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Chapter 21


So important is it that we should come to a clear understanding upon the positions taken by Mr. Darwin and Lamarck respectively, that at the risk of wearying the reader I will endeavour to exhaust this subject here. In order to do so, I will follow Mr. Darwin's answer to those who have objected to the expression, "natural selection."

Mr. Darwin says:--

"Several writers have misapprehended or objected to the term 'natural selection.' Some have even imagined that natural selection induces variability."[365]

And small wonder if they have; but those who have fallen into this error are hardly worth considering. The true complaint is that Mr. Darwin has too often written of "natural selection" as though it does induce variability, and that his language concerning it is so confusing that the reader is not helped to see that it really comes to nothing but a cloak of difference from his predecessors, under which there lurks a concealed identity of opinion as to the main facts. The reader is thus led to look upon it as something positive and special, and, in spite of Mr. Darwin's disclaimer, to think of it as an actively efficient cause.

Few will deny that this complaint is a just one, or that ninety-nine out of a hundred readers of average intelligence, if asked, after reading Mr. Darwin's 'Origin of Species,' what was the most important cause of modification, would answer "natural selection." Let the same readers have read the 'Zoonomia' of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, or the 'Philosophie Zoologique' of Lamarck, and they would at once reply, "the wishes of an animal or plant, as varying with its varying conditions," or more briefly, "sense of need."

"Whereas," continues Mr. Darwin, "it" (natural selection) "implies only the preservation of such variations as arise, and are beneficial to the being under its conditions of life. No one objects to agriculturists speaking of the potent effects of man's selection."

Of course not; for there is an actual creature man, who actually does select with a set purpose in order to produce such and such a result, which result he presently produces.

"And in this case the individual differences given by nature, which man for some object selects, must first occur."

This shows that the complaint has already reached Mr. Darwin, that in not showing us how "the individual differences first occur," he is really leaving us absolutely in the dark as to the cause of all modification--giving us an 'Origin of Species' with "the origin" cut out; but I do not think that any reader who has not been compelled to go somewhat deeply into the question would find out that this is the real gist of the objection which Mr. Darwin is appearing to combat. A general impression is left upon the reader that some very foolish objectors are being put to silence, that Mr. Darwin is the most candid literary opponent in the world, and as just as Aristides himself; but if the unassisted reader will cross-question himself what it is all about, I shall be much surprised if he is ready with his answer.

"Others"--to resume our criticism on Mr. Darwin's defence--"have objected that the term implies conscious choice in the animals which become modified, and it has been even urged that as plants have no volition, natural selection is not applicable to them!"

This--unfortunately--must have been the objection of a slovenly, or wilfully misapprehending reader, and was unworthy of serious notice. But its introduction here tends to draw the reader from the true ground of complaint, which is that at the end of Mr. Darwin's book we stand much in the same place as we did when we started, as regards any knowledge of what is the "origin of species."

"In the literal sense of the word, no doubt, natural selection is a false term."

Then why use it when another, and, by Mr. Darwin's own admission, a "more accurate" one is to hand in "the survival of the fittest"?[366] This term is not appreciably longer than natural selection. Mr. Darwin may say, indeed, that it is "sometimes" as convenient a term as natural selection; but the kind of men who exercise permanent effect upon the opinions of other people will bid such a passage as this stand aside somewhat sternly. If a term is not appreciably longer than another, and if at the same time it more accurately expresses the idea which is intended to be conveyed, it is not sometimes only, but always, more convenient, and should immediately be substituted for the less accurate one.

No one complains of the use of what is, strictly speaking, an inaccurate expression, when it is nevertheless the best that we can get. It may be doubted whether there is any such thing possible as a perfectly accurate expression. All words that are not simply names of things are apt to turn out little else than compendious false analogies; but we have a right to complain when a writer tells us that he is using a less accurate expression when a more accurate one is ready to his hand. Hence, when Mr. Darwin continues, "Who ever objected to chemists speaking of the elective affinities of the various elements? and yet an acid cannot strictly be said to elect the base with which it by preference combines," he is beside the mark. Chemists do not speak of "elective affinities" in spite of there being a more accurate and not appreciably longer expression at their disposal.

