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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/August 1904/Some Eighteenth Century Evolutionists II



II. Diderot.—Diderot was in even less degree than Maupertuis a contributor to the details of scientific knowledge; and the contrast between the work of the interpreter and that of the investigator of the facts of science is well shown in the relation of his theories to the discoveries of Daubenton. It was the great associate of Buffon who laid the foundations of the science of comparative anatomy, which was to furnish the most important arguments in favor of the theory of evolution; a French writer (Vicq d'Azyr) has even gone so far as to say that 'to the merit of having made a beginning of that science Daubenton has added the merit of having carried it through to completion.' After the publication of the third and fourth volumes of the 'Histoire Naturelle, 'an important body of facts and comparisons relating to the anatomy of the vertebrates was accessible to all readers; it is one of the most serious blots upon the reputation of Buffon as a man of science that he failed to appreciate the value of this body of detailed knowledge, and in a subsequent edition of the work cut out Daubenton 's anatomical contributions—to the great grief and disappointment of their author. Now the publication of the main facts of comparative anatomy brought clearly to light the striking homologies that run through the structure of all the vertebrate species. Daubenton himself, however, was not the man to see that these homologies suggested, and went far to justify, the hypothesis of the descent of all such species by progressive variation from a common ancestral prototype. His talent was not for the making of hypotheses, but for the collation of facts; he was a cautious and conservative man, capable of infinitely patient and accurate observation, but apparently not capable of penetrating to the significance of the facts which he observed. Even when the evolutionary hypothesis had been put forward by others, he gave it no encouragement; and it was apparently with the purpose of combating it that he contributed a paper to the French Academy of Sciences in 1764, arguing that the anatomical differences between man and the orangoutang are radical, and that man's general structure is elaborately adapted to the maintenance of the erect attitude, as the structure of the ape is not ('Memoires de l'Academie des Sciences,' 1764, p. 568). Similarly he argued, in his introduction to the natural-history volume of the 'Encyclopedic Méthodique' (1783), that man differs so essentially from the animals, even in his anatomical character, that he ought not to be classed with them; and he expressed surprise that 'it has been possible for a celebrated naturalist to place man in the rank of the quadrupeds, and to associate him in the same class with the monkeys, the lemurs and the bats.'

Minds of another type, however, at once saw how the facts laid bare by Daubenton demanded for their satisfactory explanation a hypothesis such as Maupertuis had already come upon from another line of inquiry. Even Buffon, as is well known, pointed out, in the 'Histoire de l'Âne' in the fourth volume of the 'Histoire Naturelle,' how forcibly the homologies to which his colleague had called attention suggested the idea of a family relationship between all animals. "If," he wrote, "in the immense variety of animate creatures that people the world, we choose as a starting point for our study. some one animal, or even the body of man, and if we compare it with all the other organisms, we shall find that. . . there exists a certain primitive and general type (dessein) which can be traced out very far. . . . Even in the parts which contribute most to give variety to the external form of animals, there is a prodigious degree of resemblance, which inevitably brings to our minds the idea of an original model upon which every creature seems to have been conceived. . . . As M. Daubenton has remarked, the foot of a horse, in appearance so different from the hand of man, is nevertheless composed of the same bones, and we have at the extremities of our fingers the same small bone of horse-shoe shape which terminates the foot of that animal." By one who considered these facts alone, "not only the ass and the horse, but also man, the ape, the quadrupeds and all the animals might be regarded as constituting but a single family. If it were admitted that the ass were of the family of the horse, and differs from the horse only because it has degenerated, one could equally well say that the ape is of the family of man, that it is a degenerate man, that man and ape have a common origin; that, in fact, all the families among the plants as well as among the animals, come from a single stock; and that all animals are descended from a single animal which in the course of time, as the result of progress or of degeneration, has given rise to all the races of other animals. . . . If it were true that the ass is a degenerated variety of the horse, there would be no longer any limits to the power of Nature, and one would not be wrong in supposing that from a single being she has been able to derive all the other organized beings." But of course Buffon finally pronounced, at least nominally, against such a supposition: Mais non; il est certain par la révélation que tous les animaux ont également participé à la grace de la création. Diderot, however—although he was himself not wholly unpractised in perfunctory and ironical professions of orthodoxy—was somewhat more outspoken; and in his 'Pensées de l'Interpretation de la Nature' he declared plainly that the doctrine of the mutability of species and of their descent from a common prototype was, if not an established truth, at any rate a legitimate and a necessary working hypothesis for all future biological investigation.

