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Chapter 3

How I came to write "Evolution, Old and New"--Mr Darwin's "brief but imperfect" sketch of the opinions of the writers on evolution who had preceded him--The reception which "Evolution, Old and New," met with.

Though my book was out in 1877, it was not till January 1878 that I took an opportunity of looking up Professor Ray Lankester's account of Professor Hering's lecture. I can hardly say how relieved I was to find that it sprung no mine upon me, but that, so far as I could gather, Professor Hering and I had come to pretty much the same conclusion. I had already found the passage in Dr. Erasmus Darwin which I quoted in "Evolution, Old and New," but may perhaps as well repeat it here. It runs -

"Owing to the imperfection of language, the offspring is termed a new animal; but is, in truth, a branch or elongation of the parent, since a part of the embryon animal is or was a part of the parent, and, therefore, in strict language, cannot be said to be entirely new at the time of its production, and, therefore, it may retain some of the habits of the parent system." [26]

When, then, the Athenaeum reviewed "Life and Habit" (January 26, 1878), I took the opportunity to write to that paper, calling attention to Professor Hering's lecture, and also to the passage just quoted from Dr. Erasmus Darwin. The editor kindly inserted my letter in his issue of February 9, 1878. I felt that I had now done all in the way of acknowledgment to Professor Hering which it was, for the time, in my power to do.

I again took up Mr. Darwin's "Origin of Species," this time, I admit, in a spirit of scepticism. I read his "brief but imperfect" sketch of the progress of opinion on the origin of species, and turned to each one of the writers he had mentioned. First, I read all the parts of the "Zoonomia" that were not purely medical, and was astonished to find that, as Dr. Krause has since said in his essay on Erasmus Darwin, "HE WAS THE FIRST WHO PROPOSED AND PERSISTENTLY CARRIED OUT A WELL-ROUNDED THEORY WITH REGARD TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE LIVING WORLD" [27] (italics in original).

This is undoubtedly the case, and I was surprised at finding Professor Huxley say concerning this very eminent man that he could "hardly be said to have made any real advance upon his predecessors." Still more was I surprised at remembering that, in the first edition of the "Origin of Species," Dr. Erasmus Darwin had never been so much as named; while in the "brief but imperfect" sketch he was dismissed with a line of half-contemptuous patronage, as though the mingled tribute of admiration and curiosity which attaches to scientific prophecies, as distinguished from discoveries, was the utmost he was entitled to. "It is curious," says Mr. Darwin innocently, in the middle of a note in the smallest possible type, "how largely my grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, anticipated the views and erroneous grounds of opinion of Lamarck in his 'Zoonomia' (vol. i. pp. 500- 510), published in 1794"; this was all he had to say about the founder of "Darwinism," until I myself unearthed Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and put his work fairly before the present generation in "Evolution, Old and New." Six months after I had done this, I had the satisfaction of seeing that Mr. Darwin had woke up to the propriety of doing much the same thing, and that he had published an interesting and charmingly written memoir of his grandfather, of which more anon.

Not that Dr. Darwin was the first to catch sight of a complete theory of evolution. Buffon was the first to point out that, in view of the known modifications which had been effected among our domesticated animals and cultivated plants, the ass and the horse should be considered as, in all probability, descended from a common ancestor; yet, if this is so, he writes--if the point "were once gained that among animals and vegetables there had been, I do not say several species, but even a single one, which had been produced in the course of direct descent from another species; if, for example, it could be once shown that the ass was but a degeneration from the horse, then there is no further limit to be set to the power of Nature, and we should not be wrong in supposing that, with sufficient time, she has evolved all other organised forms from one primordial type" [28a] (et l'on n'auroit pas tort de supposer, que d'un seul etre elle a su tirer avec le temps tous les autres etres organises).

This, I imagine, in spite of Professor Huxley's dictum, is contributing a good deal to the general doctrine of evolution; for though Descartes and Leibnitz may have thrown out hints pointing more or less broadly in the direction of evolution, some of which Professor Huxley has quoted, he has adduced nothing approaching to the passage from Buffon given above, either in respect of the clearness with which the conclusion intended to be arrived at is pointed out, or the breadth of view with which the whole ground of animal and vegetable nature is covered. The passage referred to is only one of many to the same effect, and must be connected with one quoted in "Evolution, Old and New," [28b] from p. 13 of Buffon's first volume, which appeared in 1749, and than which nothing can well point more plainly in the direction of evolution. It is not easy, therefore, to understand why Professor Huxley should give 1753-78 as the date of Buffon's work, nor yet why he should say that Buffon was "at first a partisan of the absolute immutability of species," [29a] unless, indeed, we suppose he has been content to follow that very unsatisfactory writer, Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire (who falls into this error, and says that Buffon's first volume on animals appeared 1753), without verifying him, and without making any reference to him.

