Orestes Brownson on Darwin’s Descent of Man

Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) was one of the greatest Catholic apologists in the history of the United States–some would say the greatest.  A convert to the Catholic Faith, Brownson entered the Church after having earned a stellar reputation as an original writer and thinker, a member of the intellectual circle that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His  Review offered a bold and uncompromising defense of the Catholic Faith which earned the respect and admiration of the entire episcopate.  On May 13, 1849, Brownson received a letter from Bishop Kenrick of Philadelphia, signed by the Archbishop of Baltimore and by all of the American Bishops in attendance at the Council of Baltimore in 1849, to encourage him by their “approbation and influence” to continue his “literary labors in defense of the faith.” The fact that Brownson later lost the support of many of the Bishops when he rightly upheld the authority of the Church above that of the state in her proper sphere does not diminish the extraordinary character of this recognition by all of the American bishops of his skill as an apologist. When Charles Darwin published his speculations on the origins of man and living things, beginning with his Origin of Species and continuing with the Descent of Man, Brownson recognized immediately that the Emperor of Evolution was naked but that his nakedness needed to be exposed swiftly, lest the world begin to admire the magnificence of the Emperor’s New Clothes as described by the disciples of Darwin.  Brownson’s critique of Darwin’s Descent of Man rings as true today as when he penned it one hundred and fifty years ago.

Mr. Darwin’s theory of the descent of man from the ape or some other of the monkey tribe depends on his theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection.  Which in its turn depends on the theory of progress, which we refuted in our review of Sir John Lubbock’s theory of the origin of civilization; or, perhaps, more remotely on Herbert Spencer’s theory of evolution as set forth in his First Principles of a New System of Philosophy, which itself depends on the theory of the correlation of forces.  If Sir John’s theory on the origin of civilization is untenable, or if Herbert Spencer’s theory of evolution is evidently false, unproved, and unprovable, Darwin’s theory of the origin of species is an untenable hypothesis, and his theory of the descent of man falls to the ground.  We proved, in our review of Sir John Lubbock’s theory, that man did not begin and could not have begun in utter barbarism, and that the savage is the degenerate, not the primitive man; for man, when deprived of foreign and supernatural assistance, either deteriorates or remains stationary.  We will only add here, that progress is motion forward, if taken literally, and is, if taken figuratively, an advance from the imperfect toward the perfect and necessarily demands a principle or a beginning, a medium, and an end, none of which can be asserted without the supposition of a Creator, who in his creative act is at once all three.  You must have a starting-point from which progress moves, an end toward which it moves, and a medium in and by which it moves.  These three things are essential, and without them progress is inconceivable: and these three are all independent of the progressive subject.  There can, then, be no progress without God as its first and last cause, and the divine creative act as its medium, and even then progress only in the line of the specific nature of the progressive subject, whether man or animal.  The transformation of one species into another, no matter by what means, would not be progress, but the destruction of one species and the production of another, a higher species if you will, but not the progressive development of a lower species.

Herbert Spencer’s doctrine of evolution is open to the same objection.  In all evolution there must be motion, and then somewhere a starting point, an evolving subject, and a medium of evolution, for there can be no motion, unless we have forgot our mechanics, without a first mover at rest.  Herbert Spencer denies creation, or a creator distinct from the cosmos.  He must then assume the cosmos is self-existent, eternal, then immovable, immutable, and consequently incapable of evolving any existences or forms of existence not eternal in itself.  The cosmos, instead of being in a constant state of flux and reflux, as old Heraclitus thought, and as Mr. Spencer holds, would be at rest and immovable, both as whole and in all its parts.  There could then be no change of phenomena any more than of substance, no new combination of matter, motion, and force, no alterations of concentration and dispersion of forces.  All the forms and phenomena of the cosmos must be absolutely unchangeable and eternal as the cosmos itself.  Consequently there could be no evolution, for evolution necessarily implies change of some sort, and change of no sort is admissible.  If the cosmos is not created by God, who is distinct from the cosmos, it is eternal and, if eternal, no change of any sort is admissible in it, as theologians tell us, none is admissible in God.  The theory of evolution, like the modern theory of progress, is untenable, and must be dismissed.

