Earlier today, Maggie Koerth-Baker posted this tweet:
I dig this graph, but I think it misses an outreach opportunity by ascribing common misconceptions to creationists only bouncingdodecahedrons.tumblr.com/post/17808416988
It links to a diagram showing evolution as a linear path rather than a branching tree, and it got me thinking about terribly popular misconceptions about evolution that were started by smart people, and a doozy came to mind. A whole collection of doozies, actually, from one single terribly clever person.
You’ve all heard the stupid creationist objection to evolution — “if evolution is true, how come there are still monkeys?” — but have you ever wondered who the first person to come up with that criticism was? You might be surprised.
The first instance I’ve been able to find was by Richard Owen, head of the British Museum and one of the premiere scientists of his day, and it was said in a rather notorious review of Darwin’s Origin, published in the Edinburgh Review in 1860. So not a stupid fellow, but one with an axe to grind, and also a creationist…but then, just about everyone was a creationist in 1860. Still, it’s a remarkable document.
Some background you need to know, though. This review was authored by Owen. When it needs to cite a scientist for its claims, it cites…Professor Richard Owen. It does so 11 times. Reading it with knowledge of its authorship really diminishes its authority to an amazing degree, and greatly inflates Owen’s appearance of pomposity.
It’s also an agonizing read. Darwin sometimes sounds a bit quaint and wordy nowadays, but at least he’s lucid and logical, and his writing flows well: I found Owen’s review to be a rough read, turgid and inelegant. I know I’ve got a bit of a bias which colors my opinion, but seriously, when you read the excerpt below, you’ll see what I mean.
On the other hand, if you read the whole thing, you’ll be struck by how it uses a whole collection of arguments that sound little different than what creationists say now, but that it is considerably more erudite. I hate to give them advice, but if creationists tossed out the trash written by Gish and Ham and any of the hacks at the Discovery Institute, and just regurgitated Owen’s words, there is a great deal that most of the warriors for evolution would have a tough time rebutting. Owen knew a lot of zoology, and he deploys it effectively to buttress some fundamentally flawed arguments.
Like this one. He doesn’t literally say “if evolution is true, how come there are still monkeys?” — he uses much more obscure examples and far more convoluted language, but it’s the same sentiment.
But has the free-swimming medusa, which bursts its way out of the ovicapsule of a campanularia, been developed out of inorganic particles? Or have certain elemental atoms suddenly flashed up into acalephal form? Has the polype-parent of the acalephe necessarily become extinct by virtue of such anomalous birth? May it not, and does it not proceed to propagate its own lower species in regard to form and organisation, notwithstanding its occasional production of another very different and higher kind. Is the fact of one animal giving birth to another not merely specifically, but generically and ordinally, distinct, a solitary one? Has not Cuvier, in a score or more of instances, placed the parent in one class, and the fruitful offspring in another class, of animals? Are the entire series of parthenogenetic phenomena to be of no account in the consideration of the supreme problem of the introduction of fresh specific forms into this planet? Are the transmutationists to monopolise the privilege of conceiving the possibility of the occurrence of unknown phenomena, to be the exclusive propounders of beliefs and surmises, to cry down every kindred barren speculation, and to allow no indulgence in any mere hypothesis save their own? Is it to be endured that every observer who points out a case to which transmutation, under whatever term disguised, is inapplicable, is to be set down by the refuted theorist as a believer in a mode of manufacturing a species which he never did believe in, and which may be inconceivable?
Doesn’t it sound so much more intelligent to ask, if evolution is true, why haven’t inorganic particles evolved into free-swimming medusae, and hey, why are there still polype-parents of the acalephe? Why aren’t we observing new forms bursting up out of the inanimate world in the same way they must have in Darwin’s version of the past?
The intelligent design creationists are also missing an opportunity. This is one of my favorite parts: Owen is snidely berating Darwin for thinking up this cunning new mechanism and then discarding the other ‘scientific’ mode of biological change…that is, divine creation. Transmutationists, as he calls evolutionists, are unable to see other ways that creation might work. “You can’t handle the truth!” is what he’s saying here.
Here it is assumed, as by Mr. Darwin, that no other mode of operation of a secondary law in the foundation of a form with distinct specific characters, can have been adopted by the Author of all creative laws that the one which the transmutationists have imagined. Any physiologist who may find the Lamarckian, or the more diffused and attenuated Darwinian, exposition of the law inapplicable to a species, such as the gorilla, considered as a step in the transmutative production of man, is forthwith clamoured against as one who swallows up every fact and every phenomenon regarding the origin and continuance of species ‘in the gigantic conception of a power intermittently exercised in the development, out of inorganic elements, of organisms the most bulky and complex, as well as the most minute and simple.’ Significantly characteristic of the partial view of organic phenomena taken by the transmutationists, and of their inadequacy to grapple with the working out and discovery of a great natural law, is their incompetency to discern the indications of any other origin of one specific form out of another preceding it, save by their way of gradual change through a series of varieties assumed to have become extinct.
Similarly, Owen siezes on Darwin’s remark that all life descended from one primordial form “into which life was first breathed” to chastise him for limiting god:
By the latter scriptural phrase, it may be inferred that Mr. Darwin formally recognises, in the so-limited beginning, a direct creative act, something like that supernatural or miraculous one which, in the preceding page, he defines, as ‘certain elemental atoms which have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues.’ He has, doubtless, framed in his imagination some idea of the common organic prototype; but he refrains from submitting it to criticism. He leaves us to imagine our globe, void, but so advanced as to be under the conditions which render life possible; and he then restricts the Divine power of breathing life into organic form to its minimum of direct operation.
I have some sympathy for this argument, and I think Darwin himself regretted making that one concession, because as we can see, creationists will sieze any excuse to invoke their personal god.
There’s also a section where he chides Darwin for not giving enough credit to Lamarck, and another where he favorably cites Buffon for his idea that species are mutable to a limited degree (Owen himself accepted some range of change over time), and calculated that all mammals could be reduced to 15 basic stocks. Creationists calculating storage space on the ark, take notice.
So yes, a lot of creationist arguments have their source not in really stupid people, but in some very intelligent and scientifically conservative people in the past. The problem is that modern creationists are clinging to rotten antique ideas that have long been dismantled. I’d also point out that creationist arguments have decayed: Owen’s writing, opaque and pretentious as it is, is far more challenging than anything I’ve seen from his degraded intellectual descendants.
I think if I were teaching a course in anti-creationism, I’d give this essay to my students and we’d spend about a week taking it apart — it would be a good exercise for them. And oh, they would hate me for it.