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Hooke, Fossils and the Anti-Evolutionists

Keith Thomson

Hypothesis and Fact

Everything in Hooke's world view was opposite to the Biblical view: change instead of stasis, an old rather than a young Earth, a changing diversity of life instead of a fixed Creation. Hooke even speculated on the mutability of species. For him it was logical that if some species could die out over the course of the Earth's history, "there may be divers new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning." But what we now know as fact was then hypothesis. And there was no shortage of rival theories. In Robert Plot's Natural History of Oxford-Shire (1677), we find a tortured rehearsal of all the arguments against Hooke and Steno's view of fossils and for the idea that they were merely lapides sui generis—self-generated stones. A more daring hypothesis followed by Hooke's contemporary Edward Lhwyd was that fossils arose from the "seeds" of marine creatures that were carried by clouds from the sea to land, where they hatched deep within the rocks.

The problem for Hooke and other forward-thinkers was that if there had been conclusive independent evidence of the age of the earth and the relative ages of the different fossil-bearing layers, then fossils themselves would have been easy to accept. Alternatively, if there had been conclusive independent evidence of the true nature of fossils and of the processes that produce them, then the age of the Earth would readily have been accepted. Instead, as is almost always the case, both sides of the matter developed iteratively—here an advance, there a retreat. Radioisotopic dating of rocks (independent of fossils) and the discovery of the mechanisms of plate tectonics seem to have sealed the matter, although no doubt there is much more to discover.

The same chicken-egg difficulty of independent lines of evidence could be said to apply to modern evolutionary science. The ultimate conclusion one draws from the study of evolution (and thus the ultimate test of the science) is that life arose from non-life by natural processes. On the one hand, paleontology has shown conclusively that life has changed over time, and genetic analyses prove the relationship of all organisms through diversification of lineages. The three fundamentals of a Darwinian evolutionary mechanism—superfecundity, variation and selection—are readily demonstrated in living populations. All these lead us to predict that it will eventually be possible to demonstrate the evolution of life from non-life. On the other hand, if we had already demonstrated experimentally the assembly of self-replicating molecules from simple non-self-replicating molecules, we would have little difficulty in accepting an extrapolation from that to the evolution of diversity over time.

Interestingly, computer simulations are coming very close to demonstrating the origin of self-replicating molecules. And so the iterative process of evolutionary science continues, with much work still to be done.




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