Review #33: The Origin of Species

Or, using science to get on everyone's nerves

The Origin of Species

What makes Charles Darwin’s late nineteenth century book, The Origin of Species, so controversial? What is it about tracking the source of mankind to a tribe of primates that stirs people up so much? That’s exactly the question that Darwin asks repeatedly throughout his book.

He uses most of his words trying to explain this theory, the idea that all life developed through natural selection, what a contemporary of his called survival of the fittest. After first discussing man’s own role in domesticating and cultivating various species to their fullest potential, Darwin expands these efforts to nature, saying that if man can do such wonderful things in a few centuries, think of what unguided, seemingly random processes can do over millions of years. The book builds the case for what we today recognize as the standard theory of evolution by natural selection: that species evolved over time because expressed traits or outright mutations led to a competitive advantage for new generations.

You are probably already familiar with the theory, so I won’t bore you with the details, as Darwin does. But I will return to this idea of the controversy surrounding the book. In several places, Darwin expresses utter shock that anyone would find his rather innocent theory offensive in any way. He references the religious community in particular when pondering his detractors: “I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.”

Well, I do. And to be blunt, it’s mostly Darwin’s fault. Sure, people disagree over the theory itself, but that’s nothing new. There are common ideas in physics, chemistry, and all other branches of science that are still hotly debated today; just ask Schrödinger’s cat. Instead, it’s Darwin’s presentation and condescension that help drive his opponents to argue with even more agitation about his theory.

His first fumble is in how he tends to gloss over so much of the science needed to support his theory. The Origin of Species is by no means peer-reviewed content. Certainly, Darwin’s ideas are based on scientific insights gained from his own research and the work of others. And he does fill page after page with experimental details about birds and insects. But when presenting some of the more complex and controversial aspects of the theory, he provides few or no examples, at least not in the text. “I can bring forward a considerable body of facts,” he says, but then doesn’t. In a few places, he even admits that he doesn’t yet have the scientific support needed to sustain some of what he asserts: “Some of [the difficulties] are so serious that to this day I can hardly reflect on them without being in some degree staggered.” But in every case, after explaining what the problem is, sometimes with an example, he says that nothing in the stated difficulties are “fatal to the theory.”

A second area of concern is that, although he insists that the religious should not be shocked at his ideas, he repeatedly downplays any role by a creator in the development of the species. Even worse for his contemporaries, he regularly decides how God should think. In Chapter 6, after showing that different species of crustaceans have wholly unrelated methods of breathing air—a fact that complicates his theory—he insists that this proves a creator could not have been involved. “The presence of these multiple means proves that God did not create the various species by a fiat creative event.” Why, he asks, would a smart God invent multiple ways of doing the same thing? If Darwin were God, or at least putting words in his mouth, he would never have done it that way. Quod erat demonstrandum.

A third trouble with the text, and the most bothersome, is that Darwin periodically engages in outright ridicule and condescension toward his detractors. When stating how much his theory is indebted to the geological principles espoused by Charles Lyell, he mocks anyone who doubts his conclusions. “He who can read Sir Charles Lyell…yet does not admit how vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume.” Certainly there were those who did incorrectly reject Lyell’s important work. But Darwin implies in several places that anyone uncomfortable with his own theory is a foe of all proven science. He also suggests that through evolution, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.” For those who saw God as the sole source of perfection, this was a slap in the face.

None of this means that Darwin’s theory is invalid. Rude people can state essential truths just as well as polite people. And in his final chapter, Darwin does hold out an olive branch. His theory of descent by natural selection only concerns how the multitude of species came about. It tables the problem of how life formed in the first place (abiogenesis), and Darwin himself seems comfortable with the thought of a creator molding the initial primordial ooze or bringing about four or five initial life forms by fiat action. In fact, he sees it as a beautiful thing: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.


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