Mr. C. R. Darwin, author of “The Origin of Species.” Photograph by Ernest Edwards. Click on image to enlarge it.

That a great naturalist should be also a great philosopher is not at all unlikely: a naturalist, of whom so much as this has not been affirmed, may have a great tendency to philosophical speculation. Mr. Charles Robert Darwin, F.R.S., is one of our greatest naturalists at this day; and be, perhaps, has inherited from his grandfather not only the general tendency, but the direction towards a particular line of speculation. The celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin, the poetical, philanthropic, and scientific physician of Lichfield, whose “Botanic Garden,” “Temple of Nature," “Zoonomia,“ and “Origin of Society," were once read and admired, had his own notions concerning the Origin of Species. “I think it not impossible,” he wrote in 1794, “that the first insects were the anthers or the stigmas of flowers, which had by some means loosed themselves from their parent plant; and that many other insects have in long process of time been formed from these, some acquiring wings, others claws, and others fins, from their ceaseless efforts to procure their food, or to secure themselves from injury.” That was a day when the rage of political controversy, provoked by the recent excesses of the French Revolution, infected all minds and disturbed all literary judgments. The witty satirists and epigrammatiste of the Tory party, Canning and Frere in the “Anti-Jacobin,” while they parodied the “Loves of the Plants” with their “Loves of the Triangles," making rare fun of Darwin's fanciful descriptive poetry, did not fail to ridicule, likewise, his theory of the transformations of vegetable and animal life. But a conjecture to the same effect was then entertained by several distinguished foreign authors — by Lamarck and Geoffrey St. Hilaire, and even Goethe. It is not a new idea; it may have been discussed in the schools of Greece, of Egypt, or of India, more than twenty centuries ago. It would in all ages be attractive to minds of a certain disposition, eager to imagine one sole physical cause of the boundless diversity of phenomena in nature. Such inquiries, however, while they should be tolerated, and even freely encouraged, as in our own times, without prejudice from either political or theological jealousies, ought not too hastily to pass beyond the results of positive induction from observed facts. Nor is it a conclusive argument in favour of a speculative theory, that it seems to afford an explanation of many facts which we observe, and that no other explanation is forthcoming. The absence of that proof in its support which, if the theory were true, would be presented by our observations of other facts, is strong negative evidence against it, and may outweigh its capacity to account for the itive facts within our notice. This is a question for the ogician. not merely for the naturalist. But, as an observer of the processes of nature, of the how, if not the why, Mr. Darwin is avery high authority, whatever may be thought of that philosophical conception, a theme of much controversy, which as lately been associated with his name.

He was born at Shrewsbury, on Feb. 12, 1809, being a son of Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, F.R.S., physician of that town; his mother was a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the modern founder of the English pottery manufacture, whose Life, written by Miss Meteyard, we have reviewed with much pleasure in this Journal. Mr. Darwin was educated first at Shrewsbury School under Dr. Butler, afterwards Bishop of Lichfield; he went to the University of Edinburgh in 1825, remained there two years, and was next entered of Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he took his B.A. degree in 1831. His hereditary aptitude for the study of natural science must have been early perceived by his instructors. The Rev. Mr. Henslow, Professor of Botany at Cambridge, recommended him, therefore, to Captain Fitzroy and the Lords of the Admiralty, in 1831, when a naturalist was to be chosen to accompany the second surveying expedition of H.M.S. Beagle in the Southern Seas. The first expedition, that of the Adventure and Beagle, 1826 to 1830, had explored the coasts of Patagonia; the Beagle, which sailed again Dec. 27, 1831, and returned to England Oct. 22, 1836, made a scientific circumnavigation of the globe. Its main object was, by a continuous series of chronometrical measurements, to procure a complete chain of meridian distances; there were also magnetic observations of some importance; but the zoology, botany, and geology of the different countries visited were examined by Mr. Darwin. He served without salary, and partly paid his own expenses, on condition that he should have the entire disposal of his collections. These were received in England by Professor Henslow. Their value to the advancement of science was shown by the special reports, upon these collections, of the highest authorities in each case; of Professor Owen, upon the fossil mammalia; of Mr. Waterhouse, upon the living beasts; of Mr. Gould, upon the birds; of Dr. Hooker, Professor Henslow, and others, upon the plants; and of the most learned men in fishes, reptiles, and insects. Mr. Darwin discovered in South America three new genera of extinct animals. The President of the Geological Society declared that his voyage was one of the most important events for that science that had occurred for many years. To the general reader few books of travel can be more attractive than Mr. Darwin's “Journal" of this expedition, which he first published in 1839, and which has since gone through many editions. The agreeable freshness of its clear and lively style; the quickly-touched yet distinctly visible pictures of scenery; the anecdotes of life and manners among the savage and other foreign nations with whom he conversed; the suggestiveness, as well as the curiousness, of the various incidents he has related, make this always a popular work. The countries upon which it chiefly dwells are the eastern, southern, and western shores of South America, with Terra del Fuego, and many inlets and islands of the coast, and some of the remotest island-groups in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The natural history and geology of these regions are minutely described, opening scientific discussions of the highest interest.

