Darwin, Evolution and His Critics-Part 3

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
In fact, even the scientific community of his own day did not accept Darwin’s theory as either valid or possible.


How Was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution First Received??

Many people assume that, upon publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, its weight of argument was so convincing, belief in his theory was compelled from all quarters.

Not so. In fact most scientists initially rejected it.

It is true that within 20 years his theory had received general acceptance; but this was not so much due to the weight of argument as the prevailing climate of the times. For example, Cynthia Eagle Russett, a lecturer in American history at Yale University and specialist in Ameri­can intellectual history, observes that Darwin’s theory was not so much a revolution as a cata­lyst for a much broader emerging change that had been waiting in the wings:

Darwinism, superficially so sensational, actually focused the inchoate strings of an even more basic shift in thought patterns—away from supernaturalism, ultimate reality, and final causes…. But, in fact, the Origin did not so much initiate as accelerate a long-term trend that can be traced back at least as far as the Renaissance, a trend toward secularism and humanism in the broadest sense. There can be little doubt that the rough direction of this trend had been well established long before Darwin…. The fact is that the times were ripe for a reorientation of intellect, and Darwinism offered itself as symbol and mechanism of such a reorientation.[1]

But the implications of Darwin’s theory were so vast that the Pelican Classics edition of the Origin of Species observes it “was greeted with violent and malicious criticism.”[2]

Not only did his Origin (1859) receive constant critical review, but

The scientific world also was almost wholly against the Origin. In later years, T. H. Huxley, speaking of the year 1860, described the situation by saying, “The supporters of Mr. Darwin’s views were numerically, extremely insignificant. There is not the slightest doubt that if a general council of the church scientific had been held at that time, we should have been condemned by an overwhelming majority.”[3]

The reason for such criticisms is well expressed by Michael Denton, M.D., a researcher in molecular biology and author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis:

The intuitive feeling that pure chance could never have achieved the degree of complexity and ingenuity so ubiquitous in nature has been a continuing source of skepticism ever since the publication of the Origin; and throughout the past century there has always existed a significant minority of first-rate biologists who have never been able to bring themselves to accept the validity of Darwinian claims. In fact, the number of biologists who have expressed some degree of disillusionment is practically endless.[4]

This was true from the start. Below we present a sampling of illustrations of the critical response.[5]

That the acceptance of Darwinism was by no means universal can be seen from the review of Henry Fawcett (professor of political philosophy at Cambridge) writing in Macmillan’s maga­zine for December, 1860, Vol. 3, p. 81:

No scientific work that has been published within this century has excited so much curiosity as the treatise of Mr. Darwin. It has for a time divided the scientific world into two great contending sections. A Darwinite and an anti-Darwinite are now the badges of opposed scientific parties. Each side is ably represented.[6]

As remains true today, many of the severest criticisms of Darwin’s theory were from scien­tists. Philosophy professor David L. Hull observes that Darwin had not “anticipated the vehe­mence with which even the most respected scientists and philosophers in his day would de­nounce his efforts as not being properly ‘scientific.’” And, “With the publication of the Origin of Species, large segments of the scientific and intellectual community, turned on him.”[7]

As Hull demonstrates, it was not only the scientists who objected, it was also the leading philosophers of the day:

The leading philosophers, contemporary with Darwin, John Herschel, William Whewell, and John Stuart Mill, were equally adamant in their conviction that the Origin of Species was just one massive conjecture. Darwin had proved nothing! From a philosophical point of view, evolutionary theory was sorely deficient. Even today, both Darwin’s original efforts and more recent formulations are repeatedly found philosophically objectionable. Evolutionary theory seems capable of offending almost everyone.[8]

Further, the scientific reviewers were not pre-disposed against the idea: “Many of the re­viewers were competent scientists honestly trying to evaluate a novel theory against the com­monly accepted standards of scientific excellence, and evolutionary theory consistently came up wanting.”[9]

Adam Sedgwick, one of the founders of the science of geology in England, a colleague of Darwin and Woodwardian professor of geology at Trinity College, Cambridge, stated in a letter to Darwin (December 1859; in Life and Letters (1877), pp. 42-45):

