Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/474

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was, unquestionably, an important influence tending to prepare men's minds for the acceptance of the conception of evolution; but the two doctrines were by no means synonymous, nor did the adoption of the former necessarily imply adherence to the latter. The lex continui is historically important because it led to one of the early notable departures in modern thought from what may be called a Platonistic habit of mind, that had, in a hundred subtle ways, dominated most European philosophy and science for many centuries; it meant, in some degree, the abandonment of the fashion of thinking of the universe as tied up in neat and orderly parcels, the rejection of rigid categories and absolute antitheses, as inadequate instruments for the description of the complexity and fluidity and individuatedness of things. In other words, the principle of continuity, though itself the product of the extreme of philosophical rationalism, tended in a mild way towards a sort of antirationalism, towards a distrust of over-sharp distinctions and oversimple conceptions, towards a sense of certain incommensurability between the richness of reality and the methods of conceptual thought. And in the nineteenth century this same tendency, in vastly more extreme forms, has been far more conspicuously furthered by the influence of the doctrine of evolution. But the idea of continuity as generally held in the time of Buff on had no reference to temporal sequences and by no means involved, in the minds of those who accepted it, any definite belief in the descent of what are commonly called species from other species.[1] If the presupposition of continuous gradations and imperceptible transitions had been explicitly brought to bear upon genetic problems in biology, it would naturally though not necessarily have suggested some sort of theory of descent. But, curious as the fact may appear, the presupposition was ordinarily not brought into connection with genetic problems at all; it was taken in an essentially static sense.

And it seems to have been taken in this sense by Buffon in the introductory discourse in his first volume. A single obscure phrase, which I have already quoted, might be regarded as hinting at the conception of organic evolution, if the general tenor of the essay lent any confirmation to such an interpretation. But nowhere else in this writing is it even' remotely suggested that the conception of the continuity of forms involves the conception of the descent of so-called species from one another. It is scarcely conceivable that if Buffon

  1. This fact has often been overlooked by interpreters of eighteenth century writers. When we find such a writer saying that "nature passes from one species to another by gradual and almost imperceptible transitions, "it is by no means safe to assume that the phrase contains any reference to genealogical transitions, or that the writer meant by his words to affirm the transformation of species through the summation of slight individual variations. Misapprehension upon this point has caused some eighteenth century authors to be quite undeservedly set down as evolutionists.