The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 185 of 188

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.”

Again, the following remarkable passage occurs in the postscript of a letter addressed to Sir John Herschel in 1836:–

“In regard to the origination of new species, I am very glad to find that you think it probable that it may be carried on through the intervention of intermediate causes. I left this rather to be inferred, not thinking it worth while to offend a certain class of persons by embodying in words what would only be a speculation.” (In the same sense, see the letter to Whewell, March 7, 1837, volume ii., page 5:–

“In regard to this last subject [the changes from one set of animal and vegetable species to another]…you remember what Herschel said in his letter to me. If I had stated as plainly as he has done the possibility of the introduction or origination of fresh species being a natural, in contradistinction to a miraculous process, I should have raised a host of prejudices against me, which are unfortunately opposed at every step to any philosopher who attempts to address the public on these mysterious subjects.” See also letter to Sedgwick, January 12, 1838 ii. page 35.) He goes on to refer to the criticisms which have been directed against him on the ground that, by leaving species to be originated by miracle, he is inconsistent with his own doctrine of uniformitarianism; and he leaves it to be understood that he had not replied, on the ground of his general objection to controversy.

Lyell’s contemporaries were not without some inkling of his esoteric doctrine. Whewell’s ‘History of the Inductive Sciences,’ whatever its philosophical value, is always worth reading and always interesting, if under no other aspect than that of an evidence of the speculative limits within which a highly-placed divine might, at that time, safely range at will. In the course of his discussion of uniformitarianism, the encyclopaedic Master of Trinity observes:–

“Mr. Lyell, indeed, has spoken of an hypothesis that ‘the successive creation of species may constitute a regular part of the economy of nature,’ but he has nowhere, I think, so described this process as to make it appear in what department of science we are to place the hypothesis. Are these new species created by the production, at long intervals, of an offspring different in species from the parents? Or are the species so created produced without parents? Are they gradually evolved from some embryo substance? Or do they suddenly start from the ground, as in the creation of the poet?…

“Some selection of one of these forms of the hypothesis, rather than the others, with evidence for the selection, is requisite to entitle us to place it among the known causes of change, which in this chapter we are considering. The bare conviction that a creation of species has taken place, whether once or many times, so long as it is unconnected with our organical sciences, is a tenet of Natural Theology rather than of Physical Philosophy.” (Whewell’s ‘History,’ volume iii. page 639-640 (Edition 2, 1847.))

The earlier part of this criticism appears perfectly just and appropriate; but, from the concluding paragraph, Whewell evidently imagines that by “creation” Lyell means a preternatural intervention of the Deity; whereas the letter to Herschel shows that, in his own mind, Lyell meant natural causation; and I see no reason to doubt (The following passages in Lyell’s letters appear to me decisive on this point:–

To Darwin, October 3, 1859 (ii, 325), on first reading the ‘Origin.’

“I have long seen most clearly that if any concession is made, all that you claim in your concluding pages will follow.

“It is this which has made me so long hesitate, always feeling that the case of Man and his Races, and of other animals, and that of plants, is one and the same, and that if a vera causa be admitted for one instant, [instead] of a purely unknown and imaginary one, such as the word ‘creation,’ all the consequences must follow.”

To Darwin, March 15, 1863 (volume ii. page 365).

“I remember that it was the conclusion he [Lamarck] came to about man that fortified me thirty years ago against the great impression which his arguments at first made on my mind, all the greater because Constant Prevost, a pupil of Cuvier’s forty years ago, told me his conviction ‘that Cuvier thought species not real, but that science could not advance without assuming that they were so.’”

To Hooker, March 9, 1863 (volume ii. page 361), in reference to Darwin’s feeling about the ‘Antiquity of Man.’

“He [Darwin] seems much disappointed that I do not go farther with him, or do not speak out more. I can only say that I have spoken out to the full extent of my present convictions, and even beyond my state of feeling as to man’s unbroken descent from the brutes, and I find I am half converting not a few who were in arms against Darwin, and are even now against Huxley.” He speaks of having had to abandon “old and long cherished ideas, which constituted the charm to me of the theoretical part of the science in my earlier day, when I believed with Pascal in the theory, as Hallam terms it, of ‘the arch-angel ruined.’”

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