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Chapter 12


And now let us ask ourselves, in all sincerity, what was the final outcome and net result of Darwin's great and useful life?

If Charles Darwin had never existed at all, there would still have been a considerable and expansive evolutionary movement both in biology and in its sister sciences throughout the latter half of the present century. The harvest indeed was ready, and the labourers, though few, were full of vigour. Suppose for a moment that that earnest and single-hearted Darwinian genius had been cut off by some untimely disease of childhood at five years old, all other conditions remaining as they were, we should even so have had in our midst to-day, a small philosophical and influential band of evolutionary workers. Spencer would none the less have given us his 'First Principles' and the major part of his 'Principles of Biology,' with comparatively little alteration or omission. Wallace would none the less have promulgated his inchoate theory of natural selection, and rallied round his primordial conception the very best and deepest minds of the biological fraction. Geology would have enforced the continuity of types; Cope and Marsh would have unearthed for our edification the ancestral forms of the evolving horse and the toothed birds of the Western American deposits. The Solenhofen lithographic slates would still have yielded us the half-reptilian, half-avian Archæopteryx; the tertiary deposits would still have presented us with a long suite of gradually specialised and modified mammalian forms. The Siberian meadows would have sent us that intermediate creature which Prjevalsky recognises as the half-way house between the horses and the donkeys; the rivers of Queensland would have disclosed to our view that strange lung-bearing and gill-breathing barramunda, in which Günther discerns the missing link between the ganoid fishes on the one hand, and the mudfish and salamandroid amphibians on the other. From data such as these, biologists and palæontologists of the calibre of Huxley, Gaudry, Geikie, Rütimeyer, and Busk, would necessarily have derived, by the aid of Wallace's pregnant principle, conclusions not so very far remote from Darwin's own. Heer and Saporta would have drawn somewhat similar inferences from the fossil flora of Switzerland and of Greenland; Hooker and De Candolle would have read pretty much the self-same lessons in the scattered ferns and scanty palm-trees of oceanic islands. Kowalevsky would have seen in the ascidian larva a common prototype of the vertebrate series; the followers of Von Baer would have popularised the embryological conception of the single origin of animal life. The researches of Boucher de Perthes, of Lyell, of Evans, of Boyd Dawkins, of Keller, and of Christy and Lartet, would have unrolled before our eyes, under any circumstances, the strange story of prehistoric man. On the facts so gained, Lubbock and Tylor, Schaafhausen and Büchner, would have built up their various consistent theories of human development and human culture. In short, even without Charles Darwin, the nineteenth century would not have stood still; it would have followed in the wake of Buffon and Diderot, of Lamarck and Laplace, of St. Hilaire and Goethe, of Kant and Herschel, of Hutton and Lyell, of Malthus and of Spencer. The great world never rolls down the abysses of time obedient to the nod of one single overruling Titanic intellect. 'If the doctrine of evolution had not existed,' says Huxley, 'palæontologists must have invented it.'

But Charles Darwin acted, nevertheless, the part of an immense and powerful accelerating energy. The impetus which he gave gained us at least fifty years of progress; it sent us at a bound from Copernicus to Newton; so far as ordinary minds were concerned, indeed, it transcended at a single leap the whole interval from Ptolemy to Herschel. The comparison is far from being a mere rhetorical one. A close analogy really exists between the two cases. Before Copernicus, the earth stood fixed and immovable in the centre of the universe, with obsequious suns, and planets, and satellites dancing attendance in cycle and epicycle around the solid mass, to which by day and night they continually ministered. The great astronomical revolution begun by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, and completed by Newton, Laplace, and Herschel, reduced the earth to its true position as a petty planet, revolving feebly among its bigger brethren round a petty sun, in some lost corner of a vast, majestic, and almost illimitable galaxy. Even so, before Darwin, man stood in his own esteem the fixed point of an anthropocentric universe, divinely born and divinely instructed, with all the beasts of the field, and the fowls of the air, and the fruits of the earth specially created with a definite purpose in subservience to his lordly wants and interests. The great biological revolution, which rightly almost sums itself up in the name of Darwin, reduced man at once to his true position as the last product of kinetic solar energy, working upon the peculiar chemical elements of an evolving planet. It showed that every part of every plant and every animal existed primarily for the sake of that plant or animal alone; it unseated man from his imaginary throne in the centre of the cosmos, teaching him at once a lesson of humility and a lesson of aspiration—pointing out to him how low was the origin from which, in very truth, he first sprang, and suggesting to him, at the same time, how high was the grand and glorious destiny to which by his own strenuous and ardent efforts he might yet perchance some day attain.

