I have just finished reading a wonderful biography of Charles Darwin by the illustrious British historian and biographer A.N, Wilson, entitled Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (London: Harper Collins, 2017).The moment I saw the cover I was intrigued, because Wilson is such a thorough researcher and writer I knew this was going to be a wonderful read.
So … Imagine the jolt with respect to this still- controversial topic when I flipped to the first page and read Wilson’s opening sentence: “Darwin was wrong” – a sentence one would have expected to find at the very end of such a book, rather than at the beginning.
But he spends the next 500+ pages peeking very closely into Darwin’s personal, intellectual, religious, family, and working life, explaining in exquisite detail why he came to the conclusion that Darwin was quite wrong.
Wilson is entirely aware of the massive pro-Darwinian world in which we now live. Nevertheless, he quietly goes about the business of taking the ideological building of Darwinian ideas, the architecture of his thought, so to speak, apart, brick by brick. By the end, there is mostly rubble.
And there is a classic ad hominem scene described in the book, the moment when a debater tries to undermine an opponent’s arguments by attacking him personally, rather than sticking to the arguments put forth. The scene went as follows.
Something known famously today as “The Oxford Debate” over Darwinism was set up at Oxford in the summer of 1860 (the year after Darwin’s Origin of Species was published) by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, with 700 people in attendance. Darwin himself was to be present, but was very ill. His part would be take up by Thomas Huxley, already known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”!
Darwin’s chief critic was Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford (and the son of William Wilberforce, the Englishman who so forcefully and successfully argued to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade).
As Wilson describes the scene, all was hushed. and Huxley was not actually planning to speak at all. Wilberforce, in an article published previously critiquing Darwin’s theory, had made two main points. And he made them again in this speech; points to which, Wilson writes, even today, “No Darwinian has ever given a satisfactory answer.”
Darwin argued in the Origin that evolution works just as does the selective breeding of species like pigeons (which Darwin spent a lot of time breeding). You can “create” all sorts of new breeds of pigeon by cross-breeding those born with unique features. Voila! he declared – it’s just like the invisible force of evolution at work!
But, Wilberforce told the audience: this is not a good example, nor a proof of evolution in nature, because if you cross-breed pigeons in captivity, you will indeed get new breeds, but when you leave them alone to continue their natural breeding, they will always revert back to their original type as found in nature.
Silence fell over the room. Wilson concludes he had shown that “a comparison between the breeding of hybrids under domestication, and of animals in the wild, actually disproved, rather than proved natural selection.”
Then, Wilberforce introduced his second criticism – also never answered, even today. The fossil record is supposed to show the continuous, slow evolution of countless new species with all the “transitional” types along the way as one species “evolves” into another. But, as Wilberforce bluntly put it: “The fossil evidence had ‘gap’ because there was none.” No fossil evidence for gradual evolution, that is.
There is even today no convincing evidence for gradual evolution in the fossil record. In Darwin’s day, perhaps 5% of all fossils had been found. But today, it is closer to 95%, and there is some, but very, very little evidence for a few transitional species. But, Wilson writes, “One would expect … that there would be hundreds, thousands of such transitions.”
But there are not. And as the distinguished paleontologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould put it, the absence of these transitional forms is “the trade secret of paleontology.” Even Darwin had admitted that if such transitional species were never found, his theory would be disproven.
Wilson say that at this point, the room fell silent. Wilberforce had the audience on his side. But he became too confident of victory. He preened himself. He decided he would move from fact and reason, to an ad hominem remark to finish Darwin’s Bulldog before he even got started!
Wilberforce was especially incensed to hear the Darwinians arguing that Man is descended from the apes. So he turned to Huxley and inquired, “Was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he traced his descent from an ape?”
Huxley immediately turned to the fellow beside him, and said: “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.”
Huxley got even, scolding Wilberforce for descending to such a personal attack by saying he “was unable to discover a new fact, or a new argument” in his opponent’s speech, “except indeed the question raised, as to my personal predilections in the matter of ancestry.”
He then expressed surprise that the Bishop should have brought up such a topic in a serious discussion, and scolded further:
“If then, the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather, or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence, and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”
What delicious scene, and what a fine lesson in how ad hominem arguments fail.