Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/May 1874/Evolution and the Doctrine of Design

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585887Popular Science Monthly Volume 5 May 1874 — Evolution and the Doctrine of Design1874William Stanley Jevons



VERY profound philosophers have lately generalized concerning the production of living forms, and the mental and moral phenomena regarded as their highest development. Mr, Herbert Spencer's theory of Evolution purports to explain the origin of all specific differences, so that not even the rise of a Homer or a Beethoven would escape from his broad theories. The homogeneous is unstable and must differentiate itself, says Spencer, and hence comes the variety of human institutions and characters. In order that a living form shall continue to exist and propagate its kind, says Mr. Darwin, it must be suitable to its circumstances, and the most suitable forms will prevail over and extirpate those which are less suitable. From these fruitful ideas are developed theories of evolution and natural selection which go far toward accounting for the existence of immense numbers of living creatures—plants and animals. Apparent adaptations of organs and limbs to useful purposes, which Paley and other theologians regarded as distinct products of creative intelligence, are now seen to follow as natural effects of a constantly-acting tendency. Even man, according to these theories, is no distinct creation, but rather an extreme specimen of brain-development. His nearest cousins are the apes, and his pedigree extends backward until it joins that of the lowliest zoophytes.

The theories of Darwin and Spencer are doubtless not demonstrated; they are, to some extent, hypothetical, just as all the theories of physical science are to some extent hypothetical, and open to doubt. But I venture to look upon the theories of evolution and natural selection, in their main features, as two of the most probable hypotheses ever proposed, harmonizing and explaining, as they do, immense numbers of diverse facts. I question whether any scientific works which have appeared since the "Principia" of Newton are comparable in importance with those of Darwin and Spencer, revolutionizing, as they do, all our views of the origin of bodily, mental, moral, and social phenomena.

Granting all this, I cannot for a moment admit that the theory of Evolution will alter our theological views. That theory embraces several laws, or uniformities, which are observed to be true in the production of living forms; but these laws do not determine the size and figure of living creatures, any more than the law of gravitation determines the magnitudes and distances of the planets. Suppose that Darwin is correct in saying that man is descended from the Ascidians; yet the precise form of the human body must have been influenced by an infinite train of circumstances affecting the reproduction, growth, and health, of the whole chain of intermediate beings. No doubt, the circumstances being what they were, man could not be otherwise than he is; and, if, in any other part of the universe an exactly similar earth, furnished with exactly similar germs of life, existed, a race must have grown up there exactly similar to the human race.

By a different distribution of atoms in the primeval world, a different series of living forms on this earth must have been produced. From the same causes acting according to the same laws, the same results will follow; but from different causes acting according to the same laws, different results will follow. So far as we can see, then, infinitely diverse living creatures might have been created consistently with the theory of evolution, and the precise reason why we have a backbone, two hands with opposable thumbs, an erect stature, a complex brain, two hundred and twenty-three bones, and many other peculiarities, is only to be found in the original act of creation. I do not, any less than Paley, believe that the eye of man manifests design. I believe that the eye was gradually developed; and we can, in fact, trace its gradual development from the first germ of a nerve affected by light-rays in some simple zoophyte. In proportion as the eye became a more delicate and accurate instrument of vision, it enabled its possessor to escape destruction; but the ultimate result must have been contained in the aggregate of the causes, and these causes, so far as we can see, were subject to the arbitrary choice of the Creator.

