Darwin and Modern Science: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Charles Darwin and of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of the Origin of Species

By A. C. Seward | Go to book overview

III
THE SELECTION THEORY

BY AUGUST WEISMANN.

Professor of Zoology in the University of Freiburg (Baden).


I. THE IDEA OF SELECTION.

MANY and diverse were the discoveries made by Charles Darwin in the course of a long and strenuous life, but none of them has had so far-reaching an influence on the science and thought of his time as the theory of selection. I do not believe that the theory of evolution would have made its way so easily and so quickly after Darwin took up the cudgels in favour of it, if he had not been able to support it by a principle which was capable of solving, in a simple manner, the greatest riddle that living nature presents to us, -- I mean the purposiveness of every living form relative to the conditions of its life and its marvellously exact adaptation to these.

Everyone knows that Darwin was not alone in discovering the principle of selection, and that the same idea occurred simultaneously and independently to Alfred Russel Wallace. At the memorable meeting of the Linnean Society on 1st July, 1858, two papers were read (communicated by Lyell and Hooker) both setting forth the same idea of selection. One was written by Charles Darwin in Kent, the other by Alfred Wallace in Ternate, in the Malay Archipelago. It was a splendid proof of the magnanimity of these two investigators, that they thus, in all friendliness and without envy, united in laying their ideas before a scientific tribunal: their names will always shine side by side as two of the brightest stars in the scientific sky.

But it is with Charles Darwin that I am here chiefly concerned, since this paper is intended to aid in the commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

The idea of selection set forth by the two naturalists was at the time absolutely new, but it was also so simple that Huxley could say of it later, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that." As Darwin was led to the general doctrine of descent, not through the labours of his predecessors in the early years of the

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