As I Was Saying/Essay XXXII

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Essay XXXI As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XXXII: About Darwinism

WHATEVER else was evolved, evolution was not evolved. I mean evolution as a part of education; as an idea more or less accepted for the last forty years by most thinking people; and perhaps even more by most unthinking people. Those who supported it were always talking about growth and gradual change; but their own movement was not at all gradual. They popularized an evolution that was far too much of a revolution; that came with far too much of a rush; that became as the phrase goes, all the rage; with some of its exponents rather unmistakably raging. It was opposed to ideas of supernatural or even special creation; but the theory itself was created in a very special sense; and it was boomed and advertised like a miracle. Many of the recent revolts and reactions and belated questionings have been due to that original journalistic hustle; and yet they are themselves likely to be treated in turn in too hustling and journalistic a fashion. Darwin's individual industry was indeed minute and patient; and he was personally the very reverse of an impetuous or impatient character. It is none the less true that Darwinism was much too hastily thrust down everybody's throat, including Darwin's. Old Huxley had all the passions of a pamphleteer and a partisan; also he was individually and intensely interested in certain ethical and philosophical attitudes of his own, which Darwinism supported more perhaps than he himself would otherwise have supported Darwinism. Huxley and Herbert Spencer really valued Darwinism, as an argument for agnosticism. It would have been much better if they had cultivated a little more agnosticism about Darwinism.

All the memoirs and memories of that time are full of that curious atmosphere of brand-new prejudice and premature pugnacity. Popular science loved to put the spotlight on special occasions; party combats and particular challenges of particular champions. Everybody talked about the repartee of Huxley to Wilberforce as something as theatrical as a thunderbolt. Everything was supposed to stand or fall by a particular debate between Huxley and Gladstone about the Gadarene Swine. Nobody seems to have remarked on the fact that a theory like Darwinism, advanced by a man like Darwin, was about the most unsuitable subject on earth to be settled by a retort in a debating club. Nobody noticed that Gladstone was about the worst person in the world either to teach a man like Huxley the truths of theology or to detect in him the errors of science. Humanity knew that Gladstone was an eloquent orator, and Huxley said he was a copious shuffler; but he was neither a philosopher nor a historian suited to deal with the theory of evidence of miracles. He was simply the Prime Minister, past, present, or to come; and his appearance on that platform only made it a fashionable occasion. That was what was the matter with the whole occasion. Darwin became much too fashionable; and Darwinism prevailed only as a fashion.

If the great biological speculations of the later nineteenth century had remained speculative, they would have been much more slow and very much more sure. We might by this time have really taken stock of what is actually known about the variation of species and what can only be plausibly guessed and what is quite random guesswork. Instead of that, a hypothesis was allowed to harden into a habit of thought; and any alternative hypothesis creates unnecessary excitement as a violent paradox. A distinguished scientific man, in another branch of science, has recently contradicted Darwinism with the same emphasis and eagerness with which the Darwinians affirmed it. This is news in the newspapers, but in this country we grossly exaggerate the extent to which it is new in the scientific world. When Sir Arthur Keith and Mr. H. G. Wells tried to treat Anti-Darwinism as an unheard-of paradox, Mr. Belloc had not the least difficulty in naming fifty scientific men of the first rank, throughout Europe, who were avowed Anti-Darwinians. And Sir Arthur Keith could say nothing in reply, except that one out of the fifty, the distinguished Professor Dwight, had never at any time accepted the Darwinian hypothesis. The argument was, apparently, that Dwight could not be right, because he had been right all the time. There is nothing new about the purely scientific attack on the Darwinian theory; it began very soon after the Darwinians advanced the theory. But the Darwinians advanced it with so sweeping and hasty an intolerance that it is no longer a question of one scientific theory being advanced against another scientific theory. It is no longer a question of fairly comparing what Darwin said with what Dwight said; indeed, it is not a question at all. It is treated as an answer; and a final and infallible answer. Now nobody need know any more than the mere rudiments of the biological controversy in order to know that, touching twenty incidental problems, it is in some ways a very unsatisfactory answer. This does not necessarily mean that it was not valuable as a suggestion; or that it may not help to suggest the real answer. Darwin did a mass of very fine work, accumulated a multitude of facts, and set them in a certain light by subjecting them to a general suggestion. Such work need not have been thrown away if the thing had been treated in a reasonable manner. The Victorian evolutionists were wrong; not because they opened the evolutionary question, but because they closed it.

For the Victorian evolutionists were very Victorian indeed. They really did deserve the sort of criticism which the realists of a younger generation have brought against Victorian virtue or hypocrisy, in the matter of closed doors. Yet the evil did not really come from hypocrisy; it did really come from virtue. But it was virtue of a certain Puritanical type; and especially of a political type. The men of whom Thomas Huxley was the greatest were, above all, controversialists; because they were, above all, moralists. They conducted their debates, even their abstract scientific debates, in the spirit of a sort of idealistic General Election. It was Darwin against Gladstone; just as it was Disraeli against Gladstone. They were always going to the country, appealing to the public, expecting an immediate decision of the whole commonwealth, even on the most specialist speculations, as if they were the most spiritual elements of right and wrong. Thus they identified Free Trade with Freedom; insisting on it with an ethical simplicity wholly inapplicable to an economic science. And so they identified Natural Selection with Nature; with a dogmatic finality wholly inapplicable to a biological science. The Darwinian Theory was the Dawn; and any other shade of fact or fancy was only part of the opposing darkness. We can see the difference in a flash if we merely compare those great and grim grey-whiskered men with the Greeks or the men of the Renaissance, when they speculated in a free-and-easy fashion about some theory of the stars, or the flight of birds, or the movements of the sea. The greater moral seriousness of the Victorians gave them all the advantage that industry and conscientious record can give; but there is a sense in which the scientific spirit was lost in the very triumphs of the scientific age. They were so fond of having convictions that they came prematurely to conclusions. Having grown doubtful about the things on which conviction is most valuable, they then expected the speculative imagination to answer as promptly and practically as the conscience. The consequence was that they answered much too soon; and then yielded to the temptation of all moralists, to veto any kind of answer to the answer. Anyone who reads the account of how the orthodox officials of Darwinism dealt with a real free-thinker like Samuel Butler will recognize by unmistakable signs that the Darwinian free-thinkers were no longer thinking freely; we might say they were no longer free to think. The consequence is that, by this time, when that rigid and respectable Victorian front door is suddenly burst open, it has the effect of a resurrection or the rending of a tomb. But there is no need for such excitement; and it is quite possible that the reaction following such a resurrection may go too far. It will be worse still if the world is again converted without being convinced.