Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/July 1873/Evolution and Mind


By C. B. RADCLIFFE, M. D., F. R. C. P.

WITH Mr. Herbert Spencer I have much sympathy, and yet I can not be content to stay at the end at which he arrives and stays. I thoroughly sympathize in his belief that all true philosophical reasoning has its end in unity––that there are abundant proofs of this unity in matter and spirit, in things visible and things invisible—that the truths of science and religion find reconciliation in this unity. I reject, as he does, a purely spiritualistic view of things no less than a purely materialistic view. But I cannot agree with him in believing in indefinite evolution. Nor can I agree with him in believing that life and mind are to be interpreted in terms of matter, motion, and force, even though this interpretation be taken as only symbolizing provisionally arbitrary aspects of an Unknown Reality; and least of all can I agree with him in believing that the principle of unity, underlying matter and spirit alike, is merely an Unknown Cause, the Unknowable, a Power without limits of either time or space, of which the nature ever remains inconceivable. Much, no doubt, is of necessity unknowable, but I would not place the limits of thought where Mr. Spencer would place them. On the contrary, I would hold that there is nothing unreasonable in widening these limits so as to bring within them an actual God, even the God of the Scriptures, and that by so doing a much more reasonable realization of unity is to be found than that which can be found in an Unknown Reality. I would hold, indeed, that the nature of the Unknowable is to be encroached upon in this way, and to this extent, by the power of the reason, and also that there is nothing in the speculations to which I am now referring which can stamp as unreasonable that particular view of mind and hody which it is the object of this lecture to set forth cursorily.

But what of that view of mind which arises out of the doctrine with which the name of Mr. Darwin is at present especially connected—a name which must always command the highest respect of all naturalists? Is not the view arising out of the doctrine of evolution altogether at variance with that which I have been led to take in this lecture? Unquestionably so. It is simply impossible to reconcile the two views; and it is also certain that, if that which arises out of the doctrine of evolution be right, the other must be abandoned. What, then, are the facts upon which this doctrine of evolution is based? This is the question. Are they to be read only in favor of this doctrine, or is there another reading? I venture to think that there is another reading; but how can I make good this statement with the hands of the clock standing where they do! At most I can only throw out a hint or two of what I might say on the subject if I had the time, and this is all I propose to do.

No one can believe more firmly than I do that there is a common plan in all animals and in all parts of animals, as well as in all plants and in all parts of plants, or that there is a common unity for the whole organic world, plant and animal alike. No one can believe more firmly than I do that there are manifestations of mind, not dissimilar in kind to human mind, in the brute creation, and that the law of mind is one and the same everywhere. But it does not follow from this belief in unity that I should believe that one organ should be developed into another organ, or one animal or plant into another animal or plant. The doctrine of unity is quite consistent with a belief that there are certain fixed differences in organs or organisms; it has nothing to do with the doctrine of evolution, except, perhaps, in making its acceptance a little less difficult, for it is a little more easy to suppose that a higher creature may be evolved from a lower if there be the same archetypal unity of plan underlying the two; more than this it cannot do.

I cannot doubt that in the embryonic life of the higher animals there is a process of development at work by which the embryo before arriving at maturity passes through certain stages which seem to shadow forth certain permanent states of being lower down in the scale of life. I cannot doubt that in this case the more perfect is preceded by the more crude, and that there is a process of evolution at work up to a given point. But what follows? Certainly not this—that these resemblances are realities, that the embryo of a higher animal, in developing to maturity, passed through a succession of different animals each one a little more perfect than its predecessors. Certainly not more than this—that the higher animal in the embryonic period of its history, without ever ceasing to be itself, passes through certain stages of development in which there are certain likenesses, never very close, to certain forms of animal life lower down than itself in the scale of being—likenesses which simply bear witness to the unity of plan in all forms of animal life.

I also find it difficult to twist the marvellous improvability of man into an argument for the doctrine of evolution. Who shall say that this improvability is not restricted within certain prescribed limits? As yet man, in his struggle for life, has never turned his opportunities for natural selection so far to account as to make even the slightest advance toward physical improvement. And it is possible that the change for the better which is actually witnessed in man may have to be explained in accordance with the Scriptures rather than in accordance with the doctrine of evolution.