Parts of it [On the Origin of Species] I admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow, because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous. You have… started us in machinery as wild, I think, as Bishop Wilkins’ locomotive that was to sail with us to the moon. Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved….[10]

Sedgwick summarized his view of Darwin’s thesis as follows:

From first to last it is a dish of rank materialism cleverly cooked and served up…. It is like a pyramid poised on its apex. It is a system embracing all living nature, vegetable and animal; yet contradicting—point blank—the vast treasure of facts that the Author of Nature has…revealed to our senses. And why is this done? For no other solid reason, I am sure, except to make us independent of a Creator.[11]

Richard Owen (M.D.), was Superintendent of the Natural History Department of the BritishMuseum and the leading comparative anatomist of his time.[12] In the Edinburgh Review, April1860, he said “But do the facts of actual organic nature square with the Darwinian hypothesis?…Unquestionably not.”[13] Later he refers to the “defective information which contribute, almostat each chapter” which prevent him from believing in Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection.[14]

William Hopkins was an important mathematician who took his degree from Cambridge and was influenced in his geological studies by Adam Sedgwick. His analysis is described as “a detailed criticism of evolutionary theory on the basis of the best views then current on the nature of science.”[15]

Hopkins’ approach was to demand of Darwin’s theory

the same kind of general evidence that we demand before we yield our assent to more ordinary physical theories. While we admit the same principles of research, we cannot admit different principles in interpretation, and yield our assent to the naturalist on evidence which we should utterly reject in the physicist…. He who appeals to Caesar must be judged by Caesar’s laws.[16]

Hopkins’ review (in which the above statements occur) comes from Fraser’s magazine, June and July, 1860. He further stated: “We venture to assert, without fear of contradiction, that any physical theory of inorganic matter which should rest on no better evidence than the theory we are considering, would be instantly and totally rejected by everyone qualified to form a judgment upon it.”[17]

In commenting on Darwin’s method for overcoming his many difficulties, Hopkins replies as follows:

It is thus by a vague hypothesis, entirely unsupported by facts, that our author meets a difficulty which appears to us, as it has appeared to many others, to be of the gravest magnitude…. [Darwin’s approach is] to found a theory, not on our knowledge, but on our ignorance. Nor is this the only instance in which he seems to have adopted similar reasoning…. We confess ourselves to have been somewhat astonished at this bold manner of disposing of difficulties….We had imagined, too, that the facts reasoned upon ought to be real, and not hypothetical….We confess that the adoption of such conclusions, unsupported by any positive and independent evidence, merely on the demand of an unproved theory, appears to us little consistent with the sobriety and dignity of philosophical investigation.[18]
The defect of this theory is the wont of all positive proof,…[19]
In the statement of facts, the author is uniformly impartial. It is difficult to conceive a fairer advocate. But when, in his judicial capacity, he comes to the discussion of facts in their theoretical bearings, we recognize a wont of strict adherence to philosophical and logical modes of thought and reasoning. There is one great and plausible error of this kind which pervades nearly his whole work. He constantly speaks of his theory as explaining certain phenomena, which he represents as inexplicable on any other theory. We altogether demur to this statement.[20]

Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin was the Professor of Engineering at Glasgow University who worked with Lord Kelvin in laying the Transatlantic Cable. Jenkin’s review, quoted from The North British Review, June 1867, in the words of Darwin “has given me much trouble.”[21]

The chief arguments used to establish the theory rests on conjecture.[22]
We are asked to believe all these “maybes” happening on an enormous scale, in order that we may believe the final Darwinian “maybe” as to the origin of species. The general form of his argument is as follows:—all these things may have been, therefore my theory is possible, and since my theory is a possible one, all those hypotheses which it requires are rendered probable. There is little direct evidence that any of these maybes actually have been. Many of these assumed possibilities are actually impossibilities,…[23]

Jenkin stated of evolution that “its untruth can, as we think, be proved…”,[24] and “any one of the main pleas of our argument, if established, is fatal to Darwin’s theory.”[25] He concluded, “A plausible theory should not be accepted while unproven; and if the arguments of this essay be admitted, Darwin’s theory of the origin of species is not only without sufficient support from evidence, but is proved false by a cumulative proof.”[26]

