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and of the Carnivora have been almost as closely followed through the Tertiary deposits; the gradations between birds and reptiles have been traced; and the modifications undergone by the Crocodilia, from the Triassic epoch to the present day, have been demonstrated. On the evidence of palaeontology, the evolution of many existing forms of animal life from their predecessors is no longer an hypothesis, but an historical fact ; it is only the nature of the physiological factors to which that evolution is due which is still open to discussion.
[At page 209, the reference to Erasmus Dorwin does not do justice to that ingenious writer, who, in the 39th section of the Zoonomia, clearly and repeatedly enunciates the theory of the inheritance of acquired modifications. For example: “From their first rudiment, or primordium, to the termination of their lives, all animals undergo perpetual transformations; which are in part produced by their own exertions in consequence of their desires and aversions, of their pleasures and their pains, or of irritation, or of associations; and many of these acquired forms or propensities are transmitted to their posterity.” Zoonomia I., p. 506, 1893.]
THE COMING OF AGE OF “THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES.”
MANY of you will be familiar with the aspect of this small green-covered book. It is a copy of the first edition of the “Origin of Species,” and bears the date of its production—the 1st of October 1859. Only a few months, therefore, are needed to complete the full tale of twenty-one years since its birthday. Those whose memories carry them back to this time will remember that the infant was remarkably lively, and that a great number of excellent persons mistook its manifestations of a vigorous individuality for mere naughtiness; in fact there was a very pretty turmoil about its cradle. My recollections of the period are particularly vivid; for, having conceived a tender affection for a child of what appeared to me to be such remarkable promise, I acted for some time in the capacity of a sort of under-nurse, and thus came in for my share of the storms which threatened the very life of the young creature. For some years it was undoubtedly warm work; but considering how exceedingly unpleasant the apparition of the newcomer must have been to those who did not fall in love with him at first sight, I think it is to the credit of our age that the war was not fiercer, and that the more bitter and unscrupulous forms of opposition died away as soon as they did. I speak of this period as of something past and gone, possessing merely an historical, I had almost said an antiquarian interest. For, during the second decade of the existence of the “Origin of Species,” opposition, though by no means dead, assumed a different aspect. On the part of all those who had any reason to respect themselves, it assumed a thoroughly respectful character. By this time, the dullest began to perceive that the child was not likely to perish of any congenital. weakness or infantile disorder, but was growing into a stalwart personage, upon whom mere goody scoldings and threatenings with the birch-rod were quite thrown away. In fact, those who have watched the progress of science within the last ten years will bear me out to the full, when I assert that there is no field of biological inquiry in which the influence of the “Origin of Species” is not traceable; the foremost men of science in every country are either avowed
champions of its leading doctrines, or at any rate abstain from opposing them; a host of young and ardent investigators seek for and find inspiration and guidance in Mr. Darwin's great work; and the general doctrine of evolution, to one side of which it gives expression, obtains, in the phenomena of biology, a firm base of operations whence it may conduct its conquest of the whole realm of Nature.
History warns us, however, that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions; and, as matters now stand, it is hardly rash to anticipate that, in another twenty years, the new generation, educated under the influences of the present day, will be in danger of accepting the main doctrines of the “Origin of Species,” with as little reflection, and it may be with as little justification, as so many of our contemporaries, twenty years ago, rejected them.
Against any such a consummation let us all devoutly pray; for the scientific spirit is of more value than its products, and irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors. Now the essence of the scientific spirit is criticism. It tells us that whenever a doctrine claims our assent we should reply, Take it if you can compel it. The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in the physical world. A theory is a species of thinking, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power of resisting extinction by its rivals.
From this point of view, it appears to me that it would be but a poor way of celebrating the Coming of Age of the “Origin of Species,” were I merely to dwell upon the facts, undoubted and remarkable as they are of its far-reaching influence and of the great following of ardent disciples who are occupied in spreading and developing its doctrines. Mere insanities and inanities have before now swollen to portentous size in the course of twenty years. Letus rather ask this prodigious change in opinion to justify itself: let us inquire whether anything has happened since 1859, which will explain, on rational grounds, why so many are worshipping that which they burned, and burning that which they worshipped. It is only in this way that we shall acquire the means of judging whether the movement we have witnessed is a mere eddy of fashion, or truly one with the irreversible current of intellectual progress, and, like it, safe from retrogressive reaction.
Every belief is the product of two factors: the first is the state of the mind to which the evidence in favour of that belief is presented; and the second is the logical cogency of the evidence itself. In both these respects, the history of biological science during the last twenty years appears to me to afford an ample explanation of the change which has taken place; and a brief consideration of the salient events of that history will enable us to understand why, if the “Origin of Species” ap