I’ve just learned that a very nifty old book has been posted at Project Gutenberg: At the Deathbed of Darwinism, by Eberhard Dennert. It was published in 1904, a very interesting period in the history of evolutionary biology, when Haeckel was repudiated, Darwin’s pangenesis was seen as a failure, and Mendel’s genetics had just been rediscovered, but it wasn’t yet clear how to incorporate them into evolutionary theory. In some ways, I can understand how Dennert might have come to some of the conclusions he did, but still … it’s a masterpiece of confident predictions that flopped. It ranks right up there with bumblebees can’t fly, rockets won’t work in a vacuum, and no one will ever need more than 640K of RAM…he specifically predicts that ‘Darwinism’ will be dead and abandoned within ten years, by 1910.
Today, at the dawn of the new century, nothing is more certain than that Darwinism has lost its prestige among men of science. It has seen its day and will soon be reckoned a thing of the past. A few decades hence when people will look back upon the history of the doctrine of Descent, they will confess that the years between 1860 and 1880 were in many respects a time of carnival; and the enthusiasm which at that time took possession of the devotees of natural science will appear to them as the excitement attending some mad revel.
He has a very specific model for the history of failed scientific theories, too.
From the account which Goette gives of the present status of Darwinism we may safely conclude that Darwinism had entered upon a period of decay; it is in the third stage of a development through which many a scientific doctrine has already passed.
The four stages of this development are the following:
The incipient stage: A new doctrine arises, the older representatives of the science oppose it partly because of keener insight and greater experience, partly also from indolence, not wishing to allow themselves to be drawn out of their accustomed equilibrium; among the younger generation there arises a growing sentiment in favor of the new doctrine.
The stage of growth: the new doctrine continually gains greater favor among the young generation, finding vent in bursts of enthusiasm; some of the cautious seniors have passed away, others are carried along by the stream of youthful enthusiasm in spite of better knowledge, and the voices of the thoughtful are no longer heard in the general uproar, exultingly proclaiming that to live is bliss.
The period of decay: the joyous enthusiasm has vanished; depression succeeds intoxication. Now that the young men have themselves grown older and become more sober, many things appear in a different light. The doubts already expressed by the old and prudent during the stage of growth are now better appreciated and gradually increase in weight. Many become indifferent, the present younger generation becomes perplexed and discards the theory entirely.
The final stage: the last adherents of the “new doctrine” are dead or at least old and have ceased to be influential, they sit upon the ruins of a grandeur that even now belongs to the “good old time.” The influential and directing spirits have abandoned this doctrine, once so important and seemingly invincible, for the consideration of living issues and the younger generation regards it as an interesting episode in the history of science.
With reference to Darwinism we are in the third stage which is characterized especially by the indifference of the present middle-aged generation and by growing opposition on the part of the younger coming generation. This very characteristic feature is brought into prominence by the discussion of Goette. If all signs, however, are not deceptive, this third stage, that of decay, is drawing to an end; soon we shall enter the final stage and with that the tragic-comedy of Darwinism will be brought to a close.
He’s so darned positive and cheerful about the whole process, and makes his own triumphal declaration about where evolutionary theory is going.
If some one were to ask me how according to the count of years, I should determine the extent of the individual stages of Darwinism, this would be my answer:
The incipient stage extends from 1859 (the year during which Darwin’s principal work, The Origin of Species, appeared) to the end of the sixties.
The stage of growth: from that time, for about 20 years, to the end of the eighties.
The stage of decay: from that time on to about the year 1900.
The final stage: the first decade of the new century.
I am not by choice a prophet, least of all regarding the weather. But I think it may not be doubted that the fine weather, at least, has passed for Darwinism. So having carefully scanned the firmament of science for signs of the weather, I shall for once make a forecast for Darwinism, namely: Increasing cloudiness with heavy precipitations, indications of a violent storm, which threatens to cause the props of the structure to totter, and to sweep it from the scene.
I don’t think Dennert will be remembered as a prophet.
It’s a curious read. Dennert really dislikes Haeckel, and strongly opposes Darwin and Weismann; he favors Lamarckism and believes that the evidence is building for the presence of a “vital force” in the protoplasm of cells — he concludes that the destruction of Darwinism will be accompanied by the rise to pre-eminence of Vitalism.
In the place of Darwinian principles, new ideas are gradually winning general acceptance, which, while they are in harmony with the principles of adaptation and use, (Lamarck) enunciated before the time of Darwin, nevertheless attribute a far-reaching importance to internal forces of development. These new conceptions necessarily involve the admission that Evolution has not been a purely mechanical process.
I favor the idea of internal forces of development having far-reaching importance myself, but Dennert means something different by it than I do; he wants to claim that there is an intrinsic vital force in development that cannot be explained by any mechanical, or what we’d call now molecular, events. That hasn’t panned out for him, and instead a reductionist and materialist series of explanations have represented a thoroughly successful and highly detailed model of developmental processes.
I rather like the old boy better than the current crop of anti-evolutionists, though. Dennert is drawing on the scientific literature of his time and the work of legitimate scientists who did not accept or were contesting evolution; he’s not ignoring or distorting the work of contemporary scientists, the kind of dishonest baloney the DI perpetrates all the time. He also proposes specific, testable ideas, that ‘protoplasm’ will have teleological properties, and cites experiments that he claims (but, in my quick read, I have not examined carefully) support the existence of a vital force. He’s wrong, but I think he’s wrong in an honest way.
He’s not an idiot. He’s standing at a fascinating period of transition and betting that future results will vindicate a particular line of reasoning. They did not, and he could not know how thoroughly the newborn science of genetics would inform and expand our understanding of evolution.
He’s missing two important facts. One, he’s not in stage 3; we can see with hindsight that he’s witnessing stage 1 of evolutionary biology, and he’s one of the old guard reluctant to adopt something new. Two, his description of the history of a failed theory is not applicable, since evolution is going to prove to be an exceedingly successful and powerful theory, and with the synthesis of genetics, is about to blast off.
It’s an entertaining train-wreck of a read, and we can laugh now at his sensationally wrong predictions, but if you do browse through it, keep this in mind: it’s qualitatively far different from the modern creationist literature, and it’s far more scholarly than anything the Discovery Institute publishes. Modern creationists are degenerate forms, merely aping the efforts of the last serious gasps of pre-Darwinian thought.