Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/April 1909/Darwin and Zoology

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THIS is an assembly composed substantially of members and friends of the New York Academy of Sciences, united to do homage to one whose genius has been long felt in our meetings, and whose influence is now recognized in every field of intellectual endeavor. The example of Darwin's precision in observing, of his wisdom in interpreting, and of his truthfulness in recording the phenomena of nature, has transformed zoology—the subject assigned to me—from prosaic description to acute speculation, from a merely interesting study to an aggressive science.

This change has taken place in an incredibly short space of time, and it may be worth while, on an occasion such as this, to examine the condition of scientific academies and similar organizations in America at the time of the publication of the "Origin of Species," to note the first center of appreciative acceptance and to trace the spread of the belief in Darwinism as it betrayed itself in the publications of the time.

Fifty years ago there were in America five leading centers of organized scientific activity.

In Philadelphia were the American Philosopical Society, founded by Franklin, and then well along in its second century of "promoting useful knowledge," and the Academy of Natural Sciences, approaching its semi-centennial.

In Boston were the adolescent Boston Society of Natural History, approaching its thirtieth birthday, and the mature American Academy of Arts and Sciences, founded in 1780.

In New Haven was the Connecticut Academy, founded in 1786.

In Washington, although the National Institution for the Promotion of Science (founded in 1810) and the Smithsonian Institution had been publishing for eleven years, men of science apparently did not unite in an academic way until the Philosophical Society of Washington was organized in 1871. Even the National Academy was not incorporated until 1863, four years after the announcement of the "Origin of Species."

In New York, this academy (then called the Lyceum of Natural History) was meeting at Fourteenth Street, at a point now occupied by the headquarters of Tammany Hall. Of those then attending its meetings, but one now remains.

The dominant mind at Philadelphia was that of Leidy, thirty-six years of age. Cope was a boy of nineteen. In Washington, were Joseph Henry, sixty-two; Bache, sixty-three; Baird, thirty-six, and others attached to the Smithsonian Institution, and the great government surveys. Baird was often a contributor to the publications of the New York Lyceum of Natural History.

In New York was Torrey, a man of sixty-three, and among others two young men, Theodore Nicholas Gill—the senior member of this academy—and Daniel Giraud Elliot, now honoring this museum with his presence—both born in New York, and both in their early twenties. Not only have these two—early identified with the scientific publications of this academy—witnessed the change that has taken place during the past fifty years, but their long series of contributions to science admirably illustrate the strange power that has been exerted upon zoological work in general, and descriptive zoology in particular, by him who came into being one hundred years ago.

In New Haven were James Dwight Dana, forty-six; Daniel C. Gilman, twenty-eight, and the Sillimans.

In Boston, were Agassiz, adored by the people—preeminent among teachers—the studious lovable Gray, at one time (1836) librarian of this academy, and Jeffries Wyman. Both Agassiz and Gray were about the age of Darwin. Jeffries Wyman was a few years their junior; of him Lowell has written:

He widened knowledge and escaped the praise
He toiled for science, not to draw men's gaze.

Under the influence of these, Agassiz, Gray, Jeffries Wyman, there gathered at Cambridge, at about this time, what we should now informally and affectionately call "a bunch of boys." Shaler, eighteen; Verrill (who has come down from New Haven to be with us this afternoon) and Packard, twenty; Morse, Hyatt and Allen—our Dr. Allen—twenty-one; Scudder, twenty-two.

Of the five centers of scientific activity, youth was certainly the characteristic of the school at Boston. It is therefore safe to predict that the germ of the new truth in biological science would find a more favorable medium in Boston than here in New York or farther south.

The infection was immediate, indeed "pre-immediate." The period of incubation extended over about ten years, ending in an acute epidemic from 1871-1876, which affected lyceums, associations and academies indiscriminately. Convalescence than began, since which the American body-scientific has enjoyed good health and has shown many periods of remarkable growth.

The "Origin of Species" was published in London late in November, 1859. The following month, Asa Gray, long intimately acquainted with Darwin, and anxious that Americans should see promptly the significance of the new theory, wrote for Silliman's Journal a review of the book, before a single copy of the "Origin" had reached this country. He predicted that the work would produce great discussion—it did. A copy arrived, it was carefully reviewed, but before the review could be gotten through the press, a second edition was announced, and within three months two American editions were advertised.

