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.


I was thinking on my drive home about a true story of a man who wrote to Charles Darwin and sent him a beetle with a tiny clam attached to it’s leg.  The beetle arrived alive, but barely, so Darwin put it in a jar with some plants and the fumes gently put out its life.  It’s a really beautiful story on it’s own, but the amazing part is that this man who sent the beetle was just a cobbler and an amateur naturalist, but his grandson was Francis Crick who co-discovered DNA, which backed up Darwin’s theory even further, and continues to prove it over and over again.  That is such an amazing and fun coincidence, and there are so many more in the world every day that are far more unlikely than that.  How amazing that this sort of thing happens all the time!

Then I thought about the fact that christians would say that god did it.  They would probably argue that it practically proves he exists.  But I have to say that it’s far, far more miraculous my  way than it is their way.  My way it’s so incomprehensibly unlikely that it’s moving to imagine the sensation that it must produce in the people involved, and in some cases they can’t know because they’re already dead.  I wish Darwin could have seen such an interesting event, and so it’s moving in a slightly more sad way to think of it like that.   But either way it’s incredible to think about! It’s truly miraculous that these things can happen for no real reason.  To think that god did it is not miraculous.  It’s just a meaningless answer to a beautiful question.  It takes away so much of the symmetry of the truth.  I know that their answer can’t possibly feel as good as my answer because that’s one of the main reasons that I stopped believing in the first place.  It never really seemed like the real miracles in the world get enough credit and the fake ones that they made up were not only lame but also unprovable anthropologically, historically or scientifically.  If any proof that they had actually happened had been found we would have heard about it by now.

My thoughts on  these matters create feelings of true wonder in me, and I appreciate that for what it is chiefly because I know that no god or higher power or intelligence of any kind made it happen.  THAT’S the thing that makes it amazing!  No religion has anything on that.