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Chapter 1

Introduction--General ignorance on the subject of evolution at the time the "Origin of Species" was published in 1859.


There are few things which strike us with more surprise, when we review the course taken by opinion in the last century, than the suddenness with which belief in witchcraft and demoniacal possession came to an end. This has been often remarked upon, but I am not acquainted with any record of the fact as it appeared to those under whose eyes the change was taking place, nor have I seen any contemporary explanation of the reasons which led to the apparently sudden overthrow of a belief which had seemed hitherto to be deeply rooted in the minds of almost all men. As a parallel to this, though in respect of the rapid spread of an opinion, and not its decadence, it is probable that those of our descendants who take an interest in ourselves will note the suddenness with which the theory of evolution, from having been generally ridiculed during a period of over a hundred years, came into popularity and almost universal acceptance among educated people.

It is indisputable that this has been the case; nor is it less indisputable that the works of Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace have been the main agents in the change that has been brought about in our opinions. The names of Cobden and Bright do not stand more prominently forward in connection with the repeal of the Corn Laws than do those of Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace in connection with the general acceptance of the theory of evolution. There is no living philosopher who has anything like Mr. Darwin's popularity with Englishmen generally; and not only this, but his power of fascination extends all over Europe, and indeed in every country in which civilisation has obtained footing: not among the illiterate masses, though these are rapidly following the suit of the educated classes, but among experts and those who are most capable of judging. France, indeed--the country of Buffon and Lamarck--must be counted an exception to the general rule, but in England and Germany there are few men of scientific reputation who do not accept Mr. Darwin as the founder of what is commonly called "Darwinism," and regard him as perhaps the most penetrative and profound philosopher of modern times.

To quote an example from the last few weeks only, [2] I have observed that Professor Huxley has celebrated the twenty-first year since the "Origin of Species" was published by a lecture at the Royal Institution, and am told that he described Mr. Darwin's candour as something actually "terrible" (I give Professor Huxley's own word, as reported by one who heard it); and on opening a small book entitled "Degeneration," by Professor Ray Lankester, published a few days before these lines were written, I find the following passage amid more that is to the same purport:-

"Suddenly one of those great guesses which occasionally appear in the history of science was given to the science of biology by the imaginative insight of that greatest of living naturalists--I would say that greatest of living men--Charles Darwin."--Degeneration, p. 10.

This is very strong language, but it is hardly stronger than that habitually employed by the leading men of science when they speak of Mr. Darwin. To go farther afield, in February 1879 the Germans devoted an entire number of one of their scientific periodicals [3] to the celebration of Mr. Darwin's seventieth birthday. There is no other Englishman now living who has been able to win such a compliment as this from foreigners, who should be disinterested judges.

Under these circumstances, it must seem the height of presumption to differ from so great an authority, and to join the small band of malcontents who hold that Mr. Darwin's reputation as a philosopher, though it has grown up with the rapidity of Jonah's gourd, will yet not be permanent. I believe, however, that though we must always gladly and gratefully owe it to Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace that the public mind has been brought to accept evolution, the admiration now generally felt for the "Origin of Species" will appear as unaccountable to our descendants some fifty or eighty years hence as the enthusiasm of our grandfathers for the poetry of Dr. Erasmus Darwin does to ourselves; and as one who has yielded to none in respect of the fascination Mr. Darwin has exercised over him, I would fain say a few words of explanation which may make the matter clearer to our future historians. I do this the more readily because I can at the same time explain thus better than in any other way the steps which led me to the theory which I afterwards advanced in "Life and Habit."

This last, indeed, is perhaps the main purpose of the earlier chapters of this book. I shall presently give a translation of a lecture by Professor Ewald Hering of Prague, which appeared ten years ago, and which contains so exactly the theory I subsequently advocated myself, that I am half uneasy lest it should be supposed that I knew of Professor Hering's work and made no reference to it. A friend to whom I submitted my translation in MS., asking him how closely he thought it resembled "Life and Habit," wrote back that it gave my own ideas almost in my own words. As far as the ideas are concerned this is certainly the case, and considering that Professor Hering wrote between seven and eight years before I did, I think it due to him, and to my readers as well as to myself, to explain the steps which led me to my conclusions, and, while putting Professor Hering's lecture before them, to show cause for thinking that I arrived at an almost identical conclusion, as it would appear, by an almost identical road, yet, nevertheless, quite independently, I must ask the reader, therefore, to regard these earlier chapters as in some measure a personal explanation, as well as a contribution to the history of an important feature in the developments of the last twenty years. I hope also, by showing the steps by which I was led to my conclusions, to make the conclusions themselves more acceptable and easy of comprehension.

Being on my way to New Zealand when the "Origin of Species" appeared, I did not get it till 1860 or 1861. When I read it, I found "the theory of natural selection" repeatedly spoken of as though it were a synonym for "the theory of descent with modification"; this is especially the case in the recapitulation chapter of the work. I failed to see how important it was that these two theories--if indeed "natural selection" can be called a theory--should not be confounded together, and that a "theory of descent with modification" might be true, while a "theory of descent with modification through natural selection" [4] might not stand being looked into.

