On the Reception of the 'Origin of Species' (2024)

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Title: On the Reception of the 'Origin of Species'

Author: Thomas Henry Huxley

Release date: February 1, 2000 [eBook #2089]
Most recently updated: December 31, 2020

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Sue Asscher. HTML version by Al Haines.







To the present generation, that is to say, the people a few years onthe hither and thither side of thirty, the name of Charles Darwinstands alongside of those of Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday; and,like them, calls up the grand ideal of a searcher after truth andinterpreter of Nature. They think of him who bore it as a rarecombination of genius, industry, and unswerving veracity, who earnedhis place among the most famous men of the age by sheer native power,in the teeth of a gale of popular prejudice, and uncheered by a sign offavour or appreciation from the official fountains of honour; as onewho in spite of an acute sensitiveness to praise and blame, andnotwithstanding provocations which might have excused any outbreak,kept himself clear of all envy, hatred, and malice, nor dealt otherwisethan fairly and justly with the unfairness and injustice which wasshowered upon him; while, to the end of his days, he was ready tolisten with patience and respect to the most insignificant ofreasonable objectors.

And with respect to that theory of the origin of the forms of lifepeopling our globe, with which Darwin's name is bound up as closely asthat of Newton with the theory of gravitation, nothing seems to befurther from the mind of the present generation than any attempt tosmother it with ridicule or to crush it by vehemence of denunciation."The struggle for existence," and "Natural selection," have becomehousehold words and every-day conceptions. The reality and theimportance of the natural processes on which Darwin founds hisdeductions are no more doubted than those of growth and multiplication;and, whether the full potency attributed to them is admitted or not, noone doubts their vast and far-reaching significance. Wherever thebiological sciences are studied, the 'Origin of Species' lights thepaths of the investigator; wherever they are taught it permeates thecourse of instruction. Nor has the influence of Darwinian ideas beenless profound, beyond the realms of Biology. The oldest of allphilosophies, that of Evolution, was bound hand and foot and cast intoutter darkness during the millennium of theological scholasticism. ButDarwin poured new life-blood into the ancient frame; the bonds burst,and the revivified thought of ancient Greece has proved itself to be amore adequate expression of the universal order of things than any ofthe schemes which have been accepted by the credulity and welcomed bythe superstition of seventy later generations of men.

To any one who studies the signs of the times, the emergence of thephilosophy of Evolution, in the attitude of claimant to the throne ofthe world of thought, from the limbo of hated and, as many hoped,forgotten things, is the most portentous event of the nineteenthcentury. But the most effective weapons of the modern champions ofEvolution were fabricated by Darwin; and the 'Origin of Species' hasenlisted a formidable body of combatants, trained in the severe schoolof Physical Science, whose ears might have long remained deaf to thespeculations of a priori philosophers.

I do not think any candid or instructed person will deny the truth ofthat which has just been asserted. He may hate the very name ofEvolution, and may deny its pretensions as vehemently as a Jacobitedenied those of George the Second. But there it is—not only assolidly seated as the Hanoverian dynasty, but happily independent ofParliamentary sanction—and the dullest antagonists have come to seethat they have to deal with an adversary whose bones are to be brokenby no amount of bad words.

Even the theologians have almost ceased to pit the plain meaning ofGenesis against the no less plain meaning of Nature. Their morecandid, or more cautious, representatives have given up dealing withEvolution as if it were a damnable heresy, and have taken refuge in oneof two courses. Either they deny that Genesis was meant to teachscientific truth, and thus save the veracity of the record at theexpense of its authority; or they expend their energies in devising thecruel ingenuities of the reconciler, and torture texts in the vain hopeof making them confess the creed of Science. But when the peine forteet dure is over, the antique sincerity of the venerable sufferer alwaysreasserts itself. Genesis is honest to the core, and professes to beno more than it is, a repository of venerable traditions of unknownorigin, claiming no scientific authority and possessing none.

As my pen finishes these passages, I can but be amused to think what aterrible hubbub would have been made (in truth was made) about anysimilar expressions of opinion a quarter of a century ago. In fact,the contrast between the present condition of public opinion upon theDarwinian question; between the estimation in which Darwin's views arenow held in the scientific world; between the acquiescence, or at leastquiescence, of the theologians of the self-respecting order at thepresent day and the outburst of antagonism on all sides in 1858-9, whenthe new theory respecting the origin of species first became known tothe older generation to which I belong, is so startling that, exceptfor documentary evidence, I should be sometimes inclined to think mymemories dreams. I have a great respect for the younger generationmyself (they can write our lives, and ravel out all our follies, ifthey choose to take the trouble, by and by), and I should be glad to beassured that the feeling is reciprocal; but I am afraid that the storyof our dealings with Darwin may prove a great hindrance to thatveneration for our wisdom which I should like them to display. We havenot even the excuse that, thirty years ago, Mr. Darwin was an obscurenovice, who had no claims on our attention. On the contrary, hisremarkable zoological and geological investigations had long given himan assured position among the most eminent and original investigatorsof the day; while his charming 'Voyage of a Naturalist' had justlyearned him a wide-spread reputation among the general public. I doubtif there was any man then living who had a better right to expect thatanything he might choose to say on such a question as the Origin ofSpecies would be listened to with profound attention, and discussedwith respect; and there was certainly no man whose personal charactershould have afforded a better safeguard against attacks, instinct withmalignity and spiced with shameless impertinences.