Yet, without assuming one or the other of these theories, Mr. Darwin cannot assert his origin of species by means of natural selection, or by any other means, except that of creation, which it is his purpose to avoid; and what is worse if he accepts either, he is still unable to assert his theory, for the evolution theory denies all change, and the origination of any new forms; and progress is predicable only of the specific subject in the line of its own specific nature.  We have read Mr. Darwin’s books with some care, and, though not an absolute stranger to the subject he treats, or to the facts he narrates, we are a little surprised that even a professed scientist could put forth such a mass of unwarranted inductions and unfounded conjectures as science.  Not one nor all of the facts he adduces, prove the species originate in natural or artificial selection.  In all his inductions he is obliged to assume the progress of the species as the principle of his induction, while he ought to know that the assumption of the progress of the species negatives the origin of species in selection.  But, and this is fatal to his theory, he nowhere adduces a single fact that proves the species is progressive, or a single instance in which a lower species by its struggles for life, as he pretends, approaches a higher species, or in which the individuals of a lower species lose any of the characteristics of their species, and acquire those of a higher or a different species.

The theory of natural selection assumes the Malthusian principle, that population has a tendency to outrun the means of subsistence, and applies the principle to every species, vegetable, animal and human.  Hence, follows with individuals of every species a struggle for life, in which the weaker go to the wall, and only the stronger survive.  Well, be it so: what then?  Why, these the stronger individuals give rise, or the struggle for life, in which only the stronger survive, going on for a long series of ages, gives birth to a new and higher species.  Is it so?  What is the proof?  We have found no proof of it, and Mr. Darwin offers no proof of it.  Because only the stronger survive, it by no means follows that these in any series of ages give rise to a new and distinct species, that these stronger individuals acquire any new characteristics, or that they lose any of the characteristics of their original species.

The gardener knows that plants and flowers are affected by climate, soil, and cultivation; but he knows also that the changes or improvements produced in this way, if they give rise to new varieties in the same species, do not, so far as known, give rise to a new species.  Mr. Darwin compares domestic animals with what he assumes to be wild animals of the same original species, or the species from which he assumes they have descended.  But this proves nothing to his purpose; for it is impossible for him to say which is the primitive, which the derivative, whether the domestic races have sprung from the wild, or the wild from the domestic, or whether the differences noted are the result  of development of the primitive type, or of reversion to it.  The assumption that the domestic races have been tamed, or domesticated from the wild, is a mere assumption of which there is no historical or scientific evidence: at least Mr. Darwin adduces none.  There is no authority for assuming that the domestic goose has sprung from the wild goose.  Why not say the wild goose has sprung from the domestic goose?  The wild duck from the tame duck? The wild boar from the domestic pig? Some naturalists contend that the several varieties of the dog family have descended from the wolf, the fox, and the jackal; but supposing them to be only varieties of the some species, of which we are not assured, why not make the dog primitive, and the wolf, fox, and jackal derivative?  There are no know facts in the case that render it necessary to suppose them, rather than the dog, the parent stock of the whole species.  Indeed, scientists have no criterion by which they can determine whether the tame variety or the wild represents the primitive type, and their only reason is the assumption , that all species begin at the lowest round of the ladder, and reach their perfect state only by progressive development.  But this is a perfectly gratuitous assumption.  Mr. Darwin adduces no fact to prove it.

So far as there are any known facts or certain principles in the case, species are immutable, and their only development is in the explication of individuals.  So far as our scientists have any knowledge on the subject, there is no progress of species.  Individuals may find a more or less favorable medium, and vary from one another, but the specific type remains always the same as long as it remains at all, and is reproduced essentially unaltered in each new generation.  It is even doubtful if abnormal types are ever really transmitted by natural generation.  Cardinal Wiseman inclines to believe they are, at least to some extent.  We doubt it, and explain the facts which seem to favor it, by the continued presence and activity of the causes which first originated them.  There are monstrous births, but they are not perpetuated.  The cardinal mentions a family with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, and we have known at least one six-fingered and six-toed individual, but, if perpetuated through three generations, as the cardinal asserts, there did not arise from the family a distinct variety in the human species; and, in the case that came under our own observation, neither the parents of the man nor his children had more than the normal number of fingers and toes.  In any case, after two or three generations, if reproductive, the abnormal individuals revert to the original type.  The breed may be crossed, but not permanently improved by crossing.  The crossing, as every herdsman or shepherd knows, must be kept up, or the hybrid, after a few generations, eliminates the weaker and reverts to the stronger of the original types.

There is no evidence, as we have already said, of the progress of the species.  The sponge today does not differ of the sponge of four thousand years ago; and if the wild peach of Persia is poisonous, our cultivated peach, the fruit of which is so delicious, if neglected and suffered to become wild, would most likely, under the same conditions of climate and soil, become as poisonous as is the Persian wild peach: thereby proving that, whatever the effects of cultivation or changes of its habitat, the species remains always unchanged.  Even in the cultivated peach traces of its original poisonous qualities are found, if not in its pulp, at least in its meat, of which it is unsafe for any to partake largely, unless proof against prussic acid.  The florist produces, by culture and proper adjustment of soil, great and striking changes in the size, color, and beauty of many varieties and species of flowers, all of which, if neglected and suffered to run wild, revert, after a while, to their original type, which neither natural nor artificial selection alters or impairs.

