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Charles Darwin Biography Essay Questions

—by Asa Gray


Atlantic Monthly for JulyAugust, and October, 1860, reprinted in 1861.


Novelties are enticing to most people; to us they are simply annoying. We cling to a long-accepted theory, just as we cling to an old suit of clothes. A new theory, like a new pair of breeches (the Atlantic still affects the older type of nether garment), is sure to have hard-fitting places; or, even when no particular fault can be found with the article, it oppresses with a sense of general discomfort. New notions and new styles worry us, till we get well used to them, which is only by slow degrees.

Wherefore, in Galileo’s time, we might have helped to proscribe, or to burn—had he been stubborn enough to warrant cremation—even the great pioneer of inductive research; although, when we had fairly recovered our composure, and had leisurely excogitated the matter, we might have come to conclude that the new doctrine was better than the old one, after all, at least for those who had nothing to unlearn.

Such being our habitual state of mind, it may well be believed that the perusal of the new book ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ left an uncomfortable impression, in spite of its plausible and winning ways. We were not wholly unprepared for it, as many of our contemporaries seem to have been. The scientific reading in which we indulge as a relaxation from severer studies had raised dim forebodings. Investigations about the succession of species in time, and their actual geographical distribution over the earth’s surface, were leading up from all sides and in various ways to the question of their origin. Now and then we encountered a sentence, like Prof. Owen’s ‘axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things,’ which haunted us like an apparition. For, dim as our conception must needs be as to what such oracular and grandiloquent phrases might really mean, we felt confident that they presaged no good to old beliefs. Foreseeing, yet deprecating, the coming time of trouble, we still hoped that, with some repairs and makeshifts, the old views might last out our days.Apres nous le deluge. Still, not to lag behind the rest of the world, we read the book in which the new theory is promulgated. We took it up, like our neighbors, and, as was natural, in a somewhat captious frame of mind.

Well, we found no cause of quarrel with the first chapter. Here the author takes us directly to the barn-yard and the kitchen-garden. Like an honorable rural member of our General Court, who sat silent until, near the close of a long session, a bill requiring all swine at large to wear pokes was introduced, when he claimed the privilege of addressing the house, on the proper ground that he had been ‘brought up among the pigs, and knew all about them’—so we were brought up among cows and cabbages; and the lowing of cattle, the cackle of hens, and the cooing of pigeons, were sounds native and pleasant to our ears. So ‘Variation under Domestication’ dealt with familiar subjects in a natural way, and gently introduced ‘Variation under Nature,’ which seemed likely enough. Then follows ‘Struggle for Existence’—a principle which we experimentally know to be true and cogent—bringing the comfortable assurance, that man, even upon Leviathan Hobbes’s theory of society, is no worse than the rest of creation, since all Nature is at war, one species with another, and the nearer kindred the more internecine—bringing in thousandfold confirmation and extension of the Malthusian doctrine that population tends far to outrun means of subsistence throughout the animal and vegetable world, and has to be kept down by sharp preventive checks; so that not more than one of a hundred or a thousand of the individuals whose existence is so wonderfully and so sedulously provided for ever comes to anything, under ordinary circumstances; so the lucky and the strong must prevail, and the weaker and ill-favored must perish; and then follows, as naturally as one sheep follows another, the chapter on ‘Natural Selection,’ Darwin’s cheval de bataille, which is very much the Napoleonic doctrine that Providence favors the strongest battalions—that, since many more individuals are born than can possibly survive, those individuals and those variations which possess any advantage, however slight, over the rest, are in the long-run sure to survive, to propagate, and to occupy the limited field, to the exclusion or destruction of the weaker brethren. All this we pondered, and could not much object to. In fact, we began to contract a liking for a system which at the outset illustrates the advantages of good breeding, and which makes the most ‘of every creature’s best.’

Could we ‘let by-gones be by-gones,’ and, beginning now, go on improving and diversifying for the future by natural selection, could we even take up the theory at the introduction of the actually existing species, we should be well content; and so, perhaps, would most naturalists be. It is by no means difficult to believe that varieties are incipient or possible species, when we see what trouble naturalists, especially botanists, have to distinguish between them—one regarding as a true species what another regards as a variety; when the progress of knowledge continually increases, rather than diminishes, the number of doubtful instances; and when there is less agreement than ever among naturalists as to what is the basis in Nature upon which our idea of species reposes, or how the word is to be defined. Indeed, when we consider the endless disputes of naturalists and ethnologists over the human races, as to whether they belong to one species or to more, and, if to more, whether to three, or five, or fifty, we can hardly help fancying that both may be right—or rather, that the uni-humanitarians would have been right many thousand years ago, and the multi-humanitarians will be several thousand years later; while at present the safe thing to say is, that probably there is some truth on both sides.

