Category Archives: Creationism

November 29, 1627

John Ray

On this date, the naturalist and Anglican priest John Ray was born at the village of Black Notley in the county of Essex in England. He is often referred to as the father of natural history in Britain.

Ray published systematic works on plants, birds, mammals, fish, and insects, in which he brought order to the chaotic mass of names in use by the naturalists of his time. A basic problem of classification was to decide how much apparent variation can be allowed to plants or animals grouped as a single species. How can one know whether or not two individuals share the “same essence?” Ray’s most influential decision was to define a species as a group of organisms that reproduce the same traits from seed. He wrote in Historia plantarum generalis (1686):

In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species.”  After long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species … Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.

This was the first recorded biological definition of “species.”

Like Linnaeus (1707-1778) whom he later inspired, Ray searched for the “natural system,” a classification of species that would reflect the “divine order of creation.” Unlike Linnaeus, whose plant classification was based entirely on floral reproductive organs, Ray classified plants by overall morphology; the classification in his book Methodus Plantarum Nova (1682) draws on flowers, seeds, fruits, and roots. In other words, Ray rejected the method of dichotomous division by which species were classified according to a series of pre-conceived, “either/or” criteria, and instead classified plants according to similarities and differences that emerged from observation. As a result, Ray’s plant classification was the first to group flowering plants into what are today known as monocots and dicots. His method produced more “natural” results than “artificial” systems based on one feature alone; it expressed the similarities between species more fully.  Ray’s system greatly influenced later botanists such as Jussieu and de Candolle, and systems based on total morphology came to replace systems based on only one feature or organ system. Eventually, Ray’s use of total morphology to classify species would become a powerful tool in the hands of evolutionary biologists trying to infer evolutionary relationships.

A devout Christian of his time, Ray was clearly a creationist. In his book The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691), he explained that intricate contrivances like the eye or the hand could not have arisen by chance. Instead, they were designed. And their “perfection” displays the wisdom and benevolence of the Designer. Yet Ray did not define species in terms of special creation, as he explained in a letter to his friend Pfaff:

We imagine that a species is the total descendence [sic] of the first couple created by God, almost as all men are represented as the children of Adam and Eve. What means have we, at this time, to rediscover, the path of this genealogy? It is assuredly not in structural resemblance. There remains in reality only reproduction and I maintain that this is the sole certain and even infallible character for the recognition of the species.

A different aspect of Ray’s work represented another huge advance for science. Whereas many medieval and later theologians had taught that the natural world distracted people from salvation and should be avoided, Ray affirmed powerfully that Nature was a worthy subject for study and reason, and that such activity was pleasing to God. Expounding his belief in “natural theology,” Ray wrote in his Catalogue of Cambridge Plants (1660):

There is for a free man no occupation more worthy and delightful than to contemplate the beauteous works of nature and honour the infinite wisdom and goodness of God.

Also, unlike many academics of his day, Ray cautioned against blind acceptance of authorities; in The Wisdom of God, he wrote:

Let it not suffice to be book-learned, to read what others have written and to take upon trust more falsehood than truth, but let us ourselves examine things as we have opportunity, and converse with Nature as well as with books.

Unlike Linnaeus, who focused almost exclusively on classification for its own sake, Ray began to use classification to address questions in physiology, function, and behavior. He understood that living things showed adaptations to their environments.

References:

  • Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982) pp. 256-7.
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November 14, 1797 (a Tuesday)

Sir Charles Lyell circa 1865-1870

On this date, the geologist Charles Lyell was born at Kinnordy, Forfarshire, Scotland. His first book, entitled Principles of Geology and published in three volumes in 1830-33, was also his most famous, most influential, and most important. Lyell was an important influence on Charles Darwin.

November 12, 1968 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Susan Epperson et al v. Arkansas was decided.  The U.S. Supreme Court found that Arkansas’ law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional because the motivation was based on a literal reading of Genesis, not science.

