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Chapter 4

FAILURE OF THE FIRST EVOLUTIONISTS TO SEE THEIR POSITION AS TELEOLOGICAL.


It follows necessarily from the doctrine of Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, if not from that of Buffon himself, that the greater number of organs are as purposive to the evolutionist as to the theologian, and far more intelligibly so. Circumstances, however, prevented these writers from acknowledging this fact to the world, and perhaps even to themselves. Their crux was, as it still is to so many evolutionists, the presence of rudimentary organs, and the processes of embryological development. They would not admit that rudimentary and therefore useless organs were designed by a Creator to take their place once and for ever as part of a scheme whose main idea was, that every animal structure was to serve some useful end in connection with its possessor.

This was the doctrine of final causes as then commonly held; in the face of rudimentary organs it was absurd. Buffon was above all things else a plain matter of fact thinker, who refused to go far beyond the obvious. Like all other profound writers, he was, if I may say so, profoundly superficial. He felt that the aim of research does not consist in the knowing this or that, but in the easing of the desire to know or understand more completely--in the peace of mind which passeth all understanding. His was the perfection of a healthy mental organism by which over effort is felt instinctively to be as vicious and contemptible as indolence. He knew this too well to know the grounds of his knowledge, but we smaller people who know it less completely, can see that such felicitous instinctive tempering together of the two great contradictory principles, love of effort and love of ease, has underlain every step of all healthy growth through all conceivable time. Nothing is worth looking at which is seen either too obviously or with too much difficulty. Nothing is worth doing or well done which is not done fairly easily, and some little deficiency of effort is more pardonable than any very perceptible excess; for virtue has ever erred rather on the side of self-indulgence than of asceticism, and well-being has ever advanced through the pleasures rather than through austerity.

According to Buffon, then--as also according to Dr. Darwin, who was just such another practical and genial thinker, and who was distinctly a pupil of Buffon, though a most intelligent and original one--if an organ after a reasonable amount of inspection appeared to be useless, it was to be called useless without more ado, and theories were to be ordered out of court if they were troublesome. In like manner, if animals bred freely inter se before our eyes, as for example the horse and ass, the fact was to be noted, but no animals were to be classed as capable of interbreeding until they had asserted their right to such classification by breeding with tolerable certainty. If, again, an animal looked as if it felt, that is to say, if it moved about pretty quickly or made a noise, it must be held to feel; if it did neither of these things, it did not look as if it felt and therefore it must be said not to feel. De non apparentibus et non existentibus eadem est lex was one of the chief axioms of their philosophy; no writers have had a greater horror of mystery or of ideas that have not become so mastered as to be, or to have been, superficial. Lamarck was one of those men of whom I believe it has been said that they have brain upon the brain. He had his theory that an animal could not feel unless it had a nervous system, and at least a spinal marrow--and that it could not think at all without a brain--all his facts, therefore, have to be made to square with this. With Buffon and Dr. Darwin we feel safe that however wrong they may sometimes be, their conclusions have always been arrived at on that fairly superficial view of things in which, as I have elsewhere said, our nature alone permits us to be comforted.

To these writers, then, the doctrine of final causes for rudimentary organs was a piece of mystification and an absurdity; no less fatal to any such doctrine were the processes of embryological development. It was plain that the commonly received teleology must be given up; but the idea of design or purpose was so associated in their minds with theological design that they avoided it altogether. They seem to have forgotten that an internal teleology is as much teleology as an external one; hence, unfortunately, though their whole theory of development is intensely purposive, it is the fact rather than the name of teleology which has hitherto been insisted upon, even by the greatest writers on evolution--the name having been denied even by those who were most insisting on the thing itself.

It is easy to understand the difficulty felt by the fathers of evolution when we remember how much had to be seen before the facts could lie well before them. It was necessary to attain, firstly, to a perception of the unity of person between parents and offspring in successive generations; secondly, it must be seen that an organism's memory goes back for generations beyond its birth, to the first beginnings in fact, of which we know anything whatever; thirdly, the latency of that memory, as of memory generally till the associated ideas are reproduced, must be brought to bear upon the facts of heredity; and lastly, the unconsciousness with which habitual actions come to be performed, must be assigned as the explanation of the unconsciousness with which we grow and discharge most of our natural functions.

Buffon was too busy with the fact that animals descended with modification at all, to go beyond the development and illustration of this great truth. I doubt whether he ever saw more than the first, and that dimly, of the four considerations above stated.

Dr. Darwin was the first to point out the first two considerations with some clearness, but he can hardly be said to have understood their full importance: the two latter ideas do not appear to have occurred to him.

