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How evolutionists explained the origin of life, 101 years ago


Most of my readers will not have heard of Joseph McCabe (1867-1955). The atheist Website The Secular Web describes him as follows:

One of the giants of not only English atheism, but world atheism, Joseph McCabe left a legacy of aggressive atheist and antireligious literature that remains fresh and insightful today. His many works– he wrote nearly 250 books–could constitute a library of atheism by themselves.

Joseph McCabe entered the Franciscan order at the age of 15, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1890, at the age of 22. He was quickly recognized as an outstanding student, and was sent to study at the Catholic University of Louvain for a year (1893-1894). He studied under, and befriended, Cardinal Mercier, before returning to London, where he resumed priestly and educational duties. In October 1895, he was put in charge of the newly founded Franciscan college. He had, however, been gradually losing his faith, and he quit the Catholic priesthood in February 1896. That year, he wrote an account of his falling away from the faith, entitled, From Rome to Rationalism: or : why I left the Church. The following year, he expanded his narrative into a book, Twelve Years in a Monastery (1897), which sold quite well in England.

McCabe was one of the founding board members of the Rationalist Press Association of Great Britain in 1899, which is now known as the Rationalist Association. He was a prolific writer for Haldeman-Julius Publications: over 100 Big Blue Books by McCabe were published altogether, as well as many Little Blue Books. He wrote nearly 250 books on science, religion, politics, history and culture, during his lifetime. He was also a much-respected speaker, giving, by his own estimate, three or four thousand lectures in the United States, Australia, and great Britain by the age of eighty.

Shortly after leaving the Catholic priesthood, McCabe was still able to give a fair and detached account of his experiences, but as the years passed, he grew increasingly bitter against organized religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. His books degenerated into diatribes and ill-tempered polemics, such as The Popes and their Church: A Candid Account, The Tyranny Of The Clerical Gestapo: Catholics The Most Priest-Ridden Of All People, The Holy Faith Of Romanists: How Catholics Are Hypnotized About Their Weird Creed and The Fruits Of Romanism: The Catholic Church Does Far More Harm Than Good. I came across some of these books at the Australian National University, as a student there in the early 1980s. That’s how I know about them. Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a chapter about McCabe in his highly entertaining book, Heretics (1905).

I should add that Joseph McCabe is not a reliable source of information on matters religious: his writings contain numerous calumnies against the Catholic Church. As for his philosophical writings, they were not particularly profound, in my opinion.

On scientific matters, however, McCabe was an excellent popularizer, writing numerous books for the intelligent layperson. In 1912, he authored The Story of Evolution (Boston: Small, Maynard, and Co.), which is cited in the Bibliography of Dr. Douglas Theobald’s 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution. I happened to be browsing through Dr. Theobald’s Bibliography when I came across the reference to McCabe’s book. “I know that name,” I said to myself. “And look at the date of publication: 1912. That’s 101 years ago. Let’s take a step back in time, and see what a popular science writer had to say about the origin of life, 101 years ago.”

Well, my little time-trip proved to be very revealing – and quite entertaining, as we’ll see. McCabe had done his homework, and read the best scientific sources that were available in his day. His exposition of the theory of evolution was lucid and easy to follow.

So, what did McCabe have to say about the origin of life? He discusses the subject in chapter 5 of his book. In chapter 4, he addresses the age of the Earth. Here’s what he wrote in 1912:

Physicists have tried to calculate the age of the sun from the rate of its dissipation of heat, and have assigned, at the most, a hundred million years to our solar system; but the recent discovery of a source of heat in the disintegration of such metals as radium has made their calculations useless. Geologists have endeavoured, from observation of the action of geological agencies to-day, to estimate how long it will have taken them to form the stratified crust of the earth; but even the best estimates vary between twenty-five and a hundred million years, and we have reason to think that the intensity of these geological agencies may have varied in different ages. Chemists have calculated how long it would take the ocean, which was originally fresh water, to take up from the rocks and rivers the salt which it contains to-day; Professor Joly has on this ground assigned a hundred million years since the waters first descended upon the crust. We must be content to know that the best recent estimates, based on positive data, vary between fifty and a hundred million years for the story which we are now about to narrate. The earlier or astronomical period remains quite incalculable. Sir G. Darwin thinks that it was probably at least a thousand million years since the moon was separated from the earth. Whatever the period of time may be since some cosmic cataclysm scattered the material of our solar system in the form of a nebula, it is only a fraction of that larger and illimitable time which the evolution of the stars dimly suggests to the scientific imagination.

