Back to index of science pages by Donald Sauter.

The Neck Of The Giraffe -
Where Darwin Went Wrong,
by Francis Hitching

In all of the discussion generated by my Evolution FAQ page, there was only one supportive response, courtesy of Rick Box. Rick recommended I read The Neck Of The Giraffe, by Francis Hitching. It was a real eye-opener.

After reading it, I searched the web for "Francis Hitching" and found many attacks on the person, but almost none on what he actually said in the book. For instance, someone claims to have found that the Royal Archaeological Institute says it has no member by that name. And Stephen Jay Gould says he never talked to a Francis Hitching. But does Gould disavow any of his numerous quotes in this book?

If Hitching made it all up, it would seem an incredibly stupid thing to do (unless "Hitching" is a pseudonym and the author's true identity is well-protected.) Moreover, there are tons of references given - names of scientists, institutions, journals, and symposia. The parade of people with distinguished-sounding (at least) positions in many fields who have big doubts about Darwinism is so overwhelming that you might find yourself wondering, "So who believes it anyway? Why am I wasting my time reading this?"

Let me pass on some of the highlights and other points of interest to me. Where you recognize a bald-faced lie, shoot it down. Page numbers are from the 1982, Ticknor & Fields hardback edition.

Right near the beginning (page 12), Hitching writes: "Evolution and Darwinism are often taken to mean the same thing. But they don't. Evolution of life over a very long period of time is a fact, if we are to believe evidence gathered during the last two centuries from geology, paleontology (the study of fossils), molecular biology and many other scientific disciplines. Despite the many believers in Divine creation who dispute this... the probability that evolution has occurred approaches certainty in scientific terms."

Further on (page 250), Hitching gives Darwin a demerit for mixing up the "fact of evolution" and his "theory of how it took place." Philosopher Marjorie Grene (page 250) explains that "for many people the idea of evolution means natural selection still."

As expressed in my own FAQ, I still don't get what the big deal is. Who can seriously argue that "evolution" and "natural selection" haven't gone everywhere hand-in-hand from before we were all born? Hitching himself says (page 49), "It is fair to say that this explanation of evolution... called neo-Darwinism... has utterly dominated biological science for the last fifty years." When he gets around to discussing alternative theories in chapter 7, "Patterns of life", they sound completely unfamiliar and almost completely unfathomable (to me, as presented in this book.)

The bizarre thing is, if the pro-evolution gang insists on taking credit for whatever the correct answer turns out to be, no matter how far off-base they are now, they are allowing that evolution could be creation (whether divine or not, and whether creation took place all at once or at different times.) Would somebody with more of a reputation than me please tell the world how stupid this "evolution is fact" business is.

Hitching (page 15) says "Darwin's theory is in fact quite good at explaining minor changes." He had just mentioned the breeding of dogs, horses and vegetables; moths becoming darker as the trees become blackened with soot; and mutant fruit flies produced by x-rays. But even here, Hitching was overgenerous to Darwin; only the 2nd example of the 3 has anything to do with natural selection.

Hitching writes (page 19): "When you look for links between major groups of animals, they simply aren't there; at least not in enough numbers to put their status beyond doubt. Either they don't exist at all, or they are so rare that endless argument goes on about whether a particular fossil is, isn't, or might be, transitional between this group and that.

"Yet there are lengthy periods of history when there is every reason to expect plenty of intermediates. At such times, geological strata straddling an evolutionary change hold an abundance of evidence - the fossils are of good quality, and their timespan on Earth is known with a high degree of accuracy.

"Museums have, for instance, countless piles of fossils of the early invertebrate sea creatures, and an equally large number of ancient fishes. Between the two, covering a period of about 100 million years, there ought to be cabinets full of intermediates - indeed, one would expect the fossils to blend so gently into one another that it would be difficult to tell where the invertebrates ended and the vertebrates began.

"But this isn't the case. Instead, groups of well-defined, easily classifiable fish jump into the fossil record seemingly from nowhere: mysteriously, suddenly, full formed, and in a most un-Darwinian way. And before them are maddening, illogical gaps where their ancestors should be."

Not to belabor this, but to give an idea of Hitching's technique, here is a quote (page 20) from David M. Raup, the curator of "one of the world's finest natural history museums", the Field Museum in Chicago:

"Probably most people assume that fossils provide a very important part of the general argument that is made in favour of Darwinian interpretations of the history of life. Unfortunately, this is not strictly true. Instead of finding the gradual unfolding of life, what geologists of Darwin's time and geologists of the present day actually find is a highly uneven or jerky record; that is, species appear in the sequence very suddenly, show little or no change during their existence in the record, then abruptly go out of the record."