The most interesting and most explicit passage on the subject in the 'Pensées' has, so far as I know, been noted by no English writer;[1] and I therefore translate it without abridgment. "It seems" says Diderot, "that nature has taken pleasure in varying the same mechanism in a thousand different ways. She never abandons any class of her creations before she has multiplied the individuals of it in as many different forms as possible. When one looks out upon the animal kingdom and notes how, among the quadrupeds, all have functions and parts—especially the internal parts—entirely similar to those of another quadruped, would not any one readily believe (ne croirait-on pas volontiers) that there was never but one original animal, prototype of all animals, of which Nature has merely lengthened or shortened, transformed, multiplied or obliterated, certain organs? Imagine the fingers of the hand united and the substance of the nails so abundant that, spreading out and swelling, it envelops the whole—and in place of the human hand you have the foot of a horse. When one sees how the successive metamorphoses of the envelope of the prototype—whatever it may have been—proceed by insensible degrees through one kingdom of Nature after another, and people the confines of the two kingdoms (if it is permissible to speak of confines where there is no real division)—and people, I say, the confines of the two kingdoms with beings of an uncertain and ambiguous character, stripped in large part of the forms, qualities and functions of the one and invested with the forms, qualities and functions of the other—who then would not feel himself impelled to the belief that there has been but a single first being, prototype of all beings? But whether this philosophic conjecture be admitted as true with Doctor Baumann [Maupertuis], or rejected as false with M. de Buffon, it can not be denied that we must needs embrace it (on ne niera pas qu il faille l'embrasser) as a hypothesis essential to the progress of experimental science, to that of a rational philosophy, to the discovery and to the explanation of the phenomena of organic life" (op. cit., XII.). If the rest of the passage left any uncertainty as to the precise nature of the hypothesis that Diderot had in mind, the reference to Maupertuis and Buffon would make his meaning unmistakable.

In a later section of the book, in which he recurs to the subject, the mocking tone of Diderot's professed submission to the 'teachings of the faith,' only makes the more manifest the real opinion that he holds and desires to get accepted. "May it not be that, just as an individual organism in the animal or vegetable kingdom comes into being, grows, reaches maturity, perishes and disappears from view, so whole species may pass through similar stages? If the faith had not taught us that the animals came from the hands of the Creator just such as they are now, and if it were permissible to have the least uncertainty about their beginning and their end, might not the philosopher, left to his own conjectures, suspect that the animal world (l'animalité) has from eternity had its separate elements confusedly scattered through the mass of matter; that it finally came about that these elements united—simply because it was possible for them to unite; that the embryo thus formed has passed through an infinite number of successive organizations and developments; that it has acquired in turn movement, sensation, ideas, thought, reflection, conscience, sentiments, passions,—signs, gestures, sounds, articulate speech, language—laws, sciences and arts; that millions of years have elapsed between each of these developments; that there are perhaps still new developments to take place which are as yet unknown to us; that there has been or is to be a stationary condition of things; that the being thus developed is passing out of, or will pass out of, that condition by a continual process of decline, in which his faculties will gradually leave him just as they originally came to him; and that he will finally disappear from nature forever, or rather, will continue to exist, but in a form and with faculties wholly unlike those which characterize him in this moment of time?—But religion spares us many wanderings and much labor." Here, of course, we have not only the transformation of species, but also the sketch of a complete system of materialistic and ateleological evolutional philosophy, after the Spencerian fashion. Most of the chapters of Mr. Spencer's elaborate biography of the universe Diderot gives us in outline:—its 'integration of a diffused, incoherent matter,' its 'successive phases of physical, psychical and social development,' its 'equilibration' and resultant 'stationary state,' and finally its 'alternate cycles of evolution and dissolution.'

The passage first quoted, however, seems to me the more interesting of the two, not only because it is more outspoken and free from the veil of ironical piety, but also because it shows clearly the sources and grounds of Diderot's belief in the mutability of species. He had been stimulated to write largely by the recent appearance of the 'Systéme da la Nature' of Maupertuis; but he ignored the embryological line of argument, and rested his conclusion upon the homologies lately made known by Daubenton and dilated upon by Buffon.

Thus the decade between 1745 and 1755 was marked by the appearance of the attack of Maupertuis upon the ruling doctrine of predelineation; by the publication of the volumes of the 'Histoire Naturelle' which familiarized even the general reader with the unity of type and the homologies of structure that ran through the most diverse species in the writings of the three most celebrated French leaders of scientific opinion of the time; and by the setting forth of two distinct lines of argument in favor of that hypothesis. From this decade, then, dates the appearance of modern evolutionism, as a theory definitely formulated and based upon its proper embryological and anatomical premises.

III. Herder.—If certain of the French philosophes have received less credit than is their due for their evolutionary opinions, Herder, on the contrary, has often been praised for an early profession of faith in the doctrine of the transformation of species, whereas it is by no means clear that he did not intend explicitly to repudiate it. A German writer, Bärenbach,[2] has written a book to show that Herder was a precursor of Darwin, and declares that in his 'Ideen zur Geschichte der Menschheit' Herder laid down 'the fundamental laws of the modern development theory, and of the Darwinian theory in particular,' and that he gave clear expression to 'The law of the evolution of organisms, and the theories of the struggle for existence and of natural selection.' Professor Osborn's account of Herder's relation to the theory apparently follows Barenbach, and as a result is rather misleading. Herder, says Osborn, probably was helped to his evolutionism by 'coming under the influence of Kant's earlier views.' But "Herder was less cautious than his master, and appears almost as a literal prophet of the modern natural philosophy. In a general way he upholds the doctrine of the transformation of the lower and higher forms of life, of a continuous transformation from lower to higher types and of the law of perfectibility. " "In his 'Ideen,' published in Tübingen in 1806, . . . we see that Herder clearly formulated the doctrine of unity of type which prevailed among all the evolutionists of the period immediately following."

