Darwin on the Origin of Species

A book review
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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 hardfitting 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 Professor 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 he 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 make-shifts, the old views might last out our days. Après 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 cackling 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 thousand-fold 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 increases, rather than diminishes, the number of doubtful instances; and when there is less agreement than ever among naturalists as to what the basis is in Nature upon which our, idea of species reposes, or how the word is practically 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 unihumanitarians would have been right several thousand years ago, and the multihumanitarians will be a few 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 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 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 by no means welcome. The very first step backwards 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-beads in the time of the drift, very many ages ago,-before the British Channel existed, says Lyell,1— and until these men of the olden time are shown to have worn their great-toes in a 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.

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