Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/January 1874/Genesis, Geology, and Evolution



THE theory, or rather doctrine, of the Evolution of Living Things has not yet received that uniform acceptance to which it is undoubtedly entitled. That it will in time become generally received may be reasonably presumed; but at present, with many theologians at least, the creative hypothesis obstinately holds its ground. Two causes may be assigned to account for this fact. First, there is the preconceived but erroneous idea of the method of creation derived from a misconception of the first chapter of Genesis. Secondly, there is the unfortunate but very general want of any scientific training, not only among the clergy, but in the public generally; and, as a result, there is that absence of a due power of appreciation of the arguments of the scientific man, which is so conspicuous in their style of reasoning.

In order, therefore, that the proof of the wisdom and beneficence of the Almighty, as shown in the processes of evolution, may not be considered as based on unsound premises, it will be desirable to point out the untenableness of the present theological position, as well as the grounds upon which evolution is founded; and which will, let us hope, be soon recognized as incontrovertible by all who seek the truth in earnest. Until comparatively recent times the book of Genesis was supposed to reveal in its first chapter an explicit account of the origin of living things, namely, by direct creative fiats of the Almighty. All the known animals and plants being far fewer than at the present day, their differences were more pronounced than their resemblances. Each animal and plant was observed to bring forth its offspring "after his kind," generation after generation, without any noticeable change. Any other animals than those now living on the globe were never conceived. Fossil shells were supposed to be either deep-sea creatures thrown up upon the beach, or, if found on land and upon hills, easily accounted for by the Deluge.

Every living thing was believed to have been created at once by the word of the Lord: and all within the space of six literal days.

When geology came to be studied with some philosophic spirit, it was soon discovered that many fossils were not of living species; that six days was incontestably too short a period to account for geological phenomena; that a flood, even if conceded to have been universal, was unable to solve many a problem of disturbance and stratification. Moreover, it was perceived that the earth's structure was separable into several strata; and that each stratum contained a group of fossils unknown either in the stratum above or below it; and upon this discovery was based the principle that disconnected strata might be recognized by the identity of their organic remains. In addition to these facts, the phenomena now known as dislocation, contortion, upheaval, unconformability, and others, frequently occurred, and apparently often during periods intervening between the deposition of strata.

These latter appearances, taken into consideration with the daily phenomena of volcanic action, induced the geologist to conceive, and the theologian to adopt, the theory of successive creations after cataclysmic and predetermined destructions of all existing life by the Almighty: while, to meet the now well-established truth of almost infinite ages having elapsed, the theologian adopted the interpretation of ages for the Hebrew word yōm or day. If, however, the first chapter of Genesis be read without any reference to or thought of geological discoveries, and the first three verses of the second chapter be carefully compared with the fourth commandment, it will not appear how any notion of an indefinite time can be given to the word "day" at all. The writer of Genesis seems to signify a day in the ordinary sense, and apparently without any conception of indefinite periods at all.

Geology ceased not to pursue her avocations steadily and uncompromisingly.

The study of the rocks soon brought to light a large increase of the number of strata: so that at the present day there are thirteen "formations," embracing thirty-nine principal "strata," the strata themselves being often subdivided into minor ones. If, therefore, the miraculous recreations be true, they must have been very numerous. But with the discovery of additional strata a larger insight was obtained into the distribution in time of animal and vegetal life. It was then discovered that these "created groups" were not so rigidly defined as at first supposed, and consequently the rule established by geologists themselves can only be applied cautiously in attempting to parallel distant strata—though some species appear to characterize strata respectively, yet many range up and down through other than those, in which they attain their maximum development, or of which they may be especially characteristic.

Two difficulties thus arose: the increase of miraculous interferences seemed to increase proportionately their improbability; especially as there was no corroboration this time from the Word of God; while the fact of species ranging through several strata threw another stumbling-block in the way of the cataclysmic theory; for either they must have been recreated two or three times, or else lived through the supposed cataclysms considered as designed methods of destruction.

Another class of phenomena now appeared, to show a still greater difficulty in the way of belief in the creative hypothesis. Zoology, botany, as well as paleontology, gradually increased the number of living and extinct forms almost indefinitely; and in proportion as fresh discoveries were made, so it was found that numbers of forms took up positions, when classified, intermediate to other forms hitherto well distinct—"osculant" or intercalary forms as they are called. These often increased so much, that even genera well marked at first became blended together by transitional or intermediate forms.

Hence it has come to pass, from the result of this discovery, that so far from forms or types of organisms being easy and of a precise character, in accordance with the idea of each being well defined after his kind, systematic zoology and botany are the most difficult tasks a naturalist can undertake. Here, then, an overwhelming difficulty, only to be fully appreciated by a really scientific person, rises against the conception of each kind having been specially created as we see them now. Indeed, it may be added that the very idea of kind or species has been resolved into an abstract conception, finding in Nature generally no more than a relative existence.

