Doubts About Darwinism

by G. K. Chesterton


Originally published in The Illustrated London News, 17th July 1920

(Source: G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Volume XXXII,
The Illustrated London News 1920-1922,
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1989. Pages 55-59.)

Since objections have been raised against remarks of mine, here and elsewhere, on the subject of science and the system of evolution, I feel it may be fair to acknowledge them here by explaining my meaning more fully. To begin with, of course, I am confronted with a very reasonable retort that I know nothing about the subject. I am not a biologist; I am not even the most amateur sort of naturalist. There is a not unnatural disposition to remark on this fact, when I use phrases indicating that the Darwinian idea has suffered defeat. It is true, and it would be equally true if I ventured to throw out the suggestion that the Kaiser has suffered a defeat. If I were to insinuate that the armies of the German Empire were ultimately out-manoeuvred and forced to a surrender, it might be said that I was wholly ignorant of the technical strategy of soldiering, and did not know what half the manoeuvres meant; and this would be perfectly true. I am sorry to say that I was unable to be a soldier; and I am very glad to say that I refused to be a critic of the details of soldiering. Or again, if I dared to hint that there is now a rather difficult financial situation, that prices are rather high and housing rather hard, I might be reminded that I am not an expert in financial matters; that I am not a professor of political economy, or even a close student of political economy. And this also would be quite true. I am sorry to say I am not an economist; and I very glad I am not a financier. But these cases alone will be sufficient to suggest, to anybody of the smallest commonsense, that there is a fallacy somewhere in the simple argument that only an expert in detail can perceive that there is a difficulty, or declare that there is a defeat.

Now, I will roughly arrange in order the facts of common knowledge that seem to me to support my conclusions as a matter of common-sense. First of all, there is something that will be very suggestive to anybody with a sense of human nature; I mean the tone of the Darwinians themselves. We may well begin with the first and greatest of the Darwinians. Huxley said, in his later years, that Darwin's suggestion had never been shown to be inconsistent with any new discovery; and anybody acquainted with the atmosphere will be struck by the singular note of negation in that. When Huxley began to write, he certainly expected that, by the end of his life, Darwin' suggestion would have been confirmed by a crowd of positive discoveries. Now nobody talks of it at present as a settled scientific law. Even the critic who complained of my own remark called Darwinism a "hypothesis," and admitted that it had been "profoundly modified." And he added the very singular and significant phrase: that the Darwinian hypotheses was still "that most sound at bottom." If anyone does not hear the negative note in that, I think he does not know the sound of human voice. In short, this Darwinian is already on the defensive, as even Huxley, at an earlier stage and in a lesser degree, was already on the defensive. There is evidently, at least, a subconscious disappointment that the hypothesis is still a hypothesis at all. Putting aside the positive points made against it, it ought long ago to have had a hundred positive points made for it. The one out of that hundred which Huxley did try to make, the genealogy of the horse, will be found on examination to be singularly slender and shaky. My concern for the moment, however, is only with a certain controversial tone; the tone of a gentleman who remarked to me, in a stoic and almost tragic voice: "I am the Last Darwinian." I do not for a moment suggest that these Darwinians are no longer Darwinians. But if this is how the Darwinians talk while they are still Darwinians, how do you suppose the anti-Darwinians are talking?

Next I will take another suggestion. I will take the instances selected in order to expound the hypothesis, by those who are still content to expound it. There is always a conscious or unconscious effort of selection. And it is by no means a Natural Selection. It is generally, in spite of the phrase that is their motto, a very unnatural selection. The simple and natural thing to do, if you think you can explain biological variations, is to explain the variations where they are most obviously varied. If you were explaining to a child, for instance, you would take things like the horn of the rhinoceros or the hump of the dromedary. In fact, you would give a correct and scientific version of the "Just-So Stories." And so they would, if they had anything more correct and scientific than the "Just-So Stories." But these horns and humps, these high outstanding features of variation, are exactly the things that are generally not chosen for examples, and not explained by this universal explanation. And the truth is that it is very often precisely these obvious things that the explanation cannot explain. In almost every case it may be noticed that the exponent, consciously or unconsciously, selects one single and special case of his own, as Huxley selected the horse; the one case in which he thinks, or hopes, that the hypothesis really WILL hold water.

Thus Mr. H. G. Wells, in his wonderfully interesting and valuable "Outline of History," takes one unnaturally simplified case of the growing of fur, or the change of the color of fur. He then implies that all other cases of natural selection are of the same kind. But they are not of the same kind, but of an exceedingly different and even opposite kind. If fur protects from cold, the longer fur will be a protection in the stronger cold. But any fur will be a protection in any cold. Any fur will be better than no fur; any fur will serve some of the purposes of fur. But it is not certain that any horn is better than no horn; it is very far from certain that any hump is better than no hump. It is very far from obvious that the first rudimentary suggestion of a horn, the first faint thickening which might lead through countless generations to the growth of a horn, would be of any particular use as a horn. And we must suppose, on the Darwinian hypothesis, that the hornless animal reached his horn through unthinkable gradations of what were, for all practical purposes, hornless animal. Why should one rhinoceros be so benevolent a Futurist as to start an improvement that could only help some much later rhinoceros to survive? And why on earth should its mere foreshadowing help the earlier rhinoceros to survive? This thesis can only explain variations when they discreetly refrain from varying very much. To the real riddles that arrest the eye, it has no answer that can satisfy the intelligence. For any child or man with his eyes open, I imagine, there is no creature that really calls for an answer, like a living riddle, so clearly as the bat. But if you will call up the Darwinian vision, of thousands of intermediary creatures with webbed feet that are not yet wings, their survival will seem incredible. A mouse can run, and survive; and a flitter-mouse can fly, and survive. But a creature that cannot yet fly, and can no longer run, ought obviously to have perished, by the very Darwinian doctrine which has to assume that he survived.

There are many other signs of this confession of failure, for which I have hardly left myself space. There is a chorus of Continental doubts; there is a multitude of destructive criticisms with which alone I could fill this article, even from my own very loose and general reading. But I will add a third reason of the same more general sort. The Darwinians have this mark of fighters for a lost cause, that they are perpetually appealing to sentiment and to authority. Put your bat or your rhinoceros simply and innocently as a child might put them, before the Darwinian, and he will answer by an appeal to authority. He will probably answer with the names of various German professors; he will not answer with any ordinary English words, explaining the point at issue. God condescended to argue with Job, but the last Darwinian will not condescend to argue with you. He will inform you of your ignorance; he will not enlighten your ignorance.

And I will add this point of merely personal experience of humanity: when men have a real explanation they explain it, eagerly and copiously and in common speech, as Huxley freely gave it when he thought he had it. When they have no explanation to offer, they give short dignified replies, disdainful of the ignorance of the multitude.

=== End ==


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