RECORD: Anon. 1871. [Review of the Descent of Man]. The Annual Register 368.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed and corrected by John van Wyhe 12.2005. RN1


[page 368]

RETROSPECT OF LITERATURE, ART, AND SCIENCE IN 1871.

SCIENCE.

In speaking, as briefly as may be, of the scientific results of the year, we find it necessary as usual to confine ourselves to those investigations which have a more or less popular side to them. As it happens, the year 1871 was remarkably fertile in discussions which may be described as lying on the border-land between scientific and moral speculation, and in which, therefore, men of science obtain a far larger audience than usual. We refer especially to the long controversy which has been excited by the latest developments of Mr. Darwin's theory. It is our duty to maintain an absolute impartiality in regard to such questions. We may, however, say what will be admitted on all hands, that the question raised by Mr. Darwin as to the origin of species marks the precise point at which the theological and scientific modes of thought come into contact. Now the relations between these two currents of opinion is of primary importance, and therefore upon the mode in which divines and philosophers will ultimately reconcile their differences depends in great measure the future of human thought. Religion undoubtedly corresponds to an ineradicable instinct; and we can have no fear that religion itself will permanently suffer from scientific discoveries; it is quite possible, however, that the current religious ideas may be materially modified in conception of the current external world changes, and it is therefore well worth while to give some attention to this debatable land in which so many vigorous blows are being exchanged by the contending parties, previous to the final reconciliation which we may confidently anticipate.

The publication of Mr. Darwin's "Descent of Man" marks a kind of epoch in these dimensions. We are brought face to face in this book with those difficult problems which perviously had only revealed themselves more or less indistinctly on the dim horizon; and the interest which it excited is so far from appearing to us excessive, that we should doubt whether the full importance of the new theories has even yet been appreciated by any but a very small number of competent observers. The Darwinian theories go to the root of psychology; they more or less affect every question concerning the genesis of morals and the origin of societies. They exert especially an influence to which it is impossible to set limits—an influence upon method. Mr. Darwin's work, in short, is one of those rare achievements which effect a transformation throughout the whole range of intellectual effort. We know, with more or less certainty, how profound was the influence of the Newtonian philosophy over the two or three generations which followed its promulgation; and we may confidently expect that a similar influence will be produced on the generation now beginning its work by Mr. Darwin's theory. One comes across traces of its influence in the most remote and unexpected quarters; in historical, social, and even artistic questions no less than in those which are more directly in question, we are every where meeting with that series of ideas to which Mr. Darwin has done more than any other man to give prominence.

We shall merely attempt to give a bare outline of Mr. Darwin's argument in his last work, without more than the most cursory glance at the more remote conclusions from his theories, or the difficulties which may be opposed to them. The point, as we need hardly say, which Mr. Darwin seeks to demonstrate is that man is descended from the great apes. The main grounds on which he bases his argument may be briefly indicated; first, there is the correspondence in bodily structure between man and other animals; the bones of his skeleton, the muscles, nerves, viscera, and brain correspond; the structure of the tissues and the composition of the blood are similar; men and animals have common parasites. The whole process of reproduction is the same in all mammals. Second, the embryo of man closely resembles the embryos of other mammals, and undergoes a corresponding order of development—the embryos of forms, finally so different, preserving up to a certain point the structure of the common ancestor. Third, man possesses certain rudimentary organs, muscles, and other parts, which can only be explained by the fact of their having been possessed by some forerunner in a perfect and serviceable state. These three sets of facts concur in furnishing reasons for supposing that Man is no more by his descent than a more highly organized form or modification of a pre-existent mammal.

Against all this it has been urged from various sides, that there is some fundamental difference between the faculties of man and those of other animals; and that the distinction, for example, between human reason and animal instinct is not one of degree, but of kind. To this Mr. Darwin replies that the force of the objection depends ultimately on propositions which no one now could seriously assert, namely, that man is the only organic being possessed of mental power, and that his power is of a wholly different nature from that of other creatures. So far as the emotional parts of mental constitution go, the emotions of animals are plainly our own; terror, suspicion, courage, good humour, bad humour, revenge, affection—all these moods and turns may be as truly predicated, and in the same sense, of the lowest creatures as of the highest. If we turn to the faculties of intelligence, we find in the lower, as in the highest, Memory, Imitation, Curiosity, and the rudiments of Imagination (as shown in their dreams), and even the complex derivative quality of Reason. For what definition of Reason can we accept that shall banish to lower region of instinct a multitude of cases in which a snake, a bird, an ape, plainly goes through the process of experience, observation, pausing, deliberation on experience, forming new resolutions as a consequence?

