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

Book 4, chapter VI
Theories of organic evolution
Darwin and the origin of species
But even at this time the fancied security of the special-creation hypothesis was by no means real. Though it seemed so invincible, its real position was that of an apparently impregnable fortress beneath which, all unbeknown to the garrison, a powder-mine has been dug and lies ready for explosion. For already there existed in the secluded work-room of an English naturalist, a manuscript volume and a portfolio of notes which might have sufficed, if given publicity, to shatter the entire structure of the special-creation hypothesis. The naturalist who, by dint of long and patient effort, had constructed this powder-mine of facts was Charles Robert Darwin, grandson of the author of Zoonomia.

As long ago as July 1, 1837, young Darwin, then twenty-eight years of age, had opened a private journal, in which he purposed to record all facts that came to him which seemed to have any bearing on the moot point of the doctrine of transmutation of species. Four or five years earlier, during the course of that famous trip around the world with Admiral Fitzroy, as naturalist to the Beagle, Darwin had made the personal observations which first tended to shake his belief of the fixity of species. In South America, in the Pampean formation, he had discovered "great fossil animals covered with armor like that on the existing armadillos," and had been struck with this similarity of type between ancient and existing faunas of the same region. He was also greatly impressed by the manner in which closely related species of animals were observed to replace one another as he proceeded southward over the continent; and "by the South-American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos Archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differ slightly on each island of the group, none of the islands appearing to be very ancient in a geological sense."

At first the full force of these observations did not strike him; for, under sway of Lyell's geological conceptions, he tentatively explained the relative absence of life on one of the Galapagos Islands by suggesting that perhaps no species had been created since that island arose. But gradually it dawned upon him that such facts as he had observed "could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified." From then on, as he afterwards asserted, the subject haunted him; hence the journal of 1837.

It will thus be seen that the idea of the variability of species came to Charles Darwin as an inference from personal observations in the field, not as a thought borrowed from books. He had, of course, read the works of his grandfather much earlier in life, but the arguments of Zoonomia and The Temple of Nature had not served in the least to weaken his acceptance of the current belief in fixity of species. Nor had he been more impressed with the doctrine of Lamarck, so closely similar to that of his grandfather. Indeed, even after his South-American experience had aroused him to a new point of view he was still unable to see anything of value in these earlier attempts at an explanation of the variation of species. In opening his journal, therefore, he had no preconceived notion of upholding the views of these or any other makers of hypotheses, nor at the time had he formulated any hypothesis of his own. His mind was open and receptive; he was eager only for facts which might lead him to an understanding of a problem which seemed utterly obscure. It was something to feel sure that species have varied; but how have such variations been brought about?

It was not long before Darwin found a clew which he thought might lead to the answer he sought. In casting about for facts he had soon discovered that the most available field for observation lay among domesticated animals, whose numerous variations within specific lines are familiar to every one. Thus under domestication creatures so tangibly different as a mastiff and a terrier have sprung from a common stock. So have the Shetland pony, the thoroughbred, and the draught-horse. In short, there is no domesticated animal that has not developed varieties deviating more or less widely from the parent stock. Now, how has this been accomplished? Why, clearly, by the preservation, through selective breeding, of seemingly accidental variations. Thus one horseman, by constantly selecting animals that "chance" to have the right build and stamina, finally develops a race of running-horses; while another horseman, by selecting a different series of progenitors, has developed a race of slow, heavy draught animals.

So far, so good; the preservation of "accidental" variations through selective breeding is plainly a means by which races may be developed that are very different from their original parent form. But this is under man's supervision and direction. By what process could such selection be brought about among creatures in a state of nature? Here surely was a puzzle, and one that must be solved before another step could be taken in this direction.

The key to the solution of this puzzle came into Darwin's mind through a chance reading of the famous essay on "Population" which Thomas Robert Malthus had published almost half a century before. This essay, expositing ideas by no means exclusively original with Malthus, emphasizes the fact that organisms tend to increase at a geometrical ratio through successive generations, and hence would overpopulate the earth if not somehow kept in check. Cogitating this thought, Darwin gained a new insight into the processes of nature. He saw that in virtue of this tendency of each race of beings to overpopulate the earth, the entire organic world, animal and vegetable, must be in a state of perpetual carnage and strife, individual against individual, fighting for sustenance and life.

