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A First Year in Canterbury Settlement With Other Early Essays

Darwin on Species — [From the Press, 21 February, 1863.]

Darwin on Species
[From the Press, 21 February, 1863.]

To the Editor of the Press.

Sir—In two of your numbers you have already taken notice of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species; I would venture to trespass upon your space in order to criticise briefly both your notices.

The first is evidently the composition of a warm adherent of the theory in question; the writer overlooks all the real difficulties in the way of accepting it, and, caught by the obvious truth of much that Darwin says, has rushed to the conclusion that all is equally true. He writes with the tone of a partisan, of one deficient in scientific caution, and from the frequent repetition of the same ideas manifest in his dialogue one would be led to suspect that he was but little versed in habits of literary composition and philosophical argument. Yet he may fairly claim the merit of having written in earnest. He has treated a serious subject seriously according to his lights; and though his lights are not brilliant ones, yet he has apparently done his best to show the theory on which he is writing in its most favourable aspect. He is rash, evidently well satisfied with himself, very possibly mistaken, and just one of those persons who (without intending it) are more apt to mislead than page 168 to lead the few people that put their trust in them. A few will always follow them, for a strong faith is always more or less impressive upon persons who are too weak to have any definite and original faith of their own. The second writer, however, assumes a very different tone. His arguments to all practical intents and purposes run as follows:—

Old fallacies are constantly recurring. Therefore Darwin’s theory is a fallacy.

They come again and again, like tunes in a barrel-organ. Therefore Darwin’s theory is a fallacy.

Hallam made a mistake, and in his History of the Middle Ages, p. 398, he corrects himself. Therefore Darwin’s theory is wrong.

Dr. Darwin in the last century said the same thing as his son or grandson says now—will the writer of the article refer to anything bearing on natural selection and the struggle for existence in Dr. Darwin’s work?—and a foolish nobleman said something foolish about monkey’s tails. Therefore Darwin’s theory is wrong.

Giordano Bruno was burnt in the year 1600 A.D.; he was a Pantheist; therefore Darwin’s theory is wrong.

And finally, as a clinching argument, in one of the neighbouring settlements there is a barrel-organ which plays its psalm tunes in the middle of its jigs and waltzes. After this all lingering doubts concerning the falsehood of Darwin’s theory must be at an end, and any person of ordinary common sense must admit that the theory of development by natural selection is unwarranted by experience and reason.

page 169

The articles conclude with an implied statement that Darwin supposes the Polar bear to swim about catching flies for so long a period that at last it gets the fins it wishes for.

Now, however sceptical I may yet feel about the truth of all Darwin’s theory, I cannot sit quietly by and see him misrepresented in such a scandalously slovenly manner. What Darwin does say is that sometimes diversified and changed habits may be observed in individuals of the same species; that is that there are eccentric animals just as there are eccentric men. He adduces a few instances and winds up by saying that “in North America the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching—almost like a whale— insects in the water.” This and nothing more. (See pp. 201 and 202.)

Because Darwin says that a bear of rather eccentric habits happened to be seen by Hearne swimming for hours and catching insects almost like a whale, your writer (with a carelessness hardly to be reprehended in sufficiently strong terms) asserts by implication that Darwin supposes the whale to be developed from the bear by the latter having had a strong desire to possess fins. This is disgraceful.

I can hardly be mistaken in supposing that I have quoted the passage your writer alludes to. Should I be in error, I trust he will give the reference to the place in which Darwin is guilty of the nonsense that is fathered upon him in your article.

It must be remembered that there have been few great inventions in physics or discoveries in science which have not been foreshadowed to a certain extent page 170 by speculators who were indeed mistaken, but were yet more or less on the right scent. Day is heralded by dawn, Apollo by Aurora, and thus it often happens that a real discovery may wear to the careless observer much the same appearance as an exploded fallacy, whereas in fact it is widely different. As much caution is due in the rejection of a theory as in the acceptation of it. The first of your writers is too hasty in accepting, the second in refusing even a candid examination.

Now, when the Saturday Review, the Cornhill Magazine, Once a Week, and Macmillan’s Magazine, not to mention other periodicals, have either actually and completely as in the case of the first two, provisionally as in the last mentioned, given their adherence to the theory in question, it may be taken for granted that the arguments in its favour are sufficiently specious to have attracted the attention and approbation of a considerable number of well-educated men in England. Three months ago the theory of development by natural selection was openly supported by Professor Huxley before the British Association at Cambridge. I am not adducing Professor Huxley’s advocacy as a proof that Darwin is right (indeed, Owen opposed him tooth and nail), but as a proof that there is sufficient to be said on Darwin’s side to demand more respectful attention than your last writer has thought it worth while to give it. A theory which the British Association is discussing with great care in England is not to be set down by off-hand nicknames in Canterbury.

To those, however, who do feel an interest in the question, I would venture to give a word or two of page 171 advice. I would strongly deprecate forming a hurried opinion for or against the theory. Naturalists in Europe are canvassing the matter with the utmost diligence, and a few years must show whether they will accept the theory or no. It is plausible; that can be decided by no one. Whether it is true or no can be decided only among naturalists themselves. We are outsiders, and most of us must be content to sit on the stairs till the great men come forth and give us the benefit of their opinion.

  I am, Sir,
    Your obedient servant,

      A. M.