November 11, 1572

Tycho Brahe

On this date, the Danish nobleman, astrologer, and alchemist Tycho Brahe observed (from Herrevad Abbey) a very bright star, now named SN 1572, that had unexpectedly appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia.  Since it had been maintained since antiquity that the world beyond the orbit of the moon, i.e., the world of the fixed stars, was eternal and unchangeable (a fundamental axiom, known as “celestial immutability”, of the Aristotelian world view), other observers held that the phenomenon was something in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Tycho, however, noticed that the parallax of the object did not change from night to night, suggesting that the object was far away.  He argued that a nearby object should appear to shift its position with respect to the background.  Tycho published a small book, De Stella Nova (1573), thereby coining the term nova for a “new” star (we now know that Tycho’s star in Cassiopeia was a supernova 7500 light years from Earth).  He knew the cosmological ramifications of his discovery and was strongly critical of those who dismissed the implications of the astronomical appearance, writing in the preface to De Stella Nova: “O crassa ingenia. O caecos coeli spectatores” (“Oh thick wits.  Oh blind watchers of the sky”).

November 6, 1990 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Webster v. New Lenox was decided.  The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school boards have the right to prohibit teaching creationism because such lessons would constitute religious advocacy.

October 30, 1844 (a Wednesday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, George Combe wrote a congratulatory letter that he sent to the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation through the publisher of the book. Combe was a phrenologist, who claimed to be able to read a person’s character from the shape of his skull, and he was delighted that the unknown author shared his belief in the “truth” of phrenology.

Only two weeks earlier, while they were on a Saturday walk, Combe had told his friend, the English journalist Robert Chambers, that he should read the newly published book. Combe already had received one of the first free copies, which he had skimmed and partially read with care. Ironically, Combe had not known on that Saturday walk that he was speaking to the author of Vestiges in person, namely, Robert Chambers! Evidently, Chambers did not reveal his identity to Combe. In fact, Chambers revealed his identity to only seven people during his lifetime.

In his letter, Combe said that on turning the pages of the book, he experienced a sense of “pleasure and instruction” – that it combined “all the sublimity of a grand poem, and the sober earnestness & perspicuity of a rigidly philosophical induction.” His letter compared Vestiges to “a new sun” in the scientific firmament, which “will probably collect around it innumberable facts, until at length it shall develop itself into a Theory as perfect as a planetary system.”

This was the book that brought the notion of transmutation out into the public arena. It attempted to describe the entire evolution of the universe, from planets to people, as being driven by some kind of self developing force which acted according to natural laws.

Readers of Vestiges included Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Stuart Mill, although not all shared the same opinion of it. The politically liberal medical journal, the Lancet, said it was “like a breath of fresh air to workmen in a crowded factory.” The freethinker Abraham Lincoln read the book straight through (something he rarely did) when he got a copy and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” On the other hand, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the most vicious book reviews of all time, describing Vestiges as a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author as one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller even published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, to discredit Vestiges. Yet Vestiges sold remarkably well, one of the best-sellers of its time.

In his introduction to On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin assumed that his readers were aware of Vestiges, and wrote identifying what he felt was one of its gravest deficiencies with regards to its theory of biological evolution:

The author of the ‘Vestiges of Creation’ would, I presume, say that, after a certain unknown number of generations, some bird had given birth to a woodpecker, and some plant to the mistletoe, and that these had been produced perfect as we now see them; but this assumption seems to me to be no explanation, for it leaves the case of the coadaptations of organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life, untouched and unexplained.

Chambers wrote that “My sincere desire in the composition of the book was to give the true view of the history of nature, with as little disturbance as possible to existing beliefs, whether philosophical or religious.” He wanted to open up the question of evolution by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845 and entitled Explanations, he wrote, “I said to myself: Let [Vestiges] go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it.”

References:

  • James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 38, 264.
  • William Henry Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889).

October 22, 1996 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said:

In his Encyclical Humani generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points…Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical, fresh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory.