Yet such was the portion of one of the kindest and truest men that itwas ever my good fortune to know; and years had to pass away beforemisrepresentation, ridicule, and denunciation, ceased to be the mostnotable constituents of the majority of the multitudinous criticisms ofhis work which poured from the press. I am loth to rake any of theseancient scandals from their well-deserved oblivion; but I must makegood a statement which may seem overcharged to the present generation,and there is no piece justificative more apt for the purpose, or moreworthy of such dishonour, than the article in the 'Quarterly Review'for July, 1860. (I was not aware when I wrote these passages that theauthorship of the article had been publicly acknowledged. Confessionunaccompanied by penitence, however, affords no ground for mitigationof judgment; and the kindliness with which Mr. Darwin speaks of hisassailant, Bishop Wilberforce (vol. ii.), is so striking anexemplification of his singular gentleness and modesty, that it ratherincreases one's indignation against the presumption of his critic.)Since Lord Brougham assailed Dr. Young, the world has seen no suchspecimen of the insolence of a shallow pretender to a Master in Scienceas this remarkable production, in which one of the most exact ofobservers, most cautious of reasoners, and most candid of expositors,of this or any other age, is held up to scorn as a "flighty" person,who endeavours "to prop up his utterly rotten fabric of guess andspeculation," and whose "mode of dealing with nature" is reprobated as"utterly dishonourable to Natural Science." And all this high andmighty talk, which would have been indecent in one of Mr. Darwin'sequals, proceeds from a writer whose want of intelligence, or ofconscience, or of both, is so great, that, by way of an objection toMr. Darwin's views, he can ask, "Is it credible that all favourablevarieties of turnips are tending to become men;" who is so ignorant ofpaleontology, that he can talk of the "flowers and fruits" of theplants of the carboniferous epoch; of comparative anatomy, that he cangravely affirm the poison apparatus of the venomous snakes to be"entirely separate from the ordinary laws of animal life, and peculiarto themselves;" of the rudiments of physiology, that he can ask, "whatadvantage of life could alter the shape of the corpuscles into whichthe blood can be evaporated?" Nor does the reviewer fail to flavourthis outpouring of preposterous incapacity with a little stimulation ofthe odium theologicum. Some inkling of the history of the conflictsbetween Astronomy, Geology, and Theology, leads him to keep a retreatopen by the proviso that he cannot "consent to test the truth ofNatural Science by the word of Revelation;" but, for all that, hedevotes pages to the exposition of his conviction that Mr. Darwin'stheory "contradicts the revealed relation of the creation to itsCreator," and is "inconsistent with the fulness of his glory."

If I confine my retrospect of the reception of the 'Origin of Species'to a twelvemonth, or thereabouts, from the time of its publication, Ido not recollect anything quite so foolish and unmannerly as the'Quarterly Review' article, unless, perhaps, the address of a ReverendProfessor to the Dublin Geological Society might enter into competitionwith it. But a large proportion of Mr. Darwin's critics had alamentable resemblance to the 'Quarterly' reviewer, in so far as theylacked either the will, or the wit, to make themselves masters of hisdoctrine; hardly any possessed the knowledge required to follow himthrough the immense range of biological and geological science whichthe 'Origin' covered; while, too commonly, they had prejudiced the caseon theological grounds, and, as seems to be inevitable when thishappens, eked out lack of reason by superfluity of railing.

But it will be more pleasant and more profitable to consider thosecriticisms, which were acknowledged by writers of scientific authority,or which bore internal evidence of the greater or less competency and,often, of the good faith, of their authors. Restricting my survey to atwelvemonth, or thereabouts, after the publication of the 'Origin,' Ifind among such critics Louis Agassiz ("The arguments presented byDarwin in favor of a universal derivation from one primary form of allthe peculiarities existing now among living beings have not made theslightest impression on my mind."

"Until the facts of Nature are shown to have been mistaken by those whohave collected them, and that they have a different meaning from thatnow generally assigned to them, I shall therefore consider thetransmutation theory as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts,unscientific in its method, and mischievous in itstendency."—Silliman's 'Journal,' July, 1860, pages 143, 154. Extractfrom the 3rd volume of 'Contributions to the Natural History of theUnited States.'); Murray, an excellent entomologist; Harvey, a botanistof considerable repute; and the author of an article in the 'EdinburghReview,' all strongly adverse to Darwin. Pictet, the distinguished andwidely learned paleontogist of Geneva, treats Mr. Darwin with a respectwhich forms a grateful contrast to the tone of some of the precedingwriters, but consents to go with him only a very little way. ("I seeno serious objections to the formation of varieties by naturalselection in the existing world, and that, so far as earlier epochs areconcerned, this law may be assumed to explain the origin of closelyallied species, supposing for this purpose a very long period of time."

"With regard to simple varieties and closely allied species, I believethat Mr. Darwin's theory may explain many things, and throw a greatlight upon numerous questions."—'Sur l'Origine de l'Espece. ParCharles Darwin.' 'Archives des Sc. de la Bibliotheque Universelle deGeneve,' pages 242, 243, Mars 1860.) On the other hand, Lyell, up tothat time a pillar of the anti-transmutationists (who regarded him,ever afterwards, as Pallas Athene may have looked at Dian, after theEndymion affair), declared himself a Darwinian, though not withoutputting in a serious caveat. Nevertheless, he was a tower of strength,and his courageous stand for truth as against consistency, did himinfinite honour. As evolutionists, sans phrase, I do not call to mindamong the biologists more than Asa Gray, who fought the battlesplendidly in the United States; Hooker, who was no less vigorous here;the present Sir John Lubbock and myself. Wallace was far away in theMalay Archipelago; but, apart from his direct share in the promulgationof the theory of natural selection, no enumeration of the influences atwork, at the time I am speaking of, would be complete without themention of his powerful essay 'On the Law which has regulated theIntroduction of New Species,' which was published in 1855. On readingit afresh, I have been astonished to recollect how small was theimpression it made.

