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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/663

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ble is our reason) that animals always varied slightly, and that such variations, indefinitely accumulated, would suffice to account for almost any amount of ultimate difference. A donkey might thus have grown into a horse, and a bird might have developed from a primitive lizard. Only we know it was quite otherwise! A quiet hint from Buffon was as good as a declaration from many less knowing or suggestive people. All over Europe, the wise took Buffon's hint for what he meant it; and the unwise blandly passed it by as a mere passing little foolish vagary of that great ironical writer and thinker.

Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of his grandson, was no fool; on the contrary, he was the most far-sighted man of his day in England; he saw at once what Buffon was driving at; and he worked out "Mr. Buffon's" half-concealed hint to all its natural and legitimate conclusions. The great count was always plain Mr. Buffon to his English contemporary. Life, said Erasmus Darwin nearly a century since, began in very minute marine forms, which gradually acquired fresh powers and larger bodies, so as imperceptibly to transform themselves into different creatures. Man, he remarked, anticipating his descendant, takes rabbits or pigeons, and alters them almost to his own fancy, by immensely changing their shapes and colors. If man can make a pouter or a fantail out of the common sort, if he can produce a piebald lop-ear from the brown wild rabbit, if he can transform Dorkings into Black Spanish, why can not Nature, with longer time to work in, and endless lives to try with, produce all the varieties of vertebrate animals out of one single common ancestor? It was a bold idea of the Lichfield doctor—bold, at least, for the times he lived in—when Sam Johnson was held a mighty sage, and physical speculation was regarded askance as having in it a dangerous touch of the devil. But the Darwins were always a bold folk, and had the courage of their opinions more than most men. So even in Lichfield, cathedral city as it was, and in the politely somnolent eighteenth century, Erasmus Darwin ventured to point out the probability that quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, and men were all mere divergent descendants of a single similar original form, and even that "one and the same kind of living filament is and has been the cause of organic life."

The eighteenth century laughed, of course. It always laughed at all reformers. It said that Dr. Darwin was very clever, but really a most eccentric man. His "Temple of Nature," now, and his "Botanic Garden," were vastly fine and charming poems—those sweet lines, you know, about poor Eliza!—but his zoological theories were built of course upon a most absurd and uncertain foundation. In prose, no sensible person could ever take the doctor seriously. A freak of genius—nothing more; a mere desire to seem clever and singular. But what a Nemesis the whirligig of time has brought around with it! By a strange irony of fate, those admired verses are now almost entirely forgotten; poor Eliza has survived only as our awful example of arti-