Charles Darwin : His Place in Modern Science – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era

Richard Wagner : Modern Music
John Ruskin : Modern Art
Herbert Spencer : The Evolutionary Philosophy
Charles Darwin : His Place in Modern Science
John Ericsson : Navies of War and Commerce
Li Hung Chang : The Far East
David Livingstone : African Development
Sir Austen Henry Layard : Modern Archaeology
Michael Faraday : Electricity and Magnetism
Rudolf Virchow : Medicine and Surgery

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era
John Lord

Topics Covered
The Darwinian hypothesis a rational and widely accepted explanation of the
genesis of organic life on the earth.
Darwin; birth, parentage, and education.
Naturalist on the voyage of the “Beagle”.
His work on “Coral Reefs” and the “Geology of South America”.
Observations and experiments on the transmutation of species.
Contemporaneous work on the same lines by Alfred R. Wallace.
“The Origin of Species” (1859).
His “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” (1868).
“The Descent of Man” (1871).
On the “Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals” (1872).
“Fertilization of Orchids” (1862), “The Effects of Cross
and Self-Fertilization” (1876), and “The Formation of
Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms” (1881).
Ill-health, death, and burial.
Personality, tastes, and mental characteristics.
His beliefs and agnostic attitude toward religion.
His prime postulate, that species have been modified during a long course of descent.
Antagonistic views on the immutability of species.
His theory of natural selection: that all animal and plant life has a common
progenitor, difference in their forms arising primarily from beneficial variations.
Enunciates in the “Descent of Man” the great principle of Evolution, and
the common kinship of man and the lower animals.
Biological evidence to sustain this view.
Man’s moral qualities, and the social instinct of animals.
Religious beliefs not innate, nor instinctive.
Bearing of this on belief in the immortality of the soul.
As a scientist Darwin concerned only with truth; general acceptance of his theory
of the origin of species.

Charles Darwin : His Place in Modern Science

By Mayo W. Hazeltine

There is no doubt that, by the judgment of a large majority of scientists, the place of pre-eminence in the history of science during the nineteenth century should be assigned to Charles Robert Darwin. The theory associated with his name deserves to be called epoch-making. The Darwinian hypothesis, indeed, should not be confounded with the cosmic theory of Evolution which was formulated earlier and independently by Herbert Spencer, and supported by many arguments drawn from sources outside the field of natural history. The specific merit of the Darwinian hypothesis is that it furnishes a rational and almost universally accepted explanation of the mode in which changes have taken place in the development of organic life upon the earth. With the possible cosmical applications of his theory Darwin did not concern himself, though the bearing of his hypothesis upon wider problems was at once discerned, and has been set forth by Spencer and others. Before stating, however, the conclusions at which Darwin arrived in his “Origin of Species,” the “Descent of Man,” and other writings, and before indicating the extent to which these conclusions have been adopted, we should say a word about his interesting, amiable, and exemplary personality. Concerning his private life, there is no lack of information. He himself wrote an autobiographical sketch which has been amplified by his son Francis Darwin, and supplemented with numerous extracts from his correspondence.

Charles Robert Darwin was born at Shrewsbury, Feb. 12, 1809. His mother was a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the well-known Staffordshire potter, and his father, Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, was a son of Erasmus Darwin, celebrated in the eighteenth century as a physician, a naturalist, and a poet. It is a curious fact that in some of his speculations Erasmus Darwin anticipated the views touching the evolution of organic life subsequently announced by Lamarck, and ultimately incorporated by Charles Darwin in the theory that bears his name. The only taste kindred to natural history which Dr. Darwin possessed in common with his father and his son was a love of plants. The garden of his house in Shrewsbury, where Charles Darwin spent his boyhood, was filled with ornamental trees and shrubs, as well as fruit-trees.

