“Not Proved and Not Provable”

Thomas Henry Huxley

I have just weighed my copy of William A. Williams’s The Evolution of Man Scientifically Disproved (1925) on the postal scale in the NCSE office, and it weighs 6.7 ounces. For such a slight volume, it is awfully ambitious. According to the title page, it is designed “(1) As an up-to-date text book, and a companion to all other text books on evolution; and (2) As an antidote to books in libraries teaching evolution, infidelity[,] and atheism; and (3) As an aid to all students, parents, teachers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, and all other lovers of the truth.” The book packs a lot of quotations and misquotations from various scientific authorities into chapter 28, “Scientists Condemn Evolution.” As it happens, I have already blogged here at the Science League of America about a number of them: Lionel S. BealeAlbert Fleischmann (misspelled “Fleishman” by Williams), St. George Mivart (misspelled “Mivert” by Williams), Ernst Haeckel, Nathaniel S. Shaler (although Williams didn’t misattribute his words to Darwin), and Oscar Fraas (misspelled “Traas” by Williams). And now it’s time for the quotation from, as the slipshod Williams might have called him, “Homas Tenry Tuxley” (above).

Williams writes, “Prof. Huxley, said that evolution is ‘not proved and not provable.’” While supplying a superfluous comma, he fails to supply a reference. Refreshingly, and uncharacteristically for a creationist author of his era, Williams acknowledges taking these “testimonies” from earlier books: namely, Luther Townsend’s Collapse of Evolution (1905), Alfred W. McCann’s God—Or Gorilla (1922), and Philip Mauro’s Evolution at the Bar (1922). But none of these contains the “not proved and not provable” passage. Williams may have found it in the writings of the self-educated geologist George McCready Price, although he doesn’t mention Price at all in his book. Price used the passage as early as 1906, in his Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in the Evolution Theory, where he quotes Huxley as saying, “In the present condition of our knowledge and of our methods (sic) one verdict—‘not proven and not provable’—must be recorded against all grand hypotheses of the paleontologist respecting the general succession of life on the globe” (the interpolation is Price’s). With regard to whether Huxley used “proven” or “proved,” Price is right and Williams is wrong.

But was Huxley, famously dubbed Darwin’s bulldog, really saying that evolution is “not proven and not provable”? Let’s take a look at the evidence. Williams and Price are quoting from Huxley’s “Geological Contemporaneity and Persistent Types of Life” (1862), which was the annual address to the Geological Society. (The society’s president, Leonard Horner, was both abroad and infirm, so he asked Huxley to speak instead.) In it, Huxley proposed to inquire “into the nature and value of the present results of paleontological investigation,” a particularly important inquiry, he explained, in light of “the late multitudinous discussions in which palaeontology is implicated.” (Darwin is not mentioned in the address, but it’s hard to believe that Huxley didn’t have him in mind.) While acknowledging the value of the results of contemporary paleontology, Huxley expressed concern about two assumptions on which he thought that they depended, namely “that the commencement of the geological record is coeval with the commencement of life on the globe … [and] that geological contemporaneity is the same thing as chronological synchrony.”

The second of these assumptions is relevant to the passage quoted by Williams and Price. Huxley is worried that paleontologists are assuming that the Devonian fossils here are necessarily earlier than the Carboniferous fossils there and later than the Silurian fossils elsewhere. But, he says, “For anything that geology or paleontology are able to show to the contrary, a Devonian fauna and flora in the British Islands may have been contemporaneous with Silurian life in North America, and with a Carboniferous fauna and flora in Africa.” “It may be so; it may be otherwise,” Huxley adds. “In the present condition of our knowledge and of our methods, one verdict—‘not proven, and not proveable’—must be recorded against all the grand hypotheses of the palaeontologist respecting the general succession of life on the globe. The order and nature of terrestrial life, as a whole, are open questions. Geology at present provides us with most valuable topographical records, but she has not the means of working them into a universal history.” (Note that Huxley wrote “proveable,” with a surplus e; Price silently corrected him.)

You can see immediately, I trust, why Williams is wrong to describe Huxley as characterizing evolution as “not proved and not provable.” Assuming, arguendo, that Huxley is right in identifying a problem for paleontology here, it is a problem independent of evolution. Whether you suppose that all species—or “kinds,” if you want—of fauna and flora were separately created in a six-day period about six thousand years ago, or you suppose that they were separately created seriatim over billions of years, or you suppose that they descended with modification from a shared ancestry over billions of years, you are still faced with the problem that the geological evidence is incapable of revealing the actual chronological relationships among the fossils. All hypotheses about “the general succession of life” are not proven and not provable, so the geological evidence provides neither evidence for nor evidence against evolution or any supposed alternative to it. (Again, that’s assuming, arguendo, that Huxley is right about the problem.) Unlike Williams, Price recognizes that Huxley is not talking about evolution here, but he nevertheless errs in thinking that Huxley’s problem is a problem distinctive to evolution rather than paleontology.

Of course, that’s not the only problem with the creationist use of the passage from Huxley. There’s also anachronism. The statement of the problem is conspicuously conditioned on “the present condition of our knowledge and of our methods,” and Huxley proceeds to suggest that a universal history of life is not unattainable. The key is biology. He looks forward to the day “when the maze of the world’s past history, through which the pure geologist and the pure palaeontologist find no guidance, will be securely threaded by the clue furnished by the naturalist.” And the clue is “the law of evolution of organic forms.” (No wonder that Darwin was largely pleased with Huxley’s lecture.) Certainly evolutionary considerations proved to play a large role in reconstructing the history of life on the planet, although the absolute chronology provided by radiometric dating provides a definitive refutation of the supposed problem posed by Huxley in his 1862 address. (For a quick primer on geological dating, see Stephanie Keep’s series “How Old is That Fossil in the Window?” part 1, part 2, and part 3.) Alas, Huxley died in 1895, almost a decade before Ernest Rutherford attempted the first radiometric dating of a rock sample. 

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.