THEOSOPHY, Vol. 27, No. 2, December, 1938
(Pages 66-71; Size: 19K)
(Number 78 of a 103-part series)



I: A Survey of Opinion

(Part I of III)

IN any science, periodic tides of discovery, thought, and speculation seem to flow, now in this direction, now in that. In the field of anthropology, the demise of several once-powerful theories as to the nature and causes of evolution and a series of general impasses in collateral lines of science are events which seem to have signalized a slack tide; speculation appears to be marking time more or less until some new discovery starts the hue and cry in another direction. Meantime public opinion -- and the pseudo-scientific opinion which is, unfortunately, the principal link between the public and real science -- believes nearly as firmly in the theory of the "ape-ancestor" as ever, with logical consequences in general reversion to the mythical type, personally, socially, morally, politically, nationally and internationally.

Nevertheless, orthodoxy is being steadily undermined; even disregarding philosophical influence, another fifty years should see some startling changes, if only through the "boring from within" of some of the beneficent termites within the ranks of science itself, with whom we presently have to deal.

The death of Henry Fairfield Osborn removed from the ranks of science one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of modern evolutionists -- a real scientist whose achievements, though less spectacular, may rank him with Charles Darwin. Although orthodox in his training and in his mental processes, Dr. Osborn was nevertheless a thinker both original and courageous. A theory to him meant little more than something to discard as soon as a more promising hypothesis appeared, and he was seldom guilty of the sort of scientific dogmatism which causes the unfortunate investigator to identify himself and his reputation with some special hypothesis. The fact, however, that he was as dyed-in-the-wool an orthogeneticist as any -- thoroughly convinced that man and ape had common ancestry(1) -- renders his criticisms of prevailing theories all the more valuable.

In 1932 Dr. Osborn examined the defects in four historic explanations of evolution (the theories of Lamarck, Darwin, Buffon and St. Hilaire, and the Entelechy of the Vitalists), together with their modern substitutes.(2) He closed this comprehensive criticism with the remark that the origin of bio-chemical adaptations was still entirely unsolved. He also presented, not for the first time, his own theory of Aristogenesis.

Succinctly, this theory proposes that the germ plasm itself contains an inherent tendency toward inevitable and predetermined evolution, always toward improvement, unmodified by the element of chance, or trial and error. Dr. Osborn was honest enough and modest enough not to put aristogenesis forward as an "explanation," but regarded it as rather a description. He urged that the mysterious and inexplicable nature of the process in no way invalidates the fact that new characters arise from the germ plasm. Biology, he remarked, is at present a totally unco-ordinated science, "still in its infancy."

The year 1934, which saw the last or nearly the last of his views published, found them substantially unchanged.(3)

Biology at present can not be ranked with physics or chemistry as a branch of science. We await the arrival of a master mind which can synthesize the generalizations and inductions now being made in widely separate fields of research. The facts are multiplying at an enormous rate and from these facts hasty inductions are being made which are more or less biased by preconceptions in the mind of the observer, also by the special field of research in which the observations have been made. Among the host of facts which are wholly uninterpretable at present it is only natural for us to seek for interpretation or to try to fit the facts into the more or less senescent hypotheses as to the nature and causes of evolution. Despite Huxley's warning that science commits suicide when it adopts a creed we find many observers still strongly influenced by ancient scientific creeds. To my knowledge the most ancient is the "chance" hypothesis which dates back to Empedocles of Agrigentum and is still entertained by such modernists as T. H. Morgan and J. B. S. Haldane.
Dr. Osborn proceeds to show the great difference between the selection of the fittest combinations of energy in an organism, and the origin of specific organs. In his view, the Lamarckian theory is moribund. Closer to the truth, he thinks, is the creed of the direct action of the environment upon both organism and geneplasm. (But aside from a few stray and unsatisfactory indications of the destructive effect of radioactivity and the like upon the plasm, no shadow of a mechanism for such action has yet been discovered.) The theory of an internal perfecting principle of "entelechy," which Dr. Osborn regards as a distortion of Aristotle's "very sound inductions of an internal principle governing evolution," "does not bear the crucial test of observation." (What observation? On the contrary, the enormous mass of observations summed up in Dr. Seba Eldridge's Organization of Life, and the vitalistic deductions therein, are so conclusive that no one has even tried to contest them. The theory of "entelechies" is, of course, extremely uncongenial to those who insist upon a gross material cause for every event. Such a requirement, however, ignores the fact that matter has now slipped entirely through the fingers of the physicist and chemist. The theory of entelechy offers a degree of explanation for the observed facts; mechanism does not.)

