RECORD: [Darwin, C. R.] 1847. [Review of] A natural history of the Mammalia. [vol. 1, Marsupialia] By G. R. Waterhouse, Esq., of the British Museum. Illustrated with engravings on wood and coloured plates. London, H. Baillière. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 19 (January): 53-56.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, text prepared and edited by John van Wyhe 2002-8. textual corrections by Sue Asscher 12.2006. RN5

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here. The authorship of this unsigned review was attributed to Darwin in Life and letters vol. 3, p. 367. Darwin's copy of Waterhouse 1846-8 is in the Darwin Library in CUL, in the originally issued parts, the earliest numbers are dated 1845.

[page] 53


A Natural History of the Mammalia. By G. R. WATERHOUSE, Esq., of the British Museum.1 Illustrated with engravings on wood and coloured plates. London, H. Baillière.

THE first volume of this excellent work, in which every species in the class Mammalia will be described in detail, is now completed. The author is already favourably known to the public by various monographs, and by papers in this Journal, on the Rodentia, Marsupiata and other animals. His former connexion with the Zoological Society and his present position in the British Museum (where he is

1 Waterhouse 1846. The second volume (on Rodentia, or gnawing animals) appeared in 1848. George Robert Waterhouse (1810-1888), mammalogist and entomologist. Keeper of Mineralogy and Geology at the British Museum (Natural History). A friend of Darwin's and often at Down House. Waterhouse wrote Mammalia 1838-1839. See Darwin to Annals and Magazine of Natural History [December 1846] Correspondence vol. 3, p. 374.

[page] 54

at present chiefly employed on fossil Mammalia),—his extensive acquaintance with the works of foreign naturalists, as shown by the numerous references in this publication,—together with several visits undertaken solely from his love of science to the museums on the continent, eminently fit him for the great work here commenced. We use this expression advisedly, for it must not be supposed that we have here merely a compilation; original descriptions, and measurements generally taken from more than one specimen, are in the majority of cases given. The dental and osteological details are described with particular care, and are illustrated by distinct and careful plates: in the precision of these details, we imagine we see the effects of Mr. Waterhouse's long and ardent attachment to entomology. Although the work is not a compilation, the author has not neglected any source of information; and in this first volume, which is confined to the Marsupiata, he is much indebted to Mr. Gould's admirable labours in Australia. Mr. Waterhouse however often differs from Mr. Gould with respect to specific characters, and we rejoice to see no signs of that rage to create new species, so prevalent amongst zoologists.

A distinguishing feature in this work is the notice of all fossil species, interpolated in their proper places; hence, when the whole is completed, we shall have a comprehensive view of the entire class of Mammalia, as far as known; and the accident of extinction will not remove from the series, as is too often the case in systematic works, allied or intermediate forms. Many curious and original remarks are interspersed on the affinities of the various genera and families; but we find no trace of those fanciful speculations on analogies—such as between a mouse's nose and a snipe's beak, or between oxen and poultry—which we fear must have lowered us in the estimation of continental naturalists. In reference to affinities, we must express our regret that the Marsupiata were not ranked, in conformity with Prof. Owen's1 views, as a sub-class distinct from the placental mammifers. Whether we view classification as a mere contrivance to convey much information by a single word, or as something more than a memoria technica, and as connected with the laws of creation, we cannot doubt that where such important differences in the generative and cerebral systems, as distinguish the Marsupiata from the Placentata, run through two series of animals, they ought to be arranged under heads of equal value. We are not convinced by the ingenious remarks on this subject given at p. 17; we cannot admit that numerical differences in the number of the species in two groups, or their geographical distribution, or a somewhat hypothetical statement that the amount of difference is greatest amongst the lower forms in each class, ought to be taken into account in a system of classification; we believe that our best botanists, who may well serve as guides on this subject, eschew such considerations, and confine themselves to the strict rule of difference in structure. Should this rule be disregarded, some naturalists would admit habits (useful as they undoubtedly are)—some would admit analogies, or, as well expressed by Lamarck,2 adaptations in widely different

1 Richard Owen (1804-1892), zoologist, Conservator and Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons of England 1836-1856.

2 Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829), French naturalist and transmutationist.

