Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/May 1887/Creation or Evolution?

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1013966Popular Science Monthly Volume 31 May 1887 — Creation or Evolution?1887William Dawson Le Sueur



IN a recently published work, bearing the above title, we have an elaborate plea, drawn by an eminent legal practitioner, against the doctrine of evolution as expounded by such writers as Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer. To satisfy the natural curiosity of the public as to how eminent qualifications as a jurist should have come to be united with competence for a very ambitious essay in biological and philosophical criticism, the author informs us that, for years past, he has found relaxation from severe professional labor in the study, during his leisure hours, of the works of the leading evolutionists. He believes that he has fully mastered both their facts and their reasonings; and, finding the latter very weak—so weak that, in one case, he almost blushes to have to repeat the argument to his intelligent readers—he comes forward to level the whole structure of the evolutionary philosophy, and to rebuild on its ruins the ancient theory of "special creation." It must not be supposed, however, that Mr. Curtis is indebted to previous writers for the arguments he now brings to bear in favor of that venerable position. It is over forty years, he tells us, since he looked into any of the great authorities in the department of natural theology; and he is not now conscious of having "borrowed an argument, imitated a method, or followed an example." It is not often, perhaps, that so extensive a claim can be laid to originality; for most of us, it must be confessed, borrow arguments, imitate methods, and follow examples, often to our great profit, and without, in general, feeling our consciences unduly burdened. There is no doubt in our mind that Mr. Curtis has made an honest effort to understand the writers whom he has set to work to criticise. He has conned his brief with a good deal of care; but the trouble is, as we conceive, that he has held a brief, and has not been in contact with the actual facts. He has taken one or two books of Darwin's, and one or two of Spencer's, and has subjected them to a kind of microscopic analysis; but there is no evidence whatever that either his reading or his observation has been of a character to enable him to do justice to the doctrine of evolution as a whole. He has not even read enough of the authors he criticises to have mastered their terminology. See, for instance, his very futile and pointless criticism of the term "noumenon," as used by Mr. Spencer. Upon almost every page of his book we are made to feel that he has never really breathed the same air as the writers whose names he so continually repeats, and with whose works he professes so minute an acquaintance. He knows them simply as a counsel knows the opposite party in a suit—some one of whom he never heard before he got his instructions from his client or client's attorney, and of whom he does not want to hear any more after the trial is over.

We have tried to do justice to the extreme originality of this writer's methods, but without marked success. The patent laws of most countries, we believe, refuse to grant exclusive rights in connection with mere processes. A man can get a patent for a new kind of spade, but not for a new way of handling an old spade, supposing such were discoverable. Well, all we have been able to perceive in the somewhat heavy volume before us is a process, which may indeed strike the author as original with himself, but which strikes us as exceedingly familiar, and as being within very easy reach of any one whose knowledge and reasoning faculties are in a sufficiently undeveloped state to permit him to use it. It seems to consist in saying, as often as the evolutionist points to anything as exhibiting marks of relationship with anything else: "Oh, no! God made that exactly so, by a special act of creation, for wise purposes of his own." Sometimes Mr. Curtis feels sure he can indicate the purposes, and then of course the argument moves triumphantly on; at other times he acknowledges the purposes to be hidden, and then he falls back, with calm and pious assurance, on the fundamental principle that the Creator, being infinite in wisdom, must have had an infinitely wise end in view in everything that can be traced to his hand.