He then proceeded to give a geological time scale, in which he estimated that about 50,000,000 years had passed since the beginning of the Cambrian period (the modern estimate is 543,000,000 years), and “probably at least 50,000,000 years” in the preceding Archaean Period, making a total of at least 100,000,000 years. (The modern scientific estimate of the Earth’s age is 4,540,000,000 years.) McCabe thought that the Cenozoic era had begun a mere 6,000,000 years ago; geologists today reckon that 66,000,000 years have elapsed since then. Bear that in mind. McCabe, like most of his scientific contemporaries, was prepared to believe that the various orders of mammals had diverged in less than 10% of the time allowed by scientists today.

Here’s what McCabe had to say about the origin of life (bold emphases are mine – VJT):

A day may come when science will decipher a long and instructive narrative in the masses of quartz and gneiss, and the layers of various kinds, which it calls the Archaean rocks. But we may say with confidence that it will not discover in them more than a few stray syllables of the earlier part, and none whatever of the earliest part, of the epic of living nature. A few fossilised remains of somewhat advanced organisms, such as shell-fish and worms, are found in the higher and later rocks of the series, and more of the same comparatively high types will probably appear. In the earlier strata, representing an earlier stage of life, we find only thick seams of black shale, limestone, and ironstone, in which we seem to see the ashes of primitive organisms, cremated in the appalling fires of the volcanic age, or crushed out of recognition by the superimposed masses. Even if some wizardry of science were ever to restore the forms that have been reduced to ashes in this Archaean crematorium, it would be found that they are more or less advanced forms, far above the original level of life. No trace will ever be found in the rocks of the first few million years in the calendar of life.

The word impossible or unknowable is not lightly uttered in science to-day, but there is a very plain reason for admitting it here. The earliest living things were at least as primitive of nature as the lowest animals and plants we know to-day, and these, up to a fair level of organisation, are so soft of texture that, when they die, they leave no remains which may one day be turned into fossils. Some of them, indeed, form tiny shells of flint or lime, or, like the corals, make for themselves a solid bed; but this is a relatively late and higher stage of development. Many thousands of species of animals and plants lie below that level. We are therefore forced to conclude, from the aspect of living nature to-day, that for ages the early organisms had no hard and preservable parts. In thus declaring the impotence of geology, however, we are at the same time introducing another science, biology, which can throw appreciable light on the evolution of life. Let us first see what geology tells us about the infancy of the earth….

It will be seen at a glance that the physical story of the earth from that time is a record of the emergence from the waters of larger continents and the formation of lofty chains of mountains. Now this world-old battle of land and sea has been waged with varying fortune from age to age, and it has been one of the most important factors in the development of life. We are just beginning to realise what a wonderful light it throws on the upward advance of animals and plants. No one in the scientific world to-day questions that, however imperfect the record may be, there has been a continuous development of life from the lowest level to the highest. But why there was advance at all, why the primitive microbe climbs the scale of being, during millions of years, until it reaches the stature of humanity, seems to many a profound mystery. The solution of this mystery begins to break upon us when we contemplate, in the geological record, the prolonged series of changes in the face of the earth itself, and try to realise how these changes must have impelled living things to fresh and higher adaptations to their changing surroundings….

For the moment it will be enough to state two leading principles. The first is that there is no such thing as a “law of evolution” in the sense in which many people understand that phrase. It is now sufficiently well known that, when science speaks of a law, it does not mean that there is some rule that things MUST act in such and such a way. The law is a mere general expression of the fact that they DO act in that way. But many imagine that there is some principle within the living organism which impels it onward to a higher level of organisation. That is entirely an error. There is no “law of progress.” If an animal is fitted to secure its livelihood and breed posterity in certain surroundings, it may remain unchanged indefinitely if these surroundings do not materially change. So the duckmole [platypus – VJT] of Australia and the tuatara of New Zealand have retained primitive features for millions of years; so the aboriginal Australian and the Fuegian have remained stagnant, in their isolation, for a hundred thousand years or more; so the Chinaman, in his geographical isolation, has remained unchanged for two thousand years. [Note the complacent racism here – VJT.] There is no more a “conservative instinct” in Chinese than there is a “progressive instinct” in Europeans. The difference is one of history and geography, as we shall see….

