Read Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors Online

Authors: Carl Sagan,Ann Druyan

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (10 page)


The Edinburgh Review
of April 1860 (in an unsigned critique by the anatomist Richard Owen) took a less charitable view:

The considerations involved in the attempt to disclose the origin of the worm are inadequate to the requirements of the higher problem of the origin of man … To him, indeed, who may deem himself devoid of soul and as the brute that perisheth, any speculation, pointing, with the smallest feasibility, to an intelligible notion of the way of coming in of a lower organised species, may be sufficient, and he need concern himself no further about his own relations to a Creator … Mr. Darwin offers us … intellectual husks … endorsed by his firm belief in their nutritive sufficiency.


The reviewer praises scientists “who trouble the intellectual world little with their beliefs, but enrich it greatly with their proofs,” and contrasts them to Darwin, who is said to have no more than “a discursive and superficial knowledge of nature.”

Professor Owen is much impressed by the work of Cuvier on the mummified ibises, cats, and crocodiles “preserved in the tombs of Egypt,” which prove “that no change in their specific characters has taken place during the thousands of years … which had elapsed … since the individuals of those species were the subjects of the mummifier’s skill.” Cuvier’s data, it is said, were of “far higher value” than
the “speculations” of Darwin. But the mummified animals of ancient Egypt walked the Earth only a split second ago on the geological time scale—not nearly long enough ago to show major evolutionary change, which characteristically requires millions of years. Owen’s review ripples with florid scorn: “Prosaic minds,” it says, “are apt to bore one by asking for our proofs, and one feels almost provoked, when seduced to the brink of such a draught of forbidden knowledge as the [evolutionists] offer, to have the Circean cup dashed away” by more knowledgeable experts of a different opinion.

Other commentators raised more substantial objections: No example of a beneficial mutation or hereditary change is known, it was said; Darwin must invoke enormous intervals of time before the epoch of the dinosaurs, and yet no sign of life could be found in the earlier geological record; transitional forms between one species and the other were said to be wholly lacking in the geological record. In fact Darwin stressed the almost total ignorance in his time of the nature of hereditary transmission and mutation, and he himself pointed to the sparseness of the geological record as a problem for the theory (although he also said he would produce the transitional fossils when his opponents showed him all the intermediate forms between wild dogs and greyhounds, say, or bulldogs). Since then, not only have the laws of inheritance by genes and chromosomes (which are made entirely of nucleic acids) been carefully worked out, but their detailed molecular structure is known; we even understand how a mutation can be caused by the substitution of a single atom for another. The geological record has been extended not only to before the time of the dinosaurs, but we now have spotty glimpses of life through the preceding 3.5 billion years. Despite his exhaustive studies of artificial selection, Darwin did not know of a single case history of natural selection in the wild; today we know of hundreds.
The fossil evidence remains sparse, though: A few more transitional forms are now known—
, for example, a halfway house between reptile and bird—but still not nearly enough to show even the majority of the important evolutionary pathways. But the most powerful evidence for evolution comes, as we will see, from a science whose very existence was unknown in Darwin’s time—molecular biology.

A critique in
The North American Review
for April 1860 attempts to refute Darwin by a kind of unselfconscious sophism: The very long
periods of geological time required for evolution are declared “virtually infinite.” Darwin himself used similarly loose mathematical language. Then the review goes on to assert that “the difference between such a conception and that of the strictly infinite, if any, is not appreciable.” Infinity, however, belongs not to science but to metaphysics, so the reviewer concludes that the theory of evolution is not scientific but metaphysical—“resting altogether upon the idea of ‘the infinite,’ which the human mind can neither put aside nor comprehend.”
This last point would seem to apply, especially, to the reviewer. In fact, any two numbers, no matter how large or small, are equally distant from infinity, and 4.5 billion years is a respectably finite period of time. Infinity does not enter the evolutionary perspective. The speciousness of this argument (and other critiques) gives us a sense of how anxious people were to reject Darwin’s ideas. (His later suggestion that all living things including humans were
evolving, and that in the far future our descendants would not be human, was dismissed even by sympathetic reviewers as going too far.)

The London Quarterly Review
of July 1860, in an article called “Darwin’s Origin of Species,” Darwin is anonymously taken to task by his adversary Samuel Wilberforce, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford—among many other things, for “wantonness of conjecture” and “extravagant liberty of speculation.” His “mode of dealing with nature” is condemned as

utterly dishonourable to all natural science, as reducing it from its present lofty level as one of the noblest trainers of man’s intellect and instructors of his mind, to being a mere idle play of the fancy, without the basis of fact or the discipline of observation.


