What makes special creationism special?

It is the default opinion of those who accept evolution and those who deny it, that before Darwin, or Lamarck at any rate, everyone was a special creationist. Even Darwin implies in the Origin that if one is not a transformist with regards to species, one is a special creationist. Is it true, and what work does "special" do when affixed to "creation"?

It's important to know if only because of those interminable canards creationists of today in which science is supposed to be based on the work of creationists like Newton because they Christians, and didn't believe in evolution. As if one could believe in an idea that had not yet been proposed by anyone.

So we have two questions before us:

1. When did the idea of the creation of species as they now are arise?

2. Why call it "special" creation?

The first is interesting. I have reviewed as much literature from the Greeks to the modern day on the notion of species as I can. Although the term was in common use, it had no particular biological meaning until the early period of natural history, beginning with Conrad Gesner and Caspar Bauhin, when "kinds" of plants and animals (in Latin, species) were beginning to be listed and described accurately. Even then the term was not a term of the naturalist's art, but an ordinary vernacular word used in the ordinary way. To be sure, species also had a technical meaning in logic, but naturalists almost never used the term that way, any more than we mean by "class" the terms of symbolic logic in ordinary discourse.

In 1686, John Ray published the first volume of his great work Historia generalis plantarum. In it, he felt obliged to give what so far as I can tell is the first biological definition of species. He wrote:

In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species”. After long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species … Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa. [Historia plantarum generalis, in the volume published in 1686, Chap. XXI. The Latin of the definition is Nulla certior occurit quam distincta propagations ex semine.]

Two things are of note about this definition. One is that species are distinguished by shared features. The other is that they propagate these features "from seed", and do so permanently. Rather than call this a "biological species concept", which has modern implications, let's call this a "generative concept of species". Examples of living species being specified by their ability to propagate traits go back to the Greeks, and in particular Lucretius, who gives the Epicurean version in his De Rerum Natura [Book I. 155–191]. It is, so to speak, the default view of the western tradition.

But notice that Ray adds a further definiens: propagation is permanent and fixed. This is new. Nobody makes this specification in the classical or medieval world. It's as if Ray, having to define species needs to assert that they never vary in what matters. Why? The answer, I think, is because he was pious. Together with William Harvey, he cofounded the tradition we call "Natural Theology". In a letter to a friend, he wrote:

… the number of species being in nature certain and determinate, as is generally acknowledged by philosophers, and might be proved also by divine authority, God having finished his works of creation, that is, consummated the number of species in six days. [Letter (quoted in Greene 1959: 131)]

In other words, the idea of the fixity of species was based firmly on religious belief, not science.

Prior to this, species were understood to vary all over the place. They had monsters and mutants and hybrids that formed new species in different conditions. There was no shared assumption that they remained constant. In fact, those who tried to fit all "kinds" on the Ark held that species were very mutable. So, ironically, at the moment when a biological conception of species came into being, so too did fixism.

It didn't last long, though. Mutabilism of species arose first with the work of Pierre Maupertuis, who I have written on before, in 1745. At the end of the 18th century, two writers, Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather, and Lamarck both published ideas supporting the transforming of species one into another. By the 1830s, according to Adrian Desmond in his 1989 book, evolutionism, as it had come to be known, was widely discussed by political radicals. So it is simply not true that before Darwin, everyone was a creationist. In fact only for about 180 years were people creationists, and for a good part of that, many people weren't.

The period before Ray was therefore not "creationist" in any real sense, and even after him, a good many of the scientists who are corralled into the term by modern creationists, such as Newton, simply had no opinion on the matter that they published. Merely being Christian doesn't therefore make them creationists, just as being Christian after Darwin doesn't either.

At this point it's important to note that believing in God as Creator is not the same thing as believing God created all living species as they now are. Individuals as diverse as Augustine (scroll down to Gen. 1:11) and Dobzhansky held that God created the universe, but that species subsequently developed according to "secondary causes".

This leads us into the question of what "special" creationism is. The term is hard to find the origins of, but I think it possible that it was Robert Chambers in his Vestiges of Creation who coined the phrase. In that work it means quite clearly the creation of species at a single moment. Darwin uses the phrase in the Origin too. It is possibly deliberately an ambiguous term. It could mean that God undertook a special act of creation for the individual kinds, as described in Genesis, or it could be an adjectival form of "species", i.e., the creation of each species. Chambers argues strongly that the (then-prevailing) view was the "predominant theory" of his day. In short, Chambers' objection was to the religiously based views of natural history, whereas for Darwin, it sufficed simply to show that non-natural explanations of species were no explanations at all for a naturalist. Chambers had a religious agenda. Darwin didn't.