Gray gave his first review in December. In January, Professors Agassiz, Parsons and Rogers are recorded as' having discussed the "Origin and Distribution of Species" at a meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on Beacon Street. Gray was present. In February Agassiz began his open opposition to the theory of Darwin, stating at the Boston Society of Natural History that, while Darwin was one of the best naturalists in England, his great knowledge and experience had been brought to the support of an ingenious but fanciful theory.

In March Agassiz continued to oppose Darwin, and in April Gray and Parsons made their reply. In May they were at it again. Then followed the admirable essay of Parsons, Professor of Law at Harvard, and the unfortunate advance sheets of the third volume of Agassiz's "Contributions." Then came Gray's Atlantic Monthly articles, and thus ended the first year.

Among the records of the learned societies of New York, Philadelphia and Washington, I can find nothing to indicate that there wasany particular interest in the disturbances that were going on in and about Boston. Professor Dana, easily the dominant figure in science at New Haven, was in poor health and out of the country, but it was; generally considered that his intensely idealistic views would probably have prevented him from accepting a theory that was felt by many to be grossly materialistic. The infection therefore was local and remained local about Boston for a full decade.

In 1863 Jeffries Wyman, in his review of Owen's monograph on the "Aye-aye" gave inference of his adherence to the theories of Darwin, and indicated the impossibility of there being any neutral ground.

In 1864 Agassiz doubtless discussed the matter before the National Academy in a paper on the "Individuality of Animals." A copy of the paper I have been unable to find.

In 1865 Morse came to New York, from Salem, to be the guest of this academy, but the formal paper that he presented did not contain even a remote allusion to the discussions that were going on in what was then considered America's educational center.

In 1867 Hyatt's paper on "Parallelism" appeared. This I believe to be the first distinctly evolutionary contribution from the zoological side. In this year, 1867, Professor Newberry, later and for twenty-three years the president of this academy, delivered his address at the Burlington meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, betraying in this a singular nobleness of character toward those to whose advanced views he felt that the scientific world could not entirely subscribe, and admirably illustrating what he interpreted to be the prevailing opinion, as shown by the following quotation:

Although this Darwinian hypothesis is looked upon by many as striking at the root of all vital faith, and is the bête noire of all those good men who deplore and condemn the materialistic tendency of modern science, still the purity of life of the author of the "Origin of Species," his enthusiastic devotion to the study of truth, the industry and acumen which have marked his researches, the candor and caution with which his suggestions have been made, all combine to render the obloquy and scorn with which they have been received in many quarters, peculiarly unjust and in bad taste.

This was also the first year of the American Naturalist, edited by those four pupils of Agassiz—Packard, Morse, Hyatt and Putnam—of whom two are still spared. The introduction of the charming first volume of this characteristic American publication is sufficient proof that at the time of its issue even the younger men felt that there were two distinct schools of thought relative to the "Origin of Species"—Those who are familiar with this introduction will remember that it is illuminated with one of Morse's inimitable sketches, a snail peering through a binocular microscope, symbolical, doubtless, of the slowness of perception of those who clung to this archaic instrument and possibly also of those who cling to archaic ideas.

The following year, 1868, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, which in 1860 had elected Darwin to membership, published the first important direct contribution to the subject of evolution made by one not directly under the influence of the Boston academies. This contribution, "On the Origin of Genera," was made by Cope, who for several years had been submitting papers to the academy of a descriptive and semi-speculative character, and largely dealing with the classification of reptiles. I believe that I am perfectly safe in saying that no academy in America has ever published a paper that reflects more to its credit than this extraordinary essay of Cope. It is apologetically issued as a fragment, but in it there are shown an intimate acquaintance with anatomical detail that is almost supernatural, an independence of thought that is extraordinary, a power of analysis that stuns the reader, an estimate of the weak and the strong points of the Darwinism theory that is masterly, an agility of logic that marks its author as a dangerous antagonist, an energy to reach the truth, and an impetuosity to convince others of truth, that is prophetic, indeed, that is completely demonstrative of pent-up mental power, which must have been most disturbing to those of his academy who had nestled down into positions of comfortable intellectuality.

We now enter upon the five years of acute activity.

