THE theory of evolution is incompatible with materialism.
We realize that this assertion may appear to be nothing
but an impudent paradox or at least a gross overstatement.
For in the heat and turmoil when Darwin had first propounded his great theory the opposite was always said. All
materialists fought on the side of the theory while many
opponents of materialism fought against it. Materialism and
evolution were, indeed, treated almost as synonymous terms.
The battle still rages nearly four score years after the first
shock of the novelty of the theory has worn off. And it is
still taken for granted that Darwinism is a main prop of
materialism. When Sir Ambrose Fleming, for instance, sets
out to attack materialism he aims his blows at evolution.
The most that came to be realized after the early passions
had abated was that "Darwin had not explained everything".
A residuum of unexplained problems was admitted by biologist-philosophers, reluctantly at first, less reluctantly after the
science of genetics had been established. "What evolution
does not explain genetics does," they could then say. No-one realized that genetics, too, is incompatible with materialism. That is an assertion which we shall have to prove on
some other occasion.
At the moment we only want to show that, far from helping the materialist, Darwin drove him to even more absurd
theories about the nature of Matter than he had held before.
So we have no hesitation in repeating our statement: The
theory of evolution is incompatible with materialism.
We could, if we liked, distinguish between four good
reasons for our assertion. Probably there are more. And if
we wished to follow the tradition of learning established by
the Schoolmen of a more conscientious age we should have
to distinguish about forty. For these erudite and painstaking
scholars never spared their readers. We marvel, indeed, that
they had any. They would have felt that they had scamped
their work if they had given but a few arguments in support
of any important contention. We, however, wish to make
the reader's path as smooth as a difficult subject will allow.
So we will omit thirty-nine reasons (if there be so many) and
content ourselves with one only.
The materialist asserts that living organisms are due to the
unaided action of Matter on Matter. Like rock salt crystals,
he says, they form when Matter shakes down in conformity
to nothing but the laws of physics and chemistry. Now these
laws have never changed since the beginning of time, and
consequently, when sodium-chloride molecules form a crystal
this has the same structure as it had millions of years ago.
If a literal interpretation of the Bible were correct and
living organisms had been as constant through the ages as
crystals, there would be some plausibility in the materialist
assertion that one can make no fundamental distinction between
living and lifeless structures. But evolution proves that living
organisms have not been as constant as crystals. The theory
now almost universally accepted by scientists, is that at one
time Matter fell into the form of only very simple organisms,
at another into the form of the now extinct Dinosaur, at
another into the form of the equally extinct Eohippus, and
that it has been falling into the form of oak trees and Arab
steeds for a comparatively short period of the earth's history.
Materialists who welcomed the great discovery of evolution
did not say that it had delivered a blow to materialism. They
did not say that it had given them something new to puzzle
over. They said that it had proved materialism. Proved it!
"Why must I believe that living organisms are fundamentally
no different from those crystals which have always been the
same through the ages?" a student at the Colleges of Unreason
might have asked his professor. "Because living organisms
have not been the same through the ages," would have been
For the salvage of their creed, materialists have had, after
Darwin, the choice of two alternatives. One was to misrepresent physics, the other to misrepresent evolution.
The first course would lead them into fallacies which are
too obvious to be easily hidden even by the best rhetoric. A
philosopher of the emergent school as interpreted by Broad
may be able to persuade himself that Matter has a natural
tendency to fall into the form of organisms in a general sort
of way. But he could hardly persuade himself that Matter
has changed its nature through the ages. He would not
declare baldly that Matter had a natural tendency to fall into
the form of the Dinosaur at one time, into the form of Eohippus
at another and into the form of an Arab steed to-day.
So the second course is more popular. This consists in
pretending that evolution is what it is not. The word is
treated as synonymous with change. Not any particular kind
of change, nor the change of anything in particular, but just
"change". After this distortion of Darwin's theory the rest
is easy. Since he observes change everywhere, the materialist
can then persuade himself that evolution occurs throughout
the Material Universe both in its organic and inorganic parts.
We have read, for instance, on page 3 of a book by Osterhout
called The Nature of Life: "All kinds of matter have evolved
from one original substance", and on the same page a reference
to "the evolution of the universe". In Nature of February 26th,
1938) we noticed on page 377 a reference to a paper by Professor Hildebrand entitled "The Evolution of a Cosmic Dust
Cloud". Over and over again we have come across the
phrase "the evolution of the solar system" and we once saw
a book by Commander Bernard Ackworth in which the
"evolution" of the solar system, the evolution of the bicycle,
and Darwinian evolution are presented as three examples of
one great cosmic principle operating alike in the organic and
the inorganic world.
