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Time to put Darwin back in his box

Boz magazine, 54: 9, October 1998

Brian J Ford

Darwinism has suddenly acquired the status of a religion. If you aren’t an avowed ‘Darwinist’ you are in danger of being labelled an infidel. There have been publications and programmes worshipping the man, and at my beloved Linnean Society in Piccadilly we even had a televised ‘Darwin Debate’ chaired by the unctuously ignorant Melvyn Bragg. This pretentious Northerner knows less about science than I do about the winds of Windermere. Not only did Bragg understand nothing whatever of Darwinism, but it wasn’t even a debate; just a series of linked interviews which all served to perpetuate the myth. So, here’s a bit of balance. The theory of evolution was nothing new. It was not even Darwin’s idea. The word ‘evolution’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the first five editions of the Origin of Species. Survival of the fittest was written about by his grandfather, and a book describing natural selection - and which Darwin acknowledged as beating him to the post - he later belittled. To build an edifice of admiration on something so pretentious is a joke.

The advancement of life from simple to complex forms was broached by the ancient Greeks and worked into a scientific theory by the French naturalist Buffon a century before the Origin of Species. The book starts with fifty boring pages about pigeon breeding, and all Darwin did was to extend the idea to breeding with nature (rather than a pigeon-fancier) at the helm. Would you like an earlier example of ‘survival of the fittest’ in print? Here’s one: ‘The strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved.’ That’s Darwinism in a nutshell, and these are indeed Darwin’s words - though not those of Charles Darwin, but his grandfather Erasmus who published them in his Zoonomia of 1794. Had Charles been influenced by his grandparent? He claimed that, yes, he had read Zoonomia, but wrote that his grandfather’s earlier description did not produce ‘any effect on me.’ Believe that, and you’ll believe anything.

The theory of evolution appeared in a book published in 1831. This was Naval Timber and Arboriculture and the author, tree breeder Patrick Matthew, included a section on natural selection. He put it very clearly: ‘There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition.’ He went on: ‘Nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls. Those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing . . . their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind.’ Is it possible that Charles Darwin hadn’t heard of the book? Hardly. He wrote: ‘I freely acknowledge that Mr Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered on the origin of species under the name of natural selection,’ and added the promise: ‘If another edition of my book is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect.’

He broke his promise. Instead, he patronizingly claimed that: ‘An obscure writer on forest trees clearly anticipated my views . . . though not a single person ever noticed the scattered passages in his book.’ Not a single person noticed it? Matthew must have had an effect on contemporary society for his book was banned from many libraries. By the time the Origin of Species was published, Charles Darwin was a relative late-comer. The theory is now being claimed as the greatest single advancement in philosophy for centuries, and the notion of mankind as descended from the apes was a presented as a stunning revelation. I am suggesting the opposite - that Darwin was reflecting an already popular idea.

I can even quote his own words to support this view, for in the introduction to The Descent of Man he wrote: ‘The conclusion that man is the co-descendant with other species of ancient, lower, and extinct forms is not in any degree new.’ In their blind eagerness to hail Charles Darwin as something close to a deity, I never see these words quoted by the Darwinists of today. In any event, it was the young Alfred Russel Wallace who expanded on the theory. His paper, On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type, was crucial to the understanding of evolution. The much-vaunted presentation at the Linnean Society in 1858 was not simply of Darwin’s paper, but was a joint presentation from both men. Neither Charles Darwin nor Alfred Russel Wallace were there at the time, for presentations were normally communicated by an officer of the Society - and the President’s annual report reported that nothing of any great importance happened that year. That puts him on the same status as the A & R man who turned down the Beatles.

Science creates myths. Like the Emperor’s new clothes, the current claims of the scientific establishment acquire the status of dogma. There is a reason for it, of course. Today’s scientists were raised on a diet of deity; their current preoccupations are rich in resonances of childhood. Darwin is superman, whilst that other great fashion—the Big Bang theory—has its roots in childhood teaching. I see the Big Bang as a restatement of the Book of Genesis. All today’s scientists are doing is building effigies which reassure them of continuity from the cradle.

The myth of Darwinism has become a new religion. Believe in it, and you’re accepted; try to deny it, and ostracism awaits. These days the sanction may be loss of credibility (rather than the loss of your head)—but it’s still the same old inquisition.

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