Evolution: Setting the Stage Part 4

Charnia Pre-Cambrian fossil
Charnia Pre-Cambrian fossil

Evolution from the Beginning

When Charles Darwin published On the Origen of Species in 1859 evolutionary theories had been around for a long time. The third century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus derived a form of evolutionary theory from Democretus’ atomic theory. Lucretius, first century BC Roman poet, proposed it as a logical necessity of naturalism in order to explain life arising from nature alone without divine intervention. It was resurrected in the Renaissance through the Age of Enlightenment in a number of forms. See the table.

Charles Darwin had been introduced to evolutionary theories through his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a physician, inventor and poet. See an evolutionary verse in the box below. Erasmus Darwin was a friend of William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge and their contemporaries who admired his poetry. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein after reading of his galvanic experiments on animals. He was an advocate of evolution by acquired characteristics, a theory later popularized by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and which was still later discredited as having no viable mechanism. Charles’ family was wealthy, being associated with the Wedgwood fortune. Both sides of the family were Unitarian free thinkers, but the Wedgwood side leaned toward Anglican, at least socially. In this environment and later through his brother Erasmus’ circle of friends, Charles was exposed to the intellectual elite of the day.

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves

Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;

First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,

Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;

These, as successive generations bloom,

New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;

Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,

And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

— Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature, 1803


 Evolution theories before Darwin (click to follow link)

Charles’ father Robert was a physician and wished for Charles and his older brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin to follow suite. The brothers attended medical training together at the University of Edinburgh. Erasmus graduated as a physician, but was retired on a pension at age 26 by his father because of his frail health. He spent the rest of his life entertaining the intellectual elite. Charles did badly in medicine, probably because his interests lay elsewhere. While there, he studied with naturalist Robert Edmund Grant who was a proponent of Lamarck’s acquired traits evolutionary theory and homology, a belief that similar form meant common ancestry. He learned stratigraphic geology from Robert Jameson and also studied plant classification and taxidermy.

Later, his father sent him to Christ’s College where he received a BA in theology. His father had procured a position for him as an Anglican pastor, but Charles never was ordained and did not practice. More interested in natural history, he studied botany and geology and aspired to travel for study in the tropics, a popular avocation of young men of independent means. One of his professors, John S. Henslow, got him an unpaid position on the HMS Beagle as gentleman’s companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy on a voyage to map the coastline of South America. Darwin spent his time collecting fossils, plants and animals from South America to the Galapagos Islands to Polynesia. Because Professor Henslow popularized the collections he sent back before his return, Darwin was a celebrity when he arrived home.

When Charles returned from his five year around the world trip in 1836, he published detailed journals of the trip, as well as other scientific books, and delivered papers to the Geological, Geographical and Zoological Societies. He spent another twenty years studying barnacles, pigeon breeding and similar subjects. He never addressed Evolution in any of these publications. He did not publish On The Origin of Species for 23 years! Supposedly he did not publish earlier because he feared reprisals, but being of independent means, being recognized as an authority in his field, and actively dialoging with leaders of the day about other theories of transmutation of species, this seems to be a thin excuse invented by later authors. This excuse was never alluded to in his book. Instead, he described working on it steadily over all those years and that he chose to publish his “abstract” (On the Origin of Species) due to failing health, although he said it would take three or four more years to complete his work.

It wasn’t until Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist and admirer, sent Darwin his observations and theory of Evolution while still away on a voyage to the Malay Archipelago and Borneo, that Darwin’s theory was (hurriedly?) presented and published, establishing primacy over Wallace. To his credit, when his friend Charles Lyell presented the joint papers[1] to the Linnaean Society, Darwin acknowledged Wallace as co-founder of the theory. Claiming to have sat on his theory for over twenty years, he rushed to publish On the Origin of Species which he described as an unfinished manuscript without supporting facts, acknowledgements or references[2]. This state was little improved even in the Sixth (and last) Edition, which was only minimally changed from the first edition except for historical recognition of others before him and attempts to address some of the most important scientific criticisms.

I have always wondered whether Wallace was the true originator of a theory that Darwin had overlooked in his own observations, although he had written letters to Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray earlier hinting at an evolutionary theory. Did Wallace provide the link that brought all his speculations together? Because he was backed up by his friends Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell in his claim of primacy, we may never know. It is sure that the scientific reputation of Wallace declined, while Darwin’s grew. It is interesting to note that Wallace later rejected the theory as lacking both mechanism and sufficient evidence. Others have also speculated about Wallace being the true originator of the theory.

[1] Presented as On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. It was composed of two papers, Wallace’s On the Tendencies of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type and Darwin’s Abstract Extract from an Unpublished Work on Species along with Abstract of a Letter to Asa Gray (to establish primacy).

[2] On the Origin of Species, first edition, Introduction, paragraph 3 & 4.

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.

Did Darwin steal his theory of Evolution?

After his trip around the world on The Beagle, Darwin waited 23 years to present his theory of Evolution.  The myth is that he sat on the theory out of fear of repercussions. However, when Charles Darwin published On the Origen of Species in 1859 evolutionary theories had been around for a long time.  There were at least a dozen evolutionary theories, including one by Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that were openly debated among scientists.

Alfred Russel Wallace 1862 - Project Gutenberg eText 15997
Alfred Russel Wallace 1862

It wasn’t until Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist and admirer, sent Darwin his observations and theory of Evolution while still away on a voyage to the Malay Archipelago and Borneo, that Darwin’s theory was (hurriedly?) presented, acknowledging Wallace as co-discoverer, and published, establishing primacy over Wallace.  Was Wallace the true originator of a theory that Darwin had overlooked in his own observations?  Did Wallace provide the link that brought all his speculations together?  Darwin’s claims were backed by his friends Charles Lyle and Joseph Hooker, so we may never know the truth.  It is sure that the scientific reputation of Wallace declined, while Darwin’s grew.  It is interesting to note that Wallace later rejected the theory as lacking both mechanism and sufficient evidence.