Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/April 1898/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


UPON another page of the present number will be found an interesting article by an eminent Catholic theologian, the Rev. J. A. Zahm, C. S. C, under the title of Evolution and Teleology. The point of view which the writer takes up is not one that we can share; but he states his case with candor and ability, and we hold that views so stated are entitled to expression in a periodical which stands, and has always stood, for the freest discussion of all scientific and philosophical questions.

It will be observed that Father Zahm is prepared to make, and very frankly makes, large concessions to modern science. He considers that the doctrine of evolution in its general aspect may be considered as proved. As to what Huxley has called the Miltonic doctrine of creation, he says that "all the conclusions of contemporary science render it not only in the highest degree improbable, but also exhibit it as completely discredited, and as unworthy of the slightest consideration as a working hypothesis to guide the investigator in the study of Nature and Nature's laws." He admits further that, in the-light of the Darwinian theory, the reasonings which satisfied our fathers on the subject of design in Nature have become to a large extent obsolete. The authors of the Bridgewater Treatises, excellent observers of Nature as they were, regarded the adaptation of a given organism to its environment as the result of direct purposive action on the part of the Creator, entirely analogous to the action whereby a locksmith fits a key to a lock. From the modern point of view adaptation is simply the necessary condition of existence. Given a geometrical rate of increase in vegetable and animal forms, and the sifting or selective action of the environment will do the rest.

Father Zahm accepts the modern point of view, but does not on that account abandon the idea of design. He quotes certain modern writers, among whom he erroneously includes Huxley, as saying that the teachings of Darwin have simply rendered necessary a restatement of the former argument. Instead of regarding each form of life as miraculously adapted to its environment in the act of creation, we are to consider that the evolutionary process was designed to develop just such forms of life as we now see. A certain Professor Schiller is quoted as maintaining that "once we adopt the evolutionist standpoint, the argument from design is materially and perceptibly strengthened," and that in two ways: positively, by letting us behind the scenes and showing us how effects are produced; and negatively, by removing the necessity for proclaiming everything perfect, seeing that some things, if not all, may properly be considered as only in course of being made perfect. Inasmuch as the view of creation which Huxley, to avoid offense, called Miltonic is really the view which accepts in a plain sense the plain teachings of the book of Genesis, and as that view involves the perfection of all things as they came from the hands of the Creator, who pronounced them "very good," it is evident that Father Zahm adopts a standpoint far in advance of the literalism of popular theology. He recognizes that these matters long to the domain of science, and that scientific investigation can not be arrested by any dictum uttered in the name of purely theological studies or merely traditional opinions.

The main question, however, which his article summons us to consider is whether the doctrine of evolution, which he accepts, lends itself to a teleological interpretation; and upon this point we must say that he, and the authors whom he cites, seem to place their argument on a very unsubstantial foundation. How does the matter stand? There is no question that Nature abounds in examples of what, for want of a more suitable term, we may call adaptation. The eye is "adapted" for seeing, the hand for grasping, the stomach for digesting, and so on. The older naturalists and philosophers, not being able to conceive of any other method by which adaptations could be brought about than that of purposive action, by some power capable of molding the forms of life as the human mechanic shapes the materials in which he works, argued, naturally and reasonably from their point of view, that a special divine power had designedly fashioned each form and each organ so as to fit them for the precise place they were to fill and the work they were to perform in the general economy of things. Paley's argument from a watch was considered irresistible in its day. If, he said, it would be idle to pretend that the parts of a watch, discovered by accident on a common, could have come together of themselves in harmonious correlation, so as to achieve the purpose of correctly measuring time, is it not still more idle to pretend that the vastly more numerous and complex adaptations discoverable in such an organ as the human eye or hand could have been brought about without the aid of an intelligent designer? It is true that certain considerations which were obvious enough in Paley's day, and had been so for centuries before, might have suggested a doubt as to whether this argument was conclusive—considerations as to the fashioning process which things undergo by simple contact with their environment, as when a man becomes polished by contact with society, or exposed surfaces hardened to resist the impact of external objects—but, speaking generally, neither the scientific nor the unscientific world was in a position at the time to deny in any effective manner the force of Paley's analogy.

