Darwin's 'Origin' turned scientific world on its edge

Samuel Damren

This is the third commentary in a series on science, religion, and politics.

The second commentary concluded with the stunning impact of Newton’s “System of the World” described in “The Principia” in 1687. Combining his theory of gravity with calculus, Newton explained the unified mechanics of terrestrial and planetary motion. 

Prior to Newton’s work, Western scholars did not question the narrative in Scripture that the earth and heavens along with plants, animals, and humans were created by God 9,000 years ago. They also had no reason to think the forms of life on earth had changed except for minor variations since Special Creation.

Newton’s work challenged the accepted age of the solar system and made clear it must be counted in millions not thousands of years, but he did not discount God’s role in creation. Newton speculated the solar system might have been formed by comets slicing off sections of the sun that coalesced into planets.  

Reasoning it would be impossible for planets created in this fashion to occupy the same plane of orbit and travel in the same direction, Newton saw the “Hand of God” in this process. 

Pierre Laplace, French polymath, later proved Newton’s speculation erroneous.  

Applying Newtonian mechanics to the analysis of nebula in 1796, Laplace demonstrated that as a nebular-cloud collapses under its own gravity into a revolving disk, it spins off parts of its original substance. As the process continues, the disk compacts into a star and the discarded material forms circling planets.

The revised assessment of earth’s age resulting from Newton’s work raised issues in other fields, including biology and evolution.

Theories of evolution were discussed in English and European works well before the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” in 1859. The ever expanding fossil record in the 18th and 19th centuries provided anecdotal evidence that the organic world did not remain static, but the evidence was not conclusive.

Theorists offered a variety of possible explanations. 

Given significant differences between existing animals and those in the fossil record, one scholar suggested that over long periods of time ancestral life forms could “degenerate,” but also claimed they could “revert” back to original form. He did not describe how either process might work.

Another scholar suggested that instead of “degenerating” into new forms, extinct species had been the victim of large-scale catastrophes.

In a book titled “Zoological Philosophy,” Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French naturalist, went so far as to speculate in 1809 that “the power of life” caused organisms to change form based on their use or disuse of body parts and that the law of “inheritance” passed on these altered qualities to offspring. 

Critics ridiculed his speculation citing the lack of any evidence that chicks turn into long legged heron based on the hen’s distaste for getting her thighs wet in a stream.

Theologians had their own concerns. If evolutionists believed forms of life changed into different species over time, were they suggesting God got it wrong in His initial Creation of the Species? Or, changed his mind? Were they masquerading as Deists by asserting that God created the world and then abandoned it? 

Political figures also weighed in. The Continent was reeling from the revolutions of the late 1700s and Napoleon’s march across Europe. With his defeat, royalists returned to provide needed stability, but expressed concern talk of evolution, Deism and similar radicalisms was designed to once again violently stir the lower classes against the natural forces of order and security.

The revolts that occurred in 1848, but were successfully put down in European capitals, were proof to them that these reckless theories might be part of a larger political threat and should therefore be suspect.

Pre-Darwinian theories of evolution were not taken seriously. That would change in 1859 when Darwin presented a mechanism to describe changes in species independent of Special Creation.  

“The Principia” questioned God’s role in the creation of the solar system. Less than 200 years later, “The Origin of Species” declared the Almighty had no direct role in the creation of mankind.  

What would be next?


Samuel Damren is an attorney and author in Ann Arbor.