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Chapter 18


The same complaint must be made against Mr. Matthew's excellent survey of the theory of evolution, as against Dr. Erasmus Darwin's original exposition of the same theory, namely, that it is too short. It may be very true that brevity is the soul of wit, but the leaders of science will generally succeed in burking new-born wit, unless the brevity of its soul is found compatible with a body of some bulk.

Mr. Darwin writes thus concerning Mr. Matthew in the historical sketch to which I have already more than once referred.

"In 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published his work on 'Naval Timber and Arboriculture,' in which he gives precisely the same view on the origin of species as that (presently to be alluded to) propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself in the 'Linnean Journal,' and as that enlarged in the present volume. Unfortunately the view was given by Mr. Matthew very briefly, in scattered passages in an appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in the 'Gardener's Chronicle' for April 7, 1860. The differences of Mr. Matthew's view from mine are not of much importance; he seems to consider that the world was nearly depopulated at successive periods, and then re-stocked, and he gives as an alternative, that new forms may be generated 'without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates.' I am not sure that I understand some passages; but it seems that he attributes much influence to the direct action of the conditions of life. He clearly saw, however, the full force of the principle of natural selection."[321]

Nothing could well be more misleading. If Mr. Matthew's view of the origin of species is "precisely the same as that" propounded by Mr. Darwin, it is hard to see how Mr. Darwin can call those of Lamarck and Dr. Erasmus Darwin "erroneous"; for Mr. Matthew's is nothing but an excellent and well-digested summary of the conclusions arrived at by these two writers and by Buffon. If, again, Mr. Darwin is correct in saying that Mr. Matthew "clearly saw the full force of the principle of natural selection," he condemns the view he has himself taken of it in his 'Origin of Species,' for Mr. Darwin has assigned a far more important and very different effect to the fact that the fittest commonly survive in the struggle for existence, than Mr. Matthew has done. Mr. Matthew sees a cause underlying all variations; he takes the most teleological or purposive view of organism that has been taken by any writer (not a theologian) except myself, while Mr. Darwin's view, if not the least teleological, is certainly nearly so, and his confession of inability to detect any general cause underlying variations, leaves, as will appear presently, less than common room for ambiguity. Here are Mr. Matthew's own words:--

"There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to the condition that its kind, or that organized matter is susceptible of, and which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive, powers to their highest perfection, and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As nature in all her modifications of life has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time's decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing--either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of existence.

"Throughout this volume, we have felt considerable inconvenience from the adopted dogmatical classification of plants, and have all along been floundering between species and variety, which certainly under culture soften into each other. A particular conformity, each after its own kind, when in a state of nature, termed species, no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last forty centuries; geologists discover a like particular conformity--fossil species--through the deep deposition of each great epoch; but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life of one epoch from that of every other. We are therefore led to admit either a repeated miraculous conception, or a power of change under change of circumstances to belong to living organized matter, or rather to the congeries of inferior life which appears to form superior." (By this I suppose Mr. Matthew to imply his assent to the theory, that our personality or individuality is but as it were "the consensus, or full flowing river of a vast number of subordinate individualities or personalities, each one of which is a living being with thoughts and wishes of its own.") "The derangements and changes in organized existence, induced by a change of circumstances from the interference of man, afford us proof of the plastic quality of superior life; and the likelihood that circumstances have been very different in the different epochs, though steady in each, tend strongly to heighten the probability of the latter theory.

"When we view the immense calcareous and bituminous formations, principally from the waters and atmosphere, and consider the oxidations and depositions which have taken place, either gradually or during some of the great convulsions, it appears at least probable that the liquid elements containing life have varied considerably at different times in composition and weight; that our atmosphere has contained a much greater proportion of carbonic acid or oxygen; and our waters, aided by excess of carbonic acid, and greater heat resulting from greater density of atmosphere, have contained a greater quantity of lime, and other mineral solutions. Is the inference, then, unphilosophic that living things which are proved to have a circumstance-suiting power (a very slight change of circumstance by culture inducing a corresponding change of character), may have gradually accommodated themselves to the variations of the elements containing them, and without new creation, have presented the diverging changeable phenomena of past and present organized existence?

"The destructive liquid currents before which the hardest mountains have been swept and comminuted into gravel, sand, and mud, which intervened between and divided these epochs, probably extending over the whole surface of the globe and destroying nearly all living things, must have reduced existence so much that an unoccupied field would be formed for new diverging ramifications of life, which from the connected sexual system of vegetables, and the natural instinct of animals to herd and combine with their own kind, would fall into specific groups--these remnants in the course of time moulding and accommodating their being anew to the change of circumstances, and to every possible means of subsistence--and the millions of ages of regularity which appear to have followed between the epochs, probably after this accommodation was completed, affording fossil deposit of regular specific character.

