assume that, upon publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, its
weight of argument was so convincing, belief in his theory was
compelled from all quarters.
Not so. In
fact most scientists initially rejected it.
It is true
that within 20 years his theory had received general acceptance; but
this was not so much due to the weight of argument as the prevailing
climate of the times. For example, Cynthia Eagle Russett, a lecturer
in American history at Yale University and specialist in American
intellectual history, observes that Darwin’s theory was not so much a
revolution as a catalyst for a much broader emerging change that had
been waiting in the wings:
so sensational, actually focused the inchoate strings of an even
more basic shift in thought patterns—away from supernaturalism,
ultimate reality, and final causes…. But, in fact, the Origin did
not so much initiate as accelerate a long-term trend that can be
traced back at least as far as the Renaissance, a trend toward
secularism and humanism in the broadest sense. There can be little
doubt that the rough direction of this trend had been well
established long before Darwin…. The fact is that the times were
ripe for a reorientation of intellect, and Darwinism offered itself
as symbol and mechanism of such a reorientation.1
implications of Darwin’s theory were so vast that the Pelican Classics
edition of the Origin of Species observes it "was greeted with violent
and malicious criticism."2
Not only did
his Origin (1859) receive constant critical review, but
The scientific world also
was almost wholly against the Origin. In later years, T. H. Huxley,
speaking of the year 1860, described the situation by saying, "The
supporters of Mr. Darwin’s views were numerically, extremely
insignificant. There is not the slightest doubt that if a general
council of the church scientific had been held at that time, we
should have been condemned by an overwhelming majority."3
for such criticisms is well expressed by Michael Denton, M.D., a
researcher in molecular biology and author of Evolution: A Theory in
The intuitive feeling
that pure chance could never have achieved the degree of complexity
and ingenuity so ubiquitous in nature has been a continuing source
of skepticism ever since the publication of the Origin; and
throughout the past century there has always existed a significant
minority of first-rate biologists who have never been able to bring
themselves to accept the validity of Darwinian claims. In fact, the
number of biologists who have expressed some degree of
disillusionment is practically endless.4
true from the start. Below we present a sampling of illustrations of
the critical response.5
acceptance of Darwinism was by no means universal can be seen from the
review of Henry Fawcett (professor of political philosophy at
Cambridge) writing in Macmillan’s magazine for December, 1860, Vol. 3,
No scientific work that
has been published within this century has excited so much curiosity
as the treatise of Mr. Darwin. It has for a time divided the
scientific world into two great contending sections. A Darwinite and
an anti-Darwinite are now the badges of opposed scientific parties.
Each side is ably represented.6
true today, many of the severest criticisms of Darwin’s theory were
from scientists. Philosophy professor David L. Hull observes that
Darwin had not "anticipated the vehemence with which even the most
respected scientists and philosophers in his day would denounce his
efforts as not being properly ‘scientific.’" And, "With the
publication of the Origin of Species, large segments of the scientific
and intellectual community, turned on him."7
demonstrates, it was not only the scientists who objected, it was also
the leading philosophers of the day:
The leading philosophers,
contemporary with Darwin, John Herschel, William Whewell, and John
Stuart Mill, were equally adamant in their conviction that the
Origin of Species was just one massive conjecture. Darwin had proved
nothing! From a philosophical point of view, evolutionary theory was
sorely deficient. Even today, both Darwin’s original efforts and
more recent formulations are repeatedly found philosophically
objectionable. Evolutionary theory seems capable of offending almost
scientific reviewers were not pre-disposed against the idea: "Many of
the reviewers were competent scientists honestly trying to evaluate a
novel theory against the commonly accepted standards of scientific
excellence, and evolutionary theory consistently came up wanting."9
Sedgwick, one of the founders of the science of geology in England, a
colleague of Darwin and Woodwardian professor of geology at Trinity
College, Cambridge, stated in a letter to Darwin (December 1859; in
Life and Letters (1877), pp. 42-45):
Parts of it [On the
Origin of Species] I admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my
sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow,
because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous. You
have... started us in machinery as wild, I think, as Bishop Wilkins’
locomotive that was to sail with us to the moon. Many of your wide
conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved
summarized his view of Darwin’s thesis as follows:
From first to last it is
a dish of rank materialism cleverly cooked and served up.... It is
like a pyramid poised on its apex. It is a system embracing all
living nature, vegetable and animal; yet contradicting—point
blank—the vast treasure of facts that the Author of Nature
has...revealed to our senses. And why is this done? For no other
solid reason, I am sure, except to make us independent of a Creator.11
(M.D.), was Superintendent of the Natural History Department of the
British Museum and the leading comparative anatomist of his time.12
In the Edinburgh Review, April 1860, he said "But do the facts of
actual organic nature square with the Darwinian hypothesis?
