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A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 1: How Did Life Begin?

By Robert Anderson


      THERE is one fact which not even the dreamiest of egoists can doubt, and that is, his own existence. Here at least knowledge is absolute. That I exist is certain; but how did I come to exist? I live; but how did life begin? The question is one to which every man is bound to find a reasonable answer. To say I am descended through generations numbered or innumerable from a first man, is merely to put the difficulty back. Where did the first man come from? Religion answers in one word- Creation. But this is to cut the knot, as it were, without even an attempt to untie it. It must not be taken for granted that man is incapable of reasoning out the problem of his own existence.

      Between the higher organisms and the lowest there is a gulf which might well be regarded as impassable. But closer observation and fuller knowledge will disclose the fact that between these extremes there are unnumbered gradations of development, and that the distance between the several steps in the series is such as, in theory at least, might be passed by the operation of known laws. The problem, therefore, which religion would solve by the one word " creation," science answers by the one word "evolution." And science claims priority of audience.

      But here let us take the place of sceptics. There are no sceptics in the old scholastic sense. The most ardent Pyrrhonist, if robbed of his purse, or struck over the head by a burglar, promptly forgets his theories, and gives proof of his belief in the certainty of objective knowledge. Philosophic scepticism, so called, is merely a conceit of sham philosophers; it never invades the sphere in which a man's interests require that he should believe and know. And, as Kant has aptly said, it is "not a permanent resting-place for human reason." But scepticism is not necessarily Pyrrhonism. Pyrrho did not invent the word; he only perverted and degraded it. He considers, reflects, hesitates, doubts. An admirable habit, surely, if kept within due limits, but proof of moral deterioration if abnormally developed.

      Let us not forget then, as we proceed, to reflect, hesitate, doubt; and, above all, let us cast away prejudice. Let us take the place of free thinkers and real sceptics, not shams. Many people reserve their scepticism for the sphere in which religion is the teacher, while in the presence of science they are as innocent and simple in their receptivity as the infant class in a Sunday-school. We shall only deceive ourselves if we begin by over-stating the evidence on which the doctrine of evolution rests. It must be conceded that its foundation largely depends on the researches of the Paleontologist. And here and some direct proof that the fossil remains belong to the same economy or system as the living organisms we compare them with. But there is no such proof, and it is a question whether the presumption be not the other way.

      Let that pass, however, for a more serious question claims attention. It may be admitted that the development of plants and animals from their simplest to their most complicated forms may be explained by natural causes. But this is only theory. What direct evidence is there that the phenomena have, in fact, been thus produced? The horse may have been developed from a pig-like animal, and man may be "descended from a hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears." (Descent of Man) But what direct proof is there that either the horse or the man was, in fact, developed or evolved in this way? The answer must be, Absolutely none. It is a matter of inference only.(Marvellous results are produced by culture, but they are subject to the seemingly inexorable laws of degeneracy and the sterility of hybrids.)

      The prisoner in the dock may have committed the murder we are investigating. The theory of his guilt will account for all the facts. Therefore let him be convicted and hanged. This sort of argument would not pass at the Old Bailey. Men are sceptics there, and free thinkers. Proof that the prisoner may have committed the crime is worthless, unless we go on to prove that it could not have been committed by any one else. But with that further proof the case is clear, and the accused goes to the gallows. And so here. If the facts of biology can in no other way be accounted for, evolution holds the field.

      But are we not forgetting the nature of the problem to be solved? The first and greatest question relates, not to the phenomena of life, but to its origin. How did life begin? That was the question we set out with. And here, evolution affords no answer, and must stand aside. Let the existence of life be taken for granted, and evolution may explain the rest. But the sceptic takes nothing for granted. How did life begin? Science answers - - - - ! In presence of a question which lies across the threshold of knowledge, science, the very personification of knowledge, turns agnostic and is dumb. " Creation" is the answer religion gives. The rejoinder which science ought to make is that life first sprang out of death, out of nothing; in a word, abiogenesis.

      And this is, in fact, the answer which science would formerly have given. But the experiments which at one time seemed to establish the principle of spontaneous generation, have proved worthless when subjected to severer tests. Huxley admits that "the present state of knowledge furnishes us with no link between the living and the not living." With still greater candour, Tyndall declares that "every attempt made in our day to generate life independently of antecedent life has utterly broken down." Or, if we turn to a teacher, happily still with us, whose dictum will carry still greater weight, Lord Kelvin will tell us that " inanimate matter cannot become living except under the influence of matter already living. This is fact in science which seems to me" he declares, "as well ascertained as the law of gravitation." And he goes on to say, "I am ready to accept as an article of faith in science , valid for all time and in all space that life is produced by life, and only by life." ( Brit. Assoc., Edinburgh, 1871.)

      Abiogenesis is merely a philosophic theory, unsupported by even the faintest shadow of evidence. But more than this, it is practically incapable of proof, for the problem implies the proof of a negative in circumstances which render the difficulties of such proof overwhelming. To establish the fact of spontaneous generation in a world teeming with life, would be as hopeless as the attempt to prove that the displacement of a table in a dark room crowded with people was caused without interference on their part. But, we are told, the fact that we know absolutely nothing of the origin of life, and that there is not a shadow of direct evidence that abiogenesis has ever taken place, does not interfere with the conclusion "that at some time or other abiogenesis must have taken place. If the hypothesis of evolution be true, living matter must have arisen from not-living matter." (Professor Huxley, Encyc. Britt, "Biology.") Therefore life did originate thus, and the truth of evolution is established. Thus argue the professors and scientists. But the man who considers, reflects, hesitates, doubts, will call for the evidence; and, finding there is none, he will reject the conclusion, and also, if necessary, the dependent hypothesis.

