific laws have been formulated since in the last century following this untethering.

Arguably, what we have now is less science than Scientism, where flawed theories such as Darwin’s have to be treated as the Law of the Land. The same Colin Patterson mentioned above searched for evolutionists who, out of the public glare, would stand up for evolution as we understand it today. Revealingly, from several such encounters he wrote:

I’ve tried putting a simple question to various people and groups of people. Question is: Can you tell me anything you about evolution, any one thing, that is true? I tried that question on the geology staff at the Field Museum of Natural History and the only answer I got was silence. I tried it on the members of the Evolutionary Morphology Seminar in the University of Chicago, a very prestigious body of evolutionists, and all I got there was silence for a long time and eventually one person said, “I do know one thing – it ought not be taught in high school.” (Cited in Stephen Jones, “Evolutionsm and Creationsim,” 11/5/82, p.1)

Could it be that Darwin succumbed, too, to the vanity of his own imagination? And for how much longer must we carry him aloft?

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About ben

Ben Batchelder has traveled some of the world's most remote roads. Nothing in his background, from a degree in Visual & Environmental Studies at Harvard to an MBA from Wharton, adequately prepared him for the experiences. Yet he persists, for through such journeys life unfolds. Having published four books that map the inner and exterior geographies of meaningful travel, he is a mountain man in Minas Gerais, Brazil who comes down to the sea at Miami Beach, Florida. His second travel yarn, To Belém & Back, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, visit www.benbatchelder.com.

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