Basic a whole science on one abstract

I eventually read Darwin’s Origin of Species only in 2011, having never before that had much interest in the history of science, but only in the application of the science. That was in the days before I understood just how much scientific “history” is in fact the hagiography of a secular religion.

When I did read it, I was immediately most struck by something I had never been taught in my science courses, nor heard in science documentaries, nor been told by the ardent fans of Darwin I conversed with at BioLogos. And that was that The Origin was only ever intended as an abstract setting out the claims of the theory. Darwin repeatedly states that the data and evidence by which he would substantiate it, painstakingly assembled over twenty years of study and experiment, would be presented in a much larger book, already nearing completion.

Being pretty sure that such a book had never come out (or surely it would have been widely celebrated on the theory’s 150th anniversary), this struck me as somewhat suspicious. How could the whole of modern biology – together with the whole evolutionary worldview that has arisen from it – have been kick-started by a popular-format book that presents no substantial evidence, promising it for a subsequent work that never actually emerged?

This question is discussed in a book I’ve just finished, Robert F. Shedinger’s Darwin’s Bluff – The Mystery of the Book Darwin Never Finished. In it, the author mines Darwin’s extensive correspondence, together with the incomplete manuscript of around 300,000 words that survived Darwin’s death, and which was published, with little fanfare and even less discussion, a century later.

To summarise the very plausible argument of the book, Darwin had fully intended to publish his “Big Book,” but seems to have realised that the facts he had collected over the years did nothing to answer the many criticisms The Origin received from scientific professionals on its release. In fact Shedinger’s survey of the “Big Book” demonstrates that it is in the main just a larger version of the earlier book, and shares its tendency to give imaginary examples of how variation and natural selection might work, given the theory’s validity, and to explain away the many difficulties using arguments from personal psychology (“I do not see these as insurmountable obstancle”) or from personal theology (“Whatever the problems, the alternative of special creation is unthinkable”).

The biggest problems with the theory, such as the lack of observation of natural selection in the real world, the incongruity of the fossil record, the failures of his favourite analogy of artificial selection (to which the Big Book devotes two chapters) remain unanswered. In the event Darwin spent his time after The Origins’s publication on other projects, using only one small part of the “Natural Selection” draft for one of them. He pleaded that these tasks, extensive correspondence, and ill-health, prevented his completion of the promised work.

It does not appear that Darwin was “bluffing” about the existence of the larger work (in three volumes), for he after all had produced most of the 300,000 words before The Origin was published. His bluff – maybe even to himself – was in continuing to wave the flag for the forthcoming evidence base long after he had actually given up on it. The most likely explanation is that he realised that nothing in his data answered the challenges that had been raised about his theory by friends and opponents alike, who could see that good alternative explanations for the sparse facts he had actually presented existed. In other words, he hadn’t anticipated the evidential weaknesses in his theory, having come to see everything in nature in its light, and had no answers to them.

His blinkered vision is shown in the detailed descriptive volume he later produced on orchids, hoping (Shedinger suggests) that the scientific community would take the wonderful reproductive contrivances of orchids as added weight weight for the acceptance of natural selection. Instead it was received (overtly, in some reviews) as the greatest contribution to natural theology (ie intelligent design) of the century!

It would appear that the scientists who had expressed doubts about the theory of natural selection, pending his production of some good evidence, eventually got tired of asking for it. It would take another historical book to examine in detail which of them remained sceptical, and which of them eventually got carried along in the tide of general acceptance that slowly possessed the Victorian intelligentsia regardless of the lack of evidence: perhaps it is only the post-COVID generation that can fully understand how potent mass formation is in conforming entire scientific disciplines to the prevailing zeitgeist. But if The Origin was successfully establishing his theory in public consciousness, why should he weaken it by presenting a mass of unpersuasive evidence? It seems quite probable that his lay-readers took his promise that evidence existed at face value, just as most people took Fauci’s word for the existence of evidence for effectiveness and safety of COVID vaccines.

That other historical book might also seek to explain why Darwinism actually did take hold, given the failure of Darwin to produce the evidential goods. It certainly wasn’t that the evidence came from other workers, because even today a whole galaxy of evolutionary “normal science” rides on the back of the same kind of Just-So stories and special pleading (or epicycles) which Darwin promised to justify in his “Big Book.” My own feeling is that Natural Selection took hold because educated society wanted a secular alternative to divine creation, and that society included many, though not all, biologists. Desire trumps evidence for most people, unfortunately.

The secularisation of science was not entirely organic. It was partly engineered by the movement of Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”), who intellectually doubted the sufficiency of natural selection himself, but who was determined, with others, to exclude God from science, as I discuss here. Yet broader motives than the desire to wrest science from the clerics were at work. Perhaps a parallel is the way that Critical Theory has enveloped society – and especially academic society – in our own day, despite its flying in the face of evidence from science, medicine, sociology and everything else.