October 20, 1790 (a Wednesday)

On this date, the Scottish fruit-grower Patrick Matthew was born. He is notable for having proposed the principle of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution over a quarter-century earlier than did Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. However, Matthew failed to develop or publicize his ideas and Darwin and Wallace were unaware of Matthew’s work when they synthesized their own.

Patrick Matthew (1790)

Matthew’s work entitled, On Naval Timber and Aboriculture, which was published in 1831, presented in sufficiently recognizable detail “this natural process of selection among plants” (see pages 307 to 308). In an appendix to the book, he wrote:

There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possible suited to its condition that its kind, or organized matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers to their highest perfection and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing—either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence . . .

There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied, all change by this appears very limited, and confined within the bounds of what is called species; the progeny of the same parents, under great differences of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.

In 1860, Matthew read a review of Darwin’s Origin of Species in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, including its description of the principle of natural selection. This prompted him to write a letter to the publication, calling attention his earlier explication of the theory. Darwin then wrote a letter of his own to the Gardener’s Chronicle, stating:

I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, has heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the Appendix to a work On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect.

Which he did. However, there are nearly as many deep differences between Matthew’s theory and Darwin’s as there are similarities. Matthew was a catastrophist; his geological theories were very close to those of Cuvier. According to Matthew, the earth had periodically been rocked by upheavals, which left an “unoccupied field. . . for new diverging ramifications of life.” Evolutionary change took place right after these upheavals; between catastrophes, species did not change,and natural selection would act to stabilize species, not alter them:

A particular conformity, each after its own kind, . . . no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last 40 centuries [4,000 years]. Geologists discover a like particular conformity – fossil species – through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life on one epoch from that of every other.

Matthew’s theory lacked Darwin’s concept of evolution as an ongoing, continuous process. Matthew did not see evolution as the gradual accumulation of favorable variations leading to adaptation, nor did he believe in extinction except by catastrophe. Matthew saw species as classes of similar organisms, not as interbreeding populations. He also never relinquished his belief in natural theology; he wrote to Darwin in 1871 that “a sentiment of beauty pervading Nature. . . affords evidence of intellect and benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design and cannot be accounted for by natural selection.”

October 6, 1892 (a Thursday)

Alfred Lord Tennyson

On this date, Lord Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate of England, died at 1:35 a.m. Tennyson’s life had spanned much of the nineteenth century, and he is remembered for producing one of the greatest literary expressions of the eclipse of the static and providential worldview of natural theology by the new dynamic and historical worldview of evolutionary biology, with its emphasis on the succession of types, extinction, and the “struggle for existence”:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing: all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

Lord Tennyson was buried in Westminster Abbey in London.

October 4, 4004 B.C.E. (a Monday)

*The Creation of Adam* by Michelangelogo

On this date, the Earth was created by God, according to an Irish theologian, Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher [or Usher] (1581-1656), in his Chronologies of the Old and New Testaments, which was first published 1650-1654. Ussher arrived at his conclusion by carefully counting the “begats” in the Bible. His contemporary, Sir John Lightfoot (1602-1675), Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, arrived at the same date through independent calculation and added the detail that the world began at 9:00 AM Greenwich Meridian Time (GMT), or midnight Garden-of-Eden time.

Needless to say, modern scientific research has discovered that the Earth is, in fact, much, much, older.

October 3, 1981 (a Saturday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said:

Cosmogony itself speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth, it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The sacred book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.

September 10, 1788 (a Wednesday)

Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes

On this date, the French geologist and archaeologist Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes was born. His discovery in 1846 of whole handaxes, tools, and fragments embedded in and scattered about the fossilized bones of extinct mammals in the Somme River valley showed that man existed at least as early as the ancient creatures. He announced his discovery in the first volume of a work he published in 1847, Antiquites Celtiques Et Antediluviennes (Celtic and pre-Flood Antiquities).

The very title of his book showed that Boucher de Perthes at first regarded these implements and weapons as having belonged to men overwhelmed at the Deluge of Noah; but it was soon seen that they were something very different. Being found in terraces at great heights above the Somme River indicated that they must have been deposited there at a time when the river system of northern France was vastly different from anything known within the historic period. This would have required a series of great geological changes since the time when these implements were made, disproving the prevailing theologically-based idea that 4004 B.C. was the year of the creation of man.