These few sentences contain a rather undue proportion of errors, and the whole exposition of Herder's position from which they are taken is substantially wrong. It is worth while, therefore, to attempt a more accurate account of Herder's attitude towards evolutionism than is to be found in the current writings on the subject. In a matter of this kind, even accuracy about dates is not wholly to be disdained; and it should be observed that the 'Ideen' were published, not at Tübingen in 1806, but at Riga and Leipzig in 1784-5. Again, Herder, although once a pupil, was no disciple of Kant's; the author of the 'Metakritik' would assuredly have been surprised to hear Kant called his 'master'; and it is sufficiently clear, from Herder's own language, that the influence which led him to employ such expressions as have caused some to consider him an evolutionist, was that of Buffon and other naturalists of the century, not that of Kant. During Herder's student days (1762-4) in Koenigsberg, indeed, it is improbable that Kant's influence could have encouraged a belief in organic, as distinguished from cosmic, evolution. On the other hand, it is not true that Herder was 'less cautious' than Kant in his treatment of the doctrine of transformation; for, by the time of the 'Kritik of Judgment' (1790), Kant had grasped the theory of the descent of species in all its implications and was ready to recognize it as at least a promising hypothesis; while Herder, in the 'Ideen,' argues at length against what he calls 'the improved and totally self-contradictory paradox' that animal species can depart from their divinely-defined character and that man is directly related to the ape.

Yet Herder's book is certainly full of aperçus that come near to the evolution theory; and it unquestionably helped to produce a state of mind favorable to the acceptance of the theory. Some passages in the 'Ideen,' read by themselves, might easily seem to justify the classification of Herder with the thorough-going evolutionists. For his position is peculiar and somewhat equivocal. Where he stands in the matter may perhaps best be shown by setting down in catalogue fashion the several contentions that he advanced in regard to the history of the animal kingdom and the relation of the lower species to man.

1. Herder clearly recognized that there had been a sequence of temporally successive forms appearing upon the globe, beginning with simpler forms and proceeding to those most highly organized; 'from stones to crystals, from crystals to metals, from these to plants, from plants to animals and from animals to man, we see the form of organization ascend; and with it the powers and propensities of the creature become more various, until finally they all, so far as possible, unite in the form of man (Bk. V., eh. 1). Each new type as it appears is dependent for its survival upon the prior existence of simpler types—dependent usually, indeed, in a very plain sense, since the newcomer commonly has the earlier-born creatures for its necessary food. "It is manifestly contrary to Nature that she should bring all creatures into existence at the same time. The structure of the earth and the inner constitution of the creatures themselves make this impossible. Elephants and worms, lions and infusoria, do not appear in equal numbers, nor could they be created, in consistency with their natures, at one time or in equal proportions. Millions of shellfish must needs have perished before our bare rock of earth could be made a fruitful soil for a finer type of life; a world of plants is destroyed each year in order that higher beings may be nourished thereby. Even if one wholly disregards the final causes of the creation, yet even in the very raw material of Nature there lies the necessity that one being should come out of many, that in the revolving cycle of creation countless multitudes should be destroyed so that through this destruction a nobler but less numerous race might come into being" (Bk. X., ch. 2). "Man, therefore, if he was to possess the earth and be lord of the creation, must find his kingdom and his dwelling-place made ready; necessarily therefore, he must have appeared later and in smaller numbers than those over whom he was to rule" (ibid.). Most of this Herder might have got from Buffon; and there is obviously nothing in these passages which necessarily implies the mutability of species, nothing which is inconsistent with the doctrine of special but gradual creation. Nor is there even in such a passage as this: "From air and water, from heights and depths, I see the animals coming nearer to man, and step by step approximating his form. The bird flies in the air; every deviation of its structure from that of the quadruped is explicable from its element. The fish swims in the water: its feet and hands are transformed into tail and fins," etc. (Bk. II., ch. 3). If Herder had not elsewhere seemed to deny such a theory, we might at first sight be disposed to construe this passage as an assertion of the literal transformation of species—a Lamarckian sort of transformation, due to the adaptation of organs to needs. But when the words are closely scrutinized it is evident that they require no such interpretation. They say no more than that animals came into being in a progressive order in which the human type was steadily approximated, and in which each form was adapted to its environment.