"In endeavouring to trace ... the principle of these changes of fashion which have taken place in the domiciles of life the following questions occur: Do they arise from admixture of species nearly allied producing intermediate species? Are they the diverging ramifications of the living principle under modification of circumstance? or have they resulted from the combined agency of both?

"Is there only one living principle? Does organized existence, and perhaps all material existence, consist of one Proteus principle of life capable of gradual circumstance-suited modifications and aggregations without bound, under the solvent or motion-giving principle of heat or light? There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature that are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied; all change by this appears very limited and confined within the bounds of what is called species; the progeny of the same parents under great difference of circumstance, might in several generations even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.

"The self-regulating adaptive disposition of organized life may, in part, be traced to the extreme fecundity of nature, who, as before stated, has in all the varieties of her offspring a prolific power much beyond (in many cases a thousand fold) what is necessary to fill up the vacancies caused by senile decay. As the field of existence is limited and preoccupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals, who are able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have superior adaptation and greater power of occupancy than any other kind; the weaker and less circumstance-suited being prematurely destroyed. This principle is in constant action; it regulates the colour, the figure, the capacities, and instincts; those individuals in each species whose colour and covering are best suited to concealment or protection from enemies, or defence from inclemencies and vicissitudes of climate, whose figure is best accommodated to health, strength, defence, and support; whose capacities and instincts can best regulate the physical energies to self-advantage according to circumstances--in such immense waste of primary and youthful life those only come forward to maturity from the strict ordeal by which nature tests their adaptation to her standard of perfection and fitness to continue their kind by reproduction.

"From the unremitting operation of this law acting in concert with the tendency which the progeny have to take the more particular qualities of the parents, together with the connected sexual system in vegetables and instinctive limitation to its own kind in animals, a considerable uniformity of figure, colour, and character is induced constituting species; the breed gradually acquiring the very best possible adaptation of these to its condition which it is susceptible of, and when alteration of circumstance occurs, thus changing in character to suit these, as far as its nature is susceptible of change.

"This circumstance-adaptive law operating upon the slight but continued natural disposition to sport in the progeny (seedling variety) does not preclude the supposed influence which volition or sensation may have had over the configuration of the body. To examine into the disposition to sport in the progeny, even when there is only one parent as in many vegetables, and to investigate how much variation is modified by the mind or nervous sensation of the parents, or of the living thing itself during its progress to maturity; how far it depends upon external circumstance, and how far on the will, irritability, and muscular exertion, is open to examination and experiment. In the first place, we ought to examine its dependency upon the preceding links of the particular chain of life, variety being often merely types or approximations of former parentage; thence the variation of the family as well as of the individual must be embraced by our experiments.

"This continuation of family type, not broken by casual particular aberration, is mental as well as corporeal, and is exemplified in many of the dispositions or instincts of particular races of men. These innate or continuous ideas or habits seem proportionally greater in the insect tribes, and in those especially of shorter revolution; and forming an abiding memory, may resolve much of the enigma of instinct, and the foreknowledge which these tribes have of what is necessary to completing their round of life, reducing this to knowledge or impressions and habits acquired by a long experience.

"This greater continuity of existence, or rather continuity of perceptions and impressions in insects, is highly probable; it is even difficult in some to ascertain the particular steps when each individual commences, under the different phases of egg, larva, pupa, or if much consciousness of individuality exists. The continuation of reproduction for several generations by the females alone in some of these tribes, tends to the probability of the greater continuity of existence; and the subdivisions of life by cuttings (even in animal life), at any rate, must stagger the advocate of individuality.

"Among the millions of specific varieties of living things which occupy the humid portions of the surface of our planet, as far back as can be traced, there does not appear, with the exception of man, to have been any particular engrossing race, but a pretty fair balance of power of occupancy--or rather most wonderful variation of circumstance parallel to the nature of every species, as if circumstance and species had grown up together. There are, indeed, several races which have threatened ascendancy in some particular regions; but it is man alone from whom any general imminent danger to the existence of his brethren is to be dreaded.

"As far back as history reaches, man had already had considerable influence, and had made encroachments upon his fellow denizens, probably occasioning the destruction of many species, and the production and continuation of a number of varieties, and even species, which he found more suited to supply his wants, but which from the infirmity of their condition--not having undergone selection by the law of nature, of which we have spoken--cannot maintain their ground without culture and protection.

