The last intelligent creationist

Earlier today, Maggie Koerth-Baker posted this tweet:

I dig this graph, but I think it misses an outreach opportunity by ascribing common misconceptions to creationists only

It links to a diagram showing evolution as a linear path rather than a branching tree, and it got me thinking about terribly popular misconceptions about evolution that were started by smart people, and a doozy came to mind. A whole collection of doozies, actually, from one single terribly clever person.

You've all heard the stupid creationist objection to evolution — "if evolution is true, how come there are still monkeys?" — but have you ever wondered who the first person to come up with that criticism was? You might be surprised.

The first instance I've been able to find was by Richard Owen, head of the British Museum and one of the premiere scientists of his day, and it was said in a rather notorious review of Darwin's Origin, published in the Edinburgh Review in 1860. So not a stupid fellow, but one with an axe to grind, and also a creationist…but then, just about everyone was a creationist in 1860. Still, it's a remarkable document.


Some background you need to know, though. This review was authored by Owen. When it needs to cite a scientist for its claims, it cites…Professor Richard Owen. It does so 11 times. Reading it with knowledge of its authorship really diminishes its authority to an amazing degree, and greatly inflates Owen's appearance of pomposity.

It's also an agonizing read. Darwin sometimes sounds a bit quaint and wordy nowadays, but at least he's lucid and logical, and his writing flows well: I found Owen's review to be a rough read, turgid and inelegant. I know I've got a bit of a bias which colors my opinion, but seriously, when you read the excerpt below, you'll see what I mean.

On the other hand, if you read the whole thing, you'll be struck by how it uses a whole collection of arguments that sound little different than what creationists say now, but that it is considerably more erudite. I hate to give them advice, but if creationists tossed out the trash written by Gish and Ham and any of the hacks at the Discovery Institute, and just regurgitated Owen's words, there is a great deal that most of the warriors for evolution would have a tough time rebutting. Owen knew a lot of zoology, and he deploys it effectively to buttress some fundamentally flawed arguments.

Like this one. He doesn't literally say "if evolution is true, how come there are still monkeys?" — he uses much more obscure examples and far more convoluted language, but it's the same sentiment.

But has the free-swimming medusa, which bursts its way out of the ovicapsule of a campanularia, been developed out of inorganic particles? Or have certain elemental atoms suddenly flashed up into acalephal form? Has the polype-parent of the acalephe necessarily become extinct by virtue of such anomalous birth? May it not, and does it not proceed to propagate its own lower species in regard to form and organisation, notwithstanding its occasional production of another very different and higher kind. Is the fact of one animal giving birth to another not merely specifically, but generically and ordinally, distinct, a solitary one? Has not Cuvier, in a score or more of instances, placed the parent in one class, and the fruitful offspring in another class, of animals? Are the entire series of parthenogenetic phenomena to be of no account in the consideration of the supreme problem of the introduction of fresh specific forms into this planet? Are the transmutationists to monopolise the privilege of conceiving the possibility of the occurrence of unknown phenomena, to be the exclusive propounders of beliefs and surmises, to cry down every kindred barren speculation, and to allow no indulgence in any mere hypothesis save their own? Is it to be endured that every observer who points out a case to which transmutation, under whatever term disguised, is inapplicable, is to be set down by the refuted theorist as a believer in a mode of manufacturing a species which he never did believe in, and which may be inconceivable?

Doesn't it sound so much more intelligent to ask, if evolution is true, why haven't inorganic particles evolved into free-swimming medusae, and hey, why are there still polype-parents of the acalephe? Why aren't we observing new forms bursting up out of the inanimate world in the same way they must have in Darwin's version of the past?

The intelligent design creationists are also missing an opportunity. This is one of my favorite parts: Owen is snidely berating Darwin for thinking up this cunning new mechanism and then discarding the other 'scientific' mode of biological change…that is, divine creation. Transmutationists, as he calls evolutionists, are unable to see other ways that creation might work. "You can't handle the truth!" is what he's saying here.

Here it is assumed, as by Mr. Darwin, that no other mode of operation of a secondary law in the foundation of a form with distinct specific characters, can have been adopted by the Author of all creative laws that the one which the transmutationists have imagined. Any physiologist who may find the Lamarckian, or the more diffused and attenuated Darwinian, exposition of the law inapplicable to a species, such as the gorilla, considered as a step in the transmutative production of man, is forthwith clamoured against as one who swallows up every fact and every phenomenon regarding the origin and continuance of species 'in the gigantic conception of a power intermittently exercised in the development, out of inorganic elements, of organisms the most bulky and complex, as well as the most minute and simple.' Significantly characteristic of the partial view of organic phenomena taken by the transmutationists, and of their inadequacy to grapple with the working out and discovery of a great natural law, is their incompetency to discern the indications of any other origin of one specific form out of another preceding it, save by their way of gradual change through a series of varieties assumed to have become extinct.

Similarly, Owen siezes on Darwin's remark that all life descended from one primordial form "into which life was first breathed" to chastise him for limiting god:

By the latter scriptural phrase, it may be inferred that Mr. Darwin formally recognises, in the so-limited beginning, a direct creative act, something like that supernatural or miraculous one which, in the preceding page, he defines, as 'certain elemental atoms which have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues.' He has, doubtless, framed in his imagination some idea of the common organic prototype; but he refrains from submitting it to criticism. He leaves us to imagine our globe, void, but so advanced as to be under the conditions which render life possible; and he then restricts the Divine power of breathing life into organic form to its minimum of direct operation.

I have some sympathy for this argument, and I think Darwin himself regretted making that one concession, because as we can see, creationists will sieze any excuse to invoke their personal god.

There's also a section where he chides Darwin for not giving enough credit to Lamarck, and another where he favorably cites Buffon for his idea that species are mutable to a limited degree (Owen himself accepted some range of change over time), and calculated that all mammals could be reduced to 15 basic stocks. Creationists calculating storage space on the ark, take notice.

So yes, a lot of creationist arguments have their source not in really stupid people, but in some very intelligent and scientifically conservative people in the past. The problem is that modern creationists are clinging to rotten antique ideas that have long been dismantled. I'd also point out that creationist arguments have decayed: Owen's writing, opaque and pretentious as it is, is far more challenging than anything I've seen from his degraded intellectual descendants.

I think if I were teaching a course in anti-creationism, I'd give this essay to my students and we'd spend about a week taking it apart — it would be a good exercise for them. And oh, they would hate me for it.


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There are few scientific figures as misunderstood as the English anatomist Richard Owen. More often than not, he is portrayed as a sort of Grinch, brooding in his museum and muttering "I must stop this 'evolution' from coming, but how?" Not only was he a severe and vicious old man, generally…
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If we were made from dust, why is there still dust?

By Jason Torpy (not verified) on 30 Mar 2013 #permalink

Several times I've run into smart people in the 19th century arguing about things like spontaneous generation, because they simply lacked data to explain what they SEEMED to be observing. Someday I'll look at it more carefully, because I think it might show something important about the way paradigms get built. And about how freethinkers participated in the process.

By Dan Allosso (not verified) on 30 Mar 2013 #permalink

While it's true that the pushing of creationist pseudoscience rhetoric (for the purpose of reducing cognitive dissonance) brings out the stupid, you can't necessarily say that any particular creationist is so because of a lack of intelligence, as your example demonstrates. The problem is in how people can let their personal beliefs so dominate their thinking that it sabotages, not just rational thinking, but plain common sense.

By Steve Greene (not verified) on 30 Mar 2013 #permalink

So it's a lack of imagination then?

What! No posts from the Flat Earth Society yet? What about the speed of lighyt changing through time and Noah's Flood? We need domes creationist craziest on this site for entertainment.
Where is Theo the creationism aneroid?

Well,in Owen's defense, we did not even know of a mechanism to pass on a parent's traits to the child.

That the IDists are still clinging to Creationism after our discovery of DNA (which was essentially predicted by evolution theory) is just sad.

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By cheap oakleys … (not verified) on 01 Apr 2013 #permalink

With regard to Maggie Koerth-Baker's tweeted graphic, I deeply wish that somehow the general public could be disabused of the idea that evolution is a progression toward perfection (whatever that means — I suppose it's some combination of "more universally capable" and "more complex"). This idea is almost universal, even among otherwise scientifically literate people who accept evolution. It's a staple of cheesy science fiction.

And, of course, underneath this in the popular imagination is just another form of teleology — that there's a purpose toward which all nature is aimed, some final cause. What this indicates to me is that while large portions of the population nominally accept evolution and deny creationism, the underlying worldview is nevertheless unscientific, even magical.

By Keith M Ellis (not verified) on 01 Apr 2013 #permalink


By David Marjanović (not verified) on 02 Apr 2013 #permalink

I explained it by comparing species to businesses where profit is the food for survival. There have been many grocery stores. Some of those grocery stores, like Fry's for example, found they were more profitable selling electronics instead. (Fry's Electronics started as a grocery chain). But the Safeway and Raley's found they could still turn profit selling groceries. Other stores like Ralph's and Albertson's did not remain profitable and did not adapt so went out business (went extinct).

