Evolution in Modern Thought

Produced by Marilynda Fraser-Cunliffe, Sankar Viswanathan,
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
http://www.pgdp.net

Cover Page

 

EVOLUTION IN MODERN
THOUGHT

 

 

BY HAECKEL, THOMSON, WEISMANN
AND OTHERS

 

Seal

 

 

THE MODERN LIBRARY

PUBLISHERS     :: ::     NEW YORK


CONTENTS

  PAGE
I Darwin’s Predecessors1
 J. Arthur Thomson, Professor of Natural History in the University of Aberdeen
II The Selection Theory23
 August Weismann, Professor of Zoology in the University of Freiburg (Baden)
III Heredity and Variation in Modern Lights87
 W. Bateson, Professor of Biology in the University of Cambridge
IV The Descent of Man111
 G. Schwalbe, Professor of Anatomy in the University of Strassburg
V Charles Darwin as an Anthropologist146
 Ernst Haeckel, Professor of Zoology in the University of Jena
VI Mental Factors in Evolution166
 C. Lloyd Morgan, Professor of Psychology at University College, Bristol
VII The Influence of the Conception of Evolution on Modern Philosophy197
 H. Höffding, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Copenhagen
VIII The Influence of Darwin Upon Religious Thought223
 Rev. P. H. Waggett
IX Darwinism and History246
 J. B. Bury, Regious Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge
X Darwinism and Sociology264
 C. Bouglé, Professor of Social Philosophy in the University of Toulouse, and Deputy-Professor at the Sorbonne, Paris

EVOLUTION IN MODERN THOUGHT


I

DARWIN’S PREDECESSORS

By J. Arthur Thomson

Professor of Natural History in the University of Aberdeen

In seeking to discover Darwin’s relation to his predecessors it is useful to distinguish the various services which he rendered to the theory of organic evolution.

(I) As everyone knows, the general idea of the Doctrine of Descent is that the plants and animals of the present day are the lineal descendants of ancestors on the whole somewhat simpler, that these again are descended from yet simpler forms, and so on backwards towards the literal “Protozoa” and “Protophyta” about which we unfortunately know nothing. Now no one supposes that Darwin originated this idea, which in rudiment at least is as old as Aristotle. What Darwin did was to make it current intellectual coin. He gave it a form that commended itself to the scientific and public intelligence of the day, and he won widespread conviction by showing with consummate skill that it was an effective formula to work with, a key which no lock refused. In a scholarly, critical, and pre-eminently fair-minded way, admitting difficulties and removing them, foreseeing objections and forestalling them, he showed that the doctrine of descent supplied a modal interpretation of how our present-day fauna and flora have come to be.

(II) In the second place, Darwin applied the evolution-idea to particular problems, such as the descent of man, and showed what a powerful organon it is, introducing order into masses of uncorrelated facts, interpreting enigmas both of structure and function, both bodily and mental, and, best of all, stimulating and guiding further investigation. But here again it cannot be claimed that Darwin was original. The problem of the descent or ascent of man, and other particular cases of evolution, had attracted not a few naturalists before Darwin’s day, though no one [except Herbert Spencer in the psychological domain (1855)] had come near him in precision and thoroughness of inquiry.

(III) In the third place, Darwin contributed largely to a knowledge of the factors in the evolution-process, especially by his analysis of what occurs in the case of domestic animals and cultivated plants, and by his elaboration of the theory of Natural Selection which Alfred Russel Wallace independently stated at the same time, and of which there had been a few previous suggestions of a more or less vague description. It was here that Darwin’s originality was greatest, for he revealed to naturalists the many different forms—often very subtle—which natural selection takes, and with the insight of a disciplined scientific imagination he realised what a mighty engine of progress it has been and is.

(IV) As an epoch-marking contribution, not only to Ætiology but to Natural History in the widest sense, we rank the picture which Darwin gave to the world of the web of life, that is to say, of the inter-relations and linkages in Nature. For the Biology of the individual—if that be not a contradiction in terms—no idea is more fundamental than that of the correlation of organs, but Darwin’s most characteristic contribution was not less fundamental,—it was the idea of the correlation of organisms. This, again, was not novel; we find it in the works of naturalists like Christian Conrad Sprengel, Gilbert White, and Alexander von Humboldt, but the realisation of its full import was distinctly Darwinian.

As Regards the General Idea of Organic Evolution

While it is true, as Prof. H. F. Osborn puts it, that “‘Before and after Darwin’ will always be the ante et post urbem conditam of biological history,” it is also true that the general idea of organic evolution is very ancient. In his admirable sketch From the Greeks to Darwin,[1] Prof. Osborn has shown that several of the ancient philosophers looked upon Nature as a gradual development and as still in process of change. In the suggestions of Empedocles, to take the best instance, there were “four sparks of truth,—first, that the development of life was a gradual process; second, that plants were evolved before animals; third, that imperfect forms were gradually replaced (not succeeded) by perfect forms; fourth, that the natural cause of the production of perfect forms was the extinction of the imperfect.”[2] But the fundamental idea of one stage giving origin to another was absent. As the blue Ægean teemed with treasures of beauty and threw many upon its shores, so did Nature produce like a fertile artist what had to be rejected as well as what was able to survive, but the idea of one species emerging out of another was not yet conceived.

Aristotle’s views of Nature[3] seem to have been more definitely evolutionist than those of his predecessors, in this sense, at least, that he recognised not only an ascending scale, but a genetic series from polyp to man and an age-long movement towards perfection. “It is due to the resistance of matter to form that Nature can only rise by degrees from lower to higher types.” “Nature produces those things which, being continually moved by a certain principle contained in themselves, arrive at a certain end.”

