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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/January 1892/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
EVOLUTION AND ITS ASSAILANTS.

THE doctrine of evolution teaches that the changes which take place in the universe both of mind and matter follow an orderly sequence, and that each preceding stage potentially contains the succeeding one—that every succeeding change can only be explained and understood through a comprehension of the preceding one. It incites us, therefore, to a study of cause and effect, and encourages us to believe in the possibility of a rational interpretation of Nature, Strictly speaking, evolution is nothing more than a generalization of the idea of cause. Every man within certain limits is an evolutionist, and we have little hesitation in saying that the limits within which each man is an evolutionist are the real limits of his intelligence. Where he ceases to be an evolutionist he resigns all attempt to comprehend, and merely records his acceptance of unexplained facts. In the sphere of human history the principle of evolution seems to be fully recognized. The historian who would fold his hands and turn up his eyes before any given event, and say that it was utterly incomprehensible, having no relation, save the abstract one of time, to previous or subsequent events, would be scorned by every intelligent reader. Not to be able fully to explain a historical occurrence is one thing; to say that it has no dependence on previous conditions is another and very different thing. We look to the historian to attack such problems with a view to bringing them under the operation of some law of historical development; in other words, we believe fully in evolution as applied to the social and political history of mankind.

Similarly we believe—and when we say "we" we mean all persons with any pretensions to education or intelligence—in evolution as applied to the physical history of our globe. We believe that it passed through successive stages or phases, each of which prepared the way for the one following. "Evolution," says Prof. Le Conte, "is the central idea of geology. It is this idea alone which makes geology a distinct science. This is the cohesive principle which unites and gives cohesion to all the scattered facts of geology; which cements what would otherwise be a mere incoherent pile of rubbish into a solid and substantial edifice."[1] That the Silurian age passed naturally into the Devonian, which served as a transition to the Carboniferous, no one who has given any thought to the subject for a moment doubts. The trouble arises when it is proposed to consider successive animal species as genetically connected. The scientific world at large has no difficulty in framing the conception or in adopting the idea, but to a few scientific men and a multitude of non-scientific persons there is impiety in the suggestion that one animal species—or one plant species, for that matter—could possibly have passed into or given birth to another. The creation of species was an office which their theology had reserved for a supernatural being, and they can not assign to natural causes or processes the honor of introducing to existence so much as the tiniest parasite. Whatever is most hideous, uncouth, destructive, and loathsome in the animal kingdom must be regarded as the special and intentional production of Divine Wisdom no less than the noblest forms of life. None the less do men set themselves to destroy whatever in creation they find hurtful or inconvenient; in practically dealing with plants and animals they ask—not, "Did Divine Wisdom create it for a wise purpose?" but, "Does it suit our interests to allow it to exist?"

The great weakness of the assailants of evolution is that they do not offer so much as the germ of an instructive or helpful idea in the place of that which they oppose and would fain subvert. Admitting that there has been much of error in connection with the speculations of the evolutionist school, the error, we contend, has been of a healthful kind. An ancient Greek philosopher held that what was of chief importance in a scientific theory was, not that it should be in exact accordance with facts, but that it should be based on belief in a natural sequence of phenomena. Anything, he said, rather than the nonnatural, the irrational, the arbitrary—in a word, anything rather than superstition. And he was right; for the man who is taught to believe in natural causes, studies natural causes; and if, at a given moment, he attributes to them wrong effects, his further observations will in due time cure him of his error. Thus the errors of the evolutionists are sure to be discovered and corrected, for they consist, and can consist, only in wrong suppositions as to the relations between material phenomena—phenomena which are open to the study of all, and which have no habit of hiding themselves behind a veil of mystery. But what remedy is there for the errors of superstition? What can we say to the man who believes in the uncaused, to whom the universe is full of facts that bear on them no stamp save that of arbitrary will? His superstition is a pillar round which reason will chase him in vain.

To say that every vegetable and animal species is the special result of a distinct divine fiat is to put a veto upon all scientific inquiry in the region of biology. But to-day such a veto comes too late. The world has learned too much under the guidance of the doctrine of evolution, too many regions of knowledge have been fertilized by it, too many individual minds have found in it a never-failing spring of instruction and intellectual stimulation, for any overthrow, or even any obscuration, of the idea to be possible. What, we ask, have its opponents to teach? They are compelled to recognize the general principle of evolution in history, geology, and many other fields of research, and, so far as they do, their intelligence has free scope. But what do they teach instead of it in the field of biology? Absolutely nothing. They simply draw a line and say, "Here begin wonder, miracle, mystery, all that is arbitrary and thought-confounding." To the opponent of evolution the resemblances, analogies, and homologies that run through animated nature are simply so many false lights, ignes fatui, suggesting community of origin where community of origin there is none, Rudimentary organs signify nothing, neither

do the facts of embryology. All that can be said is that God made things as they are, rudimentary organs and all, just as suited himself. If different species and genera show resemblances, it is simply because the same ideas kept running through the Divine Mind. Such is the sum and substance of anti-evolutionist teaching. That it is anti-scientific, and that it tends to nothing less than paralysis of the intellectual powers, is evident at a glance. Fortunately, it is confined nowadays to synods and conferences, and even there is not received with entire favor. At the recent Œcumenical gathering of Methodists at Washington an earnest divine from the Southern States found some of his brethren, particularly those from England, badly infected with evolutionary ideas. A similar discovery might be made in almost any similar assembly to-day. Evolutionists may therefore proceed very contentedly with their studies. They are in the right path, because they believe in the universality of natural causation; and, if they fall into error, they will work their way out again without any abandonment of their cardinal principle.

 

  1. Elements of Geology, p. 405.