Then the survival of the strongest, in the struggle for life, does not effect the species, far less originate a new species.  There is no evidence that the rat is more intelligent today than was the rat any number of centuries ago, although, according to Mr. Darwin, we must suppose only the strongest have survived, and the process of natural selection  has been constantly going on.  The bee constructs her cell, and the beaver his house and dam, not otherwise nor more perfectly than did either at the remotest period in which man has observed the habits of either.  Wheat grown from grain deposited in Egyptian mummies three thousand years ago, is as perfect as that which is grown from the seed subject to three thousand years of additional culture and struggle for life.

These observations, which might be indefinitely extended prove that, whatever effect natural or artificial selection may have on individuals of the species, it has none of the species itself, and in no case originates, so far as human observation goes, a new species.  Consequently all the facts and arguments Mr. Darwin adduces in support of his theory of the descent of man from the ape, or to prove the species ape by natural selection has generated or developed the species man, count for nothing.  If no instance can be adduced of the development of a new species by natural selection, and instance of a lower species towards a higher, there is and can be no proof that man has originated in a lower species.  All the analogies between man and the lower animals, physical or intellectual, adduced by Mr. Darwin, prove simply nothing to the purpose.  It was in bygone days a favorite theory with us, as it perhaps still is with many others, that man, while he is something more, is also resume of the whole lower creation, or of all orders of existences below him.   When we were engrossed with the study of the comparative anatomy and physiology of the brain, we conjectured that there is a just gradation  in its convolutions and relative size, from the lowest animal that has a brain distinct from mere ganglia, up to man.  We regarded man, in fact, as including in himself, in his physical and animal nature, the elements of the entire creation below him, and hence rightly named its lord.  So that our Lord, in assuming human nature, a human soul and a human body, assumed the elements of the entire cosmos, and, in redeeming man, redeemed the whole lower creation and delivered the earth itself, which had been cursed for man’s sake, from bondage.  In being made flesh and redeeming the body, he redeemed all animal and material nature, which returns to God as its last end in man for whom this lower world was made, and over which he received the dominion from his and its Maker.  But we never saw in this any evidence that man had been developed from the world below him, or that any animal race by transformation had become man.  Supposing the gradation assumed, which we are rather inclined to accept even yet, it by no means follows that the higher grade is in any case the development of the next grade below.  Indeed it cannot be, for development of any grade or species can only unfold or bring out what is already in it, or what it contains wrapped up, enveloped, or unexplicated.  Therefore its development cannot carry it out of itself, or lift it to the grade next above it.  The superior grade is a superior grade by virtue of something which it has that the highest inferior grade has not, and therefore is not and cannot be developed from it.

Say what you will, the ape is not a man; nor, as far as our observations or investigations can go, is the ape, the gorilla, or any other variety of the monkey tribe, the animal that approaches nearest to man.  The rat, the beaver, the horse, the pig, the raven, the elephant surpass the monkey in intelligence, if it be intelligence, and not simply instinct; and the dog is certainly far ahead of the monkey in moral qualities, in affection for his master and fidelity to him, and so is the horse when kindly treated.  But let this pass.  There is that, call it what you will, in man, which is not in the ape.  Man is two-footed and two-handed; the ape is four-handed, or, if you choose to call the extremity of his limbs feet, four-footed.  In fact, he has neither a human hand nor a human foot, and, anatomically considered, differs hardly less from man than does the dog or the horse.  I have never been able to discover any of the simian tribe a single human quality.  As to physical structure, there is some resemblance.  Zoologists tell us traces of the same original type may be found running through the whole animal world; and, therefore, the near approach of the ape to the human form counts for nothing in this argument.  But here is the point we make; namely, the differentia of man, not being in the ape, cannot be obtained from the ape by development.

