RECORD: Stebbing, T. T. R. 1871. The 'Times' Review of Darwin's 'Descent of Man'. Nature, (20 April), pp. 488-9.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed from the Darwin Online images by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 09.2019. RN1.

NOTE: Introduction by Christine Chua:

Rev. Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing was an Anglican clergyman and naturalist. A distinguished Victorian marine specialist, he lectured on Darwinism to a point where he was banned from preaching. Following a critical review of "Descent of man", Stebbing responded in Nature, which consequently gained him prominence.

[page 488]

The "Times" Review of Darwin's "Descent of Man"

THE British public are deeply indebted to the Times Reviewer for his very comforting and reassuring remarks on Mr. Darwin's "Descent of Man," in which he has so well exposed the "utterly unsupported hypothesis," the "unsubstantial presumptions," the "cursory investigations," of that "reckless" and "unscientific" writer. It is a great satisfaction to find that Mr. Darwin's odious conclusion that the genealogy of the Talbots, and the Howards, and the Percys must be traced back beyond the Conqueror to an Anthropomorphous Ape, and beyond the ape to an Acephalous Mollusk, rests on no logical foundation whatever. The Reviewer well suggests that anything so odious in idea, so immoral in its apparent tendency, and so different from what we have been accustomed to believe, cannot possibly be true. One is so glad indeed to be free once and for ever from the mischievous influence of such "unpractical," "disintegrating speculations," that it seem worth while trying, if space can be found for the experiment, to elicit from the good nature of the Reviewer, or of those who think with him, a little clearer explanation here and there, before the subject is finally consigned to a well-merited oblivion.

Mr. Darwin is invited in one passage, "if he wishes to corroborate his hypothesis, to commence by experimenting on some superior kind of Ascidian, and see whether, by patient selection, he can induce any of them to split themselves in half, and abandon their permanent support for a vagrant oceanic existence."

Now, it is a fact that among Coral or Polypes, which are not far removed from Ascidians, these interesting experiments are actually exhibited; for the c├Žspitose Corals, by what is called fissiparity, do split themselves in half, thus forming two complete individuals where only one grew before, and the Corals of the genus Fungia are fixed when very young, but subsequently break their pedicels and become free. The whole group of Zoophytes, recent and fossil, connects together marvellously different forms by an almost infinite series of wonderfully minute links. The study of such a group is therefore no doubt dangerous, if not decidedly pernicious, as tending to gloss over "the enormous and painful improbability" of Mr. Darwin's speculations. For if upon examination it seemed likely, or almost certain, that different genera of Polypes were connected with one another by descent, some rash enthusiast might think a similar conclusion not impossible in the order Primates. Fortunately, one is estopped from suggesting that in fact some genera of Polypes may be connected by descent, for fear of incurring the sharp reproach to which Mr. Darwin has so frequently laid himself open, of "conjugating the potential mood." Hitherto in most departments of thought and inquiry, probable evidence has been allowed to count for something, and most men are content to believe themselves to be sons of their reputed fathers upon a mixture of evidence and authority, which, by the very nature of the case, can never rise to absolute demonstration. The Reviewer has done good service to society by showing the untrustworthy character of the foundation on which all our genealogies are built. It would be well in future if some auxiliary verb, expressive of doubt and uncertainty, could be combined with our patronymics.

Mr. Darwin, it appears has "a facile method of observing superficial resemblances." For instance he surprises the apprehension of the vulgar by exhibiting the curious likeness between the embryos of a man and a dog. As every one of course knows how he looked when he was still in his mother's womb and less than an inch long, that stage in a man's career when he is only too like an embryo puppy, might have been shrouded under a delicate reserve. If, in place of this absurd "superficial resemblance," Mr. Darwin could have pointed out similarities between man and the lower animals in regard to minute structures of bone and muscle, or in the organs of sense or speech, his argument might have been deemed a little more scientific.

[page 489]

Persons who have read his book say that he does dwell with considerable force upon these very matters, but it is easy to see from the Reviewer's tone that they are mistaken, and that such investigations have been sacrificed to a glance or two at things on the surface. This is the more to be grieved and wondered at, because in his monograph on the Fossil Cirripedes and in his work on the Fertilisation of Orchids, Mr. Darwin showed an uncommon aptitude at "a thoroughly scientific clairvoyance."

The Reviewer thinks it perfectly reasonable that the hand of a man and the foot of a horse, the flipper of a seal and the wing of a bat, should have all been formed upon the same general plan, without any connection by a common ancestry. It would be extremely gratifying to any inquiring mind, if he would explain upon this reasonable plan, the vast succession of creatures unveiled by geological research. Why have innumerable species been created and then destroyed? When did the creation begin, and when did it end? What causes, or if there were no causes properly so called, what caprice brought about the extinction of the mammoth, and led to the introduction of the modern species of elephant? Has the creative power been at last exhausted, or do sudden creations still occur, only in a shy sort of way, when no one is looking on? The Reviewer very sensibly censures Mr. Darwin and his followers for not specifying the year B.C. when the process of evolution first began. It is with the less difference, therefore, that a question is propounded above as to the date of the creation. The solutions of this point of chronology will be awaited by many with extreme impatience, as different nations give very different accounts, and the Hebrews, who have a very ancient record, are by no means at one with themselves in the Hebrew and Greek editions of it. The number of years required for the process of evolution is confessedly indefinite, and as the whole hypothesis must, therefore, be destitute of any scientific value, it is no doubt quite fair on the Reviewer's part, to represent an indefinite number of years as equivalent to "infinite time.' But the steps required for the process are also an indefinite number, and on this point he is less clear than elsewhere, for, referring to the old sophism respecting Achilles and the tortoise, he tells us, from Sir Isaac Newton, that "quantities ultimately coincide which may be proved to approach each other indefinitely, within a finite time." From this it would seem that, if Darwinians could be content with the boundaries of geological time, the genealogies of men and apes might ultimately coincide. To avoid this miserable and preposterous conclusion, we are told that the solution of the sophism by Diogenes, "is the only true one," solvitur ambulando. We are further obligingly informed that this solution is identical with Newton's. And as Mr. Darwin cannot transform one species into another under our eyes, the eminently unpractical character of his speculations is triumphantly exhibited. It will be impertinent if any one suggests that the instantaneous creation of a species has never yet been witnessed, and that those who believe in such occurrences ought, on the solvitur ambulando principle, to favour the world with, at least, one such exhibition. Captious persons may find fault with the Reviewer's opinion that the poetic faculty has received no development since Homer, and the religious sentiment none since the book of Genesis. They may call to mind that Moses and Socrates, and St. Paul and Luther, were guilty, like Mr. Darwin, of laying before popular audiences dangerous and "disintegrating" speculations; they may fancy that truth is worth discovering, even when it seems to involve some contradiction to our pride and some loss of comfort to our finer feelings, but such persons must be very captious, and the Reviewer will, doubtless, know how to deal with them.

Torquay, April 15

THOMAS R.R. STEBBING

 


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