Antievolutionists Wrong About Darwin Yet Again

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.

Michael Behe:

To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box.

And again:

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.

Casey Luskin:

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.”

Nancy Pearcey:

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.

Jay Richards:

In addition, biochemists and biologists have discovered a microscopic world of mesmerizing complexity belying the simple blobs of protoplasm that Darwin imagined.

Jon Saboe:

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’.

“Do-While Jones”:

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.

Jonathan Wells:

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.

And here:

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.

Darwin, C. R. 1882. The action of carbonate of ammonia on chlorophyll-bodies. [Read 6 March] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 19: 262-284.

Darwin, C. R. 1882. The action of carbonate of ammonia on the roots of certain plants. [Read 16 March] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 19: 239-261.

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.)

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

18 thoughts on “Antievolutionists Wrong About Darwin Yet Again

  • 2008/02/12 at 5:52 pm

    Yup, Darwin was a cutting edge scientist no matter what subject he was thinking about.

  • 2008/02/12 at 7:32 pm

    Remember to submit this when the nominations are opened for next year’s the open lab.

  • 2008/02/13 at 12:48 pm

    What’s really interesting about Darwin’s wrong idea is that it was actually in the right ballpark. He was postulating a biochemical means, contained within living cells, of passing on traits from generation to generation. Essentially, he was hypothesizing something roughly analogous to chromosomes.

    His specifics were wrong, but his basic idea was both forward-thinking and, and you point out, demonstrates that he was both smart enough to recognize that such a mechanism likely existed and industrious enough to try to discover and understand it – that is, to test his hypothesis.

    In other words, a scientist.

  • 2008/02/13 at 9:01 pm

    Eric pretty much beat me to it…

    While Darwin was completely wrong about the actual mechanism of inheritance he was right about it being particulate rather than blended (blended inheritance being the dominant view of the time and one that was used to deny the efficacy of natural selection).

    As funny as the idea of gemmules may sound to us (with our 20/20 hindsight), the idea that every cell basically contained the blueprint for the entire body (rather than just for itself) would have struck biologists of the mid-19th century as being rather strange as well.

  • 2008/02/15 at 8:47 am

    I’d also point out that treating a cell as a “black box”, when you don’t really know what’s inside it or what its internal mechanisms are, is entirely proper. It’s fine to say that the cell does X, Y, and Z, and it simply does them *somehow*, with the implicit understanding that, as science advances, we’ll be able to get to those as-yet unknown mechanisms. By analogy, you don’t have to know that a proton is made up of quarks to be able to study how protons interact with the atomic nucleus.

    A further error is to mischaracterize the concept of the black box itself. To say that you’re treating an object or process as a black box is to say nothing about the complexity within the box. The guts of the box may be fundamentally simple or fantastically complex. For the purposes of the current discussion, you’re simply ignoring all that and focusing on what goes in, and what comes out.

    If, in fact, Darwin were to treat the cell as a black box, it does not follow that he therefore thinks it’s simple protoplasm. Nor does it follow that, by treating it as a black box, he’d have missed crucial evidence that invalidated this evolutionary theory. While this could have been the case, the opposite has been shown to be true: the molecular evidence revealed by prying open that black box is some of the most convincing confirmation of common descent and variation.

  • 2008/03/07 at 7:31 am

    “Comment Policy
    I consider this weblog an extension of my living room in cyberspace. If you enter a comment that I wouldn’t find acceptable in my living room, I’m likely to boot both you and your comment. Fair warning, OK?”

    Well, very interesting discussion site. If I find your comment acceptable, i.e. as I understand, contrary to my belief, I’ll delete it. Very interesting…

  • 2008/03/07 at 8:56 am

    It isn’t simple disagreement that will get anyone booted. That appears in any number of comments that I have approved here. Disagreeable-ness, as it were, is what will cause your comment to get scrubbed just as surely as clean-up will happen if you walk into my living room and spit on the floor.

