Quotes in Context (I)

The eye - irreducibly complex?

This is a new segment I’ve decided to call “Quotes in Context.” Here, we will post a quote out of context, explain how it can easily be used to deceive anybody unfamiliar with the quote or the topic it covers, and then proceed to round it all out by posting the quote in context.

Our first quote will be by Mr. Charles Darwin himself. Darwin, as we know, wrote a pretty famous book called On the Origin of Species, which sold out entirely during its first week of publication. His book was controversial at a time when people assumed science and gods could work hand in hand, but is now regarded as one of the most relevant and influential books in history.

The quote many creationists (those who believe their god snapped its fingers and created life on a whim) like to rely on is as follows:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.

-Charles Darwin

This is a dangerous thing indeed for the father of evolutionary theory to have said. What Darwin is referring to in this quote, without saying the words creationists have since coined for the term, is irreducible complexity – the notion that something (like the human eye) is so complex that it could not have possibly evolved. They claim that were a single part of the eye removed, it would be made entirely useless. Clearly Darwin is saying the same thing in that quote, taken directly from On the Origin of Species.

Clearly, that is, until you read the line immediately following that one:

Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Layman’s terms: but if we were to prove the eye is not irreducibly complex, we would look for many other examples of less complex eyes in nature. We would also check and see if any slight modifications to the eye may make it more useful under any other conditions. First, examples of other, less complex eyes do exist in nature. Second, it is demonstrable that slight changes to the eye would benefit it under different circumstances. Therefore, what seems to be “absurd in the highest degree” is, in fact, quite simple to understand.

In other words, Darwin was raising the notion of irreducible complexity in the eye, only to then tear apart the popular creationist theory and prove that the eye is not, in fact, irreducibly complex. Creationists, however, love to ignore the second half of the quote and only talk about the first, claiming Darwin was actually on “their side,” and that he proved his own theory wrong.


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