"All correct reasoning," says our author, "on the subject of man's descent as an animal begins, I presume, with the postulate of an Infinite Creator, having under his power all the elements and forms of matter, organized and unorganized, animate and inanimate." This declaration gives the key-note of the work, and it perhaps also affords a measure of its philosophical value. To all who are conversant with the use of philosophical terms, it will be evident that the author has but an imperfect idea of what is commonly meant by a "postulate." He means by it a principle which he intends to apply to the interpretation of all facts; others mean by it a principle, the non-recognition of which would render all inquiry impossible. The difference is obvious and important. In the ordinary and legitimate sense of the word "postulate," the existence of an infinite Creator can not possibly be a postulate. It may be considered either as a fact or as a theory. If it is a fact, it does not need to be postulated—it is enough to appeal to it; if it is a theory, you can not postulate it without giving it more authority than, as a theory, it ought to have. What we have to do with theories is to test them by facts, not to erect them into final and absolute standards. We do not imagine that Mr. Curtis will claim that no inquiry into man's descent can be carried on without assuming the existence of an infinite Creator, such as he describes. To such a claim, if made, the immediate and appropriate answer would be, "Solvitur ambulando." Such inquiries are, in point of fact, being conducted every day, without any reference to that particular theory, simply by the aid of such facts and analogies as a study of Nature furnishes. It is quite open, of course, to Mr. Curtis to set such bounds to his own inquiries as he may approve of, and to exercise his originality to the full in devising canons of interpretation for the facts which investigation brings under his notice; but he should really not ask us to accept the special opinions by which he, as an individual, chooses to be guided, as the ultimate and indispensable conditions of all research. "We are quite prepared to arrive at his opinions as the result of inquiry, if the evidence appears to be in their favor, and shall be only too happy to find ourselves in agreement with so potent a logician; but we are not prepared to "postulate" anything that is not absolutely necessary to intellectual movement.

If it should be said that Darwin himself postulated (even in the loosest sense of the word) an infinite Creator, we should meet the statement with a simple denial. Darwin expressed himself on a few occasions in language pointing to a theistic belief; but never so as to imply that the conclusions to which he might be led by a study of Nature were to be checked by general reasonings founded on the nature and attributes of an infinite Creator. One great point of difference—not to mention others—between Darwin and his present critic is that the former was profoundly conscious of his entire inability to speculate intelligently concerning what an infinite Creator might or might not, should or should not, would or would not, have done. Far from being conscious of any such inability, Mr. Curtis seems to entertain no doubt whatever of his perfect competency to discuss and settle questions as to the probable mode or modes of special Divine action. In one place, indeed, he admits that "we can not penetrate into his" (the Almighty's) "counsels without the aid of revelation"; but, on the very same page, he claims to be able to see sufficiently far into the purposes of God to warrant him in believing that "acts of special creation are vastly more probable than the theory of evolution." Throughout the book, indeed, we are continually being called upon to agree with the author that some particular method of action is a much more "probable" one for the Supreme Being to have adopted than some other (evolutionary) process. It does not appear to have ever struck the learned and acute author that such language may savor of impiety even to evolutionists. Where, it may very pertinently be asked, has Mr. Curtis obtained the knowledge that enables him to judge what are the probable methods of Divine action? We can understand how a man might obtain such an acquaintance with the literary or artistic style of some human author or artist, as should embolden him to pronounce an opinion as to whether a certain piece of work was or was not from the master's hand; but we do not see that any one has it in his power so to con the works of Deity as to authorize him in saying that he knows the Divine style, and is therefore in a position to decide which of two plans of action is most in harmony therewith. We have before us simply the facts that Nature presents; our task is to see these in the most rational order possible, knowing well that, however enlarged our knowledge may become, a perfect interpretation of the facts will forever be beyond our reach. Whatever view, therefore, may at any moment best colligate and harmonize the phenomena of the universe, that view—if we are going to concern ourselves with Divine plans—we must regard as most nearly revealing the Divine plan. But to allow our interpretation of the phenomena to be overborne and controlled by any a priori conceptions, such as Mr. Curtis seeks to force upon us, of the Divine nature and attributes, is simply to abandon science and betake ourselves to dogma and mysticism.

