Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/December 1901/On the Reception of the Origin of Species

1410985Popular Science Monthly Volume 60 December 1901 — On the Reception of the Origin of Species1901Thomas Henry Huxley


By Professor HUXLEY.

TO the present generation, that is to say, the people a few years on the hither and thither side of thirty, the name of Charles Darwin stands alongside of those of Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday; and, like them, calls up the grand ideal of a searcher after truth and interpreter of Nature. They think of him who bore it as a rare combination of genius, industry, and unswerving veracity, who earned his 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 of favour or appreciation from the official fountains of honour; as one who in spite of an acute sensitiveness to praise and blame, and notwithstanding provocations which might have excused any outbreak, kept himself clear of all envy, hatred, and malice, nor dealt otherwise than fairly and justly with the unfairness and injustice which was showered upon him; while, to the end of his days, he was ready to listen with patience and respect to the most insignificant of reasonable objectors.

And with respect to that theory of the origin of the forms of life peopling our globe, with which Darwin's name is bound up as closely as that of Newton with the theory of gravitation, nothing seems to be further from the mind of the present generation than any attempt to smother it with ridicule or to crush it by vehemence of denunciation. ‘The struggle for existence’ and ‘Natural selection’ have become house-hold words and every-day conceptions. The reality and the importance of the natural processes on which Darwin founds his deductions are no more doubted than those of growth and multiplication; and, whether the full potency attributed to them is admitted or not, no one doubts their vast and far-reaching significance. Wherever the biological sciences are studied, the ‘Origin of Species’ lights the paths of the investigator; wherever they are taught it permeates the course of instruction. Nor has the influence of Darwinian ideas been less profound, beyond the realms of Biology. The oldest of all philosophies, that of Evolution, was bound hand and foot and cast into utter darkness during the millennium of theological scholasticism. But Darwin poured new life-blood into the ancient frame; the bonds burst, and the revivified thought of ancient Greece has proved itself to be a more adequate expression of the universal order of things than any of the schemes which have been accepted by the credulity and welcomed by the superstition of seventy later generations of men.

To any one who studies the signs of the times, the emergence of the philosophy of Evolution, in the attitude of claimant to the throne of the world of thought, from the limbo of hated and, as many hoped, forgotten things, is the most portentous event of the nineteenth century. But the most effective weapons of the modern champions of Evolution were fabricated by Darwin; and the ‘Origin of Species’ has enlisted a formidable body of combatants, trained in the severe school of Physical Science, whose ears might have long remained deaf to the speculations of à priori philosophers. * * *

If I confine my retrospect of the reception of the ‘Origin of Species’ to a twelvemonth, or thereabouts, from the time of its publication, I do not recollect anything quite so foolish and unmannerly as the ‘Quarterly Review’ article, unless, perhaps, the address of a Reverend Professor to the Dublin Geological Society might enter into competition with it. But a large proportion of Mr. Darwin's critics had a lamentable resemblance to the ‘Quarterly’ reviewer, in so far as they lacked either the will, or the wit, to make themselves masters of his doctrine; hardly any possessed the knowledge required to follow him through the immense range of biological and geological science which the ‘Origin’ covered; while, too commonly, they had prejudiced the case on theological grounds, and, as seems to be inevitable when this happens, eked out lack of reason by superfluity of railing.

But it will be more pleasant and more profitable to consider those criticisms, 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 a twelvemonth, or thereabouts, after the publication of the 'Origin' I find among such critics Louis Agassiz; Murray, an excellent entomologist; Harvey', a botanist of considerable repute; and the author of an article in the 'Edinburgh Review' all strongly adverse to Darwin. Pictet, the distinguished and widely learned paleontologist of Geneva, treats Mr. Darwin with a respect which forms a grateful contrast to the tone of some of the preceding writers, but consents to go with him only a very little way. On the other hand, Lyell, up to that time a pillar of the anti-transmutationists (who regarded him, ever afterwards, as Pallas Athene may have looked at Dian, after the Endymion affair), declared himself a Darwinian, though not without putting in a serious caveat. Nevertheless, he was a tower of strength, and his courageous stand for truth as against consistency, did him infinite honour. As evolutionists, sans phrase, I do not call to mind among the biologists more than Asa Gray, who fought the battle splendidly in the United States; Hooker, who was no less vigorous here; the present Sir John Lubbock and myself.


