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- A Critical Examination of "On The Origin of Species" - 1/4 -


A CRITICAL EXAMINATION OF THE POSITION OF MR. DARWIN'S WORK, "ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES," IN RELATION TO THE COMPLETE THEORY OF THE CAUSES OF THE PHENOMENA OF ORGANIC NATURE

by Thomas H. Huxley

IN the preceding five lectures I have endeavoured to give you an account of those facts, and of those reasonings from facts, which form the data upon which all theories regarding the causes of the phenomena of organic nature must be based. And, although I have had frequent occasion to quote Mr. Darwin--as all persons hereafter, in speaking upon these subjects, will have occasion to quote his famous book on the "Origin of Species,"--you must yet remember that, wherever I have quoted him, it has not been upon theoretical points, or for statements in any way connected with his particular speculations, but on matters of fact, brought forward by himself, or collected by himself, and which appear incidentally in his book. If a man 'will' make a book, professing to discuss a single question, an encyclopaedia, I cannot help it.

Now, having had an opportunity of considering in this sort of way the different statements bearing upon all theories whatsoever, I have to lay before you, as fairly as I can, what is Mr. Darwin's view of the matter and what position his theories hold, when judged by the principles which I have previously laid down, as deciding our judgments upon all theories and hypotheses.

I have already stated to you that the inquiry respecting the causes of the phenomena of organic nature resolves itself into two problems--the first being the question of the origination of living or organic beings; and the second being the totally distinct problem of the modification and perpetuation of organic beings when they have already come into existence. The first question Mr. Darwin does not touch; he does not deal with it at all; but he says--given the origin of organic matter--supposing its creation to have already taken place, my object is to show in consequence of what laws and what demonstrable properties of organic matter, and of its environments, such states of organic nature as those with which we are acquainted must have come about. This, you will observe, is a perfectly legitimate proposition; every person has a right to define the limits of the inquiry which he sets before himself; and yet it is a most singular thing that in all the multifarious, and, not unfrequently, ignorant attacks which have been made upon the 'Origin of Species', there is nothing which has been more speciously criticised than this particular limitation. If people have nothing else to urge against the book, they say--"Well, after all, you see, Mr. Darwin's explanation of the 'Origin of Species' is not good for much, because, in the long run, he admits that he does not know how organic matter began to exist. But if you admit any special creation for the first particle of organic matter you may just as well admit it for all the rest; five hundred or five thousand distinct creations are just as intelligible, and just as little difficult to understand, as one." The answer to these cavils is two-fold. In the first place, all human inquiry must stop somewhere; all our knowledge and all our investigation cannot take us beyond the limits set by the finite and restricted character of our faculties, or destroy the endless unknown, which accompanies, like its shadow, the endless procession of phenomena. So far as I can venture to offer an opinion on such a matter, the purpose of our being in existence, the highest object that human beings can set before themselves, is not the pursuit of any such chimera as the annihilation of the unknown; but it is simply the unwearied endeavour to remove its boundaries a little further from our little sphere of action.

I wonder if any historian would for a moment admit the objection, that it is preposterous to trouble ourselves about the history of the Roman Empire, because we do not know anything positive about the origin and first building of the city of Rome! Would it be a fair objection to urge, respecting the sublime discoveries of a Newton, or a Kepler, those great philosophers, whose discoveries have been of the profoundest benefit and service to all men,--to say to them--"After all that you have told us as to how the planets revolve, and how they are maintained in their orbits, you cannot tell us what is the cause of the origin of the sun, moon, and stars. So what is the use of what you have done?" Yet these objections would not be one whit more preposterous than the objections which have been made to the 'Origin of Species.' Mr. Darwin, then, had a perfect right to limit his inquiry as he pleased, and the only question for us--the inquiry being so limited--is to ascertain whether the method of his inquiry is sound or unsound; whether he has obeyed the canons which must guide and govern all investigation, or whether he has broken them; and it was because our inquiry this evening is essentially limited to that question, that I spent a good deal of time in a former lecture (which, perhaps, some of you thought might have been better employed), in endeavouring to illustrate the method and nature of scientific inquiry in general. We shall now have to put in practice the principles that I then laid down.

