The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 184 of 188

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.

In those days I had never even heard of Treviranus’ ‘Biologie.’ However, I had studied Lamarck attentively and I had read the ‘Vestiges’ with due care; but neither of them afforded me any good ground for changing my negative and critical attitude. As for the ‘Vestiges,’ I confess that the book simply irritated me by the prodigious ignorance and thoroughly unscientific habit of mind manifested by the writer. If it had any influence on me at all, it set me against Evolution; and the only review I ever have qualms of conscience about, on the ground of needless savagery, is one I wrote on the ‘Vestiges’ while under that influence.

With respect to the ‘Philosophie Zoologique,’ it is no reproach to Lamarck to say that the discussion of the Species question in that work, whatever might be said for it in 1809, was miserably below the level of the knowledge of half a century later. In that interval of time the elucidation of the structure of the lower animals and plants had given rise to wholly new conceptions of their relations; histology and embryology, in the modern sense, had been created; physiology had been reconstituted; the facts of distribution, geological and geographical, had been prodigiously multiplied and reduced to order. To any biologist whose studies had carried him beyond mere species-mongering in 1850, one-half of Lamarck’s arguments were obsolete and the other half erroneous, or defective, in virtue of omitting to deal with the various classes of evidence which had been brought to light since his time. Moreover his one suggestion as to the cause of the gradual modification of species–effort excited by change of conditions–was, on the face of it, inapplicable to the whole vegetable world. I do not think that any impartial judge who reads the ‘Philosophie Zoologique’ now, and who afterwards takes up Lyell’s trenchant and effectual criticism (published as far back as 1830), will be disposed to allot to Lamarck a much higher place in the establishment of biological evolution than that which Bacon assigns to himself in relation to physical science generally,–buccinator tantum. (Erasmus Darwin first promulgated Lamarck’s fundamental conceptions, and, with greater logical consistency, he had applied them to plants. But the advocates of his claims have failed to show that he, in any respect, anticipated the central idea of the ‘Origin of Species.’)

But, by a curious irony of fate, the same influence which led me to put as little faith in modern speculations on this subject, as in the venerable traditions recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis, was perhaps more potent than any other in keeping alive a sort of pious conviction that Evolution, after all, would turn out true. I have recently read afresh the first edition of the ‘Principles of Geology’; and when I consider that this remarkable book had been nearly thirty years in everybody’s hands, and that it brings home to any reader of ordinary intelligence a great principle and a great fact–the principle, that the past must be explained by the present, unless good cause be shown to the contrary; and the fact, that, so far as our knowledge of the past history of life on our globe goes, no such cause can be shown (The same principle and the same fact guide the result from all sound historical investigation. Grote’s ‘History of Greece’ is a product of the same intellectual movement as Lyell’s ‘Principles.’)–I cannot but believe that Lyell, for others, as for myself, was the chief agent for smoothing the road for Darwin. For consistent uniformitarianism postulates evolution as much in the organic as in the inorganic world. The origin of a new species by other than ordinary agencies would be a vastly greater “catastrophe” than any of those which Lyell successfully eliminated from sober geological speculation.

In fact, no one was better aware of this than Lyell himself. (Lyell, with perfect right, claims this position for himself. He speaks of having “advocated a law of continuity even in the organic world, so far as possible without adopting Lamarck’s theory of transmutation”…

“But while I taught that as often as certain forms of animals and plants disappeared, for reasons quite intelligible to us, others took their place by virtue of a causation which was beyond our comprehension; it remained for Darwin to accumulate proof that there is no break between the incoming and the outgoing species, that they are the work of evolution, and not of special creation…

“I had certainly prepared the way in this country, in six editions of my work before the ‘Vestiges of Creation’ appeared in 1842 [1844], for the reception of Darwin’s gradual and insensible evolution of species.”–‘Life and Letters,’ Letter to Haeckel, volume ii. page 436. November 23, 1868.) If one reads any of the earlier editions of the ‘Principles’ carefully (especially by the light of the interesting series of letters recently published by Sir Charles Lyell’s biographer), it is easy to see that, with all his energetic opposition to Lamarck, on the one hand, and to the ideal quasi-progressionism of Agassiz, on the other, Lyell, in his own mind, was strongly disposed to account for the origination of all past and present species of living things by natural causes. But he would have liked, at the same time, to keep the name of creation for a natural process which he imagined to be incomprehensible.

In a letter addressed to Mantell (dated March 2, 1827), Lyell speaks of having just read Lamarck; he expresses his delight at Lamarck’s theories, and his personal freedom from any objection based on theological grounds. And though he is evidently alarmed at the pithecoid origin of man involved in Lamarck’s doctrine, he observes:–

“But, after all, what changes species may really undergo! How impossible will it be to distinguish and lay down a line, beyond which some of the so-called extinct species have never passed into recent ones.”

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.)