Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/March 1875/Darwin and Haeckel

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587570Popular Science Monthly Volume 6 March 1875 — Darwin and Haeckel1875Thomas Henry Huxley


By Prof. T. H. HUXLEY, F. R. S.

OCTOBER 1, 1859, the date of the publication of the "Origin of Species," will hereafter be reckoned as the commencement of a new era in the history of biology. It marks the hegira of Science from the idolatries of special creation to the purer faith of evolution. That great conception, which had dawned upon the minds of the patriarchs of philosophy—which had been embalmed in the immortal poem of Lucretius—which had been submerged, but not drowned, in the muddy deluge of Hebrew mythology and schoolmen's philosophy (miscalled Christianity) in the middle ages—and had struggled to the surface, much besmirched, by Lamarck's help—at length stood upon a firm dry quay, built by Darwin's hand, and made water-tight by a goodly contribution of Wallace's cement.

For the first time in history, sound scientific reasonings—the force of which has increased with every year of the fifteen which have elapsed introduced—such conclusions as the following:

"I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors" ("Origin of Species," first edition, p. 484).

"I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form" (Ibid., p. 484).

"In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown upon the origin of man and his history" (Ibid., p. 488).

"... I view all beings, not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited...." (Ibid., pp. 488, 489).

"As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch...." (Ibid., p. 489).

"There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one" (Ibid., p. 490).

There is no uncertain utterance here. There has been no special creation. All beings which now live are descended from primordial forms which existed before the oldest fossiliferous rocks were deposited. Man is no exception, but he and his highest faculties are as much products of evolution as the humblest plant, or the lowest worm.

A more clear and bold statement of the scope and tendencies of the doctrine advocated by Mr. Darwin could not have been put into words; and those who recollect the somewhat fiery controversies which were carried on, during the years which immediately followed 1859, need not be reminded that the cheval de bataille of the opponents of Darwinism was, to hold up to scorn and ridicule the application of his views to man, so distinctly indicated by the author of the theory when it was promulgated.

It seems almost absurd to produce evidence of what is so notorious. Yet it happens to be worth while to quote an article which appeared in the Quarterly Review for July, 1860. It is a production which should be bound up in good stout calf, or better, asses' skin, if such material is to be had, by the curious book-collector, together with Brougham's attack on the undulatory theory of light when it was first propounded by Young, and it is chiefly remarkable for the magisterial airs assumed by a critic so fearfully and wonderfully ignorant of the subject with which he deals that he believes the blood-corpuscles to be produced by evaporation of the blood![2] The following extracts will, however, leave no doubt that, even to so unprepared an apprehension, Mr. Darwin's language was plain enough:

"This is the theory which really pervades the whole volume. Man, beast, creeping thing, and plant of the earth, are all the lineal and direct descendants of some individual ens, whose various progeny have been simply modified by the action of natural and ascertainable conditions into the multiform aspect of life which we see around us" (p. 231).

"If, with Mr. Darwin, to escape the difficulty of supposing the first man at his creation to possess in that framework of his body 'false marks of nourishment from his mother's womb,' with Mr. Darwin you consider him to have been an improved ape" (p. 253).

"First, then, he (Mr. Darwin) not obscurely declares that he applies his scheme of the action of the principle of natural selection to Man himself, as well as to the animals around him" (p. 257).

Exactly fourteen years after this distinct testimony to the plainness of Mr. Darwin's speech on these matters, last July, namely, the very same Review had an article entitled "Primitive Man." Possessed by a blind animosity against all things Darwinian, the writer of this paper outrages decency by insinuations against Mr. George Darwin, well calculated to damage a little-known man with the public, though they sound droll enough to those who are acquainted with my able and excellent friend's somewhat ascetic habits; and, by way of preparation for the attack upon the son, the anonymous reviewer charges the father with deliberate duplicity:

"It is one of the calamities of our time and country that unbelievers, instead of, as in France, honestly avowing their sentiments, disguise them by studious reticence—as Mr. Darwin disguised, at first, his views as to the bestiality of man" (loc. cit., p. 63).

Messieurs the Reviewers, you diametrically contradict one another, and one of you must bear the responsibility of a direct and deliberate untruth: which is it? The one who, writing in July, 1860, said there was no obscurity about Mr. Darwin's views on this matter? Or the one who, writing in July, 1874, accuses him of having at first disguised his views? Settle it between yourselves. If it were necessary for me to give an opinion on so delicate a matter, assuredly I could have no ground for hesitation. For, on becoming acquainted with Mr. Darwin's views in 1858, I set myself to inquire, much more seriously than I had done before, whether the hiatus between man and apes, indicated by the Cuvierian classification, and insisted upon by bis followers, to the great satisfaction of the opponents of the doctrine of evolution, really had an existence in Nature. I came to the conclusion that it had none; I stated the grounds of these conclusions to those who attended my lectures in 1859-'60; a battle, which was somewhat notorious in its day, took place at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860, and turned upon Mr. Darwin's views of the evolution of man; while, in 1863, I summed up the then state of the question in a little booh, entitled "Man's Place in Nature," which did its work in several languages beside my own, and is now out of print and gone to the limbo of forgotten things: which is its proper place, now that Mr. Darwin has had leisure to state his own views more fully, though not more distinctly, than in the "Origin of Species," in the "Descent of Man."

