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- THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES - 1/7 -


THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES*

by Thomas H. Huxley

[footnote] *'The Westminster Review', April 1860.

MR. DARWIN'S long-standing and well-earned scientific eminence probably renders him indifferent to that social notoriety which passes by the name of success; but if the calm spirit of the philosopher have not yet wholly superseded the ambition and the vanity of the carnal man within him, he must be well satisfied with the results of his venture in publishing the 'Origin of Species'. Overflowing the narrow bounds of purely scientific circles, the "species question" divides with Italy and the Volunteers the attention of general society. Everybody has read Mr. Darwin's book, or, at least, has given an opinion upon its merits or demerits; pietists, whether lay or ecclesiastic, decry it with the mild railing which sounds so charitable; bigots denounce it with ignorant invective; old ladies of both sexes consider it a decidedly dangerous book, and even savants, who have no better mud to throw, quote antiquated writers to show that its author is no better than an ape himself; while every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism; and all competent naturalists and physiologists, whatever their opinions as to the ultimate fate of the doctrines put forth, acknowledge that the work in which they are embodied is a solid contribution to knowledge and inaugurates a new epoch in natural history.

Nor has the discussion of the subject been restrained within the limits of conversation. When the public is eager and interested, reviewers must minister to its wants; and the genuine 'litterateur' is too much in the habit of acquiring his knowledge from the book he judges--as the Abyssinian is said to provide himself with steaks from the ox which carries him--to be withheld from criticism of a profound scientific work by the mere want of the requisite preliminary scientific acquirement; while, on the other hand, the men of science who wish well to the new views, no less than those who dispute their validity, have naturally sought opportunities of expressing their opinions. Hence it is not surprising that almost all the critical journals have noticed Mr. Darwin's work at greater or less length; and so many disquisitions, of every degree of excellence, from the poor product of ignorance, too often stimulated by prejudice, to the fair and thoughtful essay of the candid student of Nature, have appeared, that it seems an almost hopeless task to attempt to say anything new upon the question.

But it may be doubted if the knowledge and acumen of prejudged scientific opponents, or the subtlety of orthodox special pleaders, have yet exerted their full force in mystifying the real issues of the great controversy which has been set afoot, and whose end is hardly likely to be seen by this generation; so that, at this eleventh hour, and even failing anything new, it may be useful to state afresh that which is true, and to put the fundamental positions advocated by Mr. Darwin in such a form that they may be grasped by those whose special studies lie in other directions. And the adoption of this course may be the more advisable, because, notwithstanding its great deserts, and indeed partly on account of them, the 'Origin of Species' is by no means an easy book to read--if by reading is implied the full comprehension of an author's meaning.

We do not speak jestingly in saying that it is Mr. Darwin's misfortune to know more about the question he has taken up than any man living. Personally and practically exercised in zoology, in minute anatomy, in geology; a student of geographical distribution, not on maps and in museums only, but by long voyages and laborious collection; having largely advanced each of these branches of science, and having spent many years in gathering and sifting materials for his present work, the store of accurately registered facts upon which the author of the 'Origin of Species' is able to draw at will is prodigious.

But this very superabundance of matter must have been embarrassing to a writer who, for the present, can only put forward an abstract of his views; and thence it arises, perhaps, that notwithstanding the clearness of the style, those who attempt fairly to digest the book find much of it a sort of intellectual pemmican--a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical bond; due attention will, without doubt, discover this bond, but it is often hard to find.

Again, from sheer want of room, much has to be taken for granted which might readily enough be proved; and hence, while the adept, who can supply the missing links in the evidence from his own knowledge, discovers fresh proof of the singular thoroughness with which all difficulties have been considered and all unjustifiable suppositions avoided, at every reperusal of Mr. Darwin's pregnant paragraphs, the novice in biology is apt to complain of the frequency of what he fancies is gratuitous assumption.

Thus while it may be doubted if, for some years, any one is likely to be competent to pronounce judgment on all the issues raised by Mr. Darwin, there is assuredly abundant room for him, who, assuming the humbler, though perhaps as useful, office of an interpreter between the 'Origin of Species' and the public, contents himself with endeavouring to point out the nature of the problems which it discusses; to distinguish between the ascertained facts and the theoretical views which it contains; and finally, to show the extent to which the explanation it offers satisfies the requirements of scientific logic. At any rate, it is this office which we purpose to undertake in the following pages.

