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A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 3: Herbert Spencer's Scheme

By Robert Anderson


      THE hypothesis of degeneration has been here suggested as a rival to that of evolution. It equally accounts for the facts, and is less beset with difficulties. Are we then to accept it? By no means. Both alike are mere theories, wholly unsupported by direct evidence; and therefore the sceptic will reject both, unless they be alternatives, and he is thus compelled to make choice between them. But they are not alternatives. The facts submitted to our notice by the naturalist would be still more fully accounted for by the assumption that every kind of creature sprang from the same Creator's hand.

      And this is, in fact, the only alternative which the evolutionist admits. "We have to choose between two hypotheses," he tells us - "the hypothesis of special creations, and the hypothesis of evolution." The necessity for this admission, be it observed, is by implication a conclusive proof that evolution is unproved. Let us, then, consider the suggested alternative. Herbert Spencer will tell us that, "however regarded, the hypothesis of special creations turns out to be worthless - worthless by its derivation ; worthless in its intrinsic incoherence; worthless as absolutely without evidence; worthless as not supplying an intellectual need; worthless as not satisfying a moral want. We must, therefore," he concludes, "consider it as counting for nothing in opposition to any other hypothesis respecting the origin of organic beings."

      Upon the legal mind the effect of this sort of onslaught is merely to excite suspicion that some weak point in the case requires to be concealed. Such dogmatism of assertion must only serve to encourage us in our investigation of the argument. First, then, we are told that the notion of a creation is a primitive one, and "early ideas are not usually true ideas." But this is a very transparent device; for unless we assume that evolution is true, which is precisely what has to be proved, the statement is of no force whatever.

      Herbert Spencer proceeds to urge that a belief in creation is discredited by "association with a special class of mistaken beliefs." Now this, of course, is a reference to the Mosaic account of the creation, and it is sufficiently answered by the fact that that account is accepted by many men of competent attainments and of the highest intellectual capacity.

      Again, we are told that not only is this hypothesis " not countenanced by a single fact," but further, that it "cannot be framed into a coherent thought," and is "merely a formula for our ignorance." "No one ever saw a special creation." True; but a similar objection may be made to the hypothesis of evolution; and it has, in fact, been urged in these pages in the very words here used by Herbert Spencer. It is admitted that no new species has ever been evolved within human experience, and the supposed origination is referred to"an abysmal past," which may, for aught we know, be purely fabulous. The objection, if of force at all, is equally valid against both hypotheses.

      For let us keep clearly in view what our author studiously conceals, that at this point the real question is not the origin of species, but the origin of life. Until he can give us some reasonable account of the existence of life, we shall continue to believe in "a beneficent Creator of the universe"; and though Herbert Spencer will deplore our "ignorance" and despise our " pseud-ideas," we shall console ourselves by the companionship of a long line of illustrious men, whose names perchance will be increasingly venerated in the world of philosophy and letters when some new generation of scientists shall have arisen to regard with patronising pity the popular theories of to-day.

      "No one ever saw a special creation," and the hypothesis "cannot be framed into a coherent thought." This implies, first, an admission that if we were permitted to see a special creation we could frame the coherent thought; and, secondly, an assertion that our ability to frame ideas is limited by our experience. The admission is fatal, and the assertion is obviously false.

      Herbert Spencer's remaining objections to special creations are an enumeration of certain theological difficulties, in which those who espouse the hypothesis are supposed to entangle themselves. These might be dismissed with the remark that a mere ad hominem argument is of no importance here. If valid, it could only serve to discredit theology, without strengthening the author's position. But let us examine it. The objections are briefly these. Theology is supposed to teach that special creations were designed to demonstrate to mankind the power of the Creator: "would it not have been still better demonstrated by the separate creation of each individual? " It is quite unnecessary to discuss this, for there is not a suggestion in the Bible from cover to cover that creation had any such purpose. What evolution assumes the Bible asserts, namely, that man did not appear in the world until after every other form was already in existence.

      But the next and final difficulty appears at first sight to be more serious. "Omitting the human race, for whose defects and miseries the current theology professes to account, and limiting ourselves to the lower creation, what must we think of the countless different pain inflicting appliances and instincts with which animals are endowed? " "Whoever contends that each kind of animal was specially designed, must assert either that there was a deliberate intention on the part of the Creator to produce these results, or that there was an inability to iprevent them." This difficulty, moreover, is igreatly intensified by the fact that "of the animal kingdom as a whole, more than half the species are parasites, and thus we are brought to the contemplation of innumerable cases in which the suffering inflicted brings no compensating benefit."