Such are the signs of defective information which contribute, almost at each chapter, to check our confidence in the teachings and advocacy of the hypothesis of 'Natural Selection.' But, as we have before been led to remark, most of Mr. Darwin's statements elude, by their vagueness and incompleteness, the test of Natural History facts. Thus he says:—

'I think it highly probable that our domestic dogs have descended from several wild species.' It may be so; but what are the species here referred to? Are they known, or named, or can they be defined? If so, why are they not indicated, so that the naturalist might have some means of Judging of the degree of probability, or value of the surmise, and of its bearing on the hypothesis?

'Isolation, also,' says Mr. Darwin, 'is an important element in the process of natural selection.' But how can one select if a thing be 'isolated'? Even using the word in the sense of a confined area, Mr. Darwin admits that the conditions of life 'throughout such area, will tend to modify all the individuals of a species in the same manner, in relation to the same conditions.' (P. 104.)

No evidence, however, is given of a species having ever been created in that way; but granting the hypothetical influence and transmutation, there is no selection here. The author adds, 'Although I do not doubt that isolation is of considerable importance in the production of new species, on the whole, I am inclined to believe, that largeness of area is of more importance in the production of species capable of spreading widely. (P. 105.)

Now, on such a question as the origin of species, and in an express, formal, scientific treatise on the subject, the expression of a belief, where one looks for a demonstration, is simply provoking. We are not concerned in the author's beliefs or inclinations to believe. Belief is a state of mind short of actual knowledge. It is a state which may govern action, when based upon a tacit admission of the mind's incompetency to prove a proposition, coupled with submissive acceptance of an authoritative dogma, or worship of a favorite idol of the mind. We readily concede, and it needs, indeed, no ghost to reveal the fact, that the wider the area in which a species may be produced, the more widely it will spread. But we fail to discern its import in respect of the great question at issue.

We have read and studied with care most of the monographs conveying the results of close investigations of particular groups of animals, but have not found, what Darwin asserts to be the fact, at least as regards all those investigators of particular groups of animals and plants whose treatises he has read, viz., that their authors 'are one and all firmly convinced that each of the well-marked forms or species was at the first independently created.' Our experience has been that the monographers referred to have rarely committed themselves to any conjectural hypothesis whatever, upon the origin of the species which they have closely studied.

Darwin appeals from the 'experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts' which he assumes to have been 'viewed from a point of view opposite to his own,' to the 'few naturalists endowed with much flexibility of mind,' for a favourable reception of his hypothesis. We must confess that the minds to whose conclusions we incline to bow belong to that truth-loving, truth-seeking, truth-imparting class, which Robert Brown, Bojanus, Rudolphi, Cuvier, Ehrenberg, Herold, Kölliker, and Siebold, worthily exemplify. The rightly and sagaciously generalizing intellect is associated with the power of endurance of continuous and laborious research, exemplarily manifested in such monographs as we have quoted below. Their authors are the men who trouble the intellectual world little with their beliefs, but enrich it greatly with their proofs. If close and long-continued research, sustained by the determination to get accurate results, blunted, as Mr. Darwin seems to imply, the far-seeing discovering faculty, then are we driven to this paradox, viz., that the elucidation of the higher problems, nay the highest, in Biology, is to be sought for or expected in the lucubrations of those naturalists whose minds are not weighted or troubled with more than a discursive and superficial knowledge of nature.


Since the arguments presented by Darwin in favor of a universal derivation from one primary form, of all the peculiarities existing now among living beings have not made the slightest impression on my mind, nor modified in any way the views I have already propounded, I may fairly refer the reader to the paragraphs alluded to above as containing sufficient evidence of their correctness, and I will here only add a single argument, which seems to leave the question where I have placed it.