Either way, the notion that species were special acts of God was hardly the prevailing view of naturalists at the time Darwin wrote, so why did he bother to discuss it? Robert Richards, a historian at the University of Chicago, has argued that Darwin chose the easier of the two targets facing his transformism. The other was the Romantic view of the Goethean tradition we call "ideal morphology", which Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley were adherents of. According to them, species were ideal states that living things could instantiate in a kind of process of crystalisation.

And so the myth that everyone before Darwin was a special creationist came into being.

The beginnings of the myth of special creationism can be found in the work of George Romanes, a student of Darwin's, who provided a list of definitions of species in 1895, one of which was:

3. A group of individuals which, however many characters they share with other individuals, agree in presenting one or more characters of a peculiar kind, with some certain degree of distinctness.

In this we have the definition which is practically followed by all naturalists at the present time. But, as we shall presently see more fully, it is an extremely lax definition. For it is impossible to determine, by any fixed and general rule, what degree of distinctness on the part of peculiar characters is to be taken as a uniform standard of specific separation. So long as naturalists believed in special creation, they could feel that by following this definition (3) they were at any rate doing their best to tabulate very real distinctions in nature—viz. between types as originally produced by a supernatural cause, and as subsequently more or less modified (i.e. within the limits imposed by the test of cross-fertility) by natural causes. But evolutionists are unable to hold any belief in such real distinctions, being confessedly aware that all distinctions between species and varieties are purely artificial.

This mythos developed over the next 60 years until at the centenary of the publication of the Origin, a number of articles came out which claimed that Darwin had effected a total revolution in western thinking. Ernst Mayr was a leading proponent of this view, and until his death he elaborated and expanded it, until in his massive The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance it became "what everybody knows". But what everybody knows is wrong.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again: people were not stupid before Darwin, and they didn't suddenly become smart after him. The extent of the variability of species in the traditions from Aristotle to the nineteenth century is great, and people observed that living things were hardly the sort of fixed discrete kinds that the myth suggests.

In fact even special creationism has changed dramatically, for reasons similar to those who tried to shoehorn all living things on the Ark: species are just too finegrained. The original "special creationists" of the fundamentalist movement in America, beginning with the Seventh Day Adventists of the 1910s, tried to make species equivalent to the "kinds" of Genesis, but very quickly began to expand the scope of "kind" to genus, or even family level. The modern creationists, whose ideas date from Morris and Whitcomb in the 1960s, now argue that massive amounts of species-level evolution had to occur after the Ark, to accommodate the incredible number of species now described. The goalposts move so quickly that one needs a high speed camera to capture them.

More like this

John, you've got a lot more scholarship on this than I do, and I don't doubt that if a fella looks they can find numerous examples of before Darwin of people playing with the idea that species were mutable. So, when Mayr implies otherwise, he's overstating the importance of Darwin's thought in terms of the distinction that Mayr thought most important. I get that.

However, I am curious as to whether or not you would be equally quick to assert that the 'population thinking' that Mayr considered so revolutionary is similarly anticipated by Darwin's predecessors. It seems to me one thing to assert that not all earlier naturalists thought typologically, and yet another that many of them thought in terms of changes in the population, rather than in individual changes.

As always, I look forward to your informed reply....SH

And who articuled the Special Creation Theory, that species do changed within 6000 yeras or 1 million yeras of 1 billion years (they're mot sure), with the general idea thwt when one species goes extinct, God poofs a new one in its place ?

According to that theory, a species is immutable, only God poofs new species a whim.

Good knowledge of the history of a problem can clear out a lot of facts and definitions. It would also be good to look for the reasons why one group sticks to a certain thesis. Is it for the love of knowledge? Are there some very crucial insecurities (and/or big profits) at stake? Or is it all a conflict for the sake of conflict? If we hope for some resolution, it seems necessary to go a step ahead and come up with a new/wider view on things.

"The significant problems we face today cannot be resolved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." -Albert Einstein

Do you discern any such emerging level of thought?

Couple of thoughts; local naturalists have little trouble in recognizing their local species. It is when one looks at things more globally that questions arise. Clearly the two grasshoppers in my garden are different, but what about the grasshoppers in the next country?

Secondly, so long as spontaneous generation is taken seriously, it is hard to think about common descent, either within or among species.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 26 Dec 2007 #permalink

"And who articuled the Special Creation Theory, that species do changed within 6000 yeras or 1 million yeras of 1 billion years (they're mot sure), with the general idea thwt when one species goes extinct, God poofs a new one in its place ?"