Samuel Haughton was a Physiologist and Professor of Geology at Dublin University. In the Natural History Review (1860, Vol. 7, pp. 23-32) Haughton wondered:

How does it happen that a theory of the origin of species, which rests upon the same [wholly unfounded] basis, is accepted by multitudes of naturalists, as if it were a new gospel? I believe it is because our naturalists, as a class, are untrained in the use of the logical faculties by which they may be charitably supposed to possess in common with other men. No progress in natural science is possible as long as men will take their rude guesses at truth for facts, and substitute the fancies of their imagination for the sober rules of reasoning.[27]

Many other critical reviews could be cited[28] but the point should be made. Darwin gathered and systematized a good deal of data, but he had proved nothing. He no more proved evolu­tion by amassing facts than scientists of an earlier era proved the theory of phlogiston or that the world was flat by amassing facts. Facts are facts but they can be interpreted quite differ­ently depending upon presuppositions and other considerations.

As another leading scientist of the day, Louis Agassiz of Harvard University, author of the Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, observed:

The facts upon which Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel, and others base their views are in the possession of every well educated naturalist. It is only a question of interpretation, not discovery or of new and unlooked-for information.[29]

Darwin himself admitted his theory was bereft of proof where it was most needed. In a letter to H. G. Bronn he confessed, “You put very well and very fairly that I can in no one instance explain the course of modification in any particular instance,” and further, “When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory,”[30] and finally, “I am actually weary of telling people that I do not pretend to adduce direct evidence of one species chang­ing into another.”[31] In other words, Darwin agreed he had no direct evidence for evolution.

As William Hopkins observed: “A great number of facts are mentioned as being only expli­cable on this theory, and might thus appear to an inattentive reader to constitute a large amount of inductive evidence. But all that is attempted to be done is to assert, not to prove, that the facts are consistent with the theory;…”[32]

David L. Hull, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, and former visiting Associate Professor, Committee on the Conceptual Foundation of Science, University of Chicago, points out that Darwin’s deficient methodology is still used today:

As Huxley observed, the Origin is “a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical bond; due attention will, without doubt, discover this bond, but it is often hard to find.” The modern reader frequently grows impatient with Darwin’s method in the Origin of piling example on example, but this was the only method open to him given the structure of evolutionary theory. This format is still characteristic of works in evolutionary theory [today].[33]

Again, even Darwin suspected that his factual data were insufficient. He conceded to Asa Gray, “What you hint at generally is very, very true: that my work will be grievously hypotheti­cal, and large parts by no means worthy of being called induction, my commonest error being probably induction from too few facts.”[34]

In the end, critical reviews gave Darwin no end of trouble and caused him to constantly revise The Origin of Species. After the “most cutting review” of St. George Jackson Mivart, Darwin thought, “I shall soon be viewed as the most despicable of men.”[35] In a letter to J. D. Hooker January 16, 1869, Darwin complained, “It is only about two years since the last edition of the Origin, and I am fairly disgusted to find how much I have to modify, and how much I ought to add;…”[36]

All of this is why Michael Denton concludes that:

The popular conception of a triumphant Darwin increasingly confident after 1859 in his views of evolution is a travesty. On the contrary, by the time the last edition of the Origin was published in 1872, he had become plagued with self doubt and frustrated by his inability to meet the many objections which had been leveled at his theory. According to Loren Eiseley: “A close examination of the last edition of the Origin reveals that in attempting on scattered pages to meet the objections being launched against his theory the much-labored upon volume had become contradictory…. The last repairs to the Origin reveal… how very shaky Darwin’s theoretical structure had become. His gracious ability to compromise had produced some striking inconsistencies. His book was already a classic, however, and these deviations for the most part passed unnoticed even by his enemies.”[37]

In conclusion, Darwin’s theory was subject to a considerable amount of valid criticism imme­diately after publication. As we documented in Darwin’s Leap of Faith (1998), the critics were right all along and the scientists and theologians who accepted Darwinism on naturalistic or philosophic grounds were wrong. Evolution came to be an accepted theory not because it was ever proven but because people wanted it to be true. Its appeal was that it provided a seeming scientific explanation for living things as well as a seeming testable mechanism for the origin of those things—natural selection.