To-day it is different. Father Zahm himself acknowledges that Paley's argument, examined in he light of the doctrine of evolution, becomes untenable. Things were not put together, once for all, by the divine artificer in the way the worthy dean imagined. As Topsy would say, they "growed" into those conditions of adaptation in which we at present behold them through the combined forces of heredity and natural selection—the former reproducing qualities once spontaneously developed, the latter rejecting forms not fitted to thrive, or at least less fitted than others to thrive, in their actual environment. The question, therefore, at present is, Can we assert with confidence, on the strength of some strong analogy such as that to which Paley—as is now evident erroneously—appealed, that the evolutionary process was set in motion with a distinct intention on the part of an intelligent Creator to produce precisely those forms and modes of life which prevail, and heretofore have prevailed, in the world? Adapted structures, it is conceded, exist, but is it certain that intention or purpose presided over their adaptation? On this question it does not appear to us that either Father Zahm or any of his philosophical allies shed any light. An argument is attempted to be founded on the fact that the language used by Herbert Spencer himself in dealing with biological questions shows teleological implications; but there is nothing in this. Mr. Spencer is not a teleologist; and if he were, we should have to consider his reasons for being one, and not stop short with the fact that he was one. Science does not permit such an abuse to be made of authority. The reason why Mr. Spencer's language and all language has a teleological character is that man has been obliged to frame language on lines prescribed by his own mental activity. Man is essentially a designer, and he reads design more or less into everything that he sees.

There is one passage in our contributor's article which seems to evince that his conversion to the doctrine of evolution is not very complete. He remarks that it is "passing strange that those who are so prompt to deny the existence of purpose in Nature when there is a question of teleology, or when theological implications are suspected, are the very first to insist on the evidence of mind or purpose when in their own case it is demanded by the exigencies of argument or discovery"; and he cites as a case in point the conclusions founded by men of science on the discovery of "arrowheads and flint flakes in certain deposits whose age is indisputable." It is a great pity that Palay is not alive to congratulate Father Zahm on this neat application of his own method. The standpoint here is exactly that of Paley which we were given to understand had been abandoned. Arrowheads are not things that grow. The method of their production is known to us; and it is in the light of experience that we attribute their origin to human agency, and by the most necessary inference that we form conclusions as to the age of the human race from the situations in which such implements are found. But if, because we are obliged to recognize purpose in the manufacture of an arrowhead, we are equally obliged to recognize it in the first organic form presented to us, what need was there for amending Paley's argument? Our reverend contributor is making the whole work of Darwin of none effect by his traditions: and yet he preluded his argument by a general acceptance of Darwinism. We fear the new scientific baptism has not yet produced its full effect.

So once more we come round to the real point at issue. It is not disputed that evolution produces results which present a resemblance to the products of human design, in so far as the accomplishment of definite results by definite means is concerned; but where is the proof that mind has guided the action of evolution? Where is the proof that the products of evolution to-day are precisely the results that a superintending mind aimed at? Can Divine intention be quoted with any greater certainty in the "adapted" forms which survive than in the unadapted or less adapted ones that perish? We do not say that the teleological view is false; we only say that it requires to support it something more than a mere partial resemblance between the effects of evolution and those of purposive human action. We are far from quarreling with any optimistic creed or any religious interpretation of the universe; but it is right to protest when facts are put to a strain which they are not able to bear, and when consequently a scientific theory is in danger of losing its scientific value.

Our contributor speaks with disapproval of those who find "in the chance interaction of eternal force and eternal matter an adequate explanation of all the problems of the existing universe." The man who finds in any scientific conception or hypothesis an adequate explanation of all the phenomena of the universe must be a somewhat fatuous being. Certainly this is net the usual attitude of the scientific mind. Mr. Spencer in particular, referred to by our contributor as "the great coryphæus of agnosticism," takes much pains to show that no adequate explanation of the phenomena of the universe is obtainable. What he has labored to do, for his own part, is to formulate the most general laws of world action which it is in his power to discover, and to show how more special methods of action are deducible therefrom. At the very basis of his system lies an unknowable power which does not admit of formulation. If we take the late Professor Huxley as one of the representative minds of the modern scientific world, we shall certainly not find him talking of having discovered an adequate explanation of all existing phenomena. It is one thing to decline the ready-made explanations of others, and quite another to claim to be in possession of a satisfactory explanation of your own. The mission of the man of science is not to explain the world in its totality, but to give those partial explanations of phenomena and their sequence which are needed to safeguard human life and fructify human effort. The man of science watches over the integrity of his own intellect, and refuses to allow it to be entangled in any yoke of bondage, knowing that he holds his faculty for truth in trust for the world. When he is asked to acknowledge "design" in this or that organism, he says: "I recognize the relations which this thing sustains to its environing conditions, and I have some limited knowledge of its previous course of development; but I do not know that it has become what it is through the application to it, or to the conditions under which it was produced, of any stress or influence proceeding from a conscious will such as alone furnishes to my mind the type of purposive action. A conscious will may well underlie this universal frame of things, but I can not, upon grounds of scientific observation, profess to be able to discern the presence or absence of its action at any particular point." This we conceive to be in substance the answer of Science to the question at issue; and it is one with which Theology would do well to be content, for Science will never knowingly make an affirmation which there are not facts to sustain.