Thursday, March 24, 2005

Darwin's Logic: The Master Argument

The Origin of Species is a multi-faceted argument; Darwin does not argue in only one way for the position he is taking. So, if by 'master argument' we mean The Single Argument that Darwin uses on its own establishes his position, there really isn't any. But there is an argument form that gets used again and again and again. See if you can guess what it is from this sample:

Although in many cases it is most difficult to conjecture by what transitions an organ could have arrived at its present state; yet, considering that the proportion of living and known forms to the extinct and unknown is very small, I have been astonished how rarely an organ can be named, towards which no transitional grade is known to lead. The truth of this remark is indeed shown by that old canon in natural history of 'Natura non facit saltum.' We meet with this admission in the writings of almost every experienced naturalist; or, as Milne Edwards has well expressed it, nature is prodigal in variety, but niggard in innovation. Why, on the theory of Creation, should this be so? Why should all the parts and organs of many independent beings, each supposed to have been separately created for its proper place in nature, be so invariably linked together by graduated steps? Why should not Nature have taken a leap from structure to structure? On the theory of natural selection, we can clearly understand why she should not; for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest and slowest steps. (Chapter 6)


We have in this chapter discussed some of the difficulties and objections which may be urged against my theory. Many of them are very grave; but I think that in the discussion light has been thrown on several facts, which on the theory of independent acts of creation are utterly obscure. (Chapter 6)


If it can be shown to be almost invariably the case, that a region, of which most of its inhabitants are closely related to, or belong to the same genera with the species of a second region, has probably received at some former period immigrants from this other region, my theory will be strengthened; for we can clearly understand, on the principle of modification, why the inhabitants of a region should be related to those of another region, whence it has been stocked. A volcanic island, for instance, upheaved and formed at the distance of a few hundreds of miles from a continent, would probably receive from it in the course of time a few colonists, and their descendants, though modified, would still be plainly related by inheritance to the inhabitants of the continent. Cases of this nature are common, and are, as we shall hereafter more fully see, inexplicable on the theory of independent creation. (Chapter 11 (12 in later additions))


This general absence of frogs, toads, and newts on so many oceanic islands cannot be accounted for by their physical conditions; indeed it seems that islands are peculiarly well fitted for these animals; for frogs have been introduced into Madeira, the Azores, and Mauritius, and have multiplied so as to become a nuisance. But as these animals and their spawn are known to be immediately killed by sea-water, on my view we can see that there would be great difficulty in their transportal across the sea, and therefore why they do not exist on any oceanic island. But why, on the theory of creation, they should not have been created there, it would be very difficult to explain. (Chapter 12 (13))


We see Britain separated by a shallow channel from Europe, and the mammals are the same on both sides; we meet with analogous facts on many islands separated by similar channels from Australia. The West Indian Islands stand on a deeply submerged bank, nearly 1000 fathoms in depth, and here we find American forms, but the species and even the genera are distinct. As the amount of modification in all cases depends to a certain degree on the lapse of time, and as during changes of level it is obvious that islands separated by shallow channels are more likely to have been continuously united within a recent period to the mainland than islands separated by deeper channels, we can understand the frequent relation between the depth of the sea and the degree of affinity of the mammalian inhabitants of islands with those of a neighbouring continent, an explicable relation on the view of independent acts of creation. (Chapter 12)


On this idea of the natural system being, in so far as it has been perfected, genealogical in its arrangement, with the grades of difference between the descendants from a common parent, expressed by the terms genera, families, orders, &c., we can understand the rules which we are compelled to follow in our classification. We can understand why we value certain resemblances far more than others; why we are permitted to use rudimentary and useless organs, or others of trifling physiological importance; why, in comparing one group with a distinct group, we summarily reject analogical or adaptive characters, and yet use these same characters within the limits of the same group. We can clearly see how it is that all living and extinct forms can be grouped together in one great system; and how the several members of each class are connected together by the most complex and radiating lines of affinities. We shall never, probably, disentangle the inextricable web of affinities between the members of any one class; but when we have a distinct object in view, and do not look to some unknown plan of creation, we may hope to make sure but slow progress. (Chapter 13 (14))


The basic pattern of argument here is that on the supposition of Darwin's theory, facts F, G, H, etc. become intelligible; whereas they are not intelligible otherwise. The above passages are not the only examples of this recurrent pattern. If we were to try to summarize Darwin's complex argument in a single sentence, the following would be a good candidate:

By supposing the truth of the theory of natural selection, many biological facts that would otherwise be unintelligible become intelligible.

This is, one might say, the overarching structure of argument. The next post I have planned in this series I'll start looking at the progress of the argument itself; which is quite cool.

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