From discussion paper to nihilistic dogma

Photo: The Origin of Species, First Edition, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a new series from Neil Thomas, Distinguished Reader at Durham University, “The origin of species: From Discussion Paper to Nihilistic Dogma.This is the first article in the series. Professor Thomas’ recent book is Saying goodbye to Darwin: A lifelong agnostic uncovers the case for design (Discovery Institute Press).

A particularly intriguing, if not puzzling, aspect of the current reception of Darwin’s theory The origin of species Thus a work almost universally reviled by accredited scientific critics in the 1860s should have been promoted to the status of biological gospel over the next century and a half. What could explain such a gap in perception on the part of cohorts of people separated chronologically but otherwise sharing a remarkably similar intellectual profile in terms of scientific and scholarly distinction? The following observations, in a series at Evolution Newswill seek clues towards an understanding of what, at first glance, appears to be an inexplicable disparity.

Reality checks from history

A former academic colleague recently remarked to me (in an unusually unscholarly revelation) that he could not share my interest in “all that old 19th century stuff”, explaining that he preferred to draw his knowledge of Darwinism from sources most recent. , 21st Century Sources. On the other hand, common experience indicates that the problem with this kind of Henry Ford argument (“history is screwed up”) is that, while we can often want to end the story, the story is usually not done with we and that those who choose to ignore the lessons of history can sometimes be doomed to repeat its mistakes. In Darwin’s case, the most serious mistake one can make is to ignore the 19th century warnings against the acceptance of Darwinism in favor of less critical and recent expositions of his work. For most standard accounts these days, the paper on the many sources of opposition to which the The origin of species aroused in the minds of its first readers.

Not supported by evidence

So it seems to me that anyone who has not carefully considered the multiple interpretations and glosses that Origin generates overtime can claim to have a properly contextualized understanding of the scope and disputed intellectual status of the work. In most modern accounts of Darwin’s ideas, for example, the impression is given that in “natural selection” he had made a Great Discovery whose obvious brilliance was such that all immediately consented to it. This is simply not supported by evidence, and it would be anachronistic to assume that Darwin’s theory The origin of species has suddenly attained that latter-day Nicene creed status desired by some über-Darwinians these days. Neither the first university examiners of the Origin1 not even Darwin’s inner circle of friends and colleagues (including Thomas Huxley) were convinced by all of his arguments and, most surprising of all, even Darwin himself objected to critical aspects of his own work, sometimes in real agonies of indecision and self-doubt.

All in all, one gets the impression, from Darwin’s dedication of his chapter 6 to what he called “The Difficulties of Theory”, that he was somehow “flying a kite” to solicit the reactions of others rather than claiming to transmit the biological command tablets for all future times.

following“Where is the evidence for Darwinism? »


  1. For more details see my Say goodbye to Darwin (Seattle: Discovery, 2021), p. 61-67.

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