Aug 30 2007

Charles Darwin in his own words

I have written a lot about the theory of evolution and in the process have quoted short excerpts from various authors, Charles Darwin included. (Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

But in going back and reading the first edition of On the Origin of Species (1859), I am struck by how prescient Darwin was in anticipating the objections that would be raised against his theory and why. He could well have been talking about the situation today, except that then the people who were skeptical and who he was trying to persuade were his scientific colleagues. Nowadays scientists are almost all converts to natural selection (as he predicted might happen) and it is religious lay people who make the same objections he addressed long ago.

To get the full flavor of Darwin’s thinking and his style of writing, here is a somewhat long passage from his conclusions, where he summarizes his case (p. 480-484). The sections in boldface are my own emphasis. (Darwin’s complete works are now available online.)

I have now recapitulated the chief facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have changed, and are still slowly changing by the preservation and accumulation of successive slight favourable variations. Why, it may be asked, have all the most eminent living naturalists and geologists rejected this view of the mutability of species? It cannot be asserted that organic beings in a state of nature are subject to no variation; it cannot be proved that the amount of variation in the course of long ages is a limited quantity; no clear distinction has been, or can be, drawn between species and well-marked varieties. It cannot be maintained that species when intercrossed are invariably sterile, and varieties invariably fertile; or that sterility is a special endowment and sign of creation. The belief that species were immutable productions was almost unavoidable as long as the history of the world was thought to be of short duration; and now that we have acquired some idea of the lapse of time, we are too apt to assume, without proof, that the geological record is so perfect that it would have afforded us plain evidence of the mutation of species, if they had undergone mutation.

But the chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species, is that we are always slow in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps. The difficulty is the same as that felt by so many geologists, when Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland cliffs had been formed, and great valleys excavated, by the slow action of the coast-waves. The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.

Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt on the immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

Several eminent naturalists have of late published their belief that a multitude of reputed species in each genus are not real species; but that other species are real, that is, have been independently created. This seems to me a strange conclusion to arrive at. They admit that a multitude of forms, which till lately they themselves thought were special creations, and which are still thus looked at by the majority of naturalists, and which consequently have every external characteristic feature of true species,—they admit that these have been produced by variation, but they refuse to extend the same view to other and very slightly different forms. Nevertheless they do not pretend that they can define, or even conjecture, which are the created forms of life, and which are those produced by secondary laws. They admit variation as a vera causa in one case, they arbitrarily reject it in another, without assigning any distinction in the two cases. The day will come when this will be given as a curious illustration of the blindness of preconceived opinion. These authors seem no more startled at a miraculous act of creation than at an ordinary birth. But do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth’s history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues? Do they believe that at each supposed act of creation one individual or many were produced? Were all the infinitely numerous kinds of animals and plants created as eggs or seed, or as full grown? and in the case of mammals, were they created bearing the false marks of nourishment from the mother’s womb? Although naturalists very properly demand a full explanation of every difficulty from those who believe in the mutability of species, on their own side they ignore the whole subject of the first appearance of species in what they consider reverent silence.

It may be asked how far I extend the doctrine of the modification of species. The question is difficult to answer, because the more distinct the forms are which we may consider, by so much the arguments fall away in force. But some arguments of the greatest weight extend very far. . . I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number.

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.

And then the very last, almost poetic, words in the book (p. 490):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling 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.

Darwin’s achievements are truly magnificent, putting him in the same class as Einstein and Newton, among the greatest scientists of all time.

POST SCRIPT: The Larry Craig incident

Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) has taken some strong “family values” and anti-gay stands in the past, despite long standing rumors that he himself was gay. The recent news report that he had pleaded guilty to “lewd” conduct in a public restroom has caused speculation that his career is now over.

It is despicable to harass gays with anti-gay rhetoric and legislation, becoming even worse if those doing so are secretly gay themselves. But Talking Points Memo expresses well my unease with what happened to Craig in the most recent episode. It is not clear from published reports that he did anything that really warranted his arrest and that he was, as Josh Marshall says, essentially caught in a Catch-22 caused by his own risky behavior.

Glenn Greenwald documents the brazen contradictions that right-wingers are indulging in the way they respond to the recent Craig revelation, the reports that surfaced back in 2006 that he was gay, and the recent case of Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana), another “family values” champion who was found to be a customer of prostitutes.


  1. 1
    TCA peel

    Wonderful blog and great insights on Darwin and peeling back the meaning of time and evolution.

    Here’s a great website on chemical peels and health TCA peel

  2. 2

    Great discussion on Darwin, just saw a pbs show on the debate between evolution and intelligent design.

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