Mr. Darwin reticent about his views respecting the origin of man! Why, for years after the publication of the "Origin of Species," one could not go to a dinner-party without hearing them; and, whether you took up the last number of Punch, or the last sermon, the chances were ten to one that there was some allusion to the "missing link."

Under these circumstances, the high moral tone assumed by the Quarterly reviewer—him of 1874, I mean—is truly edifying. Joseph Surface could not have done better. Unless I err, he is good enough to include me among the members of that school whose speculations are to bring back among us the gross profligacy of imperial Rome. This may be doubtful. But what is not doubtful is the fact that misrepresentation and falsification are the favorite weapons of Jesuitical Rome; that anonymous slander is practice, and not mere speculation; and that it is a practice, the natural culmination of which is not the profligacy of a Nero, or of a Commodus, but the secret poisonings of the papal Borgias.

I remember that when, in 1862,1 showed the proofs of "Man's Place in Nature" to a cautious and sagacious friend of mine—an expert in such matters—he had nothing to say against my arguments, but much to urge against the prudence of publishing them. Doubtless he foresaw that an unscrupulous critic, sheltered by his anonymity, might charge me with advocating the "bestiality of man," and with, thereby, endeavoring to loosen those moral bonds which hold society together. It seemed to me, however, that a man of science has no raison d'être at all, unless he is willing to face much greater risks than these for the sake of that which he believes to be true; and, further, that to a man of science such risks do not count for much—that they are by no means so serious as they are to a man of letters, for example. Happily, the reputation and real success of a votary of the physical sciences are now wholly independent of the periodicals which are pleased to call themselves "influential organs of public opinion." The only opinion he need care about, if he care for any—and he is all the wiser and happier if he care for none—is that of about a dozen men: two or three in these islands, as many in America, and half a dozen on the Continent. If these think well of his work, his reputation is secure from all the attacks cf all the able editors of all the "influential organs" put together. So that I do not suppose that Mr. Darwin troubles himself much about this charge of dishonest reticence, which would be so ludicrous if it were not so shameful to its author; and I have thought it worth while to expose its foolish falsity merely in the interests of the honor of English journalism, in the hope of putting a stop to such malpractices, by calling the attention of the public to the most conspicuous lapse from that honor which has happened within my recollection.

The book, the title of which heads this article, Haeckel's "Anthropogenie" is remarkable in many ways: not least as a milestone, indicating the progress of the application of the theory of Evolution to Man, since Darwin set us all to thinking afresh upon that subject.

The position I took up, in 1863, was a very guarded one, as the state of knowledge at that time demanded. All I had to say came to this: If there is reason to believe that the lower animals have come to be what they are by a process of gradual modification, then there is nothing in the structure of man to warrant us in denying that he may have come into existence by the gradual modification of a mammal of ape-like organization. And, of the many criticisms with which my little book has been favored here and abroad, I have met with none which, in the slightest degree, shakes that position.

Prof. Haeckel stoops at much higher game. His theme is "Anthropogeny"—the tracing of the actual pedigree of man—from its protoplasmic root, sodden in the mud of seas which existed before the oldest of the fossiliferous rocks were deposited, in those inconceivably ancient days, which, for this earth, at any rate, were the real juventus mundi, to its climax and perfection—say in an anonymous critic of strict orthodoxy and high moral tone.

It need hardly be said that, in dealing with such a problem as this, science rapidly passes beyond the bounds of positive verifiable fact, and enters those of more or less justifiable speculation. But there are very few scientific problems, even of those which have been, and are being, most successfully solved, which have been, or can be, approached in any other way.

Our views respecting the nature of the planets, of the sun and stars, are speculations which are not, and cannot be, directly verified; that great instrument of research, the atomic hypothesis, is a speculation which cannot be directly verified; the statement that an extinct animal, of which we know only the skeleton, and never can know any more, had a heart and lungs, and gave birth to young which were developed in such and such a fashion, may be one which admits of no reasonable doubt, but it is an unverifiable hypothesis. I may be as sure as I can be of any thing, that I had a thought yesterday morning, which I took care neither to utter, nor to write down, but my conviction is an utterly unverifiable hypothesis. So that unverified, and even unverifiable, hypotheses may be great aids to the progress of knowledge—may have a right to be believed with a high degree of assurance. And, therefore, even if it be admitted that the evolution hypothesis is, in great measure, beyond the reach of verification, it by no means follows that it is not true, still less that it is not of the utmost value and importance.