Actually, it is difficult to see any real distinction between aristogenesis, Lamarckism, and entelechy. Each of these theories pre-supposes an inherent perfecting principle, which, in turn, implies inherent wisdom plus inherent energy. It may be supposed that Dr. Osborn's objection to Lamarckism and entelechy is that while his conception allows only for a purely material "perfecting principle" -- intrinsic in the germ plasm -- the other theories are more or less "vitalistic." Dr. Osborn ought to have consulted the physicists and chemists as to where the line between "material" and "immaterial" should be drawn! Every scientific student of Theosophy knows the synthesis of "entelechy" and "aristogenesis" therein contained, although the demarcation is rather an area than a line! Moreover, "aristogenesis" suggests that "perfectibility" is inevitable, while the reverse is the fact. Nature abounds with acquired characteristics which in many cases are meaningless from the point of view of material evolution, and in some cases actually adverse to survival -- to say nothing of "overdone" adaptations which may become serious handicaps, even fatal ones. But theosophists approve most heartily Dr. Osborn's closing sentence, the parting advice of a veteran evolutionist to the scientific world:

...let us quietly drop all these senescent hypotheses as to the nature and causes of evolution and make a wholly fresh start along entirely new and original lines of observation and experiment, directed toward the discovery of the now wholly unknown factors in this most mysterious of natural phenomena.
To this we have but one qualification to suggest: Why drop them "quietly"? In view of the misapprehensions abroad as to the nature and origin of man, and the social evils thereby engendered, we are in favor of having the fall of these theories make as big a noise as possible.

W. L. McAtee, of the U.S. Biological Survey, mercilessly exposes the mores of the selectionist school of evolutionary theory:

Attempts to draw hard-and-fast lines where none exist, to trammel within the limits of hypothesis where all is free, and to formulize where everything is protean, characterize the writings of selectionists. "Humility" does not put forward strained "explanations" for every detail of organic appearance and behavior, and in all truth "humility" can scarcely be claimed as a leading trait of definers, explainers and asserters of "natural laws." So it seems to the writer and so it has seemed also to others.

It has been pointed out over and over again that the explanations of science never amount to more than the enumeration of the conditions under which the events in nature take place. With ultimate explanation, science does not deal.

It should not be forgotten that all evolutionary phenomena are fundamentally inexplicable.

From the peculiar nature of the case no causal explanation of evolution is possible.(4)

He particularly condemns overemphasis on the "struggle for existence," pointing out that the "struggle" has no selectionist significance where the intensity of the struggle is negligible, giving specific instances of such cases. The claim that "mimicry" is an evidence of adaptive selection receives like treatment:
In this typical case of explanation of ant resemblance, we have not only overemphasis on the struggle for existence but also the usual attempt to draw lines where none occur in nature. Theorists point out that certain ant mimics by virtue of some assumed advantage live among ants, but they ignore the more numerous insect and other guests of ants that do not resemble their hosts. Ant-resembling creatures do not all live with ants, some of them (Gelis spp.) occurring in far northern regions where there are no ants. Some ant mimics may be predators upon ants but others (various Cerambycid and Anthicid beetles) neither prey upon nor live with the ants. The assumed advantage of ant resemblance in protecting its possessors from predators is a very tenuous one, as ants admittedly are freely eaten by a great variety of enemies. The "protection" really amounts to the swarms of ants taking the brunt of predation from the much less numerous "mimics," and this is merely a consequence of their relative numbers, an advantage the rarer forms have anyway, regardless of their appearance.

If ant mimicry is not necessary to existence among ants, if it occurs without any possible relation to ants, and if it can act as a protection only as a result of numerical ratios, it would seem not only unnecessary but erroneous to invoke a theory of mimicry through natural selection to account for it.