‘Natural selection,’ Darwin remarks, ‘leads to divergence of character; for the more living beings can be supported on the same area, the more they diverge in structure, habits, and constitution’ (a principle which, by-the-way, is paralleled and illustrated by the diversification of human labor); and also leads to much extinction of intermediate or unimproved forms. Now, though this divergence may ‘steadily tend to increase,’ yet this is evidently a slow process in Nature, and liable to much counteraction wherever man does not interpose, and so not likely to work much harm for the future. And if natural selection, with artificial to help it, will produce better animals and better men than the present, and fit them better to the conditions of existence, why, let it work, say we, to the top of its bent There is still room enough for improvement. Only let us hope that it always works for good: if not, the divergent lines on Darwin’s lithographic diagram of ‘Transmutation made Easy,’ ominously show what small deviations from the straight path may come to in the end.

The prospect of the future, accordingly, is on the whole pleasant and encouraging. It is only the backward glance, the gaze up the long vista of the past, that reveals anything alarming. Here the lines converge as they recede into the geological ages, and point to conclusions which, upon the theory, are inevitable, but hardly welcome. The very first step backward makes the negro and the Hottentot our blood-relations—not that reason or Scripture objects to that, though pride may. The next suggests a closer association of our ancestors of the olden time with ‘our poor relations’ of the quadrumanous family than we like to acknowledge. Fortunately, however—even if we must account for him scientifically —man with his two feet stands upon a foundation of his own. Intermediate links between the Bimana and the Quadrumana are lacking altogether; so that, put the genealogy of the brutes upon what footing you will, the four-handed races will not serve for our forerunners—at least, not until some monkey, live or fossil, is producible with great-toes, instead of thumbs, upon his nether extremities; or until some lucky geologist turns up the bones of his ancestor and prototype in France or England, who was so busy ‘napping the chuckie-stanes’ and chipping out flint knives and arrow-heads in the time of the drift, very many ages ago—before the British Channel existed, says Lyell —and until these men of the olden time are shown to have worn their great-toes in the divergent and thumblike fashion. That would be evidence indeed: but, until some testimony of the sort is produced, we must needs believe in the separate and special creation of man, however it may have been with the lower animals and with plants.

No doubt, the full development and symmetry of Darwin’s hypothesis strongly suggest the evolution of the human no less than the lower animal races out of some simple primordial animal—that all are equally ‘lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited.’ But, as the author speaks disrespectfully of spontaneous generation, and accepts a supernatural beginning of life on earth, in some form or forms of being which included potentially all that have since existed and are yet to be, he is thereby not warranted to extend his inferences beyond the evidence or the fair probability. There seems as great likelihood that one special origination should be followed by another upon fitting occasion (such as the introduction of man), as that one form should be transmuted into another upon fitting occasion, as, for instance, in the succession of species which differ from each other only in some details. To compare small things with great in a homely illustration: man alters from time to time his instruments or machines, as new circumstances or conditions may require and his wit suggest. Minor alterations and improvements he adds to the machine he possesses; he adapts a new rig or a new rudder to an old boat: this answers to Variation. ‘Like begets like,’ being the great rule in Nature, if boats could engender, the variations would doubtless be propagated, like those of domestic cattle. In course of time the old ones would be worn out or wrecked; the best sorts would be chosen for each particular use, and further improved upon; and so the primordial boat be developed into the scow, the skiff, the sloop, and other species of water-craft—the very diversification, as well as the successive improvements, entailing the disappearance of intermediate forms, less adapted to any one particular purpose; wherefore these go slowly out of use, and become extinct species: this is Natural Selection. Now, let a great and important advance be made, like that of steam navigation: here, though the engine might be added to the old vessel, yet the wiser and therefore the actual way is to make a new vessel on a modified plan: this may answer to Specific Creation. Anyhow, the one does not necessarily exclude the other. Variation and natural selection may play their part, and so may specific creation also. Why not?

This leads us to ask for the reasons which call for this new theory of transmutation. The beginning of things must needs lie in obscurity, beyond the bounds of proof, though within those of conjecture or of analogical inference. Why not hold fast to the customary view, that all species were directly, instead of indirectly, created after their respective kinds, as we now behold them—and that in a manner which, passing our comprehension, we intuitively refer to the supernatural? Why this continual striving after ‘the unattained and dim?’ why these anxious endeavors, especially of late years, by naturalists and philosophers of various schools and different tendencies, to penetrate what one of them calls ‘that mystery of mysteries,’ the origin of species?