Hitching raises the question (page 20), "How did fish become amphibians? The most important body changes here are that the fins must develop to support the amphibians weight. (There are many associated changes of enormous complexity and difficulty, such as gills being transformed into lungs, but these, being soft tissue, might not show up as fossils.) On the basis of gradual Darwinian evolution, you would expect a wealth of transitional forms showing the development of the appropriate fins, the loss of others, and the slow strengthening of the pelvic bones.

"There are none that show a continuous chain or series..."

Hitching reports (page 25), "Rodents appear in the fossil record with startling suddenness, without any apparent predecessors."

Hitching quotes (page 22) Professor N. Heribert-Nilsson of Lund University, Sweden. After 40 years in paleontology, the professor wrote:

"It is not even possible to make a caricature of evolution out of palaeobiological facts. The fossil material is now so complete that the lack of transitional series cannot be explained by the scarcity of the material. The deficiencies are real, they will never be filled."

And Hitching has Stephen Jay Gould (page 23) calling the fossil gaps "the trade secret of palaeontology."

Hitching describes (page 26) another puzzling gap preceding "the explosion of life forms at the beginning of the Cambrian period [600 million years ago]. Here, in the space of about ten million years, a curtain was raised on a stage teeming with living things. After 3,000 million years in which nothing more complicated than bacteria and slime lived upon our world, came the dawn of life. Billions upon billions of fossils have been found, showing a marine life that suddenly became rich and abundant: clams, snails, octopuses, crustaceans with hard shells and jointed legs, spiny-skinned animals such as starfish, sea urchins and sea lilies. The dominant life form was the now-extinct sea creature known as a trilobite, up to a foot long, with a distinctive head and tail, a body made up of several parts, and a complex respiratory system.

"But although there are many places on Earth where 5,000 feet of sedimentary rock stretch unbroken and uniformly beneath the Cambrian, not a single indisputable multi-celled fossil has been found there. It is the 'enigma of palaeontological enigmas' according to Stephen Gould."

Hitching says (page 27) that we have been told there are "literally thousands of transitional forms, and more are discovered every year." He goes on:

"It takes a while to realize that the 'thousands' of intermediates being referred to have no obvious relevance to the origin of lions and jellyfish and things. Most of them are simply varieties of a particular kind of creature, artificially arranged in a certain order to demonstrate Darwinism at work, and then rearranged every time a new discovery casts doubt upon the arrangement.

"The family tree of the horse is a good example of the trouble museums get into when they try this sort of thing. Once portrayed as simple and direct, it is now so complicated that accepting one version rather than another is more a matter of faith rather than rational choice. Eohippus, supposedly the earliest horse, and said by experts to be long extinct and known to us only through fossils, may in fact be alive and well and not a horse at all - a shy fox-sized animal called a daman that darts about in the African bush... [DS: Does that eliminate it from contention as the ancestor of the horse?]

"All the most popular examples [of intermediates] have become discredited, one way or another. The so-called 'walking catfish' of Florida, frequently cited as living half-way fish-amphibian creatures, do not, in fact, walk. They slither along on their bellies using the same motion as when they swim."

There is a 2.5 page discussion (page 34) about the Archaeopteryx and whether or not it represents an intermediate - a reptile with feathers - or maybe an already full-fledged bird. All the while I'm reading this, I'm screaming mentally, "What real difference does it make???" Hitching showed himself to be a writer of no small telepathic abilities. He responded to me in the last paragraph:

"The further point might be made that even if Archaeopteryx is in fact a half-way form from reptiles to birds, it is still not very enlightening about the process of evolution, nor in any way evidence of Darwin's hoped-for gradual transitions. For that, we would have to see in the fossil record the slow development of feathers (perhaps from scales, perhaps from some other origin) and the hierarchical change of amphibian dinosaurs into delicate, light-boned creatures that could soar above the Earth. And here, characteristically, the rocks are mute."

I took a beating for asking, "where is the half-necked giraffe?", so I had to chuckle when I read (page 44), "There are no intermediate fossils showing a three-quarter length giraffe neck." By the way, in spite of the title, the neck of the giraffe is not a big issue in the book.