2. In this connection, Herder liked to dwell upon the homologies of form and structure observable in all vertebrates, and indeed, as he thought, in all creatures, even those that are outwardly most dissimilar. There is a certain Hauptform or Hauptplasma in which the whole animal kingdom agrees. "It is undeniable that, amid all the differences of the living beings on the earth, a certain uniformity of structure and, as it were, a standard form, appears to prevail, which yet is transformed into the richest diversity. The similarity of the skeletal structure of land animals is obvious; . . . the inner structure makes the thing especially evident, and many outwardly uncouth forms are in the essentials of their internal anatomy exceedingly like man. The amphibia deviate farther from this standard; birds, fishes, insects, aquatic animals—the last of which merge in the vegetal or inorganic world—deviate still farther. Beyond this our eyes can not penetrate; but these transitions render it not improbable that in marine forms, plants, and even in the so-called inanimate things the same basis of organization may rule, though infinitely more rude and confused. In the eye of the Eternal Being, who sees all things in one connected whole, it may be that the form of the ice-particle, as it is generated, and that of the snowflake that is formed upon it, may have an analogous resemblance to the formation of the embryo in the womb. We can therefore accept it as a general law that, the nearer they approach man, the more do all creatures resemble him in their essential form; and that Nature, amid the infinite variety which she loves, seems to have fashioned all the living things upon our earth after a single original model (Hauptplasma) of organization" (Bk. II., ch. 4).[3] Herder had also learned from the comparative anatomists that it is a corollary to this similarity of structure that organs which function usefully in certain species appear also in other species where they have little or no apparent use or function; in other words, he knew of the existence of vestigial and rudimentary organs. "What Nature had given to one animal as a merely accessory feature (Nebenwerk) she has developed into an essential feature in another; she brings it intc plain view, enlarges it, and makes the other organs—though still in perfect harmony—subservient to it. Elsewhere again these subordinate parts predominate; and all organized beings appear as so many disjecti membra poetæ. He who would study them must study one in another; where an organ appears neglected or concealed, let him turn to some other creature in which Nature has perfected and plainly displayed it" (loc. cit.).

3. Herder had further learned from Buffon that, within the limits of the specific type, a species may vary widely under differing climatic influences. 'Those species that inhabit nearly all parts of the globe, are differently formed in almost every climate' etc. (Bk. II., ch. 3).

4. The author of the 'Ideen' also recognized, and frequently dilated upon, that fact in nature which later suggested the specifically Darwinian form of the theory of descent—the fact, namely, that nature turns out more aspirants for life than she can provide with the means of living, and that there results from this situation a universal struggle for existence between species and between individuals. Herder had, in fact, been profoundly impressed by the way in which the lifeprocesses of nature seem to be the expression merely of a blind, striving Wille zum Leben (in the language of a later school), careless of the single life, tending only to the production of the greatest possible number of living beings, each of them competing with all the others. The discovery of this impressive and sinister aspect of nature was, certainly, the main source, alike of the most important scientific hypothesis of the nineteenth century, and of certain of the most significant and characteristic developments of nineteenth century philosophy—especially of philosophical pessimism. The emphasis which Herder lays upon this class of facts is therefore interesting and noteworthy: "Where and when each being could arise, there it arose; energies (Kräfte) pressed in through every gate of entrance and formed themselves to life" (Bk. X., ch. 2). "Nature employs infinitely many germs; . . . she must needs therefore reckon upon some loss, since all things crowd one another (alles zusammengedrangt ist), and nothing finds room completely to develop itself" (Bk. II., ch. 2). "The whole creation is at war, and the most conflicting powers lie close to one another. . . . Each being strives with each, since each itself is hardpressed for life; it must save its own skin, and guard its own existence. Why does nature act thus? Why does she thus crowd her creatures one upon another? Because she aimed to produce the greatest number and the greatest variety of living things in the least possible space; so that one subdues another, and only through the equilibrium of opposing powers is peace brought about in the creation. Every species cares for itself as if it were the only one in existence; hut by its side stands another which keeps it within bounds; and it was only in this adjustment of warring species that creative nature found the means of preserving the whole" (Bk. II., ch. 3). In all this Nature (for Herder almost invariably personifies) takes no account of the individual, but rather sacrifices him ruthlessly to her 'one great end, which is—not the little end of the sentient creature alone, but—the propagation and continuance of the species.' And in this connection Herder anticipates Schopenhauer in picturing the pleasures of the love of the sexes, and the romantic illusions connected with that love in man, as merely a subtle trick whereby nature cajoles the individual to sacrifice himself to her larger aim. Schopenhauer's famous chapter on the 'Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes' is little more than an amplification of a passage in the second book of the 'Ideen.' Always, Herder perceives, when the reproduction and increase of life is at stake, nature turns Machiavelian, and plays upon the egoism of the individual for her own very different ends. "It is," he writes, "particularly humiliating to man that in the sweet impulses which he terms love, and to which he attributes so much spontaneity, he obeys the laws of nature almost as blindly as a plant. . . . Two creatures sigh for each other, and know not for what they sigh; they languish to become one, which dividing nature has denied; they swim on a sea of deception. Sweetly deceived creatures, enjoy your time; yet know that ye accomplish not your own little dreams, but, pleasantly compelled, the great aim of nature. . . . As soon as she has secured the species, she suffers the individual gradually to decay. Hardly is the season of love over before the stag loses his proud antlers, the bird its song and much of its beauty, the plants their fairest colors. The butterfly sheds its wings and expires, while alone and unweakened it might have lived through half the year. This is the course of nature in the development of beings out of one another; the stream flows on, though one wave is lost in the wave that succeeds it" (Bk. II., ch. 2).