The best example of these is Mr. Darwin’s beautiful account of Keeling Island, six hundred miles south-west of Sumatra, and his sagacious explanation of the structure of coral-reefs — one of the most diflicult of geological puzzles. Those islands of coral, placed in the midst of a vast ocean, surrounded by water of unfathomable depth — how could they be formed! The coral polype needs a bottom to build upon, and cannot live very far below the surface; nor can the bank of coral grow above reach of the waves. Some geologists had fancied that the coral might be formed upon the tops of mountain peaks and ridges, just covered by the sea. It had even been imagined that the wondrous coral lagoon islands, such as Keeling, which consist of a mere ring of coral wall, inclosing a small piece of smooth water, had been moulded upon the lips of an extinct volcanic crater. Mr. Darwin showed that there was no submarine mountain, in these cases, to support the coral building; and he compared them with other forms; the outside barrier-reefs along a coast, as on the east side of Australia; the reefs which closely fringe a shore, as in the Red Sea; and those which form a belt, with a moat of water around an isolated mountain. He concluded, from different observations and arguments, that the whole flat sea-bottom, for a space of hundreds of miles in every direction around, had gradually sunk to an enormous depth; while the coral polypes, as the original floor was thus withdrawn from beneath their workshop, continued to build upon the top of their former building, so as to keep always near the surface, about the same level. This discovery is one of the most admirable that has yet been effected by Mr. Darwin's scientific genius. His remarks, too, upon the climate of the southern hemisphere, the limit of the snow line, the descent of glaciers, in the Antarctic region, effecting the distribution of erratic rock-boulders, and the icy entombment of dead animals, preserving even their flesh, have contributed much to the progress of knowledge. He also observed volcanic phenomena; and the effects of a great earthquake which he happened to witness led him to conceive the existence of a subterranean lake of molten lava, 700 miles long by 400 miles wide, or nearly twice the size of the Black Sea, with a mere thin crust of earth above this dreadful sea of fire. Since the voyage of the Beagle, we believe, Mr. Darwin has not personally engaged in any distant explorations. He has resided during many years past near Farnborough, in Kent, having married his cousin, Miss Emma Wedgwood, by whom he has a large family. The honours of several British and foreign scientific societies have been conferred upon him; the Royal medal and Copley medal, by the Royal Society; the Wollaston medal, by the Geological Society; and he has been created by the King of Prussia Knight of the Order of Merit. He has frequently contributed to the transactions of the Geological, the Zoological, the Linnsean, and other botanical societies; and his treatise on the Cirripedia, published by the Ray Society, is one of his works held in much esteem. Botanists have appreciated his observations of the habits of climbing plants, and his very interesting book, published in 1862, upon the methods by which the fertilisation of orchids is effected, though the agency of certain insects. Mr. Darwin's reputation is thus independent of the philosophical theory, which he propounds in his essay, “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection." That bold and ingenious essay, which first appeared in 1859, has been printed by tens of thousands of copies, and translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, and other European languages. It has excited more needless alarm and undeserved scandal than even the “vestiges of Creation." It has been vehemently abused, and not less extravagantly commended, by illogical and intemperate partisans on both sides. who supposed it could affect the truths of the Christian religion. Its main proposition is that all the various forms of vegetable and animal life, past or present, have been produced by a series of gradual changes in natural descent from parents to offspring. All the animals, beasts. birds, reptiles, insects, fishes, and zoophytes, have descended from, at most, four or five progenitors; all the plants from no greater number; but analogy would lead to the belief that all animals and plants have together descended from some one prototype. This is just the old notion of Erasmus Darwin and the French naturalists seventy or eighty years ago. It was combined, by the Darwin of our own day, with a fresh development of the Malthusian theory of checks upon excessive population, applied to all organised beings that live on the earth; and with a metaphysical argument, implied if not expressed, as to the final cause of deaths from famine, or from mutual slaughter, constantly reducing the numbers of each kind, which would else increase in geometrical ratio, till the offspring of one couple. in the course of a few generations, would amount to many millions. This “struggle for life,” according to Mr. Darwin, is designed by the Creator to destroy the offspring of all the weaker individuals, or those least fitted to thrive and improve in the circumstances around them, but to preserve the race of every parent having superior qualities. By these favoured or highly endowed races breeding with each other, their distinctive features and faculties are continually raised to a greater degree of peculiarity, so that the clan becomes a caste, the race or variety becomes a species. The nearest species are most closely related to each other; whereas the members of larger artificial divisions, orders and classes, are not so closely related. This was considered a startling proposition, because we had been accustomed to hold, though seldom stated in the scientific terms of Professor Owen, that “Man is the sole species of his genus, the sole representative of his order and sub-class.” Now, Mr. Darwin's view of course involved the descent of man, in his bodily constitution, from some inferior animal; which seemed very humiliating. But it appeared downright shocking when some comparative anatomists declared that the animal most nearly resembling the human form was that detestable creature, the ape. The African gorilla, a recent very ugly acquaintance, was pointed out, half in jest, as our probable next of kin. A shriek of indignation arose from polite and orthodox society at the advent of this strange new cousin; and the famous Darwinian theory has not always been calmly and soberly discussed.

