04.03.2015

Haeckeling Darwin with a Full Nelson

Cover of Byron Nelson's "After Its Kind"

Do I tire of skimming through creationist books from the Scopes era? I do not. And to prove it, I’ve been perusing “After Its Kind”: The First and Last Word on Evolution (1927), by Byron C. Nelson. According to his grandson Paul Nelson, who edited a reprint volume of his writings in a series entitled Creationism in Twentieth Century America, Nelson was born in 1893 and attended George Washington University and the University of Wisconsin before serving in the Army (after having attempted to evade the draft) during the First World War. After the war, he trained as a minister, receiving a B.D. from the Luther Theological Seminary in 1922 and a Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1926. “After Its Kind” was based on his Th.M. thesis; his grandson describes it as “a critique of theories of biological evolution and a defense of the biblical account of creation.”

Catching my eye in the first chapter was a discussion of the origin of life. “By all consistent evolutionists,” Nelson writes, “the origin of life by spontaneous generation or by transference from some other planet to this earth is held as an act of faith. Not thus to hold it necessitates admitting the supernatural into the evolutionary process. Such an admission, however, consistent evolutionists are totally unwilling to allow, for if it be granted that God made the first cell, it cannot well be denied that he may and could and very likely did create other species by distinct creative acts, as the Bible sets forth.” As a representative of a consistent evolutionism he cites The History of Creation (1876), a translation of Ernst Haeckel’s bestselling popularization of evolution, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (1868).

Not all evolutionists are “consistent” in Nelson’s sense. The majority, he says, “simply and conveniently avoid the question entirely. Without attempting to explain, they assume the first living form to have come into existence somehow, and then attempt to show how the evolution process went on from that point.” Worse, some evolutionists are in fact “inconsistent.” Nelson explains: “Many evolutionists … are willing to acknowledge their inconsistency and say that God intervened at the very beginning to bring life into existence.” And exhibit A—whose name is hidden by the ellipsis inserted in the sentence I just quoted from Nelson—is none other than Charles Darwin. According to Nelson, “Darwin said, ‘I imagine that probably all organic beings which ever lived on this earth descended from some primitive form which was first called into life by the Creator.’”

I was puzzled. When Eugenie C. Scott and I were writing “The Soft Underbelly of Evolution?” (PDF), about the creationist tendency to conflate questions about evolution and questions about the origin of life, in 2012, I spent a fair amount of time looking at Darwin’s scattered and unsystematic discussions of the origin of life (aided, I should add, by a nice review by Juli Peretó, Jeffrey L. Bada, and Antonio Lazcano). And while the sentiment of the sentence quoted by Nelson was familiar—in the final chapter of the Origin, Darwin writes, “probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed”—the “called into life by the Creator” phrase was quite unfamiliar. And searching Darwin Online for it revealed nothing.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to ascertain where Nelson went astray. In The History of Creation, Darwin is quoted as saying, “I imagine that probably all organic beings which ever lived on this earth descended from some primitive form, which was first called into life by the Creator”: except for the comma after “form,” exactly what Nelson attributed to Darwin. Haeckel’s translators, instead of quoting from the English original, evidently translated from the German translation in Haeckel: “Ich nehme an, dass wahrscheinlich alle organischen Wesen, die jemals auf dieser Erde gelebt, von irgend einer Urform abstammen, welcher das Leben zuerst vom Schöpfer eingehaucht worden ist.” (Heinrich Georg Bronn’s 1860 translation of the Origin is almost identical here, except it begins “Daher ich annehme,” rather than “Ich nehme an.”)

So Nelson quoted a translation of a translation rather than the original: that’s careless, but not dishonest. Even more excusable, given the undeveloped state of Darwin scholarship in the 1920s, was his failure to appreciate the increasing candor of Darwin’s views. Writing anonymously in the Athenaeum in 1863, Richard Owen took a swipe at the Origin for the “Pentateuchal terms” (the Pentateuch is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) in which it discusses the origin of life. Apprised of the publication by his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin replied, “I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion & used Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant ‘appeared’ by some wholly unknown process.” He followed up with a letter to the same effect that was published in the April 25, 1863, issue of the Athenaeum.

Darwin is the only supposedly “inconsistent” evolutionist named in “After Its Own Kind,” so it’s hard to know whether there were indeed “many” biologists who held that God created the first life and then allowed evolution to proceed autonomously. Frankly, I am inclined to agree with Nelson that it’s not a satisfactory position, if not for the reasons he adduces. It’s simply a fact that the failure so far of scientists to present a reconstruction of the origin of life in detail isn’t a convincing argument in favor of any supernatural alternative. As a leading origin-of-life researcher, Antonio Lazcano, wrote in 2004, “If we were to accept the supernatural or extranatural proposals of anti-evolutionists, it would provide little useful information to help us understand the history and diversity of life, and it would put an end to all research in the matter.”