The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 183 of 188

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.”

“Until the facts of Nature are shown to have been mistaken by those who have collected them, and that they have a different meaning from that now generally assigned to them, I shall therefore consider the transmutation theory as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.”–Silliman’s ‘Journal,’ July, 1860, pages 143, 154. Extract from the 3rd volume of ‘Contributions to the Natural History of the United States.’); 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 paleontogist 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. (“I see no serious objections to the formation of varieties by natural selection in the existing world, and that, so far as earlier epochs are concerned, this law may be assumed to explain the origin of closely allied species, supposing for this purpose a very long period of time.”

“With regard to simple varieties and closely allied species, I believe that Mr. Darwin’s theory may explain many things, and throw a great light upon numerous questions.”–‘Sur l’Origine de l’Espece. Par Charles Darwin.’ ‘Archives des Sc. de la Bibliotheque Universelle de Geneve,’ pages 242, 243, Mars 1860.) 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. Wallace was far away in the Malay Archipelago; but, apart from his direct share in the promulgation of the theory of natural selection, no enumeration of the influences at work, at the time I am speaking of, would be complete without the mention of his powerful essay ‘On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species,’ which was published in 1855. On reading it afresh, I have been astonished to recollect how small was the impression it made.

In France, the influence of Elie de Beaumont and of Flourens–the former of whom is said to have “damned himself to everlasting fame” by inventing the nickname of “la science moussante” for Evolutionism (One is reminded of the effect of another small academic epigram. The so-called vertebral theory of the skull is said to have been nipped in the bud in France by the whisper of an academician to his neighbour, that, in that case, one’s head was a “vertebre pensante.”),–to say nothing of the ill-will of other powerful members of the Institut, produced for a long time the effect of a conspiracy of silence; and many years passed before the Academy redeemed itself from the reproach that the name of Darwin was not to be found on the list of its members. However, an accomplished writer, out of the range of academical influences, M. Laugel, gave an excellent and appreciative notice of the ‘Origin’ in the ‘Revue des Deux Mondes.’ Germany took time to consider; Bronn produced a slightly Bowdlerized translation of the ‘Origin’; and ‘Kladderadatsch’ cut his jokes upon the ape origin of man; but I do not call to mind that any scientific notability declared himself publicly in 1860. (However, the man who stands next to Darwin in his influence on modern biologists, K.E. von Baer, wrote to me, in August 1860, expressing his general assent to evolutionist views. His phrase, “J’ai enonce les memes idees…que M. Darwin” (volume ii.) is shown by his subsequent writings to mean no more than this.) None of us dreamed that, in the course of a few years, the strength (and perhaps I may add the weakness) of “Darwinismus” would have its most extensive and most brilliant illustrations in the land of learning. If a foreigner may presume to speculate on the cause of this curious interval of silence, I fancy it was that one moiety of the German biologists were orthodox at any price, and the other moiety as distinctly heterodox. The latter were evolutionists, a priori, already, and they must have felt the disgust natural to deductive philosophers at being offered an inductive and experimental foundation for a conviction which they had reached by a shorter cut. It is undoubtedly trying to learn that, though your conclusions may be all right, your reasons for them are all wrong, or, at any rate, insufficient.

On the whole, then, the supporters of Mr. Darwin’s views in 1860 were numerically extremely insignificant. There is not the slightest doubt that, if a general council of the Church scientific had been held at that time, we should have been condemned by an overwhelming majority. And there is as little doubt that, if such a council gathered now, the decree would be of an exactly contrary nature. It would indicate a lack of sense, as well as of modesty, to ascribe to the men of that generation less capacity or less honesty than their successors possess. What, then, are the causes which led instructed and fair-judging men of that day to arrive at a judgment so different from that which seems just and fair to those who follow them? That is really one of the most interesting of all questions connected with the history of science, and I shall try to answer it. I am afraid that in order to do so I must run the risk of appearing egotistical. However, if I tell my own story it is only because I know it better than that of other people.

I think I must have read the ‘Vestiges’ before I left England in 1846; but, if I did, the book made very little impression upon me, and I was not brought into serious contact with the ‘Species’ question until after 1850. At that time, I had long done with the Pentateuchal cosmogony, which had been impressed upon my childish understanding as Divine truth, with all the authority of parents and instructors, and from which it had cost me many a struggle to get free. But my mind was unbiassed in respect of any doctrine which presented itself, if it professed to be based on purely philosophical and scientific reasoning. It seemed to me then (as it does now) that “creation,” in the ordinary sense of the word, is perfectly conceivable. I find no difficulty in imagining that, at some former period, this universe was not in existence; and that it made its appearance in six days (or instantaneously, if that is preferred), in consequence of the volition of some pre-existent Being. Then, as now, the so-called a priori arguments against Theism; and, given a Deity, against the possibility of creative acts, appeared to me to be devoid of reasonable foundation. I had not then, and I have not now, the smallest a priori objection to raise to the account of the creation of animals and plants given in ‘Paradise Lost,’ in which Milton so vividly embodies the natural sense of Genesis. Far be it from me to say that it is untrue because it is impossible. I confine myself to what must be regarded as a modest and reasonable request for some particle of evidence that the existing species of animals and plants did originate in that way, as a condition of my belief in a statement which appears to me to be highly improbable.

And, by way of being perfectly fair, I had exactly the same answer to give to the evolutionists of 1851-8. Within the ranks of the biologists, at that time, I met with nobody, except Dr. Grant, of University College, who had a word to say for Evolution–and his advocacy was not calculated to advance the cause. Outside these ranks, the only person known to me whose knowledge and capacity compelled respect, and who was, at the same time, a thorough-going evolutionist, was Mr. Herbert Spencer, whose acquaintance I made, I think, in 1852, and then entered into the bonds of a friendship which, I am happy to think, has known no interruption. Many and prolonged were the battles we fought on this topic. But even my friend’s rare dialectic skill and copiousness of apt illustration could not drive me from my agnostic position. I took my stand upon two grounds: firstly, that up to that time, the evidence in favour of transmutation was wholly insufficient; and secondly, that no suggestion respecting the causes of the transmutation assumed, which had been made, was in any way adequate to explain the phenomena. Looking back at the state of knowledge at that time, I really do not see that any other conclusion was justifiable.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)