In France, the influence of Elie de Beaumont and of Flourens—theformer of whom is said to have "damned himself to everlasting fame" byinventing the nickname of "la science moussante" for Evolutionism (Oneis reminded of the effect of another small academic epigram. Theso-called vertebral theory of the skull is said to have been nipped inthe bud in France by the whisper of an academician to his neighbour,that, in that case, one's head was a "vertebre pensante."),—to saynothing of the ill-will of other powerful members of the Institut,produced for a long time the effect of a conspiracy of silence; andmany years passed before the Academy redeemed itself from the reproachthat the name of Darwin was not to be found on the list of its members.However, an accomplished writer, out of the range of academicalinfluences, M. Laugel, gave an excellent and appreciative notice of the'Origin' in the 'Revue des Deux Mondes.' Germany took time toconsider; Bronn produced a slightly Bowdlerized translation of the'Origin'; and 'Kladderadatsch' cut his jokes upon the ape origin ofman; but I do not call to mind that any scientific notability declaredhimself publicly in 1860. (However, the man who stands next to Darwinin his influence on modern biologists, K.E. von Baer, wrote to me, inAugust 1860, expressing his general assent to evolutionist views. Hisphrase, "J'ai enonce les memes idees...que M. Darwin" (volume ii.) isshown by his subsequent writings to mean no more than this.) None of usdreamed that, in the course of a few years, the strength (and perhaps Imay add the weakness) of "Darwinismus" would have its most extensiveand most brilliant illustrations in the land of learning. If aforeigner may presume to speculate on the cause of this curiousinterval of silence, I fancy it was that one moiety of the Germanbiologists were orthodox at any price, and the other moiety asdistinctly heterodox. The latter were evolutionists, a priori,already, and they must have felt the disgust natural to deductivephilosophers at being offered an inductive and experimental foundationfor a conviction which they had reached by a shorter cut. It isundoubtedly trying to learn that, though your conclusions may be allright, your reasons for them are all wrong, or, at any rate,insufficient.

On the whole, then, the supporters of Mr. Darwin's views in 1860 werenumerically extremely insignificant. There is not the slightest doubtthat, if a general council of the Church scientific had been held atthat time, we should have been condemned by an overwhelming majority.And there is as little doubt that, if such a council gathered now, thedecree would be of an exactly contrary nature. It would indicate alack of sense, as well as of modesty, to ascribe to the men of thatgeneration less capacity or less honesty than their successors possess.What, then, are the causes which led instructed and fair-judging men ofthat day to arrive at a judgment so different from that which seemsjust and fair to those who follow them? That is really one of the mostinteresting of all questions connected with the history of science, andI shall try to answer it. I am afraid that in order to do so I mustrun the risk of appearing egotistical. However, if I tell my own storyit is only because I know it better than that of other people.

I think I must have read the 'Vestiges' before I left England in 1846;but, if I did, the book made very little impression upon me, and I wasnot brought into serious contact with the 'Species' question untilafter 1850. At that time, I had long done with the Pentateuchalcosmogony, which had been impressed upon my childish understanding asDivine truth, with all the authority of parents and instructors, andfrom which it had cost me many a struggle to get free. But my mind wasunbiassed in respect of any doctrine which presented itself, if itprofessed to be based on purely philosophical and scientific reasoning.It seemed to me then (as it does now) that "creation," in the ordinarysense of the word, is perfectly conceivable. I find no difficulty inimagining that, at some former period, this universe was not inexistence; and that it made its appearance in six days (orinstantaneously, if that is preferred), in consequence of the volitionof some pre-existent Being. Then, as now, the so-called a prioriarguments against Theism; and, given a Deity, against the possibilityof creative acts, appeared to me to be devoid of reasonable foundation.I had not then, and I have not now, the smallest a priori objection toraise to the account of the creation of animals and plants given in'Paradise Lost,' in which Milton so vividly embodies the natural senseof Genesis. Far be it from me to say that it is untrue because it isimpossible. I confine myself to what must be regarded as a modest andreasonable request for some particle of evidence that the existingspecies of animals and plants did originate in that way, as a conditionof my belief in a statement which appears to me to be highly improbable.

And, by way of being perfectly fair, I had exactly the same answer togive to the evolutionists of 1851-8. Within the ranks of thebiologists, at that time, I met with nobody, except Dr. Grant, ofUniversity College, who had a word to say for Evolution—and hisadvocacy was not calculated to advance the cause. Outside these ranks,the only person known to me whose knowledge and capacity compelledrespect, and who was, at the same time, a thorough-going evolutionist,was Mr. Herbert Spencer, whose acquaintance I made, I think, in 1852,and then entered into the bonds of a friendship which, I am happy tothink, has known no interruption. Many and prolonged were the battleswe fought on this topic. But even my friend's rare dialectic skill andcopiousness of apt illustration could not drive me from my agnosticposition. I took my stand upon two grounds: firstly, that up to thattime, the evidence in favour of transmutation was wholly insufficient;and secondly, that no suggestion respecting the causes of thetransmutation assumed, which had been made, was in any way adequate toexplain the phenomena. Looking back at the state of knowledge at thattime, I really do not see that any other conclusion was justifiable.

