Friday, 17 June 2016

Eiseley's account of Darwin's synthesis

While Loren Eiseley is often dismissed as a revisionist, his views were not as stupidly simplistic as those of today's revisionists. In Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X [meaning Edward Blyth] he wrote:

"Yet Darwin did not compose the theory of evolution out of thin air. Like so many generalizations, the theory with which his name is associated had already had premonitory beginnings. All of the elements which were to enter into the theory were in men's minds and were being widely discussed during Darwin's college years." (Eiseley 1979, p. 5)

"If all the essential elements of the Darwinian scheme of nature were known prior to Darwin, why is he accorded so important a place in biological history? The answer is simple: Almost every great scientific generalization is a supreme act of creative synthesis. There comes a time when an accumulation of smaller discoveries and observations can be combined in some great comprehensive view of nature. At this point the need is not so much for increased numbers of facts as for a mind of great insight capable of taking the assembled information and rendering it intelligible. Such a synthesis represents the scientific mind at its highest point of achievement. The stature of the discoverer is not diminished by the fact that he has slid into place the last piece of a tremendous puzzle on which many others have worked. To finish the task he must see correctly over a vast and diverse array of data." (Eiseley 1979, p. 5-6)

"Darwin was confronted by a genuinely unusual problem. The mechanism, natural selection, by which he hoped to prove the reality of evolution, had been written about most intelligently by a nonevolutionist. Geology, the time world which it was necessary to attach to natural selection in order to produce the mechanism of organic change, had been beautifully written upon by a man who had publicly repudiated the evolutionary position.
     Here was an intellectual climate in which men were violently opposed to evolution as godless and immoral. here was the germ of an idea itself, the struggle for existence, regarded as a mere pruning device for keeping species up to par. [...] In the atmosphere of that time, to have footnoted one's ideas as derived either from French sources or from men who had already taken a different stand on the same evidence would have led to little more than embarrassment." (Eiseley 1979, p. 76)

"If one considers this peculiar set of circumstances one can realize, objectively, that these conditions are not those of today and should not, perhaps, be judged by today's standards." (Eiseley 1979, p. 76)