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A History of Science
Henry Smith Williams 
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter VI
Theories of organic evolution
The origin of the fittest
Williams
Wide as are the implications of the great truth which Darwin and his co-workers established, however, it leaves quite untouched the problem of the origin of those "favored variations" upon which it operates. That such variations are due to fixed and determinate causes no one understood better than Darwin; but in his original exposition of his doctrine he made no assumption as to what these causes are. He accepted the observed fact of variation - as constantly witnessed, for example, in the differences between parents and offspring - and went ahead from this assumption.

But as soon as the validity of the principle of natural selection came to be acknowledged speculators began to search for the explanation of those variations which, for purposes of argument, had been provisionally called "spontaneous." Herbert Spencer had all along dwelt on this phase of the subject, expounding the Lamarckian conceptions of the direct influence of the environment (an idea which had especially appealed to Buffon and to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire), and of effort in response to environment and stimulus as modifying the individual organism, and thus supplying the basis for the operation of natural selection. Haeckel also became an advocate of this idea, and presently there arose a so-called school of neo-Lamarckians, which developed particular strength and prominence in America under the leadership of Professors A. Hyatt and E. D. Cope.

But just as the tide of opinion was turning strongly in this direction, an utterly unexpected obstacle appeared in the form of the theory of Professor August Weismann, put forward in 1883, which antagonized the Lamarckian conception (though not touching the Darwinian, of which Weismann is a firm upholder) by denying that individual variations, however acquired by the mature organism, are transmissible. The flurry which this denial created has not yet altogether subsided, but subsequent observations seem to show that it was quite disproportionate to the real merits of the case. Notwithstanding Professor Weismann's objections, the balance of evidence appears to favor the view that the Lamarckian factor of acquired variations stands as the complement of the Darwinian factor of natural selection in effecting the transmutation of species.

Even though this partial explanation of what Professor Cope calls the "origin of the fittest" be accepted, there still remains one great life problem which the doctrine of evolution does not touch. The origin of species, genera, orders, and classes of beings through endless transmutations is in a sense explained; but what of the first term of this long series? Whence came that primordial organism whose transmuted descendants make up the existing faunas and floras of the globe?

There was a time, soon after the doctrine of evolution gained a hearing, when the answer to that question seemed to some scientists of authority to have been given by experiment. Recurring to a former belief, and repeating some earlier experiments, the director of the Museum of Natural History at Rouen, M. F. A. Pouchet, reached the conclusion that organic beings are spontaneously generated about us constantly, in the familiar processes of putrefaction, which were known to be due to the agency of microscopic bacteria. But in 1862 Louis Pasteur proved that this seeming spontaneous generation is in reality due to the existence of germs in the air. Notwithstanding the conclusiveness of these experiments, the claims of Pouchet were revived in England ten years later by Professor Bastian; but then the experiments of John Tyndall, fully corroborating the results of Pasteur, gave a final quietus to the claim of "spontaneous generation" as hitherto formulated.

There for the moment the matter rests. But the end is not yet. Fauna and flora are here, and, thanks to Lamarck and Wallace and Darwin, their development, through the operation of those "secondary causes" which we call laws of nature, has been proximally explained. The lowest forms of life have been linked with the highest in unbroken chains of descent. Meantime, through the efforts of chemists and biologists, the gap between the inorganic and the organic worlds, which once seemed almost infinite, has been constantly narrowed. Already philosophy can throw a bridge across that gap. But inductive science, which builds its own bridges, has not yet spanned the chasm, small though it appear. Until it shall have done so, the bridge of organic evolution is not quite complete; yet even as it stands to-day it is perhaps the most stupendous scientific structure of the nineteenth century..


 

 

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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.