It seems to me that there is much confusion of ideas in the general statement of the variability of species so often repeated lately. If species do not exist at all, as the supporters of the transmutation theory maintain, how can they vary? and if individuals alone exist, how can the differences which may be observed among them prove the variability of species? The fact seems to me to be that while species are based upon definite relations among individuals which differ in various ways among themselves, each individual, as a distinct being, has a definite course to run from the time of its first formation to the end of its existence, during which it never loses its identity nor changes its individuality, nor its relations to other individuals belonging to the same species, but preserves all the categories of relationship which constitute specific or generic or family affinity, or any other kind or degree of affinity. To prove that species vary it should be proved that individuals born from common ancestors change the different categories of relationship which they bore primitively to one another. While all that has thus far been shown is, that there exists a considerable difference among individuals of one and the same species. This may be new to those who have looked upon every individual picked up at random, as affording the means of describing satisfactorily any species; but no naturalist who has studied carefully any of the species now best known, can have failed to perceive that it requires extensive series of specimens accurately to describe a species, and that the more complete such series are, the more precise appear the limits which separate species. Surely the aim of science cannot be to furnish amateur zoölogists or collectors a recipe for a ready identification of any chance specimen that may fall into their hands. And the difficulties with which we may meet in attempting to characterize species do not afford the first indication that species do not exist at all, as long as most of them can be distinguished, as such, almost at first sight. I foresee that some convert to the transmutation creed will at once object that the facility with which species may be distinguished is no evidence that they were not derived from other species. It may be so. But as long as no fact is adduced to show that any one well-known species among the many thousands that are buried in the whole series of fossiliferous rocks, is actually the parent of any one of the species now living, such arguments can have no weight; and thus far the supporters of the transmutation theory have failed to produce any such facts. Instead of facts we are treated with marvelous bear, cuckoo, and other stories. Credat Judaeus Apella!

Had Mr. Darwin or his followers furnished a single fact to show that individuals change, in the course of time, in such a manner as to produce at last species different from those known before, the state of the case might be different. But it stands recorded now as before, that the animals known to the ancients are still in existence, exhibiting to this day the characters they exhibited of old. The geological record, even with all its imperfections, exaggerated to distortion, tells now, what it has told from the beginning, that the supposed intermediate forms between the species of different geological periods are imaginary beings, called up merely in support of a fanciful theory. The origin of all the diversity among living beings remains a mystery as totally unexplained as if the book of Mr. Darwin had never been written, for no theory unsupported by fact, however plausible it may appear, can be admitted in science.

It seems generally admitted that the work of Darwin is particularly remarkable for the fairness with which he presents the facts adverse to his views. It may be so; but I confess that it has made a very different impression upon me. I have been more forcibly struck by his inability to perceive when the facts are fatal to his argument, than by anything else in the whole work. His chapter on the Geological Record, in particular, appears to me, from beginning to end, as a series of illogical deductions and misrepresentations of the modern results of Geology and Palæontology. I do not intend to argue here, one by one, the questions he has discussed. Such arguments end too often in special pleading, and any one familiar with the subject may readily perceive where the truth lies by confronting his assertions with the geological record itself. But since the question at issue is chiefly to be settled by palæntological evidence, and I have devoted the greater part of my life to the special study of the fossils, I wish to record my protest against his mode of treating this part of the subject. Not only does Darwin never perceive when the facts are fatal to his views, but when he has succeeded by an ingenious circumlocution in overleaping the facts, he would have us believe that he has lessened their importance or changed their meaning.



We are thus, at last, brought to the question; what would happen if the derivation of species were to be substantiated, either as a true physical theory, or as a sufficient hypothesis? What would come of it? The enquiry is a pertinent one, just now. For, of those who agree with us in thinking that Darwin has not established his theory of derivation, many will admit with us that he has rendered a theory of derivation much less improbable than before; that such a theory chimes in with the established doctrines of physical science, and is not unlikely to be largely accepted long before it can be proved. Moreover, the various notions that prevail,—equally among the most and the least religious,—as to the relations between natural agencies or phenomena and Efficient Cause, are seemingly more crude, obscure, and discordant than they need be.