The type of handaxe discovered by Boucher de Perthes.

Although Boucher de Perthes was the first to establish that Europe had been populated by early man in the Pleistocene or early Quaternary period, he himself was not able to pinpoint the precise period because the scientific frame of reference did not then exist. Today, the handaxes of the Somme River district are widely accepted to be at least 500,000 years old and thus the product of Neandertal populations, while some authorities think they may be as old as one million years and therefore associated with Homo erectus.

September 7, 1707 (a Wednesday)

Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon

On this date, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon was born in Montbard, France. Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière(1749-1778: in 36 volumes, 8 additional volumes published after his death by Lacépède). It included everything known about the natural world up until that time and was translated into many different languages, making him the most widely read scientific author of the day, equaling Rousseau and Voltaire. Buffon’s views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.

Buffon was one of the first philosophers to grapple with the questions of evolution, both of Earth and of living creatures. At the time, church doctrine insisted that Earth was only six thousand years old and that each type of creature had been made independently by a Creator. He proposed instead around 1778 that the Earth was hot at its creation and, from the rate of cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

Buffon noted that despite similar environments, different regions of the world have distinct plants and animals, a concept later known as Buffon’s Law, widely considered the first principle of biogeography. He made the radical conclusion that species must have both “improved” and “degenerated” (evolved) after dispersing away from a center of creation. He also asserted that climate change must have facilitated the worldwide spread of species from their center of origin. Buffon also proposed, in sharp contrast to his contemporary Carolus Linnaeus, that species are defined not by simple similarity of appearance but by reproductive fertility over time.

August 28, 1963 (a Wednesday)

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering *I Have a Dream* speech.

On this date, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.

Dr. King was a clergyman and civil rights leader but, as Jeff Nall pointed out in 2005, his wisdom has too often been forgotten:

Today it’s fashionable to recall Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights hero and passionate reverend. But sadly, amidst his legacy the entirety of his intellectual prowess and vast philosophical wisdom often goes unrecognized. Particularly troubling, King has become a tool for a variety of causes wrongly associated with him, including the attack on the separation of church and state.

In 2003 George W. Bush said, “There’s still a need for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King to make sure the hope of America extends its reach into every neighborhood across this land.” But considering the president’s efforts to combine God and government, it seems that Bush himself is ignorant of King’s words and at least two of his salient ideas. King was a proponent of the separation of church and state and also one of religion’s most ardent critics.

In a 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, Dr. King was asked how he felt about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision ruling school prayer unconstitutional. In response he said:

I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.

Church/State sign.

In another clear endorsement of church-state separation, King stated that the church “is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

Dr. King also blamed organized religion for its support of contemporary dogma — the kind that insists on favoring creationism over evolution — at the expense of truth.  He berated what he called softmindedness. “Softminded individuals,” he said, “are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. . . . The soft-minded man always fears change.” More specifically, King wrote in his book entitled Strength to Love (1963):

Softmindedness often invades religion. This is why religion has sometimes rejected new truth with a dogmatic passion. Through edicts and bulls, inquisitions and excommunications, the church has attempted to prorogue truth and place an impenetrable stone wall in the path of the truth-seeker….

Softminded persons have revised the Beautitudes to read ‘Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God.’ This has led to a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true. There may be a conflict between softminded religionists and toughminded scientists, but not between science and religion….

Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism.

His appreciation of science, though hardly acknowledged by most admirers of Dr. King, isn’t surprising. In arguing against notions of black racial inferiority, he frequently cited current anthropological research. In the same book cited above, King wrote:

Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice. The toughminded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he post judges. The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions and misunderstandings. There are those who are sufficiently softminded to belief in the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro race in spite of the toughmindedness research of anthropologists who reveal the falsity of such a notion.

