Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mivart's "On the Genesis of Species" (1871)

I received yesterday my order of St. George Jackson Mivart's, "On the Genesis of Species" (1871). Mivart was a zoologist, a one-time protégé of T.H. Huxley, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was Darwin's most effective contemporary critic, having "gathered, and illustrated `with admirable art and force' ... all objections to the theory of natural selection-`a formidable array'":

"Mivart gathered, and illustrated `with admirable art and force' (Darwin's words), all objections to the theory of natural selection-`a formidable array' (Darwin's words again). Yet one particular theme, urged with special attention by Mivart, stood out as the centerpiece of his criticism. This argument continues to rank as the primary stumbling block among thoughtful and friendly scrutinizers of Darwinism today. No other criticism seems so troubling, so obviously and evidently `right' (against a Darwinian claim that seems intuitively paradoxical and improbable). Mivart awarded this argument a separate chapter in his book right after the introduction. He also gave it a name, remembered ever since. He called his objection `The Incompetency of Natural Selection to Account for the Incipient Stages of Useful Structures.' If this phrase sounds like a mouthful, consider the easy translation: We can readily understand how complex and fully developed structures work and how their maintenance and preservation may rely upon natural selection-a wing, an eye, the resemblance of a bittern to a branch or of an insect to a stick or dead leaf. But how do you get from nothing to such an elaborate something if evolution must proceed through a long sequence of intermediate stages, each favored by natural selection? You can't fly with 2 percent of a wing or gain much protection from an iota's similarity with a potentially concealing piece of vegetation. How, in other words, can natural selection explain the incipient stages of structures that can only be used in much more elaborated form?" (Gould S.J., "Not Necessarily a Wing," in "Bully for Brontosaurus: Further Reflections in Natural History," [1991], Penguin: London, 1992, pp.140-141)

Mivart was a Roman Catholic theistic evolutionist who had no problem with "The general theory of evolution," but he regarded "The special Darwinian hypothesis," i.e. Darwin's theory of the natural selection of chance variations as "beset with certain scientific difficulties ... some of which ... are absolutely insuperable":

"The general theory of evolution has indeed for some time past steadily gained ground, and it may be safely predicted that the number of facts which can be brought forward in its support will, in a few years, be vastly augmented. But the prevalence of this theory need alarm no one, for it is, without any doubt, perfectly consistent with strictest and most orthodox Christian theology. Moreover, is not altogether without obscurities, and cannot yet be considered as fully demonstrated. The special Darwinian hypothesis, however, is beset with certain scientific difficulties, which must by no means be ignored, and some of which, the author ventures to think, are absolutely insuperable." (Mivart S.J., "On the Genesis of Species," Macmillan & Co: London & New York , Second edition, 1871, p.5)

Mivart was largely (if not solely) responsible for Darwin having to add an extra chapter to the sixth and final 1872 edition of his Origin of Species, "CHAPTER VII MISCELLANEOUS OBJECTIONS TO THE THEORY OF NATURAL SELECTION," in which Darwin, to save his theory of natural selection, demoted it by increasing his emphasis on the Lamarckian "effects of the increased use and disuse of parts" which Darwin now (having barely mentioned them in The Origin's first edition) regarded as "highly important":

"A distinguished zoologist, Mr. St. George Mivart, has recently collected all the objections which have ever been advanced by myself and others against the theory of natural selection, as propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself, and has illustrated them with admirable art and force. When thus marshalled, they make a formidable array; and as it forms no part of Mr. Mivart's plan to give the various facts and considerations opposed to his conclusions, no slight effort of reason and memory is left to the reader who may wish to weigh the evidence on both sides. When discussing special cases, Mr. Mivart passes over the effects of the increased use and disuse of parts, which I have always maintained to be highly important, and have treated in my Variation under Domestication at greater length than, as I believe, any other writer. He likewise often assumes that I attribute nothing to variation, independently of natural selection, whereas in the work just referred to I have collected a greater number of well-established cases than can be found in any other work known to me. My judgment may not be trustworthy, but after reading with care Mr. Mivart's book, and comparing each section with what I have said on the same head, I never before felt so strongly convinced of the general truth of the conclusions here arrived at, subject, of course, in so intricate a subject, to much partial error." (Darwin C.R., "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," [1872], Everyman's Library, J.M. Dent & Sons: London, 6th Edition, 1928, reprint, pp.200-201)

After only dipping into Mivart's book (and already knowing what Darwin's response in his Origin against Mivart was), I can see that Darwin does not adequately answer at least some of Mivart's criticisms and so I assume Darwin was just bluffing when he wrote above, "after reading with care Mr. Mivart's book ... I never before felt so strongly convinced of the general truth of the conclusions here arrived at"!

Since Mivart's critique of natural selection will be more relevant to my book "Problems of Evolution," I have decided to suspend my `tagline' quotes from Paley's "Natural Theology" and R.E.D. Clark's "The Universe: Plan or Accident?" (each of which seems to have fallen in a hole anyway!) and will instead try to include a Mivart quote at the foot of each post, usualy without comment. Although, where Darwin responded to a Mivart criticism, I may add that response with my comment, perhaps in a post solely on that topic.

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

1 comment:

Owen said...

I just happened upon Mivart myself. I picked up "The Origin of Human Reason." It is a sustained critique of a book by George Romanes, Darwin's younger protege. And it is trenchant!