To this, in general, sufficient answer may be found in the activity of the human intellect, ‘the delirious yet divine desire to know,’ stimulated as it has been by its own success in unveiling the laws and processes of inorganic Nature; in the fact that the principal triumphs of our age in physical science have consisted in tracing connections where none were known before, in reducing heterogeneous phenomena to a common cause or origin, in a manner quite analogous to that of the reduction of supposed independently originated species to a common ultimate origin—thus, and in various other ways, largely and legitimately extending the domain of secondary causes. Surely the scientific mind of an age which contemplates the solar system as evolved from a common revolving fluid mass—which, through experimental research, has come to regard light, heat, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and mechanical power as varieties or derivative and convertible forms of one force, instead of independent species—which has brought the so-called elementary kinds of matter, such as the metals, into kindred groups, and pertinently raised the question, whether the members of each group may not be mere varieties of one species—and which speculates steadily in the direction of the ultimate unity of matter, of a sort of prototype or simple element which may be to the ordinary species of matter what the Protozoa or what the component cells of an organism are to the higher sorts of animals and plants—the mind of such an age cannot be expected to let the old belief about species pass unquestioned. It will raise the question, how the diverse sorts of plants and animals came to be as they are and where they are and will allow that the whole inquiry transcends its powers only when all endeavors have failed. Granting the origin to be supernatural or miraculous even, will not arrest the inquiry. All real origination, the philosophers will say, is supernatural; their very question is, whether we have yet gone back to the origin and can affirm that the present forms of plants and animals are the primordial, the miraculously created ones. And, even if they admit that, they will still inquire into the order of the phenomena, into the form of the miracle. You might as well expect the child to grow up content with what it is told about the advent of its infant brother. Indeed, to learn that the new-comer is the gift of God, far from lulling inquiry, only stimulates speculation as to how the precious gift was bestowed. That questioning child is father to the man—is philosopher in short-clothes.

Since, then, questions about the origin of species will be raised, and have been raised—and since the theorizings, however different in particulars, all proceed upon the notion that one species of plant or animal is somehow derived from another, that the different sorts which now flourish are lineal (or unlineal) descendants of other and earlier sorts—it now concerns us to ask, What are the grounds in Nature, the admitted facts, which suggest hypotheses of derivation in some shape or other? Reasons there must be, and plausible ones, for the persistent recurrence of theories upon this genetic basis. A study of Darwin’s book, and a general glance at the present state of the natural sciences, enable us to gather the following as among the most suggestive and influential. We can only enumerate them here, without much indication of their particular bearing. There is—

1. The general fact of variability, and the general tendency of the variety to propagate its like—the patent facts that all species vary more or less; that domesticated plants and animals, being in conditions favorable to the production and preservation of varieties, are apt to vary widely; and that, by interbreeding, any variety may be fixed into a race, that is, into a variety which comes true from seed. Many such races, it is allowed, differ from each other in structure and appearance as widely as do many admitted species; and it is practically very difficult, even impossible, to draw a clear line between races and species. Witness the human races, for instance. Wild species also vary, perhaps about as widely as those of domestication, though in different ways. Some of them apparently vary little, others moderately, others immoderately, to the great bewilderment of systematic botanists and zoologists, and increasing disagreement as to whether various forms shall be held to be original species or strong varieties. Moreover, the degree to which the descendants of the same stock, varying in different directions, may at length diverge, is unknown. All we know is, that varieties are themselves variable, and that very diverse forms have been educed from one stock.

2. Species of the same genus are not distinguished from each other by equal amounts of difference. There is diversity in this respect analogous to that of the varieties of a polymorphous species, some of them slight, others extreme. And in large genera the unequal resemblance shows itself in the clustering of the species around several types or central species, like satellites around their respective planets. Obviously suggestive this of the hypothesis that they were satellites, not thrown off by revolution, like the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and our own solitary moon, but gradually and peacefully detached by divergent variation. That such closely-related species may be only varieties of higher grade, earlier origin, or more favored evolution, is not a very violent supposition. Anyhow, it was a supposition sure to be made.

3. The actual geographical distribution of species upon the earth’s surface tends to suggest the same notion. For, as a general thing, all or most of the species of a peculiar genus or other type are grouped in the same country, or occupy continuous, proximate, or accessible areas. So well does this rule hold, so general is the implication that kindred species are or were associated geographically, that most trustworthy naturalists, quite free from hypotheses of transmutation, are constantly inferring former geographical continuity between parts of the world now widely disjoined, in order to account thereby for certain generic similarities among their inhabitants; just as philologists infer former connection of races, and a parent language, to account for generic similarities among existing languages. Yet no scientific explanation has been offered to account for the geographical association of kindred species, except the hypothesis of a common origin.

4. Here the fact of the antiquity of creation, and in particular of the present kinds of the earth’s inhabitants, or of a large part of them, comes in to rebut the objection that there has not been time enough for any marked diversification of living things through divergent variation—not time enough for varieties to have diverged into what we call species.

So long as the existing species of plants and animals were thought to have originated a few thousand years ago, and without predecessors, there was no room for a theory of derivation of one sort from another, nor time enough even to account for the establishment of the races which are generally believed to have diverged from a common stock. Not so much that five or six thousand years was a short allowance for this; but because some of our familiar domesticated varieties of grain, of fowls, and of other animals, were pictured and mummified by the old Egyptians more than half that number of years ago, if not earlier. Indeed, perhaps the strongest argument for the original plurality of human species was drawn from the identification of some of the present races of men upon these early historical monuments and records.