And the second guiding principle I wish to lay down in advance is that these great changes in the face of the earth, which explain the progress of organisms, may very largely be reduced to one simple agency—the battle of the land and the sea. When you gaze at some line of cliffs that is being eaten away by the waves, or reflect on the material carried out to sea by the flooded river, you are — paradoxical as it may seem — beholding a material process that has had a profound influence on the development of life. The Archaean continent that we described was being reduced constantly by the wash of rain, the scouring of rivers, and the fretting of the waves on the coast. It is generally thought that these wearing agencies were more violent in early times, but that is disputed, and we will not build on it. In any case, in the course of time millions of tons of matter were scraped off the Archaean continent and laid on the floor of the sea by its rivers. This meant a very serious alteration of pressure or weight on the surface of the globe, and was bound to entail a reaction or restoration of the balance….

… The very few fossils we find in the upper Archaean rocks are so similar to those we shall discuss in the next chapter that we may disregard them, and the seams of carbon-shales, iron-ore, and limestone, suggest only, at the most, that life was already abundant. We must turn elsewhere for some information on the origin and early development of life.

The question of the origin of life I will dismiss with a brief account of the various speculations of recent students of science. Broadly speaking, their views fall into three classes. Some think that the germs of life may have come to the earth from some other body in the universe; some think that life was evolved out of non-living matter in the early ages of the earth, under exceptional conditions which we do not at present know, or can only dimly conjecture; and some think that life is being evolved from non-life in nature to-day, and always has been so evolving. The majority of scientific men merely assume that the earliest living things were no exception to the general process of evolution, but think that we have too little positive knowledge to speculate profitably on the manner of their origin.

The first view, that the germs of life may have come to this planet on a meteoric visitor from some other world, as a storm-driven bird may take its parasites to some distant island, is not without adherents to-day. It was put forward long ago by Lord Kelvin and others; it has been revived by the distinguished Swede, Professor Svante Arrhenius. The scientific objection to it is that the more intense (ultra-violet) rays of the sun would frill such germs as they pass through space. But a broader objection, and one that may dispense us from dwelling on it, is that we gain nothing by throwing our problems upon another planet. We have no ground for supposing that the earth is less capable of evolving life than other planets.

Other students suggest other combinations of carbon-compounds and water in the early days. Some suggest that electric action was probably far more intense in those ages; others think that quantities of radium may have been left at the surface. But the most important of these speculations on the origin of life in early times, and one that has the merit of not assuming any essentially different conditions then than we find now, is contained in a recent pronouncement of one of the greatest organic chemists in Europe, Professor Armstrong. He says that such great progress has been made in his science — the science of the chemical processes in living things — that “their cryptic character seems to have disappeared almost suddenly.” On the strength of this new knowledge of living matter, he ventures to say that “a series of lucky accidents” could account for the first formation of living things out of non-living matter in Archaean times. Indeed, he goes further. He names certain inorganic substances, and says that the blowing of these into pools by the wind on the primitive planet would set afoot chemical combinations which would issue in the production of living matter.

[* See his address in Nature, vol. 76, p. 651. For other speculations see Verworn’s “General Physiology,” Butler Burke’s “Origin of Life” (1906), and Dr. Bastian’s “Origin of Life” (1911).]

It is evident that the popular notion that scientific men have declared that life cannot be evolved from non-life is very far astray. This blunder is usually due to a misunderstanding of the dogmatic statement which one often reads in scientific works that “every living thing comes from a living thing.” This principle has no reference to remote ages, when the conditions may have been different. It means that to-day, within our experience, the living thing is always born of a living parent. However, even this is questioned by some scientific men of eminence, and we come to the third view.

