Antievolutionists make lots of claims about Charles Darwin, seeking to impeach the authority of someone born 199 years ago today. Given that science moves on and leaves no one’s ideas untouched, one would think that they would stick to negative claims that would stand up to some scrutiny. Again and again, though, we find that they continue to espouse negative claims that are just plain silly, at least to those with even the slightest familiarity with the actual record that Darwin left.
Today, I want to look at a common antievolution claim about Darwin, simply put, that Darwin considered the contents of cells to be “black boxes”, comprised of a simple or homogeneous protoplasm. This is expressed in similar ways by a number of antievolutionists. The following is just a sampling of the available instances.
To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box.
Scientists use the term “black box” for a system whose inner workings are unknown. To Charles Darwin and his contemporaries, the living cell was a black box because its fundamental mechanisms were completely obscure. We now know that, far from being formed from a kind of simple, uniform protoplasm (as many nineteenth-century scientists believed), every living cell contains many ultrasophisticated molecular machines.
There were other things that Darwin did not know. For example, Darwin assumed that the cell was like a primitive blob of protoplasm that could easily evolve new biological functions. As Behe explains, “To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box. … The question of how life works was not one that Darwin or his contemporaries could answer.”
To be fair to Darwin, he proposed his theory when scientists knew next to nothing about biochemistry. Living things were “black boxes,” their inside workings a mystery. The cell itself was thought to be nothing more than a blob of jellylike protoplasm. It was easy to draw large-scale scenarios about fins gradually turning into legs, or legs into wings, since no one had a clue how limbs and organs work from the inside. As Behe writes, it is as though we asked how a stereo system is made and someone answered, “by plugging a set of speakers into an amplifier and adding a CD player, radio receiver, and tape deck.”
That’s pretty rich, that “be fair to Darwin” phrase.
In addition, biochemists and biologists have discovered a microscopic world of mesmerizing complexity belying the simple blobs of protoplasm that Darwin imagined.
Darwin must be forgiven, however, since he was limited by the science and paradigms of his day. Nobody then could have ever guessed the incredible complexity and information that resided in a living cell; something that was regarded as a ‘blob of protoplasm’.
Biochemist Michael Behe says that modern science has made the Darwinian explanation of the origin of complex life forms much less believable than it was in Darwin’s day. In the 19th century, it was believed that a cell was just “a homogeneous globule of protoplasm.” 2 They did not know about DNA or the complex processes that go on inside a cell. Blood clotting, cellular transport, vision, and the body’s method of fighting diseases are “irreducibly complex systems” which could not possibly have evolved.
How living cells — which Darwin thought were mere blobs of protoplasm — actually consist of countless molecular machines that have all the hallmarks of design
Fuz Rana in Charisma magazine (February 2009):
Researchers have traditionally maintained that hundreds of millions of years would be necessary for abiogenesis. They also claim that the first life to emerge would be extremely simple, evolving toward complexity.
Darwin embraced the protoplasmic theory-the idea that the cell consisted of only a wall surrounding a nucleus and a homogeneous, jellylike protoplasm. This understanding made early evolutionary explanations of abiogenesis plausible. Biologists and chemists easily envisioned chemical routes that could produce the single ingredient believed to form the cell’s protoplasm.
Antievolutionists don’t go looking at the primary sources to come up with these nuggets; one of them creates a “magic bullet”, and the rest pass it around like a game of “telephone”, sometimes resulting in a garbled mess. As Casey Luskin’s contribution here indicates, the likely source of the BS in this case is Michael Behe.
Why call it BS? Because anybody can disconfirm the claim in seconds with a modern Internet search, and only moderately longer using the past technology scholars have long relied upon for substantiating claims about prior work.
An excellent recent source is the Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online website.
One finds there Darwin’s work on pangenesis, his hypothesis that there existed small particles that he called gemmules, each of which contained the heritable information for some particular trait, and which would combine, somehow, into the gametes. His continued advocacy of this wrong idea was a major failing on his part, but along the way we can see that even though Darwin was wrong about gemmules, he did hold an antithetical view to the claim that everything was simple at the most basic levels of life’s organization:
Notwithstanding the astounding complexity of the processes implied by this hypothesis of pangenesis, yet it seems to me to comprehend the several leading facts better than any other view. On this hypothesis we may fancifully look at each animal and plant as being compounded of many beings, in the same manner as a tree or coral is compounded of many similar beings; but in neither case have these so-called beings had a separate existence. Each of these beings, or parts, is supposed to be capable of throwing off gemmules, which whilst within the organism are capable of self-increase, and which can be separately developed at the part or organ whence they were derived, and can be united, as in the case of hybrids, with other gemmules into a single germ or bud, which reproduces the complete parent form. On this view, each organic being may be looked at as a little universe, formed of a host of different self-propagating organisms, almost as numerous as the stars in heaven, and as minute as they are immense.
As, however, a cell is a complex structure, with its investing membrane, nucleus, and nucleolus, a gemmule, as Mr. G. H. Lewes3 has remarked in his interesting discussion on this subject (Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1, 1868, p. 508), must, perhaps, be a compound one, so as to reproduce all the parts.
Two papers by Darwin published in 1882 demonstrate Darwin’s readiness to experiment in resolving sub-cellular processes, using chemistry and microscopy to aid in the work.
These papers in the primary literature demonstrate vividly that Charles Darwin not only was aware that protoplasm was not homogeneous, but was at the end of his life working toward elucidating exactly what differences within cells existed.
The antievolution “magic bullet” intended to dismiss Darwin is a dud. Sub-cellular structure elucidation was another part of science in which Darwin was an active participant. Darwin’s own preferred hypothesis of heredity, though now discredited, presumed the sort of immense complexity at small scales that antievolutionists falsely claim Darwin had no “imagination” for. Many antievolutionists have willingly participated in passing along this falsehood and urging changes in public school curriculum policy based, in part, on their false and ignorant claims. I find it significant that I have yet to encounter any instance of an antievolution advocate pointing out the actual facts of the case and remonstrating with their colleagues, even though the disconfirming evidence is easy to locate and describe. I can only conclude that antievolutionists in general have no concern for the truth nor for fact-checking even the simplest of their claims. Trusting antievolutionists to help guide policy and form curricula for public schools would be malfeasance, plain and simple.
(While researching this, I found that Afarensis got here well ahead of me. Pfffbbbt. Visit that page to see some of the illustrations. I have more examples of clueless, unscholarly antievolutionists, though; so there.)