The Humility of Charles Darwin

As any long time reader of my blog will know, I’m no a champion for Darwin, despite a lot of engagement with his most well-known theory. In fact, my first ever blog post (almost 3 years ago!) offered a critique of some of his views. Yet, even in that post an aspect of Darwin that I truly appreciate was present. Within much of his scientific work, no matter your current views of it, the man expressed much humility in regards to his conclusions. In fact, he consistently questioned the validity of his own theory and gave possible avenues for his opponents to prove him wrong. Let’s take a look at a few examples. All quotes are from: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

First off, consider the attitude of self-questioning expressed in the quote I engaged with in that first post:

Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?

Although he expresses confidence in what he “fully believe[s],” his next move is to bring into question the rational capacities of the human mind itself, based on the conclusion of his own theory. His question here is not insignificant and still receives worthy consideration as a critique against a strictly materialistic view of the evolutionary process (see Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism). Moving on, we’ll observe specific objections (or potential objections) to Darwin’s theory, that he points out himself. First up:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely breakdown.

Don’t miss the sweeping nature of that language! If any organ is found his theory would absolutely breakdown. By his own admission, his theory (in its totality) is a stack of cards. Not that all the evidence goes away, but surely he admits that his theory requires the ability to explain to a degree of eliminating outliers of this type. Next up:

Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.

Again, his language is strong, against his own theory! He admits the glaring lack of evidence that his theory calls for in relation to the geological record, admitting that this is an obvious and grave objection. He offers a possible avenue for his theory to move forward, yet not going beyond the current evidence. Next:

If numerous species, belonging to the same genera or families, have really started into life at once, the fact would be fatal to the theory of decent with slow modification through natural selection.

Again, he is offering possible defeaters for his theory. Once more, notice just how strong his language is. Fatal! It doesn’t get much stronger than that. Continuing on that same thought:

To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer… the case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.

Yet again, he is perfectly willing to admit that his theory lacks critical evidence. He owns that his quest for an answer cannot be satisfied and must (for now at least) remain inexplicable. Further, he expresses the validity of an argument that would critique his views using this line of thought. Let’s look at just one more:

There is another and allied difficulty, which is much graver. I allude to the manner in which numbers of species of the same group, suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks…

Here, he builds on the previous lack of evidence by stating a related and graver type of evidence. This referring to evidence that is not missing, but is present and contradictory to his expectations. 

Note how in all of these, it is Darwin himself who is conceding these points quite willingly. It is Darwin himself who has no issues admitting the shortcomings of his own explanation. Regardless of what one thinks the current state of Darwin’s theory is, and I have my own critiques, one should appreciate the intellectual honesty and humility that is displayed in Darwin’s theorizing. One would perhaps also appreciate if more of the defenders of natural selection acting upon random mutation as being the primary historical cause for both diversity and disparity of species (or any defense of a strictly materialistic evolutionary process) would display just a bit more humility: admitting weaknesses when present, offering ways to refute their ideas, not forcing explanations but forgoing conclusions, not thinking all who object are laughable fools; things that Darwin himself was willing to do time and time again. 


Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

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