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The Predicament of Evolution

by George McCready Price (1870-1963)
This was ©1925 by Southern Publishing Assoc.


Chapter Three - The Biological Blind Alley

THE present situation in the biological sciences is so peculiar that I shall not depend upon my own unsupported statements. I shall let some of the leading scientists themselves state the facts. In this way the reader can judge for himself regarding the predicament in which the evolution doctrine is today. I shall begin with some men who are advocates of Mendelism; for, strange to say, there are some scientists who are almost violently opposed to the use of Mendelism in studying evolutionary problems.

Bateson, in his Australian address before the British Association in 1914, said:

"The student of genetics knows that the time for the development of theory is not yet. He would rather stick to the seed-pan and the incubator. . . . Every theory of evolution must be such as to accord with the facts of physics and chemistry, a primary necessity to which our predecessors paid small heed. For them the unknown was a rich mine of possibilities on which they could freely draw. For us it is rather an impenetrable mountain out of which the truth can be chipped in rare and isolated fragments."

Seven years later, in his Toronto address before the American Association, he was even more explicit.

"We cannot see how the differentiation into species came about. Variation of many kinds, often considerable, we daily witness, but no origin of species. . . . Meanwhile, though our faith in evolution stands unshaken, we have no acceptable account of the origin of 'species.'"—Science, Jan. 20, 1922.

Bateson's Act of Faith


Elsewhere in this same address Bateson dwelt upon the fact that he could still believe in the general idea of evolution "in dim outline," and only by a sort of act of faith in the testimony he supposed has been furnished us by geology,— a feature which will be considered later. But he proceeded to say:

"That particular and essential bit of the theory of evolution which is concerned with the origin and nature of species, remains utterly mysterious. We no longer feel as we used to do, that the process of variation, now contemporaneously occurring, is the beginning of a work which needs merely the element of time for its completion; for even time cannot complete that which has not yet begun."

Still more recently Dr. Bateson has expressed his wonder at the opponents of Mendelism, and has told them that they have been expecting too much of this new method of experimental breeding. "It has not given us the origin of species"; but "it has closed off a wrong road," along which the evolutionists were trying to follow up the trail. The two things that we cannot explain are (1) those very characters that make one species differ from another, and (2) the reasons why living things are so well adapted to their surroundings and their needs, both in respect to their various organs and habits and also as entire units. As he himself expresses it regarding these two points, "we do not understand specific differences, nor can we account for the adaptative mechanisms. Was it to be expected that we should?" The one very important result that modern breeding experiments have reached is to settle once for all that the various transferable characters brought to light in these experiments "do not culminate in specific distinctions." This is the "wrong road" which Mendelism "has finally closed off." And he proceeds to say:

"I notice that certain writers who conceive themselves to be doing a service to Darwinism, take thereupon occasion to say that they expected as much, and that from the first they had disliked the whole thing. I would remind them that the class of evidence to which we were appealing was precisely that to which Darwin and every other previous evolutionist had appealed."— Nature, May 10, 1924.

Old Theories Questioned

But Bateson, while one of the most prominent biologists of the world, is not the only one who is expressing these sentiments. Dr. D. H. Scott, the botanist, in his address before the British Association in 1921, gave us the following:

"It has long been evident that all those ideas of evolution in which the older generation of naturalists grew up have been disturbed, or, indeed, transformed, since the re-discovery of Mendel's work and the consequent development of the new science of genetics. Not only is the 'omnipotence of natural selection' gravely impugned, but variation itself, the foundation on which the Darwinian theory seemed to rest so securely, is now in question.

"The small variations, on which the natural selectionist relied so much, have proved, for the most part, to be merely fluctuations, oscillating about a mean, and therefore incapable of giving rise to permanent new types. . . . The mutations of De Vries, though still accepted at their face value by some biologists, are suspected by others of being nothing more than Mendelian segregates, the product of previous crossings; opinion on this subject is in a state of flux. In fact, it is clear that we know astonishingly little about variation. ... At present all speculation on the nature of past changes is in the air, for variation itself is only an hypothesis, and we have to decide, quite arbitrarily, what kind of variations we think may probably have occurred in the course of descent. . . . It may be that the theory of natural selection, as Darwin and Wallace understood it, may some day come into its own again. ..."


A Generation that knows not Darwin

"For the moment, at all events, the Darwinian period is past; we can no longer enjoy the comfortable assurance, which once satisfied so many of us, that the main problem had been solved — all is again in the melting-pot. By now, in fact, a new generation has grown up that knows not Darwin." —Nature, Sept. 29, 1921.

It is true, Scott goes on to say that he cannot get away from the general idea of evolution somehow, "even if we hold it only as an act of faith"; for he thinks that the evidence of.the fossils is still "unshaken." However, in his still more recent book, "Extinct Plants and Problems of Evolution" (1924), he seems to have lost faith even in much of the supposed value of the fossil evidence. This subject of geology and the fossils will be discussed in Chapter V. Here it may be sufficient to give the words of some eminent authorities as to the value of fossil evidence in helping to trace out lines of descent for the various animals and plants.

The following is the opinion of J. P. Lotsy, the Holland botanist:

"Phytogeny, e. g., reconstruction of what has happened in the past, is no science, but a product of fantastic speculations."—"Evolution by Means of Hybridization" (1916), p. 140.

I agree with this statement with all my heart. And it only adds to its force when Lotsy proceeds immediately to say:

"Those who know that I have spent a considerable part of my life in efforts to trace the phytogeny of the vegetable kingdom, will know that this is not written down lightly; nobody cares to destroy his own efforts."—Ibid.

An Illusory Vision

A. G. Tansley, in his address before the Liverpool meeting of the British Association (1923), indicates that the recent history of evolution makes the search for common ancestors among plants "literally a hopeless quest, the genealogical tree an illusory vision."—Nature, March 8, 1924. 

Also Prof. A. C. Seward, of Cambridge University, tells us that "the present tendency is to discard the old-fashioned genealogical tree with its wonderful diversity of branches," as a method of representing the course of evolution; for he says that "a student who takes an impartial retrospect soon discovers that the fossil record raises more problems than it solves." — Nature, April 26, 1924.

No wonder F. O. Bower, Professor of Botany in the University of Glasgow, in commenting on these and similar remarks, says that "at the present moment we seem to have reached a phase of negation" with respect to the attempts of the botanists to trace out lines of evolutionary descent. And he adds: "I believe that a similar negative attitude is also to be found among those who pursue zoological science."—Nature, March 8, 1924.

These remarkable statements, be it noted, are not from obscure men, nor are they fished up from the musty science of two or three generations ago. They are from men who are in this year of grace, 1925, standing in the very forefront of modern progress.


Darwin's Theory Shattered


If now we return to the strictly biological phase of the subject, we have the statement of Vernon Kellogg that since the time of Charles Darwin, "the two most important explanations of evolution current in Darwin's time; namely, Lamarckism, or the inheritance of acquired characters, and Darwinism, or natural and sexual selection, have been weakened rather than strengthened as sufficient causes of evolution."

Kellogg goes on to say that Lamarck's theory was "a plausible explanation, but one wholly dependent upon the 'inheritance of acquired characters,' which, unfortunately, does not seem to happen. . . . Acquired characters, in the Lamarckian sense, are not inherited." — New Republic, April 11, 1923. The Darwinian theory, he further says, was "also a plausible explanation, but also much weakened, if not shattered, by the results of modern biological study." 

Darwin, said John Burroughs, "has already been shorn of his selection theories as completely as Samson was shorn of his locks."—Atlantic Monthly, Aug., 1920, p. 237. Also we know that Lamarckism was disposed of thirty years ago by the work of August Weismann. And now Mendelism, in the hands of thousands of students of genetics in all parts of the civilized world, seems to have administered the finishing blow to any rational hope of explaining the origin of the larger groups of plants and animals, though it has helped wonderfully in pointing out an easy explanation of the great variety of the smaller groups, the "species" and sub-species, all over the world, and has also pointed out how all this multitudinous variety might have come about in a very short time, from a comparatively few original types, and without the necessity of supposing any long ages in which this differentiation was accomplished.


No Abstract Life


In speaking here of the "larger groups," I am not referring simply to the phyla, the classes, and the orders, but to the families and the great sub-families. These, it seems to me, are the original biological units. Regarding their origin, I can see nothing but a real original creation, just as we must postulate a real creation for the origin of life. As I have pointed out elsewhere, there is no such thing as "life" in the abstract; we know of life only in the shape of living individuals. And in speaking of the origin of the first forms of life we must postulate the simultaneous beginning of a sufficient number of diverse forms of both plants and animals to make a balanced web of life, so that under the principle of interdependence a sufficient variety would be in existence to make a balance among all the various forms. These original groups, which must have been simultaneously started at some one time, in order to insure the continuance of the organic world as a going concern, could not, it seems to me, have been anything less than the families.