In his article on Dr. King, Jeff Nall concluded:

Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was much more than just a reverend or just a civil rights champion; he was a learned philosopher who understood the importance of reason and balance in society. Unlike some of the Christian extremists who use his name for their cause and political gains, King valued the pluralism of American society, respected the U.S. Constitution, and never would have supported the corrupt motivation behind efforts to unite church and state.

Suggested reading:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Strength to Love (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1963).
  • Jeff Nall, “Will the real Martin Luther King please stand up?” The Humanist (May/June 2005).

August 23, 1769 (a Wednesday)

Georges Cuvier

On this date, Georges Cuvier was born at Montbéliard, France (then Mömpelgard in the duchy of Württemberg). Cuvier, who possessed one of the finest minds in history, was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology by comparing living animals with fossils.

At the opening of the National Institute of France in April in 1796, he read his first palaeontological paper. At the time, it was still widely believed that no species of animal had ever become extinct, because God’s creation had been perfect. In his paper, Cuvier analyzed skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants as well as mammoth fossils, demonstrating that African and Indian elephants were different species and that mammoths were not the same species as either African or Indian elephants and therefore must be extinct.

In the second paper he presented in 1796, Cuvier demonstrated that a large skeleton found in Paraguay, which he named “megatherium,” represented yet another extinct animal and, by comparing its skull with living species of tree dwelling sloths, that it was a kind of ground dwelling giant sloth. Together these two 1796 papers essentially ended what had been a long running debate about the reality of extinction.

Figure of the jaw of an Indian elephant and the fossil Jaw of a mammoth from Cuvier's 1798–99 paper on living and fossil elephants

Cuvier believed that organisms were functional wholes; their functional integration meant that each part of an organism, no matter how small, bore signs of the whole. In a 1798 paper on the fossil remains of an animal found in some plaster quarries near Paris, he wrote:

Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged, above all if that bone belonged to the head or the limbs. … This is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that – up to a point – one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.

This idea is sometimes referred to as “Cuvier’s principle of correlation of parts.” Thus, Cuvier was able to use his deep knowledge of the comparative anatomy of living organisms to produce reconstructions of organisms from fragmentary fossils, many of which turned out to be strikingly accurate.

Ironically, Cuvier’s insistence on the functional integration of organisms prevented him from accepting biological evolution, for he believed that any change in an organism’s anatomy would have rendered it unable to survive. Since organisms were functional wholes, any change in one part would destroy their delicate balance. He also pointed out that Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt had retrieved animals mummified thousands of years previously that seemed no different from their modern counterparts.

To explain the discontinuities seen in the fossil record, Cuvier hypothesized that a vast number of species was originally created in the beginning and that, although the Earth was immensely old and for most of its history conditions had been more or less like those of the present, periodic “revolutions” had occurred, each causing the extinction of many species of animals. This view came to be known as “catastrophism.” Cuvier regarded these “revolutions” as events with natural causes, and considered their causes and natures to be an important geological problem. Although he was a lifelong Protestant, Cuvier did not explicitly identify any of these “revolutions” with Biblical or historical events. The species we see today, according to his hypothesis, are the species that were present at the beginning and whose unmodified descendants have survived all the later catastrophes. (Unfortunately for Cuvier, the lowest and oldest layers of sedimentary rock do not contain any fossils of present-day species that would be expected if his hypothesis was correct.)

The harshness of his criticism and the strength of his reputation continued to discourage naturalists from speculating about the transmutation of species, right up until Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species more than two decades after Cuvier’s death.

August 12, 1950 (a Saturday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Humani Generis (Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine), condemning ideologies which threatened Roman Catholic faith but allowing that evolution did not necessarily conflict with Christianity. The document made plain the Pope’s fervent hope that evolution would prove to be a passing scientific fad, and it attacked those persons who “imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution …explains the origin of all things.” Nevertheless, Pius XII stated that nothing in Catholic doctrine is contradicted by a theory that suggests one species might evolve into another – even if that species is man. According to the Pope:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, insofar as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter…

The Pope asserted, however, that Catholics must believe that the human soul was created immediately by God and that all humans have descended from an individual, Adam, who has transmitted original sin to all humankind.

