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

tion; Heredity; Natural Selection. His work was not as the laity suppose, a sudden and unheralded revelation, but the first fruit of a long and hitherto barren controversy. The occurrence of variation from type, and the hereditary transmission of such variation had of course been long familiar to practical men, and inferences as to the possible bearing of those phenomena on the nature of specific difference had been from time to time drawn by naturalists. Maupertuis, for example, wrote: "Ce qui nous reste à examiner, c'est comment d'un seul individu, il a pu naître tant d'espèces si différentes." And again: "La Nature contient le fonds de toutes ces variétés: mais le hasard ou l'art les mettent en œuvre. C'est ainsi que ceux dont l'industrie s'applique à satisfaire le goût des curieux, sont, pour ainsi dire, céateurs d'espèces nouvelles1."

Such passages, of which many (though few so emphatic) can be found in eighteenth century writers, indicate a true perception of the mode of Evolution. The speculations hinted at by Buffon2, developed by Erasmus Darwin, and independently proclaimed above all by Lamarck, gave to the doctrine of descent a wide renown. The uniformitarian teaching which Lyell deduced from geological observation had gained acceptance. The facts of geographical distribution 3 had been shown to be obviously inconsistent with the Mosaic legend. Prichard, and Lawrence, following the example of Blumenbach, had successfully demonstrated that the races of Man could be regarded as different forms of one species, contrary to the opinion up till then received. These treatises all begin, it is true, with a profound obeisance to the sons of Noah, but that performed, they continue on strictly modern lines. The question of the mutability of species was thus prominently raised.

Those who rate Lamarck no higher than did Huxley in his contemptuous phrase "buccinator tantum," will scarcely deny that the sound of the trumpet had carried far, or that its note was clear. If then there were few who had already turned to evolution with positive conviction, all scientific men must at least have known that

____________________
1
Vénus Physique, contenant deux Dissertations, l'une sur l'origine des Hommes et des Animaux: Et l'autre sur l'origine des Noirs, La Haye, 1746, pp. 124 and 129. For an introduction to the writings of Maupertuis I am indebted to an article by Professor Lovejoy in Popular Sci. Monthly, 1902.
2
For the fullest account of the views of these pioneers of Evolution, see the works of Samuel Butler, especially Evolution, Old and New ( 2nd edit.) 1882. Butler's claims on behalf of Buffon have met with some acceptance; but after reading what Butler has said, and a considerable part of Buffon's own works, the word "hinted" seems to me a sufficiently correct description of the part he played. It is interesting to note that in the chapter on the Ass, which contains some of his evolutionary passages, there is a reference to "plusieurs idées très-élevées sur la génération" contained in the Letters of Maupertuis.
3
See especially W. Lawrence, Lectures on Physiology, London, 1823, pp. 213 f.

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