"It is only however in the present age that man has begun to reap the fruits of his tedious education, and has proven how much 'knowledge is power.' He has now acquired a dominion over the material world, and a consequent power of increase, so as to render it probable that the whole surface of the earth may soon be overrun by this engrossing anomaly, to the annihilation of every wonderful and beautiful variety of animal existence which does not administer to his wants, principally as laboratories of preparation to befit cruder elemental matter for assimilation by his organs.

"The consequences are being now developed of our deplorable ignorance of, or inattention to, one of the most evident traits of natural history--that vegetables, as well as animals, are generally liable to an almost unlimited diversification, regulated by climate, soil, nourishment, and new commixture of already-formed varieties. In those with which man is most intimate, and where his agency in throwing them from their natural locality and disposition has brought out this power of diversification in stronger shades, it has been forced upon his notice, as in man himself, in the dog, horse, cow, sheep, poultry,--in the apple, pear, plum, gooseberry, potato, pea, which sport in infinite varieties, differing considerably in size, colour, taste, firmness of texture, period of growth, almost in every recognizable quality. In all these kinds man is influential in preventing deterioration, by careful selection of the largest or most valuable as breeders."[322]

Étienne and Isidore Geoffroy.

"Both Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy," says Isidore Geoffroy, "had early perceived the philosophical importance of a question (evolution) which must be admitted as--with that of unity of composition--the greatest in natural history. We find them laying it down in the year 1795 in one of their joint 'Memoirs' (on the Orangs), in the very plainest terms, in the following question, 'Must we see,' they inquire, 'what we commonly call species, as the modified descendants of the same original form?'

"Both were at that time doubtful. Some years afterwards Cuvier not only answered this question in the negative, but declared, and pretended to prove, that the same forms have been perpetuated from the beginning of things. Lamarck, his antagonist par excellence on this point, maintained the contrary position with no less distinctness, showing that living beings are unceasingly variable with change of their surroundings, and giving with some boldness a zoological genesis in conformity with this doctrine.

"Geoffroy St. Hilaire had long pondered over this difficult subject. The doctrine which in his old age he so firmly defended, does not seem to have been conceived by him till after he had completed his 'Philosophie Anatomique,' and except through lectures delivered orally to the museum and the faculty, it was not published till 1828; nor again in the work then published do we find his theory in its neatest expression and fullest development."

Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire tells us in a note that the work referred to as first putting his father's views before the public in a printed form, was a report to the Academy of Sciences on a memoir by M. Roulin; but that before this report some indications of them are to be found in a paper on the Gavials, published in 1825. Their best rendering, however, and fullest development is in several memoirs, published in succession, between the years 1828 and 1837.

"This doctrine," he continues, "is diametrically opposed to that of Cuvier, and is not entirely the same as Lamarck's. Geoffroy St. Hilaire refutes the one, he restrains and corrects the other. Cuvier, according to him, sums up against the facts, while Lamarck goes further than they will bear him out. Essentially however on questions of this nature he is a follower of Lamarck, and took pleasure on several occasions in describing himself as the disciple of his illustrious confrère."[323]

I have been unable to detect any substantial difference of opinion between Geoffroy St. Hilaire and Lamarck, except that the first maintained that a line must be drawn somewhere--and did not draw it--while the latter said that no line could be drawn, and therefore drew none. Mr. Darwin is quite correct in saying that Geoffroy St. Hilaire "relied chiefly on the conditions of life, or the 'monde ambiant,' as the cause of change." But this is only Lamarck over again, for though Lamarck attributes variation directly to change of habits in the creature, he is almost wearisome in his insistence on the fact that the habit will not change, unless the conditions of life also do so. With both writers then it is change in the relative positions of the exterior circumstances, and of the organism, which results in variation, and finally in specific modification.

Here is another sketch of Étienne Geoffroy, also by his son Isidore.