    This isn’t all that difficult a concept, I wouldn’t think, except to the incorrigibly disagreeable.

    BTW, if you were going to disagree, the topic is the historical claim made by clueless antievolutionists that Darwin didn’t appreciate that sub-cellular organization implied complexity.

  • 2008/03/14 at 4:30 pm

    Why do creationists need the rest of us to believe them? Why must stupidity publicly out itself in this manner? Can’t people who would have functioned better in the 1600’s just keep their damaging ideas to themselves?


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  • 2012/03/03 at 11:57 am

    It seems to me that you are ignoring the point of the argument by throwing up the same sort of “straw man” atheists (and some ID proponents) love beating on. The point is typically–but not always–not to discredit Darwin as a scientist (his seeking a naturalistic answer rather than just saying “God just did it” was and is critical to the advancement of all science). The point is that when he proposed the development of a simple cell from the inorganic, he was unaware of the complexity that resided within that single cell. Darwin’s natural selection seems much more realistic in a day when the cell seemed much MORE simple though not simple. I would have been compelled, with their level of understanding, to believe–if we can all just be honest it is belief either way–in a Darwinian model. The problem I see in my study is how the jumps are made to develop systems that are complex and cannot gradually form without severe disability to the organism in the intermediate stages. Also, the understanding of genetic information and the scarcity, to say the least, of positive mutation was significantly underestimated. What he was seeing was changes within the species. When his finches were further studied, their beak size was a cyclical adaptation to weather patterns. His finches never became non-finches. A true understanding of what is required to produce genetic mutations on the level of multiple nitrogen bases was far beyond his reach, and, unfortunately, beyond the reach of many of my esteemed scientific colleagues. The idea is not that Darwin was not a scientist (one who logically seeks to determine the cause of an effect); the idea is that when he posited his framework his observations were limited to his observable world. Even he said that there may be such problems. What is important is to follow where the data leads us without throwing out possibilities because they do not fit within our daily experience or worldview preference–Dr. Dawkins has become very rich but has looked the fool in debate by doing this. To posit an intelligent agent is not “stupid”; however, to discount either possibility without PROOF does not follow our beloved scientific method and may be, frankly, ignorant.

    Preconceived views>confrontation with data>views contradicted>data must be wrong?

  • 2012/03/03 at 7:30 pm

    It might help if one reads the post before claiming it uses a strawman argument. I demonstrated that Darwin did not assume that cells were simple. The premise you (and the laundry list of other antievolutionists in the post) assumed was true is nothing of the sort.

    As for the rest, may I suggest opening up a textbook on psychology and looking up “projection”?

  • 2012/03/03 at 9:08 pm

    I have read your post. The “straw man” I am referring to is not to whether or not Darwin in fact viewed the cell as simple, it is the conclusion you draw in your piece. He did not view it as simple. He did indeed view it as complex. Though, do you have any idea of the complexity currently realized even within a “simple cell”? You posit a rather strong conclusion “Trusting antievolutionists to help guide policy and form curricula for public schools would be malfeasance, plain and simple” based on quotes about what Darwin believed about cell structure. Here is your straw man (personally I prefer Pat Robertson on stupid quotes). It’s like an ID proponent throwing in that fantastic quote from Dawkins with Ben Stein on panspermia and saying that all evolutionary biologists should not be allowed to help form curricula because they obviously have midnight encounters in the trailer park with DNA dropping aliens. In all seriousness, I would be interested to read your work-around for non-functional intermediate states of cellular structures. This one has made natural selection seem almost indefensible to me (my grad school biology professor about cried when one of the students asked about it) as it would seem to leave the organism in a state at which it will not be the fittest.

  • 2012/03/04 at 8:05 am

    Let me fix your first sentence of your second comment:

    I have now read your post.

    I can look at your previous comment and see you arguing there that, yeah, Darwin had to think that a cell was simple on the inside.