Now, to be quite frank, we don't believe Mr. Curtis is one bit better a judge of the Divine style in creation than the very humblest among us. It is puzzling enough to know how merely superior human faculties will work. The child can not understand the mind of its father in matters beyond its own experience, and can not sec the wisdom of its father's actions. The inferior man can not understand the mind of the superior man. We can hardly imagine anything more ridiculous, certainly nothing more hopeless, than an attempt by weak or undeveloped minds to comprehend the workings or appraise the manifestations of minds of a higher order; yet what is the interval between the youngest child and its parent, between the most uninstructed peasant and the mightiest philosopher, compared with that existing between, say, Mr. Curtis, and that mind which he proclaims to be infinite, yet offers to interpret for us? Surely, then, it is not without good reason that the leading scientific investigators of our day have decided on conducting their researches in entire independence of all theological assumptions. They feel instinctively that the moment they begin to draw deductions from theological premises, even the most plausible, their conclusions cease to have scientific validity, and that science itself becomes a mere aborted appendage to theology.

It is time, however, to proceed to a somewhat closer examination of the work before us. The author is much struck, in the first place, with the parallel he finds existing between the Platonic theory (or rather myth) of creation as developed in the "Timæus" and the Darwinian theory of the origin of species, including the human. We fail, for our part, to see much resemblance between a myth in which everything which is referred to the arbitrary and purposive acts of an imaginary divinity, and a scientific theory which ascribes all growth and development to the unceasing operation of laws inherent (as would appear) in things themselves. What strikes us with wonder, however, is that our author, after explaining that on Plato's theory man was first made, and after him the other animals in the order of their dignity, the lowest forms of aquatic life coming last, should proceed to say that there is as much in Nature to support this view of creation as to support the Darwinian theory, according to which life, beginning with the lowliest forms, worked upward to the highest. These are his words: "Nor had Plato less of probability to support his theory than Darwin to support his.... If Plato had known as much about the animal kingdom as is now known, he could have arrayed the same facts in support of his theory by an argument as powerful as that which now supports the doctrine of evolution" (pp. 73, 74). This, in face of the fact that the geological record is there for every one who has eyes to read, showing that the highest forms of life were not first in the order of creation or development, but last, and the lowest forms first! Surely it is not the doctrine of evolution that will suffer by such an attack as this. The influence of the "postulate" must have been making itself very strongly felt when the author contrived to overlook simply the broadest, the most conspicuous, and the most important fact of all bearing on the question of the relative claims of the two theories he was comparing. It is not an encouraging example of the effect of theological or metaphysical prepossessions. The Platonic theory of the soul has also, it would seem, made much impression on our author. The Demiurgus makes it entirely "distinct from matter," and places it in some star, where it is to await the birth of the body with which it is destined to be united, and which it is to govern, if it can, "according to the eternal laws of reason and rectitude." If it succeeds in this duty, it flies back at the death of the body to its own star; if not, it passes into some more degraded body, for the purpose, apparently, of getting another chance under worse conditions. "Stripped," says the writer, "of the machinery by which Plato supposes the soul to have come into existence, his conception of its origin and its nature is the most remarkable contribution which philosophy, apart from the aid of what is called inspiration, has made to our means of speculating upon this great theme." Surely it is not our "means of speculating" upon this or any other theme that we want to have enlarged; it is our knowledge of the facts of the case; in general, the less we know the more freely we can speculate. We fail to see that as a contribution to knowledge the Platonic conception is of any value whatever.

