What did Charles Darwin say about the human eye?

by Helen Fryman

Question: I am trying to find the writings of Charles Darwin where he makes the statement about evolution not being conceivable because all one had to do is look at the human eye, and that his studies are mistaken by the public. Do you know, where I can find this information?

Response: I posted this question to an email science group I belong to and got your quote along with some very good comments.  I am including them below for you.

The Quote: From the Origin of Species, CHAPTER VI--DIFFICULTIES OF THE THEORY

"Organs of extreme Perfection and Complication.   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. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any 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, should not be considered as subversive of the theory. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself originated; but I may remark that, as some of the lowest organisms, in which nerves cannot be detected, are capable of perceiving light, it does not seem impossible that certain sensitive elements in their sarcode should become aggregated and developed into nerves, endowed with this special sensibility.

Comments:

1) The question was not correctly presented, I believe.  In his Origin. Chap. VI, he has a section entitled "Organs of Extreme Perfection," which begins, "To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus for 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."  He then goes on to state it could have happened.

2) The "Perils of Pauline" strategy that Darwin employs here is his key approach, especially in Chs. 6--9.  He begins by making a large concession, but then adds that once we understand his way of viewing things the objections will diminish or disappear.  Repeatedly, he seems to put the theory at risk through these seemingly damaging admissions, but then rescues it.  What always fascinates me about our hero is that while on the one hand he affirms the appeal to reason, his very view of reason (as this passage in its entirety would show) involves active imagination.  Of course, imagination is central to science--but as a part of reason, not in opposition to it.  The honorable gentlepersons opposite, starting with Chuck himself, are engaged in an epistemic revolution.  What is at issue is to get the reader to fill in the blanks by analogy and then to accept Chuck's particular blend of reason and imagination as reason.  In part it is, but then there is the other part that requires us to extrapolate the process even without evidence.

 

 

 

 
 
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