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Saturday, November 22, 2014


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The Vegetable In The Witness Box
By Islip Collyer, 1922




Introductions are generally tedious, but sometimes they are necessary. It seems inevitable that in offering to readers these fragmentary lessons drawn from the Vegetable World there shall be a short introduction to explain their origin.

Perhaps there is no need to apologise for the element of personal reminiscence which is almost bound to intrude, for although we are all ready to criticise the man of modest attainments who ventures on anything in the nature of an autobiography, it is nevertheless a fact that nothing interests us more. Certainly it is true that if a book or article is worth reading for itself, we are pleased to hear how the author came to write it.

Twenty-nine years ago, when I first put on the name of Christ, there was already a marked tendency in the direction of Secularism. Instead of the brethren having to fight merely against religious error, with no weapon required but an open Bible, there came the need to strive against unbelief, and to furnish reason for accepting the Bible as an authority. Secular thought was not confined to the towns. Almost every village seemed to have its bold exponent of unbelief.


Men who called themselves "free thinkers," although as hopelessly dependent on their leaders as any religious weakling could be, made themselves famous by the bold manner in which they attacked the Bible, using all the well known arguments of infidelity.

During the same period the Evolution theory, associated with the name of Darwin, was becoming popular. As all American writer remarked, it supplied men with a reason for the unbelief that was in them. Exponents of Natural Selection, as opposed to Creation, were found in unexpected quarters. In debating classes and workshops Darwin was attacked and defended by men who, at least, had one feature in common -- a complete ignorance of the teaching of Darwin.

Under these circumstances it sometimes happened that in our reasoning with friends who attended Church or Chapel, our efforts to establish a belief in the Gospel proved abortive, even though our arguments could not be resisted. Once loosed from anchorage, the boat became susceptible to the influence of any wind or current, and as the Truth involved a pull against the stream, our feeble efforts were inadequate. To change the metaphor: Faith in many men was so tender a growth that it could not bear transplantation. It could remain with at least the appearance of life while undisturbed in the soil in which it grew; but when torn up by the roots by enthusiastic but inexperienced gardeners, it was caught by the chilling wind of infidelity and killed before it could be replanted.

It was mainly through such sad results of our efforts that I was influenced to form a very ambitious project. I determined to write a great work demonstrating the superhuman character of the Bible. It was to be called Vox Dei. It was to present old arguments in a new form, and supplement them with arguments entirely new. The main idea was to state the case in such a manner as to secure the cumulative effect of all the reasons we can urge for the conviction that


God, has spoken. Many thousands of words were written and condemned as inadequate almost as soon as each section was finished. A large number of incidental harmonies and analogies were noted on scraps of paper just as they were observed in the daily readings. I regret that in subsequent upheavals of our pilgrimage these scraps have been lost. Nothing came of this ambitious design, and many of the notes made in connection with it have been scattered or destroyed.

In connection with the same idea it seemed desirable to become acquainted with the best arguments that could be advanced in favour of the Evolution theory. It seemed to be admitted on all hands that Charles Darwin had influenced the opinions of men more than any other writer of his generation, and although some semi-scientific critics were already beginning to suggest that Darwin was out of date, it was only in matters of detail that they criticised him. His main theory was then, and is still, after the interval of another twenty years, the only serious challenge to the old faith in a Creator. It is true Darwin did not deny the existence of God, and he even seemed to suggest a belief in the Creator as the originator of the first simple forms of life on earth; but his whole theory of development was distinctly atheistic. He expressed the inward meaning of his theory when he confessed that at one tittle the argument of Paley for Design in Nature seemed conclusive, but that with the discovery of Natural Selection that argument was overthrown.

Accordingly I read the main works of Darwin with the closest possible attention, reading passages several times if necessary in order to be sure of grasping their meaning. Even the marginal notes in the Descent of Man, against the dullness of which students are warned in the text of the book, I read with painstaking attention.

The result of this study was unexpected. I became an admirer of Darwin, and I learned from him an elementary lesson in the art of controversy. Darwin was surely the


most lovable and the most humble-minded of all the scientists. His patient accumulation of facts, his frank recognition of ignorance, even when his knowledge was probably greater than that of any other man living, and his moderate statement of the case, tended to make his arguments carry more weight than their substance warranted. The supremely confident style which treats opponents with amused contempt and makes free use of the adjectives, "absurd," "ridiculous," and so on, is appreciated by shallow supporters who wish merely to hear a justification of beliefs they already hold. It is worse than useful as a means to induce reasonable men to change their convictions. Darwin gives us a valuable lesson in the power of moderation.

While my admiration of the man grew, however, I became conscious that the theory he expounded was flouting the lessons that I was learning from Nature every day. For about eight years, dating from the time of my very early teens, my daily employment was in my father's fruit farm, and market garden. The lessons learned in connection with that work began to acquire a new meaning. Repeatedly it seemed that the opponents of Darwin missed the best arguments by dealing always with the animal instead of the vegetable world. Repeatedly it seemed that Darwin's arguments and defences even when they appeared plausible as applied to the animal world, were totally inapplicable to plants. I was impressed with a growing conviction that I could write an essay which should not be a mere hash up of arguments culled from books, but an elaboration of observations direct from Nature. Before long the work was started, and thirty or forty thousand words were written. After a few years some of the chapters were read to friends, and criticism was invited. The verdict was, that the arguments were most interesting and effective, but the literary style stood in need of much improvement.

On further consideration I concluded that this criticism was just. The embryo work was, therefore, put back until


opportunity should be found to re-write it entirely. Then came a sudden increase of business demands, with extra work of all kinds increasing at a faster rate than arrears could be worked off. The opportunity to re-write the argument has never arrived.

It is futile to wait for opportunity to do justice to such a subject. The arguments must be put forth just as they are, if they are to see the light at all. There is always the possibility that some readers may carry them farther, polish them better, and by a process of criticism and testing, clear away any errors and reveal the truth.