That result, inevitable perhaps in the long run, from the slow unfolding of human intelligence, was immensely hastened in our own time by the peculiar idiosyncrasy and lofty personality of Charles Darwin. Without him we should have had, not only evolutionism, but also, as Wallace's discovery testifies, natural selection itself into the bargain. But we should never have had the 'Origin of Species.' We should never have had that vast and enthusiastic consensus of scientific opinion through an all but unanimous thinking world, which has forced an immediate acceptance of evolutionary ideas down the unwilling throats of half unthinking Europe. The prodigious mass of Darwin's facts, the cautious working of Darwin's intellect, the immense weight of Darwin's reputation, the crushing force of Darwin's masterly inductive method, bore down before them all opposition in the inner circle of biologists, and secured the triumph of the evolutionary system even in the very strongholds of ignorance and obscurantism. Without Darwin, a small group of philosophic thinkers would still be striving to impress upon an incredulous and somewhat contemptuous world the central truths of the evolutionary doctrine. The opposition of the elders, long headed even in the society we actually know by a few stern scientific recalcitrants, like Owen and Agassiz, Pictet and Dawson, Virchow and Mivart, would have fought desperately in the last trench for the final figment of the fixity of species. What is now the general creed, more or less loosely held and imperfectly understood, of hundreds and thousands among the intelligent mass, would, under such circumstances, be even yet the mere party-shibboleth of an esoteric few, struggling hard against the bare force of overwhelming numbers to ensure not only recognition but a fair hearing for the first principles of the development theory. It is to Darwin, and to Darwin almost alone, that we owe the present comparatively wide acceptance of the all-embracing doctrine of evolution.

No other man did so much or could have done so much to ensure its triumph. He began early in life to collect and arrange a vast encyclopædia of facts, all finally focussed with supreme skill upon the great principle he so clearly perceived, and so lucidly expounded. He brought to bear upon the question an amount of personal observation, of minute experiment, of world-wide book-knowledge, of universal scientific ability, such as never perhaps was lavished by any other man upon any other department of study. His conspicuous and beautiful love of truth, his unflinching candour, his transparent fearlessness and honesty of purpose, his child-like simplicity, his modesty of demeanour, his charming manner, his affectionate disposition, his kindliness to friends, his courtesy to opponents, his gentleness to harsh and often bitter assailants, kindled in the minds of men of science everywhere throughout the world a contagious enthusiasm, only equalled perhaps among the disciples of Socrates and the great teachers of the revival of learning. His name became a rallying-point for the children of light in every country; and what philosophers and speculators might have taken a century or two more to establish in embryo was firmly grounded, never to be overthrown, by the vast accumulations of fact and argument in the 'Origin of Species,' and its companion volumes.

The end of that great Darwinian revolution the world has not yet seen: in a sense, indeed, it will never see it. For the general acceptance of Darwin's theory, which we may watch progressing around us every minute to-day, implies a complete bouleversement of anthropocentric ideas, a total change in our human conception of our own relations to the world and the universe, which must work out for ever increasingly wide-reaching and complex effects in all our dealings with one another and with the environment at large. There is no department of human thought or human action which evolutionism leaves exactly where it stood before the advent of the Darwinian conception. In nothing is this fact more conspicuously seen than in the immediate obsolescence (if one may so speak) of all the statical pre-Darwinian philosophies which ignored development, as soon as ever the new progressive evolutionary theories had fairly burst upon an astonished world. Dogmatic Comte was left forthwith to his little band of devoted adherents; shadowy Hegel was relegated with a bow to the cool shades of the common-rooms of Oxford; Buckle was exploded like an inflated wind-bag; even Mill himself—magnum et venerabile nomen—with all his mighty steam-hammer force of logical directness, was felt instinctively to be lacking in full appreciation of the dynamic and kinetic element in universal nature. Spencer and Hartmann, Haeckel and Clifford, had the field to themselves for the establishment of their essentially evolutionary systems. Great thinkers of the elder generation, like Bain and Lyell, felt bound to remodel their earlier conceptions by the light of the new Darwinian hypotheses. Those who failed by congenital constitution to do so, like Carlyle and Carpenter, were, philosophically speaking, left hopelessly behind and utterly extinguished. Those who only half succeeded in thus reading themselves into the new ideas, like Lewes and Max Müller, lost ground immediately before the eager onslaught of their younger competitors. 'The world is to the young,' says the eastern proverb; and in a world peopled throughout in the high places of thought by men almost without exception evolutionists, there was little or no place for the timid group of stranded Girondins, who still stood aloof in sullen antique scientific orthodoxy from what seemed to them the carmagnoles and orgies of a biological Thermidor.

