Is Darwin Dead?

The short answer to this question is an emphatic yes.

He died on the 19th of April, 1882, and he is buried in Westminster Abbey in close proximity to Isaac Newton.

Of course, when G.K. Chesterton wrote his essay by the title of “Is Darwin Dead?” he had something else in mind. This was originally published in 1923 in Chesterton’s book Fancies Versus Fads.


Mr. Ernest Newman, that lively and acute critic, once rebuked the arrogance of those of us who confessed that we knew nothing about music. Why he should suppose we are arrogant about it, if he does think so, I cannot quite understand. I, for one, am fully conscious of my inferiority to him and others through this deficiency; nor is it, alas, the only deficiency. I have sometimes thought it would be wholesome for anybody who has succeeded pretty well by some trick of some trade, to have a huge notice board or diagram hung in front of him all day; showing exactly where he stood in all the other crafts and competitions of mankind. Thus the poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling, as it rose from the paper on which an entirely new type of villanelle had just sprung into being, would encounter the disconcerting facts and figures about his suitability to be a professional acrobat or a pearl-diver. On the other hand, the radiant victor in the great International Egg and Spoon Race can see at a glance how very far down he stands, so to speak, in the queue of those waiting for the post of Astronomer Royal. Most of us have at least one or two gaps in our general culture and information; and sometimes whole departments of knowledge are practically hidden from whole generations and classes of mankind. There is something very defective and disproportionate about even the ideal culture of a modern man. It may be that Mr. Newman is deeply read in that mediaeval theology which is still the sub-conscious basis of most morality; but it is also possible that he is not. He may have at his fingers’ ends that military art which has often turned the fortunes of history; but he may not. He would be none the less a highly cultivated gentleman, if he did not. Yet the mystical and the military mind have been at least as pivotal and practical in history as the musical mind. I can admire them all, but I have no claim to possess any of them.

But my ignorance of music happens to assist me with a convenient metaphor in the more controversial matter of my ignorance of science. I once made some remarks about the decline of Darwinism, in a review of the Wells “Outline of History.” This aroused rather excited criticism; but one comparatively calm critic challenged what really interests me in the matter: he said that my conundrums about the wing of the bat and similar things “could easily be solved on purely Darwinian lines by any competent zoologist, or even by one so incompetent as myself.” The conundrum in question, of course, concerns the survival value of features in their unfinished state. If a thing can fly it may survive, and if it has a wing it may fly; but if it cannot fly with half a wing, why should it survive with half a wing? Yet Darwinism pre-supposes that numberless generations could survive before one generation could fly. Now it is quite true that I am not even an incompetent zoologist; and that my critic is more competent than I, if only in the mere fact of being a zoologist at all. Nevertheless, I adhere to my opinion, and do so for a reason that seems to me worthy of some little consideration. I do it because this does happen to be exactly one of those questions on which, as it seems to me, the independent critic has really a right to check the specialist. For it is a larger question of logic, and not a smaller question of fact. It is like the difficulty of believing that a halfpenny can fall head or tail a hundred times running; which has nothing to do with the numismatic value of the coin. It is like the difficulty of believing that a mere tax could make a loaf cheaper, which has nothing to do with the agrarian craft of growing corn. There is a general tide of reason flowing against such improbabilities, even if they are possibilities; they would still be exceptions, and reason would be on the side of the rule. And whatever the details of natural history, this thing is against the very nature of things.