It may be safely assumed that our readers have a general conception of the nature of the objects to which the word "species" is applied; but it has, perhaps, occurred to a few, even to those who are naturalists 'ex professo', to reflect, that, as commonly employed, the term has a double sense and denotes two very different orders of relations. When we call a group of animals, or of plants, a species, we may imply thereby, either that all these animals or plants have some common peculiarity of form or structure; or, we may mean that they possess some common functional character. That part of biological science which deals with form and structure is called Morphology--that which concerns itself with function, Physiology--so that we may conveniently speak of these two senses, or aspects, of "species"--the one as morphological, the other as physiological. Regarded from the former point of view, a species is nothing more than a kind of animal or plant, which is distinctly definable from all others, by certain constant, and not merely sexual, morphological peculiarities. Thus horses form a species, because the group of animals to which that name is applied is distinguished from all others in the world by the following constantly associated characters. They have--1, A vertebral column; 2, Mammae; 3, A placental embryo; 4, Four legs; 5, A single well-developed toe in each foot provided with a hoof; 6, A bushy tail; and 7, Callosities on the inner sides of both the fore and the hind legs. The asses, again, form a distinct species, because, with the same characters, as far as the fifth in the above list, all asses have tufted tails, and have callosities only on the inner side of the fore-legs. If animals were discovered having the general characters of the horse, but sometimes with callosities only on the fore-legs, and more or less tufted tails; or animals having the general characters of the ass, but with more or less bushy tails, and sometimes with callosities on both pairs of legs, besides being intermediate in other respects--the two species would have to be merged into one. They could no longer be regarded as morphologically distinct species, for they would not be distinctly definable one from the other.

However bare and simple this definition of species may appear to be, we confidently appeal to all practical naturalists, whether zoologists, botanists, or palaeontologists, to say if, in the vast majority of cases, they know, or mean to affirm anything more of the group of animals or plants they so denominate than what has just been stated. Even the most decided advocates of the received doctrines respecting species admit this.

"I apprehend," says Professor Owen*, "that few naturalists nowadays, in describing and proposing a name for what they call 'a new species,' use that term to signify what was meant by it twenty or thirty years ago; that is, an originally distinct creation, maintaining its primitive distinction by obstructive generative peculiarities. The proposer of the new species now intends to state no more than he actually knows; as, for example, that the differences on which he founds the specific character are constant in individuals of both sexes, so far as observation has reached; and that they are not due to domestication or to artificially superinduced external circumstances, or to any outward influence within his cognizance; that the species is wild, or is such as it appears by Nature."

[footnote] *On the Osteology of the Chimpanzees and Orangs: Transactions of the Zoological Society, 1858.

If we consider, in fact, that by far the largest proportion of recorded existing species are known only by the study of their skins, or bones, or other lifeless exuvia; that we are acquainted with none, or next to none, of their physiological peculiarities, beyond those which can be deduced from their structure, or are open to cursory observation; and that we cannot hope to learn more of any of those extinct forms of life which now constitute no inconsiderable proportion of the known Flora and Fauna of the world: it is obvious that the definitions of these species can be only of a purely structural, or morphological, character. It is probable that naturalists would have avoided much confusion of ideas if they had more frequently borne the necessary limitations of our knowledge in mind. But while it may safely be admitted that we are acquainted with only the morphological characters of the vast majority of species--the functional or physiological, peculiarities of a few have been carefully investigated, and the result of that study forms a large and most interesting portion of the physiology of reproduction.

The student of Nature wonders the more and is astonished the less, the more conversant he becomes with her operations; but of all the perennial miracles she offers to his inspection, perhaps the most worthy of admiration is the development of a plant or of an animal from its embryo. Examine the recently laid egg of some common animal, such as a salamander or newt. It is a minute spheroid in which the best microscope will reveal nothing but a structureless sac, enclosing a glairy fluid, holding granules in suspension. But strange possibilities lie dormant in that semi-fluid globule. Let a moderate supply of warmth reach its watery cradle, and the plastic matter undergoes changes so rapid, yet so steady and purposelike in their succession, that one can only compare them to those operated by a skilled modeller upon a formless lump of clay. As with an invisible trowel, the mass is divided and subdivided into smaller and smaller portions, until it is reduced to an aggregation of granules not too large to build withal the finest fabrics of the nascent organism. And, then, it is as if a delicate finger traced out the line to be occupied by the spinal column, and moulded the contour of the body; pinching up the head at one end, the tail at the other, and fashioning flank and


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