The Founders Rejected Evolution?

THIS IS A BIZARRE ARTICLE, Founders knew about evolution, chose intelligent design, which claims that:

Contrary to popular belief, as historian David Barton points out, the theory of evolution was around long before Charles Darwin. As far back as the 6th century B.C., Greek writers Thales and Anaximander had propounded the theory centuries before the birth of Christ. Aristotle, influenced by his intellectual forbears, also advocated a form of evolution.

Where can we begin with a mess like that? Was evolution really known long before Darwin? Let’s deal with Aristotle, as he was the best of the ancient thinkers. In Aristotle’s Physics, Part 8, he says:

A difficulty presents itself: why should not nature work, not for the sake of something, nor because it is better so, but just as the sky rains, not in order to make the corn grow, but of necessity? …

Good question! Aristotle asks why should nature have a purpose? Why don’t things just happen … well, naturally? He develops the idea further, and in doing so he sounds very much like Darwin himself:

Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature, e.g. that our teeth should come up of necessity-the front teeth sharp, fitted for tearing, the molars broad and useful for grinding down the food-since they did not arise for this end, but it was merely a coincident result; and so with all other parts in which we suppose that there is purpose? Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished

That’s amazing, isn’t it? Aristotle speculates that things which work well survive, and those which don’t perish, and it merely appears as if they had “come to be for an end.” Here we have an ancient statement that sounds very much like Darwin’s natural selection (except for that “organized spontaneously” remark). But, alas for Aristotle, he goes on in the very next paragraph and rejects this idea:

Such are the arguments (and others of the kind) which may cause difficulty on this point. Yet it is impossible that this should be the true view. For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true.

Aristotle is rejecting the idea of mutations. Then he goes on:

If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.


Each step then in the series is for the sake of the next; and generally art partly completes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and partly imitates her. If, therefore, artificial products are for the sake of an end, so clearly also are natural products. … If then it is both by nature and for an end that the swallow makes its nest and the spider its web, and plants grow leaves for the sake of the fruit and send their roots down (not up) for the sake of nourishment, it is plain that this kind of cause is operative in things which come to be and are by nature.

In other words, Aristotle flirted with Darwin’s brilliant insight, and then rejected it in favor of something very much like Intelligent Design (“ID”). So much for the notion that the theory of evolution was known before Darwin. It wasn’t.

Obviously the author of the article (Bryan Fischer, who has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Stanford and a graduate degree in theology) knows how to drop a lot of impressive names, but his essay could only have been penned by someone who knows nothing about the theory of evolution, and little or nothing about the scientific writings of the ancients. The best that can be done here is to respond by saying: Yes, many thinkers before Darwin made keen observations about living things; but no one before Darwin proposed a mechanism (variation and natural selection) for the emergence of new species from old ones over time. Let’s quote from Fischer’s article a bit more:

Philosophers Renee Descartes in the 17th century and Immanuel Kant in the 18th century had argued for the theory of a gradual origin of the solar system as an alternative to instantaneous creation.

The solar system? Now it’s obvious that Fischer doesn’t have a clue about the theory of evolution. One more excerpt:

The point here is that the Founders were not in fact ignorant of the theory of evolution. It had been around for 2400 years by the time they produced the Declaration of Independence with its flat and unambiguous proclamation that man is a created being, not an evolved one, and that there is a Creator who is the source of our civil rights.

Anyone who actually believes that Jefferson’s florid Declaration language about the “Creator” had anything at all to do with creationism (or ID) is just not worth reading — especially as Jefferson’s first sentence in the Declaration spoke of the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God (an obvious Deist expression). But we’ll give you Fischer’s conclusion:

The point here is quite simple: you will hear some argue, falsely believing that the theory of evolution did not exist until Darwin, that if the Founders had only written the Declaration after being exposed to the theory of evolution, it might look different. Well, in point of fact, they did write the Declaration after being exposed to the theory of evolution, and it looks just fine.

Okay, that’s enough. Worthless, really, except that it’s worth refuting. Therefore, your Curmudgeon rises to the task.

The principal refutation would be to explain the originality of Darwin’s work. That’s easily done (the entire educated world recognizes it), but that misses the thrust of what Fischer is actually saying. His article is built on the peculiar notion that if the Founders had known what we know about evolution (and he apparently thinks they did), they would have been devotees of ID. We suggest that this is nonsense. Consider what we know of the Founders, especially Jefferson:

Welcome to the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection (not the hobby of a creationist), and this: Product of the Enlightenment, which says:

Two prominent Enlightenment thinkers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were central participants of the American Revolution. Franklin, urban and pragmatic, was a master of business, politics and diplomacy. He was also a conspicuous advocate of bettering oneself. Jefferson was a country gentleman. He was a scholar and idealist who was also a master of the written word. He used this mastery to express his faith in Nature, both physical and human, and in the promise of the American “Empire of Liberty”. Both men embraced science. Franklin was the better scientist. Jefferson was the better champion.

And there’s this: A Sampling of Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia”, which says:

At the end of his discourse of fossils on the mountaintop, Jefferson rejects the three leading theories for explaining fossils on the mountaintop: universal deluge, inorganic origin of fossils (artifacts of mineral percolation) and catastrophic mountain uplifting. He writes:

[Quoting Jefferson]”. . . the three hypotheses are equally unsatisfactory; and we must be contented to acknowledge, that this great phaenomenon is as yet unsolved. Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, then he who believes what is wrong.”

Jefferson, Franklin, and most of the other Founders were brilliant men, products of the Enlightment, and utterly enthusiastic about science. They didn’t know what we know about biology, geology, and astronomy, but if they did there is no way they would have rejected Darwin’s work in favor of the dogmas of creationism (of which ID is a trivial variant).

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7 responses to “The Founders Rejected Evolution?

  1. Pingback: Blizej Natury » Blog Archive » The Founders Rejected Evolution?

  2. Fantastic post! Thank you!

  3. The Curmudgeon

    It took far more time than the original article was worth, but that’s often how it is when rebutting nonsense. All part of the Curmudgeonly service.

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  5. My question is what would Jefferson had done to the Bible if he had a word processor? Given the massive cut and paste job he did to the New Testament, would he have done more, or turned to the Old? But then, would there be much left over?

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