To explain what I mean I will take this parallel of the technique of music, of which I know even less than of the technique of natural history. To begin with a simple though moving musical instrument, suppose an expert told me that a coach-horn could be blown quite as well if it were only two feet long. I should believe him; partly because it seems probable enough, and partly because I know nothing about the matter. I am not even an incompetent coach-horn blower. But I should certainly not believe him if he told me, as a generalization about all musical instruments, that half a musical instrument was better than no music, or even as good as any music. I should disbelieve it because it is inconsistent with the general nature of a musical instrument, or any instrument. I should disbelieve it long before I had thought of the thousand particular instruments to which it does not apply. I should not primarily need to think of the particular examples, though they are obvious enough. A stringed instrument cannot even be called stringed without two fixed points to hold both ends of the string. At the stage when the fiddle-strings floated like filaments in the void, feeling their way towards an evolutionary other end of nowhere, there could be nothing serving any purpose of a fiddle. A drum with a hole in is not a drum at all. But an evolutionary drum has to turn slowly into a drum, when it has begun by being only a hole. I cannot see any survival for a bagpipe that begins by being slit; I think such bagpipes would die with all their music in them. I feel a faint doubt, mingled with fascination, about the idea that a violin could grow out of the ground like a tree; it would at least make a charming fairy story. But whether or no a fiddle could grow like a tree, I feel sure nobody could play on it while it was still only a twig. But all these, as I say, are only examples that throng into the mind afterwards, of a principle seen in a flash from the first. Of things serving particular purposes, by a balance and arrangement of parts, it _cannot_ be generally true that they are fit for use before they are finished for use. It is against the general nature of such things; and can only be true by an individual coincidence. I can see for myself, for instance, that some particular case like the trunk of an elephant might really be compared to the simpler case of the coach-horn. Length and flexibility _are_ mere matters of degree; and I might possibly find it convenient if my nose were six inches longer, and sufficiently lively to be able to point right and left at various objects on the tea-table. But this is simply an accident of the particular qualities of length and laxity, not a general truth about the qualities of growth and use. It is not in the least true that I should experience the least convenience from the membrane between my fingers thickening or widening a little; even if an evolutionist at my elbow comforted and inspired me with the far-off divine event when my descendant should have the wings of a bat. Until the membrane can really be spread properly from point to point it is like the fiddle-string before it is stretched properly from point to point. It is no nearer serving its ultimate purpose than if it were not there at all. But it would be easy to find a similar animal parallel to the drum with a hole in it. There are monsters who would die instantly if they could not close the holes in their head under water. One supposes they would have died swiftly, before their closing apparatus could develop slowly. But the principle is a general one, and is involved in the very nature of any apparatus. It is only by way of figure of speech, in defence of the freedom of the ignorant, that I take the type of a musical apparatus. I take it because I am entirely ignorant of musical instruments. I am of the candid class of those who have “never tried” to perform on the violin. I cannot play upon this pipe; especially if it be a bagpipe. But if anybody tells me that the wildest pibroch rose from a whisper gradually, as a hole in the wind-bag was filled up gradually–why then, I shall not be so rude, I hope, as to say that there is a wind-bag in his head, but I shall venture to say that there is a hole in his argument. And if he says that pieces of wood came together slowly, stick by stick, to form a fiddle, and that before it was yet a fiddle at all the sticks discoursed most excellent music–why, I fear I shall be content to say “fiddlesticks.”

There is another answer often made which seems to me even more illogical. The critic generally says it is unreasonable to expect from the geological record that continuous gradation of types which the challengers of Darwinism demand. He says that only a part of the earth can be examined and that it could not in any case prove so much. This mode of argument involves an amazing oblivion of what is the thing to be proved, and who is trying to prove it. By hypothesis the Darwinians are trying to prove Darwinism. The Anti-Darwinians are not trying to prove anything; except that the Darwinians have not proved it. I do not demand anything, in the sense of complaining anything or the absence of anything. I am quite comfortable in a completely mysterious cosmos. I am not reviling the rocks or cursing the eternal hills for not containing these things. I am only saying that these are the things they would have to contain to make me believe something that somebody else wants me to believe. These traces are not things that the Anti-Darwinian demands. They are things that the Darwinian requires. The Darwinian requires them in order to convince his opponent of Darwinism; his opponent may be right or wrong, but he cannot be expected to accept the mere absence of them as proof of Darwinism. If the evidences in support of the theory are unfortunately hidden, why then, we do not know whether they were in support of the theory. If the proofs of natural selection are lost, why then, there are no proofs of natural selection; and there is an end of it.

And I would respectfully ask these critics what would be thought of a theological or miraculous argument which thus based itself on the very gaps in its own evidence. Let them indulge in the flight of fancy that I have just told them, let us say, that I saw the Devil at Brighton: and that the proof of his presence there can still be seen on the sands, in gigantic marks of a cloven hoof as big as the foot of an elephant. Suppose we all search the sands of Brighton and find no such thing. And suppose I then say that, after all, the tide might have washed away the footprints, or that the fiend may have flown through the air from his little country seat at the Dyke, or that he may have walked along the hard asphalt of Brighton parade, as proudly as once upon the flaming marl. To those acquainted with Brighton parade this will seem probable enough; but there would be a fallacy in merely saying that the evil spirit may have done all this. The sceptic will not unnaturally reply: “Yes, he may; and he may not; and it may be a legend; and you may be a liar; and I think our little investigation is now concluded.” I am very far indeed from calling the Darwinian a liar; but I shall continue to say that he is not always a logician.