But although Herder thus clearly remarked these characteristics of nature's dealings, he did not deduce from them either the biological or the philosophical consequences which have since become so familiar. It did not occur to him to find in the facts of the over-production of organisms and the struggle for existence an explanation—such as Maupertuis had already proposed—of that progressive production and selection of more highly organized and better adapted beings, the reality of which he so fully recognized. Nor was he led, by his apprehension of a universal tendency to the maximum production of living things, to erect the notion of 'unconscious will' into the central conception of a metaphysical system.

5. In his accounts of the beginnings of human society, and of the moral instincts without which society could not exist, Herder points out that these beginnings were made possible and necessary by a prior peculiarity in the physiological constitution which distinguishes the human species—namely, by the greater length of the period of helpless infancy. This, of course, is an idea upon which many evolutionary moralists and 'sociologists' have latterly delighted to dwell. Herder clearly sets forth how the prolongation of infancy was the condition and the chief cause of man's moral nature—how it provided the true training school in which the featherless biped was fitted for the social state: "The first society arose in the paternal habitation, bound together, by the ties of blood, of mutual reliance, and of love. Thus to destroy the savagery of men and to habituate them to domestic intercourse, it was necessary that the infancy in our species should continue for some years. Nature held them together by tender bonds, so that they might not separate and forget one another, like the beasts that soon reach maturity. The father becomes the teacher of his son, as the mother has been his nurse, and thus a new tie of humanity is formed. Herein lay the ground of the necessity of human society, without which it would have been impossible for a human being to grow up, and for the species to multiply. Man is thus born for society; this the affection of his parents tells him, this the years of his longer infancy show" (Bk. IV., ch. 6).

This conception, however, was by no means a new idea of Herder's own. It is, therefore a little curious to find the idea put forward by evolutionary writers of the end of the nineteenth century as a fresh and striking discovery. Even so learned a man as the late Mr. John Fiske supposed it to be a great novelty, and even conceived that he himself was the original discoverer of it. In the preface to his 'Destiny of Man' Mr. Fiske writes: "The detection of the part played by the lengthening of infancy in the genesis of the human race is my own especial contribution to the doctrine of evolution, so that I feel somewhat uncertain as to how far that subject will be understood." But the thing had been detected, not merely by Herder, but also by Pope, some fifty years before him; and that Mr. Fiske should have forgotten the fact only shows how general are the misapprehensions which concern the history of biological conceptions. Pope wrote, in the Third Epistle of the 'Essay on Man' (1733):

Thus beast and bird their common charge attend,
The mothers nurse it, and the sires defend;
The young dismissed, to wander earth or air,
There stops the Instinct, and there ends the care.
A longer care man's helpless kind demands,
That longer care contracts more lasting bands. . .
Still as one brood, and as another rose,
These nat'ral love maintained, habitual those:
The last, scarce ripened into perfect man,
Saw helpless him from whom their life began;
While pleasure, gratitude and hope combined
Still spread the interest, and preserved the kind.

Pope got the suggestion of this from one of Bolingbroke's 'Fragments'; but Bolingbroke had missed the main point, which Pope, in this case more original than his guide, clearly perceived. "If men," Bolingbroke had written, "come helpless into the world like other animals; if they require even longer than other animals to be nursed and educated by the tender instinct of their parents; it is because they have more to learn and more to do; it is because they are prepared for a more improved state and for greater happiness."

Bolingbroke failed to see that the most important consequence of the greater length of human infancy lay in its effect, not upon the child, but upon the parent—in creating the necessity for a steady and self-sacrificing affection and for a habitual subordination of immediate and personal aims to remote and disinterested ones. It may be, then, that to Pope should be given the credit of having first called attention to the relation between the lengthening of infancy and the evolution of social morality. It can hardly be doubted that it was the passage in Pope's poem that suggested the idea to Herder.

6. In all these cases the receptive and pregnant mind of Herder had grasped and elaborated separate ideas which have since become familiar parts of the general body of evolutionary theory. But did he accept the essential doctrine of evolution itself? Did he believe in the mutability of species and in the literal descent of man from lower forms of life? If I am able to interpret his utterances correctly, he did not; on the contrary, he seems to have been at pains to express his dissent from such a doctrine,—which, as we have seen, was familiar enough to the men of science of his time. There are several distinct passages in the 'Ideen' in which Herder discusses the relation of man to the animal kingdom; and, in order that the reader may have the means of deciding for himself what Herder's position was, I will cite them at some length. "There are those," he says (Bk. III., ch. 6), "who have, I will not say degraded man to the rank of a beast, but have denied to him the character of his race, and would make him out to be a degenerate animal (ausgeartete Thier) which in striving after a higher perfection has wholly lost the distinctive qualities (Eigenheit) of its species. This, however, is manifestly contrary to the truth and to the evidence of natural history; man obviously has characteristics that no animal possesses, and performs actions of which both the good and the evil belong to him alone. . . . Since every animal remains true upon the whole to the character of its species, and since we alone have free will instead of necessity for our ruling power, then this difference must be investigated as a fact—for fact it undeniably is. The other questions—how man came by this distinctive characteristic; whether it was his from the beginning, or is adventitious and acquired: these are questions of a purely historical sort. Now, setting aside all metaphysics, let us confine ourselves to physiology and experience." Herder then points out the anatomical peculiarities of man, particularly those which, as Daubenton had shown, are connected with his greatest peculiarity, the upright attitude. And in view of these considerations Herder concludes thus: "Would the human animal, if he had been for ages in an inferior state—and if he had been formed as a quadruped in his mother's womb, with wholly different proportions—would he have left that state of his own accord and have raised himself to an erect posture? Out of the faculties of a beast, which would ever be drawing him backward, could he have made himself a man, and, even before he became a man, have discovered human speech? If man had ever been a four-footed animal, if he had been such for thousands of years, assuredly he would remain such still; and nothing but a miracle of new creation could have made him what he now is. Why, then, should we embrace unproved, nay totally self-contradictory, paradoxes, when the structure of man, the history of his species and, as it seems to me, the whole analogy of the organization of our earth, lead us to another conclusion? No creature that we know has ever departed from its original organization and adapted itself to another contrary to it; for it can operate only through the powers that inhere in its organization, and Nature is abundantly able to hold each living being fast in that state to which she has assigned it. In man everything is adapted to the form he now bears; from this everything in his history is explicable; without it nothing is capable of explanation. . . . Why should we humble in the dust the crown of our high calling, and shut our eyes to that central point in which all the radii of Nature 's circle seem to converge?"