[page] 55

beings to similar external conditions,—some would admit the supposed order of the appearance of organic beings (as has been suggested) on the surface of the earth, as aids or bases of classification;—the result would be, that no two naturalists would agree in the same conclusion, and our system, instead of becoming a solid and simple edifice, would be a labyrinth of blind passages.

An admirable feature in Mr. Waterhouse's work is the great attention paid to Geographical distribution, that noble subject of which we as yet but dimly see the full bearing. The following remarks (p. 537) give us an excellent summary on the distribution of the Mammalia on the Australian continent:—

"Australia may be conveniently divided into five principal divisions or districts, of which the east, west, north and south portions of the main land will each form one province, and Van Diemen's Land1 the fifth. Of these provinces, the northern one has the greatest number of species peculiar to it, since out of ten species discovered in that part of Australia, eight are not found elsewhere. The Marsupiata of the eastern district are for the most part distinct from those of the opposite side of the continent, there being but eight species, out of upwards of sixty inhabiting the two provinces, which are found in both. But if the three districts mentioned are characterized by the few species which they have in common, South Australia must be characterized by an opposite quality, that of having a comparatively large proportion of species identical with those of other districts; indeed I know of but four species which are peculiar to this district: it possesses sixteen species in common with Western Australia, and fifteen in common with Eastern Australia. Western Australia possesses one genus (Tarsipes)2 which is peculiar to it, and one sub-genus (Macrotis);3 none of the other districts of continental Australia possess any genera which are not found elsewhere. About half of the species found in Van Diemen's Land are peculiar to that island—in fact, nine out of twenty: of the remainder, the greater portion are found on the eastern part of the main land. This island, moreover, possesses one genus (Thylacinus)4 and one sub-genus (Sarcophilus)5 which are now peculiar to it. Examples of both these sections have, however, been found in a fossil state on the main land."

Speaking strictly we have here four divisions, for South Australia does not appear from these remarks, zoologically considered, to deserve to be ranked as a subdivision. New Guinea, however, and the adjacent islands form a well-marked fifth subdivision, and an interesting table is given (at p. 3) of the ranges of the quadrupeds inhabiting them. The fact of South Australia possessing only few peculiar species, it having apparently been colonized from the eastern and western coasts, is very interesting; for we believe that Mr. Robert Brown6 has shown that nearly the same remark is applicable to the plants; and Mr. Gould finds that most of the birds from these opposite shores, though closely allied, are distinct. Considering these facts, together with the presence in South Australia of upraised modern tertiary deposits and of extinct volcanos, it seems

1 Tasmania.

2 Mouselike Australian marsupial, the honey possum.

3 A marsupial genus of rabbit-eared bandicoots or bilbies.

4 Tasmanian wolf.

5 Tasmanian devil.

6 Robert Brown (1773-1858), botanist. First Keeper of Botany at British Museum.

[page] 56

probable that the eastern and western shores once formed two islands, separated from each other by a shallow sea, with their inhabitants generically though not specifically related, exactly as are those of New Guinea and Northern Australia, and that within a geologically recent period a series of upheavals converted the intermediate sea into those desert plains which are now known to stretch from the southern coast far northward, and which then became colonized from the regions to the east and west. We will only further point out an interesting table (p. 536) showing that in South America, Brazil is the metropolis of the Didelphidæ,1 a family which, as Mr. Waterhouse remarks, curiously replaces in that continent the Insectivora2 of the Old World.

Most of the genera are illustrated by elegant and spirited copperplates; there are also many woodcuts; some few however of these latter are rather unfortunate works of art. The plates are printed on excellent paper, and the whole work is got up in a style creditable to the publisher. The Marsupiata, though highly interesting in their structure and affinities, yet are less so in their habits than the higher mammalia; but from some scattered notices we clearly see that this amusing part of the subject will not be neglected. To the professed naturalist we believe that this work will be almost indispensable; but we also strongly recommend it to those who do not come under this class, but yet are interested in the wide field of nature. We do not doubt that Mr. Waterhouse is conferring by this publication a real service on natural science; we therefore trust to his continued perseverance, and we heartily wish him all success.

1 American opossums.

2 Hedgehogs, shrews, moles and so forth.

This document has been accessed 15491 times

Return to homepage

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

File last updated 26 November, 2023