Posts Tagged ‘Hutton’

Buffon’s Scepticism of Evolution

May 6, 2013

From the way the history of the theory of evolution is presented, you could be forgiven for believing that no-one had considered it as a possible explanation for the origin of life before Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century. Other theorists of evolution had appeared earlier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century – Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, Lamarck, Chambers, the author of the Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation, and finally the co-discoverer of Natural Selection with Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace. Yet as Rebecca Stott has demonstrated in her book, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, some philosophers had considered that life had evolved as far back as the time of Aristotle and one of his followers, Theophrastus. One of the pioneers of modern evolutionary theory was G.L. leclerc, Comte de Buffon. His Natural History, published from 1749 to 1767 was an encyclopedic discussion of the history of the Earth and its creatures. It created a taste for natural history amongst the French public, and shaped the way it was investigated in France for over a century. His esxsay on the pig is considered one of the classics of French Enlightenment writing. Examining the animal’s physiology, Buffon argued that it contained vestiges indicating its descent from an earlier species. Buffon was cautious about expressing his personal views of the history of the Earth. It appears, however, that he was probably much more sceptical about the Genesis account of the creation of the world than he appeared in his writings. In his History and Theory of the Earth of 1749 he argued that the world was formed through gradual, uniform geological processes. His essay in the same volume ‘An Examination of Other Theories of the Earth’ attacked scholars who attempted to mix natural history with theology. While Buffon acknowledged the possibility that animals could be formed through evolution, he was sceptical of its ability to do so.

Buffon opens his essay, ‘The Ass’ with the statement that ‘This animal, even when examined iwth minute attention, has the appearance of a degenerated horse’. He then proceeds to describe the similarities and differences between the two animals. He then expanded this argument to consider the similarity, in body plan, between humans, horses, and other kinds of animals, including birds, reptiles, whales and fish. He suggested that this showed

‘that the Supreme Being, in creating animals, employed only one idea, and, at the same time, diversified it in every possible manner, to give men an opportunity of admiring equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design’. Buffon was sceptical of the existence of the taxonomic families into which contemporary biologists grouped animals. For him the only animal divisions that really existed were those of species. ‘If these families really existed’, he argued, ‘they could only be produced by the mixture and successive variation and degeneration of the primary species: and if it be once admitted, that there are families among plants and animals, that the ass belongs to the family of hte horse, and differs from his only be degeneration; with equal propriety may it be concluded, that the monkey belongs to the family of man; that the monkey is a man degenerated; tha tman and the monkey have sprung from a common stock, like the horse and ass; that each family, either among animals or vegetables, has been derived from the same origin; and even that all animated beinigs have proceeded from a singlespecies, which, in the course of ages, has produced, by improving and degenerating, all the different races that now exist’. If this was true, it would mean that ‘no bounds could be fixed to the powers of Nature; she might, with equal reason, be supposed to have been able, in the course of time, to produce from a single individual, all the organised bodies in the universe’.

Buffon rejected this, first arguing from Scripture that God had formed each creature individually. He then stated that since the time of Aristotle twenty centuries previously, no new species had been seen to emerge. He noted that although Nature proceeded with gradual and often imperceptible steps, the gap between different creatures was not always equal. He then went on to suggest the number of variations that had to be produced to form a creature of a different species from, and which could not breed with, those of its parents. He believed that if evolution existed, it always acted through degeneration, which invitably produced weak and infertile offspring. Buffon therefore concluded that

‘Though, therefore, we cannot demonstrate, that the formation of a new species, by means of degeneration, exceeds the power of Nature; yet the number of improbabilities attentind such a supposition, renders it totally incredible: for, if one species could be produced by the degeneration of another, if the ass actually originated from the horse, this metamorphosis could only have been effected by a long succession of imperceptible degrees. Between the horse and ass, there must have ben many intermediate animals, the first of which would gradually recede from the nature and qualities of the horse, and the last would make great advances to that of the ass. What is become of these intermediate beings? Why are their representatives and descendants now extinguished? Why should the two extremes alone exist?’