But this very extension of the current chronology, if we may rely upon the archaeologists, removes the difficulty by opening up a longer vista. So does the discovery in Europe of remains and implements of prehistoric races of men, to whom the use of metals was unknown—men of thestone age, as the Scandinavian archaeologists designate them. And now, ‘axes and knives of flint, evidently wrought by human skill, are found in beds of the drift at Amiens (also in other places, both in France and England), associated with the bones of extinct species of animals.’ These implements, indeed, were noticed twenty years ago; at a place in Suffolk they have been exhumed from time to time for more than a century; but the full confirmation, the recognition of the age of the deposit in which the implements occur, their abundance, and the appreciation of their bearings upon most interesting questions, belong to the present time. To complete the connection of these primitive people with the fossil ages, the French geologists, we are told, have now ‘found these axes in Picardy associated with remains of Elephas primigeniusRhinoceros tichorhinusEquus fossilis, and an extinct species of Bos.’ In plain language, these workers in flint lived in the time of the mammoth, of a rhinoceros now extinct, and along with horses and cattle unlike any now existing—specifically different, as naturalists say, from those with which man is now associated. Their connection with existing human races may perhaps be traced through the intervening people of the stone age, who were succeeded by the people of the bronze age, and these by workers in iron. Now, various evidence carries back the existence of many of the present lower species of animals, and probably of a larger number of plants, to the same drift period. All agree that this was very many thousand years ago. Agassiz tells us that the same species of polyps which are now building coral walls around the present peninsula of Florida actually made that peninsula, and have been building there for many thousand centuries.

5. The overlapping of existing and extinct species, and the seemingly gradual transition of the life of the drift period into that of the present, may be turned to the same account. Mammoths, mastodons, and Irish elks, now extinct, must have lived down to human, if not almost to historic times. Perhaps the last dodo did not long outlive his huge New Zealand kindred. The aurochs, once the companion of mammoths, still survives, but owes his present and precarious existence to man’s care. Now, nothing that we know of forbids the hypothesis that some new species have been independently and supernaturally created within the period which other species have survived. Some may even believe that man was created in the days of the mammoth, became extinct, and was recreated at a later date. But why not say the same of the aurochs, contemporary both of the old man and of the new? Still it is more natural, if not inevitable, to infer that, if the aurochs of that olden time were the ancestors of the aurochs of the Lithuanian forests, so likewise were the men of that age the ancestors of the present human races. Then, whoever concludes that these primitive makers of rude flint axes and knives were the ancestors of the better workmen of the succeeding stone age, and these again of the succeeding artificers in brass and iron, will also be likely to suppose that the Equus and Bos of that time, different though they be, were the remote progenitors of our own horses and cattle. In all candor we must at least concede that such considerations suggest a genetic descent from the drift period down to the present, and allow time enough—if time is of any account— for variation and natural selection to work out some appreciable results in the way of divergence into races, or even into so-called species. Whatever might have been thought, when geological time was supposed to be separated from the present era by a clear line, it is now certain that a gradual replacement of old forms by new ones is strongly suggestive of some mode of origination which may still be operative. When species, like individuals, were found to die out one by one, and apparently to come in one by one, a theory for what Owen sonorously calls ‘the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things’ could not be far off.

That all such theories should take the form of a derivation of the new from the old seems to be inevitable, perhaps from our inability to conceive of any other line of secondary causes in this connection. Owen himself is apparently in travail with some transmutation theory of his own conceiving, which may yet see the light, although Darwin’s came first to the birth. Different as the two theories will probably be, they cannot fail to exhibit that fundamental resemblance in this respect which betokens a community of origin, a common foundation on the general facts and the obvious suggestions of modern science. Indeed—to turn the point of a pungent simile directed against Darwin—the difference between the Darwinian and the Owenian hypotheses may, after all, be only that between homoeopathic and heroic doses of the same drug.

If theories of derivation could only stop here, content with explaining the diversification and succession of species between the teritiary period and the present time, through natural agencies or secondary causes still in operation, we fancy they would not be generally or violently objected to by the savants of the present day. But it is hard, if not impossible, to find a stopping-place. Some of the facts or accepted conclusions already referred to, and several others, of a more general character, which must be taken into the account, impel the theory onward with accumulated force. Vires (not to say virusacquirit eundo. The theory hitches on wonderfully well to Lyell’s uniformitarian theory in geology—that the thing that has been is the thing that is and shall be—that the natural operations now going on will account for all geological changes in a quiet and easy way, only give them time enough, so connecting the present and the proximate with the farthest past by almost imperceptible gradations—a view which finds large and increasing, if not general, acceptance in physical geology, and of which Darwin’s theory is the natural complement.