Professor Huxley quotes a passage from the "Palingenesie Philosophique" of Bonnet, of which he says that, making allowance for his peculiar views on the subject of generation, they bear no small resemblance to what is understood by "evolution" at the present day. The most important parts of the passage quoted are as follows:-

"Should I be going too far if I were to conjecture that the plants and animals of the present day have arisen by a sort of natural evolution from the organised beings which peopled the world in its original state as it left the hands of the Creator? . . . In the outset organised beings were probably very different from what they are now--as different as the original world is from our present one. We have no means of estimating the amount of these differences, but it is possible that even our ablest naturalist, if transplanted to the original world, would entirely fail to recognise our plants and animals therein." [29b]

But this is feeble in comparison with Buffon, and did not appear till 1769, when Buffon had been writing on evolution for fully twenty years with the eyes of scientific Europe upon him. Whatever concession to the opinion of Buffon Bonnet may have been inclined to make in 1769, in 1764, when he published his "Contemplation de la Nature," and in 1762 when his "Considerations sur les Corps Organes" appeared, he cannot be considered to have been a supporter of evolution. I went through these works in 1878 when I was writing "Evolution, Old and New," to see whether I could claim him as on my side; but though frequently delighted with his work, I found it impossible to press him into my service.

The pre-eminent claim of Buffon to be considered as the father of the modern doctrine of evolution cannot be reasonably disputed, though he was doubtless led to his conclusions by the works of Descartes and Leibnitz, of both of whom he was an avowed and very warm admirer. His claim does not rest upon a passage here or there, but upon the spirit of forty quartos written over a period of about as many years. Nevertheless he wrote, as I have shown in "Evolution, Old and New," of set purpose enigmatically, whereas there was no beating about the bush with Dr. Darwin. He speaks straight out, and Dr. Krause is justified in saying of him "THAT HE WAS THE FIRST WHO PROPOSED AND PERSISTENTLY CARRIED OUT A WELL-ROUNDED THEORY" of evolution.

I now turned to Lamarck. I read the first volume of the "Philosophie Zoologique," analysed it and translated the most important parts. The second volume was beside my purpose, dealing as it does rather with the origin of life than of species, and travelling too fast and too far for me to be able to keep up with him. Again I was astonished at the little mention Mr. Darwin had made of this illustrious writer, at the manner in which he had motioned him away, as it were, with his hand in the first edition of the "Origin of Species," and at the brevity and imperfection of the remarks made upon him in the subsequent historical sketch.

I got Isidore Geoffroy's "Histoire Naturelle Generale," which Mr. Darwin commends in the note on the second page of the historical sketch, as giving "an excellent history of opinion" upon the subject of evolution, and a full account of Buffon's conclusions upon the same subject. This at least is what I supposed Mr. Darwin to mean. What he said was that Isidore Geoffroy gives an excellent history of opinion on the subject of the date of the first publication of Lamarck, and that in his work there is a full account of Buffon's fluctuating conclusions upon THE SAME SUBJECT. [31] But Mr. Darwin is a more than commonly puzzling writer. I read what M. Geoffroy had to say upon Buffon, and was surprised to find that, after all, according to M. Geoffroy, Buffon, and not Lamarck, was the founder of the theory of evolution. His name, as I have already said, was never mentioned in the first edition of the "Origin of Species."

M. Geoffroy goes into the accusations of having fluctuated in his opinions, which he tells us have been brought against Buffon, and comes to the conclusion that they are unjust, as any one else will do who turns to Buffon himself. Mr. Darwin, however, in the "brief but imperfect sketch," catches at the accusation, and repeats it while saying nothing whatever about the defence. The following is still all he says: "The first author who in modern times has treated" evolution "in a scientific spirit was Buffon. But as his opinions fluctuated greatly at different periods, and as he does not enter on the causes or means of the transformation of species, I need not here enter on details." On the next page, in the note last quoted, Mr. Darwin originally repeated the accusation of Buffon's having been fluctuating in his opinions, and appeared to give it the imprimatur of Isidore Geoffroy's approval; the fact being that Isidore Geoffroy only quoted the accusation in order to refute it; and though, I suppose, meaning well, did not make half the case he might have done, and abounds with misstatements. My readers will find this matter particularly dealt with in "Evolution, Old and New," Chapter X.

I gather that some one must have complained to Mr. Darwin of his saying that Isidore Geoffroy gave an account of Buffon's "fluctuating conclusions" concerning evolution, when he was doing all he knew to maintain that Buffon's conclusions did not fluctuate; for I see that in the edition of 1876 the word "fluctuating" has dropped out of the note in question, and we now learn that Isidore Geoffroy gives "a full account of Buffon's conclusions," without the "fluctuating." But Buffon has not taken much by this, for his opinions are still left fluctuating greatly at different periods on the preceding page, and though he still was the first to treat evolution in a scientific spirit, he still does not enter upon the causes or means of the transformation of species. No one can understand Mr. Darwin who does not collate the different editions of the "Origin of Species" with some attention. When he has done this, he will know what Newton meant by saying he felt like a child playing with pebbles upon the seashore.