In a later passage (Bk. VII., ch. 1) Herder directly discusses, only to reject, the theories of those (he probably has Monboddo especially in mind) who assert a kinship, or an identity of species, between the apes and man. "I could wish," he writes, "that the affinity of man to the ape had never been urged so far as to cause people to overlook, in seeking a graded scale (Leiter) of being, the actual steps and intervals without which no scale can exist. What, for example, can the rickety orang-outang explain in the figure of the Kamchatkan, the pigmy chimpanzee in the size of the Greenlander, the pongo in the Patagonian? for all these forms would have arisen from the nature of man if there had been no such thing as an ape upon the earth. . . . In point of fact, the apes and man were never one and the same species (Gattung). For each race nature has done enough, to each she has given its own proper heritage. The apes she has divided into as many species and varieties as possible, and extended these as far as she could. But thou, man, reverence thyself! Neither the pongo nor the gibbon is thy brother; the American and the Negro are. These then thou shouldst not oppress nor kill nor rob, for they are men like thee; but with the ape thou canst not enter into fraternity." Herder expresses himself in a similar vein in a preface which he wrote for a German translation (1784) of the work in which Lord Monboddo set forth, among other things, his theory of the close relationship of man and monkey. Herder praises cordially Monboddo 's taste for ancient art, and his large and philosophical way of dealing with the problem of the origin and development of human language; but he warns the reader against Monboddo's views on the orang-outang. The opinion that 'Affe und Mensch em Geschlect sei' Herder marks as 'an error which even the facts of anatomy contradict.'

In another chapter of the 'Ideen' Herder speaks of the transitions (Uebergange und Ueberleitungen) and metamorphoses (Verwandlungen) through which nature leads the successive orders of animals, in a fashion which seems at first sight plainly to imply the derivation of higher from lower species by ordinary descent; yet in the same paragraph he pauses to insist upon the fixity of specific types: "It may appear that such transitions are incompatible with the definiteness of form to which every species remains true, and in which not the smallest bone undergoes alteration. But the reason for this invariability is apparent; since every creature can receive its organization only from other creatures of its own species. Our orderly Mother Nature has thus plainly predetermined the way by which any organic power should come into existence (Wirksamkeit); and thus nothing can escape from its once-determined form" (Bk. V., ch. 3).

It is hard to see how any reader of Herder's generation could have understood these utterances, when taken all together, in any other sense than as an assertion of the essential immutability of species and a denial of man's descent from simian or any other animal ancestors. It would appear then, that Herder never fully recognized that—as Kant put it—'the similarity of form in animals (such that they seem to be make after a common prototype) confirms the supposition that they have an actual blood-relationship, through descent from a common parent.' How, in the absence of such an hypothesis, Herder would have explained the gradual appearance of progressively higher forms is, undeniably, somewhat incomprehensible. But the truth is that his whole treatment of the subject is poetical, vague and not very careful of consistency, rather than explicit, definite and scientific. The theory of descent was, at the time he wrote, almost a commonplace of current biological discussion; but his attitude towards it was certainly ambiguous, and apparently hostile. The author of the 'Ideen zur Geschichte der Menschheit' may almost be called the father of the modern philosophy of history; but he can not unqualifiedly be called a pioneer of modern evolutionist biology.