We should not like to question an opinion held by Mr. Darwin, Mr. Wallace, and Professor Huxley, if it were a matter of positive science; if the facts required for its proof could be fully ascertained. But Mr. Darwin, if we understand him rightly, does not profess to establish by inductive proof more than certain minor propositions. These, he says, can only be explained and reconciled by admitting his principal doctrine, which we are therefore bound to believe. They are as follows — That some observed variations do spring up in the course of descent from a common progenitor; that some of these variations tend to the improvement of the parent stock; and that, by the continued selection of these improved specimens as the progenitors of future stock, its powers may be increased without limit. All this, we cheerfully agree, has long been familiar to every cattle-breeder, gardener, keeper of racehorses, dogfancier, bird-fancier, florist, and seedsman. Mr. Darwin, in manifold illustration of these processes, has written a most delightful and instructive book, “On the Variations of Domesticated Plants and Animals," published in 1868. His fourth proposition, however, seems not quite so plain — namely, that there is in Nature a power continually and universally working out this selection, and so fixing and augmenting these improvements. How can this be reconciled with the facts, which Mr. Darwin himself observed in South America and Australia, of the degeneration and even total extinction of noble races? The dog, the horse, and other animals, which European navigators or colonists have imported, do not seem, where they have run wild, to be in the way of improvement. There are too many instances of the degeneration of human races, apart from conflict or competition with a higher race. The horticulturist knows that his most exquisite varieties, if left to propagate themselves without culture, will degenerate into weeds. The tendency of a race which has been artificially improved by breeding — that is, by selection of the best specimens for parents — is to relapse into the primitive coarseness and meanness when abandoned to Mr. Darwin's power of nature. It may be replied that this is the effect of less favourable circumstances, or conditions of life. But then, on the other hand, we may equally refer the improvement of races to their more favourable surrounding conditions, without the operation of the Darwinian law. Climate and food have much to do with it. In his latest publication, Mr. Darwin candidly admits that he has relied too much upon the effect of natural selection, or “the survival of the fittest.” Its operation must be confined to perpetuating and enhancing those changes of structure which adapt the living creature to its actual conditions of life. This we readily believe.

