Dr Charles Bree, the scientist who challenged Charles Darwin’s science
Those who question the extent of the scientific rebuttal of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species1 when his book was first published should read the work of British zoologist and physician Charles Robert Bree.
While numerous scientists at that time have been acknowledged for opposing Darwin (for more, see Who really opposed Darwin? Popular belief has it back to front), Bree’s name is rarely if ever mentioned in the lists of Darwin opponents compiled by either pro- or anti-evolutionary sources. That’s despite the fact that in 1860, within months of the publication of On the Origin of the Species, Bree produced a critical analysis of it in the form of a book titled Species not transmutable, nor the result of secondary causes.2
It has to be said that Bree’s response was flawed in places. But his writings nonetheless provide an interesting insight into the depth of the dialogue in scientific circles at the time.
Even though Bree was convinced of special creation, he was not a biblical creationist.3 He said that “the scriptures are not scientific authorities, nor ever were intended to be”.4 (Even the deist, Charles Lyell, originally believed in creation of species, as well as their fixity, while at the same time he was rabidly opposed to the Bible and Christianity).
Had Bree started from a viewpoint affirming Genesis history, it would have greatly assisted his cause. A more nuanced understanding of the difference between species and biblical kinds, for instance, would have made his case less vulnerable in the face of obvious examples of transformation/adaptation within kinds, especially as time went on following the publication of the Origin.
In fact, from Genesis history he might have realized that the diversity of species today must have descended from a more limited number of kinds on the Ark.
This should have made him welcome any evidence that adaptive radiation of many types from one (as likely happened to the finches on the Galápagos, based only on the original created information in the kind) not only happens, but that adaptation can happen very rapidly.5
Equally, realizing that bears likely descended from one kind (or at most a few) that left the Ark would have meant he would have anticipated modern-day observations of hybridization between many different bear species.
For example, the ‘pizzly’ results from a mating between a polar bear and a grizzly.
Nonetheless, he laid out his case to demonstrate that Darwin had not shown how species had been changed (Bree’s term was transmuted) over the claimed millions of years.
Bree structured his rebuttal along the same lines that Darwin presented his arguments in Origin of the Species. He discussed, at length, Darwin’s claims and declared that special creation was an equally valid explanation for the development of life that Darwin ascribed to unguided processes; natural selection acting on random variations with all of today’s creatures coming from a single common ancestor.
However, some of Bree’s arguments were both confusing and misleading as the evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace (who independently came up with the idea of natural selection at around the same time as Darwin) pointed out in 1872.6
He showed that Bree misunderstood St George Mivart’s view of natural selection and was also wrong in his understanding of mimicry in creatures as Darwin and his supporters explained it.
However, Bree was certain that Origin of the Species represented
“the failure of a man of deservedly high reputation to convince me that I am in error”.2
“I am either unreasonably sceptical, or the change alluded to has not been effected in my mind. I have read over his book most carefully, and I am bound to confess that I am a stronger believer in a first cause and a special creation than ever.”2
Understanding creature colours
Charles Bree clearly understood the complexities of light diffraction in creatures such as birds. In Species not transmutable, nor the result of secondary causes, when challenging Darwin’s description of ‘natural selection’ in contrast with what Bree himself had observed in his research, he wrote:
Now the whole subject of the colour of animals is one of extreme interest, both to the naturalist and the physiologist. In many instances it is produced, as in the wing of the humming bird, by striæ or lines on the ultimate plume or barb of the feathers, which decompose the light, and produce the beautiful colouring we see in that bird. In others the colour is owing to the deposit of a pigment, having the faculty of absorbing different rays, or a mixture of rays. In others both of these causes come into operation. (p. 72)
Many of his arguments, however, are as applicable now as then.
Drawing on his experience as a surgeon—including in the Polish army7—Bree gave a detailed explanation of human anatomy which he was convinced was “designed by a being with thought, foreknowledge, wisdom, and goodness”.2 There was nothing in nature that could compare with the human hand or foot, and those corresponding like features in creatures such as apes were “made after the same model as my own”.2 But that was not evidence of a common ancestor, and “must have been made by special creation, and not by ‘selection’.”2
Bree also noted:
If every living thing has descended from one form, it is quite clear that man was not a separate creation.2
When Darwin published Descent of Man8 in 1871, Bree replied with An Exposition of Fallacies in the Hypothesis of Mr Darwin,4 and declared that Darwin had neither strengthened his arguments nor adequately answered the many objections that Bree and others had raised.