IV. Monboddo.—The author of the work that called forth Herder's mingled admiration and criticism, James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, has been a good deal neglected by the historians of evolutionism; and, in spite of the fact that he was perhaps the first to make widely familiar to the British public the doctrine that man is descended from ape-like ancestors, it is doubtless true that his can not be considered a very serious contribution to the progress of zoological knowledge. This learned, original and whimsical judge is a highly picturesque and interesting figure in the literary history of Scotland in the eighteenth century. He was one of the conspicuous leaders of the intellectual society of Edinburgh at a time when the Scotch Athens—even while Jacobite uprisings still threatened—was one of the most notable seats of scientific and philosophical inquiry in Europe. In the circle of Monboddo's intimates were such men as David Hume; Adam Smith; Hutton, the founder of modern geology; Black, originator of pneumatic chemistry and of the theory of latent heat; Robertson, the historian; Lord Kames; Dugald Stewart, and, among the men of letters, Home—a dramatist whom Monboddo preferred to Shakespeare—and Fergusson. Lord Monboddo played the host to Burns in Edinburgh, and to Johnson at his ancestral country-seat—the conversation of the two great men on this latter occasion being recorded with great gusto by Boswell, who dearly loved to see the sparks fly at the contact of opposing minds. In order to promote intellectual conviviality among his learned fellow townsmen, Monboddo introduced the innovation of late dinners—for his literary suppers, we are told by one who attended them, 'had all the variety and abundance of a principal meal,' and were modeled after the symposia of the ancients. In this society, so distinguished for scientific attainments and for original theories in natural science and philosophy, Monboddo had the reputation of being one of the most learned and most original. His speculations about the origin of language were only less notable, as a piece of pioneering in a new science, than was the work of Smith, of Hutton and of Black; and he had the insight to suggest—though only in a private letter—the theory of the common descent of the European tongues and Sanscrit, a language then newly made known to the Occident by his correspondent, Sir William Jones. But it was felt by most of Monboddo's British contemporaries that he pushed originality in theorizing to the point of fantastic absurdity when he declared that civilized man is akin to the orang-outang and a descendant of progenitors that lacked speech and possibly had tails. The Judge's chapters on the orang-outang sent learned Britain into inextinguishable laughter, and many were the poor witticisms made at his expense. The most vigorous and most amusing of all his critics was the great representative of a commonsense conservatism, Dr. Johnson. Gibes and invectives directed against the author of so ludicrous and so scandalous a doctrine are constantly recurring in the pages of Boswell: "Sir, it is as possible that the orang-outang does not speak, as that he speaks. However, I shall not contest the point; I should have thought it impossible to find a Monboddo; yet he exists." "It is a pity," said Johnson again, "to see Lord Monboddo publish such notions as he has done; a man of sense and of so much elegant learning. There would be nothing in a fool doing it; we should only laugh; but when a wise man does it, we are sorry. Other people have strange notions, but they conceal them; if they have tails, they hide them; but Monboddo is as jealous of his tail as a squirrel." But Johnson's final objection is expressed in these words: "Sir, it is all conjecture about a thing useless even if it were known to be true. . . . Conjecture as to things useful is good; but conjecture as to what it would be useless to know, such as whether man went on all four, is very idle." The intellectual history of the century that followed constitutes an ironical commentary on this dictum of the great eighteenth century conservative.

Monboddo's opinions concerning the descent of man are expressed most at length in the first volume of the 'Origin and Progress of Language,' published in 1773; some further hints of them may be found here and there in the letters of Monboddo recently collected and edited by Professor Knight.[4] Those opinions are entirely incidental to his theory of language. Monboddo nowhere discusses the general biological question of the transformation of species, and possibly did not believe in the transformist doctrine as such—so that it is perhaps too much to call him, with Professor Knight, 'a virtual evolutionist, holding an honoured place between Lucretius and Darwin.' The main contention of his book concerns the evolution of man's language, not of man himself, and is to the effect that language can have arisen only after man had for some time lived in the political state, 'which state is not natural to man any more than the language to which it gave birth.' In order to establish such a theory it is desirable, if not essential, to point to instances of societies of men living without language; and it is at this juncture that Monboddo meets the difficulty by bringing forward his doctrine about the orang-outang.

That doctrine is that man and the orang-outang are one and the same species. What the orang-outang is our ancestors were. The orang-outang and chimpanzee are varieties of men that have failed to acquire the art of speech; or—what comes to the same thing, for Monboddo—our ancestors were a community of orang-outangs who succeeded in acquiring that art. It is evident that in such a contention a belief in transformation is not necessarily implied; in fact, in order to establish our descent from the orang, Monboddo seems to think it necessary to establish strict identity of species—thus implying that species can not descend from other species. In the 'Origin and Progress' he explicitly declines to generalize his doctrine. "Though I hold the orang-outang to be of our species, it must not be supposed that I think the monkey or ape, with or without a tail, participates of our nature; on the contrary, I maintain that however much his form may resemble ours, he is, as Linnæus says of the Troglodyte, nee nostri generis nec sanguinis." In one of the letters in Professor Knight's volume, however, Monboddo writes: "I think the simian race is of kin to us, though not so nearly related (as the orang-outang). For the large monkeys and baboons appear to me to stand in the same relation to us that the ass does to the horse, or our gold-finch to the canarybird." What he conceived that relation to be, he does not tell us; but it may fairly be supposed that he was thinking of collateral descent from a common ancestral species.