Professor Nageli, a distinguished botanist, and Professor Haeckel, maintain that our experience, as well as the range of our microscopes, is too limited to justify the current axiom. They believe that life may be evolving constantly from inorganic matter. Professor J. A. Thomson also warns us that our experience is very limited, and, for all we know, protoplasm may be forming naturally in our own time. Mr. Butler Burke has, under the action of radium, caused the birth of certain minute specks which strangely imitate the behaviour of bacteria. Dr. Bastian has maintained for years that he has produced living things from non-living matter. In his latest experiments, described in the book quoted, purely inorganic matter is used, and it is previously subjected, in hermetically sealed tubes, to a heat greater than what has been found necessary to kill any germs whatever.

Evidently the problem of the origin of life is not hopeless, but our knowledge of the nature of living matter is still so imperfect that we may leave detailed speculation on its origin to a future generation. Organic chemistry is making such strides that the day may not be far distant when living matter will be made by the chemist, and the secret of its origin revealed. For the present we must be content to choose the more plausible of the best-informed speculations on the subject.

Some things haven’t changed, it seems. The solution to the problem of life’s origin is always just around the corner: McCabe hopes that “the day may not be far distant when living matter will be made by the chemist.” Famous last words!

McCabe’s willingness to believe that scientists of his day could produce “living matter” strikes us as touchingly naive. But I would ask: is the general public, in the twenty-first century, any less naive in its willingness to accept abiogenesis? We now know that a living cell is no mere protoplasm, but a staggeringly complex entity that far exceeds the complexity of anything designed by man, and yet we still swallow the same nursery stories of its origin: life began in the sea from a mixture of carbon compounds. We are, if anything, more credulous than our forbears.

McCabe, like other thinkers in his day, evidently accepted the view that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, for he continues:

Another method of retracing the lost early chapters in the development of life is furnished by embryology. The value of this method is not recognised by all embryologists, but there are now few authorities who question the substantial correctness of it, and we shall, as we proceed, see some remarkable applications of it. In brief, it is generally admitted that an animal or plant is apt to reproduce, during its embryonic development, some of the stages of its ancestry in past time. This does not mean that a higher animal, whose ancestors were at one time worms, at another time fishes, and at a later time reptiles, will successively take the form of a little worm, a little fish, and a little reptile. The embryonic life itself has been subject to evolution, and this reproduction of ancestral forms has been proportionately disturbed. Still, we shall find that animals will tend, in their embryonic development, to reproduce various structural features which can only be understood as reminiscences of ancestral organs. In the lower animals the reproduction is much less disturbed than in the higher, but even in the case of man this law is most strikingly verified. We shall find it useful sometimes at least in confirming our conclusions as to the ancestry of a particular group.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to McCabe that embryonic development might merely reflect the differentiation of various “archetypes” or basic body plans.

I’ll finish with a quote from chapter XVIII, where McCabe discusses vestigial organs, and cites “male breasts” as an example:

A much more interesting fact, but one less easy to interpret, is that the human male has, like the male ape, organs for suckling the young. That there are real milk-glands, usually vestigial, underneath the teats in the breast of the boy or the man is proved by the many known cases in which men have suckled the young. Several friends of the present writer have seen this done in India and Ceylon by male “wet-nurses.” As there is no tribe of men or species of ape in which the male suckles the young normally, we seem to be thrown back once more upon an earlier ancestor. The difficulty is that we know of no mammal of which both parents suckle the young, and some authorities think that the breasts have been transferred to the male by a kind of embryonic muddle. That is difficult to believe, as no other feature has ever been similarly transferred to the opposite sex. In any case the male breasts are vestigial organs.

Further comment is superfluous.

McCabe: Organic chemistry is making such strides that the day may not be far distant when living matter will be made by the chemist, and the secret of its origin revealed.
Why does this optimism sound so familiar? Probably 101 years is too short to detect any evolutionary change.
McCabe: For the present we must be content to choose the more plausible of the best-informed speculations on the subject.
And of course we have to confine ourselves to ‘rational’ explanations. So we know exactly which explanation is out.
McCabe: Dr. Bastian has maintained for years that he has produced living things from non-living matter.
LOL Another great article Vjtorley! Box
VJT: Quite a tour of the past. KF kairosfocus

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