At the same time, it must be steadily remembered that there are many naturalists at the present day, especially among those of the lower order of intelligence, who, while accepting evolutionism in a general way, and therefore always describing themselves as Darwinians, do not believe and often cannot even understand the distinctive Darwinian addition to the evolutionary doctrine—namely, the principle of natural selection. Such hazy and indistinct thinkers as these are still really at the prior stage of Lamarckian evolutionism. It is probable that in the future, while a formal acceptance of Darwinism becomes general, the special theory of natural selection will be thoroughly understood and assimilated only by the more abstract and philosophical minds. Our children will be taught as a matter of course the doctrine of development or of descent with modification; but the rationale of that descent will still remain in all likelihood always beyond the grasp of most of them: just as thousands accept on authority the Copernican astronomy, who would never even be capable of comprehending the simplest proofs of the earth's annual movement round the sun. Thus the name of Darwin will often no doubt be tacked on to what are in reality the principles of Lamarck.

Every day, however, in spite of such half-ignorant adherents, the effects of true Darwinism are widening and deepening. One group of earnest workers is using it now as a guide to physiological, embryological, and anatomical researches. Another is employing it with zeal and skill in the field of classificatory and physiological botany. Yet others are working out its psychological implications, enquiring into instinct and animal intelligence, and solving by its aid abstruse problems of the human mind and the human emotions. One philosopher has brought it to bear on questions of ethics, another on questions of social and political economy. Its principles have been applied in one place to æsthetics, in another place to logic, in a third place to the origin and growth of religion. The study of language has derived new lights from the great central Darwinian luminary. The art of education is beginning to feel the progressive influence of the Darwinian impulse. In fact, there is hardly a single original worker in any department of thought or science who has not been more or less profoundly affected, whether he knows it or whether he knows it not, by the vast spreading and circling wave of the Darwinian conceptions. All our ideas have been revolutionised and evolutionised. The new notions are abroad in the world, quickening with their fresh and vigorous germinal power the dry bones of all the sciences, all the arts, and all the philosophies.

And evolutionism is gradually though slowly filtering downward. It is permeating the daily press of the nations, and gaining for its vocabulary a recognised place in the phraseology of the unlearned vulgar. Such expressions as 'natural selection,' 'survival of the fittest,' 'struggle for existence,' 'adaptation to the environment,' and all the rest of it, are becoming as household words upon the lips of thousands who only know the name of Darwin as a butt for the petty empty jibes of infinitesimal cheap witlings. And Darwinism will trickle down still through a thousand channels, by definite popularisation, and still more by indefinite absorption into the common thought of universal humanity, till it becomes part and parcel of the general inheritance, bred in our bone and burnt into our blood, an heir-loom of our race to all time and in all countries. Great thoughts like his do not readily die: they expand and grow in ten thousand bosoms, till they transform the world at last into their own likeness, and adapt it to the environment they have themselves created by their informing power.

Happy above ordinary human happiness, Charles Darwin lived himself to see the prosperous beginning of this great silent philosophical revolution. Harvey's grand discovery, it has been well said, was scoffed at for nearly a whole generation. Newton's marvellous law of gravitation was coldly received even by the gigantic intellect of Leibnitz himself. Francis Bacon, in disgrace and humiliation, could only commend his name and memory 'to foreign nations and to the next age.' It is too often so with thinkers of the first and highest order: it was not so, happily, with the gentle soul of Charles Darwin. Alone among the prophets and teachers of triumphant creeds, he saw with his own eyes the adoption of the faith he had been the first to promulgate in all its fulness by every fresh and powerful mind of the younger race that grew up around him. The Nestor of evolutionism, he had lived among two successive generations of thinkers, and over the third he ruled as king. With that crowning joy of a great, a noble, and a happy life, let us leave him here alone in his glory.


Grant Allen

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