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Hooke, Fossils and the Anti-Evolutionists

Keith Thomson

I occasionally receive notice that publications of mine on the subject of evolutionary theory have been quoted to promote an anti-evolutionist, creationist agenda: Recently it was the so-called Discovery Institute using my work in an attempt to limit the teaching of evolution in Ohio schools. At such times it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. These people read science so assiduously only to use it against us. But ultimately they are engaged in a deeper struggle for our hearts and minds that will never really go away: Is the universe totally explainable in scientific terms, or is there an ultimate, unknowable "mystery"?

One of the people who helped launch our evolutionary age was Robert Hooke (1635–1703). Hooke was a luminary in a brilliant age; his contemporaries were men like Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and of course Isaac Newton. They worked under the influence of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who had decisively broken away from the medieval approach to science. The truth, whatever it might be, and however elusive, was not to be sought through Biblical revelation or Episcopal exegesis, nor in the authority of the ancient scholars such as Aristotle. Instead, for the modern scholar "all depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed upon the facts of nature and so receiving their images simply as they are."

In some regards, Hooke is best known as half of one of the great "odd couples" of science. Coming from a poor family, as a student at Oxford Hooke had to work as a servant. Robert Boyle was the wealthy son of the even more wealthy first Earl of Cork and never went to university. When Boyle settled in Oxford between 1656 and 1668, he employed Hooke to help him conduct his philosophical investigations on the nature (and laws) of gases. Hooke was his inventor-engineer, performing the famous air-pump experiments that proved the existence in air of some factor (later discovered and named oxygen) necessary for animal life.

In his later career, Hooke's creativity extended from clock mechanisms to the universal joint. He became surveyor to the City of London when Christopher Wren was the chief architect, and together they rebuilt the city after the great fire of 1666. Hooke and Wren experimented with microscopes, and from his observations of crude thin-sections of cork, Hooke devised the concept of (and the word) "cell."

Figure 1. Hooke sketched a variety of fossils . . .Click to Enlarge Image

In his great work Micrographia (1665), Hooke also published some of his most important thoughts about fossils, concluding, with Leonardo da Vinci and many ancient authors, that they must be the remains, variously trans-substantiated into rock, of once-living organisms. Then, with Lectures and Discourses of Earthquakes and Subterraneous Eruptions (1668–1700), he opened up a whole world of scientific explanation concerning the history of the earth and even outlined the basics of a rock cycle, thus preceding James Hutton by more than 100 years.

How, we might ask, could anyone in Restoration England get away with promoting such dangerous ideas about fossils and the earth? Part of the answer, of course, is that ideas alone are not a threat unless someone makes them so. Hooke's geology was not mature enough, and the context in which it was written was not supportive enough, for the forces of religion to do more than stir restively and warily. Today, the fact of an ancient and changing earth is so firmly established that its corollaries in terms of the evolution of life on earth seem almost irresistible. The stridency of modern anti-evolutionists surely arises not only from their subscription to a particular branch of religious fundamentalism, but also from the fact that evolution is now a full-blown science, no longer vulnerable to the charge of being a "hypothesis."

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