In those days I had never even heard of Treviranus' 'Biologie.'However, I had studied Lamarck attentively and I had read the'Vestiges' with due care; but neither of them afforded me any goodground for changing my negative and critical attitude. As for the'Vestiges,' I confess that the book simply irritated me by theprodigious ignorance and thoroughly unscientific habit of mindmanifested by the writer. If it had any influence on me at all, it setme against Evolution; and the only review I ever have qualms ofconscience about, on the ground of needless savagery, is one I wrote onthe 'Vestiges' while under that influence.

With respect to the 'Philosophie Zoologique,' it is no reproach toLamarck to say that the discussion of the Species question in thatwork, whatever might be said for it in 1809, was miserably below thelevel of the knowledge of half a century later. In that interval oftime the elucidation of the structure of the lower animals and plantshad given rise to wholly new conceptions of their relations; histologyand embryology, in the modern sense, had been created; physiology hadbeen reconstituted; the facts of distribution, geological andgeographical, had been prodigiously multiplied and reduced to order.To any biologist whose studies had carried him beyond merespecies-mongering in 1850, one-half of Lamarck's arguments wereobsolete and the other half erroneous, or defective, in virtue ofomitting to deal with the various classes of evidence which had beenbrought to light since his time. Moreover his one suggestion as to thecause of the gradual modification of species—effort excited by changeof conditions—was, on the face of it, inapplicable to the wholevegetable world. I do not think that any impartial judge who reads the'Philosophie Zoologique' now, and who afterwards takes up Lyell'strenchant and effectual criticism (published as far back as 1830), willbe disposed to allot to Lamarck a much higher place in theestablishment of biological evolution than that which Bacon assigns tohimself in relation to physical science generally,—buccinator tantum.(Erasmus Darwin first promulgated Lamarck's fundamental conceptions,and, with greater logical consistency, he had applied them to plants.But the advocates of his claims have failed to show that he, in anyrespect, anticipated the central idea of the 'Origin of Species.')

But, by a curious irony of fate, the same influence which led me to putas little faith in modern speculations on this subject, as in thevenerable traditions recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis, wasperhaps more potent than any other in keeping alive a sort of piousconviction that Evolution, after all, would turn out true. I haverecently read afresh the first edition of the 'Principles of Geology';and when I consider that this remarkable book had been nearly thirtyyears in everybody's hands, and that it brings home to any reader ofordinary intelligence a great principle and a great fact—theprinciple, that the past must be explained by the present, unless goodcause be shown to the contrary; and the fact, that, so far as ourknowledge of the past history of life on our globe goes, no such causecan be shown (The same principle and the same fact guide the resultfrom all sound historical investigation. Grote's 'History of Greece'is a product of the same intellectual movement as Lyell's'Principles.')—I cannot but believe that Lyell, for others, as formyself, was the chief agent for smoothing the road for Darwin. Forconsistent uniformitarianism postulates evolution as much in theorganic as in the inorganic world. The origin of a new species byother than ordinary agencies would be a vastly greater "catastrophe"than any of those which Lyell successfully eliminated from sobergeological speculation.

In fact, no one was better aware of this than Lyell himself. (Lyell,with perfect right, claims this position for himself. He speaks ofhaving "advocated a law of continuity even in the organic world, so faras possible without adopting Lamarck's theory of transmutation"...

"But while I taught that as often as certain forms of animals andplants disappeared, for reasons quite intelligible to us, others tooktheir place by virtue of a causation which was beyond ourcomprehension; it remained for Darwin to accumulate proof that there isno break between the incoming and the outgoing species, that they arethe work of evolution, and not of special creation...

"I had certainly prepared the way in this country, in six editions ofmy work before the 'Vestiges of Creation' appeared in 1842 [1844], forthe reception of Darwin's gradual and insensible evolution ofspecies."—'Life and Letters,' Letter to Haeckel, volume ii. page 436.November 23, 1868.) If one reads any of the earlier editions of the'Principles' carefully (especially by the light of the interestingseries of letters recently published by Sir Charles Lyell'sbiographer), it is easy to see that, with all his energetic oppositionto Lamarck, on the one hand, and to the ideal quasi-progressionism ofa*gassiz, on the other, Lyell, in his own mind, was strongly disposed toaccount for the origination of all past and present species of livingthings by natural causes. But he would have liked, at the same time,to keep the name of creation for a natural process which he imagined tobe incomprehensible.

In a letter addressed to Mantell (dated March 2, 1827), Lyell speaks ofhaving just read Lamarck; he expresses his delight at Lamarck'stheories, and his personal freedom from any objection based ontheological grounds. And though he is evidently alarmed at thepithecoid origin of man involved in Lamarck's doctrine, he observes:—

"But, after all, what changes species may really undergo! Howimpossible will it be to distinguish and lay down a line, beyond whichsome of the so-called extinct species have never passed into recentones."