One word more upon this note before I leave it. Mr. Darwin speaks of Isidore Geoffroy's history of opinion as "excellent," and his account of Buffon's opinions as "full." I wonder how well qualified he is to be a judge of these matters? If he knows much about the earlier writers, he is the more inexcusable for having said so little about them. If little, what is his opinion worth?

To return to the "brief but imperfect sketch." I do not think I can ever again be surprised at anything Mr. Darwin may say or do, but if I could, I should wonder how a writer who did not "enter upon the causes or means of the transformation of species," and whose opinions "fluctuated greatly at different periods," can be held to have treated evolution "in a scientific spirit." Nevertheless, when I reflect upon the scientific reputation Mr. Darwin has attained, and the means by which he has won it, I suppose the scientific spirit must be much what he here implies. I see Mr. Darwin says of his own father, Dr. Robert Darwin of Shrewsbury, that he does not consider him to have had a scientific mind. Mr. Darwin cannot tell why he does not think his father's mind to have been fitted for advancing science, "for he was fond of theorising, and was incomparably the best observer" Mr. Darwin ever knew. [33a] From the hint given in the "brief but imperfect sketch," I fancy I can help Mr. Darwin to see why he does not think his father's mind to have been a scientific one. It is possible that Dr. Robert Darwin's opinions did not fluctuate sufficiently at different periods, and that Mr. Darwin considered him as having in some way entered upon the causes or means of the transformation of species. Certainly those who read Mr. Darwin's own works attentively will find no lack of fluctuation in his case; and reflection will show them that a theory of evolution which relies mainly on the accumulation of accidental variations comes very close to not entering upon the causes or means of the transformation of species. [33b]

I have shown, however, in "Evolution, Old and New," that the assertion that Buffon does not enter on the causes or means of the transformation of species is absolutely without foundation, and that, on the contrary, he is continually dealing with this very matter, and devotes to it one of his longest and most important chapters, [33c] but I admit that he is less satisfactory on this head than either Dr. Erasmus Darwin or Lamarck.

As a matter of fact, Buffon is much more of a Neo-Darwinian than either Dr. Erasmus Darwin or Lamarck, for with him the variations are sometimes fortuitous. In the case of the dog, he speaks of them as making their appearance "BY SOME CHANCE common enough with Nature," [33d] and being perpetuated by man's selection. This is exactly the "if any slight favourable variation HAPPEN to arise" of Mr. Charles Darwin. Buffon also speaks of the variations among pigeons arising "par hasard." But these expressions are only ships; his main cause of variation is the direct action of changed conditions of existence, while with Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck the action of the conditions of existence is indirect, the direct action being that of the animals or plants themselves, in consequence of changed sense of need under changed conditions.

I should say that the sketch so often referred to is at first sight now no longer imperfect in Mr. Darwin's opinion. It was "brief but imperfect" in 1861 and in 1866, but in 1876 I see that it is brief only. Of course, discovering that it was no longer imperfect, I expected to find it briefer. What, then, was my surprise at finding that it had become rather longer? I have found no perfectly satisfactory explanation of this inconsistency, but, on the whole, incline to think that the "greatest of living men" felt himself unequal to prolonging his struggle with the word "but," and resolved to lay that conjunction at all hazards, even though the doing so might cost him the balance of his adjectives; for I think he must know that his sketch is still imperfect.

From Isidore Geoffroy I turned to Buffon himself, and had not long to wait before I felt that I was now brought into communication with the master-mind of all those who have up to the present time busied themselves with evolution. For a brief and imperfect sketch of him, I must refer my readers to "Evolution, Old and New."

I have no great respect for the author of the "Vestiges of Creation," who behaved hardly better to the writers upon whom his own work was founded than Mr. Darwin himself has done. Nevertheless, I could not forget the gravity of the misrepresentation with which he was assailed on page 3 of the first edition of the "Origin of Species," nor impugn the justice of his rejoinder in the following year, [34] when he replied that it was to be regretted Mr. Darwin had read his work "almost as much amiss as if, like its declared opponents, he had an interest in misrepresenting it." [35a] I could not, again, forget that, though Mr. Darwin did not venture to stand by the passage in question, it was expunged without a word of apology or explanation of how it was that he had come to write it. A writer with any claim to our consideration will never fall into serious error about another writer without hastening to make a public apology as soon as he becomes aware of what he has done.