If creation is to be excluded, then logically some form of evolution is the only alternative, and Darwin’s theory, or some variation of it, is the only one that appears plausible given nineteenth century classical science. Richard Dawkins was right to say that [only] “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Darwinism really has to be defended to the death, and counter-evidence even from accredited biologists suppressed, for reasons that Shedinger gives on p.229:

…because the deeply entrenched Darwinian framework of evolutionary biology serves to place biology on a purely materialistic foundation as a proper natural science, any attempt to challenge it as insufficient opens the door to the possibility of some kind of guidance, direction or even intelligence central to the evolutionary process. And once this is concede, biology is seen as bleeding over into religion, leaving its status as a purely natural science in question. But this is an ideological or worldview objection, not one based on the evidence. Science should be about following the evidence.

Schedinger doesn’t mention that without its naturalistic basis in infinite variation and natural selection, evolution itself becomes something of a problematic concept. Yet as we have seen, Schedinger’s argument is confirmed in the fact that Darwinian evolution grew and prospered despite its proposer’s admitted failure to provide evidence.

In point of fact, as many readers may not realise, the lack of evidence did damage Darwinism severely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Evolution in the sense of common descent and change over time (that is to say the non-fixity of species) did persist, but other explanations like laws of form predominated over natural selection. Only in the 1920s and 1930s did the Darwinian-Mendelian synthesis of population genetics, especially when augmented by the mutationism of Hermann Muller, make it once more seem plausible as the explanation of species, though no better evidenced than before. This time, though, Neodarwinism’s proponents gained sufficient control of the institutions and educational system to silence opposing voices, from Richard Goldschmidt with his macro-evolutionary “hopeful monsters” to the current generation of dissidents like James Shapiro, Denis Noble and, of course, the Intelligent Design community.

Meanwhile, the objections Darwin was unable to answer in his “Big Book” have escalated dramatically, as the fossil record has been filled, natural selection shown to be strictly limited quantitively, the paucity of beneficial variations shown most dramatically in the “waiting time problem,” the expected nested hierarchies proving inconclusive both morphologically and genetically (and in combination), the complexity of the genome and every other life-system becoming unimaginable, the origin of life question continuing to be intractable, etc, etc, etc.

Had Darwin had any inkling of any of all this, I suspect he would never have been foolhardy enough to publish The Origin of Species, let alone promise a definitive sequel. But they won’t tell you that at school.

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Basic a whole science on one abstract

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Amen. i just recently planned to reads his book again. i already know he never presented scientific biological evidence for jis hypothesis. insteads he used other subjects and a line of reasoning from minor data. it was accepted because they wanted a idea to replace genesis and even God. they wanted it in the British establishment. I don’t mean they were insincere. they already loved the geology stuff that was rejecting the bible.
    so a crazy wrong idea gets accepted because anyways it doesn’t make ptractical difference. Evolution does not hold up anything irrelevant to flying a plane.
    I conclude then or now its on the quality of the evidence. They could not test or prove anything. its more like hiostory then science. it was not science and so error became accepted. Until today more, smarter people evrrywhere are questioningh evolutionism and not just biblical creationists.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I think it was fine that Darwin (and Wallace) published their theory for examination. After all, Wallace ended up seeing natural selection as one of the tools of the designing mind rather than as a God-substitute. In the event, I think the power of natural selection has been progressively diminished in the light of new knowledge beyond where Wallace ended up. It would have been rejected earlier if it hadn’t been, in the mind of Darwin and his followers, primarily a religious theory – as it still is.

      Incidentally (for the record) Shedinger has some negative things to say about Darwin’s character in his final chapter on racism, social Darwinism etc. These I largely disagreed with on the basis that they were written from modern sensibilities rather than in historical context. Darwin is actually quite likeable in many ways, once he’s relieved of the burden of being the Greatest Mind Ever and the High Priest of Materialism.

      For example, Shedinger criticises Darwin for joking about slavery, even though he was an ardent abolitionist who hated the institution. But I will joke about wokery, climate alarmism and other things I consider evil and oppressive, but have limited ability to challenge, simply because humour accentuates their folly.

  2. shopwindows says:

    Is Luddite a pejorative? Or shouldn’t they have been steamrollered? When did time begin, where is the edge of the “polyverse”?

    We don’t know but we do know we’ll have taken some wrong turns. We don’t know which wrong turns but we do know strength of character tends to resolve the decisions because sitting on the fence, well that’s no good, is it, we need progress, GDP. Hubris flourishes where man lacks humility?

    All argued evidence free. Is there a false distinction between art and science? Isn’t God the integration of art and science, the real singularity, all artificial subdivisions being merely devices to allow puny human minds to rationalise in our limited terms?

    Beyond empirical RCT experimentation the ultimate evidence is birth, deformity, longevity, suicide, unnatural death, natural death and tax. It would be a shame if a civilisation didn’t reliably collate and consider variations in such statistics? It would be a tragedy if they were suppressed or a blind eye turned.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “Is there a false distinction between art and science?”

    C. S. Lewis wisely commented that what defines things is merely how they are taught in university. People, not nature, decide what properly belongs to biology, or to science, or philosophy, or theology.