That idea fully imagined, it becomes plain that a selective influence is all the time at work in nature, since only a few individuals, relatively, of each generation can come to maturity, and these few must, naturally, be those best fitted to battle with the particular circumstances in the midst of which they are placed. In other words, the individuals best adapted to their surroundings will, on the average, be those that grow to maturity and produce offspring. To these offspring will be transmitted the favorable peculiarities. Thus these peculiarities will become permanent, and nature will have accomplished precisely what the human breeder is seen to accomplish. Grant that organisms in a state of nature vary, however slightly, one from another (which is indubitable), and that such variations will be transmitted by a parent to its offspring (which no one then doubted); grant, further, that there is incessant strife among the various organisms, so that only a small proportion can come to maturity - grant these things, said Darwin, and we have an explanation of the preservation of variations which leads on to the transmutation of species themselves.

This wonderful coign of vantage Darwin had reached by 1839. Here was the full outline of his theory; here were the ideas which afterwards came to be embalmed in familiar speech in the phrases "spontaneous variation," and the "survival of the fittest," through "natural selection." After such a discovery any ordinary man would at once have run through the streets of science, so to speak, screaming "Eureka!" Not so Darwin. He placed the manuscript outline of his theory in his portfolio, and went on gathering facts bearing on his discovery. In 1844 he made an abstract in a manuscript book of the mass of facts by that time accumulated. He showed it to his friend Hooker, made careful provision for its publication in the event of his sudden death, then stored it away in his desk and went ahead with the gathering of more data. This was the unexploded powder-mine to which I have just referred.

Twelve years more elapsed - years during which the silent worker gathered a prodigious mass of facts, answered a multitude of objections that arose in his own mind, vastly fortified his theory. All this time the toiler was an invalid, never knowing a day free from illness and discomfort, obliged to husband his strength, never able to work more than an hour and a half at a stretch; yet he accomplished what would have been vast achievements for half a dozen men of robust health. Two friends among the eminent scientists of the day knew of his labors - Sir Joseph Hooker, the botanist, and Sir Charles Lyell, the geologist. Gradually Hooker had come to be more than half a convert to Darwin's views. Lyell was still sceptical, yet he urged Darwin to publish his theory without further delay lest he be forestalled. At last the patient worker decided to comply with this advice, and in 1856 he set to work to make another and fuller abstract of the mass of data he had gathered.

And then a strange thing happened. After Darwin had been at work on his "abstract" about two years, but before he had published a line of it, there came to him one day a paper in manuscript, sent for his approval by a naturalist friend named Alfred Russel Wallace, who had been for some time at work in the East India Archipelago. He read the paper, and, to his amazement, found that it contained an outline of the same theory of "natural selection" which he himself had originated and for twenty years had worked upon. Working independently, on opposite sides of the globe, Darwin and Wallace had hit upon the same explanation of the cause of transmutation of species. "Were Wallace's paper an abstract of my unpublished manuscript of 1844," said Darwin, "it could not better express my ideas."

Here was a dilemma. To publish this paper with no word from Darwin would give Wallace priority, and wrest from Darwin the credit of a discovery which he had made years before his codiscoverer entered the field. Yet, on the other hand, could Darwin honorably do otherwise than publish his friend's paper and himself remain silent? It was a complication well calculated to try a man's soul. Darwin's was equal to the test. Keenly alive to the delicacy of the position, he placed the whole matter before his friends Hooker and Lyell, and left the decision as to a course of action absolutely to them. Needless to say, these great men did the one thing which insured full justice to all concerned. They counselled a joint publication, to include on the one hand Wallace's paper, and on the other an abstract of Darwin's ideas, in the exact form in which it had been outlined by the author in a letter to Asa Gray in the previous year - an abstract which was in Gray's hands before Wallace's paper was in existence. This joint production, together with a full statement of the facts of the case, was presented to the Linnaean Society of London by Hooker and Lyell on the evening of July 1, 1858, this being, by an odd coincidence, the twenty-first anniversary of the day on which Darwin had opened his journal to collect facts bearing on the "species question." Not often before in the history of science has it happened that a great theory has been nurtured in its author's brain through infancy and adolescence to its full legal majority before being sent out into the world.

Thus the fuse that led to the great powder-mine had been lighted. The explosion itself came more than a year later, in November, 1859, when Darwin, after thirteen months of further effort, completed the outline of his theory, which was at first begun as an abstract for the Linnaean Society, but which grew to the size of an independent volume despite his efforts at condensation, and which was given that ever-to-be-famous title, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. And what an explosion it was! The joint paper of 1858 had made a momentary flare, causing the hearers, as Hooker said, to "speak of it with bated breath," but beyond that it made no sensation. What the result was when the Origin itself appeared no one of our generation need be told. The rumble and roar that it made in the intellectual world have not yet altogether ceased to echo after more than forty years of reverberation.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.