To discern the outcrop of evolution-doctrine in the long interval between Aristotle and Bacon seems to be very difficult, and some of the instances that have been cited strike one as forced. Epicurus and Lucretius, often called poets of evolution, both pictured animals as arising directly out of the earth, very much as Milton’s lion long afterwards pawed its way out. Even when we come to Bruno who wrote that “to the sound of the harp of the Universal Apollo (the World Spirit), the lower organisms are called by stages to higher, and the lower stages are connected by intermediate forms with the higher,” there is great room, as Prof. Osborn points out,[4] for difference of opinion as to how far he was an evolutionist in our sense of the term.

The awakening of natural science in the sixteenth century brought the possibility of a concrete evolution theory nearer, and in the early seventeenth century we find evidences of a new spirit—in the embryology of Harvey and the classifications of Ray. Besides sober naturalists there were speculative dreamers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who had at least got beyond static formulae, but, as Professor Osborn points out,[5] “it is a very striking fact, that the basis of our modern methods of studying the Evolution problem was established not by the early naturalists nor by the speculative writers, but by the Philosophers.” He refers to Bacon, Descartes, Leibnitz, Hume, Kant, Lessing, Herder, and Schelling. “They alone were upon the main track of modern thought. It is evident that they were groping in the dark for a working theory of the Evolution of life, and it is remarkable that they clearly perceived from the outset that the point to which observation should be directed was not the past but the present mutability of species, and further, that this mutability was simply the variation of individuals on an extended scale.”

Bacon seems to have been one of the first to think definitely about the mutability of species, and he was far ahead of his age in his suggestion of what we now call a Station of Experimental Evolution. Leibnitz discusses in so many words how the species of animals may be changed and how intermediate species may once have linked those that now seem discontinuous. “All natural orders of beings present but a single chain”…. “All advances by degrees in Nature, and nothing by leaps.” Similar evolutionist statements are to be found in the works of the other “philosophers,” to whom Prof. Osborn refers, who were, indeed, more scientific than the naturalists of their day. It must be borne in mind that the general idea of organic evolution—that the present is the child of the past—is in great part just the idea of human history projected upon the natural world, differentiated by the qualification that the continuous “Becoming” has been wrought out by forces inherent in the organisms themselves and in their environment.

A reference to Kant[6] should come in historical order after Buffon, with whose writings he was acquainted, but he seems, along with Herder and Schelling, to be best regarded as the culmination of the evolutionist philosophers—of those at least who interested themselves in scientific problems. In a famous passage he speaks of “the agreement of so many kinds of animals in a certain common plan of structure” … an “analogy of forms” which “strengthens the supposition that they have an actual blood-relationship, due to derivation from a common parent.” He speaks of “the great Family of creatures, for as a Family we must conceive it, if the above-mentioned continuous and connected relationship has a real foundation.” Prof. Osborn alludes to the scientific caution which led Kant, biology being what it was, to refuse to entertain the hope “that a Newton may one day arise even to make the production of a blade of grass comprehensible, according to natural laws ordained by no intention.” As Prof. Haeckel finely observes, Darwin rose up as Kant’s Newton.[7]

The scientific renaissance brought a wealth of fresh impressions and some freedom from the tyranny of tradition, and the twofold stimulus stirred the speculative activity of a great variety of men from old Claude Duret of Moulins, of whose weird transformism (1609) Dr. Henry de Varigny[8] gives us a glimpse, to Lorenz Oken (1779-1851) whose writings are such mixtures of sense and nonsense that some regard him as a far-seeing prophet and others as a fatuous follower of intellectual will-o’-the-wisps. Similarly, for De Maillet, Maupertuis, Diderot, Bonnet, and others, we must agree with Professor Osborn that they were not actually in the main Evolution movement. Some have been included in the roll of honour on very slender evidence, Robinet for instance, whose evolutionism seems to us extremely dubious.[9]

The first naturalist to give a broad and concrete expression to the evolutionist doctrine of descent was Buffon (1707-1788), but it is interesting to recall the fact that his contemporary Linnæus (1707-1778), protagonist of the counter-doctrine of the fixity of species,[10] went the length of admitting (in 1762) that new species might arise by inter-crossing. Buffon’s position among the pioneers of the evolution-doctrine is weakened by his habit of vacillating between his own conclusions and the orthodoxy of the Sorbonne, but there is no doubt that he had firm grasp of the general idea of “l’enchaînment des êtres.”

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), probably influenced by Buffon, was another firm evolutionist, and the outline of his argument in the Zoonomia[11] might serve in part at least to-day. “When we revolve in our minds the metamorphoses of animals, as from the tadpole to the frog; secondly, the changes produced by artificial cultivation, as in the breeds of horses, dogs, and sheep; thirdly, the changes produced by conditions of climate and of season, as in the sheep of warm climates being covered with hair instead of wool, and the hares and partridges of northern climates becoming white in winter: when, further, we observe the changes of structure produced by habit, as seen especially in men of different occupations; or the changes produced by artificial mutilation and prenatal influences, as in the crossing of species and production of monsters; fourth, when we observe the essential unity of plan in all warm-blooded animals,—we are led to conclude that they have been alike produced from a similar living filament”…. “From thus meditating upon the minute portion of time in which many of the above changes have been produced, would it be too bold to imagine, in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of years before the commencement of the history of mankind, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament?”… “This idea of the gradual generation of all things seems to have been as familiar to the ancient philosophers as to the modern ones, and to have given rise to the beautiful hieroglyphic figure of the ??????? ???, or first great egg, produced by night, that is, whose origin is involved in obscurity, and animated by ????, that is, by Divine Love; from whence proceeded all things which exist.”

Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | Single Page