Prof. A. Franklin Shull, of the University of Michigan, observes almost disgustedly that, had there been no direct study or speculation on evolution from the publication of The Origin of the Species until 1910 or 1920, the present views would be sounder.(5) In other words, a principal task ahead is to clear away the mists of unwarranted speculation which have been so largely the "achievement" of evolutionist science since Darwin. Dr. Shull also disputes the "mimicry" theory, remarking that the colors left unexplained are no more marvelous than the theories which attempt to explain them; that an account of the evolution of the human imagination would lead to more light on these theories than we have now. Continuing in terms which, if used by anyone but a scientist would be regarded as quite rude, Dr. Shull stigmatizes the period of our predecessors in evolutionary theory as one of "bewildering obfuscations, scientific hallucinations, abbreviated in this day of governmental alphabetics to BOSH." He is certain "that even a moderately full knowledge" of the factors of evolution is "still far beyond."

Dr. Cockerell, of the University of Colorado, reviewing books by Shull, and by Robson and Richards, takes much the same view.(6) The efficacy of "natural selection" is severely discounted. There is "little positive evidence in its favor, so much that appears to tell against it, and so much that is yet inconclusive, that we have no right to assign to it the main causative role in evolution."

"Mimicry" as a factor in adaptation is more or less discredited, but Dr. Cockerell also suggests that the phenomenon of imitation cannot be purely accidental. "There are," he says, "cases that suggest some unknown magic, some mysterious influences at present undiscovered." An instance is the ant parasite which mimics on a small scale the ant on which it lives.

Is it possible, one wonders, that all evolution proceeds by some kind of "mimicry" -- whether "unconscious," as in the tendency of the mineral to respond to embodiment in higher forms, "subconscious," as in the copying by the animal of prototypal characteristics locked up in the human form; or conscious, as in the aspiration of man to higher states, which, though man has forgotten it, are the existing states of many of his predecessors? Mimicry is not only an expression of the natural striving of lower forms of life toward a higher condition; it is also evident in the imitation of one form by another on the same plane of evolution, or even, as in the case of man himself when actuated by a perverted desire nature, of the imitation of a lower form of life by a higher one -- the degradation of spiritual powers.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


As to Natural Selection itself, the utmost misconception prevails among many present-day thinkers who tacitly accept the conclusions of Darwinism. It is, for instance, a mere device of rhetoric to credit "Natural Selection" with the power of originating species. "Natural Selection" is no Entity; but a convenient phrase for describing the mode in which the survival of the fit and the elimination of the unfit among organisms is brought about in the struggle for existence. Every group of organisms tends to multiply beyond the means of subsistence; the constant battle for life -- the "struggle to obtain enough to eat and to escape being eaten" added to the environmental conditions -- necessitating a perpetual weeding out of the unfit. The élite of any stock thus sorted out, propagate the species and transmit their organic characteristics to their descendants. All useful variations are thus perpetuated, and a progressive improvement is effected. But Natural Selection, in the writer's humble opinion, "Selection, as a Power," is in reality a pure myth; especially when resorted to as an explanation of the origin of species. It is merely a representative term expressive of the manner in which "useful variations" are stereotyped when produced. Of itself, "it" can produce nothing, and only operates on the rough material presented to "it." The real question at issue is: what Cause -- combined with other secondary causes -- produces the "variations" in the organisms themselves. Many of these secondary causes are purely physical, climatic, dietary, etc., etc. Very well. But beyond the secondary aspects of organic evolution, a deeper principle has to be sought for. The materialist's "spontaneous variation," and "accidental divergencies" are self-contradictory terms in a universe of "Matter, Force and Necessity." Mere variability of type, apart from the supervisory presence of a quasi-intelligent impulse, is powerless to account for the stupendous complexities and marvels of the human body for instance. 

--The Secret Doctrine

Next article:
II: The Link Between Man and Ape
(Part II of III)
(Part 79 of a 103-part series)

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(1) In 1927 Dr. Osborn wrote: "I am inclined to advocate an independent line of Dawn Man ancestors, springing from an Oligocene neutral stock, which also gave rise independently to the anthropoid apes." (Science, May 20, 1927.)
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(2) Science, December 2, 1932.
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(3) Science, April 27, 1934.
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(4) Science, April 20, 1934.
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(5) Science, May 10, 1935.
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(6) Science, August 28, 1936.
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