By darth_borehd (not verified) on 03 Apr 2013 #permalink

To darth_borehd: Here in Covington, LA we still have an Albertson. Was in it a couple of weeks ago.

By Chric Cox (not verified) on 03 Apr 2013 #permalink

That's Chris, with an s.

By Chris Cox (not verified) on 03 Apr 2013 #permalink

@ jason, if we eveolved from apes why are there still apes?

evolution is so laughable. Cute. so called scientists spend years in academics learning satan's ideals and then spend decades arguing their selfish left wing agenda points, then die and find out how wromng they were.

They ony reason why creationists do anything about this scenario is becuase we are all still laughing too hard at your mud to monkey to man mayhem theory.

The only "scientific" idea more laughable than darwin's turtle herder evolution fantasy (but far more dangerous to society) is global warming. Just imagine ... millions of little invisible fairies sprinkling carbon dust over the earth to warm it just for us. Hilarious! global warming has been proven wrong so many times people are starting to lose count. No one takes you seriously when you say earthworms and cow farts will be the destruciion of AmeriKa. We do get a good laugh out if though.

By Kevin Sanders (not verified) on 04 Apr 2013 #permalink

Kevin Sanders, if you want to troll people, you need to be less obvious. You can't just hope that Poe's Law will cover for you and people will take a single thing you say at face value.

if we eveolved from apes why are there still apes?


FFS. Why do you have cousins?

The tree of life is a tree, not a pole.

their selfish left wing agenda points

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

global warming has been proven wrong so many times people are starting to lose count.

Name one.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

Name one instance or one Book?

It is quite possible I could give you a few hundred books, articles, and websites debunking your treasured global warming fantasy. Would that suffice?

By Kevin Sanders (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

No, I know what agenda means and global warming has an agenda behind it. MONEY. That is, the redistrubition of other people's money.

By Kevin Sanders (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

Name one instance or one Book?


It is quite possible I could give you a few hundred books, articles, and websites debunking your treasured global warming fantasy. Would that suffice?

Go ahead, just don't expect me to discuss all of them at once.

No, I know what agenda means and global warming has an agenda behind it. MONEY. That is, the redistrubition of other people’s money.

Please explain. I have no clue what you're talking about.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 06 Apr 2013 #permalink

I think Kevin Sanders illustrates PZ's point about modern creationists rather perfectly, don't you?

By bughunter (not verified) on 07 Apr 2013 #permalink

When scientists disparage the views of “creationists” they are doing one of two things: either they are constructing a straw-man argument or they are incorrectly equating creationists to political conservatives. Creationism is a religious convention like holy communion, the hadith of Gabriel, kosher dietary law, or samsara. A scientist might as well argue against reincarnation as against creationism. But creationism is such an easy target that common-thinking, run-of-the-mill, Euro-centric, pseudointellectuals love to take aim at it with their impotent arrow; and when they do, they only prove how flaccid their arrow actually is. Creation-baiters release political endorphins by casting a polemical net with which they hope to ensnare political conservatives. It doesn’t matter to them that the vast majority of political conservatives understand and respect Darwinist evolutionary concepts. What matters to creation-baiters is that they stick to the script that all political conservatives are creationists. That way, real, substantial discussions of political issues can be dodged by people who would lose arguments contested in the arena of ideas.

By WA McConnell (not verified) on 07 Apr 2013 #permalink

political conservatives thought sarah palin was a good idea ...if i said that she was as dumb as a post i'd be insulting posts....and she was a creationist

not all theists are as ignorant as your average american creationist ..i follow pz all the time and most of the time i totally agree with his views on creationists... and before someone comments, yes, i do type like ee cummings

By brightmoon (not verified) on 11 Apr 2013 #permalink

When scientists disparage the views of “creationists” they are doing one of two things:

You are overthinking this by orders of magnitude.

Creationists teach at home and in private schools, and want to have taught in public schools (sometimes already successfully), lots and lots of things that plainly aren't true. Whether reincarnation ever happens is a bit difficult to test, but whether evolution happens or how old the Earth is are clear enough. Whether reincarnation ever happens may also be argued not to have consequences in the real world – but without evolution, nothing in biology makes sense (I'm not exaggerating), and if you don't know where natural resources come from, that'll influence your use of them.

Finally, not all conservatives are creationists, but show me a creationist who isn't conservative.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 12 Apr 2013 #permalink