      We set out to solve the mystery of life. Science claimed to possess the clew, and offered to be our guide. And now, having been led back to the identical point from which we started, we are told we must shut our eyes and take a leap in the dark. It is a bad case of the "confidence trick."

      "Besides being absolutely without evidence to give it external support, this hypothesis cannot support itself internally- cannot be framed into a coherent thought. It is one of those illegitimate symbolic conceptions so continually mistaken for legitimate symbolic conceptions, because they remain untested. Immediately an attempt is made to elaborate the idea into anything like a definite shape, it proves to be a pseud-idea, admitting of no definite shape." It "implies the establishment of a relation in thought between nothing and something - a relation of which one term is absent - an impossible relation". "The case is one of those where men do not really believe, but rather believe they believe. For belief, properly so called, implies a mental representation of the thing believed; and no such mental representation is here possible." ( The words are Herbert Spencer's (Principles of Biology, S 112); the application of them is entirely my own.)

      Evolution assumes the existence of life; postulates it, as the scientists would say. No more is needed than one solitary germ of living matter. Indeed, to seek for more would be unphilosophical. ("If all living beings have been evolved from pre-existing forms of life, it is enough that a single particle of living protoplasm should have once appeared on the globe, as the result of no matter what agency. In the eyes of a consistent evolutionist any further independent formation of protoplasm would be sheer waste." -Professor Huxley, Encyc. Brit., "Biology.") But this primeval germ must be taken for granted. The sceptic will refuse to assign to it an origin which contradicts all our experience and surpasses our knowledge. The only hypothesis he can accept is that life has existed without any limitation of time; that the original life-germ was eternal and practically self-existent. And of course nothing could be evolved from it which was not inherent. It must have been pregnant with all the forms and developments of life with which the world is full. Moreover it is only ignorant conceit to maintain that evolution has reached its limits. If man has sprung from such an origin, we must suppose that, in the far-distant future, beings will be developed as superior to mankind as we ourselves are superior to the insects crawling on the earth. According to this hypothesis the latent capacities of the first life-germ were infinite. " Capacities," remember, not tendencies. Unknowable force may account for tendencies, but it cannot create capacities.

      Not that this distinction will save us from the pillory. The philosopher will condemn the statement as unphilosophical-" a shaping of ignorance into the semblance of knowledge" and I know not what besides.' (Principles of Biology, S 144. I have no wish to shelter myself behind Professor Huxley, but I claim his com-panionship and sympathy in the pillory. He says, "Of the causes which have led to the origination of living matter, then, it may be said that we know absolutely nothing. But postulating the existence of living matter endowed with that power of hereditary transmission and with that tendency to vary which is found in all such matter, Mr. Darwin has shown good reasons for believing," &c. (Encyc. Brit., "Biology "). The primordial germ, mark, is "endowed" with a "power" and a "tendency." What had Mr. Spencer to say to this? All that I assert here is the "power" ; to predicate the "tendency" is unnecessary and therefore unphilosophical.)

      But these bravewords can be tested at once by assuming the contrary to what is here asserted. Let us take it, then, that the primordial germ had no latent capacities whatever. And yet we are to accept it as the origin of all the amazing forms and phenomena of life in the world. If we may not suppose such an aptitude naturally possessed by organisms, we must assume an inaptitude; and the question is no longer whether the cause be adequate to the effects, but whether effects are to be ascribed to what is no cause at all. May we not retort that this is indeed "a cause unrepresentable in thought "-one of those illegitimate symbolic conceptions which cannot by any mental process be elaborated into a real conception? ' In the spirit of a true philosopher, Charles Darwin declared that "the birth both of the species and of the individual are equally ' parts of that grand sequence of events which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance." (Descent of Man)

      By what word, then, shall this " particle of living protoplasm" be called; this great First Cause; this Life-germ, eternal, self-existent, infinite in essential capacities ? There is but one word known to human language adequate to designate it, and that word is GOD. Evolution - that is, Science - thus leads us to a point at which either we must blindly and with boundless credulity accept as fact something which is not only destitute of proof, but which is positively disproved by every test we are at present able to apply to it; or else we must recognise an existence which, disguise it as we may, means nothing less than God. There is no escape from this dilemma. Our choice lies between these alternatives. The sceptic will at once reject the first ; his acceptance of the second is, therefore, a necessity. Men whose minds are enslaved by a preconceived determination to refuse belief in God must be content here to stand like fools, owning their impotency to solve the elementary problem of existence, and, as humble disciples in the school of one Topsy, a negro slave-girl, dismissing the matter by the profound and sapient formula "I 'spect I grow'd" ! But the free thinker, unblinded by prejudice, will reject an alternative belief which is sheer credulity, and, unmoved by the sneers of pseudo-scientists and sham-philosophers, will honestly and fearlessly accept the goal to which his reason points, and there set up an altar to an unknown God.

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