Dr Charles Bree, the scientist who challenged Charles Darwin’s science
Published: 3 August 2017 (GMT+10)
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)