"It has been said," continues Mr. Darwin, "that I speak of natural selection as an active power or deity. But who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity? Everyone knows what is meant and implied by such metaphorical expressions, and they are almost necessary for brevity."

Mr. Darwin certainly does speak of natural selection "acting," "accumulating," "operating"; and if "every-one knew what was meant and implied by this metaphorical expression," as they now do, or think they do, in the case of the attraction of gravity, there might be less ground of complaint; but the expression was known to very few at the time Mr. Darwin introduced it, and was used with so much ambiguity, and with so little to protect the reader from falling into the error of supposing that it was the cause of the modifications which we see around us, that we had a just right to complain, even in the first instance; much more should we do so on the score of the retention of the expression when a more accurate one had been found.

If the "survival of the fittest" had been used, to the total excision of "natural selection" from every page in Mr. Darwin's book--it would have been easily seen that "the survival of the fittest" is no more a cause of modification, and hence can give no more explanation concerning the origin of species, than the fact of a number of competitors in a race failing to run the whole course, or to run it as quickly as the winner, can explain how the winner came to have good legs and lungs. According to Lamarck, the winner will have got these by means of sense of need, and consequent practice and training, on his own part, and on that of his forefathers; according to Mr. Darwin, the "most important means" of his getting them is his "happening" to be born with them, coupled, with the fact that his uncles and aunts for many generations could not run so well as his ancestors in the direct line. But can the fact of his uncles and aunts running less well than his fathers and mothers be a means of his fathers and mothers coming to run better than they used to run?

If the reader will bear in mind the idea of the runners in a race, it will help him to see the point at issue between Mr. Darwin and Lamarck. Perhaps also the double meaning of the word race, as expressing equally a breed and a competition, may not be wholly without significance. What we want to be told is, not that a runner will win the prize if he can run "ever such a little" faster than his fellows--we know this--but by what process he comes to be able to run ever such a little faster.

"So, again," continues Mr. Darwin, "it is difficult to avoid personifying nature, but I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us."

This, again, is raising up a dead man in order to knock him down. Nature has been personified for more than two thousand years, and every one understands that nature is no more really a woman than hope or justice, or than God is like the pictures of the mediŠval painters; no one whose objection was worth notice could have objected to the personification of nature.

Mr. Darwin concludes:--

"With a little familiarity, such superficial objections will be forgotten."[367]

As a matter of fact, I do not see any greater tendency to acquiesce in Mr. Darwin's claim on behalf of natural selection than there was a few years ago, but on the contrary, that discontent is daily growing. To say nothing of the Rev. J. J. Murphy and Professor Mivart, the late Mr. G. H. Lewes did not find the objection a superficial one, nor yet did he find it disappear "with a little familiarity"; on the contrary, the more familiar he became with it the less he appeared to like it. I may even go, without fear, so far as to say that any writer who now uses the expression "natural selection," writes himself down thereby as behind the age. It is with great pleasure that I observe Mr. Francis Darwin in his recent lecture[368] to have kept clear of it altogether, and to have made use of no expression, and advocated no doctrine to which either Dr. Erasmus Darwin or Lamarck would not have readily assented. I think I may affirm confidently that a few years ago any such lecture would have contained repeated reference to Natural Selection. For my own part I know of few passages in any theological writer which please me less than the one which I have above followed sentence by sentence. I know of few which should better serve to show us the sort of danger we should run if we were to let men of science get the upper hand of us.