Instead, Bree was unhappy that he had been accused of odium theologicum9 and he wrote in this second rebuttal that:
… such a charge could only have been made as an excuse for not answering inconvenient facts.10
Therefore, Bree suggested that every ‘scientific believer’ had a right to say to the ‘Darwinian philosopher’:
Have you reduced your system to proof? Can you bring forward in its favour evidence sufficient to give a prima facie colouring of truth to it?11
Long ages and transitional forms
Bree did not insist on a young earth, and addressed Darwin’s claims for millions of years in this way:
And now for a few words upon Darwin’s long interpolated periods of geological ages. He has an eternity of past time to draw upon; and I am willing to give him ample measure; only let him use it logically, and in some probable accordance with facts and phenomena.12
Despite granting him the assumed vast timespans, Darwin had not, for example, explained “the absence or rarity of transitional varieties”.13
Further (and one might say most pertinently):
Mr Darwin says they have become extinct in the “struggle for existence.” Where again, we ask, are the evidences of this—where their remains?14
The big picture
Bree also understood what was at stake if Darwin’s hypothesis became widely accepted:
He gives us a theory of the most improbable kind, supports it by others still less reliable, and then asks us to surrender all that science and philosophic investigation has affected up to this time. There is no via media [middle road] between the speculations of Mr Darwin and the doctrine of special creation of living beings. If the former is adopted, the latter must be given up. What we have to decide is simply which doctrine stands upon the broadest and soundest basis. This is the question at issue, and that which naturalists must settle without delay.15
The majority of scientists today say that science has settled the question of origins in favour of Charles Darwin’s hypothesis. However, numerous others—many with advanced scientific qualifications in various disciplines—agree with Charles Robert Bree that Charles Robert Darwin failed to prove his claims in the 19th century and think that in this regard, nothing has changed over the past 150-plus years.
Naturalist, author and physician
In addition to the two rebuttals of Darwin’s work discussed in the main text, Bree (1811–1886) researched, wrote and illustrated a four-volume work called The History of the Birds of Europe not Observed in the British Isles.
He also wrote and illustrated the book Popular Illustrations of the Lower Forms of Life which he said would “make the study of natural history more intelligible to the general public than a more rigid adherence to scientific systematic writing would have done”.
Bree was a member of the Colchester and District Natural History Society, which annually awards the Dr Charles Bree Cup to the member who does the most for nature and conservation. When the British Medical Journal recorded Charles Bree’s passing, it made no mention of his Darwin dissent or the two books he wrote challenging evolution. An excerpt reads:
In the autumn of 1859 he was elected physician to the Essex and Colchester Hospital, and continued for twenty-two years physician to that institution. Dr Bree was also joint-editor with the Rev. F. O. Morris of the Naturalist. He was a Fellow of the Linnæn and Zoological Societies and a J. P. for Essex and Suffolk. Dr Bree was a staunch Whig and an ardent politician.
References and notes
- Darwin, C., On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, John Murray, London, 1859. Return to text.
- Bree, C.R., Species not transmutable, nor the result of secondary causes. Being a critical examination of Mr Darwin's work entitled “Origin and variation of species”, Groombridge, London, 1860. Return to text.
- See We are … biblical creationists? for an understanding of how I use the term here. Return to text.
- Bree, C.R., An Exposition of Fallacies in the Hypothesis of Mr Darwin, Longmans, Green, & Co., London, p. 12, 1872. Return to text.
- See Catchpoole, C., and Wieland, C., Speedy species surprise, Creation 23(2):13–15, 2001; creation.com/speedy. Return to text.
- Wallace, A.R., The Last Attack on Darwinism, Nature 6(143):237–239, 25 July 1872 | doi: 10.1038/006237a0. Return to text.
- Death of Dr C.R. Bree, The Essex Standard, 23 October 1886, p.5. Note that some of Bree’s fellow medical students also joined a Polish revolt against Russia in 1830–31. Return to text.
- Darwin, C.R., The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Murray, London, 1871. Return to text.
- Odium theologicum means theological hatred. Return to text.
- Ref 4., p.11. Bree has also been accused of misquoting certain authorities and misrepresenting Darwin’s work, though seemingly always scant on the details, which is a common issue in the heat of the creation-evolution debate. Return to text.
- Ref 4., p.12. Return to text.
- Ref 2., p.187. Return to text.
- Ref 2., p.128. Return to text.
- Ref 2., p.130. Return to text.
- Ref 2., p.85-86. Return to text.