The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 186 of 188

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.’”

See the same sentiment in the letter to Darwin, March 11, 1863, page 363:–

“I think the old ‘creation’ is almost as much required as ever, but of course it takes a new form if Lamarck’s views improved by yours are adopted.”) that, if Sir Charles could have avoided the inevitable corollary of the pithecoid origin of man–for which, to the end of his life, he entertained a profound antipathy–he would have advocated the efficiency of causes now in operation to bring about the condition of the organic world, as stoutly as he championed that doctrine in reference to inorganic nature.

The fact is, that a discerning eye might have seen that some form or other of the doctrine of transmutation was inevitable, from the time when the truth enunciated by William Smith that successive strata are characterised by different kinds of fossil remains, became a firmly established law of nature. No one has set forth the speculative consequences of this generalisation better than the historian of the ‘Inductive Sciences’:–

“But the study of geology opens to us the spectacle of many groups of species which have, in the course of the earth’s history, succeeded each other at vast intervals of time; one set of animals and plants disappearing, as it would seem, from the face of our planet, and others, which did not before exist, becoming the only occupants of the globe. And the dilemma then presents itself to us anew:–either we must accept the doctrine of the transmutation of species, and must suppose that the organized species of one geological epoch were transmuted into those of another by some long-continued agency of natural causes; or else, we must believe in many successive acts of creation and extinction of species, out of the common course of nature; acts which, therefore, we may properly call miraculous.” (Whewell’s ‘History of the Inductive Sciences.’ Edition ii., 1847, volume iii. pages 624-625. See for the author’s verdict, pages 638-39.)

Dr. Whewell decides in favour of the latter conclusion. And if any one had plied him with the four questions which he puts to Lyell in the passage already cited, all that can be said now is that he would certainly have rejected the first. But would he really have had the courage to say that a Rhinoceros tichorhinus, for instance, “was produced without parents;” or was “evolved from some embryo substance;” or that it suddenly started from the ground like Milton’s lion “pawing to get free his hinder parts.” I permit myself to doubt whether even the Master of Trinity’s well-tried courage–physical, intellectual, and moral–would have been equal to this feat. No doubt the sudden concurrence of half-a-ton of inorganic molecules into a live rhinoceros is conceivable, and therefore may be possible. But does such an event lie sufficiently within the bounds of probability to justify the belief in its occurrence on the strength of any attainable, or, indeed, imaginable, evidence?

In view of the assertion (often repeated in the early days of the opposition to Darwin) that he had added nothing to Lamarck, it is very interesting to observe that the possibility of a fifth alternative, in addition to the four he has stated, has not dawned upon Dr. Whewell’s mind. The suggestion that new species may result from the selective action of external conditions upon the variations from their specific type which individuals present–and which we call “spontaneous,” because we are ignorant of their causation–is as wholly unknown to the historian of scientific ideas as it was to biological specialists before 1858. But that suggestion is the central idea of the ‘Origin of Species,’ and contains the quintessence of Darwinism.

Thus, looking back into the past, it seems to me that my own position of critical expectancy was just and reasonable, and must have been taken up, on the same grounds, by many other persons. If Agassiz told me that the forms of life which had successively tenanted the globe were the incarnations of successive thoughts of the Deity; and that he had wiped out one set of these embodiments by an appalling geological catastrophe as soon as His ideas took a more advanced shape, I found myself not only unable to admit the accuracy of the deductions from the facts of paleontology, upon which this astounding hypothesis was founded, but I had to confess my want of any means of testing the correctness of his explanation of them. And besides that, I could by no means see what the explanation explained. Neither did it help me to be told by an eminent anatomist that species had succeeded one another in time, in virtue of “a continuously operative creational law.” That seemed to me to be no more than saying that species had succeeded one another, in the form of a vote-catching resolution, with “law” to please the man of science, and “creational” to draw the orthodox. So I took refuge in that “thatige Skepsis” which Goethe has so well defined; and, reversing the apostolic precept to be all things to all men, I usually defended the tenability of the received doctrines, when I had to do with the transmutationists; and stood up for the possibility of transmutation among the orthodox–thereby, no doubt, increasing an already current, but quite undeserved, reputation for needless combativeness.

I remember, in the course of my first interview with Mr. Darwin, expressing my belief in the sharpness of the lines of demarcation between natural groups and in the absence of transitional forms, with all the confidence of youth and imperfect knowledge. I was not aware, at that time, that he had then been many years brooding over the species-question; and the humorous smile which accompanied his gentle answer, that such was not altogether his view, long haunted and puzzled me. But it would seem that four or five years’ hard work had enabled me to understand what it meant; for Lyell (‘Life and Letters,’ volume ii. page 212.), writing to Sir Charles Bunbury (under date of April 30, 1856), says:–

“When Huxley, Hooker, and Wollaston were at Darwin’s last week they (all four of them) ran a tilt against species–further, I believe, than they are prepared to go.”

I recollect nothing of this beyond the fact of meeting Mr. Wollaston; and except for Sir Charles’ distinct assurance as to “all four,” I should have thought my “outrecuidance” was probably a counterblast to Wollaston’s conservatism. With regard to Hooker, he was already, like Voltaire’s Habbakuk, “capable du tout” in the way of advocating Evolution.

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