On December 15, 1871, Cope attended a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, and presented his paper on "The Method of Creation of Organic Forms." In a fortnight a reply was given, which began with a quotation from Job: "I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls," and continued for several pages in attempted explanation and demonstration of the falsity of Darwin's theories, and ended with the author's conviction that the only good that can come from these theories is the fact that they must bring about their own defeat.

Cope replied immediately and was then replied to, and so on. But why follow the discussion?

The spell was being felt even farther south. Within two months of the date of its founding, the Philosophical Society of Washington listened to a paper by Professor Gill, in which it was stated that if the doctrine of evolution was accepted at all, it must involve man.

This was also the date of Dr, Allen's paper on the "Geographical Variation of North American Birds," a philosophical as well as a descriptive article, an important contribution to the then scant literature of distribution, a paper which established a distinct method of zoological research that has reflected the highest credit on its author and on the institutions with which he has been connected.

It was also in this year that Morse published his paper on "Adaptive Coloration."

In January, 1872, the New York Academy made its first direct contribution to the subject of evolution by publishing a brief paper on the "Carpus and Tarsus of Birds." I hope that Professor Morse, now forty-five years a member of this academy, is present at this gathering, for the fifty years that have passed since the appearance of the "Origin of Species" exactly synchronize with the period of his devotion to the principles enunciated therein.

If, among the volumes of this academy from 1859-1876, one binding shows more signs of use than the others, take down the book, and you will find that it opens to this article by Professor Morse: a contribution to zoology, to comparative anatomy, to embryology, and to the theory of evolution. It is a refreshing spot, but somewhat out of place in an arid expanse of descriptions of new species and revised classifications.

Another paper issued by the academy in 1872, and characteristic of the new thought of the time, was by Benj, M, Martin on the "Unity of the General Forces of Nature," but this was physical rather than biological.

If one were forced to accept the presidential addresses of the American Association for the Advancement of Science as indicative of the advancement of science in American associations, the address of 1873, delivered by one who said he thought that natural selection had died with Lamarck, would sadly mislead. He writes:

In Darwin we have one of those philosophers whose great knowledge of animal and vegetable life is transcended only by his imagination. In fact, he is to be regarded more as a metaphysician with a highly-wrought imagination than as a scientist.

But this is only the beginning of the gloom that anticipated the dawn.

Although in 1874 Dr. Elsberg, in a "Contribution to the Doctrine of Evolution," addressed this academy (and also the American Association for the Advancement of Science), in favor of the principles of Darwin, although Cope continued to sustain his earlier contentions, and general workers were beginning to make original observations in favor of the principles of organic descent, the reviewers of the deliberations of scientific gatherings give little promise of anything like a general acceptance of the beliefs in which we are interested.

In 1875, the retiring president of the American Association said:

I fear that the unhappy spirit of contention still survives, and that there are a few who fight for victory rather than for the truth.

One of the vice-presidents at this meeting declined to "enter on the vast field of discussion. . . opened up by Darwin and others," and resolved to avoid the use of the word "evolution," "as this has recently been employed in so many senses as to have become nearly useless for any scientific purpose."

Thus closed five years of struggle.

The year 1876, the centennial of political independence in America, marked also the dawn of intellectual independence and scientific freedom. It was the year of Brooks's first Salpa paper, and of his paper on pangenesis. Cope explicitly stated that the law of natural selection was now generally accepted, and the then librarian of this academy, Louis Elsberg, submitted his paper on the plastidule hypothesis, as nonchalantly as though he were discussing a lingual ribbon.

It was under these really blessed conditions that the American Association met in Buffalo and listened to a vice-presidential address fully worthy the title of the organization, Edward S. Morse had demonstrated his ability as an investigator in his paper of 1872, already mentioned, but the simple, straightforward, patient and kindly manner in which he addressed his audience in 1876, the thoroughness with which he scanned the work of others, the fairness with which he acknowledged the value of their results, and his concluding passages, in which he indicated the important bearing that the theories of descent had upon the social problems of the day, render his address a fit conclusion of a distinct epoch in the history of American science.


Since 1876, practically every zoological worker has sought to make some contribution that might strengthen his faith in a rational evolution of organic life and activities. It may be that such contributions will prove insufficient. It may be that Darwinism as a thing will ultimately fail of proof, but to those in the future who may inquire for the reason for these exercises and for the erection of this monument, Darwinism as a method will ever be a sufficient reply.

  1. An address given at the American Museum of Natural History on February 12.