The strictly scientific arguments brought by our author against the doctrine of evolution present, we feel justified in saying, no character of originality. They are such as every one in the least acquainted with the literature of the subject is thoroughly familiar with. Against Darwin is urged the absence of the intermediate forms which, upon his theory, ought to be discoverable, the apparent immutability of species, the infertility of hybrids. Whether it was worth while at this time of day to write a somewhat lengthy treatise, for the purpose of putting forward arguments so thoroughly known, is a question on which opinions may differ. We do not mean that the arguments themselves are not deserving of attention; but we do mean that they are very accessible to the reading public in a great many quarters, and are nowhere, probably, stated with greater force than in the writings of the evolutionists themselves. Such as it is, however, the scientific argumentation of this volume is interwoven throughout with argumentation of a purely theological character. The author would, possibly, call the latter philosophical; but, with every desire to be just, we think that term would be misapplied. Take the following as an example of the kind of thing we refer to: "Why depict the infinite God as a quiescent and retired spectator of the operation of certain laws he has imposed upon organized matter, when there are discoverable so many manifest reasons for the special creation of such a being as man?" Here we have Mr. Curtis talking in his usual off-hand way of the Divine Being as being swayed by "reasons," and of these reasons as being discoverable by ordinary human understanding. Have all the lessons of the Book of Job, to say nothing of the "Critique of Pure Reason," been lost upon this latest foe of evolution? It would seem so. Again we are told, in the most magisterial manner, that "in the economy of Nature, which is but another name for the economy of the Omnipotent Creator, there is no waste of power, as there is no abstention from the exercise of power, when its exertions are needed to accomplish an end." Can any one attach a rational meaning to the word "waste" as applied to that the supply of which is infinite? If we imagine, for one moment, the Creator being arraigned for something that, to finite intelligence, looked like waste, might not his reply be that he had infinite reserves of power which were not being put to any use at all? And if the finite intelligence were to rejoin that this was waste on a yet larger scale, what should we have but one more illustration of how hopeless it is for the finite mind to grapple with the infinite and absolute? Working, however, upon his double principle that the Deity never wastes power, yet is always willing to exert the full amount needed for the accomplishment of his purposes, our author is led to disbelieve entirely what the evolutionists assert in regard to the derivation of the human species from lower types of life. As he interprets the facts, the Deity economized power by making man on the same general plan as the rest of the mammalians, instead of drawing entirely new plans for him; and at the same time expended power in creating those specific differences which constitute him Man. A delicate question might here arise as to whether the various "rudiments" found in the human frame were left there through a prudent economy of power, or placed there by a wise exertion of power. We should rather Mr. Curtis would discuss the point than we; for we really can not profess to understand either the economy that could have accompanied the reduction of structures, well developed in other types to the rudimentary condition in which they are found in man, or the wisdom of producing, by a fresh exertion of power, that which was functionally useless.

Our author combats in turn nearly every position taken by Mr. Spencer in his exposition of biological evolution. To Mr. Spencer's statement that not only did no one ever see a special creation take place, but "no one ever found indirect proof of any kind that a special creation had taken place," he affirms that indirect evidence has been accumulated to an enormous extent to show that the earth is full of "special creations." If no one, he proceeds to say, ever saw a special creation take place, neither has any one ever seen an instance in which an animal of one species has been evolved out of another of a different species. Considering that the evolution of a species is conceived and uniformly represented as a process requiring multiplied generations for its accomplishment, whereas special creation, if it ever occurred before witnesses, would, we must suppose, be as observable a thing as the shooting of a meteor across the sky, the cases are not quite parallel. Of course, it is open to the creationist to say that no act of creation has taken place since man was called into being; but if so, it must be admitted that the evolutionist, who does not require to say that the processes in which he believes came to a stop very long ago, but who affirms, on the contrary, that the laws of evolution are just as active now as they ever were, has slightly the advantage. Moreover, the evolutionist, if he can not crowd centuries into an hour, and show the transformation of species and genera accomplishing itself before our eyes, can point to changes now in progress which, if continued through the ages, could not fail to produce the widest divergences in animal and vegetable forms. The creationist has absolutely nothing to show us that hints at or points to creation as the term is commonly understood—the flashing of something out of nothing. Mr. Curtis would fain persuade us that Shakespeare's production of "Hamlet" is an act of creation analogous, comparing small things with great, to the creation of the world. The idea is a little preposterous. Did "Hamlet" come out of nothing in any sense whatever? Was it not a special combination of ideas, experiences, imaginations, conceptions, that were part of the personality of the dramatist? And these experiences, imaginations, etc., were they not the result of the author's contact with the outer world? Are not all the words used to express even our most abstract mental operations, borrowed from the phenomena of daily life? The fact that "Hamlet" was not a creation in the theological sense is proved by the simple consideration that it was the work of the individual William Skakespeare, and came forth from his brain as it could not have come forth from any other brain. Why should a creation from nothing have any special character? Other things bespeak their origin in their lineaments; and, until better advised, we shall continue to think that a creation out of Nothing would look uncommonly like Nothing. If a man born blind were, by an act of imagination or what not, to show himself quite at home in the comprehension of the phenomena of light, we should perhaps be disposed to recognize an analogy to the alleged work of creation; but we are not aware that any such achievement has been recorded. That a great thinker or poet should not always, if ever, understand how thoughts came to group themselves in his mind in any particular way is no difficulty to the evolutionist: he does not pretend to understand all the mysteries of the human organization.