Buffon concluded that the ass was a unique animal, not at all descended from the horse.

‘We may, therefore, without hesitation, pronounce the ass to be an ass, and not a degerated horse, a horse with a naked tail. The ass is not a marvellous production. He is neither an intruder nor a bastard. Like all other animals, his family, his species, and his rank, are ascertained and peculiar to himself. His blood is pure and untainted; and, though his race be less noble and illustrious, it is equally unalloyed, as ancient as that of the horse.’ Buffon ends his discussion of the ass by arguing for its good qualities, qualities that also demanded respect.

Now Buffon was clearly hindered in considering the potential of evolution of create new species through the lack of fossil evidence for them available in his time and the lack of knowledge of geological deep time. It was only decades later, with Hutton and Lyell, that biologists were able to provide ages of the Earth that allowed for the development of species by the gradual, imperceptible steps of time that biologists required. What Buffon’s essay also shows, is that many biologists and natural historians in Buffon’s day also rejected evolution because they did not see it as a scientifically viable theory, apart from its conflict with the authority of Scripture. This attitude continued into the 19th century. Most of Darwin’s opponents were other scientists, not theologians.

My point here is that the conflict over the theory of evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries was not simply that of theology versus scripture, but also over scientific validity of the theory itself. When Bishop Samuel Wilberforce famously debated Huxley over Darwin’s theory, he opened the debate by saying that even if the theory was theologically offensive, it would still have to be accepted if it was true scientifically. Unfortunately, the 18th and 19th century debates and conflicts over Evolution tend to be presented as simply between advancing science and backwards religion. While one element of the conflict was on religious grounds, the scientific element of the debate also needs to be remembered and included.

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Geological Deep Time as Evidence of God’s Providence

May 6, 2013

The discovery of geological deep time in the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries by the geologists Hutton and Lyell undoubtedly caused problems for the traditional view of the age of the Earth. Previous generations of western scientists had followed the account of the Creation in Genesis, and so followed Bishop Ussher in believing that the Earth was about 6,000 years old. The 19th century geologist, William Buckland, believed that the great catastrophes in the Earth’s history that geologists were increasingly discovering was evidence of the continued presence of an active God carefully intervening in the history of His creation. This God had also created the great primeval forests to provide for humanity’s technological needs much later in Earth’s history, thus providing further proof of God’s providence.

In his inaugural lecture as reader in geology at Oxford University, Buckland argued that the destruction of the primeval forests had been done to provide modern, technological humanity with the coal it needed for its machines. he then went further and stated

‘In all these and a thousand other examples that might be specified of design and benevolent contrivance, we trace the finger of an Omnipotent Architect providing for the daily wants of its rational inhabitants, not only at the moment in which he laid the first foundations of the earth, but also through the long series of shocks and destructive convulsions which he has caused subsequently to pass over it.’

Buckland was specifically attacking the view that God’s creative activity in the universe had ceased with the creation of the Earth and its creatures, as described in Genesis. This was the view of the Deists, who certainly believed that God had created the Earth, but no longer acted within creation. Buckland further stated

‘Many sciences exhibit the most admirable proofs of design and intelligence originally exerted at the Creation; but many who admit these proofs still doubt the continued superintendence of that intelligence, maintaining that the system of the Universe is carried on by the force of the laws originally impressed on matter, without the necessity of fresh interference or contiuned supervision on the part of the Creator’.

This attitude towards geological deep time as showing the continued presence of the Almighty in Earth’s prehistory prefigures later Christian theologians who welcomed Darwin’s theory of evolution. Some of them even praised the Origin of Species as the greatest aid to Christian apologetics. They did so because they considered that Darwinian evolution showed that not only had God been active in the primordial past, but He was also active throughout the history of the Earth shaping and creating its creatures.

Sources

Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2011).

Owen Chadwick, ‘Evolution and the Churches’, in C.A. Russell, ed. Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London: University of London/Open University 1973) 282-293.