Again, the following remarkable passage occurs in the postscript of aletter addressed to Sir John Herschel in 1836:—

"In regard to the origination of new species, I am very glad to findthat you think it probable that it may be carried on through theintervention of intermediate causes. I left this rather to beinferred, not thinking it worth while to offend a certain class ofpersons by embodying in words what would only be a speculation." (Inthe same sense, see the letter to Whewell, March 7, 1837, volume ii.,page 5:—

"In regard to this last subject [the changes from one set of animal andvegetable species to another]...you remember what Herschel said in hisletter to me. If I had stated as plainly as he has done thepossibility of the introduction or origination of fresh species being anatural, in contradistinction to a miraculous process, I should haveraised a host of prejudices against me, which are unfortunately opposedat every step to any philosopher who attempts to address the public onthese mysterious subjects." See also letter to Sedgwick, January 12,1838 ii. page 35.) He goes on to refer to the criticisms which havebeen directed against him on the ground that, by leaving species to beoriginated by miracle, he is inconsistent with his own doctrine ofuniformitarianism; and he leaves it to be understood that he had notreplied, on the ground of his general objection to controversy.

Lyell's contemporaries were not without some inkling of his esotericdoctrine. Whewell's 'History of the Inductive Sciences,' whatever itsphilosophical value, is always worth reading and always interesting, ifunder no other aspect than that of an evidence of the speculativelimits within which a highly-placed divine might, at that time, safelyrange at will. In the course of his discussion of uniformitarianism,the encyclopaedic Master of Trinity observes:—

"Mr. Lyell, indeed, has spoken of an hypothesis that 'the successivecreation of species may constitute a regular part of the economy ofnature,' but he has nowhere, I think, so described this process as tomake it appear in what department of science we are to place thehypothesis. Are these new species created by the production, at longintervals, of an offspring different in species from the parents? Orare the species so created produced without parents? Are theygradually evolved from some embryo substance? Or do they suddenlystart from the ground, as in the creation of the poet?...

"Some selection of one of these forms of the hypothesis, rather thanthe others, with evidence for the selection, is requisite to entitle usto place it among the known causes of change, which in this chapter weare considering. The bare conviction that a creation of species hastaken place, whether once or many times, so long as it is unconnectedwith our organical sciences, is a tenet of Natural Theology rather thanof Physical Philosophy." (Whewell's 'History,' volume iii. page 639-640(Edition 2, 1847.))

The earlier part of this criticism appears perfectly just andappropriate; but, from the concluding paragraph, Whewell evidentlyimagines that by "creation" Lyell means a preternatural intervention ofthe Deity; whereas the letter to Herschel shows that, in his own mind,Lyell meant natural causation; and I see no reason to doubt (Thefollowing passages in Lyell's letters appear to me decisive on thispoint:—

To Darwin, October 3, 1859 (ii, 325), on first reading the 'Origin.'

"I have long seen most clearly that if any concession is made, all thatyou claim in your concluding pages will follow.

"It is this which has made me so long hesitate, always feeling that thecase of Man and his Races, and of other animals, and that of plants, isone and the same, and that if a vera causa be admitted for one instant,[instead] of a purely unknown and imaginary one, such as the word'creation,' all the consequences must follow."

To Darwin, March 15, 1863 (volume ii. page 365).

"I remember that it was the conclusion he [Lamarck] came to about manthat fortified me thirty years ago against the great impression whichhis arguments at first made on my mind, all the greater becauseConstant Prevost, a pupil of Cuvier's forty years ago, told me hisconviction 'that Cuvier thought species not real, but that sciencecould not advance without assuming that they were so.'"

To Hooker, March 9, 1863 (volume ii. page 361), in reference toDarwin's feeling about the 'Antiquity of Man.'

"He [Darwin] seems much disappointed that I do not go farther with him,or do not speak out more. I can only say that I have spoken out to thefull extent of my present convictions, and even beyond my state ofFEELING as to man's unbroken descent from the brutes, and I find I amhalf converting not a few who were in arms against Darwin, and are evennow against Huxley." He speaks of having had to abandon "old and longcherished ideas, which constituted the charm to me of the theoreticalpart of the science in my earlier day, when I believed with Pascal inthe theory, as Hallam terms it, of 'the arch-angel ruined.'"

See the same sentiment in the letter to Darwin, March 11, 1863, page363:—

"I think the old 'creation' is almost as much required as ever, but ofcourse it takes a new form if Lamarck's views improved by yours areadopted.") that, if Sir Charles could have avoided the inevitablecorollary of the pithecoid origin of man—for which, to the end of hislife, he entertained a profound antipathy—he would have advocated theefficiency of causes now in operation to bring about the condition ofthe organic world, as stoutly as he championed that doctrine inreference to inorganic nature.

The fact is, that a discerning eye might have seen that some form orother of the doctrine of transmutation was inevitable, from the timewhen the truth enunciated by William Smith that successive strata arecharacterised by different kinds of fossil remains, became a firmlyestablished law of nature. No one has set forth the speculativeconsequences of this generalisation better than the historian of the'Inductive Sciences':—

"But the study of geology opens to us the spectacle of many groups ofspecies which have, in the course of the earth's history, succeededeach other at vast intervals of time; one set of animals and plantsdisappearing, as it would seem, from the face of our planet, andothers, which did not before exist, becoming the only occupants of theglobe. And the dilemma then presents itself to us anew:—either wemust accept the doctrine of the transmutation of species, and mustsuppose that the organized species of one geological epoch weretransmuted into those of another by some long-continued agency ofnatural causes; or else, we must believe in many successive acts ofcreation and extinction of species, out of the common course of nature;acts which, therefore, we may properly call miraculous." (Whewell's'History of the Inductive Sciences.' Edition ii., 1847, volume iii.pages 624-625. See for the author's verdict, pages 638-39.)