Nor can I rest satisfied with what may be spoken of as the more special evidence in favor of evolution. The pigeon, by developing under cultivation into what may be considered as improved varieties of pigeon, may at first seem to be the subject of evolution; but the changes produced in this way are never more than those minor changes which go to make up the differences called varieties, never so great as to constitute another species of bird. Moreover, only let the varieties thus produced be let alone for a few generations, and the inevitable result is a return to the original form of the common pigeon, if not to that of the wild, blue rock-pigeon. The history contradicts the notion of evolution rather than confirms it. And so with the dog or any other animal which may be modified as the pigeon is modified; the change produced is never beyond that of mere variety, never into that of a new species; and let the constraining influences which brought it about come to an end, and, as with the pigeon, it is not long before the original wild form has again cropped out. And what other conclusion can be fairly drawn from the infertility of mules than this—that there is a barrier between different species of animals, even between those which are most closely akin to each other, by which one is prevented from passing into the other. Nay, it is even difficult to find any evidence in favor of evolution in the history of the rudimentary creatures which swarm in dense crowds around the very feet of the scale of being. Here are wonderful changes at work by which, as Dr. Bastian so clearly demonstrates, bacteria, the simplest of all living units, may be developed, possibly from inorganic elements, almost at the will of the experimenter, into monads, and amœbæ, and paramecia, or into the lowest forms of fungus—into forms of animal life, that is to say, or into forms of vegetable life; but not much is to be built upon this fact in favor of evolution. For what follows? Simply this—that these forms are unstable in the highest degree, and that, instead of passing on into higher forms of being, they presently again break up into their original bacterial units, which units are destined again and again to go through the same narrow round of combining and separating. The evolution, if evolution it be, is kept within the narrowest limits; the tendency to retrograde is quite as marked as the tendency to go forward; and, as respects evolution, the conclusion to be drawn is even that which has been drawn from the changes witnessed in the pigeon and the dog—this and no other. It may be questioned, also, whether this doctrine of evolution derives as much support as it is supposed to do from the facts belonging to astronomy and geology.

The nebular hypothesis, which may be taken as the real starting-point of the doctrine in question, is certainly very nebulous. The facts upon which it is founded show unity of plan; of that there need be no doubt; but this unity of plan is really a matter quite apart from the nebular hypothesis founded upon it. Besides, where did the heat come from which kept up the nebulous state which preceded the formation of the heavenly bodies of various sorts, and what has become of it since the time of this formation? What real proof is there of the continual cooling which should still be going on according to this view? Like light and gravity, heat may result in the mutual reactions of the heavenly bodies, or be a property of one or other of these bodies; but to conceive of it as independent of these bodies is, to say the least, no easy matter. Indeed, so difficult is it so to conceive of it, that, until the difficulty is overcome, the nebular hypothesis may be set aside as a dream which is as little calculated to give probability to the doctrine of evolution as the evidence which has been already glanced at.

And so likewise with that particular evidence in favor of evolution which the facts of geology are supposed to supply. Endless ages are needed to allow of evolution; and the facts of geology are believed to testify unequivocally to the lapse of these ages. But is it so? If the rock in which the skeleton of a plesiosaurus is embedded had been deposited as slowly as it is supposed to have been deposited, every trace of organization must have decomposed and disappeared long ages before the animal could have been covered up in its bed. For the skeleton to be there at all, indeed, is a plain proof that the rock, at least to the thickness needed for embedding it, must have been deposited before decomposition had time to do its work fully. And so likewise in every other analogous case. Nay, it may even be questioned whether there has been a separate upheaval and sinking to allow of the formation of each coal-seam or limestone-bed, for many of these seams and beds which are parallel may have to be explained as drifts, which have to do with one cataclysm of upheaval and sinking rather than with many such cataclysms, for how could this strict parallelism be preserved if there had been many cataclysms? Moreover, it must not be forgotten that there are not a few fossils out of place in the strata, fossils which ought not to be where they are if living things had made their appearance on the earth in the order required by the doctrine of evolution.

In a word, I fail to find anywhere sufficient reason for believing that man began his history as a marine ascidian, or as a creature still lower down in the scale of being, and that he has worked his way to his present state of civilization by ceaseless stragglings upward—first, in countless forms of brute life, each one succeeding in the series being a little more advanced than that which went before it; and then through an interminable line of savage ancestry, of which the first in the series was only a shade more advanced than the tailless ape of which he was the immediate descendant. And glad I am that it is so; for this idea of imperfect being ever, and almost forever, straining after perfection, and constantly failing in the struggle, produces a feeling approaching to a painful shudder. At any rate, until these and other difficulties are swept away, I find it more easy to accept the doctrine of the creation than to accept the doctrine of evolution, and to believe that each creature was created perfect in itself, and in its relations to all other creatures, and to the universe of which it is a necessary part—so perfect as to deserve to be spoken of at the beginning as "very good"—and that man originally was no brute-descended savage, living in a wilderness, and fighting his way step by step upward to a higher level, but a demi-god, walking and talking in a paradise with the God in whose image he was made, until, for some fault of his own, he was driven out into the wilderness, a slave to body, naked, and all but altogether oblivious of every thing relating to his high original.—London Lancet.

  1. Part of lecture delivered before the Royal College of Physicians, March, 1873.