The Development Hypothesis

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The Development Hypothesis  (1852) 
by Herbert Spencer
Originally published anonymously in The Leader, March 20, 1852.

Reprinted with modifications in: Herbert Spencer, Illustrations of Universal Progress: A Series of Discussion, New York: Appleton and Company, 1865, Chapter IX, pages 377-383; and in: Herbert Spencer,Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative. Library Edition, containing Seven Essays not before republished, and various other Additions London: Williams and Norgate, 1891, Volume 1 (=The Works of Herbert Spencer, volume 13), pages 1-7; the modified version is online at: The Victorian Web

Spencer added this note at the beginning of this reprint:

[Originally published in The Leader, for March 20, 1852. Brief though it is, I place this essay before the rest, partly because with the exception of a similarly-brief essay on "Use and Beauty", it came first in order of time, but chiefly because it came first in order of thought, and struck the keynote of all that was to follow.]

In Spencer's Principles of Biology (London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1864; online at [1]), Part III, Chapters II and III, he noted: 'Several of the arguments used in this chapter and in that which follows it, formed parts of an essay on "the Development Hypothesis," originally published in 1852.'

Spencer quoted the beginning of this essay at some length in his essay on the Inaugural Presidential Address to the British Association, 1894, given by Lord Salisbury: "Lord Salisbury on Evolution". See Nineteenth Century, volume 38, number 225 (November 1895) = "Lord Salisbury on Evolution", in Popular Science Monthly Volume 48, February 1896.

The quotation "that there is no appreciable distinction amongst them which would enable it to be determined whether a particular molecule is the germ of a Conferva or an Oak, of a Zoophyte or of a Man" is taken from page 474, Chapter XI, §469 of: William B. Carpenter, Principles of General and Comparative Physiology Intended as an Introduction to the Study of Human Physiology and as a Guide to the Philosophical Pursuit of Natural History, London: John Churchill, 1839.

This essay of Spencer's is often cited as the first use of the expression "theory of evolution" in reference to something like "transmutation of species", but it has been pointed out that the expression only appeared in the later versions of the essay. The original 1852 essay, as reproduced here, referred to "the theory of Lamarck and his followers". See: Peter J. Bowler, "Herbert Spencer and "Evolution" - An Additional Note", Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 36, number 2 (April-June 1975) page 367.


In a debate upon the development hypothesis, lately narrated to me by a friend, one of the disputants was described as arguing that, as in all our experience we know of no such phenomenon as the transmutation of species, it is unphilosophical to assume that transmutation of species ever takes place. Had I been present, I think that, passing over his assertion, which is open to criticism, I should have replied that, as in all our experience we have never known a species created, it was, by his own showing, unphilosophical to assume that any species ever had been created.

Those who cavalierly reject the theory of Lamarck and his followers, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all. Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse doctrine, but assume that their own doctrine needs none. Here we find scattered over the globe vegetable and animal organisms numbering, of the one kind (according to Humboldt), some 320,000 species, and of the other, if we include insects, some two millions of species (see Carpenter); and if to these we add the numbers of animal and vegetable species which have become extinct (bearing in mind how geological records prove that, from the earliest appearance of life down to the present time, different species have been successively replacing each other, so that the world's Flora and Fauna have completely changed many times over), we may safely estimate the number of species that have existed, and are existing on the Earth, at not less than ten millions. Well, which is the most rational theory about these ten millions of species? Is it most likely that there have been ten millions of special creations? or is it most likely that by continual modifications, due to change of circumstances, ten millions of varieties may have been produced, as varieties are being produced still? One of the two theories must be adopted. Which is most countenanced by facts?

Doubtless many will reply that they can more easily conceive ten millions of special creations to have taken place, than they can conceive that ten millions of varieties have been produced by the process of perpetual modification. All such, however, will find, on candid inquiry, that they are under an illusion. This is one of the many cases in which men do not really believe, but rather believe they believe. It is not that they can truly conceive ten millions of special creations to have taken place, but that they think they can do so. A little careful introspection will show them that they have never yet realized to themselves the creation of even one species. If they have formed a definite conception of the process, they will be able to answer such questions as — How is a new species constructed? and How does it make its appearance? Is it thrown down from the clouds? or must we hold to the notion that it struggles up out of the ground? Do its limbs and viscera rush together from all the points of the compass? or must we receive some such old Hebrew notion as, that God goes into a forest-cavern, and there takes clay and moulds a new creature? If they say that a new creature is produced in none of these modes, which are too absurd to be believed, then they are required to describe the mode in which a new creature may be produced — a mode which does not seem absurd; and such a mode they will find that they neither have conceived nor can conceive.

Should the believers in special creations consider it unfair thus to call upon them to describe how special creations take place, I reply, that this is far less than they demand from the supporters of the development hypothesis. They are merely asked to point out a conceivable mode; on the other hand, they ask, not simply for a conceivable mode, but for the actual mode. They do not say — Show us how this may take place; but they say — Show us how this does take place. So far from its being unreasonable to ask so much of them, it would be reasonable to ask not only for a possible mode of special creation, but for an ascertained mode; seeing that this is no greater a demand than they make upon their opponents.