One argument used by Mr. Spencer affected our author, as he tells us, very strangely. As he read he could hardly trust the evidence of his eye-sight; he thought the type must have got topsy-turvy in some strange fashion; he began to distrust the accuracy of the American edition of the philosopher's works, such an extraordinary example did he seem to have before him of "logic run riot." No doubt it was an argument that would not have told very powerfully on a jury; and that might not have brought much light even to the mind of an average judge, as it certainly has been quite lost on that of a distinguished lawyer; but the argument in our humble opinion is a good one, for all that. What Mr. Spencer says, to put it briefly, is that the idea of creation is unthinkable because it implies a relation between something and nothing. What has Mr. Curtis, after recovering from his spasm of astonishment, to say in reply? The first thing he says is that the creation of matter is not inconceivable, "if we adopt the postulate of an infinite Creator." In other words, use certain expressions that formally signify creation out of nothing, and forthwith we have the conception, clear and workable. In the same way, if we want to have the conception of a round square, we only have to say "round square," and presto, there it is! Mr. Curtis wants very badly to know who made the laws that have been "impressed upon matter"? But who knows that any laws have been "impressed upon matter"? Who knows that that is the proper way of expressing the relation between matter and its laws? Does Mr. Curtis know it? We doubt it; or rather we may say that we know that he does not know anything of the kind. By the so-called "laws of matter" are meant simply the properties of matter. Perhaps Mr. Curtis thinks he can conceive of matter apart from its properties, and of the properties apart from matter. Be that as it may, the question of the origin of the properties of matter is plainly a part of the question as to the origin of matter. All that Mr. Spencer says is that there is no use in talking of matter, or anything else, coming out of nothing, seeing that the words, when you press them, will be found void of meaning. When Mr. Curtis says that "the term 'creation,' as used in all modern philosophy, implies ex vi termini, the act of causing to exist," the answer to give is that the term "creation" is not used in "all modern philosophy," and that the idea of creation has a very small place indeed in modern philosophy. Professor Eucken, of Jena, in a useful little hand-book, which has been translated by a professor at Andover and furnished with an introduction by the ex-President of Yale, has catalogued and commented on "The Concepts of Modern Philosophy." Mr. Curtis will search the list in vain for any mention of the concept of "creation"; and it is a perfectly safe statement to make that the idea in question is not an element of any importance in contemporary philosophical thought.

Mr. Curtis says many odd things without being in the least aware of it. He describes lexicographers as "learned persons, part of whose business it is to exhibit the thought that is represented by a word, . . . according to the exact correspondence between the word and the idea which it conveys in its primary and philosophical usage." A very little reflection, aided by a small amount of inquiry, would have sufficed to satisfy him that the primary sense of a word and its philosophical sense are seldom, if ever, the same. He tells us that, according to his famous postulate, "the whole void which consists in mere nothingness" is "under the absolute sway" of the Creator. Could more nonsensical language possibly be put together? Imagine the Creator swaying "nothingness"! How much power does it take to do it? What effect has it upon "nothingness" to be "swayed"? Has it all been "swayed" yet, or is some of it still unswayed? These questions are all quite pertinent and quite absurd; and, when a question is at once pertinent and absurd, it is evident that something is wrong with the matter to which the question relates. Mr. Curtis would not believe Mr. Spencer when the latter told him that the idea of creation was unthinkable; he thought he knew better, and now we find his supposed superior knowledge leading him to represent the Almighty as swaying nothing. Mr. Spencer knew it would come to that; and, should he find time to look at Mr. Curtis's book, he will have no such shocks of surprise as Mr. Curtis had in reading his. Our author further tells us that "the theologian is not the only person who has occasion to examine the doctrine of evolution; it must be examined by the statesman as well." By all means! Let theologians, statesmen, and lawyers all examine it, and whosoever will let him examine it; only let this caution be whispered into each one's ear, that it requires a little preparation to examine it to any good purpose. Our author is not the only prominent lawyer who has failed to make much of it. He will find a sympathizer in Mr. Chauncey M. Depew, who told the Nineteenth Century Club, not so long ago, that, down in Wall Street, the whole phraseology of evolution would be quite unintelligible. We don't doubt it; a comprehensive system of philosophy, founded on a very wide range of induction, is apt to be incomprehensible to people who have not given it patient and prolonged study.

