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- The Darwinian Hypothesis - 1/3 -


by Thomas H. Huxley

[footnote] *'Times', December 26th, 1850.


THERE is a growing immensity in the speculations of science to which no human thing or thought at this day is comparable. Apart from the results which science brings us home and securely harvests, there is an expansive force and latitude in its tentative efforts, which lifts us out of ourselves and transfigures our mortality. We may have a preference for moral themes, like the Homeric sage, who had seen and known much:--

"Cities of men And manners, climates, councils, governments";

yet we must end by confession that

"The windy ways of men Are but dust which rises up And is lightly laid again,"

in comparison with the work of nature, to which science testifies, but which has no boundaries in time or space to which science can approximate.

There is something altogether out of the reach of science, and yet the compass of science is practically illimitable. Hence it is that from time to time we are startled and perplexed by theories which have no parallel in the contracted moral world; for the generalizations of science sweep on in ever-widening circles, and more aspiring flights, through a limitless creation. While astronomy, with its telescope, ranges beyond the known stars, and physiology, with its microscope, is subdividing infinite minutiae, we may expect that our historic centuries may be treated as inadequate counters in the history of the planet on which we are placed. We must expect new conceptions of the nature and relations of its denizens, as science acquires the materials for fresh generalizations; nor have we occasion for alarms if a highly advanced knowledge, like that of the eminent Naturalist before us, confronts us with an hypothesis as vast as it is novel. This hypothesis may or may not be sustainable hereafter; it may give way to something else, and higher science may reverse what science has here built up with so much skill and patience, but its sufficiency must be tried by the tests of science alone, if we are to maintain our position as the heirs of Bacon and the acquitters of Galileo. We must weigh this hypothesis strictly in the controversy which is coming, by the only tests which are appropriate, and by no others whatsoever.

The hypothesis to which we point, and of which the present work of Mr. Darwin is but the preliminary outline, may be stated in his own language as follows:--"Species originated by means of natural selection, or through the preservation of the favoured races in the struggle for life." To render this thesis intelligible, it is necessary to interpret its terms. In the first place, what is a species? The question is a simple one, but the right answer to it is hard to find, even if we appeal to those who should know most about it. It is all those animals or plants which have descended from a single pair of parents; it is the smallest distinctly definable group of living organisms; it is an eternal and immutable entity; it is a mere abstraction of the human intellect having no existence in nature. Such are a few of the significations attached to this simple word which may be culled from authoritative sources; and if, leaving terms and theoretical subtleties aside, we turn to facts and endeavour to gather a meaning for ourselves, by studying the things to which, in practice, the name of species is applied, it profits us little. For practice varies as much as theory. Let the botanist or the zoologist examine and describe the productions of a country, and one will pretty certainly disagree with the other as to the number, limits, and definitions of the species into which he groups the very same things. In these islands, we are in the habit of regarding mankind as of one species, but a fortnight's steam will land us in a country where divines and savants, for once in agreement, vie with one another in loudness of assertion, if not in cogency of proof, that men are of different species; and, more particularly, that the species negro is so distinct from our own that the Ten Commandments have actually no reference to him. Even in the calm region of entomology, where, if anywhere in this sinful world, passion and prejudice should fail to stir the mind, one learned coleopterist will fill ten attractive volumes with descriptions of species of beetles, nine-tenths of which are immediately declared by his brother beetle-mongers to be no species at all.

The truth is that the number of distinguishable living creatures almost surpasses imagination. At least a hundred thousand such kinds of insects alone have been described and may be identified in collections, and the number of separable kinds of living things is under estimated at half a million. Seeing that most of these obvious kinds have their accidental varieties, and that they often shade into others by imperceptible degrees, it may well be imagined that the task of distinguishing between what is permanent and what fleeting, what is a species and what a mere variety, is sufficiently formidable.

But is it not possible to apply a test whereby a true species may be known from a mere variety? Is there no criterion of species? Great authorities affirm that there is--that the unions of members of the same species are always fertile, while those of distinct species are either sterile, or their offspring, called hybrids, are so. It is affirmed not only that this is an experimental fact, but that it is a provision for the preservation of the purity of species. Such a criterion as this would be invaluable; but, unfortunately, not only is it not obvious how to apply it in the great majority of cases in which its aid is needed, but its general validity is stoutly denied. The Hon. and Rev. Mr. Herbert, a most trustworthy authority, not only asserts as the result of his own observations and experiments that many hybrids are quite as fertile as the parent species, but he goes so far as to assert that the particular plant 'Crinum capense' is much more fertile when crossed by a distinct species than when fertilised by its proper pollen! On the other hand, the famous Gaertner, though he took the greatest pains to cross the primrose and the cowslip, succeeded only once or twice in several years; and yet it is a well-established fact that the primrose and the cowslip are only varieties of the same kind of plant. Again, such cases as the following are well established. The female of species A, if crossed with the male of species B, is fertile; but, if the female of B is crossed with the male of A, she remains barren. Facts of this kind destroy the value of the supposed criterion.

