Published on September 10th, 2009 | by Michael Ricciardi0
A Creation Neither Perfect Nor Complete – Darwin and Early Theories of Evolution
Charles Darwin, 1879
In this the 150th anniversary year of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (and the 200th anniversary year of his birth), it is worth returning to that era of profound discovery and re-examining some of the controversies and earlier evolutionary theories begotten in the years just preceding its publication.
Today (and ever since Origin), the core, controversial idea of evolution tends to be rather simplistically summed up as: “We are descended from apes”. Of course, Darwinism, as it came to be called, was far more than this simplistic distillation. Even still, Darwin’s description of evolution as “descent with modification”, as well as his positing of vast geologic time scales, the agencies of natural and sexual selection, and a common ancestry to all living creatures, were not the fundamental, conceptual causes of the controversies.
In fact, Darwin’s revolutionary synthesis of these theoretical ideas came well after more formative and tentative ideas about evolution were put forth–ideas espoused by 18th and early 19th Century naturalists such as the Comte de Buffon (who corresponded with Thomas Jefferson), the “parson naturalists” John Ray and Gilbert White (whom Darwin read early on), and the brilliant geologist Charles Lyell (whose book Principles of Geology heavily influenced Darwin and provided him with one of his key concepts).
Additionally, Essay on the Principles of Population, by clergyman Thomas Malthus, was enormously influential on many early evolutionary thinkers, including Darwin, Wallace, and Lamarck. This work, published at the turn of the 18th Century, was perhaps the first major thought-piece dealing with the relationship between population growth and food supply. It would prove to be of recurring import to Darwin’s early thinking on the subject of evolution as it emphasized a strong relationship between the environment and the growth and spread of human populations—a relationship which Darwin extended to the whole of nature.
As always in the years prior to a great revolution in thinking, there is no slight intellectual inertia. Evolutionary thinking had to contend with the formidable concept known as ‘The Great Chain of Being’, also known as the Scala Naturae (extolled by such 17th Century luminaries as Sir Thomas Browne in his authoritative Religio Medici, in which he writes: “Even in things alike there is diversity”). This was a powerful and aesthetically pleasing notion promulgated (with minor refinements) and generally accepted since the Middle Ages. Up until the late 19th century, it was the dominant theory of the Natural World, and it conveniently reinforced the notion of Special Design (of all creatures, great and small) as well as the later refined idea of progressionism—that Man was the culmination and crowning achievement of God’s creative process (which lasted but six days).
One of Darwin’s most daring challenges to this anthropocentric bias lay in the implicit assertion that evolution was non-teleological, that is, that nature, in utilizing evolutionary forces, had no purpose or design “in mind.” This would also come to imply that the God of nature, was “blind,” and stands in direct opposition to Browne’s pronouncement: “All is artificial. Nature is the art of God.” Nature, in his view, was order and beauty (coming from God); disorder was of the original Chaos (“the void”), the ultimate “other”.
But more importantly for the focus of this essay, I must note that in this “ladder” of rising complexity—from ant to elephant—there was no insinuation of a phylogenetic relationship between any two animals. The apparent, advancing complexity of life forms was simply God’s working through of creation (getting “warmed up”). From the simplest organisms to the most complex; each creation was unique.