Dr. Whewell decides in favour of the latter conclusion. And if any onehad plied him with the four questions which he puts to Lyell in thepassage already cited, all that can be said now is that he wouldcertainly have rejected the first. But would he really have had thecourage to say that a Rhinoceros tichorhinus, for instance, "wasproduced without parents;" or was "evolved from some embryo substance;"or that it suddenly started from the ground like Milton's lion "pawingto get free his hinder parts." I permit myself to doubt whether eventhe Master of Trinity's well-tried courage—physical, intellectual, andmoral—would have been equal to this feat. No doubt the suddenconcurrence of half-a-ton of inorganic molecules into a live rhinocerosis conceivable, and therefore may be possible. But does such an eventlie sufficiently within the bounds of probability to justify the beliefin its occurrence on the strength of any attainable, or, indeed,imaginable, evidence?

In view of the assertion (often repeated in the early days of theopposition to Darwin) that he had added nothing to Lamarck, it is veryinteresting to observe that the possibility of a fifth alternative, inaddition to the four he has stated, has not dawned upon Dr. Whewell'smind. The suggestion that new species may result from the selectiveaction of external conditions upon the variations from their specifictype which individuals present—and which we call "spontaneous,"because we are ignorant of their causation—is as wholly unknown to thehistorian of scientific ideas as it was to biological specialistsbefore 1858. But that suggestion is the central idea of the 'Origin ofSpecies,' and contains the quintessence of Darwinism.

Thus, looking back into the past, it seems to me that my own positionof critical expectancy was just and reasonable, and must have beentaken up, on the same grounds, by many other persons. If Agassiz toldme that the forms of life which had successively tenanted the globewere the incarnations of successive thoughts of the Deity; and that hehad wiped out one set of these embodiments by an appalling geologicalcatastrophe as soon as His ideas took a more advanced shape, I foundmyself not only unable to admit the accuracy of the deductions from thefacts of paleontology, upon which this astounding hypothesis wasfounded, but I had to confess my want of any means of testing thecorrectness of his explanation of them. And besides that, I could byno means see what the explanation explained. Neither did it help me tobe told by an eminent anatomist that species had succeeded one anotherin time, in virtue of "a continuously operative creational law." Thatseemed to me to be no more than saying that species had succeeded oneanother, in the form of a vote-catching resolution, with "law" toplease the man of science, and "creational" to draw the orthodox. So Itook refuge in that "thatige Skepsis" which Goethe has so well defined;and, reversing the apostolic precept to be all things to all men, Iusually defended the tenability of the received doctrines, when I hadto do with the transmutationists; and stood up for the possibility oftransmutation among the orthodox—thereby, no doubt, increasing analready current, but quite undeserved, reputation for needlesscombativeness.

I remember, in the course of my first interview with Mr. Darwin,expressing my belief in the sharpness of the lines of demarcationbetween natural groups and in the absence of transitional forms, withall the confidence of youth and imperfect knowledge. I was not aware,at that time, that he had then been many years brooding over thespecies-question; and the humorous smile which accompanied his gentleanswer, that such was not altogether his view, long haunted and puzzledme. But it would seem that four or five years' hard work had enabledme to understand what it meant; for Lyell ('Life and Letters,' volumeii. page 212.), writing to Sir Charles Bunbury (under date of April 30,1856), says:—

"When Huxley, Hooker, and Wollaston were at Darwin's last week they(all four of them) ran a tilt against species—further, I believe, thanthey are prepared to go."

I recollect nothing of this beyond the fact of meeting Mr. Wollaston;and except for Sir Charles' distinct assurance as to "all four," Ishould have thought my "outrecuidance" was probably a counterblast toWollaston's conservatism. With regard to Hooker, he was already, likeVoltaire's Habbakuk, "capable du tout" in the way of advocatingEvolution.

As I have already said, I imagine that most of those of mycontemporaries who thought seriously about the matter, were very muchin my own state of mind—inclined to say to both Mosaists andEvolutionists, "a plague on both your houses!" and disposed to turnaside from an interminable and apparently fruitless discussion, tolabour in the fertile fields of ascertainable fact. And I may,therefore, further suppose that the publication of the Darwin andWallace papers in 1858, and still more that of the 'Origin' in 1859,had the effect upon them of the flash of light, which to a man who haslost himself in a dark night, suddenly reveals a road which, whether ittakes him straight home or not, certainly goes his way. That which wewere looking for, and could not find, was a hypothesis respecting theorigin of known organic forms, which assumed the operation of no causesbut such as could be proved to be actually at work. We wanted, not topin our faith to that or any other speculation, but to get hold ofclear and definite conceptions which could be brought face to face withfacts and have their validity tested. The 'Origin' provided us withthe working hypothesis we sought. Moreover, it did the immense serviceof freeing us for ever from the dilemma—refuse to accept the creationhypothesis, and what have you to propose that can be accepted by anycautious reasoner? In 1857, I had no answer ready, and I do not thinkthat any one else had. A year later, we reproached ourselves withdullness for being perplexed by such an inquiry. My reflection, when Ifirst made myself master of the central idea of the 'Origin,' was, "Howextremely stupid not to have thought of that!" I suppose thatColumbus' companions said much the same when he made the egg stand onend. The facts of variability, of the struggle for existence, ofadaptation to conditions, were notorious enough; but none of us hadsuspected that the road to the heart of the species problem lay throughthem, until Darwin and Wallace dispelled the darkness, and thebeacon-fire of the 'Origin' guided the benighted.