This sufficiently refutes Darwin’s whole theory.  He does not prove the origin of a new species either by natural or artificial selection; and, not having done that, he adduces nothing that does or can warrant the induction, that the human species is developed from the quadrumanic or any other species.  In reading Mr. Darwin’s books before us, while we acknowledge the vast accumulation of facts in the natural history  of man and animals, we have been struck with the feebleness of his reasoning powers.  He does not seem to possess, certainly does not use, the simplest elements of the logical understanding, and apparently has no conception of what is or is not proof.  He does not know how to reduce facts to their principles, and never, so far as we have been able to discover, contemplates them in the light of the principles on which they depend; but looks at them only in the light of his own theories, which they as often contradict as favor.  Patient as an observer, he is utterly imbecile as a scientific reasoner.  Two-thirds of his work on the “Descent of Man” is taken up with what he calls Sexual Selection.  Many of the facts and details are curious, and neither uninteresting nor uninstructive to the student of the natural history of beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles, and insects, or even of man; but, as far as we can see, they prove nothing in favor of his theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection, nor of his theory of the descent of man from the ape or any other animal.  We could concede all his alleged facts, and deny in toto his theory.  Some of them we might be unable to explain, as for instance, the mammae of the male; but we could explain them no better with than without his theory.

Mr. Darwin, though his theory is not original with him, and we were familiar with it even in our youth, overlooks the fact that it denies the doctrine of the creation and immutability of species, as taught in Genesis, where we read that God said: “Let the earth bring forth the green herb, and such as may seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind, which may have seed in itself upon the earth.  And it was done.”  “And God created the great whales and every living and moving creature which the waters brought forth, according to their kinds, and every winged fowl according to its kind.”  “And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and everything thing that creepeth on the earth.” Genesis I, 11,21,25.  Now this doctrine, the doctrine of the whole Christian world, and which stands directly opposed to Mr. Darwin’s theory, is, as say the lawyers, in possession, and therefore to be held as true until the contrary is proved.  It is not enough, then, for Mr. Darwin to set forth his theory and ask us as Christians, as believers in Genesis, to accept it, unless able to disprove it; nor is it enough for him even to prove that it may be true.  The onus probandi is on him who arraigns the faith and convictions of the Christian world, which are the faith and convictions of enlightened and living mankind.  He must prove his theory not only may be, but is, true, and prove it with scientific or apodictic certainty, for only by so doing can he oust the Christian doctrine from its possession, or overcome the presumption in its favor; and till he has ousted and made away with that doctrine, his theory cannot be legally or logically entertained even as a probable hypothesis.  This he hardly pretends to have done.  As far as we can discover, he does not claim apodictic certainty for his theory, or profess to set it forth for ant thing more than a probable hypothesis, which he leads us to suspect he hardly believes himself.  But in the present case we must prove it to be true  and indubitable, or he has no right to publish it at all, not even as probable; for probable it is not, so long as it is not certain that the Christian doctrine in possession is false.

This principle, which is the principle both of ethics and logic, is disregarded by nearly the whole herd of contemporary scientists.  They make a point of ignoring Christianity, and proceed as if they were perfectly free to put forth as science any number of theories, hypotheses, conjectures, guesses, which directly contradict it, as if they were under no obligation to consult the universal faith of mankind; and theories too, not one of which, even if plausible, is proved to be true, or deserving the name of science.  We by no means contend that the general belief of mankind, or the consensus hominum, is in itself an infallible criterion of truth; but we do maintain that it is, as the lawyers say, prima facie evidence, or a vehement presumption of truth, and that no man has the moral right to publish any opinions, or uncertain theories or hypotheses, that are opposed to it.  It can be overruled by science that is science, by the truth that is demonstrated to be truth, and which cannot be gainsaid.  He who assails it may plead the truth, if he has it, in justification; but not an uncertain opinion, not an unproved theory, or an unverified hypothesis, however plausible or even probable it may appear to himself.  Sincerity, or firmness of conviction on the part of the defenders of the adverse theory or hypothesis, is no justification, no excuse even; and no one has any right to assail or contradict the Christian faith, unless he has infallible authority for the truth of what he alleges in opposition to it.  And this no scientist has or can have.

We respect science and bow to its authority, if it really be science; but the theories, hypotheses, and even the inductions of the scientists from the few facts they have observed, are not science, are at best only unverified opinions.  Induction is simply generalization, and cannot of itself give anything beyond the simple facts generalized.  It can only attain to what scientists call a law, which is itself only a fact, not a principle.  We can never attain the principle by induction, because without it no valid induction is possible, any more than there is a valid conclusion without a medius terminus.  Without the principle of causality no induction is possible, and this principle is either falsified or denied by all professed scientists with whom we have any acquaintance.  We therefore treat as uncertain all their inductions and theories so insolently put forth as science, whenever they go beyond the sphere in which they can be brought to a crucial test and practically verified: and such are all those which oppose the doctrines of divine revelation, as believed and taught by the Holy Scriptures and the church of God.