Our author appears to be in possession of some very definite information respecting the solar system, not set down in the ordinary treatises on astronomy. He knows that it was "arranged with reference to the law of universal gravitation," that "the existing arrangements must have been intentional," that "there is the strongest evidence that a certain means was chosen and intentionally put into operation." The Creator, however, he explains (page 183), "does not meet an external demand." He creates the demand or purpose himself and then satisfies it. What kind of "purpose" that can be that has no relation to any need the writer does not explain, though, of course, he knows. Strange to say, we read a little farther on (page 207) that the Creator is "governed by a purpose in ail that he does." Does this mean that the Creator ties his own hands by the purposes that he forms without any reference to external demands? Again, we are assured with tiresome iteration that the Creator does nothing that is "useless." Useless to whom? To himself? Or to an external world? If to himself, the remark seems senseless; if to an external world, then there is the meeting of an external demand.

But if, on the one hand, our author knows many remarkable things that are not known to the world at large, there are other things quite within the range of his reading of which he seems to have remained willingly ignorant. He wants to know (page 214) how it came to be imposed upon a whole group of beings, as a law of Nature, that whatever utility of structure was of paramount importance to the whole group should be preserved against the modifying influences that were destined (on the theory of evolution) to produce species differing absolutely from each other." The answer is, of course, that any deviation from a structure that was of paramount utility would consign the organism manifesting it to destruction; and that eventually the typical organization would by age-long inheritance become so stamped into the constitution of those sharing it that a deviation of any moment would become matter of simple impossibility.

Taking the work before us as a whole, we may say that, while it evinces a creditable amount of industry on the part of its author, and while, as a piece of special pleading against the hypothesis of evolution, it shows an ingenuity that, in another sphere, must possess considerable value, it betrays an altogether insufficient acquaintance with the data on which the hypothesis in question is founded, and is, moreover, vitiated by the constant use of an assumption which Kant has abundantly shown to be an altogether illegitimate starting-point for scientific inquiry. The most serious injustice it does to the doctrine of evolution is in representing it as an irreligious system of thought. No scientific doctrine can by any possibility be irreligious, for the most that science can do is to indicate the limits of the known and the unknown. To do this is not to destroy the grounds of religion, though, as science advances, doctrinal and historical systems may have to undergo progressive modifications. It is one thing to be asked to change the form of religion, and quite another to he summoned to part with its substance. The latter demand has never, so far as we are aware, been made in the name of science by any authorized exponent. It is no new thing for religion to go forth in search of new ground. Suppose that we have now frankly to acknowledge that the old conceptions of special creation and providential design are no longer tenable in the light of modern knowledge, shall religion fail from among us? Never, unless we are willing it should fail. If we ourselves are faithful, Religion, though she may have to abide for a time in tabernacles, will still be with us, and all our thoughts and all our investigations will be hallowed by her influence. Evolution is simply the current form of scientific opinion; we adhere to it because it seems to be the truth. Religion is that instinct in man which leads him to recognize and worship that which is highest and best. Far, then, from our submission to the truth cutting us off from religion, it should, and it will, bring religion nearer to us, and enable us some day to place it upon imperishable foundations, and to make it the abiding consecration of all thought and effort.

  1. Creation or Evolution? A Philosophical Inquiry. By George Ticknor Curtis. New York: D. Appleton and Company.