That's more or less what Behe professes to believe, insofar as you can drag his position on the history of life out of him.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 26 Dec 2007 #permalink

Scott: I think "population thinking" is a myth too, but one of a different kind. The discovery of statistics is usually credited to Quetelet, but it goes back to the initial theories of proability in the 17th century. Darwin certainly did not invent it, and in fact he employed it in a rather informal manner. Variation in species had been known from antiquity, and in the early nineteenth century, Augustin de Candolle among others had discussed it well before Darwin.

Furthermore, thinking in terms of populations does preclude talking about "types". In fact Darwin did use type concepts, and they are not identical either with so-called essentialism, or purely morphological conceptions of organisms

As I say here, special creationism is an invention of John Ray in 1686. Of course many religious commentators had asserted that God created all species, such as Jean Borrel (John Buteo) and my namesake John Wilkins, but in natural history, it was Ray who created creationism. Amongst the many people who accepted Aristotle's claim that new species could be made by hybridism and deviation from the type, a translator of the King James Bible is included. And as Jim has noted, it was the standard view until the late nineteenth century that species could spontaneously generate, which I have documented here.

Even then the term was not a term of the naturalist's art, but an ordinary vernacular word used in the ordinary way.

Thank you for confirming a notion that occurred to me a few years ago: that the modern creationists over-interpret the term "kind" in Genesis to give it a precision it did not have, on any reasonable view of the Biblical text (but then fundamentalism is almost defined by having an unreasonable view of the Bible).

John: I appreciate the details you've provided. As I said earlier, you have the scholarship. I agree that Darwin's 'population thinking' is akin to, but not identical with, statistical thinking but I can see where his 'population thinking' could be said to be anticipated by those who applied statistical methods to populations.

However, it seems clear that something must have happened between Ray's usage of 'special creation' in 1686 and William Whewell's 1837 declaration that species "have a real existence in nature, and a transition from one to another does not exist." It is my guess that special creation having been proposed, that same was seized upon by clerics as a tenet of natural theology. What are your thoughts?

Quite a lot happened between those two points. One is that Linnaean taxonomy had a massive spread in English speaking nations, largely due to the colonial influx of new species, mostly in botany. So Linnaeus' claim that there are as many species now as when God created them was popularly known. Another is that Cuvier and Lamarck/Geoffroy had their debates, and Lamarck famously denied that species are real, because he, too, thought that if they were they could not change. Cuvier's view was that species do not change, but new ones appear in the fossil record. Whewell was responding to a complex of issues, but that was perhaps the main one. Cuvier's Éloge was published in 1835, so the issue was recent and hot.

But we should not make Whewell the benchmark here, which is a mistake that I think Hull and others have made. Whewell is a philosopher not a naturalist. The de Candolles are a better benchmark, as they were enormously influential on all botanists (including Darwin) and they held that variation was extreme. Also those influenced by Buffon, who denied that Linnaean species were the real objects of nature, would have argued that species had intermediates, as documented by Peter Stevens in his book.

The philosophers like Whewell and Mill were trying to make natural history match classical logic, which had undergone a revival due to Whately's Elements, in which a species (of the logical variety) was a defined class. This is where the notion of a natural kind in biology comes from, and represents a change rather than a statement of the default opinion. Mill himself is rather nuanced on the matter.

Cuvier, Georges. 1835. Éloge de M. de Lamarck. Mémoires de l'Académie Royale des Sciences de l'Institut de France, 2nd series XIII: i-xxxi.

Stevens, Peter F. 1994. The development of biological systematics: Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, nature, and the natural system. New York: Columbia University Press.

Whately, Richard. 1875. Elements of logic. Ninth (octavo) ed. London: Longmans, Green & Co. Original edition, 1826.

But we should not make Whewell the benchmark here, which is a mistake that I think Hull and others have made. Whewell is a philosopher not a naturalist.

Mr Wilkins in dismissing William Whewell as a mere philosopher particularly in this context is to do him a great injustice. Although, today, best remembered as a historian and philosopher of science and in particular for his debates with Mill, Whewell, a polymath of unbelievable breadth, was a bona fide scientist (a word that he himself coined) whose first and principle scientific area was mineralogy and geology (his original appointment at Cambridge was as professor for mineralogy) in which capacity he was a leading exponent in the debate catastrophism verses uniformitarianism (two more scientific concepts that he coined) and was a major influence on both Darwin and Lyell. When reacting to Cuvier it is almost certainly the earth scientist Whewell who is speaking and not the philosopher.