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The ‘Ordinary’ View of Creation

Charles Darwin’s primary goal in writing the Origin of Species was to overthrow what he called "the ordinary view of creation." Unfortunately for us, he did not specify what that view was. Besides the biblical account of the six-day creation of plants, animals, and humans in the Garden of Eden, at least three quasi-scientific versions of creation circulated in the mid-nineteenth century. One, sometimes associated with the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, corresponded roughly with the Genesis story. It held that God had created plants and animals at one time and place and that they had dispersed from that singular center to populate the earth. A second view, popularized by Darwin’s friend the British geologist Charles Lyell, broke entirely from the biblical framework. It postulated the existence of multiple "centres or foci of creation," appearing as needed across space and time, from which organisms spread out to fill their ecological niches. A third view, developed by the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz, likewise bore little resemblance to the creation account found in Genesis 1. Agassiz believed that after global catastrophes had destroyed life on the earth, God had repopulated the world, or huge segments of it, in one sweeping act, creating untold numbers of individual members of a species where none had existed a moment earlier.

Believers in special creation generally refrained from spelling out exactly how creation had occurred. In the eyes of their critics such reluctance, along with the inevitable appeal to the supernatural, disqualified creation as a proper scientific explanation. As early as 1838 Darwin had concluded that attributing the structure of animals to "the will of the Deity" was "no explanation—it has not the character of a physical law & is therefore utterly useless." Darwin’s foremost American disciple, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, echoed this opinion, arguing that the great appeal of evolution appeared "on comparing it with the rival hypothesis . . . of immediate creation, which neither explains nor pretends to explain any [facts]."

The understandable reluctance of creationists to translate their convictions into scientific language often made them the objects of derision. The American ichthyologist Theodore N. Gill, who complained about the "vague and evasive" responses that nonevolutionists gave to inquires about the specific processes of creation, quoted Darwin in demanding answers to such questions as "Did ‘elemental atoms flash into living tissues’? Was there vacant space one moment and an elephant apparent the next? Or did a laborious God mould out of gathered earth a body to then endue with life?" In Gill’s opinion, such information was a prerequisite to conceiving of creation in any scientifically useful way.

Louis Agassiz sometimes frustrated colleagues by refusing to provide a single detailed description of how a species came into existence. "When a mammal was created, did the oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon of the air, and the lime, soda, phosphorus, potash, water, etc., from the earth, come together and on the instant combine into a completely formed horse, lion, elephant, or other animal?" inquired Agassiz’s Harvard colleague Jeffries Wyman. If this question is "answered in the affirmative, it will be easily seen that the answer is entirely opposed by the observed analogies of nature." In the years after 1859 the scientific vacuity of special creation no doubt contributed more to the acceptance of evolution than all of the positive evidence in favor of organic development.Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 47-48, 50-52.

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