The Evolution of a Proof

Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community

by David L. Hull
Harvard, 480 pp., $18.50

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin; drawing by David Levine

Although the idea of evolution was widely current before the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin’s having propounded a theory of how evolution might have come about added enormously to its credibility and the scale of its threat to settled opinion. The reception of Darwinism by the lay press was already known from Alvar Ellegård’s admirable and enthralling Darwin and the General Reader,1 from which we learn that the contentious element in the struggle to establish Darwinian theory was not its scientific credentials so much as its threat to right-thinking opinion. We also learn with shame how very quickly Darwinism was made to serve the cause of racism. If Negroes were not a different species from white Europeans then they represented an intermediate stage between them and the remotely ancestral apes. Opinions of the same intellectual stature as this are still to be heard today.

Hull’s learned and deeply reasoned book, which is likely to find a permanent place in the library of the history of ideas, surveys the scene from the lofty standpoint of methodology and the philosophy of science. He shows how thoroughly the reception of Darwin’s theory was obfuscated by the widespread illusion that theories such as his could be conclusively “proved” and that Darwin himself should have provided such a proof. No technical idea is so grievously misused in common speech as that of proof. People tend to use the word “proof” in the empirical sciences as if it had the same weight and connotation as it has in logic and mathematics, for we do indeed in the strictest sense of the word prove Euclid’s theorems to be true by showing that they follow deductively from his axioms and postulates. But with the empirical sciences and especially with ideas of the generality of evolution, gravitation, and even the roundness of the earth, it is not so much a question of finding “proofs” as of expounding the grounds for having confidence in them.

I can remember from my earliest schooldays being told that the earth was round and being given a number of proofs that this was indeed the case: I was told that if I saw a ship coming over the horizon I should see first the tip of the mast, then the mast as a whole, and then the bow, until finally the whole ship hove into view. I remember also being told that if three sticks were stuck into the ground some distance apart and the same distance above the ground, I should find by casting my eye along them that the middle one would look higher than the outer two.

Even as a child (doubtless a very irritating one) I can remember thinking that these proofs were pretty feeble considering the importance and unfamiliarity of the idea they professed to sustain, and so it is with the idea of evolution. For one…

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