Not only was Darwin unable to answer his best critics, but in the subsequent 140 years, neither have modern scientists been able to answer theirs. As Michael Denton observes:

Neither of the two fundamental axioms of Darwin’s macroevolutionary theory [i.e., (1) the evolutionary continuity of nature linking all life forms on a continuum leading back to a primal origin and (2) the adaptive design of life [resulting from blind random processes] have been validated by one single empirical discovery or scientific advance since 1859. Despite more than a century of intensive effort on the part of evolutionary biologists, the major objections raised by Darwin’s critics such as Agassiz, Pictet, Bronn and Richard Owen have not been met…. That the gaps cannot be dismissed as inventions of the human mind, merely figments of an antievolutionary imagination—an imagination prejudiced by typology, essentialism or creationism—is amply testified by the fact that their existence has always been just as firmly acknowledged by the advocates of evolution…”[38]

From day one evolutionists have had serious, and, we think fatal problems with their theory. In light of the evolutionary establishment’s constant refrain of “evolution is a fact,” those frank enough to admit such difficulties should be commended.


  1. Cynthia Eagle Russett, Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response 1865-1912 (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co., 1976), pp. 216-217.
  2. Charles Darwin (ed. J. W. Burrow), The Origin of Species (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974), p. i.
  3. Robert E. D. Clark, Darwin: Before and After (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1967), p. 63.
  4. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler Publishers, Inc., 1986), p. 327
  5. The fact that a few of these critics may have held to various evolutionary ideas or may later have joined Darwinian ranks does not discount the validity of their criticism. Men can accept a theory which they acknowledge is contrary to the facts and which they suspect may not be true for want of, in their minds, a better theory to replace it.
  6. David L. Hull, Darwin & His Critics: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 277.
  7. Ibid., pp. 3, 6; cf., Robert E. D. Clark, Darwin: Before and After (Chicago: Moody Press, 1967), p. 63.
  8. Hull, Darwin & His Critics, p. 7.
  9. Ibid., p. 14.
  10. Ibid., pp. 157-58.
  11. In Ibid., p. 169, citing John Stuart Mill, The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (NY: Columbia University Press, 1924), p. 140.
  12. Hull, Darwin & His Critics, p. 213.
  13. Ibid., p. 193.
  14. Ibid., pp. 208-209.
  15. Ibid., p. 273, cf. pp. 230-231.
  16. Ibid., pp. 230-231.
  17. Ibid., p. 275.
  18. Ibid., pp. 263-265.
  19. Ibid., p. 266.
  20. Ibid., p. 267.
  21. See Darwin to J. D. Hooker, January 16, 1869 in More Letters, Vol. 2, 379 from ibid., p. 302.
  22. Hull, Darwin & His Critics, p. 338.
  23. Ibid., p. 338.
  24. Ibid., p. 340.
  25. Ibid., p. 343.
  26. Ibid., p. 344.
  27. Ibid., p. 227.
  28. E.g., Ibid., pp. 139-149.
  29. Ibid., p. 436, citing Atlantic Monthly, January 1874.
  30. Ibid., p. 32, citing More Letters, 1903, Vol. 1, 172 and Darwin, Life and Letters, 1887, Vol. 2, p. 210.
  31. Ibid., p. 292, citing Autobiography, p. 265.
  32. Ibid., p. 267.
  33. Ibid., p. 32.
  34. Ibid., p. 9, citing Letter to Asa Gray, November 29, 1859 in More Letters, 1903, Vol. 1, p. 126.
  35. Ibid., p. 352 citing C. Darwin to A. R. Wallace, July 12, 1871 in Life and Letters, Vol. 2, p. 326.
  36. Ibid., p. 302 citing Letter of January 16, 1869 in More Letters, Vol. 2, p. 379.
  37. Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, p. 69. The above material is not intended to indicate Darwin did not evaluate and explain much that was relevant. But this dealt primarily with microevolution, not macroevolution and was irrelevant for establishing his general theory.
  38. Ibid., p. 345.



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