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Opposition to The Origin

Darwin apologized at the beginning of Origin for not being able to include all the facts on which he based his conclusions, especially regarding natural selection. He admitted, “For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived” (Origin, 4).

What many do not know today is that the chief opposition to Darwin’s theory at its writing arose not from religious believers, but from scientists. Many of his fellow naturalists drew very different conclusions from the same set of evidence he used. As Dr. William W. Wassynger wrote in the “Letters” section of The New York Times on December 15, 1989, “Even in Darwin’s day, scientists who opposed evolution were charged with irrationality and religiosity. But they did not attack evolution on religious grounds; rather, they protested its lack of scientific proof and pointed to the evidence that supported a typological nature,” namely, the fossil record’s clear support for the classification of organisms by distinct types rather than by Darwin’s claim of common and gradual descent. (Wassynger)

Most geologists of the time believed in catastrophism, “the theory that geological changes have been caused in general by sudden upheavals rather than by gradual changes” (Webster’s, 230). Gradualism is critical to Darwin’s theory since, as he admitted, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down” (Origin, 158).

Richard Dawkins acknowledges that evolution may not be gradual in all cases, but states that it must be gradual when explaining “the coming into existence of complicated, apparently designed objects, like eyes. For if it is not gradual in these cases, it ceases to have any explanatory power at all. Without gradualness in these cases, we are back to miracle, which is simply a synonym for the total absence of explanation” (Behe, 40). At least it is an absence of explanation to an atheist!

Geologists like Benjamin Silliman of Yale, who examined the geological record at East Rock and elsewhere, had good reason to believe in catastrophism. Remember that fossils are not formed under typical circumstances, i.e., death followed by rapid decay of organisms. They are formed as a result of floods, volcanic eruptions, and other violent circumstances where the remains of living organisms are trapped suddenly at the time of death in such a way that the normal process of decay does not occur. The fossil record is itself the best evidence for catastrophism—and against Darwin’s idea of gradualism.

Creatures appear and disappear from the fossil record at regular intervals, with no evident connection to animals that preceded or followed them. As David Berlinski, a mathematician who spoke at Yale a couple of years ago, wrote,

“The facts in favor of evolution are often held to be incontrovertible; prominent biologists shake their heads at the obduracy of those who would dispute them. Those facts, however, have been rather less forthcoming than evolutionary biologists might have hoped. If life progressed by an accumulation of small changes, as they say it has, the fossil record should reflect its flow, the dead stacked up in barely separated strata. But for well over 150 years, the dead have been remarkably diffident about confirming Darwin’s theory. Their bones lie suspended in the sands of time—thermomorphs and therapsids and things that must have gibbered and then squeaked; but there are gaps in the graveyard, places where there should be intermediate forms but where there is nothing whatsoever instead”
(Berlinski, 19-20).

No wonder Darwin had to include in Origin a discussion of “the imperfection of the Geological Record” (chapter 9), that record standing so at odds with some of his claims. He claimed, regarding the absence of intermediate life forms, “that intermediate varieties… existing in lesser numbers than the forms which they connect, will generally be beaten out and exterminated during the course of further modification” (Origin, 230).

Exactly why those connecting forms should be in lesser numbers than surviving forms, rather than greater if Darwin’s claims are true, is open to question. The Nobel-prize-winning chemist and evolutionist Jacques Monod wrote, “Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of creation” (Berlinski, 22). But, if this is true, then many intermediate forms would be required to produce the few random improvements that would actually survive. You cannot know what forms will be fitter until you try them.

How many times would you have to roll a die before you succeeded in rolling ten “ones” in a row? If that seems difficult, the improvement of an existing structure in nature by chance alone would require far more failed experiments, or intermediate forms, than successful ones. It cannot be assumed in any case that all the connecting forms would disappear in their entirety from the geological record.

Darwin himself admits, “Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record” (Origin, 230). As budding lawyers are sometimes instructed, when the facts are on your side, pound on the facts. When the facts are against you, pound on the table!