What a gross misrepresentation of evolutionary theory all
this is! What is called the "evolution" of the solar system.
merely constitutes its history. It describes the changes the
same thing has undergone in the course of time; how what is
now a sun and planets was once a very extensive and very
tenuous incandescent mist; how this mist radiated energy and
contracted under the force of gravity; how it rotated faster and
faster about its centre of gravity and developed into a gradually
shrinking sun; how some cataclysm caused an upheaval
resulting in the expulsion of the planets; how these became
more and more viscous during the process of cooling and
how the crusts of some of them at last became solid; how
great tidal forces caused portions of certain planets to be
thrown off forming our moon and the satellites of Mars,
Jupiter and Saturn; how similar tidal forces shattered one of
the planets into the fragments known as asteroids.
If "evolution of the horse" meant the same thing it would
describe the history of some individual horse from birth to
the knacker's yard. If the solar system started as a mist, the
horse started as a foal. If, under tidal forces, the solar system
grew larger, the horse grew larger too. If some solar systems
have produced planets, some horses have produced foals.
And if some solar systems become less active in the course of
time, so do horses. As their teeth grow longer their joints
become stiffer. This is, of course, not what Darwin meant
when he spoke of the evolution of the horse.
What Darwin did mean was that the horse's ancestors were
all much like each other but very different from existing
horses; that successive generations differed from their predecessors in small ways and that these small differences accumulated until the form we now know as horses became estabhshed.
Darwin did not mean changes in an individual but differences
between successive individuals in direct line of descent.
To speak of evolution of the solar system in the Darwinian
sense would imply that there had been many successive solar
systems, that each had had its own history of change, its
beginning and its end, that each had differed in specific ways
from its predecessors; it would imply an odd kind of astronomy. In the Darwinian sense the word "evolution" cannot
be applied to anything untouched by Life, neither to stars nor
stones, nor to clouds, crystals, rivers or mountains. Does it
apply only to changes between successive organisms?
Not quite, and the other examples will help us to understand the true implications of Darwin's discovery. We may
apply the word "evolution" in the Darwinian sense to some
of the works of man. We can, for instance, speak of the
evolution of the bicycle or the evolution of painting. We
then mean that all bicycles made to-day have things in common
which distinguish them from earlier bicycles; and we mean
the same about pictures.
The evolution of the bicycle is easy to describe. At one
time the cyclist sat on a high saddle above the driving wheel.
This construction was replaced by the "safety" model with a
chain drive. Solid tyres gave way to the present pneumatic
The evolution of painting is more subtle. Yet it is a reality
on which many books have been written. We all know that
in the course of history, there have been distinctive changes.
We can feel what we can hardly express. Every picture gazer
realizes that, much as they differ between themselves, the
works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin have something
in common which distinguishes them from the works of any
fourteenth-century painter. Each age has its own characteristic
art so that an expert critic can state the approximate date of
any picture. He can tell us in what direction changes occurred
from generation to generation of painters.
What is the thing that changes in the course of evolution?
Unless we can answer this question we do not understand
what evolution means. The change is not in any individual
horse or bicycle or picture. But it is a real change. So it must
be a change in a real thing. Can we find a word for this?
In the instance of the bicycle we can do so easily. The
word is "specification." The evolution of the bicycle means
a change in the specification for bicycles. This is the reality
which changes. For each new type of bicycle a new specification is prepared and this is no more than a record of what the
new bicycle is to be.
When the word "evolution" is applied to painting, it is
not quite as obvious that a change in a specification is meant.
Art critics do not use the word. They prefer to speak of a
change in outlook, or in the artist's standard of values, or in
technique; or they may refer to a changing spirit of the age.
But they certainly do not mean a change in any individual
picture and they as certainly do mean a change in something
which can be specified, however difficult it may be to express
that something in words.
The words used by art critics refer to processes in the human
mind. They are not appropriate to biological evolution. But
the more objective word "specification" is quite appropriate.
In the course of evolution the specifications for plants and
animals have changed. This was the great discovery of the
evolutionists which our amateur philosophers conceal when
they use the word "evolution" in the wrong sense. But the
biologist knows perfectly well what Darwin meant and his
appreciation of evolution proves once again his tacit belief
that specifications (he calls them "genotypes") have reality
in the organic world.
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