If any one had asked me to state in brief what Mr. Darwin's theory was, I am afraid I might have answered "natural selection," or "descent with modification," whichever came first, as though the one meant much the same as the other. I observe that most of the leading writers on the subject are still unable to catch sight of the distinction here alluded to, and console myself for my want of acumen by reflecting that, if I was misled, I was misled in good company.

I--and I may add, the public generally--failed also to see what the unaided reader who was new to the subject would be almost certain to overlook. I mean, that, according to Mr. Darwin, the variations whose accumulation resulted in diversity of species and genus were indefinite, fortuitous, attributable but in small degree to any known causes, and without a general principle underlying them which would cause them to appear steadily in a given direction for many successive generations and in a considerable number of individuals at the same time. We did not know that the theory of evolution was one that had been quietly but steadily gaining ground during the last hundred years. Buffon we knew by name, but he sounded too like "buffoon" for any good to come from him. We had heard also of Lamarck, and held him to be a kind of French Lord Monboddo; but we knew nothing of his doctrine save through the caricatures promulgated by his opponents, or the misrepresentations of those who had another kind of interest in disparaging him. Dr. Erasmus Darwin we believed to be a forgotten minor poet, but ninety-nine out of every hundred of us had never so much as heard of the "Zoonomia." We were little likely, therefore, to know that Lamarck drew very largely from Buffon, and probably also from Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and that this last-named writer, though essentially original, was founded upon Buffon, who was greatly more in advance of any predecessor than any successor has been in advance of him.

We did not know, then, that according to the earlier writers the variations whose accumulation results in species were not fortuitous and definite, but were due to a known principle of universal application--namely, "sense of need"--or apprehend the difference between a theory of evolution which has a backbone, as it were, in the tolerably constant or slowly varying needs of large numbers of individuals for long periods together, and one which has no such backbone, but according to which the progress of one generation is always liable to be cancelled and obliterated by that of the next. We did not know that the new theory in a quiet way professed to tell us less than the old had done, and declared that it could throw little if any light upon the matter which the earlier writers had endeavoured to illuminate as the central point in their system. We took it for granted that more light must be being thrown instead of less; and reading in perfect good faith, we rose from our perusal with the impression that Mr. Darwin was advocating the descent of all existing forms of life from a single, or from, at any rate, a very few primordial types; that no one else had done this hitherto, or that, if they had, they had got the whole subject into a mess, which mess, whatever it was--for we were never told this--was now being removed once for all by Mr. Darwin.

The evolution part of the story, that is to say, the fact of evolution, remained in our minds as by far the most prominent feature in Mr. Darwin's book; and being grateful for it, we were very ready to take Mr. Darwin's work at the estimate tacitly claimed for it by himself, and vehemently insisted upon by reviewers in influential journals, who took much the same line towards the earlier writers on evolution as Mr. Darwin himself had taken. But perhaps nothing more prepossessed us in Mr. Darwin's favour than the air of candour that was omnipresent throughout his work. The prominence given to the arguments of opponents completely carried us away; it was this which threw us off our guard. It never occurred to us that there might be other and more dangerous opponents who were not brought forward. Mr. Darwin did not tell us what his grandfather and Lamarck would have had to say to this or that. Moreover, there was an unobtrusive parade of hidden learning and of difficulties at last overcome which was particularly grateful to us. Whatever opinion might be ultimately come to concerning the value of his theory, there could be but one about the value of the example he had set to men of science generally by the perfect frankness and unselfishness of his work. Friends and foes alike combined to do homage to Mr. Darwin in this respect.

For, brilliant as the reception of the "Origin of Species" was, it met in the first instance with hardly less hostile than friendly criticism. But the attacks were ill-directed; they came from a suspected quarter, and those who led them did not detect more than the general public had done what were the really weak places in Mr. Darwin's armour. They attacked him where he was strongest; and above all, they were, as a general rule, stamped with a disingenuousness which at that time we believed to be peculiar to theological writers and alien to the spirit of science. Seeing, therefore, that the men of science ranged themselves more and more decidedly on Mr. Darwin's side, while his opponents had manifestly--so far as I can remember, all the more prominent among them--a bias to which their hostility was attributable, we left off looking at the arguments against "Darwinism," as we now began to call it, and pigeon-holed the matter to the effect that there was one evolution, and that Mr. Darwin was its prophet.

The blame of our errors and oversights rests primarily with Mr. Darwin himself. The first, and far the most important, edition of the "Origin of Species" came out as a kind of literary Melchisedec, without father and without mother in the works of other people. Here is its opening paragraph:-

"When on board H.M.S. 'Beagle' as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species--that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting upon all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years' work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision." [8a]

In the latest edition this passage remains unaltered, except in one unimportant respect. What could more completely throw us off the scent of the earlier writers? If they had written anything worthy of our attention, or indeed if there had been any earlier writers at all, Mr. Darwin would have been the first to tell us about them, and to award them their due meed of recognition. But, no; the whole thing was an original growth in Mr. Darwin's mind, and he had never so much as heard of his grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin.

