Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 75.djvu/553

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549
THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES

might conceivably, after some fashion, have made shift with a hypothesis of this kind; but it is hard to see how any one could suppose it in any degree advantageous to religion. It had not even the poor merit of being anthropomorphic. For no man out of a madhouse ever behaved in such a manner as that in which, by this hypothesis, the Creator of the universe was supposed to have behaved. Ascribing to him both the ability and the disposition to intervene with absolute freedom in natural—or, at least, in organic—phenomena, the theory also represented him as incapable of intervening intelligently or effectually.

That men of great abilities were unable to see the true character of the hypothesis which great numbers of them so long embraced, is certainly an interesting, if not an encouraging, fact in the history of the human intellect. But the capacity of theological prepossessions and religious feeling to retard and confuse intellectual processes is an old story. More remarkable, perhaps, is the failure, for an equally long period, of a number of men not impeded by theological prepossessions—men who were capable of seeing the absurdities of the special creation hypothesis—to recognize the methodological superiority and the promise of scientific fruitfulness inhering in the other hypothesis, or even to recognize the logical obligation to choose between the only two hypotheses available. Men of science of the present generation have perhaps little to learn from a consideration of the reasons which prevented a Cuvier, a Miller, a Sedgwick or an Agassiz from accepting the theory of evolution. But there may still be for us profitable matter for reflection in a consideration of the reasons which prevented a Huxley from finding, in 1846, anything of value in facts and reasonings which thirteen years later he was, with unequalled vigor and skill, proclaiming from the housetops.

The only historian of English thought known to me who has quite truly stated what I believe to be the fact about this episode in the history of scientific opinion, is Mr. A. W. Benn. In his "Modern England "[1] he observes concerning the "Vestiges":

Hardly any advance has since been made on Chambers' general arguments, which at the time they appeared would have been accepted as convincing, but for theological truculence and scientific timidity. And Chambers himself only gave unity to thoughts already in wide circulation. . . . Chambers was not a scientific expert, nor altogether an original thinker, but he had studied scientific literature to better purpose than any professor. . . . The considerations that now recommend evolution to popular audiences are no other than those urged in the "Vestiges."

The truth of this is, I think, by no means sufficiently recognized by biologists or by historians of science. I hope that the present study may somewhat contribute to the more general acknowledgment of the correctness of Mr. Benn's statement.

  1. 1908, II., 307, I., 238.