The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 182 of 188

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 a priori philosophers.

I do not think any candid or instructed person will deny the truth of that which has just been asserted. He may hate the very name of Evolution, and may deny its pretensions as vehemently as a Jacobite denied those of George the Second. But there it is–not only as solidly seated as the Hanoverian dynasty, but happily independent of Parliamentary sanction–and the dullest antagonists have come to see that they have to deal with an adversary whose bones are to be broken by no amount of bad words.

Even the theologians have almost ceased to pit the plain meaning of Genesis against the no less plain meaning of Nature. Their more candid, or more cautious, representatives have given up dealing with Evolution as if it were a damnable heresy, and have taken refuge in one of two courses. Either they deny that Genesis was meant to teach scientific truth, and thus save the veracity of the record at the expense of its authority; or they expend their energies in devising the cruel ingenuities of the reconciler, and torture texts in the vain hope of making them confess the creed of Science. But when the peine forte et dure is over, the antique sincerity of the venerable sufferer always reasserts itself. Genesis is honest to the core, and professes to be no more than it is, a repository of venerable traditions of unknown origin, claiming no scientific authority and possessing none.

As my pen finishes these passages, I can but be amused to think what a terrible hubbub would have been made (in truth was made) about any similar expressions of opinion a quarter of a century ago. In fact, the contrast between the present condition of public opinion upon the Darwinian question; between the estimation in which Darwin’s views are now held in the scientific world; between the acquiescence, or at least quiescence, of the theologians of the self-respecting order at the present day and the outburst of antagonism on all sides in 1858-9, when the new theory respecting the origin of species first became known to the older generation to which I belong, is so startling that, except for documentary evidence, I should be sometimes inclined to think my memories dreams. I have a great respect for the younger generation myself (they can write our lives, and ravel out all our follies, if they choose to take the trouble, by and by), and I should be glad to be assured that the feeling is reciprocal; but I am afraid that the story of our dealings with Darwin may prove a great hindrance to that veneration for our wisdom which I should like them to display. We have not even the excuse that, thirty years ago, Mr. Darwin was an obscure novice, who had no claims on our attention. On the contrary, his remarkable zoological and geological investigations had long given him an assured position among the most eminent and original investigators of the day; while his charming ‘Voyage of a Naturalist’ had justly earned him a wide-spread reputation among the general public. I doubt if there was any man then living who had a better right to expect that anything he might choose to say on such a question as the Origin of Species would be listened to with profound attention, and discussed with respect; and there was certainly no man whose personal character should have afforded a better safeguard against attacks, instinct with malignity and spiced with shameless impertinences.

Yet such was the portion of one of the kindest and truest men that it was ever my good fortune to know; and years had to pass away before misrepresentation, ridicule, and denunciation, ceased to be the most notable constituents of the majority of the multitudinous criticisms of his work which poured from the press. I am loth to rake any of these ancient scandals from their well-deserved oblivion; but I must make good a statement which may seem overcharged to the present generation, and there is no piece justificative more apt for the purpose, or more worthy of such dishonour, than the article in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for July, 1860. (I was not aware when I wrote these passages that the authorship of the article had been publicly acknowledged. Confession unaccompanied by penitence, however, affords no ground for mitigation of judgment; and the kindliness with which Mr. Darwin speaks of his assailant, Bishop Wilberforce (vol.ii.), is so striking an exemplification of his singular gentleness and modesty, that it rather increases one’s indignation against the presumption of his critic.) Since Lord Brougham assailed Dr. Young, the world has seen no such specimen of the insolence of a shallow pretender to a Master in Science as this remarkable production, in which one of the most exact of observers, most cautious of reasoners, and most candid of expositors, of this or any other age, is held up to scorn as a “flighty” person, who endeavours “to prop up his utterly rotten fabric of guess and speculation,” and whose “mode of dealing with nature” is reprobated as “utterly dishonourable to Natural Science.” And all this high and mighty talk, which would have been indecent in one of Mr. Darwin’s equals, proceeds from a writer whose want of intelligence, or of conscience, or of both, is so great, that, by way of an objection to Mr. Darwin’s views, he can ask, “Is it credible that all favourable varieties of turnips are tending to become men;” who is so ignorant of paleontology, that he can talk of the “flowers and fruits” of the plants of the carboniferous epoch; of comparative anatomy, that he can gravely affirm the poison apparatus of the venomous snakes to be “entirely separate from the ordinary laws of animal life, and peculiar to themselves;” of the rudiments of physiology, that he can ask, “what advantage of life could alter the shape of the corpuscles into which the blood can be evaporated?” Nor does the reviewer fail to flavour this outpouring of preposterous incapacity with a little stimulation of the odium theologicum. Some inkling of the history of the conflicts between Astronomy, Geology, and Theology, leads him to keep a retreat open by the proviso that he cannot “consent to test the truth of Natural Science by the word of Revelation;” but, for all that, he devotes pages to the exposition of his conviction that Mr. Darwin’s theory “contradicts the revealed relation of the creation to its Creator,” and is “inconsistent with the fulness of his glory.”

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 (“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.”

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