Dr. Krause, indeed, thought otherwise. In the number of Kosmos for February 1879 he represented Mr. Darwin as in his youth approaching the works of his grandfather with all the devotion which people usually feel for the writings of a renowned poet. [8b] This should perhaps be a delicately ironical way of hinting that Mr. Darwin did not read his grandfather's books closely; but I hardly think that Dr. Krause looked at the matter in this light, for he goes on to say that "almost every single work of the younger Darwin may be paralleled by at least a chapter in the works of his ancestor: the mystery of heredity, adaptation, the protective arrangements of animals and plants, sexual selection, insectivorous plants, and the analysis of the emotions and sociological impulses; nay, even the studies on infants are to be found already discussed in the pages of the elder Darwin." [8c]

Nevertheless, innocent as Mr. Darwin's opening sentence appeared, it contained enough to have put us upon our guard. When he informed us that, on his return from a long voyage, "it occurred to" him that the way to make anything out about his subject was to collect and reflect upon the facts that bore upon it, it should have occurred to us in our turn, that when people betray a return of consciousness upon such matters as this, they are on the confines of that state in which other and not less elementary matters will not "occur to" them. The introduction of the word "patiently" should have been conclusive. I will not analyse more of the sentence, but will repeat the next two lines:- "After five years of work, I allowed myself to speculate upon the subject, and drew up some short notes." We read this, thousands of us, and were blind.

If Dr. Erasmus Darwin's name was not mentioned in the first edition of the "Origin of Species," we should not be surprised at there being no notice taken of Buffon, or at Lamarck's being referred to only twice--on the first occasion to be serenely waved aside, he and all his works; [9a] on the second, [9b] to be commended on a point of detail. The author of the "Vestiges of Creation" was more widely known to English readers, having written more recently and nearer home. He was dealt with summarily, on an early and prominent page, by a misrepresentation, which was silently expunged in later editions of the "Origin of Species." In his later editions (I believe first in his third, when 6000 copies had been already sold), Mr. Darwin did indeed introduce a few pages in which he gave what he designated as a "brief but imperfect sketch" of the progress of opinion on the origin of species prior to the appearance of his own work; but the general impression which a book conveys to, and leaves upon, the public is conveyed by the first edition--the one which is alone, with rare exceptions, reviewed; and in the first edition of the "Origin of Species" Mr. Darwin's great precursors were all either ignored or misrepresented. Moreover, the "brief but imperfect sketch," when it did come, was so very brief, but, in spite of this (for this is what I suppose Mr. Darwin must mean), so very imperfect, that it might as well have been left unwritten for all the help it gave the reader to see the true question at issue between the original propounders of the theory of evolution and Mr. Charles Darwin himself.

That question is this: Whether variation is in the main attributable to a known general principle, or whether it is not?--whether the minute variations whose accumulation results in specific and generic differences are referable to something which will ensure their appearing in a certain definite direction, or in certain definite directions, for long periods together, and in many individuals, or whether they are not?--whether, in a word, these variations are in the main definite or indefinite?

It is observable that the leading men of science seem rarely to understand this even now. I am told that Professor Huxley, in his recent lecture on the coming of age of the "Origin of Species," never so much as alluded to the existence of any such division of opinion as this. He did not even, I am assured, mention "natural selection," but appeared to believe, with Professor Tyndall, [10a] that "evolution" is "Mr. Darwin's theory." In his article on evolution in the latest edition of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," I find only a veiled perception of the point wherein Mr. Darwin is at variance with his precursors. Professor Huxley evidently knows little of these writers beyond their names; if he had known more, it is impossible he should have written that "Buffon contributed nothing to the general doctrine of evolution," [10b] and that Erasmus Darwin, "though a zealous evolutionist, can hardly be said to have made any real advance on his predecessors." [11] The article is in a high degree unsatisfactory, and betrays at once an amount of ignorance and of perception which leaves an uncomfortable impression.

If this is the state of things that prevails even now, it is not surprising that in 1860 the general public should, with few exceptions, have known of only one evolution, namely, that propounded by Mr. Darwin. As a member of the general public, at that time residing eighteen miles from the nearest human habitation, and three days' journey on horseback from a bookseller's shop, I became one of Mr. Darwin's many enthusiastic admirers, and wrote a philosophical dialogue (the most offensive form, except poetry and books of travel into supposed unknown countries, that even literature can assume) upon the "Origin of Species." This production appeared in the Press, Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1861 or 1862, but I have long lost the only copy I had.



Footnotes:

[2] May 1880.

[3] Kosmos, February 1879, Leipsic.

[4] Origin of Species, ed. i., p. 459.

[8a] Origin of Species, ed. i., p. 1.

[8b] Kosmos, February 1879, p. 397.

[8c] Erasmus Darwin, by Ernest Krause, pp. 132, 133.

[9a] Origin of Species, ed. i., p. 242.

[9b] Ibid., p. 427.

[10a] Nineteenth Century, November 1878; Evolution, Old and New, pp. 360. 361.

[10b] Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. ix., art. "Evolution," p. 748.

[11] Ibid.


Samuel Butler

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