We read (page 45), "Professor Anthony Hallam, of the Department of Biological Sciences at Birmingham University, England, told a conference on evolution in Chicago in 1980 that his studies of Jurassic [180 to 135 million years ago] bi-valves showed emphatically that over periods of 10-12 million years they changed hardly at all, except in size. After this period of stasis they became, or were replaced by, a markedly different species.

"The growing realization that a pattern of stasis and extinction is the rule rather than the exception shows not just that the fossil gaps are real (which more or less everybody now accepts); but also that they are highly mysterious, significant, and very unhelpful to Darwinism."

Hitching discusses the origin of flight (page 94). "Winged insects appeared suddenly and plentifully alongside wingless insects in Carboniferous period, some 300 million years ago. Before that there are no fossil insects at all, flying or otherwise, so any suggestion as to how they evolved the capacity of flight is sheer guesswork."

"Dinosaurs, bats and birds each evolved the ability to fly... at different times in Earth's history. None of the transitional stages are preserved in the fossil record." (Page 95.)

As an example of evolution seen in the natural world, Hitching spends more time (page 52) with the peppered moth changing from light to dark. He notes that this phenomenon, called "industrial melanism, has now been established in more than 100 kinds of insects in Britain, and there are many other examples in Europe and North America." How widespread the phenomenon is surprised me, but not as much as Hitching's summation. After mentioning the few examples, if they count, of bacteria, houseflies, rats and rabbits becoming resistant to some of our poisons, he says (page 53), "So far as living showcase examples of evolution are concerned, that is about it." I figured that, as feeble an example of evolution that is (since no new species came out of it), there should be many more similarly lackluster examples for biologists to put forth. I don't know if the lizard leg experiment has received enough independent verification to join the ranks of darkening moths.

About selective breeding, Hitching says (page 54), "It is now absolutely clear that there are firm natural limits to what can be done. Remarkable achievements can be made by crossbreeding and selection inside the species barrier, or within a larger circle of closely related species, such as wheats. But wheat is still wheat, and not, for instance, grapefruit. Between 1800 and 1878, the sugar content of beets was raised from 6 to 17 per cent. A half century of further breeding failed to make any difference.

"Although Darwin and his successors have invoked these and other examples as evidence of evolution, breeders with practical experience flatly disagree. Luther Burbank, perhaps the most famous plant breeder in the history of the United States, once pointed out that nobody had succeeded in growing black tulips or blue roses, because the genetic material was simply not there. 'I know from experience that I can develop a plum half an inch long or one two-and-a-half inches long, with every possible length in between, but I am willing to admit that it is hopeless to try to get a plum the size of a small pea, or one as big as a grapefruit... In short, there are limits to the development possible.'"

Hitching allows (page 55) that, "recent advances in genetics... show that genes tend to interact among each other in a startling and unpredictable way, [but] every series of breeding experiments that has ever taken place has established a finite limit to breeding possibilities. Genes are a strong influence for conservatism, and allow only modest change." He points out that "breeding of wild varieties of grass" and "domesticated dogs arrived about [10,000 years ago.] Yet in the whole of this time period, there is no hint of wheat or dogs changing into anything except different kinds of wheat and dogs."

Hitching asks (page 55), "Can speeded-up mutations demonstrate how one kind of creature turns into another?" In bombarding tens of millions of fruit flies with x-rays since the early 1900s, thereby increasing their mutation rate up to 150 times the normal, "all the fruit flies have remained fruit flies." Mutated eyeless fruit flies were interbred, and after a few generations, their eyes started to come back! "Somehow the genetic code had a built-in repair mechanism that reestablished the missing genes."

Hitching explains why we believe that all life came from the same source (page 62). "All things, plant and animal life alike, are kept alive by coded messages from the genes that are transmitted by the same method: a ceaseless one-way stream of instructions from DNA via its 'messenger' molecule RNA to the proteins that form the chemical basis of life.

"There are many other biochemical universals (the term given to properties shared by all living things). All proteins are made up of the same twenty amino acids, in different proportions. All life is structured from cells of about the same size, which divide and renew themselves in a remarkably similar way. The spiral structure of DNA, with its links consisting of just four nucleotide acids, is also common to everything alive.

"These shared properties confirm in the minds of virtually all biologists that everything which lives is derived ultimately from a common source. 'In all likelihood, life arose only once,' Theodosius Dobhzansky said in 1963."

If I can stick my 2 cents in, these universals say nothing about how many times life arose. If there's only one kind of life, you're going to get it whenever and wherever it appears.