Later he refers to the "defective information which contribute, almost
at each chapter" which prevent him from believing in Darwin’s
hypothesis of natural selection.14
William Hopkins was an important mathematician who took his
degree from Cambridge and was influenced in his geological studies by
Adam Sedgwick. His analysis is described as "a detailed criticism of
evolutionary theory on the basis of the best views then current on the
nature of science."15
approach was to demand of Darwin’s theory
the same kind of general
evidence that we demand before we yield our assent to more ordinary
physical theories. While we admit the same principles of research,
we cannot admit different principles in interpretation, and yield
our assent to the naturalist on evidence which we should utterly
reject in the physicist.... He who appeals to Caesar must be judged
by Caesar’s laws.16
review (in which the above statements occur) comes from Fraser’s
magazine, June and July, 1860. He further stated: "We venture to
assert, without fear of contradiction, that any physical theory of
inorganic matter which should rest on no better evidence than the
theory we are considering, would be instantly and totally rejected by
everyone qualified to form a judgment upon it."17
commenting on Darwin’s method for overcoming his many difficulties,
Hopkins replies as follows:
It is thus by a vague
hypothesis, entirely unsupported by facts, that our author meets a
difficulty which appears to us, as it has appeared to many others,
to be of the gravest magnitude.... [Darwin’s approach is] to found a
theory, not on our knowledge, but on our ignorance. Nor is this the
only instance in which he seems to have adopted similar
reasoning.... We confess ourselves to have been somewhat astonished
at this bold manner of disposing of difficulties....We had imagined,
too, that the facts reasoned upon ought to be real, and not
hypothetical....We confess that the adoption of such conclusions,
unsupported by any positive and independent evidence, merely on the
demand of an unproved theory, appears to us little consistent with
the sobriety and dignity of philosophical investigation.18
The defect of this theory
is the wont of all positive proof,...19
In the statement of
facts, the author is uniformly impartial. It is difficult to
conceive a fairer advocate. But when, in his judicial capacity, he
comes to the discussion of facts in their theoretical bearings, we
recognize a wont of strict adherence to philosophical and logical
modes of thought and reasoning. There is one great and plausible
error of this kind which pervades nearly his whole work. He
constantly speaks of his theory as explaining certain phenomena,
which he represents as inexplicable on any other theory. We
altogether demur to this statement.20
Charles Fleeming Jenkin was the Professor of Engineering at Glasgow
University who worked with Lord Kelvin in laying the Transatlantic
Cable. Jenkin’s review, quoted from The North British Review, June
1867, in the words of Darwin "has given me much trouble."21
The chief arguments used
to establish the theory rests on conjecture.22
We are asked to believe
all these "maybes" happening on an enormous scale, in order that we
may believe the final Darwinian "maybe" as to the origin of species.
The general form of his argument is as follows:—all these things may
have been, therefore my theory is possible, and since my theory is a
possible one, all those hypotheses which it requires are rendered
probable. There is little direct evidence that any of these maybes
actually have been. Many of these assumed possibilities are actually
stated of evolution that "its untruth can, as we think, be proved…",24
and "any one of the main pleas of our argument, if established, is
fatal to Darwin’s theory."25
He concluded, "A plausible theory should not be accepted while
unproven; and if the arguments of this essay be admitted, Darwin’s
theory of the origin of species is not only without sufficient support
from evidence, but is proved false by a cumulative proof."26
Haughton was a Physiologist and Professor of Geology at Dublin
University. In the Natural History Review (1860, Vol. 7, pp. 23-32)
How does it happen that a
theory of the origin of species, which rests upon the same [wholly
unfounded] basis, is accepted by multitudes of naturalists, as if it
were a new gospel? I believe it is because our naturalists, as a
class, are untrained in the use of the logical faculties by which
they may be charitably supposed to possess in common with other men.