Although Prof. Agassiz is clearly wrong in holding that every species of animals or plants has appeared on earth by the immediate intervention of the Creator, which would amount to saying that no laws of connection between forms are discoverable, yet he seems to be right in asserting that living forms are entirely distinct from those produced from purely physical causes. "The products of what are commonly called physical agents," he says,[2] "are everywhere the same (i. e., upon the whole surface of the earth), and have always been the same (i. e., during all geological periods); while organized beings are everywhere different and have differed in all ages. Between two such series of phenomena there can be no causal or genetic connection." Living forms, as we now regard them, are essentially variable. Now, from constant mechanical causes, constant effects would ensue. If vegetable cells are formed on geometrical principles, being first spherical, and then by mutual compression dodecahedral, then all cells should have similar forms. In the Foraminifera and some other of the more lowly organisms, we do seem to observe the production of complex forms on pure geometrical principles. But from similar causes, acting according to similar laws and principles, only similar results could be produced. If the original life-germ of each creature is a simple particle of protoplasm, unendowed with any distinctive forces, then the whole of the complex phenomena of animal and vegetable life are effects without causes. Protoplasm may be chemically the same substance, and the germ-cell of a man and of a fish may be apparently the same, so far as the microscope can decide; but if certain cells produce men, and others as uniformly produce a given species of fish, there must be a hidden constitution determining the extremely different results. If this were not so, the generation of every living creature from the uniform germ would have to be regarded as a distinct act of arbitrary creation.

Theologians have dreaded the establishment of the theories of Darwin and Spencer, as if they thought that those theories could explain every thing upon the purest mechanical and material principles, and exclude all notions of design. They do not see that those theories have opened up more questions than they have closed. The doctrine of Evolution gives a complete explanation of no single living form. While showing the general principles which prevail in the variation of living creatures, it only points out the infinite complexity of the causes and circumstances which have led to the present state of things. Any one of Mr. Darwin's books, admirable though they all are, consists but in the setting forth of a multitude of indeterminate problems. He proves in the most beautiful manner, that each flower of an orchid is adapted to some insect which frequents and fertilizes it, and these adaptations are but a few cases of those immensely numerous ones which have occurred throughout the life of plants and animals. But why orchids should have been formed so differently from other plants, why any thing, indeed, should be as it is, rather than in some of the other infinitely numerous possible modes of existence, he can never show. The origin of every thing that exists is wrapped up in the past history of the universe. At some one or more points in past time there must have been arbitrary determinations which led to the production of things as they are.

The following article, upon the same general subject, recently appeared in Church and State:

The last lecture in the course on "Christian Truth and Modern Opinion" was delivered in Christ Church, New York. The subject was, "Evolution and a Personal Creator." Dr. Smith commenced by saying that while he was very far from being an advocate for the theory of evolution, it was no part of his purpose to attempt its refutation. He expressed the opinion, judging from former conflicts between religious and scientific theories, and the evident tendency of scientific investigation and discovery, that not many years would pass away before some theory of evolution would be generally accepted by educated men as the most rational explanation of the phenomena of the universe. In the mean time the minds of many persons are seriously disturbed by the supposed antagonism of any such theory to the idea of a personal God, and therefore to the whole idea of natural and revealed religion. It is very important, therefore, that, in anticipation of the general acceptance of some such theory, it should be shown that it not only does not militate against the idea of a personal God, but that it is hostile to no interest of Christianity.

In carrying out this purpose, Dr. Smith said that he should seek, as a starting-point, some ground which could be held in common by theists who are without prejudice in regard to scientific investigation, and evolutionists who are ready to consider any evidence as to the Infinite Being behind and beyond the phenomena of Nature.

In seeking such common ground, Dr. Smith referred to that period, in the history of Nature, when space was filled with a homogeneous mass which the Greeks called hyle. Whether this was what we usually call matter, or immeasurably extended force-centres, made no difference in the argument. Beyond this hyle, and preceding it in the order of thought, is absolute being. The theist, of course, holds this. Mr. Herbert Spencer, the great leader of the evolutionists, holds it also. We must postulate absolute being, he says, as the condition of any conclusions as to phenomena. The evolutionist holds, however, that every thing in regard to absolute being is unknowable. If it is unknowable, then he can no more deny than affirm any thing in regard to it. Dr. Smith then said, that since the evolutionist, on his own principles, could not deny it, he should suppose, for the present, reserving the evidence for it until later in the discussion, that absolute being is personal being, with reason, affection, and will.

Dr. Smith then said that, having made this supposition, which no evolutionist could deny, we were prepared to witness the process of evolution, so far as such a process exists in Nature, remembering all the time that the whole process and every step in the process are simply expressions, according to our supposition, of the will and agency of the Absolute Being.