In chapter 4, Hitching gets around to the difficulty of the formation of complicated organs (page 85). "For the eye to work the following minimum perfectly coordinated steps have to take place (there are many others happening simultaneously, but even a grossly simplified description is enough to point up the problems for Darwinian theory.) The eye must be clean and moist, maintained in this state by the interaction of the tear gland and movable eyelids, whose eyelashes also act as a crude filter against the sun. The light then passes through a small transparent section of the outer coating (the cornea), and continues via a self-adjusting aperture (the pupil), and a similarly automatic lens which focuses it on the back of the retina. Here 130 million light-sensitive rods and cones cause photochemical reactions which transform the light into electrical impulses. Some 1,000 million of these are transmitted every second, by means that are not properly understood, to a brain which then takes appropriate action.

"Now it is quite evident that if the slightest thing goes wrong en route - if the cornea is fuzzy, or the pupil fails to dilate, or the lens becomes opaque, or the focussing goes wrong - then a recognizable image is not formed. The eye either functions as a whole or not at all. So how did it come to evolve by slow, steady, infinitesimally small Darwinian improvements? Is it really possible that thousands upon thousands of lucky chance mutations happened coincidentally so that the lens and the retina, which cannot work without each other, evolved in synchrony? What survival value can there be in an eye that doesn't see?

"Small wonder that it troubled Darwin. 'To this day the eye makes me shudder,' he wrote to his botanist friend Asa Gray in February 1860."

If you do your search for Hitching on the web, you will find him getting scolded for that last paragraph. Apparently, Darwin went on to say something like, "... but I can only conclude that natural selection gave us the eye, too." I mention this to give another example of how picky the criticisms leveled against this book are. Also, I've always been baffled by how much energy is spent arguing whether or not Darwin disavowed his own theory. Come on, people, that's not relevant! An idea takes on a life of its own once it's been thought up. If the guy who thought of it changes his mind, that's all very interesting - maybe even humorous - but it doesn't give his objections any more weight than anyone else's.

Back to the development of the eye, I want to point out that, even without all the complexity, the creation of a new body part via Darwinian evolution is hardly imaginable. Let's assume animals have only one eye of a simple and regular shape and made up uniformly of some simple substance throughout - glass, say. There, what could be simpler? Now tell me how you can get from a non-eyed to an eyed creature in generation-by-generation steps via Darwinism. Be careful - that first mutation is a doozy!

Hitching points out (page 90) that the fantastic transformations needed to turn a small, earthbound mammal into a huge whale had to have happened in "at most five to ten million years - about the same time as the relatively trivial evolution of the first upright walking apes into ourselves."

Another bafflement is the incredible complexity of the mammalian ear (page 90). "The organ of Corti alone... contains some 20,000 rods and more than 30,000 nerve endings.

"Yet within this complexity lies a further paradox. Although nothing as remotely complicated can be found in the ear of reptiles, living or extinct, it is far from certain that we hear significantly better than they do. So where is the special advantage that, according to theory, would be naturally selected?"

By about page 103, Hitching has finished laying out all these problems with Darwinism. He revisits the eye and quotes Stephen Gould: "We avoid the excellent question, What good is five per cent of an eye? by arguing that the possessor or such an incipient structure did not use it for sight."

Hitching continues: "But if not sight, what else? It is unreasonable to ask for a speculative evolutionary scenario for every single novel creature and organ that appears in the fossil record [DS: I think it's perfectly reasonable], but the most obvious and daunting ones continue to stare us in the face, unexplained.

"At this point a disinterested outsider might fairly conclude that evolutionary theory has reached an impasse. In three crucial areas where neo-Darwinism can be tested, it has failed:

1. "The fossil record reveals a pattern of evolutionary leaps rather than gradual change.

2. "Genes are a powerful stabilizing mechanism whose main function is to prevent new forms evolving.

3. "Random step-by-step mutations at the molecular level cannot explain the organized and growing complexity of life."

And so Part 2 begins, where Hitching discusses "Alternatives". Chapter 5 is devoted to creation. Hitching doesn't accept creation. The irony, of course, is that in the big battle of "Evolution vs. Creation", everything he said in Part 1 would be enthusiastically embraced by creationists to show how implausible evolution is.