No progress in natural science is possible as long as men will take
their rude guesses at truth for facts, and substitute the fancies of
their imagination for the sober rules of reasoning.27
critical reviews could be cited28
but the point should be made. Darwin gathered and systematized a good
deal of data, but he had proved nothing. He no more proved evolution
by amassing facts than scientists of an earlier era proved the theory
of phlogiston or that the world was flat by amassing facts. Facts are
facts but they can be interpreted quite differently depending upon
presuppositions and other considerations.
leading scientist of the day, Louis Agassiz of Harvard University,
author of the Contributions to the Natural History of the United
The facts upon which
Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel, and others base their views are in the
possession of every well educated naturalist. It is only a question
of interpretation, not discovery or of new and unlooked-for
himself admitted his theory was bereft of proof where it was most
needed. In a letter to H. G. Bronn he confessed, "You put very well
and very fairly that I can in no one instance explain the course of
modification in any particular instance," and further, "When we
descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed; nor
can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the
groundwork of the theory,"30
and finally, "I am actually weary of telling people that I do not
pretend to adduce direct evidence of one species changing into
In other words, Darwin agreed he had no direct evidence for evolution.
Hopkins observed: "A great number of facts are mentioned as being only
explicable on this theory, and might thus appear to an inattentive
reader to constitute a large amount of inductive evidence. But all
that is attempted to be done is to assert, not to prove, that the
facts are consistent with the theory;…"32
Hull, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin,
and former visiting Associate Professor, Committee on the Conceptual
Foundation of Science, University of Chicago, points out that Darwin’s
deficient methodology is still used today:
As Huxley observed, the
Origin is "a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather
than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical
bond; due attention will, without doubt, discover this bond, but it
is often hard to find." The modern reader frequently grows impatient
with Darwin’s method in the Origin of piling example on example, but
this was the only method open to him given the structure of
evolutionary theory. This format is still characteristic of works in
evolutionary theory [today].33
Darwin suspected that his factual data were insufficient. He conceded
to Asa Gray, "What you hint at generally is very, very true: that my
work will be grievously hypothetical, and large parts by no means
worthy of being called induction, my commonest error being probably
induction from too few facts."34
In the end,
critical reviews gave Darwin no end of trouble and caused him to
constantly revise The Origin of Species. After the "most cutting
review" of St. George Jackson Mivart, Darwin thought, "I shall soon be
viewed as the most despicable of men."35
In a letter to J. D. Hooker January 16, 1869, Darwin complained, "It
is only about two years since the last edition of the Origin, and I am
fairly disgusted to find how much I have to modify, and how much I
ought to add;…"36
All of this
is why Michael Denton concludes that:
The popular conception of
a triumphant Darwin increasingly confident after 1859 in his views
of evolution is a travesty. On the contrary, by the time the last
edition of the Origin was published in 1872, he had become plagued
with self doubt and frustrated by his inability to meet the many
objections which had been leveled at his theory. According to Loren
Eiseley: "A close examination of the last edition of the Origin
reveals that in attempting on scattered pages to meet the objections
being launched against his theory the much-labored upon volume had
become contradictory…. The last repairs to the Origin reveal… how
very shaky Darwin’s theoretical structure had become. His gracious
ability to compromise had produced some striking inconsistencies.
His book was already a classic, however, and these deviations for
the most part passed unnoticed even by his enemies."37
conclusion, Darwin’s theory was subject to a considerable amount of
valid criticism immediately after publication. As we documented in
Darwin’s Leap of Faith (1998), the critics were right all along and
the scientists and theologians who accepted Darwinism on naturalistic
or philosophic grounds were wrong. Evolution came to be an accepted
theory not because it was ever proven but because people wanted it to
be true. Its appeal was that it provided a seeming scientific
explanation for living things as well as a seeming testable mechanism
for the origin of those things—natural selection.