So the Darwinian theory, once getting a foothold, marches boldly on, follows the supposed near ancestors of our present species farther and yet farther back into the dim past, and ends with an analogical inference which ‘makes the whole world kin.’ As we said at the beginning, this upshot discomposes us. Several features of the theory have an uncanny look. They may prove to be innocent: but their first aspect is suspicious, and high authorities pronounce the whole thing to be positively mischievous. In this dilemma we are going to take advice. Following the bent of our prejudices, and hoping to fortify these by new and strong arguments, we are going now to read the principal reviews which undertake to demolish the theory—with what result our readers shall be duly informed.


‘I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained, namely, that each species has been independently created, is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main, but not exclusive, means of modification.’

This is the kernel of the new theory, the Darwinian creed, as recited at the close of the introduction to the remarkable book under consideration. The questions, ‘What will he do with it?’ and ‘How far will he carry it?’ the author answers at the close of the volume:

‘I cannot doubt that the theory of descent with modification embraces all the members of the same class.’ Furthermore, ‘I believe that all animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number.’

Seeing that analogy as strongly suggests a further step in the same direction, while he protests that ‘analogy may be a deceitful guide,’ yet he follows its inexorable leading to the inference that—

‘Probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.’

In the first extract we have the thin end of the wedge driven a little way; in the last, the wedge driven home.

We have already sketched some of the reasons suggestive of such a theory of derivation of species, reasons which gave it plausibility, and even no small probability, as applied to our actual world and to changes occurring since the latest tertiary period. We are well pleased at this moment to find that the conclusions we were arriving at in this respect are sustained by the very high authority and impartial judgment of Pictet, the Swiss paleontologist. In his review of Darwin’s book — the fairest and most admirable opposing one that has appeared—he freely accepts that ensemble of natural operations which Darwin impersonates under the now familiar name of Natural Selection, allows that the exposition throughout the first chapters seems ‘a la fois prudent et fort,’ and is disposed to accept the whole argument in its foundations, that is, so far as it relates to what is now going on, or has taken place in the present geological period—which period he carries back through the diluvial epoch to the borders of the tertiary. Pictet accordingly admits that the theory will very well account for the origination by divergence of nearly-related species, whether within the present period or in remoter geological times; a very natural view for him to take, since he appears to have reached and published, several years ago, the pregnant conclusion that there most probably was some material connection between the closely-related species of two successive faunas, and that the numerous close species, whose limits are so difficult to determine, were not all created distinct and independent. But while thus accepting, or ready to accept, the basis of Darwin’s theory, and all its legitimate direct inferences, he rejects the ultimate conclusions, brings some weighty arguments to bear against them, and is evidently convinced that he can draw a clear line between the sound inferences, which he favors, and the unsound or unwarranted theoretical deductions, which he rejects. We hope he can.

This raises the question, Why does Darwin press his theory to these extreme conclusions? Why do all hypotheses of derivation converge so inevitably to one ultimate point? Having already considered some of the reasons which suggest or support the theory at its outset—which may carry it as far as such sound and experienced naturalists as Pictet allow that it may be true—perhaps as far as Darwin himself unfolds it in the introductory proposition cited at the beginning of this article—we may now inquire after the motives which impel the theorist so much farther. Here proofs, in the proper sense of the word, are not to be had. We are beyond the region of demonstration, and have only probabilities to consider. What are these probabilities? What work will this hypothesis do to establish a claim to be adopted in its completeness? Why should a theory which may plausibly enough account for the diversification of the species of each special type or genus be expanded into a general system for the origination or successive diversification of all species, and all special types or forms, from four or five remote primordial forms, or perhaps from one? We accept the theory of gravitation because it explains all the facts we know, and bears all the tests that we can put it to. We incline to accept the nebular hypothesis, for similar reasons; not because it is proved—thus far it is incapable of proof —but because it is a natural theoretical deduction from accepted physical laws, is thoroughly congruous with the facts, and because its assumption serves to connect and harmonize these into one probable and consistent whole. Can the derivative hypothesis be maintained and carried out into a system on similar grounds? If so, however unproved, it would appear to be a tenable hypothesis, which is all that its author ought now to claim. Such hypotheses as, from the conditions of the case, can neither be proved nor disproved by direct evidence or experiment, are to be tested only indirectly, and therefore imperfectly, by trying their power to harmonize the known facts, and to account for what is otherwise unaccountable. So the question comes to this: What will an hypothesis of the derivation of species explain which the opposing view leaves unexplained?

