but is it science · Darwin · Evolution · science and philosophy

Evolution, Setting the Stage, Part 3

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

Darwin’s circle of friends and mentors was largely composed of the intellectual elite of the day, many of whom embraced progressivism, socialism, atheism or agnosticism and various other popular philosophies of the day. Darwin himself stated in some of his correspondence that one of his goals was to do away with religion.

…hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.

— Darwin, letters

After the initial presentation of a paper to the Royal Society, the philosophy, (theory), of Evolution was published in the popular press, much like other popular philosophies of the day, not in scientific journals. Its arguments were more philosophical than scientific, offering little evidence other than similarity of forms between fossil and living animals, and observations that the existing forms were well suited to their functions, both of which had been widely accepted earlier. Contrary to popular accounts, from the beginning, many people in academia, the sciences, philosophy and the clergy enthusiastically embraced the new philosophy of Evolution. To the clergy, it was the means whereby God had created our world.   To the anti-religion elite, it meant God could be replaced altogether, along with any inconvenient moral limitations.

Championed more like a political campaign than a scientific theory, after some early opposition by other scientists it became accepted by the dominant elite, so that scientists had to either adopt it or become obsolete. Any opposition was branded as ignorance or religious tyranny in heated debates where Evolution proponents used a straw man[1] argument in which they presented Darwinian Evolution versus creation ex nihilo of each species.  Most people of the time recognized that changes had taken place,  so that their logical arguments actually involved a lack of scientific evidence for the theory as presented.

In some respects, that picture has prevailed to this day. It is this political tactic that has been repeated in other areas of science to promote new theories, to squash opposition to them and for junior scientists to unseat senior scientists from positions of authority. That is why progressivism and Darwinism, aka Evolution, is so important to later scientific philosophies and developments.

“I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous — You have deserted—after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth—the true method of induction—& started up a machinery as wild I think as Bishop Wilkin’s locomotive that was to sail with us to the Moon. Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved.  Why then express them in the language & arrangements of philosophical induction?”

— Adam Sedgewick, noted geologist who had taught Darwin, after reading Origin of Species

The theory of Evolution was based on the economic philosophy of Thomas Malthus whose book, An Essay on the Principles of Population, 1798, predicted that population would outgrow food supplies resulting in starvation. Like Malthusian philosophy, the mechanism of Evolution, survival of the fittest through natural selection, depended on competition for scarce resources as the basis of survival. In the introduction to the first edition of On the Origin of Species[2], Darwin explains Evolution as “this is the doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms[3].”

At the time, there were two opposing theories about the development of the earth. One was catastrophism; the other was uniformitarianism. Catastrophism, supported by Georges Cuvier, the father of paleontology, proposed that the earth had gone through repeated sudden upheavals. Uniformitarianism, promoted by Charles Lyell, geologist and friend of Darwin, proposed an earth where no major changes had taken place except gradual modification over vast periods of time. Darwin had taken the first volume of Lyell’s book, Principles of Geology, on his voyage around the world. Needless to say, Darwin favored Lyell’s position. Later, Darwin accepted Lyell’s theory as supporting his claims of gradual changes over vast periods of time. Cuvier, who had died before Darwin’s time, had opposed uniformitarianism and the earlier evolutionary theories, to be discussed in the next post.   Evolution needed long eons of time for the proposed changes to take place, so uniformitarianism was the chosen philosophy that would facilitate it.

It is interesting to note that until the late twentieth century, uniformitarianism was the accepted dogma[4]. Today, as the best explanations for the fossil record and evolutionary changes, long periods of uniformity interspersed by brief catastrophic events of various sorts are favored. Thus, catastrophism is favored along with elements of uniformitarianism in the form of plate tectonics, formerly known as continental drift[5] which had been rejected earlier. The renewed interest in catastrophism was fostered by the recognition of meteorite strikes and craters as a prehistoric reality that would fit past mass extinctions best.

I have witnessed the acceptance of catastrophism, widespread meteorite craters and plate tectonics, since the 1970s. When I first started my independent studies into science and earth’s mysteries, catastrophism, widespread meteorite craters and continental drift were considered fringe theories. Serpent Mound, an earthwork by the prehistoric Hopewell culture in southern Ohio, is on the edge of an ancient four mile wide weathered meteorite crater. When I first visited Serpent Mound in the early 1980s, the visitor center still had the display claiming it was a crypto-volcanic crater. Although the strata were of dolomite and other sedimentary limestones with no hints of volcanic rock, the prevailing theory proposed an underground gas explosion caused by cryptic or hidden volcanism. Since that time, over 200 meteorite craters have been identified, most of them not readily recognizable due to weathering or other obscuring forces, including the one off the coast of Yucatan that is credited with the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era.

The re-acceptance of these theories is an example of how science should work. In science, inconsistencies in current theories are met by new data, and questions are answered by formation of new theories or acceptance of once rejected old ones. That is not to say that politics had nothing to do with it. On the contrary, the plate tectonics theory was pushed through in the popular press in the same way that Darwinian Evolution was. Established geologists that did not immediately go along with the theory were publicly ridiculed and defamed in a way that could only be described as scandalous. It was a scientific revolution in geological circles.

 [1] Straw man argument is one where an easily defeated weaker premise is substituted for the real opposition view in order to appear to win the argument, i.e. the author attacks an argument different from (and weaker than) the opposition’s best argument

[2] Complete title and subtitles of the book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, published by John Murray, London, 1859.

[3] Introduction, paragraph 8, describing Chapter 3, Struggle for Existence.

[4] Dogma – established opinion put forth as authoritative, especially without adequate grounds.

[5] Alfred Wegener, 1912, and earlier proponents.

One thought on “Evolution, Setting the Stage, Part 3

  1. New theories are on the way. Im working on one now. But as an uneducated person, I’m not sure if this Simply Perfect theory, can stand on its own. Feel free to come check it out. #NOTHINGMatters


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