In 1795, while Lamarck was still a believer in immutability, Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire "had ventured to say that species might well be 'degenerations from a single type,'" but, though he never lost sight of the question, he waited more than a quarter of a century before passing from meditation to action. "He at length put forward his opinion in 1825, he returned to it, but still briefly, in 1828 and 1829, and did not set himself to develop and establish it till the year 1831--the year following the memorable discussion in the Academy, on the unity of organic composition."[324]

"If," says his son, "he began by paying homage to his illustrious precursor, and by laying it down as a general axiom, that there is no such thing as fixity in nature, and especially in animated nature, he follows this adhesion to the general doctrine of variability by a dissent which goes to the very heart of the matter. And this dissent becomes deeper and deeper in his later works. Not only is Geoffroy St. Hilaire at pains to deny the unlimited extension of variability which is the foundation of the Lamarckian system, but he moreover and particularly declines to explain those degenerations which he admits as possible, by changes of action and habit on the part of the creature varying--Lamarck's favourite hypothesis, which he laboured to demonstrate without even succeeding in making it appear probable."[325]

Isidore Geoffroy then declares that his father, "though chronologically a follower of Lamarck, should be ranked philosophically as having continued the work of Buffon, to whom all his differences of opinion with Lamarck serve to bring him nearer."[326] If he had understood Buffon he would not have said so.

His conclusions are thus summed up:--"Geoffroy St. Hilaire maintains that species are variable if the environment varies in character; differences, then, more or less considerable according to the power of the modifying causes may have been produced in the course of time, and the living forms of to-day may be the descendants of more ancient forms."[327]

It is not easy to see that much weight should be attached to Geoffroy St. Hilaire's opinion. He seems to have been a person of hesitating temperament, under an impression that there was an opening just then through which a judicious trimmer might pass himself in among men of greater power. If his son has described his teaching correctly, it amounts practically to a bonâ fide endorsement of what Buffon can only be considered to have pretended to believe. The same objection that must be fatal to the view pretended by Buffon, is so in like manner to those put forward seriously of both the Geoffroys--for Isidore Geoffroy followed his father, but leant a little more openly towards Lamarck. He writes:--

"The characters of species are neither absolutely fixed, as has been maintained by some; nor yet, still more, indefinitely variable as according to others. They are fixed for each species as long as that species continues to reproduce itself in an unchanged environment; but they become modified if the environment changes."[328]

This is all that Lamarck himself would expect, as no one could be more fully aware than M. Geoffroy, who, however, admits that degeneration may extend to generic differences.[329]

I have been unable to find in M. Isidore Geoffroy's work anything like a refutation of Lamarck's contention that the modifications in animals and plants are due to the needs and wishes of the animals and plants themselves; on the contrary, to some extent he countenances this view himself, for he says, "hence arise notable differences of habitation and climate, and these in their turn induce secondary differences in diet and even in habits."[330] From which it must follow, though I cannot find it said expressly, that the author attributes modification in some measure to changed habits, and therefore to the changed desires from which the change of habits has arisen; but in the main he appears to refer modification to the direct action of a changed environment.

Mr. Herbert Spencer.

"Those who cavalierly reject the theory of Lamarck and his followers as not adequately supported by facts," wrote Mr. Herbert Spencer,[331] "seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all"--inasmuch as no one pretends to have seen an act of direct creation. Mr. Spencer points out that, according to the best authorities, there are some 320,000 species of plants now existing, and about 2,000,000 species of animals, including insects, and that if the extinct forms which have successively appeared and disappeared be added to these, there cannot have existed in all less than some ten million species. "Which," asks Mr. Spencer, "is the most rational theory about these ten millions of species? Is it most likely that there have been ten millions of special creations? or, is it most likely that by continual modification due to change of circumstances, ten millions of varieties may have been produced as varieties are being produced still?"

"Even could the supporters of the development hypothesis merely show that the production of species by the process of modification is conceivable, they would be in a better position than their opponents. But they can do much more than this; they can show that the process of modification has effected and is effecting great changes in all organisms, subject to modifying influences ... they can show that any existing species--animal or vegetable--when placed under conditions different from its previous ones, immediately begins to undergo certain changes of structure fitting it for the new conditions. They can show that in successive generations these changes continue until ultimately the new conditions become the natural ones. They can show that in cultivated plants and domesticated animals, and in the several races of men, these changes have uniformly taken place. They can show that the degrees of difference, so produced, are often, as in dogs, greater than those on which distinctions of species are in other cases founded. They can show that it is a matter of dispute whether some of these modified forms are varieties or modified species. They can show too that the changes daily taking place in ourselves; the facility that attends long practice, and the loss of aptitude that begins when practice ceases; the strengthening of passions habitually gratified, and the weakening of those habitually curbed; the development of every faculty, bodily, moral or intellectual, according to the use made of it, are all explicable on this same principle. And thus they can show that throughout all organic nature there is at work a modifying influence of the kind they assign as the cause of these specific differences, an influence which, though slow in its action, does in time, if the circumstances demand it, produce marked changes; an influence which, to all appearance, would produce in the millions of years, and under the great varieties of condition which geological records imply, any amount of change."