Questions these which ought to be entertained before we take up the arguments which have been advanced against this theory. We can barely glance at some of the considerations which Darwin adduces, or will be sure to adduce in the future and fuller exposition which is promised. To display them in such wise as to indoctrinate the unscientific reader would require a volume. Merely to refer to them in the most general terms would suffice for those familiar with scientific matters, but would scarcely enlighten those who are not. Wherefore let these trust the impartial Pictet, who freely admits that, ‘in the absence of sufficient direct proofs to justify the possibility of his hypothesis, Mr. Darwin relies upon indirect proofs, the bearing of which is real and incontestable;’ who concedes that ‘his theory accords very well with the great facts of comparative anatomy and zoology—comes in admirably to explain unity of composition of organisms, also to explain rudimentary and representative organs, and the natural series of genera and species—equally corresponds with many paleontological data—agrees well with the specific resemblances which exist between two successive faunas, with the parallelism which is sometimes observed between the series of paleontological succession and of embryonal development,’ etc.; and finally, although he does not accept the theory in these results, he allows that ‘it appears to offer the best means of explaining the manner in which organized beings were produced in epochs anterior to our own.’

What more than this could be said for such an hypothesis? Here, probably, is its charm, and its strong hold upon the speculative mind. Unproven though it be, and cumbered prima facie with cumulative improbabilities as it proceeds, yet it singularly accords with great classes of facts otherwise insulated and enigmatic, and explains many things which are thus far utterly inexplicable upon any other scientific assumption.

We have said that Darwin’s hypothesis is the natural complement to Lyell’s uniformitarian theory in physical geology. It is for the organic world what that is for the inorganic; and the accepters of the latter stand in a position from which to regard the former in the most favorable light. Wherefore the rumor that the cautious Lyell himself has adopted the Darwinian hypothesis need not surprise us. The two views are made for each other, and, like the two counterpart pictures for the stereoscope, when brought together, combine into one apparently solid whole.

If we allow, with Pictet, that Darwin’s theory will very well serve for all that concerns the present epoch of the world’s history—an epoch in which this renowned paleontologist includes the diluvial or quaternary period—then Darwin’s first and foremost need in his onward course is a practicable road from this into and through the tertiary period, the intervening region between the comparatively near and the far remote past. Here Lyell’s doctrine paves the way, by showing that in the physical geology there is no general or absolute break between the two, probably no greater between the latest tertiary and the quaternary period than between the latter and the present time. So far, the Lyellian view is, we suppose, generally concurred in. It is largely admitted that numerous tertiary species have continued down into the quaternary, and many of them to the present time. A goodly percentage of the earlier and nearly half of the later tertiary mollusca, according to Des Hayes, Lyell, and, if we mistake not, Bronn, still live. This identification, however, is now questioned by a naturalist of the very highest authority. But, in its bearings on the new theory, the point here turns not upon absolute identity so much as upon close resemblance. For those who, with Agassiz, doubt the specific identity in any of these cases, and those who say, with Pictet, that ‘the later tertiary deposits contain in general the debris of speciesvery nearly related to those which still exist, belonging to the same genera, but specifically different,’ may also agree with Pictet, that the nearly-related species of successive faunas must or may have had ‘a material connection.’ But the only material connection that we have an idea of in such a case is a genealogical one. And the supposition of a genealogical connection is surely not unnatural in such cases—is demonstrably the natural one as respects all those tertiary species which experienced naturalists have pronounced to be identical with existing ones, but which others now deem distinct. For to identify the two is the same thing as to conclude the one to be the ancestor of the other. No doubt there are differences between the tertiary and the present individuals, differences equally noticed by both classes of naturalists, but differently estimated. By the one these are deemed quite compatible, by the other incompatible, with community of origin. But who can tell us what amount of difference is compatible with community of origin? This is the very question at issue, and one to be settled by observation alone. Who would have thought that the peach and the nectarine came from one stock? But, this being proved, is it now very improbable that both were derived from the almond, or from some common amygdaline progenitor? Who would have thought that the cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi are derivatives of one species, and rape or colza, turnip, and probably ruta-baga, of another species? And who that is convinced of this can long undoubtingly hold the original distinctness of turnips from cabbages as an article of faith? On scientific grounds may not a primordial cabbage or rape be assumed as the ancestor of all the cabbage races, on much the same ground that we assume a common ancestry for the diversified human races? If all our breeds of cattle came from one stock why not this stock from the auroch, which has had all the time between the diluvial and the historic periods in which to set off a variation perhaps no greater than the difference between some sorts of domestic cattle?

That considerable differences are often discernible between tertiary individuals and their supposed descendants of the present day affords no argument against Darwin’s theory, as has been rashly thought, but is decidedly in its favor. If the identification were so perfect that no more differences were observable between the tertiary and the recent shells than between various individuals of either, then Darwin’s opponents, who argue the immutability of species from the ibises and cats preserved by the ancient Egyptians being just like those of the present day, could triumphantly add a few hundred thousand years more to the length of the experiment and to the force of their argument.