Lamarck had little if any perception of any one of the four. When, however, they are firmly seized and brought into their due bearings one upon another, the facts of heredity become as simple as those of a man making a tobacco pipe, and rudimentary organs are seen to be essentially of the same character as the little rudimentary protuberance at the bottom of the pipe to which I referred in 'Erewhon.'[23]

These organs are now no longer useful, but they once were so, and were therefore once purposive, though not so now. They are the expressions of a bygone usefulness; sayings, as it were, about which there was at one time infinite wrangling, as to what both the meaning and the expression should best be, so that they then had living significance in the mouths of those who used them, though they have become such mere shibboleths and cant formulę to ourselves that we think no more of their meaning than we do of Julius Cęsar in the month of July. They continue to be reproduced through the force of habit, and through indisposition to get out of any familiar groove of action until it becomes too unpleasant for us to remain in it any longer. It has long been felt that embryology and rudimentary structures indicated community of descent. Dr. Darwin and Lamarck insisted on this, as have all subsequent writers on evolution; but the explanation of why and how the structures come to be repeated--namely, that they are simply examples of the force of habit--can only be perceived intelligently by those who admit so much unity between parents and offspring that the self-development of the latter can be properly called habitual (as being a repetition of an act by one and the same individual), and can only be fully sympathized with by those who recognize that if habit be admitted as the key to the fact at all, the unconscious manner in which the habit comes to be repeated is only of a piece with all our other observations concerning habit. For the fuller development of the foregoing, I must refer the reader to my work 'Life and Habit.'

The purposiveness, which even Dr. Darwin, and Lamarck still less, seem never to have quite recognized in spite of their having insisted so much on what amounts to the same thing, now comes into full view. It is seen that the organs external to the body, and those internal to it are, the second as much as the first, things which we have made for our own convenience, and with a prevision that we shall have need of them; the main difference between the manufacture of these two classes of organs being, that we have made the one kind so often that we can no longer follow the processes whereby we make them, while the others are new things which we must make introspectively or not at all, and which are not yet so incorporate with our vitality as that we should think they grow instead of being manufactured. The manufacture of the tool, and the manufacture of the living organ prove therefore to be but two species of the same genus, which, though widely differentiated, have descended as it were from one common filament of desire and inventive faculty. The greater or less complexity of the organs goes for very little. It is only a question of the amount of intelligence and voluntary self-adaptation which we must admit, and this must be settled rather by an appeal to what we find in organism, and observe concerning it, than by what we may have imagined ą priori.

Given a small speck of jelly with some kind of circumstance-suiting power, some power of slightly varying its actions in accordance with slightly varying circumstances and desires--given such a jelly-speck with a power of assimilating other matter, and thus, of reproducing itself, given also that it should be possessed of a memory, and we can show how the whole animal world can have descended it may be from an amoeba without interference from without, and how every organ in every creature is designed at first roughly and tentatively but finally fashioned with the most consummate perfection, by the creature which has had need of that organ, which best knew what it wanted, and was never satisfied till it had got that which was the best suited to its varying circumstances in their entirety. We can even show how, if it becomes worth the Ethiopian's while to try and change his skin, or the leopard's to change his spots, they can assuredly change them within a not unreasonable time and adapt their covering to their own will and convenience, and to that of none other; thus what is commonly conceived of as direct creation by God is moved back to a time and space inconceivable in their remoteness, while the aim and design so obvious in nature are shown to be still at work around us, growing ever busier and busier, and advancing from day to day both in knowledge and power.

It was reserved for Mr. Darwin and for those who have too rashly followed him to deny purpose as having had any share in the development of animal and vegetable organs; to see no evidence of design in those wonderful provisions which have been the marvel and delight of observers in all ages. The one who has drawn our attention more than perhaps any other living writer to those very marvels of coadaptation, is the foremost to maintain that they are the result not of desire and design, either within the creature or without it, but of blind chance, working no whither, and due but to the accumulation of innumerable lucky accidents.

"There are men," writes Professor Tyndall in the 'Nineteenth Century,' for last November, "and by no means the minority, who, however wealthy in regard to facts, can never rise into the region of principles; and they are sometimes intolerant of those that can. They are formed to plod meritoriously on in the lower levels of thought; unpossessed of the pinions necessary to reach the heights, they cannot realize the mental act--the act of inspiration it might well be called--by which a man of genius, after long pondering and proving, reaches a theoretic conception which unravels and illuminates the tangle of centuries of observation and experiment. There are minds, it may be said in passing, who, at the present moment, stand in this relation to Mr. Darwin."

The more rhapsodical parts of the above must go for what they are worth, but I should be sorry to think that what remains conveyed a censure which might fall justly on myself. As I read the earlier part of the passage I confess that I imagined the conclusion was going to be very different from what it proved to be. Fresh from the study of the older men and also of Mr. Darwin himself, I failed to see that Mr. Darwin had "unravelled and illuminated" a tangled skein, but believed him, on the contrary, to have tangled and obscured what his predecessors had made in great part, if not wholly, plain. With the older writers, I had felt as though in the hands of men who wished to understand themselves and to make their reader understand them with the smallest possible exertion. The older men, if not in full daylight, at any rate saw in what quarter of the sky the dawn was breaking, and were looking steadily towards it. It is not they who have put their hands over their own eyes and ours, and who are crying out that there is no light, but chance and blindness everywhere.


FOOTNOTES:

[23] Page 210, first edition.


Samuel Butler

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