When Charles Darwin was about eight years old, he was sent to a day-school, and it seems that even at this time his taste for natural history, and especially for collecting shells and minerals, was well developed. In the summer of 1818 he entered Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury, well known to the amateur makers of Latin verse by the volume entitled “Sabrinae Corolla.” He expressed the opinion in later life that nothing could have been worse for the development of his mind than this school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught except a little ancient biography and history. During his whole life he was singularly incapable of mastering any language. With respect to science, he continued collecting minerals with much zeal, and after reading White’s “Selborne” he took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds. Towards the close of his school life he became deeply interested in chemistry, and was allowed to assist his elder brother in some laboratory experiments. In October, 1825, he proceeded to Edinburgh University, where he stayed for two years. He found the lectures intolerably dull, with the exception of those on chemistry. Curiously enough, while walking one day with a fellow-undergraduate, the latter burst forth in high admiration of Lamarck and his views on evolution. So far as Darwin could afterwards judge, no impression was made upon his own mind. He had previously read his grandfather’s “Zoönomia,” in which similar views had been propounded, but no discernible effect had been produced upon him. Nevertheless, it is probable enough that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favored his upholding them under a different form in the “Origin of Species.”

While at Edinburgh, Darwin was a member of the Plinian Society, and read a couple of papers on some observations in natural history. After two sessions had been spent at Edinburgh, Darwin’s father perceived that the young man did not like the thought of being a physician, and proposed that he should become a clergyman. In pursuance of this proposal, he went to the University of Cambridge in 1828, and three years later took a B.A. degree. In his autobiography the opinion is expressed that at Cambridge his time was wasted. It was there, however, that he became intimately acquainted with Professor Henslow, a man of remarkable acquirements in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. During his last year at Cambridge Darwin read with care and interest Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative,” and Sir John Herschel’s “Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy.” These books influenced him profoundly, arousing in him a burning desire to make even the most humble contribution to the structure of natural science. At Henslow’s suggestion he began the study of biology, and in 1831 accompanied Professor Sedgwick in the latter’s investigations amongst the older rocks in North Wales.

It was Professor Henslow who secured for young Darwin the appointment of naturalist to the voyage of the “Beagle.” This voyage lasted from Dec. 27, 1831, to Oct. 2, 1836. The incidents of this voyage will be found set forth in Darwin’s “Public Journeys.” The observations made by him in geology, natural history, and botany gave him a place of considerable distinction among scientific men. In 1844 he published a series of observations on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of the “Beagle,” and two years later “Geological Observations on South America.” These two books, together with a volume entitled “Coral Reefs,” required four and a half years’ steady work. In October, 1846, he began the studies embodied in “Cirripedia” (barnacles). The outcome of these studies was published in two thick volumes. The time came when Darwin doubted whether the work was worth the consumption of the time employed, but probably it proved of use to him when he had to discuss in the “Origin of Species” the principles of a natural classification. From September, 1854, and during the four ensuing years, Darwin devoted himself to observing and experimenting in relation to the transmutation of species, and in arranging a huge pile of notes upon the subject. As early as October, 1838, it had occurred to him as probable, or at least possible, that amid the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on in the animal world, favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result would be the formation of new species.

It was not until June, 1842, however, that Darwin allowed himself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of his theory in thirty-five pages. This was enlarged two years later into one of 230 pages. Early in 1856, Sir Charles Lyell, the well-known geologist, advised him to write out his views upon the subject fully, and Darwin began to do so on a scale three or four times as extensive as that which was afterwards followed in his “Origin of Species.” He got through about half the work on this scale. His plans were overthrown, owing to the curious circumstance that, in the summer of 1858, Mr. Alfred E. Wallace, who was then in the Malay archipelago, sent him an essay “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type.” It turned out upon perusal that this essay contained exactly the same theory as that which Darwin was engaged in elaborating. Mr. Wallace expressed the wish that, if Darwin thought well of the essay, he should send it to Lyell. It was Sir Charles Lyell and Sir Joseph Hooker who insisted that Darwin should allow an abstract from his manuscript, together with a letter to Prof. Asa Gray, dated Sept. 5, 1857, to be published at the same time with Wallace’s essay. Darwin was unwilling to take this course, being then unacquainted with Mr. Wallace’s generous disposition. As a matter of fact, the joint productions excited very little attention, and the only published notice of them asserted that what was new in them was false, and that what was true was old. From the indifference evinced to the papers which first propounded the theory of natural selection, Darwin drew the inference that it is necessary for any new view to be explained at considerable length in order to obtain the public ear.

In September, 1858, Darwin, at the earnest advice of Lyell and Hooker, set to work to prepare a volume on the transmutation of species. The book cost him more than thirteen months’ hard labor. It was published in November, 1859, under the title of “Origin of Species.” This, which Darwin justly regarded as the chief work of his life, was from the first highly successful. The first edition was sold on the day of publication, and the book was presently translated into almost every European tongue. Darwin himself attributed the success of the “Origin” in large part to his having previously written two condensed sketches, and to his having finally made an abstract of a much larger manuscript, which itself was an abstract. By this winnowing process he had been enabled to select the more striking facts and conclusions. As to the current assertion that the “Origin” succeeded because the subject was in the air, or because men’s minds were prepared for it, Darwin was disposed to doubt whether this was strictly true. In previous years he had occasionally sounded not a few naturalists, and had never come across a single one who seemed to doubt about the permanence of species. Probably men’s minds were prepared in this sense, that innumerable well-verified facts were stored away in the memories of naturalists, ready to take their proper places as soon as any theory which would account for them should be strongly supported. Darwin himself thought that he gained much by a delay in publishing, from about 1839, when the “Darwinian” theory was clearly conceived, to 1859; and that he lost nothing, because he cared very little whether men attributed most originality to him or to Wallace.

Darwin’s “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” was begun in 1860, but was not published till 1868. The book was a big one, and cost him four years and two months’ hard labor. It gives in the first volume all his personal observations, and an immense number of facts, collected from various sources, about domestic productions, animal and vegetable. In the second volume the causes and laws of variation, inheritance, etc., are discussed. Towards the end of the work is propounded the hypothesis of Pangenesis, which has been generally rejected, and which the author himself looked upon as unverified, although by it a remarkable number of isolated facts could be connected together and rendered intelligible.

The “Descent of Man” was published in February, 1871. Touching this work, Darwin has told us that, as soon as he had become (in 1837 or 1838) convinced that species were mutable productions, he could not avoid the belief that man must come under the same law. Accordingly, he collected notes on the subject for his own satisfaction, and not for a long time with any intention of publishing. In the “Origin of Species,” the derivation of any particular species is never discussed; but in order that no honorable man should accuse him of concealing his views, Darwin had thought it best to add that by that work, “light would be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” It would have impeded the acceptance of the theory of natural selection if Darwin had paraded, without giving any evidence, his conviction with respect to man’s origin. When he found, however, that many naturalists accepted his doctrine of the evolution of species, it seemed to him advisable to work up such notes as he possessed, and to publish a special treatise on the origin of man. He was the more glad to do so, as it gave him an opportunity of discussing at length sexual selection, a subject which had always interested him.

Darwin’s book on the “Expression of Emotion in Men and Animals” was published in the autumn of 1872. This had been intended to form a chapter on the subject in the “Descent of Man,” but as soon as Darwin began to put his notes together he saw that it would require a separate treatise. In July, 1875, appeared the book on “Insectivorous Plants.” The fact that a plant should secrete, when properly excited, a fluid containing an acid and ferment closely analogous to the digestive fluid of an animal, was certainly a remarkable discovery. In the autumn of 1876 appeared “The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization,” a work in which are described the endless and wonderful contrivances for the transportation of pollen from one plant to another of the same species. About the same time was brought out an enlarged edition of the “Fertilization of Orchids,” originally published in 1862. Among the minor works issued during the later years of Darwin’s life may be mentioned particularly the little book on “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.” This was the outgrowth of a short paper read before the Geological Society more than fourteen years before.

In order to appreciate the enormous amount of research accomplished by Charles Darwin, it is needful to keep in mind the conditions of ill-health under which almost continually he worked. For nearly forty years he never knew one day of the health of ordinary men. His life was one long struggle against the weariness and drain of sickness. During his last ten years there were signs of amendment in several particulars, but a loss of physical vigor was apparent. Writing to a friend in 1881, he complained that he no longer had the heart or strength to begin any prolonged investigations. In February and March, 1882, he frequently experienced attacks of pain in the region of the heart, attended with irregularity of the pulse. On April 18 he fainted, and was brought back to consciousness with great difficulty. He seemed to recognize the approach of death, and said, “I am not the least afraid to die.” On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 19, he passed away. On April 26 he was interred in Westminster Abbey. The funeral was attended by representatives of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia, and by delegates of the universities and learned societies of which he had been a member. Among the pall-bearers were Sir John Lubbock, Sir Joseph Hooker, Professor Huxley, Mr. A.R. Wallace, Mr. James Russell Lowell, the Duke of Argyll, and the Duke of Devonshire. The grave is appropriately placed in the north aisle of the nave, only a few feet from the last resting-place of Sir Isaac Newton.

An outline of Darwin’s personality would not be complete without a glance at some of his mental characteristics, and at his attitude toward religion. Of his intellectual powers, he himself speaks with extraordinary modesty in his autobiography. He points out that he always experienced much difficulty in expressing himself clearly and concisely, but he opines that this very difficulty may have had the compensating advantage of forcing him to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus enabling him to detect errors in reasoning and in his own observations, or in those of others. He disclaimed the possession of any great quickness of apprehension or wit, such as distinguished Huxley. He protested, also, that his power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought was very limited, for which reason he felt certain that he never could have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. His memory, too, he described as extensive, but hazy. So poor in one sense was it that he never could remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry. On the other hand, he did not accept as well founded the charge made by some of his critics that, while he was a good observer, he had no power of reasoning. This, he thought, could not be true, because the “Origin of Species” is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and has convinced many able men. No one, he submits, could have written it without possessing some power of reasoning. He was willing to assert that “I have a fair share of invention, and of common sense or judgment, such as every fairly successful lawyer or doctor must have, but not, I believe, in any higher degree.” He adds humbly that perhaps he was “superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully.”

Writing in the last year of his life, he expressed the opinion that in two or three respects his mind had changed during the preceding twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty or beyond it poetry of many kinds gave him great pleasure. Formerly, too, pictures had given him considerable, and music very great, delight. In 1881, however, he said: “Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shakspeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically of what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.” Darwin was convinced that the loss of these tastes was not only a loss of happiness, but might possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional side of one’s nature. So far as he could judge, his mind had become in his later years a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, and that atrophy had taken place in that part of the brain on which the higher aesthetic tastes depend. Curiously enough, however, he retained his relish for novels, and for books on history, biography, and travels.

It is well known that Darwin was extremely reticent with regard to his religious views. He believed that a man’s religion was essentially a private matter. Repeated attempts were made to draw him out upon the subject, and some of these were partially successful. Writing to a Dutch student in 1873, he said: “I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a First Cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am also induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty.” To questions put by a German student in 1879, he replied: “Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.” In the same year he told another correspondent: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” His latest view is indicated in a letter dated July 3, 1881. Here he expressed the “inward conviction that the universe is not the result of chance.” He adds, however: “But, then, with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value, or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust the convictions in a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” The Duke of Argyll has recorded the few words on the subject spoken by Darwin in the last year of his life. The Duke said that it was impossible to look at the wonderful contrivances for certain purposes in nature, and fail to recognize that they were the effect and the expression of mind. Darwin looked at the Duke very hard, and said, “Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times”–here he shook his head vaguely–“it seems to go away.”

We pass to a consideration of Darwin’s masterworks, the “Origin of Species,” the “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,” and the “Descent of Man.” Before indicating the conclusions reached in the first of these works, we should point out to what extent Darwin had been preceded by dissenters from the belief once almost universally entertained by biologists that species were independently created, and, once created, were immutable. Lamarck was the first naturalist whose divergent views upon the subject excited much attention. In writings published at various dates from 1801 to 1815, he upheld the doctrine that all species, including man, are descended from other species. He pronounced it probable that all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, were the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition. He seems to have been led to his opinion that the change of species had been gradual by the difficulty experienced in distinguishing species from varieties by the almost perfect gradation of forms in certain groups, and by the analogy of domestic productions. With respect to the means of modification, he attributed something to the direct action of the physical conditions of life, something to the crossing of already existing forms, and much to use and disuse, or, in other words, to the effect of habit. Finally, he held that characters acquired by an existing individual might be transmitted to its offspring.

In 1813 Dr. W.C. Wells read before the Royal Society “An Account of a White Female, Part of whose Skin resembles that of a Negro.” In this paper the author distinctly recognized the principle of natural selection, but applied it only to the races of man, and in man only to certain characters. After remarking that negroes and mulattoes enjoy an immunity from certain tropical diseases, he observed, first, that all animals tend to vary in some degree, and, secondly, that agriculturalists improve their domesticated animals by selection. He added that what is done in the latter case by art seems to be done with equal efficacy, though more slowly, by nature in the formation of varieties of mankind fitted for the countries which they inhabit. Again in 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published a work on “Naval Timber and Arboriculture,” in which he put forth precisely the same view concerning the origin of species as that propounded by Mr. Wallace and by Darwin. Unfortunately for himself, the view was cursorily suggested in scattered passages of an appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in 1860, after the publication of the “Origin of Species.” We observe finally that Mr. Herbert Spencer, in an essay published in 1852, and republished six years later, contrasted the theories of the creation and the development of organic beings. He argued from the analogy of domestic productions, from the changes which the embryos of many species undergo, from the difficulty of distinguishing species and varieties, and from the principle of general gradation, that species have been modified; and he attributed the modification to the change of circumstances.

The two volumes comprising the “Origin of Species” constitute, as the author said, one long argument. It is, of course, impossible in the space at our command to recapitulate in detail even the leading facts and inferences which are brought forward to prove that species have been modified during a long course of descent. We must confine ourselves to a succinct statement of the author’s general conclusions. What he undertakes to prove is that the modification of species during a long course of descent has been effected chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive slight favorable variations, aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner,–that is, in relation to adaptive structures, whether past or present, by the direct action of external conditions, and by variations which seem to us, in our ignorance, to arise spontaneously. It should be observed that Darwin does not attribute the modification exclusively to natural selection. What he asserts is: “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main, but not the exclusive, means of modification.” He submits that a false theory would hardly explain in so satisfactory a manner as does the theory of natural selection the several large classes of facts marshalled in the two volumes now under review. If it be objected that this is an unsafe method of arguing, Darwin rejoins that it is a method usual in judging of the common events of life, and has often been used by the greatest natural philosophers. The undulatory theory of light, for instance, has thus been arrived at; and the belief in the revolution of the earth on its own axis was, until lately, supported by scarcely any direct evidence. It is no valid objection to the Darwinian theory of the origin of species that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Neither has any one explained what is the essence of the attraction of gravity, though nobody now objects to following out the results consequent on this unknown element of attraction.

Why, it may be asked, did nearly all the most eminent naturalists and geologists until recently decline to believe in the mutability of species? Darwin replies that the belief that species were immutable productions was almost unavoidable as long as the history of the world was thought to be of short duration. Even now that we have acquired some idea of the lapse of time, men are too apt to assume without proof that the geological record is so perfect that it would have afforded plain evidence of the mutation of species if they had really undergone mutation. The chief cause, however, of the once-prevalent unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species is the fact that men are slow to admit great changes of which they do not see the steps. The difficulty is the same which was experienced by many geologists when Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland cliffs had been formed and great valleys excavated, not by catastrophes, but by the slow-moving agencies which we see still at work. The human mind cannot grasp the full meaning of the term of even a million years; cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.

When the first edition of the “Origin of Species” was published in 1859, Darwin wrote that he by no means expected to convince experienced naturalists whose minds were stocked with a multitude of facts, all regarded during a long course of years from a point of view directly opposite to his. He looked forward with confidence, however, to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who would be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. He predicted that, when the conclusions reached by him and by Mr. Wallace concerning the origin of species should be generally accepted, there would be a considerable revolution in natural history. Naturalists, for instance, would be forced to acknowledge that the only distinction between species and well-marked varieties is that the latter are known or believed to be connected at the present day by intermediate gradations, whereas species were formerly, though they are not now, thus connected. It might thus come to pass that forms generally acknowledged in 1859 to be merely varieties, would thereafter be thought worthy of specific names; in which case scientific and common language would come into accordance. In short, Darwin looked forward to the time when species would have to be treated in the same manner as genera are treated by those naturalists who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience.

Darwin also foresaw that when his theory of the origin of species should be adopted, other and more general departments of natural history would rise greatly in interest. The terms used by naturalists–such terms as affinity, relationship, community of type, paternity, morphology, adaptive characters, rudimentary and abortive organs, etc.–would cease to be metaphorical, and would have a plain signification. “When,” he wrote, “we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a long history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, in the same way as any great mechanical invention is the summing up of the labor, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting–I speak from experience–does the study of natural history become.” Once more: “When we can feel assured that all the individuals of the same species, and all the closely allied species of most genera, have within a not very remote period descended from one parent, and have migrated from some one birthplace; and when we better know the many means of migration, then, by the light which geology now throws, and will continue to throw, on former changes of climate and of the level of the land, we shall surely be enabled to trace in an admirable manner the former migrations of the inhabitants of the whole world.”

Charles Darwin Photograph by Oscar Rejlander

Charles Darwin Photograph by Oscar Rejlander

When Darwin published the “Origin of Species,” he was aware that theologians and philosophers seemed to be fully satisfied with the view that each species had been independently created, and was immutable. To his own mind, however, it accorded better with what was known of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes like those determining the birth and death of the individual. “When I view,” he said, “all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.” And again: “As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works slowly by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.”

For his own part, Darwin could see no good reason why the views propounded in the two volumes comprising the “Origin of Species” should shock the religious feelings of any one. Touching the likelihood of such a result, he reassured himself by recalling the fact that the greatest discovery ever made by man–namely, the law of the attraction of gravitation–was attacked by Leibnitz “as subversive of natural, and inferentially, of revealed, religion.” Darwin was confident that, if any such impressions were made by his theory, they would prove but transient, and that ultimately men would come to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms as to believe that it required the fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.

It was, as we have said, in 1868 that Darwin published the two volumes collectively entitled “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.” It is the second and largely corrected edition brought out in 1875 which we have under our eye. It is the outcome of the views maintained by the author in this work and elsewhere that not only the various domestic races but the most distinct genera and orders within the same great class–for instance, mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes–are all the descendants of one common progenitor, and the whole vast amount of difference between these forms has primarily arisen from simple variability. Darwin recognized that he who for the first time should consider the subject under this point of view would be struck dumb with amazement. He submits, however, that the amazement ought to be lessened when we reflect that beings almost infinite in number during an almost infinite lapse of time have often had their whole organization rendered in some degree plastic, and that each slight modification of structure which was in any way beneficial under excessively complex conditions of life has been preserved, whilst each which was in any way injurious has been rigorously destroyed. The long-continued accumulation of beneficial variations will infallibly have led to structures as diversified, as beautifully adapted for various purposes, and as excellently co-ordinated as we see in the animals and plants around us. Hence Darwin regards selection as the paramount power, whether applied by man to the formation of domestic beings or by nature to the production of species. Employing a favorite metaphor, he said: “If an architect were to rear a noble and commodious edifice without the use of cut stone, by selecting from the fragments at the base of a precipice wedge-form stones for his arches, elongated stones for his lintels, and flat stones for his roof, we should admire his skill and regard him as the paramount power. Now, the fragments of stone, though indispensable to the architect, bear to the edifice built by him the same relation which the fluctuating variations of organic beings bear to the varied and admirable structures ultimately acquired by their modified descendants.”

Some critics of the Darwinian theory of the origin of species have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. Darwin rejoins that if it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building how the edifice had been raised, stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat stones for the roof, etc.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out,–it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be told. This, in Darwin’s opinion, is a nearly parallel case, with the objection that selection explains nothing because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being. The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of the hypothetical precipice may be called accidental, but the term is not strictly applicable; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain, which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and, lastly, on the storm or earthquake which throws down the fragments.

In regard to the use, however, to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. Here Darwin acknowledged that we are brought face to face with a great difficulty in alluding to which he felt that he was travelling beyond his proper province. “An omniscient Creator must have foreseen every consequence which results from the laws imposed by Him. But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes, so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it be maintained with any greater probability that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants,–many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fan-tail breeds? Did He cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport?”

It is obvious, however, that if we give up the principle in one case,–if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigor, might be formed,–no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations similar in nature and the result of the same general laws which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. Darwin, therefore, was unable to follow the distinguished botanist, Prof. Asa Gray, in his belief that “variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” Darwin’s conclusion was that, if we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, then that plasticity of organization which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as the redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to a natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature.

Next to the “Origin of Species,” the volume which sets forth Darwin’s theory of the “Descent of Man” naturally excited the most widespread attention. This book, which took the author three years to write, was published in 1871, a second and carefully revised edition appearing three years later. The data brought together occupy more than six hundred pages. The conclusions reached may be summed up in a few paragraphs. The principal induction from the evidence is that man is descended from some less highly organized form. It was Darwin’s conviction that the grounds upon which this conclusion rests will never be shaken, for the close similarity between man and the lower animals in embryonic development, as well as in innumerable points of structure and constitution, both of high and of the most trifling importance,–the rudiments which he retains and the abnormal reversions to which he is occasionally liable,–are facts which cannot be disputed. Viewed in the light of our knowledge of the whole organic world, their meaning is unmistakable. The great principle of evolution stands out clear and firm when these groups of facts are considered in connection with others, such as the mutual affinities of the members of the same group, their geographical distribution in past and present times, and their geological succession. It is pronounced incredible that all these facts should speak falsely. He who is not content to look like a savage at the phenomena of nature as disconnected cannot any longer believe that man is the product of a separate act of creation. He will be forced to admit that the close resemblance of the embryo of man to that, for instance, of a dog,–the construction of his skull, limbs, and whole frame on the same plan with that of other mammals, independently of the uses to which the parts may be put; the occasional reappearance of various structures, for instance, of several muscles which man does not normally possess, but which are common to the Quadrumana, and a crowd of analogous facts,–all point in the plainest manner to the conclusion that man is the co-descendant with other mammals of a common progenitor.

Darwin recognized that the high standard of our intellectual powers and moral disposition constitutes the greatest difficulty which presents itself after we have been driven by the mass of biological evidence to accept his conclusion as to the origin of man. Touching this point, he observes: “Every one who admits the principle of evolution must see that the mental powers of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement. Thus the interval between the mental powers of one of the higher apes and of a fish, or between those of an ant and scale-insect, is immense; yet their development does not offer any special difficulty, for with our domesticated animals the mental faculties are certainly variable, and the variations are inherited. No one doubts that their mental faculties are of the utmost importance to animals in a state of nature. Therefore the conditions are favorable for their development through natural selection. The same conclusion may be extended to man; the intellect must have been all-important to him, even at a very remote period, as enabling him to invent and use language, to make weapons, tools, traps, etc., whereby, with the aid of his social habits, he long ago became the most dominant of all living creatures.”

It is further pointed out that a great stride in the development of man’s intellect must have followed as soon as the half-art and half-instinct of language came into use; for the continued use of language must have reacted on the brain, and produced an inherited effect, and this again will have reacted on the improvement of language. The largeness of the brain in man relatively to his body, compared with the size of that organ in the lower animals, is attributable in chief part to the early use of some simple form of language, that engine which affixes signs to all sorts of objects and qualities, and excites trains of thought which would never arise from the mere impression of the senses, or, if they did arise, could not be followed out. The higher intellectual powers of man, such as those of ratiocination, abstraction, self-consciousness, etc., probably follow from the continued improvement and exercise of the other mental faculties.

How man’s moral qualities came to be developed is an interesting problem which is considered by Darwin at some length. He holds that their foundation lies in the social instincts under which term are included family ties. These instincts are highly complex, and, in the case of the lower animals, give special tendencies toward certain definite actions. But the more important elements are love and the distinct emotion of sympathy. Animals endowed with the social instincts take pleasure in one another’s company, warn one another of danger, defend and aid one another in many ways. These instincts do not extend to all the individuals of the species, but only to those of the same community. As, however, they are highly beneficial to the species, they have in all probability been acquired through natural selection. In Darwin’s judgment the moral nature of man has reached its present standard partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers, and consequently, of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is pronounced not improbable that, after long practice, virtuous tendencies may be inherited.

Let us look a little more closely at the matter, for the difficulty of explaining morality forms one of the greatest obstacles to the acceptance of the Darwinian account of the descent of man. What do we mean by a moral being? Manifestly, a moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives, and of approving of some while he disapproves of others. Man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation, though attempts have recently been made to show that a rudimentary morality may be traced in some of the lower animals. In the fourth chapter of the book before us, Darwin undertakes to demonstrate that the moral sense follows,–first, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man’s appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and, thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals. Owing to this condition of mind, man cannot avoid looking both backwards and forwards, and comparing past impressions. Hence, after some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts, he reflects and compares the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever-present social instincts; and he then feels that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them, and resolves to act differently for the future. This dissatisfaction Darwin would identify with conscience. Any instinct permanently stronger or more enduring than another gives rise to a feeling which we express by saying that it ought to be obeyed. Darwin suggests that a pointer dog, if able to reflect on his past conduct, would say to himself I ought (as indeed we say of him) to have pointed at that hare, and not have yielded to the passing temptation of hunting it.

The belief in God has often been advanced as not only the greatest, but the most decisive, of all the distinctions between man and the lower animals. Darwin brings forward in the book before us a quantity of reasons for holding it to be impossible that this belief is innate or instinctive in man. In some races of men, for instance, we encounter a total want of the idea of God. On the other hand, a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal, and apparently follows from a considerable advance in man’s reason, and from a still greater advance in the faculties of imagination, curiosity, and wonder. “I am aware,” says Darwin, “that the assumed instinctive belief in God has been used by many persons as an argument for His existence. But this is a rash argument, as we should thus be compelled to believe in the existence of many cruel and malignant spirits only a little more powerful than man; for the belief in them is far more general than in a beneficent deity. The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man until he has been elevated by long-continued culture.”

How does the belief in the advancement of man from some low organized form bear on the belief in the immortality of the soul? Sir John Lubbock has proved that the barbarous races of man possess no clear belief of the kind; but, as Darwin continually reminds us, arguments derived from the primeval beliefs of savages are of little or no avail on either side of a question. Attention is directed by Darwin to the more relevant fact that few persons feel any anxiety from the impossibility of determining at what precise period in the development of the individual, from the first trace of a minute germinal vesicle, man becomes an immortal being. He submits that there should be no greater cause for anxiety because the period cannot possibly be determined in the gradually ascending organic scale.

Darwin was well aware that the conclusions arrived at in the work before us–namely, that man is descended from some lowly organized form–would be highly distasteful to many. The very persons, however, who regard the conclusions with distaste admit without hesitation that they are descended from barbarians. Darwin recalls the astonishment which he himself felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore, when the reflection rushed upon his mind that such men had been his ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and, like wild animals, lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. Remembering the impression made on him by the Fuegians, Darwin suggests that he who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. “For my own part,” he says, “I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper,–or from that old baboon, who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs,–as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practises infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.” Darwin holds, in fine, that man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; it is further submitted that the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.

As a scientist, however, Darwin is not concerned with hopes or fears, but simply with the truth, as man’s reason enables him to discern it. We must recognize, he thinks, as the truth, established by an overwhelming array of inductive evidence, that man, with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which he feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men, but to the humblest living creature, with his godlike intellect, which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system–with all these exalted powers–man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

We have said that Darwin’s theory of the origin of species, together with its corollary, the descent of man, has met with almost universal acceptance by scientists. We have to use the qualifying adverb, because some of Darwin’s contemporaries, including Virchow and Owen, not to mention St. George Mivart and the Duke of Argyll, have withheld their adhesion. Since his death, moreover, his disciples have tended to split into two schools. On the one hand, Weismann has rejected the Lamarckian factors,–the effect of use and disuse upon organs, and the transmissibility of acquired characters. The importance of these factors has been emphatically re-asserted, on the other hand, by Lankester and others. Whether biologists, however, range themselves in the Neo-Darwinian or in the Neo-Lamarckian camp, the value of the principle of natural selection is acknowledged by all, and nobody now asserts the independent creation and permanence of species.


The Complete Works of Darwin, published by D. Appleton and Company.

The Works of Alfred Russel Wallace.

Francis Darwin’s “Life of Charles Darwin.”

Huxley’s Writings, passim.

Haeckel’s “Natural History of Creation.”

Weismann’s “Studies in the Theory of Descent” and subsequent papers.

Romanes’s “Scientific Evidences of Organic Evolution.”

Lankester’s “Degeneration.”

Fiske’s “Darwinism and Other Essays.”

For adverse criticism of Darwin, read Mivart’s “Genesis of Species,” and the Duke of Argyll’s “Unity of Nature.”

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John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era