I stated to you in substance, if not in words, that wherever there are complex masses of phenomena to be inquired into, whether they be phenomena of the affairs of daily life, or whether they belong to the more abstruse and difficult problems laid before the philosopher, our course of proceeding in unravelling that complex chain of phenomena with a view to get at its cause, is always the same; in all cases we must invent an hypothesis; we must place before ourselves some more or less likely supposition respecting that cause; and then, having assumed an hypothesis, having supposed cause for the phenomena in question, we must endeavour, on the one hand, to demonstrate our hypothesis, or, on the other, to upset and reject it altogether, by testing it in three ways. We must, in the first place, be prepared to prove that the supposed causes of the phenomena exist in nature; that they are what the logicians call 'vera causae'--true causes;--in the next place, we should be prepared to show that the assumed causes of the phenomena are competent to produce such phenomena as those which we wish to explain by them; and in the last place, we ought to be able to show that no other known causes are competent to produce those phenomena. If we can succeed in satisfying these three conditions we shall have demonstrated our hypothesis; or rather I ought to say we shall have proved it as far as certainty is possible for us; for, after all, there is no one of our surest convictions which may not be upset, or at any rate modified by a further accession of knowledge. It was because it satisfied these conditions that we accepted the hypothesis as to the disappearance of the tea-pot and spoons in the case I supposed in a previous lecture; we found that our hypothesis on that subject was tenable and valid, because the supposed cause existed in nature, because it was competent to account for the phenomena, and because no other known cause was competent to account for them; and it is upon similar grounds that any hypothesis you choose to name is accepted in science as tenable and valid.

What is Mr. Darwin's hypothesis? As I apprehend it--for I have put it into a shape more convenient for common purposes than I could find 'verbatim' in his book--as I apprehend it, I say, it is, that all the phenomena of organic nature, past and present, result from, or are caused by, the inter-action of those properties of organic matter, which we have called ATAVISM and VARIABILITY, with the CONDITIONS OF EXISTENCE; or, in other words,--given the existence of organic matter, its tendency to transmit its properties, and its tendency occasionally to vary; and, lastly, given the conditions of existence by which organic matter is surrounded--that these put together are the causes of the Present and of the Past conditions of ORGANIC NATURE.

Such is the hypothesis as I understand it. Now let us see how it will stand the various tests which I laid down just now. In the first place, do these supposed causes of the phenomena exist in nature? Is it the fact that in nature these properties of organic matter--atavism and variability--and those phenomena which we have called the conditions of existence,--is it true that they exist? Well, of course, if they do not exist, all that I have told you in the last three or four lectures must be incorrect, because I have been attempting to prove that they do exist, and I take it that there is abundant evidence that they do exist; so far, therefore, the hypothesis does not break down.

But in the next place comes a much more difficult inquiry:--Are the causes indicated competent to give rise to the phenomena of organic nature? I suspect that this is indubitable to a certain extent. It is demonstrable, I think, as I have endeavoured to show you, that they are perfectly competent to give rise to all the phenomena which are exhibited by RACES in nature. Furthermore, I believe that they are quite competent to account for all that we may call purely structural phenomena which are exhibited by SPECIES in nature. On that point also I have already enlarged somewhat. Again, I think that the causes assumed are competent to account for most of the physiological characteristics of species, and I not only think that they are competent to account for them, but I think that they account for many things which otherwise remain wholly unaccountable and inexplicable, and I may say incomprehensible. For a full exposition of the grounds on which this conviction is based, I must refer you to Mr. Darwin's work; all that I can do now is to illustrate what I have said by two or three cases taken almost at random.

I drew your attention, on a previous evening, to the facts which are embodied in our systems of Classification, which are the results of the examination and comparison of the different members of the animal kingdom one with another. I mentioned that the whole of the animal kingdom is divisible into five sub-kingdoms; that each of these sub-kingdoms is again divisible into provinces; that each province may be divided into classes, and the classes into the successively smaller groups, orders, families, genera, and species.

Now, in each of these groups, the resemblance in structure among the members of the group is closer in proportion as the group is smaller. Thus, a man and a worm are members of the animal kingdom in virtue of certain apparently slight though really fundamental resemblances which they present. But a man and a fish are members of the same sub-kingdom 'Vertebrata', because they are much more like one another than either of them is to a worm, or a snail, or any member of the other sub-kingdoms. For similar reasons men and horses are arranged as members of the same Class, 'Mammalia'; men and apes as members of the same Order, 'Primates'; and if there were any animals more like men than they were like any of the apes, and yet different from men in important and constant particulars of their organization, we should rank them as members of the same Family, or of the same Genus, but as of distinct Species.

That it is possible to arrange all the varied forms of animals into groups, having this sort of singular subordination one to the other, is a very remarkable circumstance; but, as Mr. Darwin remarks, this is a result which is quite to be expected, if the principles which he lays down be correct. Take the case of the races which are known to be produced by the operation of atavism and variability, and the conditions of existence which check and modify these tendencies. Take the case of the pigeons that I brought before you; there it was shown that they might be all classed as belonging to some one of five principal divisions, and that within these divisions other subordinate groups might be formed. The members of these groups are related to one


A Critical Examination of "On The Origin of Species" - 1/4

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