The process of variation, moreover, from a parent stock, effected to a certain extent by selection of breeders, has its limits prescribed by the law of sterility, affecting the case of hybrids, like the mule; and also by the degeneracy, and the consequent sterility, of remote offspring from parents too nearly related. Nature does not incline that animal species, the dog, in which breeding has produced the greatest varieties, to prefer the continuance of these varieties, as the spaniel, the terrier, the hound, the retriever; their tendency is rather towards a free inter-breeding, which would obliterate these distinctions. It would be the same with mankind, were it not for moral and conventional restraints. Every species is recognised by its own individuals, animal or vegetable, in consorting for parentage; they know nothing of a duty to provide for the institution of a higher s cies by choice of the best variety in their own. The unity 0 each kind is proclaimed by the voice of Nature.

But the great objection to Mr. Darwin's theory, as above suggested, is the want of that direct evidence of facts in its support which would surely be forthcoming if it were true. Geology bears record, in its fossils, of the existence, during thousands of past centuries, of many species now extinct; but we do not learn from the geologists that they have detected. any one species in the act of transforming itself into any other. Within the range even of human observation of some living creatures, it might have been expected that, seeing the rapidity of their generations succeeding each other, short-lived as they are, We should find some recorded instances of such mutation. But the animals that old Egypt worshipped and those of which we read in old Esop‘s fables, were such as, we now meet. Allowing, however, the lapse of hundreds of millions of years, antecedent to all geological dates, for the change from the simplest to the most complete living form, it is scarcely credible that the modification of a vegetating structure has produced in animals such an organ as the eye, much less the brain.

Mr. Darwin's hypothesis, indeed, does not extend so far. Analogy may be a deceitful guide, he says; and there is no positive evidence that animals and plants come from one low form of organism, such as the spores of certain algae, intermediate between vegetable and animal existence. But that all vertebrate animals, including man, are the offspring of a common parent, he thinks is proved by the arguments he has adduced in the “Origin of Species.” He lays much stress on the close resemblance of different species to each other in the embryonic stage; on correspondences of structure, as between the hand or forearm of a man and the leg of a horse; and on the existence of abortive rudimentary organs, such as teeth which are never out, or stumps of wings, of tails, and of horns, which serve no useful purpose. These seem tokens of a real kindred between the mammals; but Mr. Darwin's new book, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex" (in two volumes, published by Murray), asserts the kindred of us mammals to amphibious reptiles and fishes, going back to “a group of marine animals, resembling the larva of existing Ascidians.” Somehow, one feels less repugnance to this amazing long pedigree than to the presumed immediate ancestor of mankind. The Ascidian larva is not so bad as the too familiar ape. Mr. Darwin, however (as well as Professor Huxley, with his “hippocampus minor” in the chimpauzee's brain), insists on presenting Jocko to the best London society as almost one of ourselves. If we object that the monkey has no mind like ours, he replies that the monkey has a mind, which is superior to the mind of a fish, the lamprey, for instance, in a greater degree than the lowest human intelligence is superior to the cleverest monkey's. As for the moral sense, he ascribes its vdevelopment to social instincts and habits. In conclusion, Mr. Darwin says: —

The main conclusion arrived at in this work — namely, that man is dacended from some lowly-organised form — will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. Tho astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegiaus on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind — such were our ancmtors. These men were absolutely naked, and bedaubed with paint; their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and, like wild animals, lived upon what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to everyone not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part, I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs, as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions. Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher dlstiny in the distant future.

We must leave the subject to thoughtful readers. Mr. Darwin's theory, unproved as we think it is, ought not to be denounced as inconsistent with the most exalted conception of Divine power and wisdom in creation. Species is a mystery; life is a great mystery; the conscious rational soul is a greater mystery still. There are such problems in the universe as physical science will never be able to solve.

Our Portrait of Mr. Darwin is engraved from a photograph by Mr. Ernest Edwards.


“Mr. Darwin, F.R.S.” The Illustrated London News.58 (11 March 1871): 243-44. Hathi Diigital Library Trust version of a copy in the University of Chicago Library. Web. 3 January 2016.

Last modified 27 July 2023