As the facts stand, it appears that, while some tertiary forms are essentially undistinguishable from existing ones, others are the same with a difference, which is judged not to be specific or aboriginal; and yet others show somewhat greater differences, such as are scientifically expressed by calling them marked varieties, or else doubtful species; while others, differing a little more, are confidently termed distinct, but nearly-related species. Now, is not all this a question of degree, of mere gradation of difference? And is it at all likely that these several gradations came to be established in two totally different ways—some of them (though naturalists can’t agree which) through natural variation, or other secondary cause, and some by original creation, without secondary cause? We have seen that the judicious Pictet answers such questions as Darwin would have him do, in affirming that, in all probability, the nearly-related species of two successive faunas were materially connected, and that contemporaneous species, similarly resembling each other, were not all created so, but have become so. This is equivalent to saying that species (using the term as all naturalists do, and must continue to employ the word) have only a relative, not an absolute fixity; that differences fully equivalent to what are held to be specific may arise in the course of time, so that one species may at length be naturally replaced by another species a good deal like it, or may be diversified into two, three, or more species, or forms as different as species. This concedes all that Darwin has a right to ask, all that he can directly infer from evidence. We must add that it affords a locus standi, more or less tenable, for inferring more.

Here another geological consideration comes in to help on this inference. The species of the later tertiary period for the most part not only resembled those of our days—many of them so closely as to suggest an absolute continuity—but also occupied in general the same regions that their relatives occupy now. The same may be said, though less specially, of the earlier tertiary and of the later secondary; but there is less and less localization of forms as we recede, yet some localization even in palaeozoic times. While in the secondary period one is struck with the similarity of forms and the identity of many of the species which flourished apparently at the same time in all or in the most widely-separated parts of the world, in the tertiary epoch, on the contrary, along with the increasing specialization of climates and their approximation to the present state, we find abundant evidence of increasing localization of orders, genera and species, and this localization strikingly accords with the present geographical distribution of the same groups of species Where the imputed forefathers lived their relatives and supposed descendants now flourish All the actual classes of the animal and vegetable kingdoms were represented in the tertiary faunas and floras and in nearly the same proportions and the same diversities as at present The faunas of what is now Europe, Asia America and Australia, differed from each other much as they now differ: in fact—according to Adolphe Brongniart, whose statements we here condense 1 —the inhabitants of these different regions appear for the most part to have acquired, before the close of the tertiary period, the characters which essentially distinguish their existing faunas. The Eastern Continent had then, as now, its great pachyderms, elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus; South America, its armadillos, sloths, and anteaters; Australia, a crowd of marsupials; and the very strange birds of New Zealand had predecessors of similar strangeness. Everywhere the same geographical distribution as now, with a difference in the particular area, as respects the northern portion of the continents, answering to a warmer climate then than ours, such as allowed species of hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and elephant, to range even to the regions now inhabited by the reindeer and the musk-ox, and with the serious disturbing intervention of the glacial period within a comparatively recent time. Let it be noted also that those tertiary species which have continued with little change down to our days are the marine animals of the lower grades, especially mollusca. Their low organization, moderate sensibility, and the simple conditions of an existence in a medium like the ocean, not subject to great variation and incapable of sudden change, may well account for their continuance; while, on the other hand, the more intense, however gradual, climatic vicissitudes on land, which have driven all tropical and subtropical forms out of the higher latitudes and assigned to them their actual limits, would be almost sure to extinguish such huge and unwieldy animals as mastodons, mammoths, and the like, whose power of enduring altered circumstances must have been small.

This general replacement of the tertiary species of a country by others so much like them is a noteworthy fact. The hypothesis of the independent creation of all species, irrespective of their antecedents, leaves this fact just as mysterious as is creation itself; that of derivation undertakes to account for it. Whether it satisfactorily does so or not, it must be allowed that the facts well accord with that hypothesis. The same may be said of another conclusion, namely, that the geological succession of animals and plants appears to correspond in a general way with their relative standing or rank in a natural system of classification. It seems clear that, though no one of the grand types of the animal kingdom can be traced back farther than the rest, yet the lower classes long preceded the higher; that there has been on the whole a steady progression within each class and order; and that the highest plants and animals have appeared only in relatively modern times. It is only, however, in a broad sense that this generalization is now thought to hold good. It encounters many apparent exceptions, and sundry real ones. So far as the rule holds, all is as it should be upon an hypothesis of derivation.

The rule has its exceptions. But, curiously enough, the most striking class of exceptions, if such they be, seems to us even more favorable to the doctrine of derivation than is the general rule of a pure and simple ascending gradation. We refer to what Agassiz calls prophetic and synthetic types; for which the former name may suffice, as the difference between the two is evanescent.

‘It has been noticed,’ writes our great zoölogist, ‘that certain types, which are frequently prominent among the representatives of past ages, combine in their structure peculiarities which at later periods are only observed separately in different, distinct types. Sauroid fishes before reptiles, Pterodactyles before birds, Ichthyosauri before dolphins, etc. There are entire families, of nearly every class of animals, which in the state of their perfect development exemplify such prophetic relations. . . . The sauroid fishes of the past geological ages are an example of this kind These fishes which preceded the appearance of reptiles present a combination of ichthyic and reptilian characters not to be found in the true members of this class, which form its bulk at present. The Pterodactyles, which preceded the class of birds, and the Ichthyosauri, which preceded the Cetacea, are other examples of such prophetic types.’—(Agassiz, ‘Contributions, Essay on Classification,’ p. 117.)