Hitching concludes the chapter with the observation (page 136), "One comes back repeatedly to the conclusion that the creationists would not be making so much of the running were not neo-Darwinism defended to the teeth as the only viable alternative. Paradoxically, the greatest service which the creationist movement may yet perform is to spur on a basic re-evaluation of the laws underlying evolution."

Chapter 7, "Patterns of life", gets into some alternative theories of evolution, which I've already admitted didn't make much sense to me - and as far as I know haven't taken over the biology world in the 20 or so years since this book was written.

Is there a key to be found in the "phenomenon of parallel evolution?" (page 176.) "The most striking example of this can be seen in the similarity between marsupials (those mammals with pouches to carry their young) and placental animals (most other mammals, including ourselves.)

"Their joint ancestors were small, shrew-like creatures which lived in the Cretaceous, when the Earth was dominated by dinosaurs. As the continental plates drifted inexorably apart, some of these little animals were left stranded, about 150 million years ago, in what is now Australasia; and by a quirk of evolution, their manner of giving birth became one of nurturing their newborn progeny in a pouch on the mother's belly.

"The extraordinary thing is that, this oddity apart, the marsupials of Australia have evolved in a remarkably similar way to the placental animals in the rest of the world. Wolves, cats, squirrels, ground hogs, anteaters, moles and mice all have their look-alike counterparts, in spite of the millions of years they have been raised apart, and in spite of the greatly differing environmental challenges that each has to meet."

The last chapter, "Darwin's Legacy" is a lot of fun if you don't already know too much about Darwin, forerunners to his theory, and how he was eventually prodded into publishing.

As much wholesale copying as I've done here to try to give an accurate impression of the book, remember that Hitching generally had more to say, pro- and/or anti-Darwinism, on each topic I've lifted. Track down a copy and read the whole thing.

If I had read "The Neck Of The Giraffe" earlier, I wonder if I would have ever written my FAQ. After all, what sense does it make to ask for a description of an interesting transition in generation-by-generation steps when the fossil record doesn't show such things, we don't observe them happening in nature, and we can't make them happen in the laboratory?

When I posed the challenge I couldn't imagine how someone could give a compelling answer, but I didn't rule out the possibility. It would have meant egg on my face, but it would have been worth it. After the first round of feedback, it started dawning on me that, if there were an answer, there would have been some hint of it by now. I'm feeling quite secure now that an explanation of how you can get from nothing to something using mutations and natural selection is not forthcoming.

The main value in this whole exercise, as I see it, is that there is excellent agreement between what can't be explained logically, and what isn't observed. That's good.

Hitching describes (page 82) the "often ill-tempered" symposium at the University of Pennsylvania called "Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution" in 1966:

"Here it became clear that doubts among biologists were doubled and redoubled by physicists, mathematicians and engineers, some of whom were openly incredulous at the lack of a testable scientific basis for evolutionary theory. [DS: I don't get that. I thought the test was the fossil record, and observing it in nature and in the laboratory.] Few biologists expressed any uncertainty, on this occasion, about natural selection being the supreme explanatory law...

"Computer scientists, especially, were baffled as to how random mutations alone could possibly enrich the library of genetic information. A mutation, they repeatedly pointed out, is a mistake - the equivalent of a copying error. And how could copying mistakes build up into a new body of complicated and ordered information? Murray Eden, Professor of Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology... concluded this was so implausible that 'an adequate scientific theory of evolution must await the discovery and elucidation of new natural laws - physical, physico-chemical and biological.'"

Are you listening, You can wave your hands to the end of time, and you can laugh your heads off at the stupidity of anybody who can't "get" your "explanations" of evolution. That's a lot of people with a lot of intellectual credentials.

Or you could take a fresh, impartial, open-minded look at what you're saying and recognize that it's no bad thing to admit that maybe we don't know everything yet. Who would argue that we do? That in the year 2000, man finally knew everything last thing there is to know? That's crazy.

Who'd like to be the one that makes the big breakthrough that allows you to write a book called "The Origin Of The Species"? Unlike an earlier book by that title, this one would explain the origin of the species. It would have an impact like no other book ever written.

And hurry up about it. I'm dying to know and I only have another 30 or 40 years.

Afterword (Dec 2009): Would you believe 20?


Contact Donald Sauter: send an email; view guestbook; sign guestbook.
Back to Donald Sauter's main page.
Rather shop than think? Please visit My Little Shop of Rare and Precious Commodities.
Back to the top of this page.

Parents, if you're considering tutoring or supplemental education for your child, you may be interested in my observations on Kumon.