Not only was
Darwin unable to answer his best critics, but in the subsequent 140
years, neither have modern scientists been able to answer theirs. As
Michael Denton observes:
Neither of the two
fundamental axioms of Darwin’s macroevolutionary theory [i.e., (1)
the evolutionary continuity of nature linking all life forms on a
continuum leading back to a primal origin and (2) the adaptive
design of life [resulting from blind random processes] have been
validated by one single empirical discovery or scientific advance
since 1859. Despite more than a century of intensive effort on the
part of evolutionary biologists, the major objections raised by
Darwin’s critics such as Agassiz, Pictet, Bronn and Richard Owen
have not been met.... That the gaps cannot be dismissed as
inventions of the human mind, merely figments of an antievolutionary
imagination—an imagination prejudiced by typology, essentialism or
creationism—is amply testified by the fact that their existence has
always been just as firmly acknowledged by the advocates of
From day one
evolutionists have had serious, and, we think fatal problems with
their theory. In light of the evolutionary establishment’s constant
refrain of "evolution is a fact," those frank enough to admit such
difficulties should be commended.
1 Cynthia Eagle Russett,
Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response 1865-1912 (San
Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co., 1976), pp. 216-217.
2 Charles Darwin (ed. J.
W. Burrow), The Origin of Species (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books,
1974), p. i.
3 Robert E. D. Clark,
Darwin: Before and After (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1967), p. 63.
4 Michael Denton,
Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler
Publishers, Inc., 1986), p. 327
5 The fact that a few of
these critics may have held to various evolutionary ideas or may
later have joined Darwinian ranks does not discount the validity of
their criticism. Men can accept a theory which they acknowledge is
contrary to the facts and which they suspect may not be true for
want of, in their minds, a better theory to replace it.
6 David L. Hull, Darwin &
His Critics: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the
Scientific Community (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1974), p. 277.
7 Ibid., pp. 3, 6; cf.,
Robert E. D. Clark, Darwin: Before and After (Chicago: Moody Press,
1967), p. 63.
8 Hull, Darwin & His
Critics, p. 7.
9 Ibid., p. 14.
10 Ibid., pp. 157-58.
11 In Ibid., p. 169,
citing John Stuart Mill, The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (NY:
Columbia University Press, 1924), p. 140.
12 Hull, Darwin & His
Critics, p. 213.
13 Ibid., p. 193.
14 Ibid., pp. 208-209.
15 Ibid., p. 273, cf. pp.
16 Ibid., pp. 230-231.
17 Ibid., p. 275.
18 Ibid., pp. 263-265.
19 Ibid., p. 266.
20 Ibid., p. 267.
21 See Darwin to J. D.
Hooker, January 16, 1869 in More Letters, Vol. 2, 379 from ibid., p.
22 Hull, Darwin & His
Critics, p. 338.
23 Ibid., p. 338.
24 Ibid., p. 340.
25 Ibid., p. 343.
26 Ibid., p. 344.
27 Ibid., p. 227.
28 E.g., Ibid., pp.
29 Ibid., p. 436, citing
Atlantic Monthly, January 1874.
30 Ibid., p. 32, citing
More Letters, 1903, Vol. 1, 172 and Darwin, Life and Letters, 1887,
Vol. 2, p. 210.
31 Ibid., p. 292, citing
Autobiography, p. 265.
32 Ibid., p. 267.
33 Ibid., p. 32.
34 Ibid., p. 9, citing
Letter to Asa Gray, November 29, 1859 in More Letters, 1903, Vol. 1,
35 Ibid., p. 352 citing
C. Darwin to A. R. Wallace, July 12, 1871 in Life and Letters, Vol.
2, p. 326.
36 Ibid., p. 302 citing
Letter of January 16, 1869 in More Letters, Vol. 2, p. 379.
37 Denton, Evolution: A
Theory in Crisis, p. 69. The above material is not intended to
indicate Darwin did not evaluate and explain much that was relevant.
But this dealt primarily with microevolution, not macroevolution and
was irrelevant for establishing his general theory.
38 Ibid., p. 345.