Natural Selection, then, is only another way of saying "Nature." Mr. Darwin seems to be aware of this when he writes, "Nature, if I may be allowed to personify the natural preservation or survival of the fittest." And again, at the bottom of the same page, "It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing throughout the world the slightest variations."[369] It may be metaphorically said that Nature is daily and hourly scrutinizing, but it cannot be said consistently with any right use of words, metaphorical or otherwise, that natural selection scrutinizes, unless natural selection is merely a somewhat cumbrous synonym for Nature. When, therefore, Mr. Darwin says that natural selection is the "most important, but not the exclusive means" whereby any modification has been effected, he is really saying that Nature is the most important means of modification--which is only another way of telling us that variation causes variations, and is all very true as far as it goes.

I did not read Professor Mivart's 'Lessons from Nature,' until I had written all my own criticism on Mr. Darwin's position. From that work, however, I now quote the following:--

"It cannot then be contested that the far-famed 'Origin of Species,' that, namely, by 'Natural Selection,' has been repudiated in fact, though not expressly even by its own author. This circumstance, which is simply undeniable, might dispense us from any further consideration of the hypothesis itself. But the "conspiracy of silence," which has accompanied the repudiation tends to lead the unthinking many to suppose that the same importance still attaches to it as at first. On this account it may be well to ask the question, what, after all, is 'Natural Selection'?

"The answer may seem surprising to some, but it is none the less true, that 'Natural Selection' is simply nothing. It is an apparently positive name for a really negative effect, and is therefore an eminently misleading term. By 'Natural Selection' is meant the result of all the destructive agencies of Nature, destructive to individuals and to races by destroying their lives or their powers of propagation. Evidently, the cause of the distinction of species (supposing such distinction to be brought about in natural generation) must be that which causes variation, and variation in one determinate direction in at least several individuals simultaneously." I should like to have added here the words "and during many successive generations," but they will go very sufficiently without saying.

"At the same time," continues Professor Mivart, "it is freely conceded that the destructive agencies in nature do succeed in preventing the perpetuation of monstrous, abortive, and feeble attempts at the performance of the evolutionary process, that they rapidly remove antecedent forms when new ones are evolved more in harmony with surrounding conditions, and that their action results in the formation of new characters when these have once attained sufficient completeness to be of real utility to their possessor.

"Continued reflection, and five years further pondering over the problems of specific origin have more and more convinced me that the conception, that the origin of all species 'man included' is due simply to conditions which are (to use Mr. Darwin's own words) 'strictly accidental,' is a conception utterly irrational."

"With regard to the conception as now put forward by Mr. Darwin, I cannot truly characterize it but by an epithet which I employ only with much reluctance. I weigh my words and have present to my mind the many distinguished naturalists who have accepted the notion, and yet I cannot hesitate to call it a 'puerile hypothesis.'"[370]

I am afraid I cannot go with Professor Mivart farther than this point, though I have a strong feeling as though his conclusion is true, that "the material universe is always and everywhere sustained and directed by an infinite cause, for which to us the word mind is the least inadequate and misleading symbol." But I feel that any attempt to deal with such a question is going far beyond that sphere in which man's powers may be at present employed with advantage: I trust, therefore, that I may never try to verify it, and am indifferent whether it is correct or not.

Again, I should probably differ from Professor Mivart in finding this mind inseparable from the material universe in which we live and move. So that I could neither conceive of such a mind influencing and directing the universe from a point as it were outside the universe itself, nor yet of a universe as existing without there being present--or having been present--in its every particle something for which mind should be the least inadequate and misleading symbol. But the subject is far beyond me.

As regards Professor Mivart's denunciations of natural selection, I have only one fault to find with them, namely, that they do not speak out with sufficient bluntness. The difficulty of showing the fallacy of Mr. Darwin's position, is the difficulty of grasping a will-o'-the-wisp. A concluding example will put this clearly before the reader, and at the same time serve to illustrate the most tangible feature of difference between Mr. Darwin and Lamarck.


[365] 'Origin of Species,' p. 62.

[366] 'Origin of Species,' p. 49.

[367] 'Origin of Species,' p. 63.

[368] 'Nature,' March 14 and 21, 1878.

[369] 'Origin of Species,' p. 65.

[370] 'Lessons from Nature,' p. 300.

Samuel Butler

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