RECORD: [Crawford, J.] 1859. [Review of] Origin of species. Examiner pp. 772-773.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed (single key) by AEL Data 8.2009. RN1


[pages 772-3]

On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. By Charles Darwin, M.A., F.R.S., Author of 'Journal of Researches during a Voyage round the World.' John Murray, Albemarle street, 1859.

This is a remarkable book, sure to make a mighty stir among philosophers—perhaps even among the theologians. Indeed the very reputation of such a work from such an authority as Mr Darwin would seem to have done so already, for, if we are rightly informed, the entire edition has been taken off on the first day of publication. Those who have perused his 'Voyage round the World,' need not be told that the author is a man of curious and careful research, familiar with every branch of natural knowledge and gifted with the faculty of expressing himself, even on questions often abstruse, in language always perspicuous and often eloquent.

Mr Darwin's work, although extending to 500 pages, is but an abstract of a greater which he is preparing, and which two or three years hence will be completed. The doctrine he adopts to account for the present condition of the living world is, in fact, a revival of the old one of the transmutation of species; but he illustrates it with an amount of knowledge and ingenious appliances never before brought to its support. We are ourselves by no means convinced by his reasoning, nor do we think that it overthrows the existing theory of philosophers, founded on the evidences of geological discoveries, that the organic world, as we see it, is the result of a succession of creations and destructions. There will, however, we have no doubt, be many converts to Mr Darwin's opinions, which for the perfect integrity with which they are stated are well entitled to the most respectful consideration.

The theory of Mr Darwin may be given in his own words. There is in progress, and has been in all time, "a struggle for existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase. This is the doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive, and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary, however slightly, in any manner profitable to itself, under complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form."

The theory thus adopted by our author leads him at length to the startling conclusion, that the countless multitude of organized beings which now people and adorn our earth may have originally sprang from no more than four or five vegetable, and as many animal species; nay, indeed, that all these may have originated in a single progenitor. "I cannot doubt," says he, "that the theory of descent with modification embraces all the members of the same class. I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me a step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype."

The columns of a newspaper are not a fit medium for the discussion of a problem so difficult and abstruse as the origin of species, even if we were ourselves prepared for it; but a few of the most obvious objections to Mr Darwin's theory may be briefly stated. Thus, variation in plants and animals in the wild state is very rare, and when it does occur it is, most commonly, a defect and not an improvement in the race, as in the striking case of the Abino, always weaker than the individuals of the species to which it belongs, and not often continued by inheritance. Varieties produced by the agency of man can, of course, be used only as illustrations of the theory, as in fact Mr Darwin has used them, for the plain reason, on any theory, that many plants and animals existed long before man himself was created.

Hybridism, or the sterility of the offspring of patents of distinct species of the same natural family, seems to us to be a clear proclamation of nature against the confusion which the variety necessary to Mr Darwin's theory implies. Even when two species are so closely allied that sterility in their offspring does not follow from their union, there exists a natural repugnance to intermixture. Thus, the Germanic and Lapland races who border on each other do not intermix; the Negroes and Mauritanians standing in the same relation have been distinct for some 3,000 years; and it was but a few nights ago that Captain M'Clintock told us that the Red Indians of America not only did not intermix with their immediate neighbours the Esquimaux, but that no example was known of their being able even to dwell and exist among them.

A comparison of extinct with existing species of the same natural families seems to us to afford an unanswerable argument against the theory by "natural selection." Thus, the extinct mastodons and elephants were at least equal in size and strength with the living species, and the latter could not by any superiority have displaced and extinguished them. Still stronger is the case with the class of Saurians or lizards, since some of the extinct species were such monsters that a Nilotic or Gangetic alligator would have made but a poor breakfast for one of them.

Mr Darwin's theory, even if it were established, would not account for the origin of species, for it would not tell us how his some nine primordeal species, or his single progenitor of these nine, originated. The theory supposes an unlimited progress towards improvement. By it we may hope that the race to which we ourselves belong may in the course of some millions of years become angels or demigods. This is, no doubt, consolatory, and yet it is somewhat marred by the mortifying reflection that proud man may have been once an ape, a bat, or a mere monad—nay, that even Isaac Newton may have had the very same progenitor as a drum-head cabbage. Millions of years hence (if the improved man then living should think it worth while to preserve a record of our present humble doings) the best of us may be looked upon as no better than clever apes, which is the character in which the poet supposes "superior beings" to have admired Newton when he appeared among them. The theory, indeed, is a scientific metempsychosis, not only more ingenious but far more consolatory than that of Hindus and Buddhists, for it is all hopeful progress without any counterbalance of melancholy retrogression, or still worse, of annihilation.

Much of Mr Darwin's volume is what ordinary readers would all "tough reading;" that is, writing which to comprehend requires concentrated attention and some preparation for the task. All, however, is by no means of this description, and many parts of the work abound in information, easy to comprehend and both instructive and entertaining. Mr Darwin's account of the slave-making ants, for there are several species of them, is an example.

It will be observed that, as with human slave-dealing, the slave is black, and the dealer, if not white, at least red or fairer.

The eloquent concluding paragraph of the work is another among the many which we might quote.

We cannot help saying that that piety must be fastidious, indeed, that objects to a theory the tendency of which is to show that all organic beings, man included, are in a perpetual progress of amelioration, and that is expounded in the reverential language which we have quoted. It runs, indeed, as if it were parallel with the social advancement of man himself, which began with the cowring cannibal, and in its progress towards maturity has produced a Howard and a Nightingale.


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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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