August 8, 1856 (a Friday)

The skullcap of type specimen, Neandertal 1.

On or about this date, quarry workmen in search of lime blasted out the entrance of the Feldhofer Cave in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, Germany. They found a skeleton, and guessed they had found the remains of a cave bear. Although they discarded many of the bones, they also set some of them aside, including the skullcap, for examination by a local schoolteacher and amateur naturalist, Johann Fuhlrott. When Fuhlrott looked at the long, narrow skullcap with prominent brow ridges, he realized its significance. Two weeks after the initial discovery, he returned to the quarry in hopes of finding the rest of the skeleton, but it was too late to retrieve any more bones. Fortunately, Fuhlrott had enough to identify the remains as those of an ancient human population, different from contemporary humans. This was the find that gave the species its name. It marked the beginning of paleoanthropology and initiated the longest-standing debate in the discipline: the role of Neandertals in human evolutionary history.

However, Fuhlrott’s view was not immediately accepted as it contradicted literal interpretations of the Bible and came before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. It took some years before the Neandertal man gained acceptance as a species of the genus Homo that inhabited Europe and parts of western Asia.

Because the area where these Neandertal bones were found was landscaped after the limestone quarry closed without a scientific geological analysis, and there were no associated finds, the site has been considered undatable. It is now the location of a museum of Neandertal life. The museum has also recreated the man’s appearance in a full-body model holding a spear.

However, the bones of over 400 Neandertals that have been found in different parts of Europe and the Middle East since (and even a few before) this discovery have permitted accurate dating. As a result, it is now known that the first proto-Neandertal traits appeared in Europe as early as 350,000 years ago, by 130,000 years ago full blown Neandertal characteristics had appeared, and by 50,000 years ago Neandertals had disappeared from Europe, although they continued in Asia until 30,000 years ago.

August 1, 1744 (a Saturday)

Do we not therefore perceive that by the action of the laws of organization . . . nature has in favorable times, places, and climates multiplied her first germs of animality, given place to developments of their organizations, . . . and increased and diversified their organs? Then. . . aided by much time and by a slow but constant diversity of circumstances, she has gradually brought about in this respect the state of things which we now observe. How grand is this consideration, and especially how remote is it from all that is generally thought on this subject!

— Text of a lecture given by Lamarck at the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, May 1803

Zen stones

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

On this date, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was born in the village of Bazentin-le-Petit in the north of France. Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Ernst Haeckel, and other early evolutionists acknowledged him as a great zoologist and as having helped establish the fact of evolution. Charles Darwin wrote in 1861 (The Origin of Species 3d ed., p. xiii):

Lamarck was the first man whose conclusions on the subject excited much attention. This justly celebrated naturalist first published his views in 1801. . . he first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, one of the top French scientists of the day, mentored Lamarck and helped him gain membership to the French Academy of Sciences in 1779 and a commission as a Royal Botanist in 1781. Lamarck was appointed curator and professor of invertebrate zoology at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in 1793.

Lamarck began as an essentialist who believed species were unchanging; however, after working on the mollusks of the Paris Basin, he grew convinced that transmutation (that is, evolution) of a species occurred over time. He became one of the first to use the term biology in its modern sense in his book Hydrogéologie, published in 1802. Lamarck’s book, Philosophie Zoologique (Zoological Philosophy), published in 1809 most clearly states his theories of evolution. Throughout his life, Lamarck criticized palaeontologist Georges Cuvier’s anti-evolutionary stance. He died penniless in Paris on December 28, 1829.

July 26, 1925 (a Sunday)

William Jennings Bryan in a Dayton pulpit.

