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
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:
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:
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:
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
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):
Bree also understood what was at stake if Darwin’s hypothesis became widely accepted:
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.
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: