The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 33, July, 1860 online

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have hard-fitting places; or even when no particular fault can be
found with the article, it oppresses with a sense of general
discomfort. New notions and new styles worry us, till we get well
used to them, which is only by slow degrees.

Wherefore, in Galileo's time, we might have helped to proscribe, or
to burn - had he been stubborn enough to warrant cremation - even the
great pioneer of inductive research; although, when we had fairly
recovered our composure, and had leisurely excogitated the matter, we
might have come to conclude that the new doctrine was better than the
old one, after all, at least for those who had nothing to unlearn.

Such being our habitual state of mind, it may well be believed that
the perusal of the new book "On the Origin of Species by Means of
Natural Selection" left an uncomfortable impression, in spite of its
plausible and winning ways. We were not wholly unprepared for it, as
many of our contemporaries seem to have been. The scientific reading
in which we indulge as a relaxation from severer studies had raised
dim forebodings. Investigations about the succession of species in
time, and their actual geographical distribution over the earth's
surface, were leading up from all sides and in various ways to the
question of their origin. Now and then we encountered a sentence,
like Professor Owen's "axiom of the continuous operation of the
ordained becoming of living things," which haunted us like an
apparition. For, dim as our conception must needs be as to what such
oracular and grandiloquent phrases might really mean, we felt
confident that they presaged no good to old beliefs. Foreseeing, yet
deprecating, the coming time of trouble, we still hoped, that, with
some repairs and make-shifts, the old views might last out our days.
_Après nous le déluge_. Still, not to lag behind the rest of the
world, we read the book in which the new theory is promulgated. We
took it up, like our neighbors, and, as was natural, in a somewhat
captious frame of mind.

Well, we found no cause of quarrel with the first chapter. Here the
author takes us directly to the barn-yard and the kitchen-garden.
Like an honorable rural member of our General Court, who sat silent
until, near the close of a long session, a bill requiring all swine
at large to wear pokes was introduced, when he claimed the privilege
of addressing the house, on the proper ground that he had been
"brought up among the pigs, and knew all about them," - so we were
brought up among cows and cabbages; and the lowing of cattle, the
cackling of hens, and the cooing of pigeons were sounds native and
pleasant to our ears. So "Variation under Domestication" dealt with
familiar subjects in a natural way, and gently introduced "Variation
under Nature," which seemed likely enough. Then follows "Struggle for
Existence," - a principle which we experimentally know to be true and
cogent, - bringing the comfortable assurance, that man, even upon
Leviathan Hobbes's theory of society, is no worse than the rest of
creation, since all Nature is at war, one species with another, and
the nearer kindred the more internecine, - bringing in thousand-fold
confirmation and extension of the Malthusian doctrine, that
population tends far to outrun means of subsistence throughout the
animal and vegetable world, and has to be kept down by sharp
preventive checks; so that not more than one of a hundred or a
thousand of the individuals whose existence is so wonderfully and so
sedulously provided for ever comes to anything, under ordinary
circumstances; so the lucky and the strong must prevail, and the
weaker and ill-favored must perish; - and then follows, as naturally
as one sheep follows another, the chapter on "Natural Selection,"
Darwin's _cheval de bataille_, which is very much the Napoleonic
doctrine, that Providence favors the strongest battalions, - that,
since many more individuals are born than can possibly survive, those
individuals and those variations which possess any advantage, however
slight, over the rest, are in the long run sure to survive, to
propagate, and to occupy the limited field, to the exclusion or
destruction of the weaker brethren. All this we pondered, and could
not much object to. In fact, we began to contract a liking for a
system which at the outset illustrates the advantages of good
breeding, and which makes the most "of every creature's best."

Could we "let by-gones be by-gones," and, beginning now, go
on improving and diversifying for the future by natural
selection, - could we even take up the theory at the introduction of the
actually existing species, we should be well content, and so perhaps would
most naturalists be. It is by no means difficult to believe that
varieties are incipient or possible species, when we see what trouble
naturalists, especially botanists, have to distinguish between
them, - one regarding as a true species what another regards as a
variety; when the progress of knowledge increases, rather than
diminishes, the number of doubtful instances; and when there is less
agreement than ever among naturalists as to what the basis is in
Nature upon which our idea of species reposes, or how the word is
practically to be defined. Indeed, when we consider the endless
disputes of naturalists and ethnologists over the human races, as to
whether they belong to one species or to more, and if to more,
whether to three, or five, or fifty, we can hardly help fancying that
both may be right, - or rather, that the uni-humanitarians would have
been right several thousand years ago, and the multi-humanitarians
will be a few thousand years later; while at present the safe thing
to say is, that, probably, there is some truth on both sides.
"Natural selection," Darwin remarks, "leads to divergence of
character; for more living brings can be supported on the same area
the more they diverge in structure, habits, and constitution," (a
principle which, by the way, is paralleled and illustrated by the
diversification of human labor,) and also leads to much extinction of
intermediate or unimproved forms. Now, though this divergence may
"steadily tend to increase," yet this is evidently a slow process in
Nature, and liable to much counteraction wherever man does not
interpose, and so not likely to work much harm for the future. And if
natural selection, with artificial to help it, will produce better
animals and better men than the present, and fit them better to "the
conditions of existence," why, let it work, say we, to the top of its
bent. There is still room enough for improvement. Only let us hope
that it always works for good: if not, the divergent lines on
Darwin's diagram of transmutation made easy ominously show what small
deviations from the straight path may come to in the end.

The prospect of the future, accordingly, is on the whole pleasant and
encouraging. It is only the backward glance, the gaze up the long
vista of the past, that reveals anything alarming. Here the lines
converge as they recede into the geological ages, and point to
conclusions which, upon the theory, are inevitable, but by no means
welcome. The very first step backwards makes the Negro and the
Hottentot our blood-relations; - not that reason or Scripture objects
to that, though pride may. The next suggests a closer association of
our ancestors of the olden time with "our poor relations" of the
quadrumanous family than we like to acknowledge. Fortunately,
however, - even if we must account for him scientifically, - man with
his two feet stands upon a foundation of his own. Intermediate links
between the _Bimana_ and the _Quadrumana_ are lacking altogether; so
that, put the genealogy of the brutes upon what footing you will, the
four-handed races will not serve for our forerunners; - at least, not
until some monkey, live or fossil, is producible with great toes,
instead of thumbs, upon his nether extremities; or until some lucky
geologist turns up the bones of his ancestor and prototype in France
or England, who was so busy "napping the chuckie-stanes" and chipping
out flint knives and arrow-heads in the time of the drift, very many
ages ago, - before the British Channel existed, says Lyell[1], - and
until these men of the olden time are shown to have worn their
great-toes in a divergent and thumb-like fashion. That would be evidence
indeed: but until some testimony of the sort is produced, we must
needs believe in the separate and special creation of man, however it
may have been with the lower animals and with plants.

No doubt, the full development and symmetry of Darwin's hypothesis
strongly suggest the evolution of the human no less than the lower
animal races out of some simple primordial animal, - that all are
equally "lineal descendants of sense few beings which lived long
before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited." But, as
the author speaks disrespectfully of spontaneous generation, and
accepts a supernatural beginning of life on earth, in some form or
forms of being which included potentially all that have since existed
and are yet to be, he is thereby not warranted to extend his
inferences beyond the evidence or the fair probability. There seems
as great likelihood that one special origination should be followed
by another upon fitting occasion, (such as the introduction of man,)
as that one form should be transmuted into another upon fitting
occasion, as, for instance, in the succession of species which differ
from each other only in some details. To compare small things with
great in a homely illustration: man alters from time to time his
instruments or machines, as new circumstances or conditions may
require and his wit suggest. Minor alterations and improvements he
adds to the machine he possesses: he adapts a new rig or a new rudder
to an old boat: this answers to _variation_. If boats could engender,
the variations would doubtless be propagated, like those of domestic
cattle. In course of time the old ones would be worn out or wrecked;
the best sorts would be chosen for each particular use, and further
improved upon, and so the primordial boat be developed into the scow,
the skiff, the sloop, and other species of water-craft, - the very
diversification, as well as the successive improvements, entailing
the disappearance of many intermediate forms, less adapted to any one
particular purpose; wherefore these go slowly out of use, and become
extinct species: this is _natural selection_. Now let a great and
important advance be made, like that of steam-navigation: here,
though the engine might be added to the old vessel, yet the wiser and
therefore the actual way is to make a new vessel on a modified plan:
this may answer to _specific creation_. Anyhow, the one does not
necessarily exclude the other. Variation and natural selection may
play their part, and so may specific creation also. Why not?

[Footnote 1: Vide _Proceedings of the British Association for the
Advancement of Science_, 1859, and London _Athenæum_, passim. It
appears to be conceded that these "celts" or stone knives are
artificial productions, and of the age of the mammoth, the fossil
rhinoceros, etc.]

This leads us to ask for the reasons which call for this new theory
of transmutation. The beginning of things must needs lie in
obscurity, beyond the bounds of proof, though within those of
conjecture or of analogical inference. Why not hold fast to the
customary view, that all species were directly, instead of
indirectly, created after their respective kinds, as we now behold
them, - and that in a manner which, passing our comprehension, we
intuitively refer to the supernatural? Why this continual striving
after "the unattained and dim," - these anxious endeavors, especially
of late years, by naturalists and philosophers of various schools and
different tendencies, to penetrate what one of them calls "the
mystery of mysteries," the origin of species? To this, in general,
sufficient answer may be found in the activity of the human
intellect, "the delirious yet divine desire to know," stimulated as
it has been by its own success in unveiling the laws and processes of
inorganic Nature, - in the fact that the principal triumphs of our age
in physical science have consisted in tracing connections where none
were known before, in reducing heterogeneous phenomena to a common
cause or origin, in a manner quite analogous to that of the reduction
of supposed independently originated species to a common ultimate
origin, - thus, and in various other ways, largely and legitimately
extending the domain of secondary causes. Surely the scientific mind
of an age which contemplates the solar system as evolved from a
common, revolving, fluid mass, - which, through experimental research,
has come to regard light, heat, electricity, magnetism, chemical
affinity, and mechanical power as varieties or derivative
and convertible forms of one force, instead of independent
species, - which has brought the so-called elementary kinds of matter, such
as the metals, into kindred groups, and raised the question, whether the
members of each group may not be mere varieties of one species, - and
which speculates steadily in the direction of the ultimate unity of
matter, of a sort of prototype or simple element which may be to the
ordinary species of matter what the _protozoa_ or component cells of
an organism are to the higher sorts of animals and plants, - the mind
of such an age cannot be expected to let the old belief about species
pass unquestioned.

It will raise the question, how the diverse sorts of plants and
animals came to be as they are and where they are, and will allow
that the whole inquiry transcends its powers only when all endeavors
have failed. Granting the origin to be supernatural, or miraculous
even, will not arrest the inquiry. All real origination, the
philosophers will say, is supernatural; their very question is,
whether we have yet gone back to the origin, and can affirm that the
present forms of plants and animals are the primordial, the
miraculously created ones. And even if they admit that, they will
still inquire into the order of the phenomena, into the form of the
miracle. You might as well expect the child to grow up content with
what it is told about the advent of its infant brother. Indeed, to
learn that the new-comer is the gift of God, far from lulling
inquiry, only stimulates speculation as to how the precious gift was
bestowed. That questioning child is father to the man, - is
philosopher in short-clothes.

Since, then, questions about the origin of species will be raised,
and have been raised, - and since the theorizings, however different
in particulars, all proceed upon the notion that one species of plant
or animal is somehow derived from another, that the different sorts
which now flourish are lineal (or unlineal) descendants of other and
earlier sorts, - it now concerns us to ask, What are the grounds in
Nature, the admitted facts, which suggest hypotheses of derivation,
in some shape or other? Reasons there must be, and plausible ones,
for the persistent recurrence of theories upon this genetic basis. A
study of Darwin's book, and a general glance at the present state of
the natural sciences, enable us to gather the following as perhaps
the most suggestive and influential. We can only enumerate them here,
without much indication of their particular bearing. There is, -

1. The general fact of variability; - the patent fact, that all
species vary more or less; that domesticated plants and animals,
being in conditions favorable to the production and preservation of
varieties, are apt to vary widely; and that by interbreeding, any
variety may be fixed into a race, that is, into a variety which comes
true from seed. Many such races, it is allowed, differ from each
other in structure and appearance as widely as do many admitted
species; and it is practically very difficult, perhaps impossible, to
draw a clear line between races and species. Witness the human races,
for instance.

Wild species also vary, perhaps about as widely as those of
domestication, though in different ways. Some of them appear to vary
little, others moderately, others immoderately, to the great
bewilderment of systematic botanists and zoologists, and their
increasing disagreement as to whether various forms shall be held to
be original species or marked varieties. Moreover, the degree to
which the descendants of the same stock, varying in different
directions, may at length diverge is unknown. All we know is, that
varieties are themselves variable, and that very diverse forms have
been educed from one stock.

2. Species of the same genus are not distinguished from each other by
equal amounts of difference. There is diversity in this respect
analogous to that of the varieties of a polymorphous species, some of
them slight, others extreme. And in large genera the unequal
resemblance shows itself in the clustering of the species around
several types or central species, like satellites around their
respective planets. Obviously suggestive this of the hypothesis that
they were satellites, not thrown off by revolution, like the moons of
Jupiter, Saturn, and our own solitary moon, but gradually and
peacefully detached by divergent variation. That such closely related
species may be only varieties of higher grade, earlier origin, or
more favored evolution, is not a very violent supposition. Anyhow, it
was a supposition sure to be made.

3. The actual geographical distribution of species upon the earth's
surface tends to suggest the same notion. For, as a general thing,
all or most of the species of a peculiar genus or other type are
grouped in the same country, or occupy continuous, proximate, or
accessible areas. So well does this rule hold, so general is the
implication that kindred species are or were associated
geographically, that most trustworthy naturalists, quite free from
hypotheses of transmutation, are constantly inferring former
geographical continuity between parts of the world now widely
disjoined, in order to account thereby for the generic similarities
among their inhabitants. Yet no scientific explanation has been
offered to account for the geographical association of kindred
species, except the hypothesis of a common origin.

4. Here the fact of the antiquity of creation, and in particular of
the present kinds of the earth's inhabitants, or of a large part of
them, comes in to rebut the objection, that there has not been time
enough for any marked diversification of living things through
divergent variation, - not time enough for varieties to have diverged
into what we call species.

So long as the existing species of plants and animals were thought to
have originated a few thousand years ago and without predecessors,
there was no room for a theory of derivation of one sort from
another, nor time enough even to account for the establishment of the
races which are generally believed to have diverged from a common
stock. Not that five or six thousand years was a short allowance for
this; but because some of our familiar domesticated varieties of
grain, of fowls, and of other animals, were pictured and mummified by
the old Egyptians more than half that number of years ago, if not
much earlier. Indeed, perhaps the strongest argument for the original
plurality of human species was drawn from the identification of some
of the present races of men upon these early historical monuments and

But this very extension of the current chronology, if we may rely
upon the archæologists, removes the difficulty by opening up a longer
vista. So does the discovery in Europe of remains and implements of
pre-historic races of men to whom the use of metals was unknown, - men
of the _stone age_, as the Scandinavian archæologists designate them.
And now, "axes and knives of flint, evidently wrought by human skill,
are found in beds of the drift at Amiens, (also in other places, both
in France and England,) associated with the bones of extinct species
of animals." These implements, indeed, were noticed twenty years ago;
at a place in Suffolk they have been exhumed from time to time for
more than a century; but the full confirmation, the recognition of
the age of the deposit in which the implements occur, their
abundance, and the appreciation of their bearings upon most
interesting questions, belong to the present time. To complete the
connection of these primitive people with the fossil ages, the French
geologists, we are told, have now "found these axes in Picardy
associated with remains of _Elephas primigenius, Rhinoceros
tichorhinus, Equus fossilis_, and an extinct species of _Bos_."[1] In
plain language, these workers in flint lived in the time of the
mammoth, of a rhinoceros now extinct, and along with horses and
cattle unlike any now existing, - specifically different, as
naturalists say, from those with which man is now associated. Their
connection with existing human races may perhaps be traced through
the intervening people of the stone age, who were succeeded by the
people of the bronze age, and these by workers in iron.[2] Now,
various evidence carries back the existence of many of the present
lower species of animals, and probably of a larger number of plants,
to the same drift period. All agree that this was very many thousand
years ago. Agassiz tells us that the same species of polyps which are
now building coral walls around the present peninsula of Florida
actually made that peninsula, and have been building there for
centuries which must be reckoned by thousands.

[Footnote 1: See Correspondence of M. Nicklès, in _American Journal
of Science and Arts_, for March, 1860.]

[Footnote 2: See Morlet, _Some General Views on Archæology_, in
_American Journal of Science and Arts_, for January, 1860, translated
from _Bulletin de la Société Vaudoise_, 1859.]

5. The overlapping of existing and extinct species, and the seemingly
gradual transition of the life of the drift period into that of the
present, may be turned to the same account. Mammoths, mastodons, and
Irish elks, now extinct, must have lived down to human, if not almost
to historic times. Perhaps the last dodo did not long outlive his
huge New Zealand kindred. The auroch, once the companion of mammoths,
still survives, but apparently owes his present and precarious
existence to man's care. Now, nothing that we know of forbids the
hypothesis that some new species have been independently and
supernaturally created within the period which other species have
survived. It may even be believed that man was created in the days of
the mammoth, became extinct, and was recreated at a later date. But
why not say the same of the auroch, contemporary both of the old man
and of the new? Still it is more natural, if not inevitable, to
infer, that, if the aurochs of that olden time were the ancestors of
the aurochs of the Lithuanian forests, so likewise were the men of
that age - if men they were - the ancestors of the present human races.
Then, whoever concludes that these primitive makers of rude flint
axes and knives were the ancestors of the better workmen of the
succeeding stone age, and these again of the succeeding artificers in
brass and iron, will also be likely to suppose that the _Equus_ and
_Bos_ of that time were the remote progenitors of our own horses and
cattle. In all candor we must at least concede that such
considerations suggest a genetic descent from the drift period down
to the present, and allow time enough - if time is of any account - for
variation and natural selection to work out some appreciable results
in the way of divergence into races or even into so-called species.
Whatever might have been thought, when geological time was supposed
to be separated from the present era by a clear line, it is certain
that a gradual replacement of old forms by new ones is strongly
suggestive of some mode of origination which may still be operative.
When species, like individuals, were found to die out one by one, and
apparently to come in one by one, a theory for what Owen sonorously
calls "the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living
things" could not be far off.

That all such theories should take the form of a derivation of the
new from the old seems to be inevitable, perhaps from our inability
to conceive of any other line of secondary causes, in this
connection. Owen himself is apparently in travail with some
transmutation theory of his own conceiving, which may yet see the
light, although Darwin's came first to the birth. Different as the
two theories will probably be in particulars, they cannot fail to

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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 33, July, 1860 → online text (page 17 of 20)