On this date, after eating an enormous dinner, William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial, laid down to take a nap and died in his sleep. Bryan’s personal physician, Dr. J. Thomas Kelly, concluded, “Bryan died of diabetes melitis, the immediate cause being the fatigue incident to the heat and his extraordinary exertions due to the Scopes trial.” Clarence Darrow was hiking in the Smoky Mountains when word of Bryan’s death reached him. When reporters suggested to him that Bryan died of a broken heart, Darrow said, “Broken heart nothing; he died of a busted belly.” In a louder voice he added, “His death is a great loss to the American people.”

Bryan’s death triggered an outpouring of grief from the “common” Americans who felt they had lost their greatest champion. A special train carried him to his burial place in Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of people lined the tracks. Historian Paul Boyer says, “Bryan’s death represented the end of an era. This man who had loomed so large in the American political and cultural landscape for thirty years had now passed from the scene.”

July 25, 2007 (a Wednesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Pope Benedict XVI said the debate raging in some countries — particularly the United States and his native Germany — between creationism and evolution was an “absurdity,” saying that evolution can coexist with faith. “They are presented as alternatives that exclude each other,” the pope said. “This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”

The pontiff, speaking as he was concluding his holiday in northern Italy, also said that while there is much scientific proof to support evolution, the theory could not exclude a role by God. He said evolution did not answer all the questions: “Above all it does not answer the great philosophical question, ‘Where does everything come from?'”

July 23, 2004 (a Friday)

The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)

The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)

On this date, the document “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God” was published on the relationship between creation, evolution, and Christian faith by the International Theological Commission (ITC) of the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, the ITC was headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Although the function of the ITC is to advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Church, and documents of the ITC are not considered expressions of Church teaching, this document does indicate that Christianity and evolution are certainly compatible:

According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5 – 4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of Homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution. [Emphasis added; from the statement “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God,” plenary sessions held in Rome 2000-2002.]

July 21, 1925 (a Tuesday)

Darrow addressing the jury and courtroom spectators.

On this date, the eighth day of the Scopes Monkey Trial began. Before the jury was called to the courtroom, Darrow addressed Judge Raulston, “I think to save time, we will ask the court to bring in the jury and instruct the jury to find the defendant guilty.” This ensured that the defense could appeal the case to a higher court, which might rule the Butler Act unconstitutional. The defense also waived its right to a final address, which, under Tennessee law, deprived the prosecution of a closing statement. This greatly disappointed Bryan, who was unable to deliver a grandiloquent closing speech he had labored over for weeks [archived here].

John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and sentenced to a fine of $100.  After the verdict was read, Scopes delivered his only statement of the trial, declaring his intent “to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom.”  The trial came to an anticlimactic end.

References:

  • John Thomas Scopes, William Jennings Bryan, and Rhea County Court. The world’s most famous court trial: Tennessee evolution case (Cincinnati: National Book Co., 1925).

July 20, 1925 (a Monday)

William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being questioned by Clarence Darrow (standing at right).

On this date in the Scopes Monkey Trial, assistant defense attorney Arthur Hays rose to summon one more witness – William Jennings Bryan – as an expert on the Bible. Malone, another attorney on the defense team, whispered to John Scopes, “Hell is going to pop now.” Calling Bryan was a highly unusual move, but Bryan agreed with some enthusiasm, stipulating only that he should have a chance to interrogate the defense lawyers. During his examination, Bryan stated his reason for testifying: “These gentlemen…did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any question they please.” Judge Raulston, concerned that the crowd massing to watch this clash of legal titans would prove injurious to the courthouse, ordered that the trial reconvene on the adjacent lawn.

Darrow examined Bryan for almost two hours, all but ignoring the specific case against Scopes while doing his best to undermine a literalist interpretation of the Bible. After initially contending that “everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there,” Bryan conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. “[S]ome of the Bible is given illustratively,” he observed. “For instance: `Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.” Although Bryan believed the story of a big fish swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, and other miracles, he conceded that the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were not literally twenty-four hour days but were probably periods of time lasting many years.