Whether the particular shape which the doctrine of evolution, asapplied to the organic world, took in Darwin's hands, would prove to befinal or not, was, to me, a matter of indifference. In my earliestcriticisms of the 'Origin' I ventured to point out that its logicalfoundation was insecure so long as experiments in selective breedinghad not produced varieties which were more or less infertile; and thatinsecurity remains up to the present time. But, with any and everycritical doubt which my sceptical ingenuity could suggest, theDarwinian hypothesis remained incomparably more probable than thecreation hypothesis. And if we had none of us been able to discern theparamount significance of some of the most patent and notorious ofnatural facts, until they were, so to speak, thrust under our noses,what force remained in the dilemma—creation or nothing? It wasobvious that, hereafter, the probability would be immensely greater,that the links of natural causation were hidden from our purblind eyes,than that natural causation should be incompetent to produce all thephenomena of nature. The only rational course for those who had noother object than the attainment of truth, was to accept "Darwinism" asa working hypothesis, and see what could be made of it. Either itwould prove its capacity to elucidate the facts of organic life, or itwould break down under the strain. This was surely the dictate ofcommon sense; and, for once, common sense carried the day. The resulthas been that complete volte-face of the whole scientific world, whichmust seem so surprising to the present generation. I do not mean tosay that all the leaders of biological science have avowed themselvesDarwinians; but I do not think that there is a single zoologist, orbotanist, or palaeontologist, among the multitude of active workers ofthis generation, who is other than an evolutionist, profoundlyinfluenced by Darwin's views. Whatever may be the ultimate fate of theparticular theory put forth by Darwin, I venture to affirm that, so faras my knowledge goes, all the ingenuity and all the learning of hostilecritics have not enabled them to adduce a solitary fact, of which itcan be said, this is irreconcilable with the Darwinian theory. In theprodigious variety and complexity of organic nature, there aremultitudes of phenomena which are not deducible from anygeneralisations we have yet reached. But the same may be said of everyother class of natural objects. I believe that astronomers cannot yetget the moon's motions into perfect accordance with the theory ofgravitation.

It would be inappropriate, even if it were possible, to discuss thedifficulties and unresolved problems which have hitherto met theevolutionist, and which will probably continue to puzzle him forgenerations to come, in the course of this brief history of thereception of Mr. Darwin's great work. But there are two or threeobjections of a more general character, based, or supposed to be based,upon philosophical and theological foundations, which were loudlyexpressed in the early days of the Darwinian controversy, and which,though they have been answered over and over again, crop up now andthen to the present day.

The most singular of these, perhaps immortal, fallacies, which live on,Tithonus-like, when sense and force have long deserted them, is thatwhich charges Mr. Darwin with having attempted to reinstate the oldpagan goddess, Chance. It is said that he supposes variations to comeabout "by chance," and that the fittest survive the "chances" of thestruggle for existence, and thus "chance" is substituted forprovidential design.

It is not a little wonderful that such an accusation as this should bebrought against a writer who has, over and over again, warned hisreaders that when he uses the word "spontaneous," he merely means thathe is ignorant of the cause of that which is so termed; and whose wholetheory crumbles to pieces if the uniformity and regularity of naturalcausation for illimitable past ages is denied. But probably the bestanswer to those who talk of Darwinism meaning the reign of "chance," isto ask them what they themselves understand by "chance"? Do theybelieve that anything in this universe happens without reason orwithout a cause? Do they really conceive that any event has no cause,and could not have been predicted by any one who had a sufficientinsight into the order of Nature? If they do, it is they who are theinheritors of antique superstition and ignorance, and whose minds havenever been illumined by a ray of scientific thought. The one act offaith in the convert to science, is the confession of the universalityof order and of the absolute validity in all times and under allcirc*mstances, of the law of causation. This confession is an act offaith, because, by the nature of the case, the truth of suchpropositions is not susceptible of proof. But such faith is not blind,but reasonable; because it is invariably confirmed by experience, andconstitutes the sole trustworthy foundation for all action.

If one of these people, in whom the chance-worship of our remoterancestors thus strangely survives, should be within reach of the seawhen a heavy gale is blowing, let him betake himself to the shore andwatch the scene. Let him note the infinite variety of form and size ofthe tossing waves out at sea; or of the curves of their foam-crestedbreakers, as they dash against the rocks; let him listen to the roarand scream of the shingle as it is cast up and torn down the beach; orlook at the flakes of foam as they drive hither and thither before thewind; or note the play of colours, which answers a gleam of sunshine asit falls upon the myriad bubbles. Surely here, if anywhere, he willsay that chance is supreme, and bend the knee as one who has enteredthe very penetralia of his divinity. But the man of science knows thathere, as everywhere, perfect order is manifested; that there is not acurve of the waves, not a note in the howling chorus, not arainbow-glint on a bubble, which is other than a necessary consequenceof the ascertained laws of nature; and that with a sufficient knowledgeof the conditions, competent physico-mathematical skill could accountfor, and indeed predict, every one of these "chance" events.

