RECORD: [Owen, Richard.] 1863. [Letter] Origin of species. Athenæum (2 May): 586-7.

REVISION HISTORY: OCRed by John van Wyhe 7.2007. RN1

NOTE: Darwin responded to this in Darwin 1863.

[page] 586

Origin of species.

Mr. Darwin's notes on the modification of species, given in our impression of last week, call for a few observations. We differ from such a naturalist as Mr. Darwin with respect; but the science which he cultivates is only in its infancy; and from the conflict of opinion we shall confidently expect the truth to appear.

The "similiarity of pattern in the construction of the limbs of the great class of Vertebrata," with the like evidences of unity of plan in the organization of the Articulata; the resemblance of the different vertebrate classes to each other in their embryo state, and of all classes in their ovum state—and most of the other generalizations cited by Mr. Darwin, have been established by careful and sufficient induction, and are the well-earned fruits of such labour. They may seem to be explained or to be "connected by an intelligible thread of reasoning" on the supposition that one species engenders another, or on the hypothesis of the genetic relationship of all species with a common ancestor. Lamarck adduced the facts of the change of size and shape of parts by exercise and by disuse to explain the passage of species to species, viewing them as transitory conditions of life; but, according to observation, the Lamarckian conditions of change are too limited to originate a species. Mr. Darwin assigns the tendency to variation in individuals as sufficing in time, and with concurrent external conditions, to bring about all the various forms and grades of vegetable and animal life; but observation teaches the limits to which variation extends in regard to the genetic powers and characters of a species. Neither this, nor any better attempt to explain the transmutation of species, would entitle the guesser to appropriate to himself the application of the genetic relationship of species to a better comprehension of the cause of unity of plan, and of other established truths in biological science. The conformity of type in recent and extinct animals of circumscribed localities would be equally intelligible on the assumption of species being the offspring of species, whether under Lamarck's, or Geoffroy St.-Hilaire's, or 'Vestiges',' or Darwin's views of the way in which such genetic relation was brought about. Observation has only, however, made us acquainted with the power of the individual to engender others of its own kind. But to arrogate for a hypothesis of the modus operandi of "transmutation" all the consequences and applications of the old and often-mooted notion of the engendering of species in the abstract, is a large assumption, and lets a new light into the character of the mind that indulges in it. The different generalizations cited by Mr. Darwin as being "connected by an intelligible thread of reasoning" exclusively through his attempt to explain specific transmutations, are, in fact, related to it in this wise: that they have prepared the minds of naturalists for a better reception of such attempts to explain the way of the origin of species from species.

Our application of Heterogeny to the production of Foraminifera pre-supposed, as in Prof. Pouchet's exposition of the theory in the production of infusoria, the presence of binary and ternary compounds, which are due as a rule, to living acts; but the results of organic chemistry show that life is not, or may not be, essential to the production of organic compounds. Howsoever produced, or originally created, the organic matter is widely diffused over earth and sea, and the conditions of its assumption of the sarcodal or monadic forms and acts of life are a legitimate subject of inquiry, in no degree exploded by the inadequacy of such conditions to the production of a shell-fish or insect. Prof. Pouchet has prosecuted the research chiefly by the way of exclusion,—by his most ingenious contrivances and combinations to prevent or test the presence of the hypothetical atmospheric spores and germs to which Mr. Darwin with other homogenists would ascribe the appearance of living monads in infusions or sediments of organic substances. Mr. Darwin condemns the observer and expounder of the heterogenous operations in such ooze as finding therein a fitting hiding-place for the obscurity of his ideas; but the unprejudiced student of Prof. Pouchet's 'Heterogenic' will acquit him of being open to that sneer. This work, of 672 pages, was published in the same year (1859) as Mr. Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species': to which it offers a striking contrast in the absence of mere speculative views and of expressions of feelings of belief and conviction, devoid of the grounds or proofs of such convictions. A conscientious history and close analysis of the course of human thought on Heterogenic are premised; the rest of the work is a model of calm, clear and close philosophical experimental research and exposition. The 'Heterogenic' resembles the 'Origin of Species' in this respect, that it aims, in the chapter devoted to the variability and temporary nature of species, to refute the arguments of Cuvier, De Blainville, Dumeril, and Lyell (p. 510), for the fixity of species. Prof. Pouchet discusses the three predicaments; viz., the origin of each species by creation as such,—their successive appearance through secondary laws,—their derivation from one unique, primitive, and only created species. This last hypothesis Prof. Pouchet rejects (p. 503) and Mr. Darwin adopts—each independently of the other.

A finite intelligence cannot ascend to the first beginning of organic matter, or of the living being, or of the elements which compose a complex crystal. The prevalent belief rests on the acceptance of the revelation of the creative acts; and these the Pentateuch teaches are of two kinds—"the waters brought forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life,"—"the earth brought forth grass," &c; but of man it is written, He "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life."

We deem the recent evidence adduced by Pouchet, Joly, Musset, Schauffhausen, Mantegazza of Pavia, Wyman (of Boston, U.S.), sufficient to show that, in reference to the origin of the lowest forms of life, the first expression best accords with the little which it has been given to us to know on this subject.

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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

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