Fundamentalists in the audience listened with increasing discomfort as their champion questioned Biblical “truths,” and Bryan slowly came to realize that he had stepped into a trap. At one point, the frustrated Bryan said, “I do not think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow asked, “Do you think about the things you do think about?” Bryan responded, to the derisive laughter of spectators, “Well, sometimes.” It was an embarrassing and bleak moment in what had been Bryan’s brilliant career.

July 19, 1925 (a Sunday)

Rev. Byrd (left) and Rev. Potter (right), with Byrd's children John and Lillian, in front of the parsonage.

On this date, in the midst of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Rev. Howard Gale Byrd resigned as pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church North in Dayton, Tennessee when members of his congregation objected because a visiting minister, Rev. Charles Francis Potter of the West Side Unitarian Church in New York City, proposed to preach on the topic of evolution. Potter was adviser on the Bible to Clarence Darrow in his defense of John Scopes. He also gave the opening prayer one morning of the trial.

Raised in a pious evangelical Baptist family, Potter was a precocious boy who by the age of three was able to recite entire Bible passages from memory. Potter accepted a Baptist pastorate in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1908 and another in Mattapan, Massachusetts, in 1910. During Potter’s years as a Baptist preacher he began to question many of the orthodox Christian tenets with which he had been raised. He was increasingly influenced by liberal theological ideas, especially the “higher criticism” of the Bible. In 1914 frustration with Baptist church leaders who questioned his theological views led to his resignation from the Baptist ministry and conversion to Unitarianism.

In 1919 Potter was called to be minister of the West Side Unitarian Church in New York City, where he served from 1920-25. Under Potter’s stimulating leadership the West Side Unitarian Church became a focal point of liberal thought, activity and interpretation of the scriptures. Potter came to national attention in 1923-24 when he participated in a series of radio debates with the formidable fundamentalist Baptist pastor, Rev. John Roach Straton of the Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan. The debates at Carnegie Hall stirred public interest in the fundamentalist-modernist doctrinal questions that were circulating at the time. They were soon published in four volumes entitled The Battle Over the Bible, Evolution versus Creation, The Virgin Birth—Fact or Fiction?, and Was Christ Both Man and God?

July 17, 1925 (a Friday)

Judge Raulston delivers a ruling.

On this date, Judge John Raulston ruled in the Scopes Monkey Trial that the defense will not be allowed to present expert testimony on evolution or its consistency with Genesis:

This case is now before the court upon a motion by the [prosecution] to exclude from the consideration of the jury certain expert testimony offered by the defendant, the import of such testimony being an effort to explain the origin of man and life. The state insists that such evidence is wholly irrelevant, incompetent and impertinent to the issues pending, and that it should be excluded. Upon the other hand, the defendant insists that this evidence is highly competent and relevant to the issues involved, and should be admitted. . . . In the final analysis this court, after a most earnest and careful consideration, has reached the conclusions that under the provisions of the act involved in this case, it is made unlawful thereby to teach in the public schools of the state of Tennessee the theory that man descended from a lower order of animals. If the court is correct in this, then the evidence of experts would shed no light on the issues. Therefore, the court is content to sustain the motion of the [prosecution] to exclude the expert testimony.

Darrow was livid and accused Raulston of bias. “I do not understand,” said Darrow, “why every suggestion of the prosecution should meet with an endless waste of time, and a bare suggestion of anything that is perfectly competent on our part should be immediately overruled.” Raulston asked Darrow, “I hope you do not mean to reflect upon the court?” Darrow replied, “Well, your honor has the right to hope.” Raulston responded, “I have the right to do something else” and held Darrow in contempt of court. Darrow later apologized for his remark, prompting a big hand from spectators, and Raulston dropped the contempt citation. Darrow and Raulston shook hands.

After expressing concern that the courtroom floor might collapse from the weight of so many spectators, Raulston transferred the proceedings to the lawn outside the courthouse. There, the defense read into the record, for purpose of appellate review, excerpts from the prepared statements of eight scientists and four experts on religion who had been prepared to testify. The statements of the experts were widely reported by the press, helping Darrow succeed in his efforts to turn the trial into a national biology lesson.