The Predicament of Evolution
by George McCready Price  (1870-1963) 
(This was ©1925 by Southern Publishing Assoc.)

Chapter Four - The Historical Background

HERBERT SPENCER has advised us to look carefully into the history of an idea, if we wish to understand it fully. In no instance is this advice more sound than in the case of the evolution doctrine.

The evolution theory in its more vague and purely speculative form can be traced back to the old pagan Greeks. They believed fully in spontaneous generation and in all kinds of wild nonsense; why then should they not let their fancies run riot concerning the origin of plants and animals, especially since they knew nothing of a real revelation from the only Being who really knows anything first-hand about the beginnings of things?

In its modern, quasi-scientific form the evolution theory may be dated from about the time of Buffon (1707-88), a man "whose genius," as Marcus Hartog remarks, "unballasted by an adequate knowledge of facts, often played him sad tricks." He taught that the environment brings about direct and measurable changes in the structures of plants and animals, and that these changes are faithfully passed along to the next generation. Thus he revived the idea, apparently first taught by Aristotle, that acquired characters are transmitted to posterity, an idea that it has taken many decades of research and experiment to banish from the realm of science; though it has finally gone into the limbo of discarded fancies, along with perpetual motion and spontaneous generation.

In geology Buffon's theories were no better, though his precise program of seven successive "epochs" for the beginning, the past, and the future of our globe, had a considerable influence in the growth of the science of geology. In view of the scanty geological facts then at his command, we are disposed to think that he knew about as much about the future of the world as he did about its past.

Born in Skepticism

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a physician, was fond of natural history, and wrote large quantities of doggerel verse. He was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, and his own fanciful speculations about the evolution of plants and animals, developed throughout his writings, were undoubtedly familiar to his grandson. Erasmus Darwin got his idea of a natural development of the world, instead of its creation, from David Hume, the well-known Scotch skeptic, a very appropriate place to get it. Evidently Weismann's theory of the continuity of the germplasm and its unchangeableness might be extended into the history of ideas.

Erasmus Darwin was contemporaneous with Lamarck, and had much the same ideas about the effects of the environment being passed along to the next generation; though it seems that these two men were unacquainted with each other. He taught that the accumulation of these effects had brought about great changes in plants and animals, and that these changes had been going on "perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind." They would also continue into the future, as he said, "world without end."

Lamarck (1744-1829), the French naturalist, was regarded very lightly by his contemporaries. Even Charles Darwin could speak of him only with disdain; though ultimately he accepted Lamarck's theory of the inheritance of acquired characters to help out in his own theory of organic evolution. Lamarck's "thoroughly worthless speculation in chemistry and in other branches of science" (Osborn), was matched by his reckless fancies and his slovenly logic in dealing with the problems of heredity and adaptations among living organisms. But he lived in an atmosphere quite unfavorable to clear thinking regarding the deeper matters of the universe; and he gained some contemporary applause and much subsequent imitation for nearly a hundred years by advocating a pseudo-scientific method of accounting for the beginnings of things, in open opposition to the teachings of the Bible.

The Onion-coat Theory

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was by all odds the foremost naturalist and scientist of his day. He opposed the views of Lamarck, as well as all other forms of evolution hitherto proposed. He became master of practically all the various lines of science then understood, and by his own original researches he greatly extended several of them. Such was his overtowering genius and influence, that when he made a bad slip, as he undoubtedly did in his geology, the world was a long time in recovering from the blunders he had taught.

His contemporary, A. G. Werner(1750-1817), the mineralogist of Germany, was teaching the now notorious "onion-coat theory" of the rocks and minerals, as furnishing a true index to the. history of the earth. Cuvier admired this scheme, and undertook to extend it to the fossils, conceiving that in the layers of water-formed rocks around Paris he could trace out a true history of the exact order in which the various types of animals had been created and in turn exterminated by successive world-catastrophes. Unconscious of the puerility of thus making these small, local beds of fossils in a little corner of Western Europe the infallible gauge or standard for all the rest of the world, he industriously worked out the typical "index fossils" for all the strata to which he had access. And it has taken the scientific world a full century to wake up to the idea that even the great Baron Cuvier was not endowed with any supernatural knowledge of the relative order in which these very same fossils might afterwards be found occurring on the other side of the globe.

For a more extended study of this phase of the subject, the reader is referred to my various other books treating on geology.

Creation on the Installment Plan

Cuvier taught that there had been many successive world-catastrophes, by which all forms of life then living had been destroyed. Accordingly, he had to have an equal number of successive creations, each of these being on a little higher scale than the preceding. It was this series of successive creations that laid the real foundation for the modern theory of organic evolution. If the scientific world had not for fifty years been accustomed to this long-drawn-out process of a sort of creation on the installment plan, Darwin could never have gotten a hearing for any scheme of organic evolution. And today, with the collapse of all the biological evidences that have long been supposed to favor this theory, it is this background of the long geological series that makes such men as Bateson and D. H. Scott talk so naively about believing in the evolution theory as an "act of faith." For when these men uttered these remarks, they had not become acquainted with the exposure of the false logic and other kinds of blunders in this geological series, with which we are now familiar.

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) accepted Cuvier's scheme of the fossils as representing a true historical order; only he denied the many catastrophes, and said that the various groups of fossils had died out a few at a time, and that the entire geological changes had taken place by slow, gradual movements of the earth's crust. This system of geology is known as uniformitarianism, and is still very widely taught. We are not concerned here with the physical or strictly geological aspects of this theory; it is only its bearings on the development of organic evolution in which we are interested. But no wonder Huxley remarks that Lyell "was the chief agent in smoothing the road for Darwin. For consistent uniformitarianism postulates evolution as much in the organic as in the inorganic world."—"Life and Letters," Vol. 1, p. 168. In fact, Lyell's system of geology, which is the common or present-day system, is merely the geological aspects of the general evolution doctrine; and any one shows a lack of mental clearness who accepts the serial arrangement of the fossils taught by Lyellism, and yet refuses to believe in organic evolution somehow.

Thus before the middle of the nineteenth century a system of evolutionary geology had become almost universally accepted by the scientific world. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) merely undertook to fill in the details, by attempting to show how species originate. If he and A. R. Wallace (1823-1913) had not proposed their theory when and how they did, it is almost certain that somebody would have done so sooner or later. For the scientific situation then existing called loudly for something of the kind. When the scientific world goes running off the main highway of truth, the only thing that will convince them that they are traveling up a blind alley, is to follow up the trail to the very end. In the preceding chapter we have seen that the biologists are beginning to recognize that they are about at the end of their blind alley. In the following chapter we shall see that the evolutionary geologists are in even a worse predicament. Accordingly, the whole scientific world is now (more or less blindly) hunting around for the lost highway, which they left a hundred years ago under the brilliant, but nevertheless mistaken, leadership of Baron Cuvier.

The parts of the theory of organic evolution which were contributed by such men as Louis Agassiz, Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, August Weismann, and others, need not detain us here.