    The “rules” of science, for example, as established by Huxley’s crew, say that if Neodarwinism is the least bad naturalistic theory of life, then even if the evidence points to teleology (internal or external, aka God), the theory is the science, and everything else is unscientific.

    The intention, stated or unstated, is to keep secular “science” as the arbiter of truth, and exclude God. But in fact what it does, to those with eyes to see, is to render “science” a niche belief system trying to explain an enchanted reality with blunt tools.

    In an ideal world we’d redefine science to allow for God’s choices as we unpick his fidelity. But whist the materialists hold power in the institutions, it seems better just to let them get on with it and live by a better reality – much as seems the best strategy for living in the world of deception generally. “Live not by lies.”

  4. Peter Hickman says:

    I did not read Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ (1859), but I did read ‘Almost Like a Whale, The Origin of Species Updated’ (1999) by Steve Jones, which, as the subtitle suggests, updated Darwin’s treatise with data that had been gleaned in the intervening 140 years. It is a fascinating read. Jones points out the obvious, that Darwin wasn’t privy to the large mass of evidence that has subsequently been accumulated by disciplines such as genetics and palaeontology; for example, there were no human fossils available to Darwin – now there are thousands (albeit, in any case, he did not consider it politic to discuss human evolution).

    I did contemplate purchasing Shedinger’s Darwin’s Bluff, but an Amazon reviewer, Puck Mendelssohn, did such a detailed hatchet job on it (titled ‘A dreadful addition to the literature of Darwin-disparagement’) that I thought better of it. Despite extensive and relevant reading over the years, I must confess my continued insufficiency to make reliable judgments on much of the subject matter; I don’t think I would be wise to place much reliance on the scientific opinions of a professor of theology.

    During the Covid ‘pandemic’ a probable example of natural selection came to my attention. In their 2020 booklet ‘Vitamin D Deficiency and Covid-19’, Drs David Anderson and David Grimes noted that there was a disproportionate death rate amongst black and minority ethnic (‘BAME’) groups. Appendix 3 provides a poignant list of 23 doctors who had died from Covid-19, only one of whom was non-BAME. Dr John Campbell has since published a number of YouTube videos on the subject of Vitamin D and its role in metabolic health, with particular reference to its importance to the immune system. Maybe my understanding of natural selection is not very nuanced, but I suppose that it is reasonable to say that since people with dark skins now living in northern climes are more likely to be Vitamin D deficient they are also more likely to be selected out of the gene pool if they meet a virulent pathogen. No doubt Darwin would have been comforted by that little piece of evidence.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Nobody doubts that if there’s only milk to eat, natural selection will favour the lactose tolerant. Likewise the light-skinned in a Vitamin-D deficient locale. The question is, and always has been, whether many thousands of infinitesimal variations can all be subtly selected for so as to produce new species throughout the biosphere.

  5. Peter Hickman says:

    Of course, you are right.
    ‘Deep time’, they say.
    I can only just cope with getting my head around hundreds of years, let alone thousands, or thousands of thousands, or millions of thousands.
    I suppose that if one infinitesimal variation can be selected for, then so can another.
    If examples of natural selection and of evolution, for example of great tit beak length, can be seen in our short lifetimes, perhaps ‘deep time’ may be sufficient to produce new species. Perhaps.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Ah! Therein lies the original plausibility of Darwin’s idea: “If natural selection in short times produces tiny variations, over millions of years it can produce new species.” If I can learn to mend a fuse, it doesn’t follow that I can work out how to build a computer, however long my life.

      The devil is in the detail. For a start, breeders even in his time pointed out that the further one goes from the wild type, the greater the barriers: you can produce a Great Dane, but it will die young of multiple genetic faults. And unlike Darwin we know that dogs have been selectively bred for over 40K years, a significant chunk of the average duration of a species, yet they are still all varieties of grey wolf. (Polyploidy in plants is a special, limited, case known in Darwin’s time).

      Then again, the fossil record, now much more complete than in 1859, shows almost exclusively stasis and extinction/saltation. In fact the mere handful of claimed continuous transitions in the record have all been either disproven or challenged – that’s about three, and decreasing, in a quarter of a million fossil species.

      Then add Kimura’s work showing that selection is limited to, at a generous estimate, <20K genes at once – which is why repetitive elements were labelled as junk, and most mutations considered mildly deleterious and not subject to selection. But we now know not only that many or most repetitive elements and many pseudogenes control sophisticated functions, but that the genome has several more layers of interlocking functions – far, far outstripping the capacity of natural selection to explain.

      Pure Darwinism ought to produce clean nested hierarchies. But it's rare to find a phylogeny, at any scale, either morphologically or genetically, that is not contested or simply the best fit to very noisy data.

      Then there's the waiting time problem (look it up!).

      So selection may well account for single-issue, single-gene modifications, but producing a man from an australopithecine, in a small population of a few thousand, in just 5,000 generations?? There's no evidence for it that I have been able to find, and much against, so essentially it's philosophy rather than science, as Darwin sometimes admitted, expecting the evidence to emerge at some future date.

Leave a Reply