      Now, in the first place, these objections are applicable as really, though, possibly, not to the same extent, to the hypothesis of creation in general. And that hypothesis is no longer in question; for, as we have seen, "scientific thought is compelled to accept the idea of creative power." And, in the second place, we must remember that these difficulties are purely theological. They have no force save against those of us who believe the Bible. Such people, according to the argument, must abandon either the Biblical account of creation or the Biblical representation of God. They must assert either that the Creator intended to produce the results here under observation, or that there was an inability to prevent them. In other words, God is deficient either in goodness or in power.

      This introduces a question which hitherto has been avoided in these pages. Nor shall it here receive more than the briefest notice; for even a conventional acquaintance with the Biblical scheme will enable us to find the solution of Herbert Spencer's difficulties. The validity of his dilemma depends upon ignoring one of the fundamental dogmas of theology. The teaching of the Bible is unmistakable, that Adam in his fall dragged down with him the entire creation of which he was the federal head; that the suffering under which the creature groans is not the result of design, but of a tremendous catastrophe which has brought ruin and misery in its train; that not only is the Creator not wanting in power to restore creation to its pristine perfectness, but that He has pledged Himself to accomplish this very result, and that the restoration will be so complete that even the destructive propensities of the brute will cease.

      Such is the teaching of the Bible, unfolded not merely in the poetry of the Hebrew prophets, but in the dogmatic prose of the Apostle of the Gentiles. The question here is not whether it be reasonable, whether it be true. All that concerns us is the fact that it forms an essential part of the Biblical scheme, and thus affords a complete refutation of an ad hominem argument which depends for its validity upon misrepresenting or ignoring it. Herbert Spencer's indictment against belief in special creations thus begins and ends by disingenuous attempts to prejudice the issue. And in asserting that the hypothesis is incapable of being "framed into a coherent thought," he urges an objection which from its very nature admits of no other answer than that which has been already given to it. If we call for a poll upon the question, we shall find on one side a crowd of illustrious men of unquestionable fame, and of the very highest rank as philosophers and thinkers; and on the other, Herbert Spencer and a few more besides, all of whom must await the verdict of posterity before they can be permanently assigned the place which some of their contemporaries claim for them. An assertion which thus brands the entire bead-roll of philosophers, from Bacon to Charles Darwin, as the dupes of a "pseud-idea," a "formula for ignorance," is worthless save as affording matter for a psychological study of a most interesting kind.

      The alleged absence of evidence of a special creation has been already met by pointing out that the objection equally applies to the hypothesis of evolution. But perhaps it deserves a fuller notice. "No one ever saw a special creation," we are told. The author might have added that if the entire Royal Society in council were permitted to "see a special creation," the sceptic would reject their testimony unless there were indirect evidence to confirm it. He would maintain that in the sphere of the miraculous, direct evidence, unless thus confirmed, is of no value at second hand. His language would be, "Produce for our inspection the organism alleged to have been created, and satisfy us, first, that it had no existence prior to the moment assigned for its creation, and, secondly, that it could not have originated in some way known to our experience, and then, indeed, we shall give up our scepticism and accept the testimony offered us."

      But Herbert Spencer goes on to aver that "no one ever found proof of an indirect kind that no special creation had taken place." This is a choice example of the nisi prius artifice at which our author is such an adept. The existence of a world teeming with life has been accepted by the greatest and wisest men of every age as a conclusive proof that a special creation has taken place. But this is boldly met by sheer weight of unsupported denial. If we approach the subject, not as special pleaders or partisans, but in a philosophic spirit, we shall state the argument thus :-The admitted facts give proof that species originated either by special creations or by evolution. If either hypothesis can be established by independent evidence, the other is thereby discredited. But, in the one case as in the other, positive proof is wholly wanting. We must, therefore, rely upon general considerations. On the evolution theory, proof is confessedly wanting that the alleged cause is adequate to account for the admitted facts.' Not so on the creation hypothesis, for as we admit that life originated by creation, there can be no difficulty in assigning a similar origin to species. In a word, as we side with Darwin in believing in "a beneficent Creator of the universe," the evolution hypothesis is unnecessary and therefore unphilosophical. But further, the concealed consequences of the argument under review must not be overlooked. If it be valid for any purpose at all, it disproves not only the fact of a creation, but the existence of a Creator. "No one ever saw a special creation": neither did any one ever see the Deity. If, as alleged, we have no evidence of His handiwork, neither have we proof of His existence. At a single plunge we have thus reached the level of blank atheism, which is the extreme depth of moral and intellectual degradation. "The birth both of the species and the individual " must equally be ascribed to "blind chance," " coercion" being appealed to, I suppose, to quell the inevitable " revolt of the understanding." And the strange religious propensities common to the race, whether civilised or savage, must also be suppressed; or, at all events, our Penates must be strictly limited to an effigy of our hairy quadrumanous ancestor with pointed ears, supplemented possibly by some "symbolic conception" of the primordial life-germ. wrapped in cloud, and a copy of Herbert Spencer's System of Philosophy to guide and regulate the cult.

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