Now, these reptile-like fishes, of which gar-pikes are the living representatives, though of earlier appearance, are admittedly of higher rank than common fishes. They dominated until reptiles appeared, when they mostly gave place to (or, as the derivationists will insist, were resolved by divergent variation and natural selection into) common fishes, destitute of reptilian characters, and saurian reptiles—the intermediate grades, which, according to a familiar piscine saying, are ‘neither fish, flesh, nor good red-herring,’ being eliminated and extinguished by natural consequence of the struggle for existence which Darwin so aptly portrays. And so, perhaps, of the other prophetic types. Here type and antitype correspond. If these are true prophecies, we need not wonder that some who read them in Agassiz’s book will read their fulfillment in Darwin’s.

Note also, in this connection, that along with a wonderful persistence of type, with change of species, genera, orders, etc., from formation to formation, no species and no higher group which has once unequivocally died out ever afterward reappears. Why is this, but that the link of generation has been sundered? Why, on the hypothesis of independent originations, were not failing species recreated, either identically or with a difference, in regions eminently adapted to their well-being? To take a striking case. That no part of the world now offers more suitable conditions for wild horses and cattle than the pampas and other plains of South America, is shown by the facility with which they have there run wild and enormously multiplied, since introduced from the Old World not long ago. There was no wild American stock. Yet in the times of the mastodon and megatherium, at the dawn of the present period, wild-horses—certainly very much like the existing horse—roamed over those plains in abundance. On the principle of original and direct created adaptation of species to climate and other conditions, why were they not reproduced, when, after the colder intervening era, those regions became again eminently adapted to such animals? Why, but because, by their complete extinction in South America, the line of descent was there utterly broken? Upon the ordinary hypothesis, there is no scientific explanation possible of this series of facts, and of many others like them. Upon the new hypothesis, ‘the succession of the same types of structure within the same areas during the later geological periods ceases to be mysterious, and is simply explained by inheritance.’ Their cessation is failure of issue.

Along with these considerations the fact (alluded to on page 98) should be remembered that, as a general thing, related species of the present age are geographically associated. The larger part of the plants, and still more of the animals, of each separate country are peculiar to it; and, as most species now flourish over the graves of their by-gone relatives of former ages, so they now dwell among or accessibly near their kindred species.

Study Questions

The theory of evolution had been around long before Darwin's Origin of Species? What new elements made the Origin of species so important, and why?

Theories of evolution before Darwin, such as those of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, did not explain how species could evolve without help from an outside guiding force, such as a botanist who killed specific kinds of flowers or a dog breeder who bred for a specific trait. Darwin proposed natural selection. Natural selection is the pressure for species with advantageous traits to survive while those with less advantageous traits died. Darwin said that natural selection explained evolution. The Origin of Species was also important because it was the first time that a strong body of evidence, taken from a wide range of species and environments, had been assembled in support of evolution.

Why were the Galapagos Islands important to the formation of Darwin's theory of evolution?

The Galapagos Islands were important to the formation of Darwin's theory of evolution because they showed that species in isolation tended to evolve in ways that suited their environments. Although Darwin did not immediately comprehend the importance of the different varieties of tortoises and finches that he observed in the island, he later saw that the differences in finch's beaks demonstrated the ability of evolution to fine tune a species to fit the particular demands of an environment.

What impact did Darwin's health have on his life and career?

The cause of Darwin's health problems has remained a mystery. Some argue that he contracted a disease while on the Beagle; others think that his physical symptoms were the result of high levels of stress and emotional repression. In any case, the effect of his illness was to isolate him from society at Down House. He continued to see people, and his correspondence was enormous, but he spent most of his time alone or in the company of Emma. This solitude meant that he was distant from the controversies and politics of science, and was able to focus on his own theories and observations without the pressures of academic fighting or the responsibilities of teaching or mentoring. This isolation helped him develop his theory of evolution, but it may also have helped delay the time at which he finally announced it to the scientific community and the public.

Essay Topics

Why was there some controversy over whether Darwin should be buried at Westminster Abbey?

What impact, if any, do you think Darwin's schooling as a doctor and clergyman had on his ultimate career as a naturalist? On his theory of evolution?

What impact did Darwin's self-imposed isolation at the Down House have on his career as a scientist?

Why was Jenkin's criticism of evolution by natural selection so damaging to Darwin? What do we know now that makes this criticism less relevant?

Who were Darwin's mentors during his Edinburgh and Cambridge years, and how did they contribute to his development as a naturalist?

Discuss the impact of wealth on Darwin's success as a scientist. How do you think his father's money affected his ability to do science? Has the role of personal wealth in science changed today?