Men are as morally responsible for the opinions they publish as they are for any of their deeds; and no man has the moral right to publish any thing that he knows to be false, or any thing against Christianity that he does not know to be absolutely true and unquestionable.  We say nothing of a man’s opinions, so long as he keeps them to himself, for we know nothing of them; they are matters between his own conscience and his sovereign judge, and society can take no cognizance of them.  But when a man publishes his opinions, he performs an act,- an act for which he should be held responsible in the exterior court as well as in the interior, as much as for any other act he performs.  If he has no an infallible authority for his opinion, and if it is an opinion against Christian dogma or morals, he commits by publishing it a grave offense against society, whether the civil law takes cognizance of it or not.  It is no excuse that he sincerely believes it, or that it is his own honest opinion, so long as he does not know it to be true, or has not infallible authority for asserting it.  False or erroneous opinions, if published, are not harmless things.  He who leads us into error, who robs us of the truth, or of our Christian faith, harms us more than he who picks our pocket, and commits a greater outrage on society than he who takes the life of a brother.

We are discussing the question from the point of view of ethics, not from the point of view of the civil law, though we utterly repudiate the doctrine, that every man is and should be free to form and publish his own opinions whatever their character, and that he can do so without committing any offense against society.  We utterly repudiate the doctrine, that that no one is morally or socially responsible for the opinions he forms and publishes.  But, where society has no infallible authority to determine what is true and what is not, what is and what is not the law of God, or the truth God has revealed and commanded us to believe, it has no right to publish any one for opinion’s sake; for it can act only on opinion, and, therefore, on no higher authority than that of the opinions it punishes.  What is called freedom of opinion and of publication, or, briefly, the freedom of the press, although incompatible with the rights of truth, and the safety of society, as our own experience proves, must be protected, because modern society, by rejecting the infallible authority of the church of God, has deprived itself of all right to discriminate in matters of opinion, and therefore of the right even of self-protection.  The fact is, society, uninstructed by an authority that cannot err, is incompetent to deal with opinions, or to impose any restrictions on their publication; but we cannot so far stultify ourselves as to pretend that this is not an evil, or to maintain with Milton and our own Jefferson, that “error is harmless where truth is free to combat it.”  “Error,” says the Chinese proverb, “will make the circuit of the globe while Truth is pulling on her boots.”  The modern doctrine is based on the assumption that truth is not ascertainable, is only an opinion.

But from the point of view of morals, or tried by a rigidly ethical standard, such scientists as Darwin, Sir Charles Lyell, Sir John Lubbock, Taine, Buchner, Professor  Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and others of the same genus, who publish opinions, theories, hypotheses, which are at best only plausible conjectures under the imposing name of science, and which unsettle men’s minds, bewilder the half-learned, mislead the ignorant, undermine the very bases of society, and assail the whole moral order of the universe, are fearfully guilty, and a thousand times more dangerous to society and greater criminals even than your most noted thieves, robbers, burglars, swindlers, murderers, or midnight assassins.  Instead of being held in honor, feted, and lauded as the great men of their age and country, and held up as the benefactors of their race, they richly deserve that public opinion should brand them with infamy as the enemies of  God and man, of religion and society, of truth and justice, of science and civilization.  They are such men as, if we follow the injunction of St. John, the apostle of love, we should refuse to receive into our houses, or even to bid good-day: Si quis venit ad vos, et hanc doctrinam nor affert, nolite recipere eum in domum, nec ave dixeritis.- 2 John, 10.

We are thus severe against these men, not because we are narrow-minded and bigoted, not because we have an overweening confidence in our own opinions or hold them to be the measure of the true and the good, nor because we dislike science that is science, or dread its light; but because they do not give us science, but their own opinions and speculations, which they can neither know nor prove to be true, and  which we know cannot be true, unless the religion of Christ is false, God is not, and heaven and earth a lie.  We condemn them, because the truth condemns them; because, instead of shedding light on the glorious works of the Creator, they shed darkness over them, and obscure their fair face with the thick smoke that ascends at their bidding from the bottomless pit of their ignorance and presumption.  Their science is an illusion with which Satan mocks them, deludes and destroys souls for whom Christ has died, and it comes under the head of the endless “genealogies” and “vain philosophy,” against which St. Paul so solemnly warns us.  It is high time that they be stripped of their prestige, and be treated with the contempt they deserve for their impudent pretension, and be held in the horror which all men should feel  for the enemies of truth, and whose labors tend only to the extinction of civilization, the abasement of intelligence, to fix the affections on the earth, to blunt the sense of moral obligation, and to make society what we see it every day becoming.  They are Satan’s most efficient ministers.

Orestes Brownson, Brownson’s Quarterly Review, July 1873