Monboddo's statements of his position, and his arguments for it, are made somewhat ambiguous by the fact that he, like Herder, is not altogether clear as to what constitutes identity of species, though he notes Buffon's definition, which makes the only test of difference of species in animals to be the infertility of their offspring. Monboddo thinks we can find other criteria that are as conclusive and easier to apply. We are entitled, he holds, to assign to the same species all animals which possess in common a large—but an undefined—number of similar characteristics, provided that these characteristics appear to be essential and 'such as have great influence upon their nature.' Now the orang-outang greatly resembles man in his external form, his anatomical structure, and even in his 'inward principle,' the 'natural habits and dispositions of the mind.' Upon this last point of resemblance Monboddo particularly likes to dilate; it seems to be his principal criterion of unity of species. The reason why the baboons and other monkeys are, in the published treatise, denied kinship with us is because, similar to us in other respects, they lack this intellectual resemblance. Of the intellectual parts and the charm of temperament of our brother the orang, Lord Monboddo exhibits an extremely exalted opinion: "The orang-outang has the human intelligence, as much as can be expected in an animal living without civility or arts: he has a disposition of mind mild, docile and humane: he has the sentiments and affections peculiar to our species, such as the sense of modesty, of honor and of justice; and likewise an attachment and friendship to one individual so strong in some instances that one friend will not survive the other: they live in society and have some arts of life; for they build huts and use an artificial weapon for attack and defence, viz., a stick; which no animal merely brute is known to do. They show also counsel and design, by carrying off creatures of our species for certain purposes, and keeping them for years together without doing them any harm; which no brute creature was ever known to do. They appear likewise to have some kind of civility among them, and to practice certain rites, such as that of burying the dead." The female orang-outang, it appears upon the testimony of Bontius the Batavian physician, is modest to the point of prudery; and some of the species are of so fine a sensibility that they shed tears copiously upon being parted from persons to whom they have become attached.

Monboddo 's arguments for his theory come somewhat nearer to the proper homological proofs of evolution when he points out that the os coccygis is plainly nothing but a rudimentary and abbreviated tail, and that the civilized man thus carries about upon him a tell-tale member which hopelessly betrays the secret of his ancestry. Monboddo seems to opine that the loss of the tail by mankind has been comparatively recent, and that it is by no means universal; in justification of this opinion he adduces a number of travelers' stories that are more diverting than plausible. There is, for example, the story told by a Swedish sailor—whose credibility was vouched for by Linnæus—who saw on one of the Nicobar Islands 'a race of men that trafficked and used the art of navigation, who had tails like those of cats, and which they moved in the same manner.' This narration is perhaps exaggerated, Monboddo admits; but 'that there are men with tails is a fact so well attested that it can not be doubted.' For, setting aside all travelers' reports, and the testimony given by the ancients to the existence of races of homines caudati, he himself had known of a Scotch schoolmaster in Inverness who had a tail half a foot long. The man prudently kept his unusual endowment concealed during his lifetime, but it was discovered after his death:—of all of which Lord Monboddo offers to bring legal evidence. The superficial and the dogmatists, he adds, will no doubt think these stories very ridiculous, 'but the philosopher, who is more disposed to inquire than to laugh and deride, will not reject it at once as a thing incredible that there should be such a variety in our species, as well as in the simian tribe which is so near akin to us.'

All these arguments a posteriori are really irrelevant to Monboddo's main thesis about the relation of man to the orang-outang; since those particular 'simian tribes' with which alone he declares man to be akin (i. e., satyrus and troglodytes niger) are destitute of tails, and have an even more rudimentary coccyx than man. The fact that men had tails would, from his own standpoint, rather tend to show that man and orang belonged to different species, than that they belonged to the same. Of this Monboddo seems to be not unaware, for he introduces his stories of tailed men as a sort of digression, and not as a part of his principal argument. As it stands, his discussion about tails seems rather to resemble the caudal vertebræ with which it is concerned—it suggests a good deal, but is not designed to bear any of the weight of proof, and is a relatively functionless appendage to the main body of his theory.

The comparative crudity and superficiality of Monboddo's speculations about the descent of man are one indication of the fact that, down to the end of the eighteenth century, the country of Darwin had made far less progress in this part of biology than had France and Germany. For Monboddo's book seems to be the nearest approach to an assertion of the mutability of species and the derivation of man from animal ancestors which was made by any generally read English writer, until the 'Zoönomia' of Dr. Erasmus Darwin appeared in 1794.

  1. Osborn cites only another and less explicit passage from Diderot; and Mr. John Morley ('Diderot and the Encyclopædists'), although he notes a hint of the idea of natural selection in the 'Lettre sur les Aveugles' (1749), says nothing about the marked evolutionism of the 'Pensées de l'Interprétation de la Nature.'
  2. Herder als Vorgänger Darwin's; cf. the same writer's monograph on Herder in 'Der neue Plutarch, VI.' My citation is from the latter work; the former is not accessible to me.
  3. This passage is given in part in 'From the Greeks to Darwin'—being the only citation from Herder there given; but the translation is singularly inaccurate, and in one place makes Herder appear to say the opposite of his real meaning.
  4. 'Lord Monboddo and his Contemporaries,' London and New York, 1900. My citations from Monboddo are taken from the second edition of the 'Origin and Progress,' Edinburgh, 1774.