This leaves nothing to be desired. It is Buffon, Dr. Darwin, and Lamarck, well expressed. Those were the days before "Natural Selection" had been discharged into the waters of the evolution controversy, like the secretion of a cuttle fish. Changed circumstances immediately induce changed habits, and hence a changed use of some organs, and disuse of others: as a consequence of this, organs and instincts become changed, "and these changes continue in successive generations, until ultimately the new conditions become the natural ones." This is the whole theory of "development," "evolution," or "descent with modification." Volumes may be written to adduce the details which warrant us in accepting it, and to explain the causes which have brought it about, but I fail to see how anything essential can be added to the theory itself, which is here so well supported by Mr. Spencer, and which is exactly as Lamarck left it. All that remains is to have a clear conception of the oneness of personality between parents and offspring, of the eternity, and latency, of memory, and of the unconsciousness with which habitual actions are repeated, which last point, indeed, Mr. Spencer has himself touched upon.

Mr. Spencer continues--"That by any series of changes a zoophyte should ever become a mammal, seems to those who are not familiar with zoology, and who have not seen how clear becomes the relationship between the simplest and the most complex forms, when all intermediate forms are examined, a very grotesque notion ... they never realize the fact that by small increments of modification, any amount of modification may in time be generated. That surprise which they feel on finding one whom they last saw as a boy, grown into a man, becomes incredulity when the degree of change is greater. Nevertheless, abundant instances are at hand of the mode in which we may pass to the most diverse forms by insensible gradations."

Nothing can be more satisfactory and straightforward. I will make one more quotation from this excellent article:--

"But the blindness of those who think it absurd to suppose that complex organic forms may have arisen by successive modifications out of simple ones, becomes astonishing when we remember that complex organic forms are daily being thus produced. A tree differs from a seed immeasurably in every respect--in bulk, in structure, in colour, in form, in specific gravity, in chemical composition--differs so greatly that no visible resemblance of any kind can be pointed out between them. Yet is the one changed in the course of a few years into the other--changed so gradually that at no moment can it be said, 'Now the seed ceases to be, and the tree exists.' What can be more widely contrasted than a newly-born child, and the small, semi-transparent gelatinous spherule constituting the human ovum? The infant is so complex in structure that a cyclopædia is needed to describe its constituent parts. The germinal vesicle is so simple, that a line will contain all that can be said of it. Nevertheless, a few months suffices to develop the one out of the other, and that too by a series of modifications so small, that were the embryo examined at successive minutes, not even a microscope would disclose any sensible changes. That the uneducated and ill-educated should think the hypothesis that all races of beings, man inclusive, may in process of time have been evolved from the simplest monad a ludicrous one is not to be wondered at. But for the physiologist, who knows that every individual being is so evolved--who knows further that in their earliest condition the germs of all plants and animals whatsoever are so similar, 'that there is no appreciable distinction among them which would enable it to be determined whether a particular molecule is the germ of a conferva or of an oak, of a zoophyte or of a man'[332]--for him to make a difficulty of the matter is inexcusable. Surely, if a single structureless cell may, when subjected to certain influences, become a man in the space of twenty years, there is nothing absurd in the hypothesis that under certain other influences a cell may, in the course of millions of years, give origin to the human race. The two processes are generically the same, and differ only in length and complexity."

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The very important extract from Professor Hering's lecture should perhaps have been placed here. The reader will, however, find it on page 199.


[321] 'Origin of Species,' Hist. Sketch, p. xvi.

[322] See 'Naval Timber and Arboriculture,' by Patrick Matthew, published by Adam and C. Black, Edinburgh, and Longmans and Co., London, 1831, pp. 364, 365, 381-388, and also 106-108, 'Gardeners' Chronicle,' April 7, 1860.

[323] 'Vie et Doctrine Scientifique de Geoffroy Étienne St. Hilaire,' Paris, Strasbourg, 1847, pp. 344-346.

[324] 'Hist. Nat. Gén.,' tom. ii. 413.

[325] 'Hist. Nat. Gén.,' tom. ii. p. 415.

[326] Ibid.

[327] Ibid. p. 421.

[328] 'Hist. Nat. Gén.,' vol. ii. p. 431, 1859.

[329] 'Origin of Species,' Hist. Sketch, p. xix.

[330] 'Hist. Nat. Gén.,' vol. ii. p. 432.

[331] See 'The Leader,' March 20, 1852, "The Haythorne Papers."

[332] Carpenter's 'Principles of Physiology', 3rd ed., p. 867.

Samuel Butler

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