If, weary of the endless difficulties involved in the determination of species, the investigator, contenting himself with the rough practical distinction of separable kinds, endeavours to study them as they occur in nature--to ascertain their relations to the conditions which surround them, their mutual harmonies and discordances of structure, the bond of union of their parts and their past history, he finds himself, according to the received notions, in a mighty maze, and with, at most, the dimmest adumbration of a plan. If he starts with any one clear conviction, it is that every part of a living creature is cunningly adapted to some special use in its life. Has not his Paley told him that that seemingly useless organ, the spleen, is beautifully adjusted as so much packing between the other organs? And yet, at the outset of his studies, he finds that no adaptive reason whatsoever can be given for one-half of the peculiarities of vegetable structure; he also discovers rudimentary teeth, which are never used, in the gums of the young calf and in those of the foetal whale; insects which never bite have rudimental jaws, and others which never fly have rudimental wings; naturally blind creatures have rudimental eyes; and the halt have rudimentary limbs. So, again, no animal or plant puts on its perfect form at once, but all have to start from the same point, however various the course which each has to pursue. Not only men and horses, and cats and dogs, lobsters and beetles, periwinkles and mussels, but even the very sponges and animalcules commence their existence under forms which are essentially undistinguishable; and this is true of all the infinite variety of plants. Nay, more, all living beings march side by side along the high road of development, and separate the later the more like they are; like people leaving church, who all go down the aisle, but having reached the door some turn into the parsonage, others go down the village, and others part only in the next parish. A man in his development runs for a little while parallel with, though never passing through, the form of the meanest worm, then travels for a space beside the fish, then journeys along with the bird and the reptile for his fellow travellers; and only at last, after a brief companionship with the highest of the four-footed and four-handed world, rises into the dignity of pure manhood. No competent thinker of the present day dreams of explaining these indubitable facts by the notion of the existence of unknown and undiscoverable adaptations to purpose. And we would remind those who, ignorant of the facts, must be moved by authority, that no one has asserted the incompetence of the doctrine of final causes, in its application to physiology and anatomy, more strongly than our own eminent anatomist, Professor Owen, who, speaking of such cases, says ('On the Nature of Limbs', pp. 39, 40): "I think it will be obvious that the principle of final adaptations fails to satisfy all the conditions of the problem."

But, if the doctrine of final causes will not help us to comprehend the anomalies of living structure, the principle of adaptation must surely lead us to understand why certain living beings are found in certain regions of the world and not in others. The palm, as we know, will not grow in our climate, nor the oak in Greenland. The white bear cannot live where the tiger thrives, nor 'vice versa', and the more the natural habits of animal and vegetable species are examined, the more do they seem, on the whole, limited to particular provinces. But when we look into the facts established by the study of the geographical distribution of animals and plants it seems utterly hopeless to attempt to understand the strange and apparently capricious relations which they exhibit. One would be inclined to suppose 'a priori' that every country must be naturally peopled by those animals that are fittest to live and thrive in it. And yet how, on this hypothesis, are we to account for the absence of cattle in the Pampas of South America, when those parts of the New World were discovered? It is not that they were unfit for cattle, for millions of cattle now run wild there; and the like holds good of Australia and New Zealand. It is a curious circumstance, in fact, that the animals and plants of the Northern Hemisphere are not only as well adapted to live in the Southern Hemisphere as its own autochthones, but are in many cases absolutely better adapted, and so overrun and extirpate the aborigines. Clearly, therefore, the species which naturally inhabit a country are not necessarily the best adapted to its climate and other conditions. The inhabitants of islands are often distinct from any other known species of animal or plants (witness our recent examples from the work of Sir Emerson Tennent, on Ceylon), and yet they have almost always a sort of general family resemblance to the animals and plants of the nearest mainland. On the other hand, there is hardly a species of fish, shell, or crab common to the opposite sides of the narrow isthmus of Panama. Wherever we look, then, living nature offers us riddles of difficult solution, if we suppose that what we see is all that can be known of it.

The Darwinian Hypothesis - 1/3

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