It is not surprising that the doctrine of the book should be denounced as atheistical. What does surprise and concern us is, that it should be so denounced by a scientific man, on the broad assumption that a material connection between the members of a series of organized beings is inconsistent with the idea of their being intellectually connected with one another through the Deity, i. e., as products of one mind, as indicating and realizing a preconceived plan. An assumption the rebound of which is somewhat fearful to contemplate, but fortunately one which every natural birth protests against. * * *

We wished under the light of such views, to examine more critically the doctrine of this book, especially of some questionable parts;—for instance, its explanation of the natural development of organs, and its implication of a "necessary acquirement of mental power" in the ascending scale of gradation. But there is room only for the general declaration that we cannot think the Cosmos a series which began with chaos and ends with mind, or of which mind is a result; that if by the successive origination of species and organs through natural agencies, the author means a series of events which succeed each other irrespective of a continued directing intelligence,—events which mind does not order and shape to destined ends,—then he has not established that doctrine, nor advanced towards its establishment, but has accumulated improbabilities beyond all belief. Take the formation and the origination of the successive degrees of complexity of eyes as a specimen. The treatment of this subject (pp. 188, 189), upon one interpretation is open to all the objections referred to; but if, on the other liand, we may rightly compare the eye "to a telescope, perfected by the long continued efforts of the highest human intellects/' we could carry out the analogy, and draw satisfactory illustrations and inferences from it. The essential, the directly intellectual thing is the making of the improvements in the telescope or the steam-engine. Whether the successive improvements, being small at each step, and consistent with the general type of the instrument, are applied to some of the individual machines, or entire new machines are constructed for each, is a minor matter. Though if machines could engender, the adaptive method would be most economical; and economy is said to be a paramount law in nature. The origination of the improvements, and the successive adaptations to meet new conditions or subserve other ends, are what answer to the supernatural, and therefore remain inexplicable. As to bringing them into use, though wisdom foresees the result, the circumstances and the natural competition will take care of that, in the long run. The old ones will go out of use fast enough, except where an old and simple machine remains still best adapted to a particular purpose or condition,—as, for instance, the old Newcomen engine for pumping out coal-pits. If there's a Divinity that shapes these ends, the whole is intelligible and reasonable; otherwise, not.

We regret that the necessity of discussing philosophical questions has prevented a fuller examination of the theory itself, and of the interesting scientific points which are brought to bear in its favor. One of its neatest points, certainly a very strong one for the local origination of species, and their gradual diffusion under natural agencies, we must reserve for some other convenient opportunity.

The work is a scientific one, rigidly restricted to its direct object; and by its science it must stand or fall. Its aim is, probably not to deny creative intervention in nature,—for the admission of the independent origination of certain types does away with all antecedent improbability of as much intervention as may be required,—but to maintain that Natural Selection in explaining the facts, explains also many classes of facts which thousand-fold repeated independent acts of creation do not explain, but leave more mysterious than ever. How far the author has succeeded, the scientific world will in due time be able to pronounce.

  1. In the last issue of The Popular Science Monthly the original announcement by Darwin and Wallace of the theory of organic evolution by natural selection was reprinted from the 'Journal' of the Linnean Society for 1858. The 'Origin of Species' was published on November 24, 1859; its reception by scientific men, by churchmen and by the general public forms one of the most interesting chapters in the history of science. We reproduce part of the account of the matter contributed by Huxley to 'The Life and Letters of Darwin' (1887), and extracts from the reviews published in 1860 in the 'Edinburgh Review,' attributed to Richard Owen, and in 'The American Journal of Science' by Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray. Regarding the Edinburgh reviewer Darwin wrote to Hooker: "Some of my relations say it cannot possibly be——'s article, because the review speaks so very highly of——. Poor dear simple folk." To Gray he wrote regarding the review quoted below: 'Your review seems to me admirable; by far the best that I have read,' and again to Wallace 'Asa Gray fights like a hero in defence.' Huxley also says that Gray 'fought the battle splendidly in the United States,' and ranks him with Hooker, Lubbock and himself. Gray's review in the 'American Journal' and his series of articles in the 'Atlantic Monthly' seem at this time, however, rather colorless and chiefly concerned in arguing that if evolution is true it does not conflict with natural theology.—Editor.
  2. From an article in the 'Edinburgh Review' for April, 1860, attributed to Richard Owen.
  3. From a review in 'The American Journal of Science and Arts,' July, 1860.
  4. From a review in 'The American Journal of Science and Arts,' March, 1860.