I just finished reading a rather fascinating article by Bruno Maddox over at Discover Magazine on Charles Darwin’s first paper, a paper he presented to the Royal Society around 1836 and which gained him entrance into the Society as a Fellow. The paper dealt with the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, found in the “remote Highlands of Scotland”. Glen Roy had captured the attention of geologists everywhere at the time, and what made it difficult to explain is that these flat “roads” presumably had formed at the bottom of a lake; but there were three “roads” at three different levels, and, looking to the east these supposed lakes had nothing to contain them, instead seeming to empty out into a valley (‘glen’ in Scottish). Based on his experiences in South America, including experiencing an earthquake firsthand, Darwin theorized that instead of having been formed by lakes, this area had actually been uplifted from the ocean at three different times inthe past. Four years later, Louis Agassiz, the highly regarded Swiss geologist, rightly explained that it had been glaciers that had sealed off the eastern end of the valley, thus forming the lakes during glacial times, and, ultimately the Parallel Roads.
How did Darwin react to the critique his paper underwent as a result of Agassiz’ new interpretation? Not very well. In fact, that’s the very point the author makes. Darwin would later say, “My paper was one long gigantic blunder from beginning to end.” But this admission came in 1861, after his Origins had gone through several printings and a new edition was on its way; i.e., while Darwin felt comfortable with all the plaudits coming his way, at a time when he could admit such a “gigantic blunder”.
Here is what Bruno Maddox writes:
It is more about how he was wrong. Darwin’s admission of gigantic blundering came only in 1861, two decades after Agassiz proposed his glacier model, decades that Darwin spent clinging to his increasingly unlikely theory of sea beaches with a very un-Darwinian stubbornness. As holes were steadily poked in his theory, he doubled down on his rhetoric, insisting to Lyell in 1841 that “I think I have thought over the whole case without prejudice, and remain firmly convinced they are marine beaches.” At one point, in a letter to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin half-seriously blamed a bout of ill health on “an audacious son of dog (Mr. [David] Milne) having attacked my theory.” And while he would, occasionally, declare himself intrigued or even “staggered” by some fresh piece of evidence against him, he would always conclude that, all things considered, he was still right and everyone else was wrong.” (My emphasis)
One further point is worthy of our attention. In my view, this directly impinges on the controversy we find ourselves engaged in as we question Darwinian theory, based as it is on Darwin’s ‘reasoning’ in the Origins. The pertinent part of the article begins as Maddox is there at Glen Roy looking eastward. He writes:
Gazing east from the Hill of Bohuntine, one has an excellent view of a huge but gentle mountain pass known in Rudwick’s unsentimental nomenclature as Col R2, on the same level as the second of the Parallel Roads, the one in the middle. In ancient times, when the second road was being formed, it was over Col R2 that the putative glacial lake would have overflowed. Darwin’s marine theory of the roads—which required no lakes, and by extension no lake overflow points—was substantially premised, he acknowledged from the outset, on Col R2’s not existing. Indeed, at the top of his agenda for that original field trip to Glen Roy was to ascertain whether or not there was a “lip of escape” for the second lake. We also know he climbed the Hill of Bohuntine and most certainly looked east. Whether Darwin missed the col entirely or simply convinced himself—absent modern measuring techniques—that it wasn’t close enough to the level of the second road, we do not know. (My emphasis)
Coupling together what Maddox tells us here about what Darwin came to Glen Roy to “ascertain” and inevitably had to observe, along with the knowledge that though Agassiz had already properly explained the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy in 1841, Darwin was not willing to admit until 20 years later and after the success of his Origins, one can’t help but think of comments Darwin makes along the way as well as his methodology of his 1859 best-seller. Specifically, Darwin uses a kind of ‘methodical doubt’ approach to known biological facts—about the known fossil record, about sterility, about the limits of breeders, about the general understanding of species and varities—and along the way tells us that “imagination’ is very important in understanding the processes of the past (In fact, he states that he didn’t think the current crop of biologists would accept his theory, and that he, Darwin, would have to wait until the next generation of biologists—young and imaginative—came along before his theory would be properly assessed.)
So, what do we have? We have a Darwin that was wrong (a “gigantic blunder”) about a geological interpretation, but one who nontheless was capable of writing, “I think I have thought over the whole case without prejudice, and remain firmly convinced they are marine beaches.” Hence, a Darwin who could remain “firmly convinced” about a completely erroneous theory of the Roads formation. And, we have a Darwin who could travel to Glen Roy having in mind the intention of viewing the Col R2 formation because of its critical importance in any explanation to be given, and who, per Maddox, substantially premises his theory on Col R2’s not existing. This causes Maddox to ask himself a question and state: “Whether Darwin missed the col entirely or simply convinced himself—absent modern measuring techniques—that it wasn’t close enough to the level of the second road, we do not know.”
We who find Darwinian theory unconvincing have to ask ourselves: “Was Darwin capable of ‘convincing himself’ that all the evidence pointing against his theory could be left to the one side, just as Col R2 was swept to the one side at Glen Roy?” I suspect Darwin’s biggest blunder will prove not to be his interpretation of the Parallel Roads at Glen Roy, but his Theory of Origins. I don’t think we’re very far away from this day.