Reflecting upon the substance of what I have written in the last few pages, I thought it right that people should have a chance of knowing more about the earlier writers on evolution than they were likely to hear from any of our leading scientists (no matter how many lectures they may give on the coming of age of the "Origin of Species") except Professor Mivart. A book pointing the difference between teleological and non-teleological views of evolution seemed likely to be useful, and would afford me the opportunity I wanted for giving a resume of the views of each one of the three chief founders of the theory, and of contrasting them with those of Mr. Charles Darwin, as well as for calling attention to Professor Hering's lecture. I accordingly wrote "Evolution, Old and New," which was prominently announced in the leading literary periodicals at the end of February, or on the very first days of March 1879, [35b] as "a comparison of the theories of Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck, with that of Mr. Charles Darwin, with copious extracts from the works of the three first-named writers." In this book I was hardly able to conceal the fact that, in spite of the obligations under which we must always remain to Mr. Darwin, I had lost my respect for him and for his work.

I should point out that this announcement, coupled with what I had written in "Life and Habit," would enable Mr. Darwin and his friends to form a pretty shrewd guess as to what I was likely to say, and to quote from Dr. Erasmus Darwin in my forthcoming book. The announcement, indeed, would tell almost as much as the book itself to those who knew the works of Erasmus Darwin.

As may be supposed, "Evolution, Old and New," met with a very unfavourable reception at the hands of many of its reviewers. The Saturday Review was furious. "When a writer," it exclaimed, "who has not given as many weeks to the subject as Mr. Darwin has given years, is not content to air his own crude though clever fallacies, but assumes to criticise Mr. Darwin with the superciliousness of a young schoolmaster looking over a boy's theme, it is difficult not to take him more seriously than he deserves or perhaps desires. One would think that Mr. Butler was the travelled and laborious observer of Nature, and Mr. Darwin the pert speculator who takes all his facts at secondhand." [36]

The lady or gentleman who writes in such a strain as this should not be too hard upon others whom she or he may consider to write like schoolmasters. It is true I have travelled--not much, but still as much as many others, and have endeavoured to keep my eyes open to the facts before me; but I cannot think that I made any reference to my travels in "Evolution, Old and New." I did not quite see what that had to do with the matter. A man may get to know a good deal without ever going beyond the four-mile radius from Charing Cross. Much less did I imply that Mr. Darwin was pert: pert is one of the last words that can be applied to Mr. Darwin. Nor, again, had I blamed him for taking his facts at secondhand; no one is to be blamed for this, provided he takes well-established facts and acknowledges his sources. Mr. Darwin has generally gone to good sources. The ground of complaint against him is that he muddied the water after he had drawn it, and tacitly claimed to be the rightful owner of the spring, on the score of the damage he had effected.

Notwithstanding, however, the generally hostile, or more or less contemptuous, reception which "Evolution, Old and New," met with, there were some reviews--as, for example, those in the Field, [37a] the Daily Chronicle, [37b] the Athenaeum, [37c] the Journal of Science, [37d] the British Journal of Homaeopathy, [37e] the Daily News, [37f] the Popular Science Review [37g]--which were all I could expect or wish.


[26] Zoonomia, vol. i. p. 484; Evolution, Old and New, p. 214.

[27] "Erasmus Darwin," by Ernest Krause, p. 211, London, 1879.

[28a] See "Evolution, Old and New," p. 91, and Buffon, tom. iv. p. 383, ed. 1753.

[28b] Evolution, Old and New, p. 104.

[29a] Encycl. Brit., 9th ed., art. "Evolution," p. 748.

[29b] Palingenesie Philosophique, part x. chap. ii. (quoted from Professor Huxley's article on "Evolution," Encycl. Brit., 9th ed., p. 745).

[31] The note began thus: "I have taken the date of the first publication of Lamarck from Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire's (Hist. Nat. Generale tom. ii. p. 405, 1859) excellent history of opinion upon this subject. In this work a full account is given of Buffon's fluctuating conclusions upon the same subject."--Origin of Species, 3d ed., 1861, p. xiv.

[33a] Life of Erasmus Darwin, pp. 84, 85.

[33b] See Life and Habit, p. 264 and pp. 276, 277.

[33c] See Evolution, Old and New, pp. 159-165.

[33d] Ibid., p. 122.

[34] See Evolution, Old and New, pp. 247, 248.

[35a] Vestiges of Creation, ed. 1860, "Proofs, Illustrations, &c.," p. lxiv.

[35b] The first announcement was in the Examiner, February 22, 1879.

[36] Saturday Review, May 31, 1879.

[37a] May 26, 1879.

[37b] May 31, 1879.

[37c] July 26, 1879.

[37d] July 1879.

[37e] July 1879.

[37f] July 29, 1879.

[37g] January 1880.

Samuel Butler

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