We find certain laws in Nature (which is only another name for methods of divine agency), by which this process of evolution is carried on. Such are the laws of the persistence of force, the continuity of motion, and the indestructibility of matter. The divine power, working according to these laws, builds up the system of the universe. Dr. Smith showed how, on the theory of evolution, the apparent chasm between inorganic and organic Nature might be passed over without disturbance or any different or peculiar divine agency. In other words, the process might be continuous without militating at all against the idea of the constant agency of a personal God. The evidence alleged by evolutionists that this is the case, and that the process comes finally to include men, was considered. The objections also to this evidence were reviewed. In this connection Dr. Smith paid a high tribute to the scientific labors and the theistic principles and influence of Prof. Agassiz, expressing the conviction, at the same time, that Prof Agassiz's scientific opinion as to the origin of species represented a failing cause.

The objection arising from the absence of uniting links in the fossiliferous remains of species was considered, and the refutation claimed to be made by the evolutionists was given in detail. This answer to the objection is found in the fact of the imperfection of the geological record, and the almost entire destruction of organic remains. The evolutionist claims that if it were not for the law by which less favored varieties of animal life disappeared, the breaks between species would not exist. Specific distinctions would be impossible. In this connection Dr. Smith considered the basis of specific classification, giving a review of the old controversy between nominalism and realism on this subject. He also pointed out how certain laws—such as those of the transmission of likeness to an original type; the tendency to variation; the increase of animal life in a geometrical ratio; and the consequent struggle for existence—would, according to the theory of evolution, give rise to the phenomena of specific distinction.

At this point Dr. Smith claimed that, if it should finally be established that this progress in Nature is continuous until it reaches and includes man, it would no more militate against the idea of a personal Creator than the fact that the process of evolution existed at all. If God has chosen that any part of the process shall be without distinct and special creative acts, there is no reason why the whole process may not be, and the continuous chain of evolution run back to the one original creative act. It must be remembered, however, that the argument proceeds all the time upon the supposition of an incessant and ubiquitous exercise of the will and the agency of a personal God, in every atom of matter, or every force-centre, and thus underlying and pervading the whole phenomenal universe.

As the theory of evolution touches only phenomena and the laws of their succession, it excludes no hypothesis as to what lies back of phenomena, and the existence of a personal God must be assailed, if assailed at all, upon other and metaphysical grounds.

Dr. Smith remarked that, although the subject assigned him required him to consider merely the relation between the theory of evolution and the doctrine of a personal Creator, yet, inasmuch as it was his desire to show that even if the theory is true it affects no interest of Christianity injuriously, he would say a word in regard to the Scriptural account of the creation. The interpretation of the Bible is more or less modified in each succeeding age, and is thus more and more correctly understood. The Bible has passed through the crisis cf astronomical and geological investigation, and its authority is not only unimpaired, but is increased by the ease with which it is found to be adapted to every stage of scientific progress. Certain peculiarities in Hebrew words used in describing the creation were here referred to.

Up to this point the existence of a personal Creator had been placed in the argument upon hypothetical ground. Dr. Smith then considered the evidence upon which this truth rests, drawing a distinction between the understanding and reason, affirming the intuitional power of reason and following the line of the great philosophers like Coleridge, Kant, Leibnitz, and Plato. A rational plan in the universe made every supposition irrational except that of a reason preceding phenomena and upon which phenomena rest.

Supposing, then, that the theory of evolution should finally be established, we find in Christianity the completion of the process, by the union of man with God in the Incarnation. This view, which presents all things as complete in Christ coming from Him and returning to Him, gives a grandeur to Nature which it cannot otherwise possess. Dr. Smith closed with a quotation from Coleridge's "Hymn in the Valley of Chamouny."

  1. Abstracted from the closing chapter of "The Principles of Science: A Treatise on Logic and Scientific Method."
  2. Agassiz's "Essay on Classification," p. 75.