    The point is that when he proposed the development of a simple cell from the inorganic, he was unaware of the complexity that resided within that single cell.

    Now you say that wasn’t your argument. You are not consistent. You, like many antievolutionists I’ve had the misfortune to argue against, cannot simply admit error when it is pointed out.

    You now say that your accusation of a “straw man” referred to what you call my “conclusion”, that being my statement that antievolutionists shouldn’t be relied upon for policy and curricula. It’s funny that this is conspicuous by its absence in your original comment. It is a falsehood on your part that this was your argument all along. Again, you simply will not admit error. You instead compound it with intentional falsehood.

    A strawman fallacy is a specific logical error, one in which a weaker argument is substituted for a stronger argument, and then the weaker argument is rebutted. I have attacked the actual argument of antievolutionists concerning what Darwin thought of the complexity within cells, and provided quotes showing exactly what their argument was. You now even stipulate the fact in question:

    He did not view it as simple. He did indeed view it as complex.

    If you mistakenly thought that my premises did not lead to my conclusion, that is not a “straw man”, that would be a “non sequitur”. You do not appear to have a firm grasp of the classification of logical errors. However, my premises do lead to my conclusion. When people insist on not only making erroneous claims but insist on promulgating them widely, they obviously cannot be trusted to help guide policy and form curricula. You should know stuff and have a record of reliability before you are allowed to write curricula. On both of those points the antievolutionists fail.

    Your further analogy fails to be analogous. In the case of Dawkins and Stein, Stein asked for speculation and got it. In the case of the various antievolutionists I quoted, the item at issue was something easily checked and with no uncertainty whatsoever.

    Why should I have to present a workaround for something that is entirely imaginary? I think that you have misinterpreted your professor’s reaction to willful ignorance. As far as brittleness of evolved systems goes, the relevant starting point for discussion is H.J. Muller’s 1918 paper that discusses “interlocking complexity”.

  • 2012/03/04 at 9:50 am

    Sheesh. Looking back over my article just now, I see S. “Applied Physiologist” H. fails to even manage to accurately identify my conclusion.

    I can only conclude that antievolutionists in general have no concern for the truth nor for fact-checking even the simplest of their claims.

    Maybe that’s because that conclusion is too obviously true.

    And the further comments themselves bear that out.

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  • 2014/06/09 at 9:21 pm

    I think that this might be a reply to me, since I do have the Darwin quote that Casey latches upon. Casey, though, utterly ignores the *other* quote from Darwin I gave, the one where Darwin metaphorically compares the complexity of the cell’s contents to the stars in the universe. Casey fails to note the references to Darwin’s own research on cellular complexity, work that puts paid to the notion, quoted from that lexicon of IDC and other antievolutionists, that Darwin himself considered cells merely blobs of protoplasm. It also makes hash of Casey’s reliance on the canard that Darwin solely relied on Lewes for his understanding of the cell. Casey makes much of the fact that Darwin’s notion of pangenesis was wrong and gemmules don’t exist, but that is a fact that I brought up myself. The point whizzing past Casey’s head is that while Darwin might have been wrong about the particulars, one cannot simultaneously accuse him of being a proponent of cellular simplicity; Darwin’s idea of pangenesis was absolutely reliant upon cells having a thus-far unobserved complexity beyond the limits of the resolving power of the microscopes of the day.

    Casey wrote, “So if someone is trying to claim Darwin had an accurate understanding of the cellular complexity, gemmules aren’t a good place to start.” The weasel erects a strawman. When we look back to what Casey was on the hook to support, we find this: “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.” The issue isn’t whether Darwin was accurate in appreciating cellular complexity, but whether Darwin’s views were, indeed, that a cell was “like a primitive blob of protoplasm”. And on that score, Casey is dead wrong, and documented to be wrong. And, as usual, Casey is encouraging others to share in his boundless ignorance.

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