A great mass of interesting phenomena have been collected by Mr. Darwin in proof of these propositions, but we cannot find room even to hint at them. The argument from the absence of language has again been frequently urged. Mr. Darwin says that it would be a natural consequence of the higher development of the mental faculties. Apes do not speak, because their intelligence is not sufficiently advanced. Then language has reacted on the intelligence, as great instruments of intelligence always do, and stimulated that development of which it was at first the product. "The mental powers in some early progenitor of man must have been more highly developed than in any existing ape, before even the most imperfect form of speech could have come into use; but we may confidently believe that the continued use and advancement of this power would have reacted on the mind by enabling and encouraging it to carry on long trains of thought." Other differences between man and the highest anthropomorphous ape may be in the same way described as differences flowing from the highly advanced faculties of man, and some of them are mainly the result of a highly developed language.

Mr. Darwin next endeavours to explain the modes of physical and intellectual develpment. Here, of course, the doctrine of natural relation assumes great prominence, and is applied, with Mr. Darwin's usual clearness and fertility of resource, to the explanation of the facts. He then asks, what was the manner of development of the intellectual faculties? This, again, is to be explained by the action of natural selection. "We can see this in the rudest state of society, the individuals who were the most sagagious, who invented and used the best weapons and traps, and who were best able to defend themselves, would rear the greatest number of offspring. The tribes which included the greatest number of men thus endowed would increase in number and supplant other tribes." For the same reason which makes savage nations die out before civilized nations, every new step in the perfection of the intellectual faculties would confer an advantage on those who had been able to make such a step. In the same way with the social qualities. The progenitors of man have acquired them by natural selection, as the lower animals have done; that is to say, "when two tribes of primeval man living in the same country came into competition, if the one tribe included (other circumstances being equal) a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other."

Such is a statement of Mr. Darwin's main argument, which, however, takes up a comparatively small part of the book. The bulk of the two volumes before us is occupied with the establishment of a different theory. Mr. Darwin holds that the difference between races are due in some measure to what he calls "sexual selection;" he argues, in other words, that when a variation has occurred of a kind to give its possessor a preference in attraction for the other sex, then the larger choice which such a possessor of a variation will naturally have among the strong and vigorous of the opposite sex will tend to a superior multiplication of progeny inheriting the same variation. "If the individuals of one sex were during a long series of generations to prefer pairing with certain individuals of the other sex, characterized in some peculiar manner, the offspring would slowly but surely become modified in the same manner." While natural selection depends upon an advantage in gaining subsistence, possessed by one species and not possessed by a competing species, sexual selection depends upon advantages in relation to reproduction belonging to certain individual of a sex and species, and not belonging to to other individuals of the same sex and species. Mr. Darwin makes a laborious survey of animated creatures, marked by peculiarity of structure, colouring, and so forth, the acquisition of which seems to him most intelligibly explained by the theory that they have assisted their owners in the competition connected with reproduction. And this survey fills the greater part of his work.

Mr. Darwin has so far changed his ground as to discover in "sexual selection" a force capable of accounting for many characters which, as not being beneficial for the struggle for existence, cannot be explained by the ordinary process of natural selection. Modifications of this kind have, as Mr. Darwin believes, been acquired through advantages which they conferred on their possessors in respect of propagation, by giving them the choice of the most vigorous and fruitful partners. He finds this agency to be the most satisfactory way of explaining such facts as the richer plumage of the peacock or male pheasant, the brilliant top-knots of many male birds, and so on. These characteristics charm the female, and give their first possessors, those in whom the variation first appeared, a preference over rivals less favoured by nature, which, by attracting the most vigorous females, or a greater number of them, caused the variation to become more abundantly reproduced, according to the laws of inheritance and accumulation. With mammals the rivalry is less peaceful and apparently aesthetic than with birds. Their struggle goes mainly by the law of battle, and depends on certain individuals of one sex "having been successful in conquering other males, and in their having left a larger number of offspring to inherit their superiority, than the less successful males."