It is interesting to note that Dr. H. B. Guppy, the English botanist, advocates almost the very same thing. This view, as stated and indorsed by Dr. J. C. Willis, in his recent book "Age and Area" (1922), is that: "Evolution did not proceed from individual to variety, from variety to species, from species to genus, and from genus to family, but inversely; the great families and genera appearing at a very early period, and subsequently breaking up into other genera and species."—Page 221.

J. P. Lotsy, in his cleverly written and racy volume, has shown how much can be explained on the principle of hybridization. If we put this with the theory of Guppy and Willis, and with all that we have learned about Mendelism, it seems to me very easy to account for all our present diversity of plants and animals. Only, we must suppose a real creation for all the great original families, both of the plants and of the animals.

Says D. H. Scott, in his latest book, "We know nothing whatever of the origin of the angiospermous families, so the field is open to speculation."—"Extinct Plants and Problems of Evolution," 1924, p. 217. No; not to speculation, but to a belief in a real creation, as described in the first chapter of the Bible.

For if this is true of all the angiosperm plants, it is just as true of all the other families of the plants, and equally true of the family types among the animals.

The absolute necessity for such a primal creation will appear more evident after we have considered the modern discoveries in geology, which will be presented in Chapters V and VI.

Preferring Speculation to Experimentation


Before closing this chapter it will be well for us to look briefly at the two opposite views regarding Mendelism. The one side are saying in a mournful tone that Mendelism has proved a sore disappointment, so far as helping to a better understanding of organic evolution is concerned.
As an example of this side, we may take the following from Prof. E. W. MacBride:

"I well remember the enthusiasm with which the Mendelian theory was received, when it was introduced to the scientific world in the early years of this century. We thought that at last the key to evolution had been discovered. As a leading Mendelian put it, whilst the rest of us had been held up by an apparently impenetrable hedge; namely, the difficulty of explaining the origin of variation, Mendel had, unnoticed, cut a way through. But, as our knowledge of the facts grew, the difficulty of using the Mendelian phenomena to explain evolution became apparent, and this early hope sickened and died. The way which Mendel cut was seen to lead into a cul-de-sac."—Science Progress, Jan., 1922, pp, 255, 256.

The article from which this excerpt is taken was written in criticism of some previous ones by Julian Huxley. Recently Professor Huxley had an article in Nature, in which he pays his compliments to the opponents of Mendelism as follows:

"It is a matter of constant surprise why many who profess themselves Darwinian of the Darwinians should not only not avail themselves of the new tool [Mendelian breeding], but also evince a positive hostility to it. The new principles are, indeed, the only tool we at present possess which is capable of putting evolutionary theories to experimental test. Yet, with a few honorable exceptions, most taxonomists and 'evolutionists' prefer to stick to speculative methods—speculative because incapable of being tested either by experiment or by calculation— and make no attempt to use the new principles in experimental attack— or, for that matter, even in interpretation." — Nature, April 12, 1924.

There we have the whole present situation. Certain men who are intensely interested in trying to prove organic evolution complain that Mendelism has led them only into a cul-de-sac, a blind alley; and they repudiate all breeding tests, preferring to "stick to speculative methods," which are "incapable of being tested either by experiment or by calculation." The advocates of Mendelism say, on the other hand, that this new method of experimental breeding is "the only tool we at present possess which is capable of putting evolutionary theories to experimental test." But I think the enemies of Mendelism are wise. They have tried Mendelism as a key to organic evolution, and have found that by its assistance they are only running up a cul-de-sac, a blind alley. Hence they have become cautious; they prefer to "stick to speculative methods."

Shall we not do well to say that modern biology is proving the utter bankruptcy of the theory of organic evolution?


"We cannot see how the differentiation into species
came about.  Variation of many kinds, often consideraable,
we daily witness, but no origin of species ...  Meanwhile,
though our faith in evolution stands unshaken, we have no
acceptable account of the origin of 'species.'"  -  Bateson



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