There is evidence which is perfectly satisfactory to competent judges, that we have already learned the actual historical process by which one existing species—the horse—came into existence during the Tertiary epoch. The evidence, based on the analogy of known developmental facts, that a three-toed Hipparion form, which lived in the Miocene epoch, gave rise, by suppression of the phalanges of its rudimental toes and some other slight modifications, to the apparently one-toed later Tertiary horse, is as satisfactory to my mind as the evidence, based on the analogy of known structural facts, which leads me to have no doubt that the said extinct Hipparion had a simple stomach and a certain kind of heart. If those so-called "Baconian principles," which everybody talks about and nobody dreams of putting into practice, forbid us to draw the one conclusion, they forbid us to draw the other.

The alternative hypotheses are two: either the Deity manifested his power on this earth, in the course of the Miocene epoch, by making the two primitive ancestors of all the horses out of inorganic matter, or something more unlike a horse than a Hipparion changed into one. The latter hypothesis is gratuitous and absurd. The former is not in itself absurd; but, unless the early chapters of Genesis mean something contrary to what they appear to mean (and one never knows what exegetic ingenuity may make of the "original Hebrew"), it is shockingly heretical, and I hasten to disown it, lest, by some such secret connection as bound Goodwin Sands with Tenterden steeple, it should land me in the cruelties of Caligula, and lead me to violate the precepts of the sagest of physicians, by indulging in Heliogabalian gluttony.

But, if the horse really has arisen in this way, what imaginable ground can there be for the enormous and, in that case, highly "unBaconian" assumption that the deer, and the ox, and the pig, have arisen in any other way? And if there is—not perhaps the complete evidence that we happen to possess in the case of the horse—but still much better evidence than there is for the authenticity and genuineness of the books called by the name of Moses, that these animals have been produced by a similar method, why may not the hypothesis that they have so arisen take its rank among the probable conclusions of science? Even though it must, in candor, be admitted that, as we cannot live back into the Tertiary epoch and see what went on at that time, the hypothesis must always remain, in the strictest sense of the word, unverifiable.

The fact is, that if the objections which are raised to the general doctrine of evolution were not theological objections, their utter childishness would be manifest even to the most childlike of believers. But, if the evolution of all living forms, by gradual modification, is an historical fact, why should the attempt to reconstruct the details of that momentous history be regarded as less philosophical or less laudable than the attempt of a Niebuhr, or of a Mommsen, to build up, from ruined monuments, fragmentary inscriptions, and obscure and often contradictory texts, a connected and intelligible history of Rome? Active error may advance knowledge in its efforts to establish itself; and nothing is more remarkable than the number of great things, from the discovery of America to that of the antiquity of man, which have been brought about by the attempt to establish erroneous views. But sitting still, and being afraid to stir, for fear of making mistakes, is certain to end in ruin in science as in practical life.

Prof. Haeckel is not chargeable with the fault of sitting still, and it may be that he moves too quickly now and then. In his book there are some views which I, for one, do not agree with, but as to which it is just as likely I may be wrong as he. I wish he could be persuaded to take a more liberal view of the duration of life on the earth, though he is far less miserly on that point now than when the "Schöpfungsgeschichte," formerly noticed in the Academy, was published. I might desire that he would not mix up phylogenetic "Stammbäume" with objective taxonomy; and I might wish that he would be a little milder with his honest opponents, though I heartily applaud his practice of dealing with critics of the other sort as mere feræ naturæ.

But, when all is said and done in the way of objection, the "Anthropogenic" is a real live book, full of power and genius, and based upon a foundation of practical original work, to which few living men can offer a parallel. If anybody can read it without profiting by the abundant information and fertile suggestions of new lines of thought which it contains, all I can say is, that I envy him; and if anybody can read it without being struck by its clearness and methodical comprehensiveness, and without being convinced that the general line of argument is sound, whatever may be thought of the details, all I can further say is, I do not envy him. I trust that, like the "Schöpfungsgeschichte," the "Anthropogenie" may speedily find an English translator.—Academy.

  1. "Anthropogenie. Entwickelungsgeschichte des Menschen" (History of the Evolution of Man). By Prof. Ernst Haeckel. Translation in press by D. Appleton & Co.
  2. The passage is worth embalming: "Or what advantage of life could alter the shape of the corpuscles into which the blood can be evaporated?" (loc. cit., p. 247).