The Thing Works Out Until It Doesn’t: GKC and Evolution, Part I


May 7, 2011

I posted this two-part essay on G. K. Chesterton, evolution, and eugenics on this blog quite a while ago — but the original is no longer available online, and a butchered version has been posted on a thing called, I think, the Anti-Fascist Encyclopedia, where it’s received a goodly number of “Likes.”  It seems a pity that the undamaged version isn’t out there — so, now it is.


In 1903, at the age of 28, G. K. Chesterton argued that evolution and religion have a lot in common.  The essay is rare [or was when I first posted this — it is now available online], so I quote it at length:

I hear, let us say, of a certain theory about the universe.   As a trial, I assume it to be true; then, if I discover with a start that, once assumed, it explains the boots on my feet and the nose on my face, that my umbrella has a new and radiant meaning, that my front door suddenly explains itself, and truths about my cat and dog and wife and hat and sideboard crowd upon me all day and every day, I believe that theory and go on believing it more and more.

On the other hand, if the theory be not true, I may be perfectly certain that ten minutes after I have experimentally assumed it, I shall break my shins over some contradiction.  We have buttoned the coat round the world (that rotund and patient old gentleman) and it has split down the back. It is surely quite obvious that this is the method on which we base all our real beliefs and that on this, above all, we base our belief in evolution.  Of the thousands of brilliant and elegant persons like ourselves who believe roughly in the Darwinian doctrine, how many are there who know which fossil or skeleton, which parrot’s tail or which cuttle-fish’s stomach, is really believed to be the conclusive example and absolute datum of natural selection? . . . What we know, to use a higher language, are the fruits of the spirit.  We know that with this idea once inside our heads a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them: we see the thing in the dog in the street, in the pear on the wall, in the book of history we are reading, in the baby in the perambulator and in the last news from Borneo.  And the fulfilments pour in upon us in so natural and continual a cataract that at last is reached that paradox of the condition which is called belief.  We have seen so many evidences of the theory that we have forgotten them all.  The theory is so clear to us that we can scarcely even defend it.  If we walked up to the nearest rationalist we know and asked him to prove evolution, he would be dazed, like a man asked to defend justice.

. . . [N]umbers of us have returned to [the belief that] the world, closely examined, does point with extreme suggestiveness to the existence of a spiritual world . . . we have returned to it, not because of this argument or that argument, but because the theory, when it is adopted, works out everywhere; because the coat, when it is tried on, fits in every crease. . . . The return to the spiritual theory . . . rests, like the movement toward evolution, on the fact that the thing works out.   We put on the theory like a magic hat and history becomes translucent like a house of glass.

— The Daily News (London), March 14, 1903

“The thing works out” — yes!  Not logically, in religion’s case; not so as to stand up to objective review in a scientific forum; but existentially.  Wait, come back, I’m sorry I said “existential” — but I do mean something by it.  Chesterton captures the psychological fact that the plausibility of a thing, whether a religious belief, political conviction, or scientific concept, depends not on a handful of telltale factoids but on the convergence of many impressions.  In one of his typical, weirdly agile, synthetic leaps, he has got to the heart of the matter.

1903: “The thing works out”

In his later writings, however, Chesterton kicks and jabs again and again at evolution, never missing a chance to hint that “Darwinism” is obsolete science, tottering about like a sick horse about to be knackered, dead on its feet.  By the early 1920s, if not sooner (generalizing about an author so monstrously prolific is dangerous), he has ceased to believe even “roughly” in evolution and instead, in essays like “Is Darwin Dead?” (Fancies Versus Fads, 1923), is retailing stock arguments against it.  Here he is on the impossibility of evolving a bat’s wing:

Of things serving particular purposes, by a balance and arrangement of parts, it cannot be generally true that they are fit for use before they are finished for use. . . . Until the membrane [between a bat’s finger-bones] can really be spread properly from point to point it is like the fiddle-string before it is stretched properly from point to point. It is no nearer serving its ultimate purpose than if it were not there at all. (pp. 220–221)

In other words, half a bat wing is useless, so bat wings can’t have evolved gradually.  Right?  Wrong. Although creationists tirelessly revive this argument — Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity,” Exhibit A of the Intelligent Design movement, is a variation on it — it remains eternally dead on arrival. It fails because it assumes that intermediate forms, if they do not serve the “ultimate purpose,” cannot serve any purpose.   But they can and do.  The case of skin webs stretched between limbs or fingers is particularly clear, as any web at all may increase a critter’s hopping range: the bigger the web, the more airtime might be caught.  A flying squirrel does not have wings, but it can glide up to an eighth of a mile.  Bat wings are, therefore, eminently evolvable.  And so are bird wings, squid eyes, and human brains.

I was annoyed when I first noticed Chesterton’s anti-evolutionary snarks.  I had loved him for decades, ever since I read Orthodoxy at the age of 13.  He had popped open and lit up my head hundreds of times.  Why did he have to go step in the same old creationist cow-pie?  I’d already encountered his embarrassingly mean-spirited remarks about women’s suffrage — now Darwin?  Gilbert, how could you?


1923: “Is Darwin dead?”

But Chesterton’s opposition to evolution, though misguided, was not driven by a crude Creationist literalism, and his change of tone was no mere slide toward conservative dotage.  Consider the dates of the two quotes above: 1903, 1923.  The first decade of the century was not, in fact, kind to Darwin.  Biologists did not doubt that evolution is real, in the sense that all living things are interrelated and change through time by natural processes, but they did squabble loudly over what theory of evolution to favor — what explanation of its mechanism.   Is evolution driven mostly by natural selection, or by something else?  Stephen Jay Gould refers to 1900–10 as “the period of greatest agnosticism and debate about evolutionary mechanisms.” [1]  In the 1910s, he says,  “near anarchy . . . prevailed in the study of evolutionary mechanisms,” [2] and even the early 1920s were still “not happy times of consensus for evolutionary theory in general” [3]. Statements by scientists arising from this turmoil over the how of evolution were widely quoted, mis-quoted, amplified, and misunderstood as a pulling-back from the fact of evolution.

This climate of confusion may have made it easier for Chesterton (along with his friend Hilaire Belloc) to conceive the mistaken notion that the thing no longer was working out, that the coat had split down the back, that “Darwinism” was dead — though still unburied.  And Chesterton seems pretty clearly to have wanted this narrative of Darwin’s demise to be true.  He seems to have wanted it pretty badly, and for a reason greatly to his credit: his hatred for eugenics, the idea that the human race can be improved through selective breeding of the more-fit, sterilization (or murder) of the less-fit, or both.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eugenics often seemed part and parcel of “Darwinism.”  Some prominent scientists told the public it was.  Eugenics seemed enlightened, rational, and obvious, a natural extension of evolutionary theory and the wave of the civilized future.

Naturally, Chesterton resolved to fight it to the death.

Next week, Part II: GKC, me, and our mutual friend Karl Pearson


[1] Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 391.

[2] Gould, p. 506.

[3] Gould, p. 412.

Drawings by me, from photos of GKC.