Fresh difficulties were still in store, which must be overcome if the former theory of creation is to obtain any longer—horticulture, floriculture, agriculture, and the breeding of animals, have rapidly risen to become important and flourishing occupations. From their pursuit it was soon discovered that kinds reproducing their like never did so absolutely, but that offspring appeared always to differ from their parents in some trifling if not considerable degree. This property of Nature, to which also the human race is invariably subject, man has seized upon, and by judicious treatment can almost mould his cattle to whatever form he pleases, or stock his fields and gardens with roots of any form or with flowers of any shade of color required. After many years of successful propagation, generation after generation, we have now arrived at the result that animals and plants can be produced by careful breeding and selection, which, had they been wild, our earlier naturalists would have undoubtedly regarded as having been respectively created at the beginning of the world! Here, then, we have a practical basis of argument to account for the many transitional forms which geology reveals in the past history of the world, as well as among the plants and animals living at the present day.

Yet another fact may be mentioned. Geographical botany and zoology began to be studied as travellers stocked our museums and herbaria with an ever-increasing number of beings brought from all parts of the world; and the (so to say) capricious distribution of identical forms in far-distant places—now explicable on the theory of migration and subsequent isolation—as well as the appearance of representative forms of allied though different kinds in certain districts, explicable only on the theory of descent with modification, has a strong prima-facie appearance against the theory of individual creations, even if geology did not furnish undoubted evidence of very frequent interchanges between land and sea having taken place. Without at present giving more reasons, the above will be sufficient to show cause why Science has found herself compelled to secede from the cramping toils of the creative hypothesis, and to take up that of the evolution of living things as better explaining all the foregoing phenomena. In proportion as the probability of the former was seen to decrease, so in the same degree does that of evolution increase. Hence, at the present day the argument in favor of development of species by natural laws may be stated in the following terms, viz.: "It is infinitely more probable that all living and extinct beings have been developed or evolved by natural laws of generation from preexisting forms, than that they with all their innumerable races and varieties should owe their existences severally to creative fiats."

But, even now, asks the theologian, Does not this theory controvert the Bible, for we are distinctly told that God created every thing after its kind?

In reply, it may be confidently shown that the theologian cannot be sure of the value of his interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, at least so far as he attempts to draw scientific deductions from it. Thus it may be observed to him that the words "create" and "make" are used indifferently; that no definition is given to insure accuracy as to their right interpretation. It is not stated whether God created out of nothing or out of eternally or at least preexisting matter. Moreover, in addition to the statement that God created or made all things, there is the oft-repeated assertion embodied in the word flat, but apparently overlooked, that He enjoined the earth and the waters to bring forth living forms. What does this expression imply?

The use of the imperative mood can only signify an agent other than the speaker. If, therefore, it be maintained that the sentence (ver. 21) "God created every living thing that moveth" signifies He made them by his direct Almighty fiat, it may be equally maintained that the sentence "Let the waters bring forth abundantly every moving creature" implies secondary agents to carry out the will of the Lord. Such might be said to witness to natural law, which, after all, is but a synonym for the will of God.

The real basis of the controversy between dogmatic theology and this deduction of Science is simply this: The former has established a creed based upon erroneous impressions derived from Scripture, and, from having had power in former days to enforce its opinions, they were credulously received without hesitation as long as no one dared to or even could controvert them. It is the reluctance to surrender this power to Science as much as the idea of her offering any opposition to theology that urges at least one body so obstinately to resist her advances. Nearer home the opposition rests more on the latter ground; and it will not be until the representatives of our theology can see and confess their false impressions of the meaning of the first chapter of Genesis, that the doctrine of evolution can be hoped to make any great progress among them.

Let us briefly review their false positions. They first clung to the "six days of creation;" they found they were compelled to surrender the idea, and immediately adopted the interpretation of yōm signifying an indefinite period. Again, notice their readiness in adopting the theory of cataclysms and recreations, a second time to the detriment of Genesis, which furnishes no warrant for the idea; for even if six days be presumed to represent six cataclysms, geology furnishes no corresponding evidence. It was a pure fiction altogether. And even now they steadily oppose the doctrine of evolution. But surely as each stronghold of theology has been quietly taken by Science—not so much by offensive attack as by undermining and leaving the edifice to crumble of itself—the tardy and ungracious capitulations hitherto offered only insure the ultimate surrender a matter of patient expectation. A time will shortly come when the creative theory must succumb altogether and the doctrine (not the theory) of evolution will be as much recognized as a fundamental truth of science and theology as the evolution of the earth itself.

  1. From his recently-published work, "Evolution and Religion."