A second very common objection to Mr. Darwin's views was (and is), thatthey abolish Teleology, and eviscerate the argument from design. It isnearly twenty years since I ventured to offer some remarks on thissubject, and as my arguments have as yet received no refutation, I hopeI may be excused for reproducing them. I observed, "that the doctrineof Evolution is the most formidable opponent of all the commoner andcoarser forms of Teleology. But perhaps the most remarkable service tothe Philosophy of Biology rendered by Mr. Darwin is the reconciliationof Teleology and Morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both,which his views offer. The teleology which supposes that the eye, suchas we see it in man, or one of the higher vertebrata, was made with theprecise structure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animalwhich possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow.Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that there is a widerteleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but isactually based upon the fundamental proposition of Evolution. Thisproposition is that the whole world, living and not living, is theresult of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of theforces (I should now like to substitute the word powers for "forces.")possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of theuniverse was composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that theexisting world lay potentially in the cosmic vapour, and that asufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties ofthe molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say the state of thefauna of Britain in 1869, with as much certainty as one can say whatwill happen to the vapour of the breath on a cold winter's day...

...The teleological and the mechanical views of nature are not,necessarily, mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the more purely amechanist the speculator is, the more firmly does he assume aprimordial molecular arrangement of which all the phenomena of theuniverse are the consequences, and the more completely is he thereby atthe mercy of the teleologist, who can always defy him to disprove thatthis primordial molecular arrangement was not intended to evolve thephenomena of the universe." (The "Genealogy of Animals" ('TheAcademy,' 1869), reprinted in 'Critiques and Addresses.')

The acute champion of Teleology, Paley, saw no difficulty in admittingthat the "production of things" may be the result of trains ofmechanical dispositions fixed beforehand by intelligent appointment andkept in action by a power at the centre ('Natural Theology,' chapterxxiii.), that is to say, he proleptically accepted the modern doctrineof Evolution; and his successors might do well to follow their leader,or at any rate to attend to his weighty reasonings, before rushing intoan antagonism which has no reasonable foundation.

Having got rid of the belief in chance and the disbelief in design, asin no sense appurtenances of Evolution, the third libel upon thatdoctrine, that it is anti-theistic, might perhaps be left to shift foritself. But the persistence with which many people refuse to draw theplainest consequences from the propositions they profess to accept,renders it advisable to remark that the doctrine of Evolution isneither Anti-theistic nor Theistic. It simply has no more to do withTheism than the first book of Euclid has. It is quite certain that anormal fresh-laid egg contains neither co*ck nor hen; and it is also ascertain as any proposition in physics or morals, that if such an egg iskept under proper conditions for three weeks, a co*ck or hen chickenwill be found in it. It is also quite certain that if the shell weretransparent we should be able to watch the formation of the young fowl,day by day, by a process of evolution, from a microscopic cellular germto its full size and complication of structure. Therefore Evolution,in the strictest sense, is actually going on in this and analogousmillions and millions of instances, wherever living creatures exist.Therefore, to borrow an argument from Butler, as that which now happensmust be consistent with the attributes of the Deity, if such a Beingexists, Evolution must be consistent with those attributes. And, ifso, the evolution of the universe, which is neither more nor lessexplicable than that of a chicken, must also be consistent with them.The doctrine of Evolution, therefore, does not even come into contactwith Theism, considered as a philosophical doctrine. That with whichit does collide, and with which it is absolutely inconsistent, is theconception of creation, which theological speculators have based uponthe history narrated in the opening of the book of Genesis.

There is a great deal of talk and not a little lamentation about theso-called religious difficulties which physical science has created.In theological science, as a matter of fact, it has created none. Nota solitary problem presents itself to the philosophical Theist, at thepresent day, which has not existed from the time that philosophersbegan to think out the logical grounds and the logical consequences ofTheism. All the real or imaginary perplexities which flow from theconception of the universe as a determinate mechanism, are equallyinvolved in the assumption of an Eternal, Omnipotent and OmniscientDeity. The theological equivalent of the scientific conception oforder is Providence; and the doctrine of determinism follows as surelyfrom the attributes of foreknowledge assumed by the theologian, as fromthe universality of natural causation assumed by the man of science.The angels in 'Paradise Lost' would have found the task of enlighteningAdam upon the mysteries of "Fate, Foreknowledge, and Free-will," not awhit more difficult, if their pupil had been educated in a"Real-schule" and trained in every laboratory of a modern university.In respect of the great problems of Philosophy, the post-Darwiniangeneration is, in one sense, exactly where the prae-Darwiniangenerations were. They remain insoluble. But the present generationhas the advantage of being better provided with the means of freeingitself from the tyranny of certain sham solutions.

The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand onan islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Ourbusiness in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, to addsomething to the extent and the solidity of our possessions. And evena cursory glance at the history of the biological sciences during thelast quarter of a century is sufficient to justify the assertion, thatthe most potent instrument for the extension of the realm of naturalknowledge which has come into men's hands, since the publication ofNewton's 'Principia,' is Darwin's 'Origin of Species.'

It was badly received by the generation to which it was firstaddressed, and the outpouring of angry nonsense to which it gave riseis sad to think upon. But the present generation will probably behavejust as badly if another Darwin should arise, and inflict upon themthat which the generality of mankind most hate—the necessity ofrevising their convictions. Let them, then, be charitable to usancients; and if they behave no better than the men of my day to somenew benefactor, let them recollect that, after all, our wrath did notcome to much, and vented itself chiefly in the bad language ofsanctimonious scolds. Let them as speedily perform a strategicright-about-face, and follow the truth wherever it leads. Theopponents of the new truth will discover, as those of Darwin are doing,that, after all, theories do not alter facts, and that the universeremains unaffected even though texts crumble. Or, it may be, that, ashistory repeats itself, their happy ingenuity will also discover thatthe new wine is exactly of the same vintage as the old, and that(rightly viewed) the old bottles prove to have been expressly made forholding it.


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On the Reception of the 'Origin of Species' (2024)


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