He is accused of circumventing “the obstinacy of fact” by waving a magic wand and saying, “ ‘Throw in a few hundreds of millions of years more or less, and why should not all these changes be possible …?’ ”

The terrible implication is drawn that Darwin’s unexpressed supposition was that “man” might be only “an improved ape.” (Wilberforce on this point was not far from the mark; this is close to what Darwin thought.) That natural selection might apply to humans is denounced as “absolutely incompatible” with “the Word of God.” Moreover,
“man’s derived supremacy over the earth; man’s power of articulate speech; man’s gift of reason; man’s free-will and responsibility; man’s fall and man’s redemption; the Incarnation of the Eternal Son; the indwelling of the Eternal Spirit, all are equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God, and redeemed by the Eternal Son.” The idea of evolution tends “inevitably to banish from the mind most of the peculiar attributes of the Almighty.” Darwin’s insights are compared to “the frenzied inspiration of the inhaler of mephitic gas.” His views are contrasted by Bishop Wilberforce with those of “a far greater philosopher,” Professor Owen, whom he quotes, a little tangentially, as advising teenagers:

Oh! you who possess it in all the supple vigour of lusty youth, think well what it is that He has committed to your keeping. Waste not its energies; cull them not by sloth; spoil them not by pleasures! The supreme work of creation has been accomplished that you might possess a body—the sole erect—of all animal bodies the most free—and for what? for the service of the soul . . Defile it not.


The North British Review
of May 1860, no less hostile, begins its critique: “If notoriety be any proof of successful authorship, Mr. Darwin has had his reward.” Darwin is compared with writers who “seem ever distrustful of views of nature which, even remotely, tend to set them or their readers in direct relation with a personal God.” As in many of the negative reviews, this one acknowledges Darwin’s reputation as an accomplished naturalist and praises his felicity of style. He is, though, a “charlatan” and guilty of “unbelief in the governing Creator.” The book’s “seeming depth is only darkness.” He is accused of setting a throne “somewhere, above Olympus, and the goddess of the author’s devotion is seated on it.” This goddess is Natural Selection. “The ‘chance’ of heathenism has developed into a higher form … Mr. Darwin’s work,”
The North British Review
concludes, “is in direct antagonism to all the findings of a natural theology, formed on legitimate inductions in the study of the works of God; and it does open violence to everything which the Creator Himself has told us in the Scriptures of truth.” The publication of
The Origin of Species
is said to have been a “mistake.” “Its author would have done well to
science, and to his own fame, had he, being determined to write it, put it away among his papers, marked, ‘A Contribution to Scientific Speculation in 1720’ ” —that being the reviewer’s estimate of how retrogressive and passé Darwin’s argument was.

The process of natural selection, extracting order out of chaos as if by magic, was counterintuitive and disturbing to many, and Darwin was repeatedly accused of something not far short of idolatry. He answered the charge in these words:

It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets? Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten …

As man can produce, and certainly has produced, a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not natural selection effect? Man can act only on external and visible characters: Nature, if I may be allowed to personify the natural preservation or survival of the fittest, cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they are useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good: Nature only for that of the being which she tends …

It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working … We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long-past geological ages, that we see only that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.


Darwin was criticized by some for being a teleologist—for believing that Nature was working with some long-term end in view—and, conversely, by others for constructing a Nature in which random, purposeless
variation is key. (“The law of higgledy-piggledy,” the astronomer John Herschel dismissively called it.) People had real difficulty grasping the concept of natural selection. His motives, sincerity, honesty, and ability were all questioned. Many who criticized him did not understand his argument or the cumulative power of the data he invoked in its support. Many—including some of the most distinguished scientists of the day, among them, painfully, Adam Sedgwick, his old geology professor—rejected Darwin’s insight, not because the evidence was against it, but because of where it led: seemingly, to a world in which humans were degraded, souls denied, God and morality scorned, and monkeys, worms, and primeval ooze elevated; “a system uncaring of man.” Thomas Carlyle called it “a Gospel of dirt.”

None of these moral and theological criticisms is compelling, Darwin, Huxley, and others labored to show: In astronomy, we no longer believe that an angel pushes each planet around the Sun; the inverse square law of gravitation and Newton’s laws of motion suffice. But no one considers this a demonstration of the nonexistence of God, and Newton himself—except for a private reservation about the notion of the Trinity—was close to the conventional Christianity of his day. We are free to posit, if we wish, that God is responsible for the laws of Nature, and that the divine will is worked through secondary causes. In biology those causes would have to include mutation and natural selection. (Many people would find it unsatisfying, though, to worship the law of gravity.)

As the debate proceeded over the years, natural selection seemed less strange and less threatening. Increasing numbers of scientists, literary figures, and even clergymen were won over. But by no means all. In July 1871,
The London Quarterly Review
—which eleven years earlier had published Bishop Wilberforce’s anonymous diatribe—remained unreconstructed, wholly missing Darwin’s point. “Why should natural selection favor the preservation of useful varieties only? Such action cannot be referred to blind force; it can belong to mind alone.” Not only are evolution and natural selection rejected, but so is the newly discovered law of the conservation of energy,
one of the foundations of modern physics.

Some of the underlying emotional reasons for rejecting natural selection were later vividly expressed by the playwright George Bernard Shaw:

[T]he Darwinian process may be described as a chapter of accidents. As such, it seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure. To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter, but eternally impossible to the spirits and souls of the righteous … If this sort of selection could turn an antelope into a giraffe, it could conceivably turn a pond full of amoebas into the French Academy.