And here we may perceive how much more defensible the new doctrine is than the old one. Even could the supporters of the development hypothesis merely show that the production of species by the process of modification is conceivable, they would be in a better position than their opponents. But they can do much more than this. They can show that the process of modification has effected and is effecting great changes in all organisms subject to modifying influences. Though, from the impossibility of getting at a sufficiency of facts, they are unable to trace the many phases through which any existing species has passed in arriving at its present form, or to identify the influences which caused the successive modifications, yet they can show that any existing species — animal or vegetable — when placed under conditions different from its previous ones, immediately begins to undergo certain changes of structure fitting it for the new conditions. They can show that in successive generations these changes continue until ultimately the new conditions become the natural ones. They can show that in cultivated plants, in domesticated animals, and in the several races of men, these changes have uniformly taken place. They can show that the degrees of difference so produced are often, as in dogs, greater than those on which distinctions of species are in other cases founded. They can show that it is a matter of dispute whether some of these modified forms are varieties or separate species. They can show, too, that the changes daily taking place in ourselves — the facility that attends long practice, and the loss of aptitude that begins when practice ceases — the strengthening of passions habitually gratified, and the weakening of those habitually curbed — the development of every faculty, bodily, moral, or intellectual, according to the use made of it — are all explicable on this same principle. And thus they can show that throughout all organic nature there is at work a modifying influence of the kind they assign as the cause of these specific differences — an influence which, though slow in its action, does, in time, if the circumstances demand it, produce marked changes — an influence which, to all appearance, would produce in the millions of years, and under the great varieties of condition which geological records imply, any amount of change.

Which, then, is the most rational hypothesis; that of special creations which has neither a fact to support it nor is even definitely conceivable; or that of modification, which is not only definitely conceivable, but is countenanced by the habitudes of every existing organism?

That by any series of changes a zoophyte should ever become a mammal, seems to those who are not familiar with zoology, and who have not seen how clear becomes the relationship between the simplest and the most complex forms, when all intermediate forms are examined, a very grotesque notion. Habitually looking at things rather in their statical than in their dynamical aspect, they never realize the fact that, by small increments of modification, any amount of modification may in time be generated. That surprise which they feel on finding one whom they last saw as a boy, grown into a man, becomes incredulity when the degree of change is greater. Nevertheless, abundant instances are at hand of the mode in which we may pass to the most diverse forms by insensible gradations. Arguing the matter some time since with a learned professor, I illustrated my position thus :— You admit that there is no apparent relationship between a circle and an hyperbola. The one is a finite curve; the other is an infinite one. All parts of the one are alike; of the other no two parts are alike. the one incloses a space; the other will not inclose a space, though produced for ever. Yet opposite as are these curves in all their properties, they may be connected together by a series of intermediate curves, no one of which differs from the adjacent ones in any appreciable degree. Thus, if a cone be cut by a plane at right angles to its axis we get a circle. If, instead of being perfectly at right angles, the plane subtends with the axis an angle of 89° 59′, we have an ellipse which no human eye, even when aided by an accurate pair of compasses can distinguish from a circle. Decreasing the angle minute by minute the ellipse becomes first perceptibly eccentric, then manifestly so, and by and by acquires so immensely elongated a form, as to bear no recognizable resemblance to a circle. By continuing this process the ellipse passes insensibly into a parabola; and ultimately, by still further diminishing the angle, into an hyperbola. Now here we have four different species of curve — circle, ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola — each having its peculiar properties, and its separate equation, and the first and last of which are quite opposite in nature, connected together as members of one series, all producible by a single process of insensible modification.

But the blindness of those who think it absurd to suppose that complex organic forms may have arisen by successive modifications out of simple ones, becomes astonishing when we remember that complex organic forms are daily being thus produced. A tree differs from a seed immeasurably in every respect — in bulk, in structure, in colour, in form, in specific gravity, in chemical composition; differs so greatly that no visible resemblance of any kind can be pointed out between them. Yet is the one changed in the course of a few years into the other — changed so gradually, that at no moment can it be said — Now the seed ceases to be, and the tree exists. What can be more widely contrasted than a newly-born child and the small, semi-transparent, gelatinous spherule constituting the human ovum? The infant is so complex in structure that a cyclopædia is needed to describe its constituent parts. The germinal vesicle is so simple that a line will contain all that can be said of it. Nevertheless a few months suffices to develop the one out of the other, and that, too, by a series of modifications so small that were the embryo examined at successive minutes not even a microscope would disclose any sensible changes. That the uneducated and the ill-educated should think the hypothesis that all races of beings, man inclusive, may in process of time have been evolved from the simplest monad, a ludicrous one, is not to be wondered at. But for the physiologist, who knows that every individual being is so evolved — who knows further, that in their earliest condition the germs of all plants and animals whatever are so similar, "that there is no appreciable distinction amongst them which would enable it to be determined whether a particular molecule is the germ of a conferva or an oak, of a zoophyte or of a man" — for him to make a difficulty of the matter is inexcusable. Surely, if a single structureless cell may, when subjected to certain influences, become a man in the space of twenty years, there is nothing absurd in the hypothesis that under certain other influences, a cell may in the course of millions of years give origin to the human race. The two processes are generically the same, and differ only in length and complexity.

We have, indeed, in the part taken by many scientific men in this controversy of "Law versus Miracle," a good illustration of the tenacious vitality of superstitions. Ask one of our leading geologists or physiologists whether he believes in the Mosaic account of the creation, and he will take the question as next to an insult. Either he rejects the narrative entirely, or understands it in some vague non-natural sense. Yet one part of it he unconsciously adopts; and that, too, literally. For, whence has he got this notion of "special creations," which he thinks so reasonable, and fights for so vigorously? Evidently he can trace it back to no other source than this myth which be repudiates. He has not a single fact in nature to cite in proof of it; nor is he prepared with any chain of abstract reasoning by which it may be established. Catechise him, and he will be forced to confess that the notion was put into his mind in childhood as part of a story which he now thinks absurd. And why, after rejecting all the rest of the story, he should strenuously defend this last remnant of it as though he had received it on valid authority, he would be puzzled to say.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.