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Chapter 7

PRE-BUFFONIAN EVOLUTION, AND SOME GERMAN WRITERS.


Let us now proceed to the fuller development of the foregoing sketch.

"Undoubtedly," says Isidore Geoffroy, "from the most ancient times many philosophers have imagined vaguely that one species can be transformed into another. This doctrine seems to have been adopted by the Ionian school from the sixth century before our era.... Undoubtedly also the same opinion reappeared on several occasions in the middle ages, and in modern times; it is to be found in some of the hermetic books, where the transmutation of animal and vegetable species, and that of metals, are treated as complementary to one another. In modern times we again find it alluded to by some philosophers, and especially by Bacon, whose boldness is on this point extreme. Admitting it as 'incontestable that plants sometimes degenerate so far as to become plants of another species,' Bacon did not hesitate to try and put his theory into practice. He tried, in 1635, to give 'the rules' for the art of changing 'plants of one species into those of another.'"

This must be an error. Bacon died in 1626. The passage of Bacon referred to is in 'Nat. Hist.,' Cent. vi. ("Experiments in consort touching the degenerating of plants, and the transmutation of them one into another"), and is as follows:--

"518. This rule is certain, that plants for want of culture degenerate to be baser in the same kind; and sometimes so far as to change into another kind. 1. The standing long and not being removed maketh them degenerate. 2. Drought unless the earth, of itself, be moist doth the like. 3. So doth removing into worse earth, or forbearing to compost the earth; as we see that water mint turneth into field mint, and the colewort into rape by neglect, &c."

"525. It is certain that in very steril years corn sown will grow to another kind:--

'Grandia sæpe quibus mandavimus hordea sulcis,
Infelix lolium, et steriles dominantur avenæ.'


And generally it is a rule that plants that are brought forth for culture, as corn, will sooner change into other species, than those that come of themselves; for that culture giveth but an adventitious nature, which is more easily put off."

Changed conditions, according to Bacon (though he does not use these words), appear to be "the first rule for the transmutation of plants."

"But how much value," continues M. Geoffroy, "ought to be attached to such prophetic glimpses, when they were neither led up to, nor justified by any serious study? They are conjectures only, which, while bearing evidence to the boldness or rashness of those who hazarded them, remain almost without effect upon the advance of science. Bacon excepted, they hardly deserve to be remembered. As for De Maillet, who makes birds spring from flying fishes, reptiles from creeping fishes, and men from tritons, his dreams, taken in part from Anaximander, should have their place not in the history of science, but in that of the aberrations of the human mind."[33]

A far more forcible and pregnant passage, however, is the following, from Sir Walter Raleigh's 'History of the World,' which Mr. Garnett has been good enough to point out to me:--

"For mine owne opinion I find no difference but only in magnitude between the Cat of Europe, and the Ounce of India; and even those dogges which are become wild in Hispagniola, with which the Spaniards used to devour the naked Indians, are now changed to Wolves, and begin to destroy the breed of their Cattell, and doe often times teare asunder their owne children. The common crow and rooke of India is full of red feathers in the droun'd and low islands of Caribana, and the blackbird and thrush hath his feathers mixt with black and carnation in the north parts of Virginia. The Dog-fish of England is the Sharke of the South Ocean. For if colour or magnitude made a difference of Species, then were the Negroes, which wee call the Blacke-Mores, non animalia rationalia, not Men but some kind of strange Beasts, and so the giants of the South America should be of another kind than the people of this part of the World. We also see it dayly that the nature of fruits are changed by transplantation."[34]

For information concerning the earliest German writers on evolution, I turn to Professor Haeckel's 'History of Creation,' and find Goethe's name to head the list. I do not gather, however, that Goethe added much to the ideas which Buffon had already made sufficiently familiar. Professor Haeckel does not seem to be aware of Buffon's work, and quotes Goethe as making an original discovery when he writes, in the year 1796:--"Thus much then we have gained, that we may assert without hesitation that all the more perfect organic natures, such as fishes, amphibious animals, birds, mammals, and man at the head of the last, were all formed upon one original type, which only varies more or less in parts which were none the less permanent, and still daily changes and modifies its form by propagation."[35] But these, as we shall see, are almost Buffon's own words--words too that Buffon insisted on for many years. Again Professor Haeckel quotes Goethe as writing in the year 1807:--

"If we consider plants and animals in their most imperfect condition, they can hardly be distinguished." This, however, had long been insisted upon by Bonnet and Dr. Erasmus Darwin, the first of whom was a naturalist of world-wide fame, while the 'Zoonomia' of Dr. Darwin had been translated into German between the years 1795 and 1797, and could hardly have been unknown to Goethe in 1807, who continues: "But this much we may say, that the creatures which by degrees emerge as plants and animals out of a common phase where they are barely distinguishable, arrive at perfection in two opposite directions, so that the plant in the end reaches its highest glory in the tree, which is immovable and stiff, the animal in man who possesses the greatest elasticity and freedom." Professor Haeckel considers this to be a remarkable passage, but I do not think it should cause its author to rank among the founders of the evolution theory, though he may justly claim to have been one of the first to adopt it. Goethe's anatomical researches appear to have been more important, but I cannot find that he insisted on any new principle, or grasped any unfamiliar conception, which had not been long since grasped and widely promulgated by Buffon and by Dr. Erasmus Darwin.

Treviranus (1776-1837), whom Professor Haeckel places second to Goethe, is clearly a disciple of Buffon, and uses the word "degeneration" in the same sense as Buffon used it many years earlier, that is to say, as "descent with modification," without any reference to whether the offspring was, as Buffon says, "perfectionné ou dégradé." He cannot claim, any more than Goethe, to rank as a principal figure in the history of evolution.

Of Oken, Professor Haeckel says that his 'Naturphilosophie,' which appeared in 1809--in the same year, that is to say, as the 'Philosophie Zoologique' of Lamarck--was "the nearest approach to the natural theory of descent, newly established by Mr. Charles Darwin," of any work that appeared in the first decade of our century. But I do not detect any important difference of principle between his system and that of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, among whose disciples he should be reckoned.

"We now turn," says Professor Haeckel after referring to a few more German writers who adopted a belief in evolution, "from the German to the French nature-philosophers who have likewise held the theory of descent, since the beginning of this century. At their head stands Jean Lamarck, who occupies the first place next to Darwin and Goethe in the history of the doctrine of Filiation."[36] This is rather a surprising assertion, but I will leave the reader of the present volume to assign the value which should be attached to it.

Professor Haeckel devotes ten lines to Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who he declares "expresses views very similar to those of Goethe and Lamarck, without, however, then knowing anything about these two men;" which is all the more strange inasmuch as Dr. Darwin preceded them, and was a good deal better known to them, probably, than they to him; but it is plain Professor Haeckel has no acquaintance with the 'Zoonomia' of Dr. Erasmus Darwin. From all, then, that I am able to collect, I conclude that I shall best convey to the reader an idea of the different phases which the theory of descent with modification has gone through, by confining his attention almost entirely to Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, and Mr. Charles Darwin.


FOOTNOTES:

[33] 'Hist. Nat. Gen.,' vol. ii. p. 385, 1859.

[34] 'History of the World,' bk. i. ch. vii. § 9 ('Athenæum,' March 27, 1875).

[35] 'History of Creation,' vol. i. p. 91.

[36] 'History of Creation,' bk. i. ch. iii. (H. S. King, 1876).


Samuel Butler

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