But this theory does more than cover the difference of secondary sexual characters. It also explains the aquisition by individuals of both sexes of certain characters which cannot be adequately explained by natural selection; by any advantage, that is, which they have conferred on their possessors in the struggle for subsistence. Such characters, though possessed in the first instance by the male only, and giving him an advantage in respect of reproduction, are in given cases, by an observed uniformity, transmitted not only to the male offspring, but to the female also. On the conditions of this transmission of the variations in one sex to descendants of both sexes, and the limits and measures of its operation, Mr. Darwin says many pertinent and highly interesting things. The result of this transmission of both sexes is a permanent modification, and leads to differences in the conditions of race—such as colour, degree and locality of hairiness, shape of head, cheekbones, nose, and the like. The lowest tribes of men admire their own characteristics in these respects, and "hence these and other such points could hardly fail to have been slowly and gradually exaggerated from the more powerful and able men in each tribe, who would succeed in rearing the largest number of offspring, having selected during many generations as their wives the most strongly characterized, and therefore most attractive women." There seems to us to be a difficulty here, which Mr. Darwin does not notice; for how is it, if after a characteristic has been thus established, the tribes resents or despises a novel variation, as so many peoples, for example, consider the whiteness of skin, or the preservation of the front teeth, to be detestable peculiarities, that yet that characteristic itself, before being permanently acquired, was seized as a delightful novely? Mr. Darwin tells us, and gives us excellent reasons for thinking, that "the men of each race prefer what they are accustomed to behold; they cannot endure change" (ii. 354). Yet is there not an inconsistency between this fact and the other that one race differs from another exactly because novelties presented themselves and were eagerly seized and propagated? All the rare differences have been established through the passion for novelty, yet no sooner are they established than every novelty is straightway unendurable.

We shall not venture upon any criticisms of this remarkable book, which will be scarcely less useful as excercising thought, if many of the hypotheses which it suggests should prove to be unfounded. We will merely make one remark as to a point on which Mr. Darwin has naturally been exposed to much hostile criticism. He endeavours to account for the origin of the moral sense by which, according to many thinkers, man is most mainly distinguished from the whole brute creation. We are of the opinion—and we could assign our reasons were it worthwhile—that Mr. Darwin has fallen into some confusion of language, and perhaps into some positive errors, from the use of terminology with which the course of his studies have not rendered him so familiar as he is with all matters of natural science. At the same time, Mr. Darwin's views on this question are of special interest to many readers, because they point to the direction in which future controversies on such subjects are likely to extend. Mr. Darwin gives some highly ingenious explanations of the mode in which a moral sense may be presumed to have originated. If his account were adequate and satisfactory, we should be in a position to account for many things which puzzle previous enquirers; but even if that very large assumption were granted, there would still be room for the old controversy between the utilitarian and intuitional schools, though it would take many different forms, and may be decided by different tests.

Mr. Darwin's theory, if completely established, would by no means prove that we have not an intuitive perception of certain moral truths, but would explain in what way those intuitions had been generated. The scientific reader of discussions would in many respects transform the problem; but the old divergence of opinion would still be true.

Without following out this line of thought, we may remark that considerations of this kind might serve to obviate the dread which some persons appear to entertain of the possible results of Mr. Darwin's investigations. In this as in other cases it is conceivable that men of science may explain how certain instincts gradually evolve themselves; but they are by no means the nearer to proving that the instincts have not a real existence, or that they do not possess all the value that has ever been attributed to them.

Various attacks have been made upon Mr. Darwin's theory, and few of the antagonists on either side have succeeded in rivalling the admirable candour and calmness which this great originator of thought has preserved in the midst of the warfare which he has stirred up in every direction. We shall content ourselves with noticing a contribution to a discussion more or less allied to Mr. Darwin's speculations, which has been carried on with an acrimony which is certainly to be regretted. The old feud between the disciples of Pasteur and Pouchet has recently been renewed in England; and Dr. Bastian, in his recently published book, takes the side of the possibility of spontaneous generation.


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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

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